Las Vegas — the Skull Beneath the Skin

Las Vegas. Sin City. World’s largest theme park for adults. You can take the woman out of the woods, but apparently you can’t take the woods out of the woman. Doesn’t matter if you stick her in front of a Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, Nevada for a souvenir picture to prove she really was there, she doesn’t want to go in. She’s more interested in the street scenes, in the skull beneath the skin.

Buck and I almost didn’t make the side trip  to Las Vegas between our time at the Grand Canyon and our reservations at the Zion Lodge in Utah.  But we finally decided that it was a phenomenon to see, a man-made landscape rich with images, bits of conversation, and enough bizarre to fill up a writer’s specialty-box toolkit. Our ambivalence showed even in our choice of places to stay: not a casino hotel on the strip, but an older Residence Inn nearby set in an oasis-like low-walled garden lush with pale pink tea roses. We drove in late Friday afternoon from Hoover Dam, and made reservations at an Italian restaurant recommended by a front desk clerk. We wanted something close, reasonably quiet, maybe a little pasta and a glass of red. I looked up the place on the laptop. It was new. I called them. Nice young woman told me their food was great, to come on over. Said if I parked in the back and was nervous about going back to my car, someone would walk with me. My ears began to rotate and prickle at this. I could hear a lot of noise in the background. She explained that was the bar, where ESPN was doing an actuality — something about football. I gave Buck one of my “I don’t think so. . . . ” opinions, but he said, “What the hell, we’re in Las Vegas. We just want some dinner. How bad can it be?” I changed into white jeans and we drove the few blocks to this restaurant. An animated young guy wearing a football jersey rapped on our car window when we entered the crowded parking lot. “Should still be some spaces in the back!” he said. Buck looked at me. I rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders. We went in. ESPN had wrapped up, the young, very sweet,  spike-heeled hostess shouted to us, but “Don’t worry, the live band will be cranking up soon. They’re really good!” Yep. Well, that did it. We drove around some more, knowing that a nice quiet Italian dinner existed somewhere in this restaurant-poor town, but it was late, we were tired and hungry, and nothing sounded more wonderful than going back to the Residence Inn, pouring ourselves a drink, and ordering in Chinese food.

And it was great. Buck went down to the lobby after our feast and bought a couple of pints of chocolate ice cream from the inn’s store.

The next day, we donned shorts, t-shirts and jogging shoes and set out to hike The Strip. We walked at least 8 miles on this warm sun-filled day, stopped for lunch at a restaurant in one of Steve Wynn’s casinos, and toward the end of the day wandered through the labyrinthine MGM Grand until we found the Monorail station, which we rode back to the Las Vegas Convention Center right across from our hotel. I had brought along a slinky black dress and high heels just in case we (a) stopped in Las Vegas and (b) went to a slinky-black-dress place for dinner. But I was the one who wound up suggesting to Buck that we put up our feet and order another delivery supper from the same restaurant we ordered from the night before.  We had seen the show, or skimmed the surface anyway, and were ready to get on to the splendid natural environment of Zion National Park in neighboring Utah.

I have a swirl of conflicting thoughts trying to write even a few descriptive paragraphs about our short visit. Some character sketches I’m saving for my “Judge Kate” mystery series (slow, but in process!).  Vegas is a target-rich environment for wanna-be writers, that’s for sure. Glitzy to garish, it’s all there.

The grass is absolute perfection at Wynn and Encore. Should be — it’s SYNgrass, good for a desert eco-system and helps promote the image that perfection is not only attainable, but sustainable.
Opulence reigns at Wynn.
Even over the tasteful music and soothing sounds of rushing water, I could hear the electronic beep of the slots. People walked by with Tiffany shopping bags. I felt as though I had fallen through a worm hole in the time-space continuum and landed in someone else’s Holodeck fantasy.It was beautiful, but strange.

Out on the street I saw giggling gaggles of tipsy girls. They were over 21, so maybe I should call them women, but let’s face it, these kids were still girls, college-age adorable colts wearing faux designer mini dresses, teetering along in stiletto heels. Looked like bunches of brides and their maids. Innocence itself, but from the high sober distance of age and experience, I saw sharks circling and hoped their larks ended safely back home in Peoria or Charleston.

