A tale of four cities.

“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They’ve all come to look for America” – Simon & Garfunkel, “America”

Between January 11 and March 19 this year  I went to four major U.S. cities– Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C.– two of which I’d never visited before, all for varying purposes. I didn’t write about any of them at the time but I wanted to write about them now.

They were all different, but they were all cold.

This is their story.

Everything was blue. All my photos turned out that way, anyway.


The skyline from Pike’s Place.

This was my third time in Seattle so it was a bit like a homecoming. But unlike the last two times—in a May and a June, respectively—it was damned cold. Dirty lumps of snow sat in the gutters and on the edges of parking lots. Staying with our friend Micah, who lives between downtown and Capitol Hill, we took several cold face-stinging walks to our numerous local destinations, up the hill and down the hill, from the International District to the original Starbuck’s. My coat saw a lot of action this winter.

Old building in the International District.

Old building in the International District.

The cold made the visibility crystal clear, and Seattle’s relatively new skyscrapers are made of glass, so they reflected the blue sky just swimmingly. We saw blue trees, the blue of the bay from the Athenian Inn. Even the air coming out of our mouths was blue-ish, visible as it was from the low temperature.

The blue trees I was talking about.

The blue trees I was talking about.

All the better to enjoy two of my favorite activities: going to bookstores and sitting in coffee shops, which seem particularly suited to Seattle anyway. Elliott Bay Book Company, in its new Capitol Hill location (formerly it occupied a historic building in Pioneer Square), was big and pleasant but not so impressive as I’d hoped. Left Bank Books in Pike’s Place was leftist and creaky and musty—it had a sun-drenched corner by the second-story window where one who was not on a whirlwind weekend trip could probably spend a very pleasant hour. Victrola Coffee in Capitol Hill was just satisfactory (and painfully hipster), while local chain Top Pot Doughnuts made a mean latte and stashed old hardcovers in its walls, including a turn-of-the-century Gilbert & Sullivan lyric book.

The warm inviting inside of Top Pot.

The warm inviting inside of Top Pot.

The Mikado script and lyrics.

The Mikado script and lyrics.

On our last night there Paul bought a fresh salmon from Pike’s Place and prepared it in Micah’s apartment. We stuffed ourselves with fish, and also Pocky and mochi from Asian super-grocer Uwajimaya, and watched “Black Adder.”

The incomparable Seattle Public Library.

The incomparable architecture of the Seattle Public Library.

Seattle. Fresh fish, hot coffee, and what must be a citywide love of books. My kind of place.

Philadelphia is old. It deals in being old. A lot of cities do, I suppose—but coming straight from California, this self-conscious oldness is especially noticeable.

Buildings in the Old City neighborhood.

Buildings in the Old City neighborhood.

One of the first things I noticed about Philadelphia, when I first visited three years ago, was how dark brown everyone’s hair was. Other things that made an impression: the unprepossessing attitude of Hymie’s Jewish deli in the suburb of Merion; the immigrant-via-working-class vibe of South Philly and the resulting passive-aggressive culture war (namely, the blue collar nativist sticker slogans in the windows of famous cheesesteak purveyor Geno’s); the way the train man yells, “Haverford!” as we pull through the various tiny townships outside the city, without really using the R’s; the Pennsylvania Dutch presence (and their wonderful pies); the fact that Dunkin’ Donuts outnumber Starbucks (true of many places East of the Mississippi?)—apparently people buy coffee at DD, not just donuts.

The basement of Edgar Allan Poe's house (that he lived in for six months).

The basement of Edgar Allan Poe’s house (that he lived in for six months).

Philly feels feisty. Like it knows it’s not as big as New York, or as cultured as Boston, or as powerful as DC. You can walk across it in a few hours. It has plenty of poverty and (like most places) a race problem. But it tries to make up for it with a fierce identity composed in part of red brick, graveyards, Ben Franklins, and bonneted historical reenactors.

Broad Street and City Hall.

Broad Street and City Hall.

