New York City Diary

Words and pictures from my interesting life in New York.

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Location: Brooklyn, New York, United States

Sunday, April 30, 2006

New Yorkers in Las Vegas

Jenn and I traveled from our home in Brooklyn, New York to Las Vegas, Nevada last week to visit our friends Ted and Sonny and relax for a few days in the desert sunshine. We stayed with them in their new house, which is located in a pretty neighborhood called Summerlin. Summerlin is situated northwest of the Strip at the edge of the desert. We arrived in Vegas late in the evening on Wednesday, April 19 and departed on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 25.

The iconic image above was taken on our last day in Vegas, but other than that one I'm going to blog in chronological order as much as I can. I took about 400 photos and a bunch of video while we were out there, so I'll sort through it all as well as I can without overloading you or my Blogger overlords. I also might post this as I go along, meaning that if it looks like it's not finished, please check back. Okay, deep breath, and now I begin with a list of the main things we did, in order:

*Hiked in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in the Mojave Desert. Climbed a mountain.
*Visited the Hoover Dam and took the dam tour.
*Saw a cheesy but amusing "erotic" show at the Stratosphere called Bite.
*Hiked in Valley of Fire State Park. Climbed another mountain.
*Took a nighttime helicopter ride over Las Vegas.
*Had a drink at the Wynn.
*Saw a high-energy Japanese acrobatic show called Matsuri at the Riviera.
*Rode the Manhattan Express roller coaster at New York New York.
*And of course, we checked out the crazy and opulent casinos that line Las Vegas Boulevard, a.k.a. The Strip.

You see, this has been a lot of work already, and I've barely begun. Here comes the official beginning:

Before this trip, I had never been to Las Vegas, or the silver state of Nevada for that matter. Jenn had been several times. Ted, my former college roommate, recently (two years ago) took a job in Las Vegas and has been bugging us to come out for a visit ever since. It really didn't take much convincing for us to make the trip. We love New York, but too much time in the concrete jungle had been making us batty, and the idea of going to the desert southwest during the springtime was quite appealing. (Okay, so we were in the Bahamas in January, but that trip seemed like ages ago.) So I bought a pair of airline tickets, splurging on a nonstop flight because I didn't want to be routed through Kalamazoo. No regrets.

Our evening flight out of JFK (on US Airways, operated by America West) was smooth and uneventful. I bought Jenn some gummy bears and she noticed that they had larger heads than gummy bears normally do. We might still have a few bears left, so perhaps I'll take a photo for a future post and you can decide if gummy bear heads are abnormally large these days.

Anyway, as I was saying, the flight was smooth. Jenn had the aisle, I was in the center, and to my right by the window was a 26-year-old Guyanese-American guy named Azir who had lived in New York until he was 14, and then moved to Las Vegas, which he absolutely loves. He kept telling us about all the fun things you can do in Las Vegas, and about all the shows he enjoyed (Ka was one of his favorites).

Ted picked us up at the airport and drove us to the house in Summerlin. We were especially tired because of the time change. The clock said midnight, but our bodies said 3:00 a.m. Jenn went to bed in the cat-free guestroom, and I stayed up for a nightcap with Ted to catch up.

The next morning dawned beautifully (I'll have to assume the dawn was beautiful, as I can only vouch for the 10:00 a.m. part) and we enjoyed coffee on the balcony with our first view of the surrounding mountains. It was a nice way to recover from a subtle and well-deserved hangover. After showering and getting our stuff ready, we headed out to Ted's vehicle (a Dodge Durango with a 10,000 horsepower engine) for our hiking trip to Red Rock. The truck is a sporty vehicle, and while I do realize that it's not fuel efficient, I have to also admit that it's a fun way to get around Vegas, spacious and vroomy. In any case, most of the time we had three, four, or sometimes five people in it, which lessens the environmental footprint per person by a few clicks. And that's all I'll say about it. Don't look at me like that, I don't even own a car. My life is 100% public transit. Below is a picture of Jenn, with Ted in the shadow behind her, in front of the house. Part of the truck is also visible.

Here is a photo of Ted.

We jumped in the vehicle and I took a few photos of the surrounding mountains as I was seeing them for the first time. I also wanted to capture the type of development that's going on around Las Vegas. I would later partially climb this mountain.

