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
Like the Paris Casino, New York-New York is itself a sort of greatest-hits compilation, with the Statue of Liberty fronting a bouquet of skyscrapers and, inside, a funny little maze of streets made to look like various Manhattan neighborhoods, complete with graffiti, air conditioners jutting out third-floor windows, street signs, and shops—of which only the souvenir and food shops are real, as I found when I foolishly lunged for a bookstore. But New York-New York is free of the dangers and possibilities of real urban life; it is a walk-through souvenir, no longer pocket-size and portable but there to remind visitors, as souvenirs do, of a few reassuringly pleasant aspects of a complicated place. Like a fake volcano and unlike a real city, it isn't, so to speak, a gamble.

Outside New York, a young woman from Hong Kong asked me to take a picture of her with the Statue of Liberty behind her and then another picture with the huge golden MGM lion across the street, and she looked ecstatic in both shots. Fat people and thin people, people in baggy shorts and in sleek dresses, a few children and a lot of old people streamed around us, and I handed the camera back and continued south with the crowd to the Luxor, whose pyramid shape and sphinx say ancient Egypt, but whose shiny glass shouts technology. The newlyweds I had seen twice before were there in the entryway: She had laid aside her coat and purse to pose for his camera in front of one of the mock-Egyptian statues.

I wondered about them—about why they had chosen to spend the first hours of their honeymoon strolling the Strip, about what past they brought to this global fantasy in the Nevada desert. Who is to say that, merely because a tourist is visiting Las Vegas, he or she does not also vacation in the Lake District, or live the life of a Parisian boulevardier? That the Guatemalan woman I saw handing out helicopter-ride coupons might not walk the stations of the cross in her church, that the bride and groom might not be Japanese climbers of Mount Fuji or southern Californian executives with treadmills at home? The most attractive thing about this pedestrian oasis in the middle of suburban sprawl in the middle of a great desert expanse is that it hints at the breadth of walking's tradition—not in its fake Rome or its faux Tokyo, but in its Italian and Japanese tourists. Las Vegas suggests that the thirst for places, for cities and gardens and wildernesses, is unslaked, that people will still seek out the experience of wandering about in the open air to examine the architecture, the spectacles, and the stuff for sale, and will still hanker after surprises and strangers.

Vegas is not an anomaly, but an intensification of mainstream culture, and walking will survive outside that mainstream and sometimes reenter it. When strips and suburbs like Vegas's were being developed in the decades after World War II, Martin Luther King Jr. was studying Gandhi and reinventing Christian pilgrimage as something politically powerful at one edge of this continent, while at the other Gary Snyder was studying walking meditation and going climbing in the Sierra Nevada. And today, walking traditions are being maintained by a global resurgence of pilgrimages, by a surge of pedestrian-rights groups in cities, and by mountaineers and hikers outside them.