Thanks to Groupon, it was "all aboard" for this train-themed hotel's cheap accommodations.

Thanks to Groupon, it was “all aboard” for this train-themed hotel’s cheap accommodations.

Never having been to that oasis of sin and decadence called Las Vegas, I determined to go with the help of a Groupon that gave me a “luxury tower” room at the train-themed Palace Station Hotel & Casino for an average nightly price of $36. This could have been lower had I opted not to stay on a Friday or if I had chosen, against all online advice, to lodge in the “courtyard” rooms. Palace Station is off-Strip and reminds me of Oregon Indian tribe gaming centers. That’s intended neither as praise nor condemnation, but I did expect at any moment to see a fleet of charter buses pull up and offload a group of Oregon seniors.

Like most major hotels in Vegas, Palace Station has multiple restaurants, all with low prices and single serving sizes that would feed a family of four. The implicit message: Stuff your face and get back to your gambling! I found the food quality at the Grand Cafe in Palace Station to be fair to good and the serving staff pleasant. Given the portions I mostly ate breakfast and late dinner; at no time was I hungry for lunch. I can recommend the clam chowder if you’re there on a Friday, as well the the French toast breakfast on any old day. With this latter meal, I would again encourage you to not be surprised by the amount of food delivered. You get six pieces of French toast, three eggs, and sausages or bacon. It’s easily enough for three people, and that’s probably one of the smaller meals. For example, the butter on the French toast was likely placed there by the cook via ice cream scoop. The poor bovine at the other end of this process probably keeled over from exhaustion just from the work it took to deliver this much butter to my plate. (I nevertheless ordered French toast twice during my stay. Sorry, Bessie.)

I traveled to Nevada from Portland, Oregon and the airport experience at PDX in Portland was full of the typical TSA security theatre for which they are known and reviled. It’s an incredibly stupid waste of time, money, and energy, but that’s America. The moronic TSA experience waste isn’t endemic to Portland’s airport. It’s hellish everywhere in the US and, as Penn & Teller helpfully reminded the audience during their routine, a complete and utter violation of citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights.

The Southwest flight was fine, though they’ve apparently done away with the humorous stewardess schtick that was their staple for years. Flying into McCarran International in Las Vegas I could not stop thinking, “We built this in the middle of the desert.” Of all the necessities of human existence, enormous towers dedicated to gambling don’t make my list, but William Clark, the Montana “Copper King” who founded the city, surely didn’t ask me. One wonders what he’d think if he could see the place today or could hear the two prepubescent boys who shouted, “Vegas, baby!” when we landed. Too young to know the phrase is a cliché or even to know what it implies, the boys’ enthusiasm was met mostly with forced smiles and grim nods from the surrounding adults. Nice to know that the inanity of youth still receives that response, even in here.

They hit you right away with the slot machines, lights, and noise at McCarran. You can’t get from aircraft to Baggage Claim without experiencing all three at levels that would throw epileptics into seizures. In fact, one wonders…. (A quick web search confirms that, yes, it has.) Baggage Claim itself is perhaps worse, running a promotional Las Vegas events loop on giant video screens that, while you wait for your luggage, combine tedium with cacophony. I don’t think “Las Vegas: Combining tedium with cacophony” is going to catch on with the local Chamber of Commerce, but it’s kind of a shame. That’s a poster I would buy.

Model Kate Moss clothed only in handbags. Hard to disagree with a friend who noted, "Her nudity doesn't make those bags any less ugly!"

Versace window display shows model Kate Moss clothed only in handbags. Hard to disagree with a friend who noted, “Her nudity doesn’t make those bags any less ugly!”

Hotels freely shuttle people to and from the airport, because the faster they can get bodies from plane to casino, the better. For those hotels located off the Strip, shuttle buses also run to Fashion Show Mall, a huge collection of stores dedicated to the proposition that there’s no outfit so idiotic that someone somewhere won’t buy it or accessorize around it. Truly, a clothes horse’s dream. Existing as it does near one end of the Strip, it made a reasonably good starting point for the walking tour I took on Day 2.

On my first night in Vegas I walked from Palace Station to Rio, another off-Strip hotel and casino, about two miles away. Being wholly unfamiliar with the neighborhoods, I was concerned that I might be traipsing through the Vegas equivalent of Watts, South Central, or Harlem, but it was an uneventful journey. Notably, I passed DigThisVegas, a heavy equipment playground where people can rent time on heavy machinery; Machine Guns Vegas, a shooting range with machine guns; and the Zombie Apocalypse Store, what I suspect is a cleverly rebadged military surplus outlet.