That row of houses under construction is just one of many new neighborhoods in Summerlin, which is known as a "planned community." There was no gated entry or anything, but neighborhoods consisted of several angular clusters of very tidy but generally uniform homes, separated from shopping centers and other neighborhoods by large tracts of land that will (for the moment) remain undeveloped, as they are in the control of the Bureau of Land Management. It is nice when the developed areas are interspersed with pristine undeveloped land. You will also notice the power transmission wires in the foreground. They carry power to Las Vegas from the Hoover Dam (more on that later).

After a good breakfast at a trusty Vegas joint called Egg Works we headed to Red Rock. The sun was high in the blue sky, and temperatures were very comfortable in the mid-80s fahrenheit. Humidity was blissfully low as well, which made for excellent hiking conditions. Of course I applied the SPF 50 sunscreen and wore a floppy hat anyway, as the sun hates me.

The above photo is a good example of what Red Rock looks like (at least in late April). That's a wild burro in the photo below, milling around near the visitors' center. (I have another burro photo here.)

I like this next photo of Jenn standing in front of some striated rock. I don't get a chance to use the word striated very often.

The next photo is a visual explanation of why Red Rock Canyon is called Red Rock Canyon.

Our hike was very pleasant. After a mile or so Jenn stopped to enjoy the sunshine while Ted and I made the push to the summit. At the top was a "tank" which is a basin that collects water during the rainy season. The water eventually evaporates, but there was still water in this tank.

This photo proves that I made it to the top. In the distant background (click on photo to enlarge) you can see the Strip. The Stratosphere is visible on the left.

Here's what taking a break looks like.

Here's another nice Red Rock scene. I enjoyed getting out into the desert so soon after arriving in Las Vegas. I started to relax and forget about the city. It's very quiet in the desert. You can hear the breeze and spot birds and lizards and other critters.

That evening we met Sonny (who had to work during the day) and then Ted and I went out to pick up Indian food from a place called the Samosa Factory. The food was good, and I didn't take any pictures of it, but I did take this next photo of Ted with Paris the cat. Paris is a long-haired cat who recently got a professional haircut everywhere but her head, so she looks like Animal, the psycho drummer from the Muppets.

We ate dinner and went to bed tired but feeling good.

The next day (Friday) we woke up slightly earlier and had breakfast at another local favorite called Jamms. I got a big breakfast with every conceivable breakfast food and it was all good. Then we headed toward the Hoover Dam. Sonny was working again, so it was Ted, Jenn, and me. Since the dam was on the other side of town, we drove along the Strip. I've got better strip photos coming up, so I'll only include this one of an older casino in the process of being dismantled. That's Vegas for you. Out with the old, in with the new.

You see Lake Mead before you see the dam, and this was our first view.

Gradually we descended toward the dam, and this was our first glimpse of it.

There is a road that runs across the top of the dam, but big trucks aren't allowed to use it because of the risk of terrorism. At the moment they are being rerouted over the Colorado River many miles away, but workers are in the process of building a new suspension bridge above the lower reservoir. These high-flying dam workers are on their way up. One guy waved at me.

We purchased our tour tickets, watched a short dam film, and then, with our guide, took an elevator to the bottom.

This is one of two sets of turbines. The other turbines are on the opposite bank of the lower reservoir.

As we walked through this tunnel, one of our group asked the guide about the water that we could see leaking from the walls. The guide said "Did somebody say the L word? We don't use the L word here. There is some natural seepage through the porous rock walls." So now you know, when you're taking the dam tour, don't use the L word.

This is our dam tour guide. Yes, it's true that the dam jokes keep getting funnier. Just put the word dam in front of every noun. I learned a lot about the Hoover Dam that I did not know before.

After the tour we walked across the dam, from Nevada to Arizona and back.

It's a dam long way down.

These are the Arizona induction towers. There are two Nevada induction towers on the other side, and each set of towers has a clock on it so you can distinguish Nevada time from Arizona time. At the moment both clocks were the same, but I think for half the year they're an hour apart because Arizona doesn't change for daylight savings time.

Here's a lake photo. You can see that the water level is lower than it has been. The guide said that this was a cyclical thing, but it had been getting lower for the past several years.

Here's a dam nice view of the Colorado River Valley.

And here's a statue on the Nevada side. I like the art deco style.

