S2:E7 – Covid and Loathing in Las Vegas

We can’t live like every day is a vacation – we’d probably die (and we’d definitely blow through our savings). So most of our days on the road are like real life, with a vacation thrown in here and there. Back in more optimistic times, we had planned to spend my 40th birthday in Vegas. But then things went weird again. What’s it like in Las Vegas right now? We’ll tell you what we saw.

Link to the wave speech.

This episode was written, recorded, edited, and produced by Lisa McNamara, with additional recording and editing by Paul Olson. Music by jplenio from  Pixabay.

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Photos from this episode: visit our blog, Driving Inertia

Transcript:

This is Road Tripping in America, a podcast about life on the road. I’m Lisa and this is Paul.

We’re exploring the US in a pickup truck with a camper – we named our setup The Bobs.

If you daydream about long-term travel or overlanding or #vanlife – or maybe you’re already on your own adventure – join us for some entertainment from the road. We’re in search of off-the-beaten-path adventures and new experiences after a year and a half of standing still.

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Today: We can’t live like every day is a vacation – we’d probably die (and we’d definitely blow through our savings). So most of our days on the road are like real life, with a vacation thrown in here and there. Back in more optimistic times, we had planned to spend my 40th birthday in Vegas. But then things went weird again. What’s it like in Las Vegas right now? We’ll tell you what we saw.

This is series two, episode seven: Covid and loathing in Las Vegas.

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The first time I went to Las Vegas I was 20 and determined to hate it. Paul and I had just started dating and I had been really excited to spend the summer exploring the Finger Lakes region with him – then he and his college roommate applied for a UNLV internship on a whim and they found out that they both got a spot at the last minute. It was the summer between our junior and senior years. One day we were making plans to hike the gorges together; the next day I was dropping Paul off at the Ithaca Greyhound station, furious.

Back then, I thought Vegas was just a gross, dirty place, a stationary cruise ship of sorts, a place for people who didn’t have enough of an imagination to go anywhere else. Which is all true in a way, but it’s also a lot more. It is also: endless buildings to explore, great food of all types and fanciness levels, entertaining spectacle, fantastic people watching. During that first visit twenty years ago, I realized I really liked Paul and I also kinda liked Vegas, too.

Since my first trip to visit Paul, we’ve returned many times – there are now memories of fun visits with friends, of conferences, of amazing meals, of launching multiple Death Valley trips from Vegas and then running back to it to shelter from high winds, dust storms, rain, and heat, often at the cheapest hotel just off the strip, the late Hooters Casino Hotel. I’m not really into gambling but there were those two times we won $100 on a $1 bill at the same penny slot machine at the late Monte Carlo. Over the years, Vegas became a special place for us.

So that’s why, back in the optimistic post-vaccination days of May 2021, we decided to celebrate my middle age milestone birthday in Vegas. Of course things were going to be a hundred percent back to normal by September, right? Haha.

I want to say right up front that the only reason we went through with this trip is that Nevada has taken a firm stance on covid prevention precautions. Back at the end of July, Nevada’s governor implemented a universal indoor mask mandate with fines on businesses whose customers and employees don’t comply. They were one of the first states to reimpose restrictions for everyone, not just the unvaccinated. And since then, Nevada’s covid rates haven’t spiked like in other states across the country. And air handling in casinos is famously good, a byproduct of building giant spaces and allowing indoor smoking. So that’s why we decided to go for it, despite a few reservations.