That first evening, circling around blocks in our fruitless search for a quiet booth and even quieter Sinatra, we took a lushly landscaped wrong turn by one of the huge casino complexes bordering The Strip and found ourselves facing a security booth manned by a two-legged, highly trained Doberman, just waiting for the dog whistle for his professional smile to turn dangerous. He looked like armed muscle, and not altogether ready to believe that two lost-looking tourists in a black Lincoln Town Car with Florida plates had strayed onto his turf accidentally. He asked where we were trying to go, gave us rapid-fire instructions (twice) on how to use the tunnel under the hotel that would drop us off right in front of the Convention Center, then raised the electronic gate so we could u-turn and get the heck out of there. The tunnel under the hotel idea sounded pretty sketchy, but we barreled into it nonetheless, zigged when we should have zagged and wound up in the “Taxi Cabs and Limos Only” line, where we emerged at the front of the hotel and were subjected to some derision and verbal insult by the professionals. By this time, we really were ready to get back to our nice, comfy Residence Inn room! Which we did, followed by scotch and water for me and a fine Manhattan cocktail for Buck, then the aforementioned Chinese food and chocolate ice cream.

Buck’s NRA (National Rifle Association) cap and sinewy old guy swagger largely inoculated us from the outstretched hands of the smut leafleteers who litter the sidewalks. Unlicensed street performers had big-eyed, sad-looking confederates talking them up, trying to draw a few paying customers. The street performers had to be sweltering in their get-ups. I saw several Darth Vaders, one Chewbacca, a dwarf Elvis and several break-dancing guys in military costumes covered with theatrical paint designed to make them look like bronze statues come to life. I wondered if the stuff gradually suffocated or poisoned them.

There are casino-hotel-entertainment complexes designed to evoke city skylines, like New York New York.
Or “Paris.”

On almost every street corner I saw nondescript folks wearing some sort of uniform that made me think of a prohibition-era temperance society. They were soliciting money, they said, to help provide shelter for the homeless. Since coming back home, I have learned that some of the Las Vegas homeless have turned the city’s underground flood channels into dwelling places. Check out Matt O’Brien’s 2007 book, Beneath the Neon, and his 2010 collection of stories, My Week at the Blue Angel. I bought a Kindle edition of Beneath the Neon today.

Most of what I saw in this day-time stroll were gawkers and hawkers, but I did see plenty of hard-eyed watchers, staggering drunks and some folks passed out on the curb. The open container laws are permissive, so plenty of people walk along turning up a bottle of beer or drinking from a massive souvenir slushy drink. Those big drinks range from 32 to 100 ounces of fruit juice, sugar, crushed ice and Everclear grain alcohol. They cost anywhere from $12 to $30. That’s a lot of brain-dead, right there.

There was this guy we saw. He walked in that wide-legged stance assumed by a drunk man trying to use his legs as a two parts of a tripod. He clutched a huge, vase-shaped opaque blue plastic glass in one hand, paused by an open city-provided trash container, reached over into it, came out with another huge, vase-shaped opaque blue plastic glass, dropped the one he had finished into the trash, turned the scavenged drink remains up for a long pull, and emitted a roar that sounded like a water buffalo: part primal pleasure and part warning. “Mine! I found it. It’s mine!”

I’m still shocked, stunned by this and will never forget that sound, or the look of this man-beast as he lumbered and stagger-stepped past us, mad blue eyes wide and staring in the blinding desert sun.

We sat cross-legged on the bed in our Residence Inn room Saturday night, bags repacked, goggle-eyed from the fun-house mirror we had walked through all day. We talked about all that we had seen and done so far on our road trip odyssey and wondered what Utah would bring to the table. We were eager to get on the road to Zion.

The Grand Canyon — Just Being There

It’s the planning before a trip that almost kills it. I’m not a happy-go-lucky trip planner. It’s my nature to over-engineer, to want to tie down every little detail, to fret about all the uncontrollable and unknowable elements that constitute an adventure. What if? What if? What if?  Then I worry about things that might happen while we’re gone, everything from an early hurricane to a water leak that floods the house. Once all those concerns are tamped down, the existential ones begin. What are we running from? What are we running to? Do we really want to go anywhere?  Did I ever tell you I’m a really fun gal?

Sometimes a trip is just a trip. I’m sorry now that I was still wrapped too tight to go down into the Grand Canyon. After our experience at Bryce, I understand now that (a) I had the physical ability to do it and (b) our experience at Grand Canyon would have been even fuller, more dimensional, and we would have in some ineffable way, become part of the canyon.