Besides the Philadelphia Orchestra concert at Kimmel Hall that was our ostensible trip purpose, we also visited the glorified medical curio cabinet that is the Mütter Museum, walked around the Old City amidst snow flurries (is the snow falling up or down??), squeezed between falling, yellowing books at the Book Trader, were confused by a pop-up art installation slash eyeglasses shop called Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (bought a $10 T-shirt), re-visited the legendary pastrami and egg cream soda at Hymie’s, and paid an obligatory visit inside Independence Hall. (There was history there.) Oldness, evidently, abounded. Also, like last time, we found ourselves inside Reading Market, the train terminal turned open floor plan full of flower booths, food grocers, and lunch spots, at least five times in two days. That Amish food, it beckons.

The gorgeous Wannemaker organ housed at the downtown Macy's.

The gorgeous Wannemaker organ housed at the downtown Macy’s.

A door in the Old City neighborhood.

A door in the Old City neighborhood.

Pulling out of O’Hare on the way to downtown Chicago, on the Blue Line, a man sits in front of me, his peach scalp inches from my face. Around it, straw-like mouse brown hair in a circular crown that only serves to emphasize his baldness. Plus, a combover. “Welcome to the Midwest?” I think.

Train tracks in downtown.

Train tracks in downtown.

Chicago felt big. Noisy. Brown. Tacky. Alive. But I found quiet spaces. There was a gentle, magical moment, in the midst of the St. Patrick’s madness, when tiny spots of snow whirled down from the sky and stuck to my wool glove.

Snowflakes. And a Starbucks (a constant in my travels, generally).

Snowflakes. And a Starbucks (a constant in my travels, generally).

Speaking of. It was St. Patrick’s Day when I visited. The downtown population disproportionately consisted of drunk college kids festooned in bright green. They poured onto my train car. They yelled and milled about in large groups and bumped into you on the sidewalk. Because of them, or at least the Parade, the Bean was closed. I ducked into the Art Institute during the actual parade and, for that duration, it was like night and day (or silence and noise, as it were).

Seurat made famous by Ferris Bueller.

Seurat made famous by Ferris Bueller.

But as I put half-hours and blocks between myself and the festivities, the city quieted down considerably, and it was like any weekend day in the financial district. Streets were empty. Restaurants were closed. I didn’t get to eat any deep-dish pizza or Polish sausages. I walked along the (green-ish) River. “Where’s Union Station?” a teenage girl asked me. I pointed vaguely. “That way.” The architecture was amazing. Maybe this could be my city.

St. Patrick's Day hordes.

St. Patrick’s Day hordes on Michigan Avenue.

The Bean, closed.

The Bean, closed.

Washington D.C.
I thought I’d hate it, or at least be criminally bored. What’s so great about old white monuments, solitary, cold national symbols desperately imitating the buildings of a dead civilization?

Washington Monument with some early bloomers.

Washington Monument with some early bloomers.

It was also neither fall, when I hear the city goes aflame in red and orange, nor quite spring, when the cherry blossoms from Japan burst across the Mall (a few poked their petals out while I was there). But winter in D.C.—alone, on the Mall—as it turns out, was one of the most beautiful places I can remember being.

Jefferson Memorial, solitary branch.

Jefferson Memorial, solitary branch.

With several hours to kill between my plane landing and my prospective student dinner, I took the Metro to the National Mall and took myself on a photographic walking tour. It was cloudy. It was cold, but not as cold as Chicago (or Seattle). Even though it was also St. Patrick’s Day, it was tranquil. A Reston girl and her mother were dressing in traditional Irish clothes in the public restroom I visited, in preparation for the parade. Families waved little flags at the procession.

Reflecting Pool, living up to its name.

Reflecting Pool, living up to its name.

After an hour or so in the National Gallery—whose paintings now blur indistinguishably with those I saw at the Art Institute, the day before, with the exception of some of the fairy tale pre-Raphaelites— I asked a nearby dad to take my picture in front of the Monument, then made a big, slow lap past the White House, the Jefferson Memorial, the WWII Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial. I set my iPod to Thomas Newman’s ethereal “Angels in America” score because, I don’t know, it felt appropriate. The sobriety, the bare branches, the mild gray-blue of the Reflecting Pool, the open, manicured feel of the green public space, all felt so unashamedly civilized, and so melancholy, and so implicated in both great and terrible things. I was joyously ambivalent about the landscape’s entire enterprise. It was practically spiritual. An open air cathedral.

Inside the National Gallery.

Inside the National Gallery.

One of my favorites from the Gallery-- a pre-Raphaelite book illustration.

