Over President's Day weekend my wife and I drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to meet family members. The string of storms coming in over the Pacific through the previous week, part of the Polar Vortex, paused to allow our passage between Saturday's departure and the return on Monday, so that the mountains and deserts had been washed down to their elemental colors, and the sky was a swirl of meaningful whites, blues, pinks and purples, changing hues and messages through the day. The message I wanted, and received, was, "Come to me. I will cradle your mind and soul for a while."
Los Angeles was gone!
The air too, always cold and loving, never faltered in its embrace.
Restaurants and retailers along the way have discovered how to stand out in the desert, with gratifying food and flamboyant exteriors. We stopped at the Mad Greek Cafe in Baker, where I-15 to Vegas meets Highway 127 to Death Valley. Many eateries in the wild serve dismal, ungenerous food, because there's no competition, but the Mad Greek's fare is plentiful and delicious. Gleaming white plaster faux Greek statues around the perimeter and within the restaurant engage patrons with penises and breasts every five feet. Down the road is Alien Jerky, a two-story metal structure depicting a wheeled rover with stereotypical aliens looking out from a broad upper window from their control room. Within the store were large crowds of travelers browsing many varieties of jerky (e.g., Abducted Cow; Weed Killer Hot Beef).
The desert and its human diversions were enough to slow the downward pull of the news, which reminds us every day that we are at the receiving end; we are to sit and watch. In past desert drives we would search for NPR news on the hour, hungry for "breaking" developments to counter the disconnected state. This time the goal was the disconnected state.
Interest in Las Vegas goes way back in my family. In the 1950's my grandmother would take the Vegas train to play Bingo and often came back excited by her winnings. She had a strange kind of luck. I tried to emulate her at the Saturday kids' matinee at the Encino theater, which held ticket raffles. Once, to my amazement, I won. My mom and my grandmother picked me up after the show and I proudly held out my winnings: a cellophane wrapped carton of butterscotch Life Savers! My grandmother's response: "Is that all you won?"
As a kid I disliked Vegas, with its grownup elite of gamblers and its gussied up attempts to get kids out of the way. Then one summer day when I was thirty-something, while my daughter's crayons melted in the car, we walked into Caesar's Palace and I found religion on a spiral escalator bordered by nine-foot caryatids- the left breast of each revealed sequentially- supporting a huge ornate dome. I had discovered kitsch.
What is kitsch? Per the dictionary:
Art objects or designs considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.
Later I found more kitsch at the Luxor hotel and casino, a pyramid with a black exterior, three-fourths the size of The Great Pyramid of Giza, with a spotlight at its apex shooting a column of light into space (visible from airplanes flying over L.A.) in which bats swarm at night, and a Sphinx two stories taller than the original, and murals everywhere depicting skirted Egyptians looking out of the sides of their heads. The irony: the Luxor's spiritual icons, formerly employed in guiding the migration of souls (at least the royal family's souls), are now guardians of regular folk hypnotized into giving their money away.
The Luxor pyramid used to be the first Vegas structure we spotted coming in from the west, and it set a playful mood, but now the adjacent Mandalay Bay Hotel, from an upper window of which, on October 1, 2017, a deranged shooter killed 58 people attending an outdoor music festival below, adds somber meaning. A shadow crossed our hearts as we sped past.
We unloaded at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, glitzy, huge and efficient, but short on stunning kitsch. What mattered, though, were the remarkably powerful and well maintained elevators that took us to the 57th floor numerous times without crowds or delays. I also liked the giant pillows on the beds, and the quiet one can find 57 floors up.
Las Vegas was an important location for the Paiute and Mojave tribes because of its natural springs. Later, for the same reason, it became a pioneer settlement, then a railroad hub, and finally, in the 1930's- recounted by the informative Mob Museum (in the old post office/courthouse building)- it was reborn as the city where organized crime went legit, much like the pharaohs' ancient scam. There's irony everywhere in Vegas.
On Sunday morning we drove twenty minutes north to Red Rock Canyon, where stunningly beautiful sandstone strata, oxidized red, erupt in geologic slow motion. At one point I left our party to wander up a path, following signs to the remains of a fire circle used for festivals by both the Paiute and Mojave. The signs ask visitors not to disturb the surroundings, as the site is holy to Native Americans. I was sure I could smell burnt wood as I approached, though only whitened stones were visible around the fifty-foot circle. What is a holy place?, I wondered, finally deciding that it is a place with memory. This place remembered a life now gone, when the mystery of the surrounding terrain- then mostly devoid of people, unowned- continued on and on, for tens of thousand of miles, all around the earth, interrupted only where humans lived in small, scattered bands. What did it feel like, to live in that world? If I think about it too much I start to ache.
I considered the grounds outside the Mandalay Bay where many people died or were harmed. Is it, too, holy ground, with memory soaking into the desert? Will people hundreds of years from now stop near the spot and feel a chill, as I felt a chill of loss at the fire circle?
As it happened, both the restaurant we chose that night- the excellent Fleur- and the show we saw, Michael Jackson One (by Cirqe du Soleil) were at the Mandalay Bay. Insulated within, I felt nothing from the recent horror outside, and I was comforted by the idea that our merriment was designed to heal local wounded spirits. The Michael Jackson One show was riveting, not only because of adept mixing of Jackson songs and images, but because the performers did things with their bodies that most humans cannot begin to do.
The next morning anxiety attended our departure when we read on Googlemaps that all lanes of the southbound I-15 north of Baker were closed due to a crash. Before GPS, this would have ensured a travel nightmare, but thanks to Waze, it meant a short, well-planned detour on two-lane roads through beautiful desert, with adventures en route. After a spell on Highway 95 South, my car was low on gas (I had intended to fill up off the Interstate). The first gas station appeared in the small town of Searchlight. The station was large, with many pumps, but it was experiencing difficulties related to the closure of I-15. In addition to much more traffic than usual, the pumps were malfunctioning. I approached them slowly, angling against other cars hoping to find a pump that worked. At one point I was behind a white pickup. The pickup turned left, away from the pumps, so I proceeded straight alongside it, but then the pickup veered right, the driver seeming to change his mind. The pickup was one second away from hitting the front of my car. I halted and honked, and the pickup stopped, and a man in the passenger seat turned and glared at me, menace pouring from a hardened face. My flight-or-fight brain engaged, and I glared back, trying to remain neutral but feeling something involuntary within that boiled and overflowed with drops of rage, which fell to the asphalt, staining it with memories of hatred towards the other, of self versus non-self. The drops sizzled and steamed, hopefully evaporating before establishing themselves on earth. I drove slowly away from the white pickup.
The remainder of the trip was one long exposure to the earth's beauty: dark purple storm clouds in the distance, geologic turmoil frozen in time, Joshua trees thinking their secret thoughts. When L.A. appeared, it was a sudden jump from empty expanse to millions of humans interacting in a way the earth has not felt before in its five billion years.
What a trip! I would go again.