Road Trip of the Southwest United States, Touring Las Vegas and Cirque du Soleil Mystére

One thing about using an air conditioner — always use the air exchange feature. The air inside the van was beyond musty that morning. It smelled horrible. I woke blinking towards the navigator’s side of the van, expecting to see Dhar sleeping. He wasn’t there. I looked back to the rear bunk. Both Stefan and Rebecca continued to sleep soundly, but our mysterious friend had vanished.

He was outside sitting on the picnic table, waiting for the rest of us to rise. I chatted with him briefly before heading into the shower, and it seemed that Dhar had been getting into trouble. Dhar seemed to be really good at this — trouble always managed to find him no matter where he went. He also ran into a few of the night people … y’know, the kind that should be sent to pasture at the local funny farm? Dhar had not slept that night, and had walked along Boulder Highway for several hours. I was somewhat surprised that he hadn’t attempted to walk to The Strip.

Next thing I knew, Stefan and Rebecca leapt from the Behemoth, ready to face the day. They had gone to sleep no earlier than 04:00, and had only four and a half or so hours of sleep. Nevertheless, carpe diem was the battle cry and I had to ride the tide of enthusiasm with my freshly-waxed surfboard of enthusiasm. The first order of business, a swim in the pool.

Dhar, as usual, wasn’t up for a swim that early. (Actually, he was never up for a swim. I began to wonder if he even really took showers — maybe Dhar dissolved in water.) Rebecca, Stefan, and myself sauntered over to the pool and got ready to take a plunge. But the signs said that the pool wasn’t open until for another half an hour. This little detail didn’t block Stefan or Rebecca, they proudly swung the fence gate open and walked into the pool area.

Now I had a small problem with this. When I was in elementary school, I got in trouble all the time. I wasn’t a bully, I just kept breaking rules all the time. Nothing serious, but the Principal got to know me fairly well after a couple years. Formative years are an important thing to a kid, and in time I learned when to follow the posted signs. I don’t always, but I did that morning. This compliance with societal (and KOA) rules brought the Wrath of Rebecca upon me again, chiding me to “colour outside the lines” and be more out-going. I decided to get wet in a shower instead.

That morning I began to set a plan into motion. One thing Las Vegas had in abundance was hotels … and there were no two alike. Even before the trip had started, I had decided for myself that we had to spend at least one night in a Vegas hotel. The only problem: too many hotels, only one night. So while I was showering, I tried to think of the best place to stay. And came up blank. The best hotel I had ever stayed in before was the Contemporary Resort Hotel in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. That was 1980. 16 years later I was now in the adult’s Disney World, and in need of a hotel of equal splendour.

Stefan and Rebecca returned from the pool not long after I finished bathing, and started for their daily romps through the shower. I proceeded to the AAA TourBook on Nevada and looked through the resort hotels that were around. Caesar’s Palace, the Luxor, the MGM Grand, the Mirage … all of them expensive. Enter second stage of my master plan — I would drive that morning and conspicuously drive into one of them and book a room before anyone knew what hit them. But to insure I wouldn’t be tied to the bumper and dragged home, I would also foot the bill. Hey, if you’ve got inheritance, might as well use it! (I think my grandmother would have approved — she traveled all the time until her eyesight grounded her.)

But first to figure out where to go. I nonchalantly asked Stefan if there was any hotel in Vegas he wanted to stay at, which one would it be. The answer was immediate: Caesar’s Palace. But almost before I could away, out came the dreaded question I was afraid would come: “Why [do you ask]?”

I don’t like lying outright. I’ll tell tall tales, I’ll stretch the truth. But this is the kind of question I don’t like answering dishonestly. So I leveled with him.

“Let’s stay there for a night. It’s right on The Strip. It’s an experience we can’t miss!”

Stefan was immediately excited about the prospect, but his financial side quickly took over. “I dunno … can we afford to?”

To this I was quick to respond, “Can we afford not to?”

(For those of you who don’t recognize this little two-sided banter, try to remember a VISA commercial where a couple pulls up to the gates of this enormous hotel, stare at it in awe, then the guy asks simply: “Can we afford to?” The girl naturally answers: “Can we afford not to?” They change their clothes and in they go. I had similar aspirations.)

I had hoped that the conversation would end there, but they persisted on discussing the matter. This is the problem with personal agendas … no-one else ever knows what the hell you’re up to at any given moment. The expense of the room was a problem for them, particularly Stefan and Rebecca who were already up to their eyeballs in debts for school. I knew this, but I also knew of a way to correct this problem.

“Don’t worry about it.” I said smugly.

“Why not?” Rebecca queried. I had a sneaky suspicion she knew what I was up to. Again, this is a question I don’t like avoiding.

“It’s on me.”

Most of my friends would just look at me oddly and accept it. (Although that comes after a great deal of experience dealing with my odd behaviour.) Stefan and Rebecca know that from time to time I’ll pay for a dinner for my friends. I’m just that kind of person. I wanted to pay for the hotel room because I knew that neither Stefan or Rebecca could afford it, and I wanted to stay in a room for one night. Dhar, of course, knew nothing of my philanthropic tendencies.

A debate ensued where I was supposed to cave in and let the others help out with the bill. (This is a typical response to such an action.) But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my father (and my grandmother), it’s stubbornness. I refused to budge. Even if I gave you a level long enough, you’d still have a tough time moving me. Dhar argued he was more stubborn and eventually would pay me for his share of a room. I looked and couldn’t help but laugh — I’ve heard that claim before, but never has it been substantiated by anyone.

That argument aside, I proceeded to the KOA office to square away more postcards and stamps. I was surprised to find slot machines inside … I then kicked myself for forgetting what city I was in. In a gaming room just off the office floor, I also found an antique Pac-Man video game machine, circa early 1980’s. I hadn’t seen one of those machines in nearly a decade. Alas it wasn’t running, but its use was well documented by the phosphor burns in the screen. When Stefan came in a few minutes later, I made sure he saw it as well.

We unhooked the van and drove it up to the KOA office so I could deposit my postcards. Dhar took the opportunity to empty the wastewater tanks so we didn’t have to haul sludge around with us. Then we started on the second order of the day: breakfast.

For all the ridicule that it gets, the International House of Pancakes has got to be one of the few restaurants on my list that I would willingly go to at a moment’s notice. Especially first thing in the morning (which it was at the time). Fortunately for us, Dhar had found it a few hours earlier during his tour of Boulder Highway.

Las Vegas has one major industry: service. If it weren’t for service, most of Vegas probably wouldn’t exist. As such, every place you go has people so nice, you’d think you were back home in Canada. Our hostess was a grandmother (or so she claimed), and seemed to only have the job to keep her busy. But she was one of those kinds of people who loved what she did. (And if she hated her job, she did an awfully good job of hiding it.)

Huge breakfasts were the order — the table was full of plates, bowls, glasses, decanters, and jugs. Every last scrap of edible material was consumed by someone (usually Stefan), with our lovely hostess continually trying to get me to order a hot fudge sundae to finish it all off. Okay, I’m a chocoholic, I love sugary things, but even I have my limits to what I’ll eat for breakfast. (Stop laughing … I’m serious here! Really!)

Paying for breakfast, we piled back into the Behemoth and tried to figure out how to get downtown. A quick perusal of the map indicated that Flamingo Road or Tropicana Avenue would provide an adequate route to Las Vegas Boulevard, more commonly known as “The Strip”. My carefully thought out plan wasn’t quite working … Stefan ended up driving. (My plans very seldom go as planned.)

