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The road to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon - Sikamikanico in America, Part II

If you want to get up close and personal when seeing a country, there’s no better way to travel than long distance bus. Planes just whisk you from city to city, tedious trips between the airport and the city itself notwithstanding. Trains are often hailed for their ability to provide views you can’t get by air, but often trains go through culverts and tunnels. You want to know the real place, get a bus. Interstate Buses in America are often maligned as dirty and dangerous, but I’ve never had any problems; although I’ve only travelled heavily touristed routes, and your mileage may vary if you’re getting the bus from Earwax Gulch, Iowa to Excess Covid Deaths, Tennessee. You mileage will literally vary if you’re stabbed to death on the way. which would reduce the number of miles you travel considerably.  


California roadside stops really go in for the ye olde world feel. On my last trip to the state, we’d stopped in Kettleman on the journey along the Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco; it leaned into the farm motif with Bravoland, which featured including wood clad buildings, unused farm machinery, and hay There’s also a petting zoo, seven storey tree house, and other delights which alas we did not have time to sample. Meanwhile Barstow, where we stopped on our way from LA to Vegas, instead leaned into its Route 66, Wild West heritage, which manifested in peculiar ways, like the McDonalds which had painted a row of disused passenger rail cars in their company colours of red and yellow. I could see why Hunter S. Thompson had lost his mind in this place, although that may also have something to do with the enormous quantities of mescaline, LSD, cocaine and whatever other chemical delights he had in his system. Fear and Loathing? I would just be buzzed and happy. As it was all I had was a few gummies left over in Los Angeles, and they were hidden deep in my luggage as I wasn’t too sure on the legality of taking the stuff across state lines. 

 


 


You know Las Vegas. You’ve seen it on TV, on everything from sitcoms who set a couple of episodes in the city in conjunction with the local tourism board, to Season 3, Episode 5 of Engineering Failures: Las Vegas. Or you think you know Las Vegas. But then you see it, and you’re not sure you can take it all in, or even try, or just flee several hundred kilometres away. Las Vegas is about 8000% of too much. It's like you've seen it all in pics, but there's so much, and so everywhere, and so huge and loud. There’s apocryphal stories about colonisers coming across native populations for the first time and the natives being so stunned, so in awe, by the wonders of modern Western civilisation that they wet themselves. I’d dismissed these stories as racist colonialist nonsense until tonight, seeing Las Vegas out the window of the taxi. The scale of the place was so gargantuan, so monstrous, that I understood the urge to wet oneself in awe.  Las Vegas isn’t real, we know that, of course. Las Vegas is so unreal that the Strip itself isn’t actually in Las Vegas at all, but the town of Paradise (why town developers didn’t go with the name of “Paradise” for a tourist attraction I don’t know). 


It was  even worse walking down the Strip. I do like cities at night, but this isn't a city. It's the structural equivalent of being in a disco with hundreds of six year olds who all happen to be 1.7 meters tall, except six year olds are more sensible and better behaved. Las Vegas has the trick of seeming to be walkable but it actually isn’t. The Strip is 6km long and 100 metres wide, although everything is next to each other and accessible from the street – a rarity in America, but the better to attract punters too drunk to drive and liable to make impulse decisions. Each casino though takes up several hundred metres of street frontage, so you can walk for kilometres and only pass a few of them. 


Also, there are no pedestrian crossings. Whether to improve the flow of traffic or just keep those drunken punters out of the traffic, at intersections, instead of pedestrians crossing at ground level, they've built four bridges to cross over the road, which would be a good idea, except that the bridges aren't connected to each other by pedestrian overpasses, so you have to go up and down escalators every time you want to cross. And as well as the crowds of drunken punters, just walking down the street means navigating the touts, the people dressed in showgirl and Elmo costumes asking to take photos with you, people flogging beer, helicopter tours, strip clubs – I didn’t want any of these things, just to get to my hotel without a complete nervous breakdown.


Down near the end of the Strip is the Mandalay Bay, which I was surprised had not been demolished, or at least rebranded, given its unfortunate history. I had hoped there would be some sort of monument to the 60 people who were blasted to their deaths by some insignificant slug for reasons we’ll never know, but I couldn’t see one. I know larger memorials usually don’t take place until some time after a mass shooting, when the initial shock has worn off and the communities involved have taken time to reflect on how they want to remember their lost, but there wasn’t a plaque either. 

