I’m just back from five nights in Las Vegas. I took my best friend and Sweetheart, Anna, there for her birthday.
Anna loves the Beatles and Cirque du Soleil has a famous ‘Beatles’ tribute show at The Mirage Casino that every Beatles fan must see. The show’s acrobatic special effects, staging and props, all set to Beatles’ music are spectacular and magical, as every Cirque du Soleil production is. It’s Alice-in-Wonderland Beatles style. I do believe the Boys from Liverpool, who took the USA by storm back in the days of the Ed Sullivan Show, would be first in line to enjoy the Vegas show, larger than life, in their honor.
Vegas has a predictable effect on me. It turns me inside out. I mean, Las Vegas IS a ‘mirage’ in the desert, a fantasy world, a make-believe place of glitz and glamour, an illusion in the waterless Nevada desert where millions of dollars conjure a pretend ‘Venice’ with meandering gondola rides in air-conditioned splendor on a flowing canal with gondoliers singing opera under a 40-foot ceiling simulating a Venetian skyline complete with painted on blue sky and thin white clouds overhead.
It’s because Vegas is unreal that people say “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” But it’s precisely the fake facade of Vegas that turns me inside out in search of what is simple, basic, and real. What I found in Vegas this trip won’t ’stay in Vegas’. I came away with something important about myself and travel, about what does and doesn’t feed my soul . . . and I brought it home with me. I discovered the ‘adventure’ I crave has to do with intimacy, not grand scale; what lingers for me is gritty detail of what is personal and real.
My Vegas revelation came on Saturday morning when the van from Bonnie Springs Ranch picked us up at the MGM Grand for our breakfast horseback ride in Red Rock Canyon, 30 minutes east of Las Vegas. Truth is, of course, our trail ride was no more the “wild west” than the Venetian Hotel’s simulation of the canals of Venice. But sitting in a saddle on a real horse named “Tomohawk” riding through actual rugged, majestic Nevada landscape IS a world away from the Las Vegas Strip.
But it wasn’t the “pee” stop on the trail — where our wrangler had us pause with ample space between horses so each could stretch out to answer Nature’s Call — that sticks in my mind as my reality-check; nor was it the wrangler himself, an ex-professional rodeo bull rider and real cowboy. My revelation of what counts as treasure to me came from James, the friendly young man who drove the pickup van, whose quiet personal stories of his mother’s life as a dealer in a Vegas casino were bitter-sweet and unforgettable.
James, a part-time student at UNLV, supports himself and his mother following a crippling stroke which left her unemployable. He and his mother are part of the vast army of ‘little people’ on whose backs the illusion of Vegas is built, whose wages are too meager to afford for themselves the pricey ‘mirage’ they sustain. My most treasured moment from my Vegas trip was the look on James’ face when I slipped him a $50 dollar tip when he deposited us back at the hotel. “This is a pay-it-forward birthday gift from Anna and me to you and your Mom,” I told him.
I may not remember the loop-to-loop roller-coaster ride at New York New York; may not remember the name of our gondolier at The Venetian or the acrobats in Cirque du Soleil; I won’t remember shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of tourists gawking at casino competition for opulent splendor.
But I’ll never forget the close and personal “thanks” on the face of a young man named James who trusted me with his real story of struggle and grace in “Sin City.”
I already know what I’m after on my next vacation. Glitz and extravaganza don’t reach my treasure spot. At home or away, I’m already looking for another ‘James’ whose intimate, personal story feeds my soul.
Joseph Harvill, Scottiephile