Vegas is an interesting place — the casinos seem to be confined to certain areas, all within a block of The Strip. (Mind you, those are big city blocks.) When we reached the corner of Flamingo Road and The Strip, we were surrounded by Bally’s on our left, the Barbary Coast Hotel on our right side, and Caesar’s Palace across the road from Barbary Coast. Stefan had seen all this before, but the collective jaws of Dhar, Rebecca and myself dropped at the sight. It was broad daylight so none of the lights were on, but we could easily see what was in store for us that evening. We couldn’t wait for the sun to set.

We turned north on The Strip and quickly entered the left lane to turn into Caesar’s driveway. The hotel was the largest I had ever seen to that point. It sprawled about, almost a mile long when you included the mall tacked on to the north end of the casino. The grounds were a deep green (from the seemingly hourly watering) with impressive statues and small buildings. A huge textured dome revealed the presence of the Omnimax theatre that had been installed a few years previous. We had a desire to see whatever movie was playing, provided it wasn’t Wings of Courage. Val Kilmer is a great actor, but it was such a waste of movie for the technology.

Following the signs, we turned left into an area meant for taxis and valet parking … neither of which fit our bill. But I was more intent on getting the room squared away as quickly as possible. I hopped out with Rebecca in tow while Stefan and Dhar attempted to make their way through the jam of cars to a safe place to wait for our return. And so I entered one of the most legendary hotel casinos in the world …

Just inside the main door was a rotating four-sided sign advertising several of the hotel’s features among them the Omnimax movie … Wings of Courage. (So much for the movie.) When I turned to face into the hotel, I again felt culture shock. If Boulder Station had been impressive, the floor of Caesar’s Palace was beyond description. (And the sound was so deafening, that sexually-repressed prude would’ve had a heart attack and died.)

It took us a moment to figure out where to go, but we quickly found the check-in desk, conveniently tucked away on one side. I jumped in line, about the 30th person, and waited patiently to check-in. Rebecca started back to the van to tell Dhar and Stefan we would be a while. Then I saw the sign that read: “Check-out 12:00”. It was noon. Check-in was at 15:00. I quickly grabbed Rebecca before she got too far.

The next logical step: use a telephone. The phones weren’t too far away, and I couldn’t help but think of the circularity of having to call the hotel from a hotel phone to book a room at that hotel. The phones were standard pay-phones, but the handsets all had Caesar’s Palace logos engraved into them. A rather elegant, albeit tacky, touch.

The Reservations desk couldn’t help — all the rooms were booked. Unfortunately, I saw this coming. The next step was to find an alternative. I started flipping through the book looking for something that would be just as fun. I ruled Luxor out because it was at the end of The Strip, and I really didn’t feel like walking all that distance. The Mirage and the MGM Grand looked interesting, but then Treasure Island popped out before my eyes. Rebecca had no qualms with the choice, so I dropped another coin and started dialing.

If I thought calling Caesar’s Palace from one of their own phones was circular, the idea of calling one of their competition was absolutely ironic. But fortunate … Treasure Island wasn’t booked, despite a convention they were apparently hosting. I immediately made a reservation for a nice room that the four of us could share.

This booking took a bit of thought. Originally Dhar and I had considered getting a room on our own so we could leave Rebecca and Stefan alone for an evening. But I knew I couldn’t afford two good rooms (there wasn’t such a thing as a mediocre room in these places), so I opted for something large enough that we wouldn’t feel crowded.

Then I remembered Rebecca’s desire for a hot tub. I asked whether any of the rooms had such facilities. A suite called a “Pirate’s Cove” had Jacuzzis, which was close enough to our needs. The cost was substantially higher, but I felt that the price would be worth the experience. I read out my VISA information to the clerk to reserve the room (with little fear of being overheard — the phones were quite near the casino floor), and asked when we could take occupancy. It seemed that all hotels had a 15:00 check-in.

Stefan had managed to find a place to pull in just down from the taxi and valet spaces. After a quick report of the driving skills of the valets, we started back towards The Strip. We wanted to see what it was all about, and since we had about three hours to kill, driving for a while seemed like a good idea.

We passed by the Flamingo Hilton, Imperial Palace, Mirage, Harrah’s, Treasure Island, Sands (the last of the Vegas greats, which closed its doors only two months later), Desert Inn, Frontier, Riviera, and Circus Circus before The Strip more or less ended. Just a ways from the Frontier stood one of the newest additions to The Strip, the Stratosphere. Billed as the tallest free-standing tower in America, it looked suspiciously like the Seattle’s Space Needle. The last time Stefan had been in Las Vegas he had seen the construction sign for it, and he thought it the sign had said tallest in the world.

The Mirage Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada, 25 April 1996

Parts of the structure and its accompanying hotel and casino were still under construction when we stayed in Vegas, but it was very close to completion. So much so we wondered whether or not the hotel was open for business or not. As we passed by, Dhar noticed an odd red ring that seemed to circle the top of the observation level of the tower. Almost at once we realized what it was…

Some idiot put a roller coaster at the top of Las Vegas. On the outside of the tower. It ran along the edge of the observation level in a nice circle, perhaps twice (at its height we couldn’t get a clear view). The idea was simultaneously unthinkable and exciting. I immediately wanted to know if it was ready for use. Although we never officially found out for certain, not once did we see a coaster train in operation. I had to wonder how many guarantees the local Government was given to allow such a thing to be built.

(And on that note, I found out about a year later that the roller coaster is only half the fun up there. In addition to swinging out over Vegas streets 1000 feet below, there is also another ride which catapults you up another 200 feet or so into the air. I don’t know what raving lunatic came up with those ideas, but the mere thought of dangling 1,200 feet above the ground doesn’t exactly appeal to me.)

Once the interesting part of Las Vegas Boulevard had ended, we entered into the seedier part of area, with motels bearing signs such as: “Elvis Slept Here” and “Recommended By Owner” (if those aren’t the best reviews you’ve ever heard … go somewhere else). One of the few establishments that was of any interest was the Graceland Chapel, one of the marriage institutions that will marry you to your loved one for a mere $25. An added bonus at the Graceland Chapel was to receive the service from an Elvis impersonator. But State law said that you had to be married first, and could only renew vows with said impersonator. Alas, no fun for poor little Geoff.

We continued along Las Vegas Boulevard until we reached the Fremont Street area. Fremont is where one can find “Las Vegas Classic” — what’s left of the original casinos. A couple years ago the city council (mostly likely under some pressure from casinos and businesses on Fremont Street) turned a few blocks of Fremont Street into a pedestrian mall. To make the area more interesting, the road was also covered with a roof. But this was no ordinary roof.

I had first heard about it on CNN, probably on the Science and Technology Week program. The roof extended over a two to three block distance. This in itself was nothing unusual, I’d heard of such structures in other places. But this is Las Vegas, not some boring metropolis. The underside of the roof was covered with six million coloured lights, in effect creating a gigantic video wall. Every hour the roof comes alive with a light show the likes of which I had never seen … and unfortunately still haven’t. From the Behemoth, I got my only good look at it. I had hoped to see it later that evening, in operation, but we never traveled further north than Treasure Island.

We rounded the next corner and turned onto Main Street to head south. (In this area of Vegas there seemed to be several one-way roads.) Las Vegas Boulevard just a bit past Circus Circus became one-way northbound at the intersection of Main Street, Las Vegas Boulevard, and Paradise Road (Main Street became Paradise Road).

On the way back, we decided to kill more time by finding out what Caesar’s Palace was like. Since we weren’t staying there, a browse through the establishment seemed like a good idea. We arrived at Caesar’s a few minutes later and entered the same driveway we entered about a half hour earlier. But this time we turned right at the fork in the road and went around the Omnimax dome towards the rear parking lot. Stefan grumbled about not being able to see a good Omnimax movie, I looked in surprise at the valet parking for the eager shoppers of the Forum Shops. (I mean, when is it too much? Valet parking to use the bathroom?)