One of my favorites from the Gallery– a pre-Raphaelite book illustration.

What all the buildings look like in DC.

What all the buildings look like in DC.

Me n the Monument.

Me awkwardly imitating the Monument?

If they were colors, Seattle would be blue, Philadelphia would be red, Chicago would be brown-gray, DC would be gray-white. All beautiful in their own ways. Each a unique snowflake (and I saw snowflakes in each one). Next up, a road trip from Silicon Valley to Urbana Champaign in August. Stay tuned.

Why TSA sucks and L.A. is awesome.

I arrived home at about 11:00 PM on Sunday night, after one of those short Los Angeles to San Jose flights where you ascend and descend and never go straight. Let it be known here and now that last Tuesday, on the flight from San Jose to Los Angeles, I unknowingly brought on board not one but two knives, medium-sized, sharp knives, which fact I only discovered later, in the hotel room. On Sunday, Raghav was briefly stopped for having too large a container of contact lens solution.

Further evidence of the charade (pronounced char-ahhde) that is airport security in this country, though to be honest for my own comfort and convenience I am glad they did not catch my knives, because I would have had some ‘splaining to do. (It’s partly Paul’s fault. He insisted we purchase knives for our hiking adventures, and I just happened to leave both of ours in my hiking backpack slash carry-on bag.)

Rewind a bit. We left Laughlin on Sunday morning, though not before hitting up the casino’s 24-hour (!!!) Starbucks for fuel. This was only after a bona fide Elevator Debacle that, to me, revealed the true face of the Laughlin tourist, and it was not a pretty one, oh no. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say, efficient elevator system or not (definitely not), elevator etiquette is completely nonexistent in Laughlin (hints: waiting through five crowded elevators, “they’re trying to get in,” “no room,” splitting up, cutting in implicit line, stopping on every floor, Raghav having to carry his luggage down 16 flights of stairs, and then me swearing a whole fucking lot in a bona fide post-debacle Elevator Rant).

laughlin, nevada, gambling, casino

Laughlin in a nutshell.

So I’m more than okay with the idea of never returning to Laughlin again. I mean really, unless you gamble, it’s not much of a destination. The only stop on our trip I can say that about. We drove away and that was fine.

After several brain-bending games of modified Six-Degrees, where instead of Kevin Bacon two people have to come up independently with two actors who we must then try to connect (highlight: Dan and I simultaneously thinking of “Ben Affleck”), we arrived in Los Angeles with a few hours to kill. We headed straight for Hollywood and I had a delicious jerk po’boy and a refreshing Pimm’s Cup at Five O Four along the Walk of Fame.

los angeles, hollywood, travel

From the restaurant. Hollywood in a nutshell.

walk of fame, hollywood, grauman, chinese theater, shirley temple

In front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

I both love and am ambivalent about L.A., especially Hollyweird. In L.A., the colors are brighter and the hipsters are more insistent. Neon-framed Ray-Bans, sheer Day-Glo midriff-baring tops, acid-wash denim cut-offs, curly waxed mustaches. The vintage stores venture farther into the early 1990s then most San Francisco vintage stores think is wise. Hollywood Boulevard is full of tattoo parlors, smoke shops (saying “we sell salvia”), thrift stores, tawdry lingerie stores, and cheap pizza places, and then once you get closer to Grauman’s Chinese Theater you see all of the wax museums and tacky souvenir shops and Scientology landmarks. It’s so different, it’s so weird, and it’s so familiar because I’m here almost once a year. I’m like, oh yeah, I was just on that corner, but I’m far from home and in a major world city. I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t always like you, L.A., but I sure as hell appreciate you for who you are and what you do.

roosevelt hotel, hollywood, oscars

The ceiling of the ballroom in the Roosevelt Hotel.

We spent a super brief tourist moment walking the Walk of Fame, putting our hands in the cement casts outside the Chinese Theater, popping into the Roosevelt Hotel’s ballroom (where the first Oscars were held in 1929), and browsing a Bettie Page pin-up clothing store (God so cute!) and a novelty film-related bookstore with fair-condition 1954 entertainment gossip magazines about the imminent divorce of Gregory Peck and his wife. We also saw some kind of amateur film or commercial being shot on a corner, the highlight being that we heard someone shout, in all sincerity, “Action!”

frank sinatra, hollywood, street art, los angeles

Street art on a garage door on Hollywood Blvd.

