Leaving Las Vegas

It's just a few short miles from the neon strip to the inky desert beyond. But to a solitary walker on her way out of town, the worlds of casino palaces and redrock spires might as well be galaxies apart.

Outside

Outside    

   At noon I was already hot and weary from the four or so miles I'd traveled from Fremont Street. It was a warm day, and the air was stale with exhaust. Distance is deceptive on the Strip. The major intersections are about a mile apart, and the new casinos with their 20- or 30-story hotel towers look closer than they are, and their scale makes walking seem slower and more futile.

Nature of a virtual sort reasserts itself at Treasure Island, the first of the new theme-park casinos a hiker reaches from the north, and one of the most fantastic. It resembles a hotel-resort version of Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride, with a facade of fake rock behind a lagoon full of palm trees and pirate ships. Next door, the Mirage's volcano erupts every 15 minutes after dark. When the volcano began its rumblings in 1993, Treasure Island upstaged it with a full-fledged pirate battle that culminates in a sinking ship, but the battle only takes place a few times a day. Both casinos boast giant fountains, but the vast sheets of water fronting the Mirage and Treasure Island are dwarfed by the eight-acre lake at the Bellagio casino, across Flamingo Road from Caesars Palace. Most of it is the same Colorado River water that rafters bounce on and environmentalists hope to undam upstream.

Around these triumphal cascades, Las Vegas is replacing its neon-go-go Americana futurama vision with Europe, or at least a fun pop-culture version of it. The fountains, the volcano, the pillars, the manicured cypresses of Caesars Palace all say old Europe—the Europe of parks, gardens, plazas, arcades, and streets in which people once walked for pleasure. As a Vegas promoter might say, the garden is making a comeback, crossbred with the boulevard, and with that new hybrid comes pedestrian life.

Though walking may be an inadvertent side-effect of gambling—after all, the casino fronts weren't built out of public-spiritedness, but as bait—the heart of the Strip is now filled with pedestrians. There are even overpasses for walkers on the Strip to eliminate the messy intersection of people and cars—handsome bridges giving some of the best views around. I walked on the bridge over Flamingo Road between Bellagio and Caesars and was rewarded with the best view yet of Red Rocks and the desert to the west.

From another bridge, the one from Bellagio to Bally's, I could see—Paris! There, rising out of the dusty soil of the Mojave like an urbane mirage, was the Eiffel Tower, aggressively straddling a stumpy Hôtel de Ville with the Arc de Triomphe jostling it in an antigeographic jumble of architectural greatest hits. Just down the road from Paris-Las Vegas was New York- New York, the Japanese-style Imperial Palace sat nearby, and a much older version of San Francisco—the Barbary Coast—faced Caesars' populist, or just plain pop, version of ancient Rome. I ate a late lunch in New York and drank three pints of water to replenish what had evaporated from me in the desert aridity of my trek through the wilderness of themes.


 

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