For such a large and popular enterprise, Caesar’s Palace had an awfully small parking lot. But fortunately not everyone drives, so we managed to find a parking spot without too much effort. We had to crack the roof vent, turn the fan on, and draw all the curtains to keep the van from getting too warm. Outside the temperature was probably in excess of 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), but to be totally honest, we really didn’t notice.

In southern Ontario we border on Lake Ontario. Its 19,011 square kilometres have this unusual effect of keeping temperatures within about two to three kilometres of the lake relatively smooth — no hideous spikes or dips. Unfortunately, its 19,011 square kilometres also provide a great deal of humidity. The “dog-days” of summer have particular meaning there, especially the days when the humidity hits 100% without the hope of rain. Even a normally comfortable 26 degrees Celsius (80 degrees Fahrenheit) becomes unbearable.

Nevada has the distinction of being the driest state in the Union. The humidity that day couldn’t have even come close to approaching double digits. It was nearly impossible to dampen a shirt from perspiration — it would evaporate almost immediately. In a way, that kind of climate is good to have from time to time, it’s a cleansing kind of climate, in a dry-cleaning sort of way.

We entered the Forum Shops through the lower level, at the valet parking entrance. (The Forum had no rear access for some unknown reason.) The escalator deposited us at one end of the mall, looking into the casino. On our left was the Warner Brothers store, which we left for last. It was time to see how the rich shopped, and realize just how poor we were.

The general premise behind Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace seemed to get back all the money the gambler won at the casino. There was no such thing as a cheap or inexpensive item in the whole place. It was like an upscale Neiman-Marcus, a hip Sharper Image, a trendy Rodeo Drive (with a ceiling). And of course the whole motif was Classical Roman. After all, Caesar wouldn’t approve if it looked like any other mall.

The design of the mall was reasonable simple — a single hallway that bent in two places. At each of the bends there were large fountains. The ceiling covering the hallway was painted to resemble the sky, and included variable lights that changed colour to show the changing hours of the day. The first fountain was immense, containing several sculptures of Roman gods and a Pegasus with wings spread.

The second fountain was a little more interesting though. We arrived at the end of an hourly laser light show at the fountain. Everyone seemed enthralled with the presentation, but we saw too little of the show to really know what it was about. We made indefinite plans to see it an hour later, at 14:00. More on that later…

Almost as soon as the crowd started dispersing from the show we narrowly missed, Dhar ducked into a sunglass store to purchase a hard case for his glasses. I contemplated buying a new pair of glasses to complement the ones I regularly wore (which were really ugly), but after a quick view of the selection, I decided against it. In hindsight, I wish I had bought new glasses since I could’ve used opinions from Rebecca, Dhar, and Stefan to help me make up my mind. Being fashionably challenged, I have always had a great deal of trouble in picking something that looked good on me. What I though looked good other would think was horrible.

Another store that caught our fancy was a magic store, on the other side of the second fountain chamber on the same side as the sunglass store. I have always been interested in magic tricks, but mostly in figuring out how they’re done. The salesmen were truly gifted in their craft, perhaps retired magicians themselves — they demonstrated their wares with such skill and finesse that I was left completely stumped. Even something as simple as making a small ball magically pass through solid copper cups (a sleight-of-hand trick) had me dying to know how it was done. As much as I wanted to buy some of the tricks to learn them for myself, I decided that I’d just wait until I found someone who could teach me. Rebecca was tempted to get a trick for Eric to learn. I was tempted to tell her to learn how to make Eric disappear. (Not that I dislike the kid — Eric was the first kid I actually liked, probably because he reminds me of when I was a little kid.)

Disney had a fair stake in their store, right up to the Roman style sculpture of Mickey Mouse over the store entrance. The floor of the entrance was also noteworthy — several hundred tiny lights were embedded in the plastic, wood, and concrete walkway, that glowed in patterns that cycled about every five minutes or so. The merchandise inside was nothing particularly special, I could find it at just about any franchise store. The main exception were the shirts made exclusively for the store in Forum Shops, bearing the names and logos of the Forum Shops and Caesar’s Palace.

We popped in and out of stores on our way down the hall until we reached the end of the line: a set of stairs going down. These led into the “kids” area of the mall, consisting of a virtual reality theatre and a video arcade. We forwent with the virtual reality and concentrated on the video games. Like any well-managed arcade, all the recent and popular games were near the doorway, the rest were placed towards the rear in decreasing order of income.

That was the first time I heard of (or took notice of) Namco, a seemingly major player in the billion dollar video game industry. Namco’s flagship game, at least at this arcade, was a first-person light gun shoot-’em-up. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name. (I found the game some months later, it’s called Time Crisis.) The graphics and the movement of the characters and the screen images was nothing short of awesome. Someone had taken a great deal of time to make the polygon rendering subsystem blindingly quick and smooth. I wanted to peel the cover off to see if there was a Silicon Graphics workstation embedded in the immense box.

We stopped in a hologram store that had some laser art I had never seen before. (The general premise behind holograms is fairly elementary (at least when you compare it to quantum mechanics), a pure light source (i.e. a laser beam) is split and the two separate beams bounced of an object. The interference patterns of the two bounced beams (that is, the intersecting wave patterns) then hit a photographic plate where the interference patterns encode a three dimensional image.)

But most holograms are static — that is to say when you move from side to side, or up an down, the object in the image appears stationary. Several of the holograms we saw used a totally new technique that allowed a mini-movie to be made: dancing ballerinas, moving animals, even a stripper (this was, after all, Las Vegas). I could tell that I was not alone in trying to understand how to make something like that, but I was getting about as far as Stefan and Dhar in deciphering the mystery.

When we returned to the second fountain, almost an hour had passed. Still having about ten or so minutes before the next show, we ducked into a sports store in search of sandals. Dhar always wore his jeans (for some strange reason — even in New Orleans, where it was hot and humid, he couldn’t be convinced that shorts might be more apropos), but wanted his feet to be cool (his sneakers were obviously warm). At least he did recognize that sandals were more comfortable than shoes in the heat, and he wanted to buy a pair as soon as possible.

The selection in the store was slim, and the prices fat. Stefan remarked that he could buy the same shoes in Canada for exactly the same price — not taking currency conversion into account. The Forum Shops were definitely not meant for the price-conscientious. In other words, Students need not apply.

The dry air, combined with a fairly physical trip through the mall combined to make the lot of us very thirsty. Luckily for us there was a restaurant and deli right next to where we were standing. But getting into either meant a 15-20 minute wait. Thirst does not wait. We found a “drink bar” that extended from the deli. It was like every other store in the Forum Shops — expensive. A soft drink (i.e. Coca Cola) cost over $3.00, and had too much ice for my liking. But it was a fluid, and dehydration wasn’t big on my list of things to experience that day.

No sooner than we purchased our drinks that the show began. (I said I’d get back to this.) Allow me to set the stage: the fountain sat in the middle of a large rotunda about 150 feet across and about 50 feet high. About 35-40 feet up the walls were all the effects devices: lasers, mirrors, projectors, smoke machines and so forth. On the opposite side of the rotunda was a small window for the show operator. In the fountain itself was the focal point of the show: the statutes.