Back at home and I’m marveling at the diversity of experience that such a short road trip can encompass. From the decadent, Disneyland-ish casinos of Vegas, to the towering unspoilt rock monuments of Zion, to the world-famous expanse of the Grand Canyon, to the funky Route 66 tourist kitsch of Williams and Seligman, to the unconscious small-town tackiness of Laughlin, to the bright lights and neon wardrobes of L.A., and I’ve got photographic and textual evidence of it all. Flew out of the Southwest on Southwest and now I’m back to reality in San Francisco.

Hot in Laughlin.

We just left Laughlin, Nevada, the namesake of short-lived musical TV series “Viva Laughlin!” starring Hugh Jackman. Laughlin is like the smaller, cheaper, more family-friendly Las Vegas. It was founded in the 1950s by Don Laughlin along the banks of the Colorado, just across the river from Bullhead City, Arizona—a funny sight to see, a river serving as a state boundary and the casinos looming right on the edge of gambling-legal Nevada and leering at gambling-illegal Arizona. We rode on the river on a boat, partly because we weren’t sure what else to do here.

laughlin, jet ski, colorado river

Jet skis on the Colorado River.

AND we finally broke triple digits. Las Vegas was drizzly and muggy, Zion was mild, the Grand Canyon was a comfortable eighty-two degrees, but somewhere on the road yesterday we climbed up to 106 and exited the car to an oppressive dry heat. I guess I’d been expecting it though—it is a desert road trip after all.

The most drastic difference between Laughlin and everywhere else we’ve been—Las Vegas, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Williams, even little Seligman on Route 66—is that while those latter places were teeming with tourists of diverse origins, from Germany to China to Australia, where nearly every other group we passed was non-American, Laughlin is completely 100% an all-American travel destination. No one here seems to be from farther than Colorado. It’s majority lower middle-class Americans from neighboring states; the waistlines are larger, the shirts are louder, and the casinos are smokier, and despite being a “bigger” city than, say, Williams (pop. 3000), I would definitely argue that it’s less cosmopolitan.

Vegetarian litmus test: In Williams, the tiny coffee shop we had breakfast in offered at least one explicitly-labeled vegetarian option. In Kanab, we passed a vegetarian diner called Laid-Back Larry’s. Here in Laughlin, at the largest hotel in the city, the upscale patio pizza bar waiter was taken a little aback by Raghav’s request for a vegetarian dish (pasta without the shrimp) and was uncertain as to whether even the salad dressing (asiago) was edible for him.

On Gambling: I don’t gamble. Presented with another opportunity to try my first blackjack table, I demurred, and I’ve already sworn off slot machines. I’ve noticed that the slot machines feature a dizzying array of themes, animations, and graphics—from major films (Batman, Grease) to Orientalist clichés (China Mystery, Mythic Lamp, Geisha) to gaudy cartoon animals (penguins, ducks—a woman sat, stonefaced and serious, pressing the buttons studiously, alone in a row, and her machine featured a picture of a giant, smiling cartoon lobster and was called something like Lobster Mania). The weirdest thing is that the only difference between all of these different-themed machines is some of the decorations. There’s no bearing whatsoever on the game.

The local news was on (I love watching local news stations in new places—it’s like a peek into another, very similar world) and they ran a story about how Treasure Island in Las Vegas was unveiling a new Michael Jackson: King of Pop slot machine, and this just compounded my mystification as to the aforementioned slot machine phenomenon. “It has speakers in the seat so you hear Michael Jackson songs from behind and in front,” a slot machine technician earnestly told the camera. “Michael Jackson is your partner, rooting you on as you’re winning.”

mannequins, route 66, seligman, arizona

Gift shop in Seligman.

Route 66 between Williams and Kingman is pretty bare, besides for Seligman and Williams itself. But we pretty much got our Route 66 fix (and kicks) in these two towns. Both teemed with Route 66-themed gift shops and campy attractions (closed-down gas stations, run-down cars, dressed-up mannequins) and we all bought campy gifts, and took campy pictures, and it was fantastic and everything I wanted it to be, but it was also like, you know, so self-aware. At what point can a place be said to actually exist—does Historic Route 66 only present itself as we expect it to be presented? When does it veer into self-caricature? How many of those tacky, hilarious, irreverent bumper stickers and business cards and buttons are forced, based on the idea of what Route 66 humor is supposed to be? And on that note, do all those Europeans think this is what America is really like?

