If you tell people you’re going to Las Vegas for a week, the reaction tends to be either a raised eyebrow, implying that’s a long time to spend there, or an overly excited and equally presumptuous “Vegas baby!” Sometimes it’s easier to just tell people you’re headed “out West” to avoid the backstory.
Here’s mine. Las Vegas is one of my home towns, a place where, in my 20s and 30s, I very much grew up. I met some of the most amazing friends in the town that tourists — and only tourists — call “Sin City.” Since moving to Chicago in 2009, I’ve seldom been back. But last Oct. 2, I felt an urgent need to visit.
That was the day after the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival, when I awoke to a stream of alerts on Facebook saying this friend and that friend had marked themselves safe in the “Violent Incident in Las Vegas, Nevada.” The shooter killed 58 people and wounded 546 in the deadliest mass shooting in modern history.
Within days, I booked a plane ticket, eager to hug my people and to show my husband, Neil, whom I’d met in Chicago, the desert surroundings I suddenly missed desperately. Just a week to reexperience a big part of my life.
For most of my nine years in Vegas, I worked as a journalist and guidebook writer, hopscotching between tourist Las Vegas and real Las Vegas. That means that a sight such as, say, a gondolier rowing through blue, chlorinated waters under sky-blue ceilings at the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian carries some nostalgia. To get our tourist fill, we stay at the Venice-themed hotel, with its Renaissance-inspired ceiling frescoes and a near-quarry’s worth of marble for the first two nights. We don’t even need to leave the enormous property to eat decadent pastries from Bouchon Bakery and share a “Crazyshake” (an over-the-top milkshake with chocolate acting as an adhesive for more chocolate dotting the glass) at Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer. When we’re not consuming calories, we get turned around weaving through the gaming floor trying to find the elevator to get to our room — and wait, there are Ellen DeGeneres-themed slot machines?
The restaurant I’m most eager to return to is away from the neon and crowds of Las Vegas Boulevard. To get there, we take a meandering walk, past the bronze statue of Siegfried and Roy near the Mirage, around the lush bird habitat at the Flamingo and through that familiar gauntlet of handbillers fwap-fwapping their pamphlets about women available to visit our room.
Then we veer off-Strip, taking E. Flamingo Road about a mile and a half east to meet friends at Lotus of Siam. In 2000, Gourmet Magazine named this Thai restaurant the best in North America. We feast on sumptuous beef jerky, duck curry and spicy catfish. The location we visit is new (the old one flooded and is closed for renovations) but the food is even more remarkable than I remember.
The wide-open spaces, the red-rock vistas, the mountain silhouettes framing the valley, the Dr. Seuss-ish Joshua trees, the way it’s so easy to breathe out here with all that hardy desert beauty — that, too, is my Nevada. Shaking off the frenetic tourist energy, Neil and I head out to Lake Mead, which is about 30 miles east of the Strip, for a morning hike on the Historic Railroad Trail. The path was constructed to transport materials to Hoover Dam beginning in 1931, and over the course of about two miles, it goes through five long, cool, eerie, dark tunnels, all while hugging the lake formed by the dam. It’s especially beautiful today, under a cloud-stippled blue sky.
Having earned an appetite, we stop for breakfast in downtown Boulder City, which, as one of two cities in the state that bans gambling, is a kind of Nevada Mayberry. At a postcard-worthy diner called the Coffee Cup, we wolf down an omelet with green chile, avocado and cheddar (me) and hash browns smothered in pork chile verde (Neil) before driving back to Vegas to reunite with a group of friends who have also moved away. We’re renting a house together in the McNeil Estates neighborhood, a cool community of swanky ranch-style homes with midcentury modern trappings about a mile and a half west of Las Vegas Boulevard.
While musing over some Vegas vagaries — “You can still smoke indoors?”; “Oxygen bars are still a thing?”; “Glen Lerner (a personal-injury attorney with billboards everywhere) hasn’t aged?”— we admire some of the developments downtown. Fremont East, a strip of bars and restaurants just past a cluster of old-school casinos and the touristy Fremont Street Experience light show, has picked up momentum and density since we’ve all left. Once associated with seedy hotels and a Wild West, anything-goes ambiance — I met with a self-described hit man in a hotel here in the early 2000s for a story — there’s now a walkable district that includes the Downtown Container Park outdoor mall made of the stacked steel shipping boxes, as well as funky sculptures and a fabulous little book shop, the Writer’s Block. We happen upon “Market in the Alley,” which is a far cry from the unsanctioned dealings that once took place in surrounding passageways. People are buying crafts from vendors and sipping expensive cups of pour-over coffee. We run into an old friend and ask if there’s anything else we should check out farther east. “Nooo,” he warns, and gestures to a nearby business. “You don’t want to go past murder mart.” We nod. Change comes in increments.
My happy place lies deep in the Mojave Desert, about 90 minutes west of Vegas, in the tiny, hardscrabble town of Tecopa, Calif. The latest census data puts its population at about 150, but locals will tell you it’s probably much lower. Some people come here for the hot springs. (There are a number of them.) Others come for the date milkshakes, served in a shop at a working date farm called China Ranch. I come for the profound quiet and the tepees at Cynthia’s.