Statues you say? How can statues be a show? Riddle me this, fair reader: When is a statue not a statue? When it’s an expensive piece of animatronics. (Remember folks, we’re still in Las Vegas.) The centrepiece of the fountain was a set of four statues: a ring of three standing figures, two male and one female; a fourth and much larger (not only in size, but in girth) male figure sat in a large chair in the very centre, but raised above the other three statues. The outer three statues were to represent Venus, Mars and Mercury (unless I’ve gotten my gods confused). The centre statue was either Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and revelry (and the patron saint of university students) or a rather fat Julius Caesar. I was never too sure which.

At first glance the statues looked like ordinary marble. Until they started moving, that is. And I don’t mean just twirling around like a music box dancer — I mean moving. The centre statue would yawn and stretch, the feet would shift slightly, even the body would adjust its position in the chair. And of course, it would speak, jowls a-flapping. The mere production of the show lost all meaning for myself, and probably Stefan and Dhar as well — we were too keen on knowing how the contraption worked.

This was not just some thrown together rubber, pneumatic, electronic piece of showmanship one would expect for Las Vegas. This was worthy of top-notch Hollywood effects. The movements were fluid and precise, appearing to be completely organic. (Take a look at how an assembly line robotic arm moves and compare that to how a human arm moves — they are very different motions.) Even the lip-syncing was well done … at least when I could hear the voices. (For all the money Caesar’s Palace pumped into the display, they could’ve at least put in a more effective sound system.)

Although I didn’t catch all the words (I was more enthralled with the technical aspect of the show), the gist of it was essentially a grabber to get you to go into the casino. Okay, they didn’t directly mention the casino, but why else would you go to Caesar’s Palace in the first place? Yes, they could’ve put the gist of the show on a billboard, but then it just wouldn’t be as flashy. Las Vegas is a service-oriented city, and advertisement is the key to delivering that service.

When the show ended, I took the opportunity to disappear for a few minutes into a memorabilia shop containing some of the most unusual things I had ever seen. Aside from the typical autographed movie posters and record albums, there were also hats, toy cars, antique gas pumps, an original plastic Ronald McDonald to place on park benches … so much stuff there was hardly any room to walk. I left after a short stay — I began to feel like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

But nothing was as impressive as the gadget store. It almost resembled the commercial end of the fictional Q Branch of James Bond fame. I almost expected to see a grey Astin-Martin DB5 parked in the corner complete with the ejection seat. Actually, it would more likely have been the BMW from Goldeneye — the Astin-Martin would’ve been more appropriate in the memorabilia shop … if there was room to store it.

Tools, clocks, digital barbeques, pool accessories, maps, lights, radios … you name it, they probably had it. One of the neatest pieces I saw was, of all things, a keychain. It was an ingenious device: a disc about an inch diametre and about a quarter inch thick. Around the side of the disc was a groove in which a half dozen individual rings could spin around the disc. A small button in the centre of the disc released a little catch opening a gap in the groove, allowing the rings to be removed. I can’t tell you how close I came to buying it, the number of times I’ve needed to remove a key from my keychain is unthinkable. However, the price they wanted for the simple device was equally unthinkable … $30.

Rebecca and Stefan found their perfect product there too … a massage chair. Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Homer finds the ultimate in relaxation chairs, one that vibrates so much he begins to feel like Dave Bowman as he entered the monolith in 2001? Well, this one didn’t vibrate, but it had a very similar effect on Rebecca — she was flushed from only five minutes of use.

We spent a disproportionate amount of time perusing the store, and after at least a half hour of window shopping, we mustered up enough will power to drag ourselves from the store (most of the energy was used in convincing Rebecca to get out of the chair). That chair cost $4,000. I was informed several times that if Stefan and Rebecca won enough money, we would be bringing it back with us. I wondered if we could con the border guards by getting them to sit in the chair and massage them into submission.

The next stop was at Victoria’s Secret. The mail order catalogue of men’s fantasies had a retail store in the Forum Shops. Dhar and I elected to stay outside while Stefan and Rebecca went it. It’s not that I get embarrassed, it’s just that I didn’t even want to think about watching anyone trying on lingerie unless I knew that person really well and I was dating (or married to) said person. Going in there would have been like making a chocolate mousse cake, and then not eating any.

Have I mentioned yet that Dhar was shutter-happy? I didn’t think so. (How’d I forget that?) He never stopped taking pictures. I think the only time he did was when he was changing rolls of film. Although I will admit that I did come close to using as many rolls of film as Dhar, I didn’t take as many people pictures as he did. Dhar would take pictures whenever he felt most like being a pain in the ass. I will admit that it bugged me, but in retrospect I relate to his habit. On previous excursions I had been known to be even worse, and I earned a reputation for being a total asshole for some of the pictures I took.

Our last stop in the mall was in the Warner Brothers store. This was my doing. My friend Scott had several years before gone to a Warner Brothers store in Buffalo, New York and returned with an Animaniacs baseball cap. I will immediately admit I was jealous, the both of us were fans of the cartoon and of Amblin Entertainment, those responsible for the animated mayhem. I was hoping to find something in the store that interested me enough to get possible revenge (in a non-spiteful manner). Alas, the store simply wasn’t stocked with particularly unique items and those that did interest me carried a rather high sticker shock.

By this time it was about 15:00 and we decided it was time to head over to Treasure Island and deposit most of our junk in a hotel room so we could explore more of The Strip. Down the escalator and out the valet entrance and back to the parking lot we went. On the way Dhar tried to use up the rest of his film by taking a picture of Rebecca in a “provocative and sexy” pose. For a woman who knows a great deal (and possibly too much) about sex, she can’t pose worth a damn. One reason why Rebecca isn’t a model…

The drawn curtains and the ceiling fan did their jobs, the van was not uncomfortably warm. Stefan drove us back out under the Forum Shops, by the valet entrance and out to Las Vegas Boulevard, where we had entered over two hours earlier. We traveled north on Las Vegas Boulevard for approximately a kilometre and turned left onto Buccaneer Boulevard, which was actually Treasure Island’s driveway. Stefan pulled into the taxi and valet drop off area, Rebecca and I hopped out and went in to register.

Again the sudden shift from medium noise to tremendous clamor was unsettling. But Treasure Island didn’t seem to be as loud as Caesar’s Palace … different slots perhaps, or I was getting used to the sound (stage two of Lasvegasitis was likely setting in). We found the registration desk and presented myself to a gentleman by the name of Leland, if I’m not mistaken. (The only reason I remembered the name was because it’s a rare one, I’ve only ever heard it once before — in the movie Toys.)

I gave him my credit card, he double checked that I knew the hotel room was costing some $350.00 (American funds, but including taxes). Although I didn’t see Rebecca’s face when Leland read of the price, I swear I heard her gasp quietly. I cursed to myself, I had hoped no-one would find out how much one of these rooms cost per night. I signed a few forms, then Leland asked me for the names of the others. I assumed this was in case one of us lost our key, we could report to the registration desk and get a new one.

The keys were of the newer swipe cards, much like a bank machine card or a credit card. The card is inserted into the lock, pulled out and providing you 1) haven’t somehow buggered up the magnetic strip, or 2) accidentally gone to the wrong room, the lock clicked open and you walked in. Leland let us know that the room was still being cleaned but that we could go up and drop our stuff off.

Stefan and Dhar were waiting up the curb from the taxi stop. We climbed in and continued down the road to find the parking lots. Immediately we were confronted with a small problem: the Behemoth wouldn’t fit into the standard parking garages. One of the garages had a clearance of eight feet, four inches — one inch higher than us — but the lack of safe distance convinced us to find the oversized lot. This was so far back we could almost have as easily walked from the Forum Shops.

We grabbed our bags, clothes, cameras, and some of the valuables (one can never be too careful about security), cracked the ceiling vent and turned on the fan, opened a couple windows (barely large enough to put a child’s arm through) and headed back to the main entrance. The intense heat of southern Nevada finally hit us, but only because we were carrying heavy loads.