As we drove away, tired but happy, I shot this photo of Lake Mead.

We went back to the house and got cleaned up to go back out. The four of us (Ted, Sonny, Jenn, and I) were going out to see a tacky erotic show at the Stratosphere called Bite. On the way we got dinner at an excellent Chinese restaurant called Harbor Palace.

Then we went to the Stratosphere. We had some time to kill before Bite, so I gambled and lost two bucks in slot machines. I thought I'd have beginner's/non-gambler's luck, but I did not. Ted, however, put in a dollar and won twenty. Here's the high-rolling couple.

Photography was strictly forbidden in Bite, so I don't have any photos. The show was amusing, with lots of eighties pop/goth hits and dancing vampires and vampiresses. My editor at Gridskipper wrote a very accurate review of the show that can be found here.

We were pooped after all the vampire stuff, so we went home and went to sleep.

The next day was Saturday, and Ted and Sonny had an errand to run in the morning, so I went for a very pleasant 70-minute jog around the neighborhood. It was a really beautiful day, just about perfect weather, the reason people move out west. Temperature in the low- to mid-80s fahrenheit, very low humidity, sunshine, blue sky, and clear air. I'm not normally much of a runner. I'll hit the track at McCarren Park in Brooklyn every now and again, but I really wanted to take advantage of the flawless running conditions. I ran all over the neighborhood, up and down the different streets, past the shopping center that's going up on the corner, through this tiny park with a perfectly manicured lawn (not too much grass out there in southern Nevada). Of course every house in the area was either just built or being built so it wasn't a run through history, rather, it was a run through the future. You could say it was a run through suburbal sprawl too, I guess, but at least Summerlin has a decent city plan. Houses go here, stores go there, park goes there. Looming over it all are mountains. It's simple but clean and tidy. I might miss my New York grime after a while, but it was nice for a change. I breathed deeply and pushed myself on my run. Felt great.

Ted and Sonny came home and then Me, Jenn, Ted, Sonny, and Lisa (their daughter) went to lunch at a restaurant called Island Burger. The burgers were good and the place had, of course, and island theme. I can't remember the exact burger I had but the menu had names like Big Kahuna Burger. The suburbs. Gotta love it. The food was good and plentiful, and the soft drinks had free refills, something you do not see in New York restaurants, except perhaps with iced tea. Our server was an amiable young man. When they screwed up Ted's order (brought him a Kahuna or something) they took great pains to make it right, manager came over to check, etc.

After lunch we went back home to freshen up or whatever and then Jenn, Lisa, and Sonny went shopping (of course all the stores are huge) and Ted and I drove to a park to play some basketball. I had wanted to toss the frisbee around but it had become too windy for it.

I'm horrid at basketball. I can be standing right underneath the rim and barely make one shot out of five. I can almost guarantee I missed the shot below, as the hook is well beyond my skill set. I can make layups and very short jumpers, and even then only occasionally. We played CAT (like horse, only quicker, for people with no game) and I lost that, so we tacked on an S but I lost CATS too. Still, the weather was beautiful, and it felt good to be active.

When we finished up on the court Ted and I had a few errands to run. We needed to pick up some beer at the liquor store. Apparently liquor stores also sell beer in Nevada, but you can pretty much buy liquor in any store. You could probably buy a bottle of Jack Daniels at Old Navy if you wanted to. Anyway, we went to a huge liquor emporioum called Lee's Discount Liquors on East Flamingo Road (I think). Lee's is probably pretty well-known in Vegas. There were interesting people shopping there. Now I can say that I know what a "Vegas-type" person looks like. Anyway, the prices were good and the beer selection was too, although, unfortunately, they didn't have Brooklyn Brewery beers there. The Brooklyn Brewery should get on it and make sure Lee's Discount Liquors in Las Vegas stocks their fine beers. Here's me in Lee's Discount Liquors.

The drinking during the trip was actually quite moderate. I think most people visiting Vegas party much more heartily, but we were there to relax and be active. From Lee's we drove to a grocery store called Albertson's to buy food to cook that night. Ted was cooking Thai chicken. Here's Ted ticking things off the shopping list.

After we got everything we needed we drove back to the place and Ted started cooking. I helped by starting up the barbecue on the back patio, with coals and lighter fluid and everything. The suburbs! Like every man in the world, I put too much lighter fluid on the coals and the flames were really huge for a while. I stood back and acted like I meant to do that. The dinner was excellent (I don't have photos of it).

