Entering Las Vegas, I feel what I imagine a wanderer in the desert, dying of thirst, might feel surmounting a dune to lay eyes upon an oasis. We approached at night, a demand of Spencer’s that only came to make sense to me once we had arrived. The nighttime desert landscape, typically pitch black except for starlight, was suddenly interrupted by a river of glowing, vivid light. It was like a synthetic milky way competing with the actual one for visibility here, in the closest thing you can get to the middle-of-nowhere. Marvelous, colorful, and just a bit ostentatious, the scene was a perfect microcosm for what Las Vegas is really about – spectacle!

Two days away from our last showers and our last respite that didn’t happen in the Jeep’s bucket-seats, we looked “rode hard and put away wet” – in fact that may be an understatement. Parking at the beautiful Bellagio Casino, we hit the strip, the juxtaposition of our own dishevelment to the high-style and glamour of the sights and people around us only served to highlight said Gollum-ness. I’ll admit, I felt under-dressed, out-of-place, and very self-conscious.

Spencer seemed unshaken, perhaps being a millwright and a casual sorta guy, he has grown used to dirt under his fingernails and a blue-collar look that can look noticeably unconventional in a lot of “fancier” places. It was also not his first time in this high-wattage metropolis, whereas I was a Vegas virgin. I needed a drink as immediately as one could be attained. After I had downed two shots of Vodka with a splash of sprite in it and Spencer, his usual local IPA, we were $30+ down but feeling up. We were officially in Vegas-mode.

Vegas is a unique place. Once known simply as a place where gamblers and old film/music stars would go to die, it’s image has had quite the transformation over the past couple of decades. It is now a hugely popular spot for tourism, a center for arts, and the film and music stars that visit here are often much younger – many of them even with performance residencies here. And those aren’t the only celebrities that reside here in Las Vegas, the galleries of every hotel are a veritable lineup for New York Fashion week with fashion stars like Hermes, Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana on the guest list.

There are custom art installations and sculptures that you could literally bump into if you aren’t paying attention while passing through your hotel lobby. The Bellagio Casino, for example, had one of the largest installations of Chihuly Glass I had ever seen, and I have lived in his home city for 8 years. Less than 100 feet is another exhibit – a constant feature at the Bellagio – transports you into a fall-themed fairy tale land, complete with a sleeping fairy that moves her wings. Bonus, the entire thing is made of living flowers. We took in the world-renowned Bellagio fountain show, marveling not only at the aquatic ballet itself perfectly synchronized to Sarah Brightman’s “Time to Say Goodbye”, but also its evocation of four uninterrupted minutes of silence from the crowd. Right off the strip, while heading to another casino, a window display featuring a 6 ft tall lollipop demanded a touring of its home gallery. Inside, was stunning pop art in a variety of media. Unfortunately for us, the sucker was not the edible kind.

Ever dreamed of standing inside a giant, crystal chandalier? Maybe not, it is a specific fantasy, but I’ll bet you do now. And if you make a visit to The Cosmopolitan Casino, you can do just that. Thousands of strands of real crystal drape themselves in perfect symmetry above the roulette and craps tables on the first floor, cascading in graceful curves strung first to circular platforms on the second floor (inside which there are private clubs) and then seeming to extend to the heavens as they continue to the third. Lavender hues emanate from their ambient lights, creating a neon aura around them. While you’re at The Cosmo’ be sure to wander around; of all the bigger casinos, they have the quirkiest collection of curated items – maybe you’ll find a vintage pez collection or a steampunk-inspired bronze sculpture.
At or near the top of my Las Vegas must-see’s was the iconic Caesar’s Palace Hotel and Casino. My fondness for Greco-Roman architecture and also for films like Showgirls, made me “wanna hear Caesar sing.” We didn’t get to hear Caesar sing, and assuming he was out for the evening, we made ourselves at-home in his palace. I was expecting… Well, frankly, I was expecting something tacky and noticeably fake. Obviously, the statues of David and Venus de Milo aren’t the originals, but neither are they obvious as replications. The statuary, architecture, mosaic-work and murals are all expertly done. Collectively, the artistic elements of the palace persuaded me to suspend my doubts and fall into their beautiful illusion. The domed ceiling of the ‘Temple Pool’ room became that of the Pantheon. Cleopatra’s barge had lifted from the Nile and somehow placed inside the casino, as had the Spanish Steps and the Colosseum. In regards to the decision to remove the possessive apostrophe from the hotel’s title, Jay Sarno (the casino’s founder) said he didn’t want it to be a palace just for one Caesar but one where we can all be Caesars.
We have left Las Vegas, that glittering mirage, back in the desert. It’s easy in retrospect to wonder if any of it was real, after all, if there’s one thing the city might be known for more than spectacle, its illusion. Hundreds of thousands come each year to be bedazzled and bewitched by the circus of wonders that is Vegas and perhaps “what happens in Vegas” doesn’t stay there because of the secrets its visitors want to keep, but, like one of its famed magicians, its because of the secrets of Las Vegas that it would rather not reveal.