I honestly wish I could’ve seen some of the reactions of the casino patrons as we tramped into the hotel. Like most of the resorts, the casino was the centrepiece. To get to the hotel elevators you had to go through the casino floor; to get to the restaurants you had to go through the casino floor; to get to the shows or any of the stores you had to go through the casino floor. Although a large number of the people on the floor were tourists, and not dressed particularly nicely, we were outfitted with t-shirts, cut-off jeans, baseball caps, and large hiking backpacks. (And even if no-one noticed there, we definitely attracted attention when we checked into our hotel in New Orleans.)

Fortunately, the casino wasn’t a terribly large one, and the slot machines took up the vast majority of the available space. Only about two hundred square metres was devoted to the other games (blackjack, craps, roulette, et cetera) … out of the approximately 30,000 square metres of casino floor space. For what it lacked in size it made up in business — it seemed to keep a regular flow of people in and out.

Two sets of elevators ferried guests to their rooms. One set took you no higher than the 14th floor. The other set was for floors above 14. It took us a moment to realize this, even though we caught the right set of elevators on the first try.

When we reached the 16th floor, we looked around for a sign that might indicate our room. Treasure Island was built in a ‘Y’ shape, the ‘V’ portion of the ‘Y’ shape faced Las Vegas Boulevard, the tail stuck out back. A small dark brown sign with white lettering indicated four directions to travel in: right, centre, left and Suite 1620. It’s amazing how important you suddenly feel when it’s necessary to list your room separately from the rest of the lesser rooms.

The double doors were open, a cleaning cart indicated that the room was still being cleaned. I had hoped that when I had made the reservation the staff might move a tad quicker and make arrangements to have the room ready when we arrived. We knocked once and cautiously entered the room. I had to bite my tongue when I heard the Hispanic maid emerge from one of the bathrooms speaking broken English. I had always assumed that kind of character was strictly stereotypical for Hollywood, I never expected to actually see something like that.

The maid asked me for my door key, which she indicated I should check in the door. The door lock is a simple device: a small brass box about 10 centimetres wide, 20 centimetres long and sticking about two to three centimetres out of the door. At the bottom of the box was a thin black slot into which the card is inserted. Above the slot is a red light and a green light. Assuming the card is valid, the green light winks on a second or two after inserting and removing the card from the slot.

I have been in many hotel rooms in my life, varying from comfortable to roach infested. But never had I ever come close to having a hotel room like this. The double doors led to a short hallway about 10 metres in length and four metres wide. About two thirds of the way down the hallway were two sets of double doors, one on each side, both leading to washrooms. The hallway opened into a large room, about eight metres in width and 15 metres long. Across from the hallway was a window sans openings. I was disappointed that there was no balcony, but as Stefan pointed out that oversight probably saved a lot of would-be jumpers.

The “His” washroom (on the left, looking into the suite from the main doors) was very spacious: roughly 25-30 metres square. At the back left corner was a toilet (and just in front of the toilet was a phone), and the back right corner sported a shower. In the centre was a very wide-countered sink and mirror. A closet could be found just left of the washroom door, complete with safe (to which we didn’t have the combination). The floors were tiled, as were the walls in the shower.

The “Hers” washroom (on the right, looking into the suite from the main doors) was a mirror image of the “His” washroom with two notable exceptions. First, the toilet was in the front left corner of the washroom. Secondly, there was a whirlpool bathtub in the back left corner. It was not hot tub, but it would fill our needs … rather, Stefan and Rebecca’s needs.

The main room was sparsely furnished. On the left side of the room (looking into the suite from the main doors) was a king size bed, two night tables with lamps, and a large chest at the foot of the bed. On the right side of the room was a chesterfield, a chair, a low coffee table, a cabinet and a TV. All the furniture was white in colour finished with gold-coloured trim. (The woodwork had gold paint; the chairs, chesterfield, and bed had thin gold-coloured rope with tassels.)

We marveled at the room for a few minutes, then decided to figure out what it was we were going to do. One of the first things on the agenda were showers and baths, since we wanted to go out to dinner before engaging in anything else. But first, we watched a little TV (much to my chagrin — I had hoped to avoid TV for the entire trip). We found the second TV in the chest at the foot of the bed, pressing a button similar to a garage door opener caused the TV to rise majestically from the inside.

We quickly found out where our gas woes had come from — gas prices across the United States had jumped between five and 10 cents a gallon in the past few days. Some places hadn’t been drastically affected, but parts of California were asking $2.20 a gallon. We were suddenly relieved that California had been cut from the travel plan some weeks earlier.

A couple channels were dedicated to broadcasting Las Vegas-related programming. One channel in particular was from Treasure Island itself, and continually played a movie about a kid’s adventure at the resort. Gambling was restricted to those 18 years of age or older, so the movie had likely been produced to get the kids excited about other things to do. From a critical point of view, it was entirely commercial but with enough Hollywood flair to make it passable for its intended audiences, namely kids.

Rebecca turned to the whirlpool a little while later. It was then she made a rather odd request of me. I was asked to take a picture of her, but only after she deemed it okay for me to go in. I continued to vegetate in front of the TV over by the chesterfield until I heard her melodious voice call from the “Hers” washroom. I was joined by Stefan at this call.

There was Rebecca, seated in the middle of a sea of foam, the rose tattoo on her left shoulder standing out on her milky-white skin, and a huge grin crossing her face. I guessed that Rebecca had never been in such a place before and wanted to show off the things she got to do during the trip. I pulled out the camera, made a couple of adjustments to the focus and exposure settings, and promptly screwed up the first picture by forgetting to turn the flash on. The second picture ended up much more flattering, but gained a strange bluish tint to which I have yet to find a cause. No sooner than I had returned to the chair I had been sitting in to put the camera back in its bag than Stefan disappeared into the “Hers” washroom, locking the door behind him.

Rebecca and Stefan didn’t spend too long alone, emerging only about 20 minutes later. Dhar disappeared into the “His” bathroom for his shower. The remaining three of us began to discuss the events of the evening. Dhar had decided not to see one of the famous Vegas shows that night, he was more intent on seeing The Strip. On a suggestion from Rebecca, the Cirque du Soleil show, Mystére, became our primary focus on the itinerary.

When Rebecca began to make preparations for the tickets, I promptly announced I was taking my shower (Dhar having completed his), and marched into the “His” bathroom. I was ecstatic to find that the Mirage (builder, owner, and operator of Treasure Island) hadn’t skimped on much of anything, putting in some of the best showers I had ever used. The free toiletries were no hell, but they seldom are.

Observer’s Log: Traveldate 960425.175
Day 5
Vegas along ‘The Strip’ is nothing short of breath-taking. [Mostly due to the automobile exhaust.] I knew that this was going to be a great experience, so I took the liberty of getting us a room downtown at Treasure Island. Expensive, but it’s the experience that counts.
Caesar’s Palace is an adult’s playground, and I suspect that the rest of The Strip isn’t much different.
It’s going to be a long night…

The idea was to have brought “good” clothes with us so that we could all go out to a good restaurant and eat a good meal. However, my interpretation of Stefan and Rebecca’s idea of “good” clothes wasn’t quite correct. Taking an assumption that experienced campers would bring clothes that would be acceptable in most places as “nice”, I brought along clothes I could pack away that wouldn’t be damaged by creasing. Unfortunately, what they brought I considered to be in the “business casual” category. I suddenly felt very underdressed.