Me and Teller after the magic show in which I played no part and he was essential.

Me and Teller after the magic show in which I played no part and he was essential.

I came to Rio to see Penn & Teller, a relatively famous duo of magicians. I arrived several hours early so I could eat dinner and meander about the casino. No one should be surprised, as I naively was, to find the waitresses scantily clad. Some may find the waitresses’ attire objectionable, but I prefer the term “hot.” (As an aside, minors are not generally allowed in the gaming areas of Vegas, though they are allowed to pass through the casinos without stopping when accompanied by an adult.)

The Penn & Teller show was excellent. Penn Jillette, the taller of the two, played bass in an uncredited role for the jazz pianist who opened. I was happy to be down on the floor in the fifth row. Penn & Teller are libertarians, patriots, and atheists, and their highly entertaining act contains elements touting all these beliefs but not to an off-putting extent. You could be a conservative, big business Christian and still enjoy the show.

One of the people in this photo is a world famous magician who just made a truckload of money giving an excellent stage performance in Las Vegas. The other one is me.

One of the people in this photo is a world famous magician who just made a truckload of money giving an excellent stage performance in Las Vegas. The other one is me.

Of the pieces they performed, I had two of them (the box trick that opened the show and the saw the woman in half) figured at the time. I have guesses as to another couple tricks, but mostly I remain utterly baffled. The ball trick, the flower trick (aka “Shadows”) and the bullet trick all were incredibly impressive, and I haven’t been able to determine how they did what they did. Even with the “saw the woman in half” classic where I knew how it was done, the delivery was so entertaining that it didn’t matter. In a classy move, Penn & Teller hang out with fans after the show to sign autographs, take pictures, and accept compliments. I loved this fan-friendly attitude because it makes theirs an even easier show to recommend to family and friends.

I spent my second day walking the Strip. The Strip is a collection of otherworldly hotels and casinos, each seemingly more gaudy than the next. Hotels in Vegas can be easily divided to two categories: On the Strip and not. If the primary purpose of your trip is to see the Strip, I would advise staying in a hotel there, otherwise you’ll be forced to adhere to your hotel’s shuttle schedule or to grab one of the very plentiful but more expensive taxis. For the hoity-toity, limos and SUVs are also available to ferry you about the city at roughly three to four times the cost of a taxi.

Each hotel has something of its own character, though a startlingly high number opt for a faux Italian/Roman or Egyptian theme. I am told, given that I’m not a gambler, that each hotel casino has it’s own flavor as well. This is likely more true of the non-slot machine gaming, as every casino I walk through seemed to have the same slots.

A shopping center with a singing gondoliers and a canal. Whatever floats your boat.

A shopping center with a singing gondoliers and a canal. Whatever floats your boat.

Speaking of which, just a cursory look through the casinos by an objective observer with even slight anthropological interests would tell you never to play slot machines. Simply put, playing slots nobody smiles, making the experience look less like fun and more like hell. I’ve never seen anything in human beings closer to the monkey in the cage experiments where they tap the lever to trigger some kind of drug-fueled endorphin rush. But if there’s an endorphin rush going on here, it’s well hidden. These poor souls sit and stare blankly, pull the lever or push the button, and, typically, smoke their lives into oblivion with so little joy that it’s like watching a slow motion voyage of the damned. Sorry to be so harsh on all the slot players out there, but check your six o’clock: The Grim Reaper is gaining.

Smoking is virtually everywhere in the casinos despite massive air filtration. For the most part you can walk the gaming mazes and not notice it much, but then you’ll pass someone who exhales and -bang- you get a huge whiff before the air purifiers can do anything. For those who might think the casinos would ban smoking like much of the United States, I can only remind you that smoking is an addiction and despite readily available brochures intended to help problem gamblers, Vegas makes a lot of money on people who repetitively put coins in slots. I’ve no doubt the Venn diagram of addicted smokers in Vegas and gamblers who spend lots of money on slots is pretty close to a perfect circle.

In contrast to the slots, I found the card games boisterous or serious depending on the table, the casino, or the game. Lots of people were clearly having lots of fun, so moral qualms about gambling aside, one could readily imagine it being a good time. On a future trip, I might even give Blackjack a go, seeing as how I can count to 21 and therefore understand the basic mechanics of the game, unlike virtually every other game except poker, and there’s no chance I’d give that I go in Vegas. (“At this table, we have all the best players in the world…and Ty.”)