I thought about this as I sat down to a peanut butter malt at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In in Seligman, surrounded by coed British tour groups and Indian families, and from our table’s vantage point we could count at least 20 little “Route 66” signs at various locations up and down the street, and a girl who at first I thought was a hipster but then noticed her boyfriend was just wearing a simple striped polo and knee-length shorts was taking photographs of road signs just like me, and I thought about how she’d have the same seemingly random, irreverent, quirky photos when she got home.

route 66, williams, arizona

In Williams we got a free Route 66 hat with T-shirt purchase. And a sticker.

Regardless, I loved Route 66 and Williams was one of my—actually, our—favorite places of the trip. I’d like to do all this again one day. For now, a night in Laughlin without gambling.

Steep hikes and highways and frybread.

Tiny Williams, AZ serves as a portal into the Grand Canyon, though it’s over an hour from the South Rim entrance. It exists right along Route 66. Its main street is lined with cheap motels, neon signs, and somewhat ethnic restaurants, and it’s downright adorable. When we arrived here after a long day, past 9 PM, we were gratified to find that the town had not yet shut down and we sat down to eat in the patio of Pancho McGuillicuddy’s, a Mexican-Irish restaurant right by the main strip that has its own Route 66 gift shop and a live country-western singer, and it was So. Freaking. Perfect. I saw they offered something called Navajo Tacos which was basically taco ingredients piled onto a giant piece of fried bread/frybread (a Native American specialty), and I was so excited to try it, and it was delicious, but most of it still exists in a take-home carton on our hotel room shelf because it was also humongous.

navajo, tacos, frybread, southwest

Navajo Tacos.

We are in Williams now. The Grand Canyon was spectacular, as expected. The vastness of it makes it seem like I can’t quite get a hold of it. Like I can’t really say I experienced it, because what I experienced was just a little niche of a much wider natural phenomenon. But I feel we got our half-day’s worth. We hiked down Bright Angel trail, 1.5 miles down, 1.5 miles back up, and the hike up was killer, but full of gorgeous views and sharp drop-offs that I was surprisingly comfortable maintaining a closeness to. People on the trail were from all over the world, but in aggregate less friendly than the people on the Zion trails (possibly because the hike up consumes a lot of your politeness energy, or at least it did for me). We celebrated the hike’s end with a beer in the divey Bright Angel Lodge cocktail lounge, while a little British girl fed the digital jukebox for Coldplay and Lady Gaga.

grand canyon, arizona, road trip, travel, southwest

From Bright Angel Trail.

The other lookout point we hit up was the Watchtower closer to the East Entrance, a recreated prehistoric-style rock building commissioned in the 1930s and decorated inside with native paintings. “Native” is kind of a buzzword around here. As mentioned, Cowboys & Indians in St. George, Utah sold “Indian” art made in India, based on designs from a tribal culture native to southern Mexico. Both the Holiday Inn Express in Kanab and the Comfort Inn here in Williams gravitate towards native-esque decor (in Kanab, the hallway carpeting was a repeated shadow print of Native Americans, horses, cattle, and cowboys), and every gift shop has dream-catchers and dream-boxes and other such art. At a Grand Canyon shop I picked up a piece of “Native Art” (explicitly labeled) which, in smaller print, added that it was “Not Native Made.”

All of this is interesting to me because between Kanab and the Grand Canyon we drove through the Navajo Reservation, which, along Highway 89, consisted chiefly of sparsely vegetated desert, blank-slatted houses in small clusters, and occasional makeshift roadside stands selling Navajo rugs and buffalo jerky and various arts and crafts, usually preceded by large hand-painted signs. We didn’t stop, and part of me felt like I would have felt bad patronizing one of those tiny shops and then buying nothing, but part of me also feels bad for not stopping since I’m sure they’d appreciate the business, but all of me has pretty much resolved to not buy any “Native Art” that shows up in the more mainstream gift shops off the Reservation. (Though I did order my first fried bread at a likely white-run Mexican-Irish establishment.)