Dhar was the most dapper of the three men, but he wasn’t going to join us for dinner. For some reason, he was more inclined to eat on his own and explore the city that is Las Vegas. Our reservations for Cirque du Soleil were for 19:30, with recommendations to arrive at 19:00 to make sure we could get in. This meant we had to go for dinner at 18:00 so we could get in on time. Dhar left for his evening romp just before we went downstairs.

Of the half-dozen or so restaurants in Treasure Island, my attire excluded us from the two upscale establishments. We ended up at the third fanciest restaurant, just up the hall from the Cirque du Soleil’s theatre and across the hall from the shops. On arrival we found a fairly long line to wait through. It took about 15 minutes before we were seated at a table.

The interior of the restaurant was made to look like an outdoors Caribbean plaza: the walls were made to look like plaster-covered brick, complete with cracks and missing pieces. Fake windows and the odd closed balcony added to the illusion. The tables and chairs were made from wrought iron, an interesting choice for furniture, but again fitting to the atmosphere.

The menu was nothing elaborate, offering meals from a variety of tastes including Italian, seafood, Cajun, Mexican, and traditional American. All three of us decided upon pasta dishes: I had a hot Italian sausage penne, Stefan originally was going to have the same but switched to something else, and Rebecca had a seafood linguine … shrimp, I believe. We also had a nice red wine to go along with the meal.

By the time we finished it was almost 19:00, and I was a slightly inebriated. I had drank a little more wine than Rebecca, and certainly much faster. Not to mention my alcoholic tolerance was significantly lower. Fortunately my meal allowed me to metabolize the wine fairly swiftly and within about a half hour I was sober.

The tickets to the show were over $60 apiece. I was a little taken aback at the price, but our seats were third row centre. I remarked on Rebecca’s ability to get such good seats on such short notice. The tickets were expensive, but as I would soon find out, well worth the price. I wanted to pay Rebecca back for the cost of the ticket (she had purchased the tickets on her VISA card while I had been in the shower), but I was countered with a negative response — I pay for the room, they paid for the tickets. The wine, not yet worn off, prevented me from arguing the point any further.

Based in Montreal, the Cirque du Soleil ( “Circus of the Sun”) company runs several troupes that tour the globe at any given time. The troupe at Treasure Island however, was as permanent as their facility. I had seen a Cirque du Soleil performance in Quebec City in 1986, and a spin-off company of former Cirque du Soleil members a couple years later — both were in large circus-style tents. Even a quick glance around the room told you that Cirque du Soleil had the facility built to their specifications.

The seating was arranged in a nearly perfect semi-circle, divided into a lower section and an upper section. The lower section had about 15 rows of seats, the upper section about 20 to 30. All were cushioned folding seats with drink holders in the armrests. This was a far cry from the scaffolding benches I had sat on in performances of years past.

The stage was an impressive sight. It was arranged in a kind of thrust stage arrangement more at home in proper stage drama theatres. The “thrust” portion of the stage started at the curve in the semi-circle of seats and extended back towards the main portion of the stage. The thrust portion was about 10 metres wide and 15 metres deep. The main portion of the state ran back a further 15 to 20 metres and was at least 50 to 60 metres wide (including the invisible wings). On either side of the stage were towers that ran from the walls to about a quarter of the distance into the stage area. A third of the way up the towers were places for the musicians.

I thought it a bit strange to have live music at a performance such as this. The Cirque du Soleil wasn’t a true circus in the sense there were no animals — at least if you considered all the performers human. The performance was completely scripted and timed — specific events happened at specific times, and humans could be relied upon to stick to those cues. A simple pre-recorded sound track should suffice. As I would later learn, there was a reason for live music.

A commotion and low murmuring behind us caused us to turn around … curiousity is a hard thing to ignore. A well-endowed woman in a white skin-tight dress (ending about six inches down her thighs) had entered the room. I immediately wondered how much she had paid to get her bosom to look the way it did. Then I noticed the reason for the murmuring: it wasn’t the woman, it was the clown following her, ogling her every move.

I had forgotten about the clowns. Like the company they worked for, some of the clowns weren’t clowns in the true sense. This one looked like Albert Einstein on a bad hair day, wearing clothes more suited to an orchestra conductor but looking like he’d slept in them for a week. The only make-up he wore was rouge on his nose to make it look bright red. Like in performances past, he was the designated shit-disturber.

He would walk to the entrance, and “help” people to their seats. This usually involved leading them to an entirely different place of the seating area than the ticket indicated, and even onto the stage. If the patron happened to be carrying food (usually popcorn), he would take the bag and start eating, spilling, throwing, or giving it away. Eventually one of the people he led behind stage “threw” him out of the theatre. It wasn’t the last time we saw him during the performance.

The show began with a sudden explosion. The thrust portion of the stage and part of the main stage were comprised of four hydraulic lifts that went down about five metres below the level of the stage. When we arrived, the hole left behind bubbled with smoke. When the show started, that smoke concealed the first chapter of the show.

Kodo is a Japanese art, usually several men and women drumming rhythmically on tom-toms of various sizes and usually on at least one huge double-drum. Some of the cast of Cirque du Soleil learned Kodo … they learned it well. I had never actually seen it before, and I was immediately blown away by the sound they made.

The sound seemed to come from all around, much like a good home entertainment system generates high quality surround sound. But I quickly realized that in addition to the dozen or so drummers on the lifting stage, there were also four drummers being lowered from the ceiling along the semi-circular path leading to the audience seating. I had to admit, that was the best entrance I had ever seen.

Now I’m not going to tell you everything I saw, and there’s good reasons for this. First, I honestly don’t remember everything I saw or in what order I saw it. Secondly, this was the kind of show you really need to see for yourself. If you’re reading this some many years from now, long after Treasure Island has closed (or been destroyed), I realize that this simply will frustrate you, and I apologize. But I can no more describe the awesome skill of these performers any more than I can tell you exactly what the Grand Canyon looks like, or the boredom experienced crossing Kansas.

One portion of the show in particular that stuck with me for its sheer beauty was the balancing act. This was two men, both totally hairless, wearing very small bikini briefs, and completely covered with white powder. One of them would take hold of the other, bending outwards. The other would bend in a different direction to counter the weight. One such impressive example was when they formed a straight line about eight feet long, only one of them with his feet on the ground.

Their motions were totally fluid, the positions they held requiring the utmost strength, agility, and flexibility. The act was so beautifully done, I even had to nudge Rebecca and ask her if I was the only one who thought the scene was very sexual. I wasn’t alone, but I wasn’t as excited as Rebecca, who had to fan herself at the end of the sequence.

The trapeze act supplied me with the reason for live music. The trapeze was a group of ten people suspended in a rectangular box about 15 metres in length. The box was divided into eighths, with the fourth and fifth sections forming a single block. Below the second and seventh eighths were swings. At each of the lines dividing the eighths were horizontal bars around which the performers would swing, catapulting themselves around the length of the box. The performers on the swings would periodically catch one of the other performers leaping from another part of the frame, or would fling a performer to the other side.

At one point in the show, one of the performers was getting ready to execute what looked like a flip. He swung around the bar between the third and fourth sections, and built up a great deal of momentum. Whether he lost his grip or let go too early I couldn’t tell, but the next thing he knew, he shot right into the swing mounted below the second section. It was a fairly stiff impact, and it was obvious that he was hurt.

If Mystére had a linear sound track, played from a CD or a master tape, the cues would had to have been so precise that no errors could have ever been committed during any of the performances. When the trapeze accident occurred, there was a pause of about twenty to thirty seconds before anyone moved. But the band played on. Stefan and I debated whether or not the act was cut short as a result of the accident, but by the musical score being played, you really couldn’t tell.