After dinner I took a ride with Ted because I wanted to take a picture of the Strip at night. Summerlin is located at a higher elevation than central Las Vegas, so you can get a great view of the valley from some areas. He pulled the truck over and I put the camera on the hood and took this timed exposure. Click on it to make it big. The tower you can see just right of center is the Stratosphere and the shaft of light at the far right is the Luxor.

This next photo has the hood of the truck in the foreground, and I liked it, so here it is.

Then we went back to the place and called it a night. We had a big hike planned for the next day.

The desert photos to follow are from Valley of Fire State Park.

It was another beautiful spring day in the American Southwest. The sky was blue and the valley was the color of fire. Hence the name.

The landscape looks surreal if you're from another part of the country or world.

We climbed a mountain we affectionately named Fish Shit Mountain, because the sign explained that the area that is now Valley of Fire was once covered by ocean, and that many of the rock formations were the result of the plant and animal life in the sea. That would presumably include fish shit.

While Jenn and Sonny rested on a ridge a few dozen yards shy of the summit, Ted and I climbed all the way up. It was really windy at the top.

Here Ted gets into mountain lion attack position over Sonny.

This is lichen, savior of our nation in the Revolutionary War. I wouldn't know that if not for A.J. Jacobs, who wrote so eloquently of lichen and its benefits in Esquire as well as The Know-it-All.

We had a great hike. On the way back to Summerlin, we stopped by Jason's Deli for some chow, which was excellent.

We had to get cleaned up and turned around quickly for our nighttime helicopter ride over Las Vegas.

We enjoyed a brief loop above Las Vegas Boulevard and Glitter Gulch. If you want to see a short video I shot of our helicopter ride, click here for my Gridskipper entry.

After we were back on the ground we walked along the Strip to see some of the resorts. Not surprisingly, the Eiffel Tower below is is located at a resort called Paris Las Vegas.

Here's the MGM.

We walked into a pretty interesting resort called The Venetian, which I liked. I'm sure that the actual Venice is exactly the same, and perhaps smellier. No, I'm kidding. The actual Venice looks great, from what I could see on a recent episode of Globe Trekker. I've never been to Venice, Italy myself.

I do remember seeing a Modern Marvels show on the construction of The Venetian. One thing I remember from the show was that even though the canals in the casino are man-made and barely more than three feet deep, the gondolas are regulated by the Coast Guard. Mere weeks before the grand opening of the hotel, the Coast Guard became concerned that the gondolas were unsafe. They said that if an especially fat passenger leaned really far out of the side of the boat, it could potentially flip over or take on water. So the engineers were in a bind. Rather than redesigning the boats, which were all finished and very expensive, they decided to install seat belts in the boats so nobody could lean too far out over the side. That satisfied the Coast Guard. I peered inside the boats, and, sure enough, the seat belts were there. I was able to share with Jenn, Ted, and Sonny my story about why there are seat belts in the gondolas at the Venetian Las Vegas.

Here's the Wynn, the latest and greatest megahotel in Vegas. We went into the Wynn and decided to have a drink at a bar next to a big window that overlooked an outdoor patio and fountain area. Every half hour or fifteen minutes or some such interval there's a crazy show of some kind in the fountain. We were fortunate to see the frog show, where a big animatronic frog sings Low Rider or Slow Rider or whatever that song is called. You can just barely see the frog in this picture. He's at the top of the screen. You can click on it to make it big.

These are the lamps that were overhanging the lounge where we enjoyed our drink and frog show.

The next morning I went for another excellent run. I took this photo of myself as I was getting started.

Instead of retracing my steps around the neighborhood I decided to run down the main road for a while. I noticed a gravel path that went off road in the direction of the mountains adjacent to Ted's neighborhood, so I started running on the path. Eventually I came upon these spray-painted refrigerators. I took a left and started gaining elevation. I took this cactus photo because I hadn't seen that many cactuses (cacti?) during the trip so far. There are far more cactuses in Phoenix than there are in Las Vegas. This much I can say.

I was feeling strong and vigorous in the desert sunshine and fresh air so I started climbing the mountain.

