Saturday, February 26, 2011

sin city and bzzzzbee

We're in Vegas by mid-afternoon. I know it's one of those places on everyone's list, a place to see before you die. But I still don't get it. Despite my valiant attempts at being non-judgmental it feels like the white-trash capital of the world. The surrounding landscape is quite pretty — desert surrounded by jagged hills — but any natural beauty is washed out by the lights and the garish drama of The Strip. The hotels are gawdy as all heck. The one we chose, Bugsy Siegel's flagship, The Flamingo, is twice as expensive as any other place we've stayed but cheaper than many hotels on the strip. For some reason, I had a fifties kinda hep/hip image of Las Vegas before we arrived, something like Acapulco where the likes of Tony Bennett fit in. I guess I am fifty years too late. The sidewalks are full of lots of very loaded young adults carry around massive drinks in plastic Eiffel towers, dozens of people in hoodies flick glossy business cards with call girls's photos and phone numbers at Wil, until they see me behind or beside him. We had a drink on the sidewalk outside Caesar's Palace, two shots of tequila, a beer and one piñata for $45. We went up to the north end of the strip to Circus Circus to make the kids happy and walked through the labyrinth of the hotel — past a thousand machines, a few kino games, roulette, etc. before finding the "indoor amusement park". The casinos are obviously designed to make it as difficult as possible to find an exit. For a little over a hundred dollars we all got a bracelet and got to wander around the indoor amusement park with some very lame rides plus one decent roller coaster. I talked everyone into going on the roller coaster (a birthday present, I begged). Alice cried hysterically the whole time we were in line and then the whole time the roller coaster climbed. Scream, I told her. Scream and you won't be scared. The coaster did a couple of upside down loops and half the ride was in the dark. I screamed like a maniac and so did Alice. When we got off Wil was shaking, Frances was crying, Henri was being cool and Alice asked me if we could go on again! One down, two to go.

Afterward, we walked up and down the Strip looking for a decent dinner but didn't have much luck. The maze-like behemoth hotels lead you past every single betting device in the building before the restaurants. I'm sure there is good food to be found in this town but good, affordable food? I wanted L'Express but what I got was Battista's Italian Hole in the Wall. Menu written on the wall, salad served in plastic bowls, free carafe of wine with every dinner, ceilings covered with wicker baskets. You get the picture. We thought about a Cirque du Soleil show but couldn't swallow the $1000 price tag for two hours of entertainment. It almost made the Donny & Marie show at our hotel look good! I'm a little bit country... We did get to see the seriously impressive fountain show outside Bellagio. The carpeted casinos stink of smoke and are full of older men and women, many with walkers parked beside the slot machines, waiting for their ship to come in. They seem to be there morning, noon and night. When Wil went down to the lobby at 6 the next morning, he was chatted up by a couple of friendly "ladies" looking for a date. He came back to get us and, after watching the sun rise over the desert — an impressive sight from the twenty-second floor — we headed to the Bellagio buffet for breakfast. On the way, we passed two different poker rooms with at least three tables full of gamblers. Have they been up all night or did they start the session extra early this morning? Which is sadder? At least these gamblers are up against other humans instead of machines. Aack. I am beyond grossed out by this place. Breakfast was a bewildering selection of delicious treats. We all gorged ourselves and then got back to the car as fast as we could. We had a good time. Hell, we always have a good time but Las Vegas is, thankfully, no longer on my list.

We headed to the Hoover Dam, a reminder of how this quantity of humans cannot be sustained in this arid environment. The road zigzags down into the gorge toward the dam, past a security check (since 9/11, no doubt). We pulled over and walked across the structure, the drop into Lake Mead dizzying but nowhere near the height of the plummeting downriver side. Our house would fit in the overflow pipe alone. The dam, which apparently holds enough cement to pave a two-lane road from California to New York, is a monster and must have seemed all the more so without the massive new bridge that straddles the gorge.

The drive from the dam to Flagstaff, Arizona was beautiful. Sharp mountains, boulders crumbling everywhere. The rolling ground is pale brown dirt and brush, the patchy scrub looks like hair implants. As we get closer to Flagstaff, at 7000 feet, the temperature drops and snow starts appearing on the ground. Then lots of ice. I am sooo not ready for this! When I think of Arizona I certainly do not think of snow.