 


 


I stayed at Circus Circus, one of the first, and now older and less well equipped, casinos. Look how the mighty have fallen – into my price range. Entering I realised to my dismay that instead of there being a hotel lobby near the street I had to walk all the way through the gaming floor to check in. The hotel was at the back of the property and the casino floor had to be traversed every time I wanted to get to the street, or back to my room. I’m from NSW, the world capital of poker machines, but I hate the damn things. I never gamble. Nevada gaming laws had two things that were a shock to my eyes; there were both children and people smoking on the gaming floor. Despite the lavish quantities of poker machines in every part of NSW, we hide them behind walls and screens so kids can’t see them, possibly to increase the sense of adult glamour that will have kids clamouring to play Queen of the Nile as soon as they turn 18. And because Circus Circus has an on site water and amusement park, there were lots of kids about (I’d have been pretty ticked off if I’d booked a family holiday only to discover I needed to herd my kids through the gauntlet of smoking gamblers to get in and out of the hotel). It was a shame to see that even with the glittering sites of Las Vegas on offer, people were still sitting at the gaming machines staring at their phones instead of enjoying the moment. 


The one thing Circus Circus didn’t have was a buffet. One of the things I’d been most looking forward to about Las Vegas (okay, I admit it, the only thing I was looking forward to) were the famous casino buffets. I’d read somewhere that some buffets were as cheap as $1, although I probably read it in 1993 in a book published in 1984. Even accounting for inflation, those days were gone. Many casino buffets remained closed after the Covid shutdowns, despite that venues were keen to offer many other ways to share the respiratory output of your fellow patrons. The buffet at Circus Circus was only open 3 days a week, none of which were the days I was there. The buffets that were open tended to the pricey side; $70-90USD was common. My dreams of gorging myself on plates of goo I’d laden too quickly to even notice what I was eating evaporated in the desert air. Everything in Las Vegas is pricey these days, the place seems to be aiming for a more elegant vibe, if not clientele, when they days of a playground for working Americans, and there were no supermarkets of the kind I availed myself of elsewhere to purchase such consumables as pre packaged salads and yoghurt; thus it was that I spent much of my time in Las Vegas hungry. 

Also, there was no hot L which was disappointing


The next morning I was up at 6am, shivering in the cold waiting for the bus to the Grand Canyon, and without even the comfort of a cup of coffee as the Krispy Kreme in the hotel wasn’t open yet. I really hoped this bloody hole in the ground was worth it. The women seated behind me on the bus were English, and clearly devoted to disproving the myth of the whinging Pom. They liked everything. They thought the fake concrete Excalibur was a beautiful castle, even though this was only a few weeks after the death of Queen Elizabeth, when presumably they'd seen many real and beautiful castles on the TV coverage of her demise. Lunch at the restaurant - a sandwich or personal pan pizza - was wonderful. I missed their initial impressions of the canyon itself – we were free to wander around on our own rather than herded around in a group - but they couldn't stop raving later. Even the pre-recorded commentary played in the bus – clearly meant for individuals driving themselves as they included driving directions - with its cheesy stories and unnecessary volume – they found enlightening. Their awe was so genuine and they never once spoke in favour of Brexit it was hard to hate them but in the name of Anglo-Irish relations I managed anyway  


Even the most cynical of my friends who are well aware of my morning turns assured me that it was worth getting my lazy arse out of bed to see the Grand Canyon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard a word against it, not in all the many accounts of its awe inspiring majesty, its breath taking beauty.


So I’m sorry to have to report – I didn’t like it. “What?! How could you not like the Grand Canyon? What the hell is wrong with you? What will it take to impress you?!” I’m sorry, even as I was gazing out at it on a crisp, clear day, with a perfect view, it was leaving me numb and I knew why. The Grand Canyon reminded me of an open cut coal mine.

 


 


When you take the train between Singleton and Muswellbrook in the Upper Hunter (the longest stretch between stations on the NSW train network, for those of you playing at home), you pass massive scars on the landscape that go far as the eye can see, grey, rather than shades of brown red and gold. There's nothing awe inspiring about them, not the work of God or nature but of man raping the earth. The Grand Canyon had prettier colours, but it just evoked the disquieting sense of the Earth being ripped open. 


We had four hours at the place, and I wandered around the shops and galleries and took a few photos. We were warned not to approach any of the native wildlife. I didn’t expect wildlife – for some reason I thought the Grand Canyon was surrounded by red desert, but in fact there was a fairly healthy spread of vegetation, enough to support the Rocky Mountain Elk, which we were particularly advised not to approach, as it was mating season and the males may charge. So when I saw one of the bloody things five metres away from me, I took a quick photo for proof then fulfilled the instruction to not approach the animals by legging it. Honestly, you can’t get away from toxic masculinity anywhere. 