The show ended almost the same way it started, with Kodo. This time the music was much longer and had more bold patterning of the beats than at the beginning of the show. This was due in part to the addition of another performer who seemed to be well-gifted with Kodo. With a few final echoing beats, the show ended, the cast and musicians took their bows, and we headed towards the exits.

On the way out, Rebecca and I stopped to purchase copies of Mystére’s soundtrack from the Cirque du Soleil shop, next to the snack bar of the theatre. It wasn’t a cheap purchase, but when you’ve heard the music, you really don’t mind so much.

After forcing our way through an ocean of slow-moving show-goers, we headed back to our hotel room if for nothing else than to drop off our purchases. I also wanted to grab my camera before continuing with our grand plan for the evening: to tour The Strip and see all that we could see. The idea was to keep wandering until we either got bored or became exhausted (though if you want my honest opinion, it’s pretty damn difficult to get bored in Vegas if you’re only there a couple of days.)

Dhar was lying on the bed when we came in. If his hair had been any longer, it might have been standing on end, he looked that frayed. Apparently the three and a half hours he had been on his own had been quite interesting. First off, he didn’t have dinner alone. Finding his way to an unnamed restaurant in the area, he found himself accompanying some woman (with an undisclosed appearance) who had been stood up for a dinner date. Following Dhar’s insistence that nothing else transpired with this mysterious woman, he proceeded to wander up and down The Strip.

And Dhar got into trouble. Again. Dhar was very good at this, he seldom needed to try. According to our illustrious travel partner, he was out taking pictures of some of the huge neon and incandescent signs that litter either side of The Strip, and walked into a vacant lot to get a clear shot of The Dunes (I think … I may remember the hotel’s name incorrectly). No sooner than Dhar took the picture that a car sped into the lot and a couple very large burly men charged at him. Dhar didn’t bother to hang around and find out what they wanted.

The four members of our Mission Impossible Force reassembled, we engaged in yet another riveting debate as what to occupy ourselves with. Stefan decided to make use of the washroom and change into something a little more casual. Dhar continued to lie on the bed, doubly worn out from his escapades of the evening and his lack of sleep from the night before. Rebecca and I stared out the window overlooking Buccaneer Bay, a reoccurring recreation of a ship battle, performed every 90 minutes during the evenings.

In the smaller of the two pools, on the left side (as a spectator would view it from the sidewalk) was the “pirate” ship. It was about 30 metres long, the deck about five metres above the water, masts extending 30 or so metres into the air. Over all it was a fairly impressive looking vessel. It was a shame that it would never float on its own. The water in the pool wasn’t very deep, and it was obvious that the ship was attached to the bottom of the pool — it didn’t bob in the water at all.

At the very right side of the pool was a very narrow channel, running about 50 metres down the edge of the sidewalk to the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Spring Mountain Road. This was where the Britannia (the English ship) resided. It was equally impressive in design, but we didn’t get a good look at it until it rounded the corner and came into the pool during the show.

By about 17:50, the crowd had formed firmly, and it was becoming very hard to move around. I couldn’t help think that this gathering constituted a safety risk of some kind — getting emergency health services through the throng would be a near impossibility. And there was no sign of either Dhar or Stefan. We were wondering if we could hold places for them any longer.

Then Rebecca caught sight of her mate through the herd. It never ceases to amaze me how women (particularly those with significant others) can do that. It took me a great deal of concentration and a few moving people before I figured out where they were. Rebecca started shouting to Stefan, trying to attract his attention. For some reason, Stefan never once looked in our direction, nor did Dhar. Not wanting to have to hunt over hell and half-of-creation to find them after the show, I decided to risk minor embarrassment and attract their attention by the best way I knew how: volume.

If there is but one gift I received from my father, it was being loud. I seem to have a naturally loud voice. It may not carry too far, but I frequently get asked to quiet down. (This was most noticeable when I was in elementary school.) I cupped my hands around my mouth, breathed deeply, and bellowed: “STEFAN!” For a brief moment, just about everyone on the sidewalk waiting for the show to start fell silent. Everyone wanted to know who the hell this Stefan character was. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat smug — I hadn’t attracted that much attention since I was in Grade 5. (My teacher humiliated me in front of my class when, in my boredom, I played “rocket ship” with my face.)

Dhar didn’t stick around long though. We learned that Dhar hates crowds. And I don’t mean that he has a dislike for them — he really anathematizes them. His eyes looked wild, like he was having trouble breathing (he probably was). His voice wavered ever so slightly, like someone who could feel the walls closing in on him (he probably could). Before he got trapped in the living sardine can, he headed south (in the direction of the Mirage) to wait for the show to end.

A loud fanfare about five minutes later announced the show’s start. The Britannia “sailed” down the channel and entered Buccaneer Bay, interrupting the pirate crew as they attempted to unload their stolen booty. A slight argument ensued where the captain of the Britannia attempted to order the pirates to surrender, to which the pirates politely refused by firing a cannon at the Britannia.

At this point an all-out fire-fight began. Parts of either ship were blown up, apart, or off, and various part of the surrounding decor suffered slight to serious damage. (At one point, a tremendous butane-powered fireball erupts from one of the upper-level “buildings”.) The parts that fall apart were collapsible, and easily reassembled for the next showing.

Pirate show in front of Treasure Island Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada, 25 April 1996

The sequence ends when the pirates, in a last-ditch attempt to save their scurvy hides, blow a “hole” in the side of the Britannia, which starts listing to port and sinks into Buccaneer Bay. The engineering that went into the Britannia was impressive: not only did the gantry on which the ship “sails” into the bay have to contend with corners, but it had to tilt the huge vessel into the bay, then raise it back up (undoubtedly full of water).

The show ended with the Vegas cliché you’ve seen our show, now come in and lose your money. Okay, it’s not that blatant, but the principle is the same. Not surprisingly though, few took up the offer and went in (unless they were staying there). Most decided to go in the same direction we wanted to go — south, towards Dhar. The sheer number of people made it difficult to move, and even more difficult to find Dhar.

We passed by the Imperial Palace, the Flamingo Hilton, and the Barbary Coast resorts before arriving at Flamingo Road. Along the way, Dhar and I took several pictures of the various resorts on both sides of The Strip, including the Mirage hotel and Caesar’s Palace. Dhar had already taken several pictures of The Strip (he claimed to have walked up and down it three times before going out with us), but that didn’t stop him from taking some additional, albeit strange, pictures. (One was taken outside Imperial Palace, looking right up the side of what appeared to be a paddlewheel — the entire facade was like a Mississippi steamboat.)

Flamingo Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada, 25 April 1996

The seedy side of Las Vegas began to show through. During the day the strong cleansing rays of the sun drive the scum and cockroaches into the shadows, you hardly ever see them. But at night the roads are lined with the dregs of society: drunkards (though many could have been tourists — only in Vegas do the drunkards dress well), beggars (many appeared to be ex-tourists who lost their proverbial shirts at the gambling table, most looking for “bus fare”), hookers, and if you looked carefully, the dealers.

But by far the most noticeable and despicable mendicants were the magazine distributors. Remember the prostitute magazine that Stefan had been looking for the night before? You didn’t need to look on Las Vegas Boulevard — the distributors found you. And they didn’t care in the least who they gave them out to. Men, women, I wouldn’t be surprised if they even gave them to children. You didn’t even have to chance a glance at one of them to have a magazine thrust against you.