This insight, however, is like life in general, where the “if onlyies” can only be seen backwards, and each step along the path, even those tentative ones where we edge up to the rim, have to happen before we can enjoy the lush valleys of life, before we build the emotional strength to descend into arid canyons, play among the rocky amphitheatres and struggle, victorious, to the sky.

I don’t mean to leave the impression that we just walked to the rim and peered over. Over our three nights there, we hiked both paved and unpaved portions of the rim trail, from Mather Point all the way to Pima Point, near Hermit’s Rest, where we caught a shuttle back. We rousted ourselves out of bed about 4:30 one morning to go out to Yavapai and Mather Points to watch a sunrise. We walked the Trail of Time.

The Grand Canyon Village, at the South Rim, is a crossroads of pilgrims from all over the world. Roughly five million visit every year. The average visit length is two hours.

Two hours. I thought that was a typo when I read it in some park literature. That was before I saw the tour buses lined up like runners at a marathon line, the bass notes of diesel engines ever-present. Tour directors blew whistles at their charges and barked instructions like drill sergeants. “Okay, people. Look at your watches. It’s 10 o’clock. One hour! Got it? The rim is that way! Be back eleven o’clock! Not back? Long walk to Los Angeles!”

Most of the visitors we saw were Japanese, Chinese, German and French. This was true not only for the Grand Canyon, but Zion and Bryce as well. We heard many languages, and saw beautiful children. We mingled with folks at the geology museum, rim restaurants, and on the more highly traveled paved portions of the rim trail.

Mostly, though, we found spots out on the unpaved portions of the rim trail, areas where most visitors had neither time, inclination or perhaps ability to wander, and we stood or sat, and just took it all in.

Next: Hoover Dam, then Las Vegas

Pensacola to the Grand Canyon Three Nights on the Road

One thousand seven hundred and fifty miles from our gate to the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. We left Florida very quickly, sliced through slivers of Alabama and Mississippi on I-10 and  into Louisiana, where we cut north at Hammond and took I-49 North to Shreveport. Familiar territory up to this point, so I drank my good, hot coffee, played with our laptop tethered to my Droid cell phone for high-speed internet, and fooled around with maps, determined to prove that women can too, refold a map properly.

“Louisiana Beinvenue!” I could tell blindfolded that we had arrived in Louisiana once I heard voices of folks offering up coffee, juice and pralines in the welcome center. In the clang and go of smoke-hazed gaming rooms  of convenience stores with hard liquor displays, the accent can sound rough, thuggish. But in the open space of a borderlands welcome center, with pretty fields and everything green, the drawl falls like wild honey on my ear, and I find it lovely.

Somewhere near Baton Rouge, I saw a huge billboard for Blue Runner Creole Gumbo Base, then a sign for an old community, Butte LaRose, located on a high point where the Atchafalaya River makes a sharp bend. I grabbed a pencil to scribble the evocative names on a steno pad: Atchafalaya Homes “The Proof Is In The Roof,”  Desperado’s Cabaret in Lafayette, and the Opelousas Catfish Festival.

And then we were in East Texas, headed toward Dallas. We stopped for the night this side of Big “D” at a Hampton Inn in Lindale, near Tyler. Found supper at a nearby Cracker Barrel. The parking lot was full, and the inside was noisy with big families, but everybody seemed to be having a good time and the positive energy was infectious. Turns out it was the weekend for the huge swap meet that occurs monthly in nearby Canton, Texas. The cashier told us that the next night, a Saturday, would be so covered up with people it would be like a swarm of locusts descended on the place, eating all the food and buying out the gift shop. Sounds like a great problem for a business to have.

Navigational skills are not my strong suit (can you hear Buck guffawing in the background, as in what navigational skills?) , so getting through Dallas took about an hour and a half. Buck knows that the greater my certainty in a particular driving route, the greater the likelihood that I am 180° wrong, but in a high traffic, high speed, high construction zone, he was pretty much at the mercy of my barked instructions.

From Dallas, we angled northwesterly toward Amarillo, where we would pick up I-40 to New Mexico. A billboard near Amarillo spun my head around. It advertised the Jesus Christ is Lord Not a Swear Word Travel CenterShortly after that is when we began to see vast wind ranches. They were in the Wildorado, Texas area, close to the New Mexico border.  The post-apocalyptic sight of these huge turbines on one side of the highway and a cattle feed lot on the other was eerie.

We bedded down in Tucumcari, New Mexico at another Hilton-owned Hampton Inn. Nice clean places with reliably comfortable king-size beds and good oatmeal and other healthful options for breakfast. We were looking for an early supper, and the manager recommended Del’s.