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We had two backpacks of clothing, two bags of toiletries, a bag for laundry, a duffel with shoes and sandals and sneakers, two bags of tech equipment, potato chips to snack on, granola bars for breakfast, packets of tea, the rest of our fridge contents so our pal Dometic could also have a vacation, and masks – cloth ones for the trip in, disposables ones for later, and a handful of KN95s in case things got serious. We agreed that we’d need to pick up a box of wine if we were going to make it through the visit and some sparkling wine to celebrate too. We weren’t going to use all this stuff, but when you know you have a long walk to the hotel room, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

I had originally planned to create an audio tour of Vegas for you, but I realized the second we stepped into our hotel on the strip that, despite all the interesting things happening around me, the main, dominant, and overwhelming sound of Vegas is piped-in music. Copyrighted music. At all times of the day and night, some sort of music is blasting – you can’t hear other people’s conversations, you can’t hear the din of a restaurant. You can occasionally hear a blooping and bleeping slot machine, but only if you’re right next to it. You can only clearly hear Shania Twain, or Sheryl Crow, or U2, or any other musician you’ve already heard a hundred times on mainstream radio in the last forty or fifty years, or a few of them at the same time, conflictingly overlapping. So an audio tour wasn’t going to work.

And I was too overwhelmed at first anyway. After months of vigorously avoiding crowds, after spending the previous few nights in a place where we only saw one or two cars drive by each day, here we were in a whole horde of strangers. The crowds that once felt invigorating now felt exhausting and intimidating. It felt foreign – like returning to a place I used to live and finding that everything had changed. Or that nothing had changed, other than me.

Before stepping in to the musical lobby, we spent a half hour circling the block, trying to find the oversized vehicle parking lot where the Bobs would hang out for a few days, then hiked through the 106 degree heat, laden with backpacks, into Bally’s, through Bally’s, and finally to the hotel room elevator at the Paris, where we limped into our room and threw down our bags and took a deep breath. Across the street, the Bellagio’s fountains sounded like a thunderstorm that passed through every fifteen minutes. Down below, people were tiny specks floating in the pool and lounging on socially distanced pool chairs and strolling on the sidewalks. Cars streamed by on Las Vegas boulevard and helicopters cruised the strip in the sky. After we collected ourselves, we masked up again and plunged in.

How things felt both the same and different – after the break.

(Bellagio fountain)

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Welcome back – so here’s how things felt both the same and different.

The buildings are still endless. I love a massive building and all the opportunities it provides for indoor exploration. And in Las Vegas, there’s a whole strip of massive buildings. The casino floors and malls and other street level spaces are interesting, but if you really want to see the strange stuff, you have to find the basement. The basement levels of casinos are where the odd things can be found, the things that aren’t all glammed up for public consumption, the cheapest food options if you’re just looking for a quick meal. I love the basements – they’re still there and they’re still full of interesting things.

One of my other favorite built features, both indoors and out, are the places the designers have created for the imagination to go – the little nooks and crannies that draw you in. Things like the dark spots under the fake bridges at the Bellagio fountain or Treasure Island, the windows in the false street fronts inside the Paris or the Venetian. The fake skyline of the New York, New York, the turrets of Excalibur. The spaces that could trick you into thinking that it’s real, it’s not just a facade. They’re still there, of course.

The food is still amazing. The ability to pretend-travel the world in a single city is still there. I used to think – even after admitting that I was a Vegas fan – that it was still slightly ridiculous for a place to try so hard to be somewhere – everywhere – else. Now, in this time of difficult travel, deferred and canceled trips, it makes more sense and it feels a little more endearing. So you can’t go to Italy, but you can go to the Bellagio or the Palazzo or the Venetian and squint your eyes and pretend that you’re in St. Mark’s Square. You can go to Eataly and trick yourself into thinking you’re eating pasta prepared by an Italian grandma. You can ride up to the top of the ½ scale Eiffel Tower replica and mentally superimpose the Parisian landscape over the desert surroundings.

You can go to Cesar’s Palace and check out replicas of the sculptures and ruins you’d have to travel across Greece to see – here you can see them all in one giant city block. You used to be able to go to Monte Carlo too, but apparently not enough people knew where that was to drive enough demand and so now the Monte Carlo has become the Park MGM. Wherever that is. Also – Egypt, how could we leave Egypt off the list! You can go to Egypt at the Luxor, and while you’re there you can visit the new Bud Light Beer Garden, whose advertising you can’t miss if you have a strip-facing window seat while landing or taking off from the Vegas airport. You can visit fantasy places too – castles and lands filled with flamingos and pirates and white people’s ideas of what Polynesian islands were like. You can travel back in time on the old strip at Fremont Street. To see what Hunter S. Thompson’s 60s Vegas was like – you need to squint a lot. But you can still see it – the essence will always be there, even if things are a little more sanitized on the surface.