The photo above shows the switchback canyon that leads up to the summit of this unnamed mountain. I climbed up part of the way and rested in the shaded area under the ridge that you can see to the left in the photo.

This is the view down the mountain from where I was sitting. A hummingbird buzzed over my head and zipped down the mountain, poking at flowers and bushes. At first I thought it was a bug, but I figured it out when it was in the air longer than most bugs would be able to hover.

This is what people do for fun in America. In case you can't identify the red object I'm holding, it's a spent shotgun shell.

I got back to the apartment and showered and got ready to go out. Ted, Jenn, and I went to the old (in Vegas terms) Riviera hotel and casino to see a matinee show called Matsuri. Sonny met us at the hotel and enjoyed the show with us. Matsuri was an extremely high-energy Japanese acrobatic spectacle. We enjoyed it even more than we enjoyed Bite.

Here I am standing with Ted on the roof of the parking garage.

And here I am with Jenn, and the Wynn visible in the background.

That evening we all went to dinner at a wonderful Mexican restaurant called Viva Mercado's. I wrote a Gridskipper entry about it that you can read here. Our dinner was excellent and very filling. We were tired and stuffed so we went back to Summerlin to take our ease.

The next morning (our last day in Las Vegas) Ted, Jenn, and I drove back to Las Vegas Boulevard to meet Jenn's friend A.J. (not to be confused with my friend A.J. as they are different people) at Mandalay Bay. The photo above is Jenn with A.J. (at left).

The Mandalay Bay is connected to the Luxor.

As you can see, it's just like Egypt.

Finally we got to the casino I was the most excited about visiting: New York New York. Here it is in all its glory, exactly like the New York I call home. With minor differences.

Usually Ted is seven inches taller than I am, but in this photo I tower over him, thanks to the use of trick photography.

Here's another view of surreal Las Vegas. I like the town. I was impressed. Of course, the nice weather we experienced goes a long way toward making you feel good.

This is from New York, New York. It's supposed to be Greenwich Village or the Lower East Side or something.

Ted and I rode the casino's famous roller coaster, the Manhattan Express, and I couldn't bring my camera on the ride with us. This is what we looked like as we got off the coaster. It was great.

Here's the Brooklyn Bridge on the left and Las Vegas Boulevard on the right.

The name of this photo is Big Lion. The title refers to the mascot of the MGM Grand hotel and casino.

In the middle of the casino floor at the MGM there's a lion enclosure. I'm not sure how many lions they have at any given moment but here's a baby lion sleeping. Not too exciting.

Ted and Sonny got married in this wedding chapel in the MGM.

I don't know why I took this photo of the Hooters hotel and casino, but here it is. We did not go inside.

The Tropicana is another "old" Las Vegas resort. Unfortunately for the Tropicana, the Riviera, and other hotels like it, Vegas has little time for nostalgia. Out with the old, in with the new.

Here's the wizard in the Excaliber.

After walking through several resorts, we took the tram back to Mandalay Bay (where the vehicle was parked).

We said goodbye to A.J. and then Ted took us to the airport, where we caught our flight back to New York. We had a great time in Las Vegas, especially because we saw so much more of it than most tourists do. We have Ted and Sonny to thank for that, because they gave us the Grand Tour. Bottom line, I like Las Vegas a lot. The way of life out west is more laid-back in general, and you can't argue with that springtime weather. The natural beauty of places like Red Rock, Valley of Fire, Mount Charleston, and the Lake Mead area is almost overwhelming to an Easterner not accustomed to desert landscapes.

Society-wise, as much as Vegas is considered Sin City, however, it just doesn't have the edge that New York has. Of course we had a relatively straight-laced time there and didn't go crazy gambling or anything, but to say most of the man-made spaces are contrived would be a an understatement. They are, and they mean to be. Aw heck, what am I even talking about. It's a great place to visit. Would I want to live there? Mmmmmmaybe.


Blogger Jenn said...

Umm... We may need to buy some more gummy bears. I ate the oversized heads (and every other part) of the few remaining bears yesterday. But, trust me, they were huge.
Thanks to Ted & Sonny again for being such fabulous hosts. Though I've been to Vegas at least a half-dozen times, I'd never been to Red Rock or Valley of the Sun--or seen The Strip from a helicopter. I highly recommend all 3.

6:04 PM  
Blogger allison said...


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