From Treasure Island to the Mirage to Caesar’s Palace and so on, the hotels and casinos on the Strip sort of merge one into the next to create a giant labyrinth of sight, sound, and shopping. The thematic elements to create this wonderland have been imported from all over the world: Egyptian pyramid here, Italian gondola there, here the Statue of Liberty, there the Eiffel Tower. Online personality Ze Frank once noted that this appropriation of culture, this artificiality, robbed everything of its original context which in turn allowed visitors to bring their own meaning to these objects and this location. In other words, the Statue of Liberty might mean something to me as an American, but what does a half height version in Vegas mean? Frank said that without context or, perhaps more accurately in a context that allows for everything, these faux landmarks basically welcome the world to apply whatever meaning they like. “Do what you like, think what you will, we’re all in this together” isn’t exactly off the mark when it comes to Vegas thinking.

The Bellagio has a horse, mild and understated as is the norm in Las Vegas.

The Bellagio has a horse, mild and understated as is the norm in Las Vegas.

Unless you’re moving at a breakneck pace and not-stopping for anything, walking the Strip is not really entirely doable in a day. My attempt was more to see some highlights (the fountains at Bellagio, the moving statues in the Caesar’s Palace Forum Shops, the pyramid interior at the Luxor, etc.). I would think a solid three days on the Strip would probably cover everything “important” and I don’t think I’d want to spend more than three days at a time in Vegas anyway.

One reason is the humidity. I’ve never been so parched, and I downed enough non-alcoholic liquids to float a canoe (or, if you prefer, gondola). Also, nosebleeds. You won’t find it in a Vegas tourism brochure, but all this dehydration leads a lot of people (hello!) to have nosebleeds. Mine wasn’t a running faucet, but blowing my nose yielded blood every time. Some have recommended saline nasal sprays, something I will try next time around.

Another unexpected treat were the “slappers” who populate the streets on the Strip. I had been forewarned about them and the tawdry cards which they slap together to grab your attention so they can hand them to you. It didn’t matter. Startled by the noise, I looked over, and instinctively took the cards that were handed to me. I confess that part of my nonchalance about this was my assumption that the cards were simply invitations to so-called gentlemen’s clubs or strip bars. Not so much. A typical card would picture a naked woman with a porn star name, a phone number, and small Visa and Mastercard logos. Sometimes a price (ranging from $49 to $150) would be included as well.

As I recall it was about here across from the Excalibur that the slappers laid a pile of sexy fun time cards into my hand. More R-rated than expected.

As I recall it was about here across from the Excalibur that the slappers laid a pile of sexy fun time cards into my hand. More R-rated than expected.

Unlike certain Nevada counties, prostitution is technically illegal in city of Las Vegas, so it’s unclear how slappers’ activities are tolerated by the local police department and municipal government. I can only assume that there is a tacit agreement that unofficial prostitution within the city keeps potential gamblers from leaving to get their sexual release, and more money in Vegas is good for everybody. Regardless, I can do no more reporting on this score as I did nothing in my time here that would keep me from in good conscience donating blood to the Red Cross, something I’m sure my wife is relieved to hear.

I visited the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on my final full day in Vegas. Like Rio, it’s an off-strip hotel and casino, the difference being it’s loaded with rock music memorabilia and is somewhat famous as being the place where Who bassist John Entwistle died. I found it rather disappointing architecturally, and even the guitars and outfits on display from various artists seemed less interesting than I anticipated. Perhaps I was just jaded after three days in Sin City. Regardless, I think Rio is the only off-Strip venue I’d revisit, and I’m not sure of that’s positive association with Penn & Teller or the skimpy dress of the waitresses.

It is a testament to Las Vegas that a non-gamer like me has, after three nights, any hankering at all to return. So much of the town, or the Strip specifically, represents what I dislike in American culture (namely things like consumerism, excess, drunken enthusiasm), that I think it’s easy to overlook the virtues that exist there as well.

There is a value to just having fun, and though much of what Vegas or the Vegas tourists find fun I don’t, it still makes for an generally upbeat, friendly atmosphere. The espirit d’ corps of tourists that arises from this is also sort of unmentioned in what I’ve read about the place. People will gladly help others in Vegas because we’re all sort of deer in the headlights given the dazzle of it all. (In fact several of my most gratifying moments in the town were when I was able to direct people to a hotel lobby I’d just passed or otherwise provide assistance.)

Las Vegas may be completely unnecessary in itself, but something like Las Vegas is important in the same way that television can provide an escape from the humdrum of daily living. I might prefer a little more intellectual content, but perhaps even that is self-defeating. Sometimes one just needs to get away and not think to much about things. That’s an opportunity Vegas presents in spades, and part of what makes me certain that I will return.