Vegas is still an efficient vacation spot – you can eat food from famous Chicago and New York and LA restaurants, all in the same day. Because visitors and workers come from all over the world, you can find pretty authentic versions of just about any cuisine with as many or as few frills as you want. Paul’s still talking about his favorite meal this trip – ramen with fried chicken. Somehow the chicken was still crispy even when soaked in ramen broth, all the way to the last bite.

The lights are still bright. The strip is the only nighttime designated scenic byway in the country, but you couldn’t pay me to drive on it longer than absolutely necessary. The sidewalks still funnel you into casinos and the wayfinding signs still grudgingly lead you back out again. People still dislike the monorail for some reason.

There’s still a Louis Vuitton store every twenty feet. A musical artist you forgot about (currently Pitbull) is still playing at the Planet Hollywood. The escort guys are still handing out their dirty cards on the street corners – though not as many as before. The scantily clad dancers are still strutting up and down the strip in their thongs and white go-go boots, promoting their shows and posing for pictures with tourists. The Grand Canyon helicopter tour salespeople still stand in their misty booths. Gordon Ramsey is still on signs up and down the strip, tightly buttoned into the same white chef’s coat, with new (old) restaurants seemingly everywhere.

Things seem more expensive now. Happy hour deals are impossible to find, and those that do exist aren’t that great. The affordable stores seem to have been replaced by splurgy stores. The penny machines are still there, but they default to bigger outlays if you’re not paying attention – you have to go against the default to bid a penny at a time, the way I like to gamble. There are fees for everything at the hotels – steeper and more numerous than resort fees used to feel. Is everyone trying to make up their covid losses, or were the good deals we found years ago still a lingering byproduct of the great recession? Probably a little of both, but it’s harder to pull off a thrifty vacation than it was before.

And of course, the people are still there, now with masks. It’s hard to estimate as a casual observer but it felt like maybe half as many people as a typical pre-pandemic visit. And they have a noticeably weirder edge. I was taking a pic of the garbage in the Treasure Island fountain one day, a real interesting mix of paper trash, a hot pink purse, masks, and what looked like a pair of underwear, when a guy swam by in the fountain below, said hi, and I said hi back, like it was the most normal thing in the world. There have always been homeless people on the strip, but now they were bathing in the fountains at Caesar’s Palace too, with an old couple peeping around the corner, watching in disbelief and fascination.

There was even a conference going on – midweek, we started to see business casual folks with lanyard nametags revealing that the Society for Human Resource Management had decided to take the plunge and host their annual conference and expo in town this year.

There was an anti-vaxxer march that Tuesday too – a couple hundred people marching up and down the strip a few times with signs and flags, while I sat and sipped a margarita and watched them. Our margarita server told us they were protesting the county school district’s recently announced vaccine mandate for employees. Her brother was a police officer and he had been called in on his day off to patrol the march. She was praying that things wouldn’t get violent.

There were guards posted at every entrance to every casino, enforcing the mask rules, getting in shouting matches with the few people who refused to comply. Because there’s always a few people who have a drink in their hands 24/7 so they won’t have to wear a mask – or would they be doing that anyway? There’s always someone determined to be the contrarian.

There were armed guards in parking lots. You know there are armed guards behind the scenes, but there was also a visible presence this time. Is this a response to the horrible mass shooting a few years ago? I didn’t notice them before.

The people watching is still great, but the people seemed subdued. Was it the masks, or was it the heat? Did we not see bachelor and bachelorette parties because it was mid-week, or because we didn’t go to the clubs?

Through all the weirdness though, everyone working in Vegas was still amazing. We have a massive appreciation for them that I hope showed through the masks.