We pull into Flagstaff and drive around the cute little red brick downtown we'd seen passing through last time. It definitely feels like the West. We get a room at the Monte Vista, a hotel that's been in business forever. The check-in counter is all antique wood panelling and keys in pigeonholes. The elevator is so ancient you could probably run up the three floors before the elevator even got to the first. The low ceilings in the halls drip with chandeliers. We walk past the Siouxsie Sioux room and the Michael J. Fox room to ours, the Presidential Suite, which should have been called the Emperor's Suite with its crimson walls, gold ceiling and black trim.

Had a great night out. Drinks at Cuvée 928 and dinner at Pasto, a cute, modern Italian place. We passed on an amazing-looking Barbecue Pit and a few other restaurants that more than appealed. We could spend a few days here just for the food. In the morning we had breakfast at the Grand Canyon café, where the menu is split down the middle into Chinese and American dishes. We sat at the bar and our sweet but flaky waitress flapped around getting our orders wrong. We got on the 17 headed south, stopping at Arcosanti, a ecological community designed by Italian architect Paolo Soleri, a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright's. Made of packed earth and a serious amount of cement, the string of structures were created as a model for a self-contained community of five thousand people. The exterior is a seventies take on modernism, lots of domes and circles and cubes, all of it held together with a truckload of Flextra. The interior is filled with light, some early Ikeaish furniture, a lot of stained glass and a thousand chimes. All that was missing was some macrame. I was sorry to miss the one-hour tour but we took a walk into the hill opposite to get a bird's eye view. We asked some questions when we got back. Only fifty people live in the community now, apart from the students who rotate in and out every five weeks. We kept on heading south, running from the big storm that was set to hit the north of Arizona. We may have run too fast. We managed to lose another bag. Big L. We're starting to think that the unfortunate luck we've had on this trip is balancing out the rest of our happy life.

Through Phoenix, a town even the guidebooks claim is better avoided. We have lunch on the road. After we eat we see a sign on the door that tells us the water contains high levels of nitrates and should not be given to infants under the age of 6 months. Yum. As Wil stands in line for lunch, he notices that two of the men are carrying handguns. Just regular looking guys. What's up with that? We stop at Walmart in Benson, to find some more DVDs now that the kids have made it through the Harry Potter series. As always, the place is depressing. A woman sat, wringing her hands, across a small desk from what looked like an accountant. I'd assumed she was filing her tax returns but the sign on the cardboard booth said "Refund anticipation loans."

Through Tucson, past an endless string of rv camps, places with no shade, no privacy and no charm, past a benedictine monastery (what the ???), tantalizingly close to the mexican border and on to Bisbee, a small town with a big reputation. We went all the way through town to look around. On the south side is a series of vast fenced-in terraced pits with a nasty-looking pond at the bottom; the reason the town is here, the copper mine. Once upon a time, Bisbee was the biggest town between New Orleans and San Francisco. The downtown is regal, red brick buildings, lots of old mining equipment, streets that look like they were pulled out of a Western. Set into a steep hillside, many of the streets have staircases, many doorways and front lawns are creatively decorated with bottlecaps and other found objects. There is definitely a big artistic community here. We go for a walk around town. It feels comfortingly a bit like Mexico. We book into the Copper Queen Hotel, a grande old dame of a place, which is haunted by three (count'em, three) ghosts. We were lucky to get a room, as every thursday night the fourth floor is blocked off for the ghost hunt. For $287, a couple gets a room, coffee & desert and an evening of ghost hunting — complete with EMF equipment and ghost stories.

We head out for dinner to Café Roka. A warm, inviting little resto tucked in among the quaint shop fronts of Main street. Our maitre(sse) d' is either half-baked or working hard on her Mae West impersonation. The waiter is a malcontent but the meal is absolutely sensational. Finally some vegetables!!! A four-course meal with soup, salad, sorbet and a fantastic entrée. Wil and I shared some great olives and a super-savoury hummus, then Wil dug into a steak and I had a lasagne layered with eggplant and artichoke and three sauces, béchamel, spinach and tomato. Key lime pie and crème brulée to die for. We ask the busgirl what the population of Bisbee was. By way of an answer, she tols us her senior class has seventy kids. She also tells us that the mine recently opened again, for the first time in her life. I suppose skyrocketing copper prices have made the cost of its extraction seem a little less prohibitive.

In the morning, we're heading for Texas. It seems the repairs are going well and we just might make it home in the van after all.


A Friend Indeed said...

We camped behind Circus Circus (in our rented RV) years ago. There were sitters available to stay with the children while their parents went to the casino to gamble. I thought it was Sodom or Gomorra and couldn't leave fast enough.

Larry said...

For all its faux opulence, the big attraction in Vegas for me was the people. A motley collection of moneyed sadness, with a little silicone thrown in.

Been there, done that...