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.

Apr 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
I carried no water on my hike, no backpack. As Pat's van disappeared into the traffic, I just started walking, making a little circuit of the old part of town before heading down Las Vegas Boulevard toward the new.

The railroad-era glitter of Fremont Street has suffered by comparison with the Strip's new fantasy environments, so it has been redesigned as a sort of cyber-arcade. In its shade pedestrians were milling around freely. Up above the resurfaced street is a high, arched roof on which light shows play at night, so that what was once the night sky itself is now a kind of giant television screen. It's a sad, half-abandoned place in daylight, and it didn't take long for me to leave it for Las Vegas Boulevard, which would, in due time, become the Strip.

Here the Boulevard was a skid row of motels, shabby apartments, sad souvenir stands, pornography stores, and pawn shops. I peeled off a sweater and headed south in my old hiking boots worn down from too much concrete. A homeless man in a brown blanket watched me walk by as I watched an Asian couple across the street coming out of one of the Strip's tiny wedding chapels, him in a dark suit, her in a chalk-white dress, so impersonally perfect they could have fallen off a colossal wedding cake. Farther on I came to the old El Rancho hotel, burned out and boarded up. The early casinos romanticized the desert West—the Dunes, the Sands, the Sahara, the Desert Inn, the Golden Nugget—but more recent additions to the Strip have thrown regional pride to the winds and summoned up any place else, the less like the Mojave the better. The Sands was just replaced by the Venetian, complete with canals.

Just as hikers are people who walk around in wildernesses they don't live in, tourists are people who walk around in cities they don't live in. They now stroll Vegas as though they were going from church to church in Rome—walk it with the slow pace and preoccupied expression of the bemused and dazzled. The bride and groom I had seen coming out of the wedding chapel showed up again a mile or so south, she with a delicate quilted jacket over her wedding dress, teetering cautiously on spike heels. Under the tired pavilion in front of the Stardust, an old French couple asked me for directions to the Mirage. I watched them amble away toward the new nostalgic fantasyland at the Strip's heart and followed them south against a tide of cowboys and cowgirls streaming north from the National Rodeo finals at an exhibition hall near the UNLV campus.

At the Frontier casino I walked through the door and stepped inside the usual supernova of dizzily patterned carpet, jingling slots, flashing lights, mirrors, staff moving briskly and visitors milling slowly in the eerie indoor twilight. Casinos are made to get lost in, with their windowless expanses full of banks of slot machines tempting visitors into opening their wallets before they find the well-concealed exits. Many of them have installed "people movers," those motorized sidewalks they have in airports, but the only ones I saw were inward-bound. You apparently have to hike out under your own power.

Wandering and gambling have several things in common: They are both activities in which anticipation can be more delicious than arrival, desire more certain than satisfaction. To put one foot in front of another or one's cards on the table is to entertain chance, but gambling has become a highly predictable science for the casinos, and they and the law enforcement officials of Las Vegas are trying to control the odds on walking down the Strip too. Las Vegas Boulevard is exposed to the weather, open to its surroundings, a public space in which those glorious freedoms granted by the First Amendment can be exercised, but a mighty effort is being made to take them away. The Strip's sidewalks are currently the province of leafleteers advertising a veritable army of "private dancers" and "escort services," because the ACLU fought to overturn a county ordinance against "off-premises canvassing," but police officers can still detain people for "blocking the sidewalk." Some casinos have started policing the sidewalks themselves. The Mirage had even erected a little sign on one of its lawns, a sign since ruled illegal by a federal judge: "This sidewalk is the private property of the Mirage Casino Hotel upon which an easement has been granted to facilitate pedestrian movement. Anyone found loitering or otherwise impeding pedestrian movement is subject to arrest for trespass."