 


 


Speaking of acts of God,  despite its inherent schmaltz, the commentary on our bus was at least based in scientific reality, explaining how the canyon was formed by erosion over hundreds of millions of years and laying down rocks and what have you. I wondered what any creationists in the group would think of this. I soon found out they wouldn't think. As I wandered around site I passed another tour group, and I overheard their tour guide tell them the Grand Canyon shows that the Bible says about Noah, and the great flood is true, and that there are scientific links to prove it. I was immediately impressed. The strange lives of the fundies are a minor obsession of mine, but as my American travels were outside the Bible Belt, I hadn’t expected to encounter fundamentalist Christians in the wild, but here they were, in the world but not of it. You can be a fundamentalist Christian and live in your own world in America and many do. I wanted to hang around and see just what convoluted logic the tour guide would use to explain how the Grand Canyon proved the oral traditions of flood in ancient Mesopotamia which were passed down over centuries, distorted, eventually written down, then someone lost the originals, until the wound up in a translation of a translation of an edit of manuscripts that were never historically accurate in the first place, but I was rather worried the tour guide would ask for a tip, and I was already thoroughly sick of tipping. 


As exciting as all this was, there was still hours to go until our bus returned to Vegas, and I didn’t want to look at the Grand Canyon anymore, I just plonked on a bench and read. People plan and save their whole lives to visit the Grand Canyon. I’m really, really sorry.


I had one last day to kill in Vegas. Although I knew I should leave my shopping until towards the end of the trip so I wouldn’t have to lug gifts I bought across America, Las Vegas was very, very keen to have me buy tourist tat. I saw a t shirt that said “my Aunt got me this t shirt in Las Vegas because she loves me”. I can just imagine the reaction of my nieces if I actually presented one of them with a shirt like this: the Nine year old would be like oh thanks (I don't like the colours) and Miss Eleven would be like uh thanks (if you really loved me you'd know what I really like is money). They’re neither spoiled nor rude, just kids who can recognise a shitty shirt when they see one. 


Alas, I did fall for one scam in Vegas. I wandered into the Hershey’s store, and in a moment of madness forked out $20 for a personalised chocolate bar for my own child, who I missed more than I could say. I then made my way to the Las Vegas main post office, tastefully located in a demountable building, to send it back to Australia, so the chocolate could reach him before I would. I was then informed sending 200 grams of chocolate would cost $USD40. That’s sixty dollarydoos. Americans don’t share the liberal Australian attitude to swearing, so I managed to keep my natural reaction to this turn of events under control, and in a moment caught in the folly of sunk cost fallacy, I reasoned that I’d already spent the money on the personalised chocolate bar which would get melted and broken being hauled around in my luggage on the rest of the trip, so I paid the postage. I hope the USPS executives enjoy the lavish vacations they get to go on, funded by the absurd prices they charge. 


A friend who was an admirer of the city urged me to see something of the real Las Vegas, so I wandered downtown, looking at the various shops and restaurants. The heat was ferocious, and I made my grateful way into the Mob Museum, enjoying the icy cold air conditioning of the United States, unlike in Australia where you go into a mall on a 35 degree day and would swear they’re trying to ration the air con in case it runs out. After the chaos and degeneracy of the Strip, the Mob Museum was a calming place (well they do call it organised crime, after all). I’d gone down something of a rabbit hole reading about the Mob during lockdown, and here were well laid out exhibits on the birth of the Mob, the Mafia’s contribution to the growth of Las Vegas, a restoration of the original courtroom with an immersive re-creation of hearings into organised crime, and lest anyone think all this was glorifying crime, plentiful displays on how the RICO Act and law enforcement left the traditional Mob, by the late 20th Century, “a shadow of its former self”, and I’m sure it is. That’s America for you, no respect for tradition. 

 


 


But my favourite bit of the museum was the exhibit on the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, commemorating the day in 1929 when four gunmen lined up seven members of a rival gang against the wall of a Chicago garage and sprayed them with bullets from Thompson submachine guns (with all the excitement, I hope the gunmen still managed to remember the romance of the day and pick up flowers for their best gals on the way home). Six of the victims were killed instantly; a seventh survived long enough to make it to hospital, where he told police when questioned “no one shot me” before expiring, a reminder to us all that not talking to cops is still good advice. At any rate, the gunmen were never officially identified, though the massacre is generally believed to have taken place on the orders of Al Capone (the subsequent public outcry about over the massacre – you can kill a couple of gangsters at once without attracting much public attention, but seven is really pushing your luck – drove President Hoover to vow to get Capone, and Capone wound up in Alcatraz on tax evasion charges soon after, so you’d have to say that whatever he was aiming for with the slaughter, he missed). The garage where the unfortunate gangsters met their grisly demise was later demolished, and the wall they were shot against recreated in the Mob museum using the original bricks, which was delightfully macabre. 


Knowing my delightful child also likes the macabre, I stopped to check the gift shop on the way out, but there was no LEGO set where you could recreate the wall yourself, at home. I know they’re a family friendly company, but denying adult fans of LEGO and precocious, morbid children the chance to recreate the scene of the brutal deaths of seven people seems like a missed marketing opportunity. Still, the Mob Museum warmed my heart even as it chilled my limbs, and I wish I could have visited Vegas in the days when Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland were performing, the Mob were pulling all the strings, and buffet dinners were $1. 


Sikamikanico in America

Part I - Los Angeles

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