Spotted in the Grand Canyon, in descending order of impressiveness: several large elk, males, females, and teenagers; a male bighorn sheep on the trail; a doe; a chipmunk; a sincerely intimidating raven; and tons of too-tame ground squirrels who were practically following us as we hiked to beg for food.

elk, grand canyon, arizona, southwest

The elk let us get pretty close.

So now I can say: I have been to the Grand Canyon. And that’s half the battle of going to the Grand Canyon. The other part I can say, I hope, is: I actually appreciated the Grand Canyon. And that’s harder to do. When you travel, you see things, and you take pictures of things, and you write home (literally and figuratively) about things, but you don’t always have time to enjoy things, so I hope I enjoyed it. The moment I might have was on the way up when I pressed my back flat against the rock side opposite a panoramic view of our niche of the canyon and just stood for a minute or so and looked. What I’d really like to do is exist for longer in a moment in a transcendent place. But road trips, you know—not a lot of spare moments.

Me, enjoying the Grand Canyon, not being (too) afraid of heights.

Dispatches from Kanab, Utah.

Today was the southern tip of Nevada, the northwest corner of Arizona and then Utah. Driving across central Nevada is supposed to be one of the most boring stretches in the country (I’ve only experienced it once, on a childhood road trip) but this Nevadan-Arizonan stretch of I-15 was never boring and, by the time we crossed into Utah, was just magnificent.

road trip, southwest, pit stop, utah

Roadside stop in Utah.

Just after the border we stopped in St. George, treated my Starbucks fix, and then perused a little strip mall store called Cowboys & Indians dealing in authentic “Indian” art (made in India), dream catchers, Native American baby dolls, moccasins, cowboy hats, and T-shirts that said “I’ve tried polygamy.” We arrived at the same time as a Chinese tour bus so the shopping center was bustling with Chinese tourists. Like in Sacramento there was also a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory full of caramel apples.

Utah, southwest, road trip

Outside a roadside cafe in Springdale.

Then we drove between towering canyon walls and red rectangular rock structures and layers of sloping sediment as far as the eye could see, and as we got closer to Zion it just kept getting more impressive so I took lots of ill-advised out-the-car-window photos as we drove. Once in Zion Dan put on his cowboy hat and it stayed on for the rest of the day.

Side note: would love to go to Salt Lake someday (besides my childhood drive-through). Mormon history and mythology is fascinating. Would love to see more of Utah.

utah, road trip

Gotcha, Utah sign!

We settled on a trail called the Kayenta, forgoing the famous Angel’s Landing trail which zigzags straight up a mountain and is not for the faint of heart, physical fitness-wise or acrophobic-wise. (Note: We also managed to neglect to note the time change, so we basically lost an hour today. Always strange.) I probably would have died of fright, or freaked out to the point that I actually killed myself by freaking myself out off the edge of a ledge. I’m afraid of heights.

Zion is beautiful. It’s a giant canyon with soaring reddish rock structures on all sides with fantastic (Mormon) biblical names like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moroni, and the Cathedral of the Patriarchs. We arrived as the sunset shadows were growing from one half of the canyon across the bottom and up the other side, so things got visually dramatic (but difficult to photograph, what with the lighting contrasts). Raghav mentioned that this Zion is more impressive than the original (you know, Jerusalem) and I have to take his word for it because I haven’t been there.

Zion, Utah, Southwest, hiking, travel

Zion Canyon, closer to sunset

We drove through the ever-darkening night out the other side of Zion which was terrifying because the roads were pitch-black and the drops were sheer and not shielded by guard-rails. I gripped the door handle. Dan drove slow and cars passed us, filled with people unconcerned or unimpressed with the idea of driving off a cliff. Arrived in Kanab (filming site of The Outlaw Josey Wales and other Westerns) at ten P.M. ish and the lights and parked cars and movie theaters were so inviting. We survived!

Tomorrow the Grand Canyon, natural wonder of the world!


Kayenta trail in Zion.

Kayenta trail in Zion.

hats, sun glare and Raghav’s old-timey Swedish camera

A first-timer’s guide to Las Vegas.

It’s my first time in Las Vegas, and Las Vegas is exactly what I expected inasmuch as an expectation can match a reality. Of course, it’s always quite different to actually experience it.