I really didn’t know which was sadder: the prostitutes advertising in the magazine, or the people giving them out. One would expect men, and some pretty sleazy ones at that. We were not disappointed in that regard. I was surprised, and somewhat shocked, to see several women dealing the adverts. It takes a lot to shock me, and that wasn’t something I was expecting. But it wasn’t the mere fact that women were doing this — it was the look on their faces as they did it. I couldn’t tell what the expression meant exactly, but the disgust of what they held, the despair of what they had to do, and sadness all seemed to exude through the leathery skin of their Latin-American faces. What they did was below begging, and they knew it.

I personally have a thing against prostitution as well. I find it to be the most degrading thing a human can do — selling their bodies to survive, often in disregard of their well-being. Mind you, I frown upon pimps even more, they force others into harlotry so they can literally steal from those they “employ”. In Las Vegas, prostitution is legal … but no more moral or ethical than anywhere else. If the gambling alone doesn’t do it, the addition of prostitution certainly earns Vegas the name “Sin City”.

We stopped for a while at Bally’s, pondering whether we wound venture inside and see what its casino was like. But we opted instead to stay outside and take a few pictures and look at the light sculptures Bally’s had installed. One such group was a series of tall semi-circular pillars that slowly changed colours. Against the background of gardens and fountains, they were beautiful to watch.

We pressed onward along Las Vegas Boulevard heading south. Between Bally’s and the MGM Grand, there was only the Holiday Inn Boardwalk hotel on the opposite side of the street, which wasn’t much to look at. The MGM Grand on the other hand, was a very impressive sight. Currently the largest casino in Las Vegas (and possibly the world), the immense building glowed with a light green that was so appealing, we actually stopped to stare at it for a while.

At the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Tropicana Avenue we found the majestic MGM Grand entrance, the huge stylized MGM lion guarding the gates. It never crossed our minds to go inside, we were more intent on seeing more of The Strip at the time. From the intersection’s corner we could see the Tropicana (south of the MGM Grand, across Tropicana Avenue), and the Excalibur (south-west of the MGM Grand, on the diagonal corner). The Tropicana was nothing special in its appearance, but the Excalibur’s bold white and blue construction, bathed in a strong white light was something to behold.

Excalibur Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada, 25 April 1996

Built along Arthurian styles, the Excalibur featured a castle structure (which undoubtedly contained the casino), and two long hotel wings built on either side of the castle. The castle sported several towers and spires, all topped with bright blue caps which seemed to glow even at night. (They didn’t glow nearly as bright as the top of the Luxor, just south of Excalibur.)

The intersection of Tropicana and The Strip had no crosswalks, even though there didn’t seem to be any reason for the oversight. However, in lieu of paint on the asphalt, someone built two pedestrian overpasses: one running over The Strip on the north side of Tropicana, and another over Tropicana on the west side of The Strip. This effectively linked Excalibur with MGM Grand.

We hopped up the escalator to the first overpass and made our way to the north-west corner. And into our view came the next big thing to hit Las Vegas: New York, New York. A venture between the MGM Grand and another company, New York, New York would create a condensed skyline of the city for which it was named. Still under construction while we were there, even the darkened half-skeleton of the resort was impressive. A construction office on the ground level had a model of the soon-to-be casino, offering a free night’s stay at the hotel when it opened. Judging from what I saw, the next time I’m in Las Vegas, I want to stay at New York New York.

We crossed the next overpass to Excalibur, and went inside. By now, my legs were hurting. We had not walked that far, but for some strange reason I was utterly exhausted. Stefan and Rebecca weren’t much better off, so at least I didn’t feel like a weakling. Dhar, on the other hand, had every right to be feeling a little tired.

After traveling down the long walkway inside (Dhar rode the moving sidewalk instead), we entered into a true Vegas casino: tacky in every sense of the word. Gold trim, gaudy fixtures, ugly carpets … the whole eyesore shebang. Simply from its appearance, I judged it to be a leftover from the heady days of the ’70’s, when tacky was the norm. Much to my surprise, I learned that Excalibur was opened in 1991.

The slots called again, but not before Dhar purchased what he, Stefan, and Rebecca called a horrid drink. Served in a large tacky bluish glass (part of the reason, I think, that Dhar bought it in the first place), it was supposed to have Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum, orange juice, and a couple other things thrown in for taste. Apparently it didn’t work too well as a whole.

It wasn’t long before we found the ultimate slots: if you won, you got to drive home a brand-new Dodge Viper. At a quarter a pull, it was the most expensive slots they played. But with little success. By this point, I had reached the end of the second stage of Lasvegasitis, and suddenly found myself in stage three: I wanted to try my luck at the slots.

But I knew that my luck was horrible, it always was, and I chickened out of the dollar slot machine. Instead I plunked three nickels into a one-armed bandit and promptly lost. My grand total gambling losses to date amount to $2.15 ($2 Canadian, $0.15 American) … though I suspect I lost the $2 more to theft than to gambling, but that’s a whole other story.

Finding our general luck to be rather dismal, we headed towards the south hotel wing and the exit. We wanted to go that way so we could get to the Luxor with a minimum amount of effort. All of us were feeling rather worn out, it was looking like we wouldn’t see anything else that night. I really wanted to see Fremont Street and the lighted ceiling, but I began to accept that it would have to wait until another trip.

The walk to Luxor was a short one. The closer we got to the hotel the smaller it looked. Whenever I saw the Luxor on TV or in a magazine, I equated the black pyramid-shaped building to the Egyptian pyramids on the Giza plateau. Although I’d not been to Egypt, it was plain to see that Luxor was a much smaller scale development.

The inside of Luxor was … unspectacular, I was not impressed at all. Although the architect had placed all the rooms on the outside of the hotel, running diagonal elevators along the edges to service the 20 or so levels, it just didn’t look awesome enough. The interior was large enough to hold 14 Boeing 747 airplanes. But even that fact didn’t look impressive. It might have been my lack of energy, something which would make even the MGM Grand start to look dull.

We unfortunately missed out on a tour that the Luxor ran, which I completely forgot about while we were there. It was a three-part multimedia virtual-reality spectacular that got rave reviews for the level of technology it used. But in a way the loss wasn’t so bad — more too look forward to the next time ’round the block.

After only a few minutes we decided to head back to our hotel room. But we made it only as far as the front door before hailing a cab. The taxi driver was an interesting fellow, he gave us his personal view of Las Vegas which essentially amounted to our trip’s motto: Been there, done that … next!

A few minutes later we were back at the hotel, and hungry. But the ice cream parlour that I had so wanted to visit closed at midnight, we were over an hour late to gorge ourselves on frozen delights. We turned instead to one of the lower-rung restaurants, just off of Treasure Island’s casino. Keno boards could be seen on every wall, updating their information about every half-hour or so.

There seemed to be a certain curtness about the wait-staff, almost like they wanted to have us complain and get them fired … almost. My desire for ice cream vanished, and I instead ordered a hot meal and a cold beer. I followed Stefan’s suggestion and ordered a Heineken. Until that point, I hadn’t found any light-coloured beers that I liked. Most had this a aftertaste that bothered me. But when all was said and done, the Heineken wasn’t so bad.

One of the bartenders stared regularly at Dhar. We wondered why: possibly Dhar’s blue bandanna, which he wore almost constantly after the Grand Canyon. In any case, Dhar was about ready to start causing trouble when our bill arrived. We paid and left before Dhar got us ejected from the hotel.

Dhar and I slept on cots that night, and it felt good to sleep on an honest-to-God mattress with sheets around my legs. I didn’t need to worry about Dhar’s snoring that night, I think I actually fell asleep before he did.

Observer’s Log: Supplementary
Viva Las Vegas! More specifically, Cirque du Soleil. What an amazing show. We walked part of The Strip tonight, but we never made it to Fremont before we were worn out. Dhar went off on his own and sounded like he almost scored… Tomorrow is going to be an interesting day…