Twenty-some years ago, Cynthia Kienitz started visiting Tecopa. The more time she spent in the desert, the more she felt shaped by it, much the way the sun bakes the loping mud hills here just outside of Death Valley and the Amargosa River carves a tumbling waterfall near the date farm. Kienitz, an interior designer, likes to say she got tired of the rat race and traded it all in to become a desert rat. She opened a small bed-and-breakfast in a home on the date farm, but then decided she wanted her guests to be immersed in the desert. So she set up three enormous tepees — each sleeps four in comfy beds — that look out on the date palm trees and surrounding bald hills. And then she added a half-dozen guest rooms in repurposed, well-appointed trailers so more visitors could live like locals. (Trailers are de rigueur out in these parts.)
I’ve stayed in both, finding solace in the stark landscape and the bejeweled night sky. Cellphones don’t work out here, and locals wear headlamps at night. It all adds to the charm.
During the day, Neil and I hike along a sandy path near China Ranch, past a couple of abandoned cars turned brown and crisp by the overbearing sun, toward earthy mounds that look like sleeping giants. Later, Kienitz, whom I’ve gotten to know over the years, takes us out on ATVs to tour an old mine and rudimentary cemetery, where the grave markers are simple crosses fashioned with two sticks. She briefs us on the history of the area, explaining that it was an active mining community from the 1870s to the 1950s.
At night, we head to Steaks and Beer, a tiny restaurant with two indoor tables and four bar seats, all of which are full. It’s too cold to take advantage of the outdoor tables. We walk a few yards away to wait at Death Valley Brewing, one of two breweries in town (“Probably the most per capita anywhere,” the man who pours our beer tells us), and over a red nitro and a coffee porter, we gaze at a man at the bar who’s toting a white bucket of homegrown persimmons, cutting slices with a large knife and handing them to anyone within arm’s length.
When seats open up at the restaurant, it’s clear why the place does a bang-up business: The $36 filet mignon, served with vegetables and mashed potatoes, is perfectly seasoned and finished with a combination of red wine butter and reduced balsamic vinegar. It’s as good as any I’ve had in a Chicago steakhouse.
Stuffed, we use a flashlight to find our way back to our tepee for the night.
Temperatures are in the high 30s, and we’re grateful for heated mattress pads. Only our noses get chilly, and we sleep soundly until the coyotes rise with the sun, their high-pitched howls sounding more human than canine.
We take one more desert detour, winding a couple of hours north of Tecopa through the sun-baked Death Valley National Park to the Goldwell Open Air Museum, where artists — mostly from Europe — have created sculptures against the barren backdrop. There’s a bronze miner standing next to a penguin, and eerily cloaked figures called “The Last Supper.” A short drive beyond are the crumbling buildings of Rhyolite, the remaining ghost of a Gold Rush boomtown. At its peak, there were about 50 saloons, 19 lodges, 16 restaurants, a newspaper, bathhouse and more. You can still see Tom Kelly’s Bottle House — a well-preserved structure made of about 50,000 beer bottles.
By the time we return to Vegas and fly out of McCarran International Airport, both of us energized by the fresh air and sunshine and time with good friends, I think back to the places on my original “to do” list (China Mama for soup dumplings, Peppermill Fireside Lounge for a Blue Hawaiian, Dino’s Lounge for a karaoke rendition of “Leather and Lace”) and realize how many I didn’t check off. A week may sound like a lot of time to someone who hasn’t lived in Las Vegas. But for me, it wasn’t nearly enough.
Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.
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355 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
Frescoes line the ceilings and gondoliers serenade passengers in the neighboring Grand Canal Shoppes at this hotel and casino in a prime location on Las Vegas Boulevard. Rooms from $169 per night.
2001 Old Spanish Trail
Choose to sleep in a tepee on a date farm or in a well-appointed trailer in this tiny desert town about 90 minutes from Vegas. Tepees start at $165 and trailers start at $98.
Lotus of Siam
620 E. Flamingo Rd.
The menu of Northern and Southern Thai offerings is as thick as a book at this off-Strip favorite of locals. Be sure to make a reservation well in advance. Entrees start at around $15.
Steaks and Beer
9 Old Spanish Trail Hwy.
The steaks served here would stand out anywhere — but they’re especially remarkable in this tiny restaurant in a hardscrabble desert outpost. Entrees start at $16.
Historic Railroad Trail
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Boulder City, Nev.
Pass through five dark tunnels on this easy out-and-back hike along a former rail trail that was used to transport materials to Hoover Dam from the 1930s through the early 1960s. You can turn around at the fifth tunnel (2.2 miles) or continue on to the Hoover Dam parking garage (3.7 miles). Free.
Goldwell Open Air Museum
1 Golden St.
Towering art in the middle of the desert, bordering a dilapidated ghost town? Why not! The bizarre sculpture park, founded by Belgian artists, is on the outskirts of Death Valley, 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas. A tiny, on-site visitors center provides a good history on Rhyolite, the ghost town of Nye County. Free.