Our approach and our early hours at Vegas were slightly dampened by clouds and drizzle and the threat of thunderstorms. Michael Gong* who met us from his new homebase in neighboring Henderson claims that it’s the first day he’s even seen clouds in Vegas (though to be fair he’s only been here two weeks). With the wind blowing the palm trees and the uncharacteristic humidity, it felt tropical, which is not what I expected in the desert. But by the evening it had cleared up and was muggy and warm; for vacation that’s kind of nice.

We stayed at the Monte Carlo, which is mildly Riviera-themed. Other hotels are not so subtle. One of the strangest things about Vegas is going to the European city-themed hotels and seeing a condensed, folded-in facsimile of a place you’ve actually been, which feels ever-so-vaguely familiar but really, the ultimate effect is so far removed from what it actually feels like to be in that city that you walk away a little confused as to where you just were. Paris; the Trevi Fountain and Winged Victory in front of Caesar’s Palace (if I’m not mistaken neither of which are Roman imperial). The Venetian.

The Venetian jams a Campanile and a Doge’s Palace and a Rialto Bridge into its front façade in an accordion postcard effect, and its indoor faux-sky St. Mark’s Square has a canal going through it and no cathedral (the anchor of the actual Square). But there were brief moments of recognition. We ate at a restaurant in the faux-Square and it was laid out in a way very similar to restaurants in the real-Square, and musicians were playing just across the way so maybe there was just the slightest twinge of self-conscious déjà-vu?

Makes you think about the idea of place and imagination and what’s real, especially when you see an Eiffel Tower you can go up six months after you were at the real one, and that somehow you managed to come again on a day when the Eiffel Tower elevators are closed. Raghav mentioned that it’s fortunate the New York New York hotel did not build a World Trade Center facsimile in their skyline, because that would have presented a very uncomfortable quandary.

The Bellagio was almost as beautiful as it was in the Ocean’s Eleven movies, but somehow the fountain show had a much less classy effect when the water is leaping around to “My Heart Will Go On” instead of Claire de lune. Sky-high water jets shooting in synchronization to the melodramatic key change in the last verse (“Yooooooooouuuuuu’re here! There’s NAAAA-thing I fear!”) were cheesy but still soundly satisfying.

Hordes of people from all walks and slices of life are on the sidewalks and in the hotel lobbies and perusing the shops so that’s kind of good, in a democratic way. Gulf State families, European couples, Chinese tour groups; bros, students, babies and toddlers, hillbillies and city-folk, all come to Vegas for their summer vacations (though personally I can’t really imagine taking very young children here).

Speaking of kids, the Strip is lined with costumed characters with whom you can have your kid’s picture taken, but they all had a haunting dreamlike quality in that they were incredibly off-brand and clearly unsanctioned by any corporate body which owns said characters. Cookie Monsters with too-round heads, Homer Simpsons with too long-heads, Elmos in creepy untrained sing-song impersonator voices. Woodys and Buzzes in homemade costumes. Also, two separate Zach Galifiniakises.

Speaking again of kids, and why I wouldn’t take any here, the Strip deals very comfortably in the commodification of the body. “Girls Straight to Your Door” trucks and salesmen stood up and down the street trying to get you to order a girl; low-paid flyer workers try to force trade-able playing cards of nude women (minus/plus little strategically-placed stars) into your hands; all kinds of bars and restaurants feature large overtly sensual pictures of sparsely-clad women on their billboards. Most things here are at least a little bit offensive—if not to one’s gender or nationality, then one’s intelligence.

In the evening Woo, Prishnakriyan, Gong and I hit the Cosmopolitan’s Chandelier lounge and I had a taste of my first cigar, though I couldn’t get the smoke to blow right. I also hit the slot machines for the first time, which was an underwhelming experience, and I was too scared to try blackjack. So I’m down three dollars, one of which was Michael’s.

This morning we hit the buffet at the Paris hotel, whose food was decidedly average in quality but to its credit there was a whole lot of it. Dan said I made a buffet rookie mistake by taking too much food in my first plate, which is probably true– it was mostly cold and inedible by the time I was halfway through.

Now we are driving to Zion. To Zion! (I always thought Lauryn Hill was referring to a place until I found out her son’s name was Zion. But it’s still appropriate and, I think, will be played in the car at some point on the road.) Side note: First post from inside of a moving car!