Las Vegas, Nevada is widely known through the universe as a “party town,” where the phrase most identified with it, What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas, became a mantra of visitors and Hollywood films alike. As the city built itself from pit-stop in the desert to gambling mecca to party town, it has grown into a fascinating mix of weekend fantasies and real-life every day locals. The mob had its part in the birth of the town, Bugsy Siegel namely, whose vision of the city lived long after he was murdered. After El Rancho was built, the rise of the Sahara, the Sands, the New Frontier and the Riviera all came long by the mid-1900s, creating the foundation of what today is called The Strip. Interesting fact, many of those establishing hotel-casinos are now gone, razed to the ground to build bigger and better. In the 1950s and 60s, gambling was an obvious draw, specifically slot machines, but also showgirls, fine dinning, and entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley all brought tourists by the millions. Not too much has changed, though the shows and buildings have multiplied and transformed, constantly making way for new experiences. One would have to stay nearly a month to see every quality show now available, a month and a half to include the bad ones, too. Restaurants far exceed the high quality dinning in most big cities, as well as an increase in other activities like ziplining Fremont Street or riding the largest Ferris Wheel in the world. The tourist area (aka The Strip) is certainly entertaining, fun, exciting, and with enough bright lights and glitz and glammer to make you stay, but there is more to this city.
It is still a town that many envision as criminal, devoid of social skills or morality. Assumptions made about the area and its residents or quality of life are made reflecting three nights of no sleep, lots of “free” booze, and questionable activities without ever actually interacting with “what locals do.” When I first moved to Las Vegas, and again when I was moving away, I encouraged these misconceptions, agreeing with people while I visited other states that Vegas tends on the side of despicable, or at the minimum, a lifestyle far from what I would ever want, one devoid of outdoor recreation sans motors, one without purpose, one that wasn’t fulfilling. I wouldn’t admit what my life was actually like, either to them, or to myself. Perhaps it made it easier for me to move, convincing myself that Las Vegas isn’t so awesome after all.
Four years now exactly since I moved from Nevada to Utah, and I now catch myself offended by those who badmouth the desert city. True, I’m deeply happy here in Park City, but not for lack of contentment in Las Vegas. I don’t often speak to naysayers about the beautiful things in that 24-hour town, but instead let them rant, even some times agree with them. When my boyfriend’s kids recently went to Vegas with their mother, they had very few positives to speak of my former town; immediately I sought to right their misconceptions.
I want to tell them, tell all of you, about how gorgeous it is off The Strip, away from the “tourons”, deep into ordinary, regular life. For a period of time I ventured into every single club possible, taking about two years to burn myself out. From there, I spent the rest of my 13 years of residency enjoying trail running and rock climbing and mountain biking out at Red Rock and its surrounding landscapes.
I had become a teacher after living in the town for about a year, (nope, not a stripper or a cocktail waitress, not that either job is a bad choice since both make 5-10 times as much as a teacher) and in fact still am a teacher. My school’s backyard, essentially, was Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, so after work I would take a run on the dusty trails and then just sit, soaking in these unusual rock formations and vibrant colors. Even after years of time there, it never ceases to amaze me.
Now, an avid climber, I think back to my first route ever climbed outdoors, a 5.6 also in Red Rock named “Pancakes and Porn”, attempting my first route in the blistering sun. Honestly, I remember very little about the climb itself aside from the fear and simultaneous excitement, and really only recall hiding under a rock afterwards for any sort of shade. Yet this is one of the world’s centers for climbing, a completely unique rock with unusual climbs.
I passionately miss the hard-pack red clay mountain bike trails out at neighboring Cottonwood Canyon, where I cut my teeth on the feel of a dual-suspension Gary Fisher. But it wasn’t the bike that changed me. It was the fast single-track, the witnessing wild horses hanging out in the shade of the hills, the constant rattlesnake dodging, the horny toads judging me from their shady bushes. Driving to the trailheads we often passed through the tiny town of Blue Diamond, passed Spring Mountain Ranch and its summer outdoor theatre, where audiences lay out blankets on cool grass and watched local thespians under the stars.
Hiking became a serious pass time for me as well, going with my family and my roommate on long walks, hikes, and backpacking trips. I joined the Las Vegas Mountaineers Club to camp with like-minded people, join hikes, backcountry ski, rock climb, even learning self-arresting in snow. Though the general thought of Las Vegas is blistering heat and endless boring desert, the truth is the heat is only unbearable for about four months, with two warmer months, and the rest of the year windy, cold, or perfect.
Though many of my friends did not climb or mountain bike, most did hike. I often filled my weekends with views of the mountains just outside of Las Vegas. And before anyone says, “There are mountains?” Let me share what I did for the last two years of my life there: I was a ski patroller. Nope, didn’t have to fly to another state or drive to Lake Tahoe- a 40 minute drive got me up to Lee Canyon’s Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort, once named Ski Lee before Powdr Corp purchased it.
Once a week in winter, in general, I would spend my time volunteering as a ski patroller, developing another extended family who loved winter and snow sports as much as I did. Often, my few friends who loved to snowboard too would visit me when I worked, or when I was lucky when I wasn’t working, so we could ride together. Only two main lifts, true, but the views were amazing, the air fresh, and the snow fluffy. At least once during my two-year stint did we get so much snow we couldn’t open.
There is so much more here, too, but much of it is very personal. Here is where I became a part of Endless Productions and acted, wrote plays and saw them perform them, danced, belly dance at that. I witnessed my friends get married, have children, buy homes, start businesses. Endless, for me, means the friendships I made that are forever, these amazing personalities that have driven me to be the person I am today. If it weren’t for them, I would only be half of myself. Most of these performers were born and raised in the valley, and also take personal offense if you say Vegas is the center of debauchery. Maybe for some, but these are the folks who hike, backpack, perform, cook meals for their friends, and love me despite the distance. These are the friends who are, many of them, teachers, too; and parents, spouses, environmental activists, gardeners. And then there is my family, almost all involved in education, my nephews both obsessed with soccer and Mine Craft and hiking and water parks.
So now, if I were to hear someone say “How could you live in such a horrible place?” or even my favorite, “What hotel did you live in?” I will try my best to change their opinion. I miss Las Vegas, though my home is now a six hour drive away, and I miss everything that made my world what it was while I was there. Things are different now, I know, but my love for those things that defined Las Vegas for me, will never change. In the end, travel should not be about negative judgements based on a short affair with a city- spend time, learn, experience, and expose yourself to something beyond the glitter and the lights, beyond the tourist traps, and visit the world of the locals, and see through the local lenses.