It took me a long time to learn not to pre-judge a place – that Vegas isn’t just a sketchy dive, that LA isn’t just a giant smoggy suburb, that Cancun isn’t just a puking frat bro party place. I still like Las Vegas. But ultimately, I couldn’t really let go and enjoy it this time, because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t be there.

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson’s wave speech (there’s a link to it in the episode notes if you aren’t familiar) reflected on his disillusionment with the post-early-60s counterculture movement, and how a sense of disappointment in the lack of massive, societal change that resulted could almost be seen from Vegas in the late 60s/early 70s.

I wonder if I’m feeling something similar now, but for the post-Great Recession capitalist boom. Did it all feel so empty this time because, post-pandemic, I value things differently? That consumption for consumption’s sake isn’t fun anymore, even on a vacation? That it’s hard to say what we are really celebrating?

Or was it just too soon?

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There was a time we considered living in Las Vegas, of making it our home base. Nevada has a lot of things going for it – no state income tax, cheap flights in and out of Vegas, proximity to my favorite natural place: Death Valley, great food, lots of opportunities for adventure. Whenever we’re in the area for a longer period of time, we have tended to use it as a home base, flying to New York, LA, Chicago and it works really well. We put our bikes in storage there this time, rather than have them bake in the sun for another four weeks (road life has been really tough on our bikes). Vegas works really well for transients like us because it’s full of us.

Nevada as a whole is such an underrated state though. If you like deserts and mountains and desert mountains, there are endless places to explore and usually no one else exploring them with you. About 80% of the state is public land – and while it’s not the most developed land in terms of official trails and trailheads, that means that you can make anything into a trail. You can pick a canyon that looks interesting and walk down it and see if it is interesting. You can pick out a mountain, plan a route, and try to make the summit. There are undeveloped and wild hot springs everywhere. Wild horses and burros, rock art and rare plants.

One of the musicians I like, I can’t remember who, but they were talking about riding in a tour bus across Nevada and having it be all basin and range and repeat and how that started to feel almost horrific, but I’ve always found it soothing, like it can lull you into a meditative state. If one mountain range doesn’t suit your fancy, you can just try the next, or the next. There’s so much to explore and discover.

An hour from Vegas, the night sky is so dark. Catch it on a new moon night and you won’t want to go to bed. One of our camping spots had a huge rock with a 45 degree face that was perfect for stargazing. After the sun went down, the rock still radiated warmth for hours. One night we were watching shooting stars and the milky way rotate around us; the next night we were in Vegas and we couldn’t even see the brightest star. But drive an hour out into the desert and you’re right back at the best show. So many people say looking at the stars makes them feel small, but it makes me feel huge. When you are lucky enough to be in a dark place, with no moon, no clouds, no smoky haze and you see the night sky in its full glory – that’s when I really feel how lucky I am to be alive.

When we weren’t luxuriating on the strip, we were camping. And we found a lot of great camping around Las Vegas. Here are some of our favorite spots.

Paul: Our favorite place to get a shower and a hike at the same time was the Atlatl Campground at the Valley of Fire State Park. It was surrounded by beautiful red rocks, a lot of hikes, cool petroglyphs at the Atlatl Rock. The coolest petroglyphs were around the back, so go up the staircase to look at the ones that everybody looks at, and then follow the footprints around to look at the rest.

Paul: They had hot showers that were included in the price. The showers over by the hookup RV area were a little bit nicer, so we used those, but plenty of hot water and nice bathrooms. The downside of the bathrooms is that they leave the lights on at night and that attracts bats because it attracts the bugs. Both Lisa and I got buzzed by bats, which was very startling at first because we did not see it coming! But it was very fitting, because we were, after all, in bat country.

Paul: Valley of Fire State Park is also one of the busiest parks in the area, because it is so spectacular and close to Las Vegas, so it does get crowded. We lucked into a spot at like, 11am. People trickled in throughout the rest of the day hoping to get lucky – some of them did, but I don’t know if that place is ever empty at night. It is very busy.

