In January 2017, I visited Las Vegas for the first time. I went there on business to attend a conference. I was only there for 3 nights, but tried to see as much of the city & region as I could outside of meetings & sessions.
I flew into McCarran Airport and stayed at the Paris Las Vegas right on the Strip. During my stay, I also had the chance to visit Hoover Dam, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, a few towns in the Las Vegas area and several other casinos including the Aria and Planet Hollywood. I went to a private party in the Cosmopolitan, had a business dinner at a hyped restaurant, and walked 6 to 8 miles around the Strip.
I also did not gamble once. And I was not able to visit Downtown Las Vegas. I also did not attend a show or play cards.
Either way – here’s what I observed visiting Las Vegas.
The City Should Not Exist
I knew that Las Vegas was in a desert. But I thought that it was simply surrounded by desert…or something. I thought that there was some reason that Las Vegas was able to grow where it’s at.
Las Vegas is in the middle of absolute barren desert. The whole landscape says that “humans should not live here.”
And yet…not only do we put a major American city right in the middle of it – we even decide to farm the area near Las Vegas.
And how do we do it? We dam up the one river in the whole region.
On one hand, it’s the most ridiculous thing I can imagine. The entire city working against nature.
On the other hand, it is an absolutely incredible statement of human ingenuity and resolve.
A way long time ago – Mormon settlers came to the area because they couldn’t go anywhere else. They scratched out a living somehow.
And then in the 20th century, another group of people said – “You know what? We want to drink alcohol, gamble our money, build opulent mansions and visit prostitutes! And no desert or lack of water is gonna stop us! We’re gonna make this little village a mega-city!”
I think it’s absurd to be naively optimistic about climate change, but if humans can build Las Vegas just so that we can gamble and party in peace, then that gives me a bit of optimism about existing in a warmer world.
Strip vs. The Rest
I did not get to go downtown, but I did get to drive around metro Las Vegas on my way to Hoover Dam.
I realized that, yeah, the tourist Las Vegas is very different than the rest of Las Vegas.
The Strip is literally a strip of road a few miles long with massive development all along it.
If you go even a block East or West, the city changes rapidly. In fact, the Strip isn’t even in Las Vegas proper.
Whenever I visit a city, I’m aware that tourists are usually boxed into a very small area, but it’s a bit extreme in Vegas.
The airport is immediately beside the Strip with shuttles running back and forth. It’s a very cocooned experience where visitors basically fly in to a pre-approved area to spend money and then leave.
The Appeal for Visitors
I did not gamble or go to a show while in Vegas. It’s just not my thing – plus I was there on business and more interested in squeezing in Hoover Dam & Red Rock Canyon.
But – I did hear plenty of people refer to their trip as a “visit to adult Disneyland” or a “cruise ship on land.”
And that really hit the nail on the head.
Las Vegas is a cruise ship on land.
I’m not into cruise ships, but I totally get their appeal. It’s all inclusive. It’s catered and wonderfully pre-packaged. I get it.
And Vegas is the same way. And that is why is has such mass appeal.
You don’t have to be a fan of gambling, partying or even alcohol to enjoy Vegas. There are tons of shows, shops, food and experiences and pre-packaged luxury for anyone.
If you’re into pre-packaged vacations, then yep, I get it. Vegas is cool. And after seeing it up close, I got it, even if it wasn’t my thing.
The Appeal for Residents
There are 3+ million people who live in the Las Vegas metro area. And even after the massive recession, it’s again one of the fastest growing metro areas in America.
And yet – I know that I always thought “why would you ever live in Vegas???”
Now I get it.
Las Vegas has all the beautiful weather and entertainment options of California…but it is cheap to live there.
You can get a nice house in Vegas for a quarter of what you can in California. You have access to water recreation (Lake Mead), mountain recreation (Red Rock), world-class entertainment & food (The Strip), perfect year-round weather, direct flights to every major city and more. Your infrastructure and government is funded by outsiders, so there are no significant taxes (like, zero income tax).
And – like I mentioned before, there is a lot more city to Las Vegas than just the The Strip. You can be as removed or as close to it as you like.
Anyway, my family won’t be moving to Las Vegas, but I certainly get why people move there.
Ugly Side of Las Vegas
Las Vegas, like any city, has an ugly side. But like everything in Las Vegas, Las Vegas does ugliness in their own over-the-top way.
I’m not inherently opposed to gambling. I like to play poker with friends. I do small wagers on sports and when I play golf with friends. I saw several tables of what looked like very interesting poker games. But what overwhelmed everything in every casino (and even the airport) were the slot machines.
Tacky, garish slot machines are everywhere in Las Vegas. And here’s the thing. I did not see a single person playing slots who looked like they were genuinely having fun.
Slot machines seem to create a late night, flipping channels sort of vibe. They are kind of sad.
And several times coming and going from my hotel, I noticed people who had been at their slot machine for more than 6 hours.
I get that gambling can be interesting – even entertaining on occasion. But, wow, the ugliness of addiction is definitely an undercurrent everywhere in Vegas.
And in a way, the whole city is built on one big gamble. It’s the gamble that the city can keep bringing in millions of visitors every year for the foreseeable future. Land is either really cheap or really expensive. And when it’s expensive – it’s all because of a gamble.
This massive plot of desert is one block off the Strip. I was walking by it on my way from the rental car center to my hotel. It was kinda weird and shocking to see. Just out of the picture is a multi-million dollar development. And here is desert.
Weird and a little ugly set against the beautiful mountains.
Yes – this is a theme, but I was amazed by the size and diversity of the desert around Las Vegas.
It’s huge and seemingly infinite.
I’m fascinated by the idea of the Uncanny Valley – that is, “the hypothesis that human replicas which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit feelings of eeriness and revulsion among some observers.”
Las Vegas pulls off this crazy stunt where they leap over the Uncanny Valley of architecture.
In any other city – building replicas of other cities comes across as boring & tacky at best and stupid and mockable at worst. But Las Vegas does simulated experiences that are so garish, so tacky, and so dumb that they turn out to be really awesome.
It’s kinda like the Maryland state flag. It’s so ugly that it’s cool.
But even beyond architecture, Las Vegas just goes so over the top with simulated experiences that they are awesome in their own right.
Like – look at this “ceiling” – it’s a sky…but not (notice the red balloon).
That is simply Ahhmazing.
I went to see Hoover Dam. It lived up to the hype.
Also – the bridge across the canyon (where I took the below picture) is an attraction in its own right.
The dam is an engineering marvel. I want to go back and take the tour. I can’t quite comprehend how they built it back in the 1930s. I was really happy to do a drive by – and wish I could have seen more.
I’ve mentioned the desert multiple times, but another point that I noticed was the sheer diversity and raw beauty of southern Nevada’s geography.
I’m from the East coast where we think the Appalachians are “mountains” – the Sierra Nevadas and Rockies put them to shame.
Also – the sheer quiet of the desert was starkly beautiful. Here’s a pan of a spot in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
I highly recommend taking the scenic route to Hoover Dam. There’s a fee, but it’s worth it.
I can’t wait to go hiking in the desert mountains.
I don’t think I would have ever planned a trip specifically to Las Vegas. But since I could loop it in with a business trip, it was fascinating. I’ll likely be back on the same trip – with more time budgeted to see Red Rock National Park.