Paul: Our favorite place to cool off in the summer was the Hilltop Campground in the Mount Charleston area. Mount Charleston is west of Las Vegas, a little bit north, and the campground is at 8-9,000 feet. Mount Charleston itself is something like 11,000 and change, it’s a big mountain. But when you get up that high, it cools way down, and you get great views off into the distance. The campground itself kind of suffered from not having lids on the trash canisters. So it looked like it was just inhabited by the most disrespectful people in the area, just littering everywhere, but once you realized that it was all just blowing out of the trash cans, it made sense. It’s too bad that there’s litter everywhere, but if you can look past that, it’s a great campground for cooler weather. Pit toilets, no other real amenities.

Paul: The area has a couple of fun hikes. We hiked to Cathedral Rock, which was a little strenuous. I think we gained over 1,000 feet in elevation to get to the top of that. There are other hikes in the area. My one wish was for that area to have an old timey saloon to get a beer in because it just seemed like it needed one! But it doesn’t exist. (Lisa laughs maniacally.) In the town there’s a library and a school and that’s it.

Paul: Our favorite place, if you have a few days to spare, you can make it to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and in that area there’s a ton of National Forest land with a ton of dirt roads where you can find all sorts of cool dispersed spots to camp. We were able to camp just in from the rim of the Grand Canyon one day, which was perfect, because the people that were camped along the rim were crazy town. There was a guy hiking around with a guitar and an unleashed dog, singing and, I’m not sure if he was shoeless, but in my mind he was barefoot, serenading the Grand Canyon.

Paul: The next couple days we ended up right along the rim in a more private area on the east side of things, and that was spectacular. We hung up our hammock and were able to stare off into the Grand Canyon and watch the pink glow of the sun going down and the very dramatic sunrise the next morning. There are miles and miles of dirt road. There are all sorts of spots that you can camp in, but there are zero amenities for the most part, unless you go all the way to the resort on the North Rim inside the National Park.

Paul: Our favorite place to camp in the Las Vegas area is within Lake Mead National Recreation Area. To get in, you have to pay an entrance fee or use your annual pass, which we did. Highly recommend that if you’re going to a lot of federal lands because it’s only $80 for the entire year. What’s nice about that though is that there’s a little bit of controlled access. We also did dispersed camping in the Mount Charleston area and that is uncontrolled, is it feels a little bit weird. The Mount Charleston area is close to a prison so there’s a lot of light pollution from that, and then there’s a lot of ‘don’t pick up hitchhikers’ signage to give you a little anxiety. But we liked that area as well, there are a lot of joshua trees so you get to camp among the joshua trees, which are beautiful.

Paul: But the Lake Mead National Recreation Area is just a little bit nicer. Less litter. Less creepiness, and tons of dirt roads to explore and find campsites. Our first night, we drove up a wash, got into some BLM land, and found a cool spot to camp. When it looked like it was going to rain and it might wash the road out from under us, we left that area, found another area further in, where we found an actual designated dispersed camp area to camp for a couple nights. That area was beautiful. For the two nights that we were there, we saw one car go by – and a whole bunch of planes. The area is on a flight path, so there’s a lot of plane activity. If you’re a little bit on the northern side, there’s a lot of helicopter activity because tourists want to go see the Grand Canyon and they want to get there as fast as possible from Las Vegas. So there’s a lunch rush and a dinner rush and it is insane how many helicopters there can be. Also in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, there are developed areas to camp. They’re fine if you prefer that, but there’s nothing spectacular about them. We recommend dispersed, if you’re comfortable with that, because you can really be out by yourself and among the desert mountains.

Paul: Oh…

Lisa: Go ahead.

Paul: One downside of the area was that, when we were biking around, a rattlesnake rattled at us and tried to kill Lisa. We can take that part out.

Lisa: no, it didn’t try to kill me!

Paul: yeah, I know…

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Next time: we do the things we couldn’t do in Death Valley in an under-powered rental car.

Until then, check out our website, roadtrippinginamerica.com for transcripts and photos. If you are enjoying this podcast, please share it with a friend who’s also interested in travel, overlanding, or vanlife.

Thanks for listening!