 Del’s is an old place. Everything about it looks tired. Even the steer on top of the sign. But our server was not tired. She had a happy glow that seemed to light her up from the inside out, like a natural form of neon. And the chicken fajitas were good.

Maybe I was wrong about that steer. He looks kind of perky after all. Much better than the poor old Palomino Motel across the street. Somehow I just can’t imagine Martin Milner or George Maharis spending a night there.

The next morning we filled up with gas and used the provided windshield squeegees to wash scrape a ton of bright yellow bug guts off the car. It was 60° and bright as we left Tucumcari. This day we saw three black cows near Las Vegas, New Mexico lying on red clay trying to get a little shade from a crumbling billboard. I didn’t see any shade. We passed exits for Roswell (that Roswell), Taciturn and Moriarty.

One more night passed, and we began to climb. Finally, at Flagstaff, we turned North onto US-180 toward Grand Canyon Village and a bed inside the park at the Maswik Lodge. We had a little time before check-in, so we parked in one of the huge lots. Forget the visitor’s center. We wanted to see what we came to see, to find out if it’s really such a big deal.

The earth fell away in front of me. My belly flip-flopped as my mind tried to put words to the incredible vision I saw. Worth it? I’m embarrassed to have even wondered.

Next: our 3 nights-2 1/2 days at Grand Canyon, followed by its polar opposite — a hiker’s guide to the Las Vegas strip.


My Mother’s Daughter

I am not by nature a liar; or maybe I am, and it is only the years of loving Buck and wanting to be worthy of his love that have curbed my natural tendency to self-protect, lie, color and shade to add a pretty, if thin, patina.

“Daddy’s little girl.” That was me. I don’t even remember much about my mother except for early vignettes and later psychosis. The early stuff was a real mixed bag.

She couldn’t stand a messy refrigerator.  I remember watching her meticulously remove the cap from a bottle of ketchup stored in the refrigerator door, wipe accumulated dried bits from the mouth, dry the bottle, and replace it on the refrigerator door shelf.

She was thrifty, but had an earnest desire to climb the middle-class ladder.  Like so many women of her era, Heloise’s Hints were required reading. I’m pretty sure that’s where she learned to take the last bits of bar soap, melt them together, and roll them into balls. Somehow she managed to melt the blue Zest separately and then combine it with the white soap so that each ball came out marbled with blue and white. These hand-crafted soap balls turned into decoration for the bathroom.

Before I was born, she took my half-sisters, both pale as night-blooming Cereus, one with white-blond hair, the other with finest red, and transported them far from the Mississippi farmlands, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins they had known into the exotic heat of Miami, Florida with her new husband, a man with black hair, high cheekbones, sun-darkened deep olive skin, flashing eyes and teeth: my father.

Three babies came, and the older girls had to take care of my brothers and me; their mother’s “new” family. The sisters were given to understand that mother had traded up, and this new family would get it right. Their job was to change our diapers, bathe us, play with us, read to us, and generally shut up and fade into the wallpaper like good half-sisters. When my dad died at age 51, he had become a successful home builder, sweet as sugar and gentle as a lamb. But at the time those young girls were first required to call him “Daddy,” he was still a primitive with potential, and rough as a cob.

No wonder my oldest sister left to go to nursing school as soon as she could and then married when I was six. The other girl had to drop out of college after a terrible horse-riding accident and come back home. That must have been awful for her. I loved having her back. She was the spark of life that made my day. She was naughty and a rebel and an in-your-face rule breaker. And she stood up for us kids.

Mother had a strange way of punishing us. If my brothers and I got into some kind of tussle, everybody got punished. We had to go cut our own switch from one of her strong, springy shrubs. After the punishment, when we were still mad and upset, we had to hug each other. “Now hug your brother. You know you love him, don’t you?” That technique insured that we could never, ever hug each other comfortably, even as adults.

Poison pills and individual exploding devices were placed into the mix when we were children by this mother who loved us all the best she could, but who had a growing network of spider webs in her brain caused by mental illness created by organic disease, combined with her own childhood which spawned shame chiseled like stone tablets on her heart. She had no choice but to pass them on to her children, a heavy legacy.

Buck is the casting mold for a straight arrow. My bent shaft flies nearly true after 30 years of living intimately with and learning from this exceptional man.

And yet, when we planned an on-again, off-again, ultimately on-again road trip to the far West’s Grand Canyon country and the parks of Utah, one that would take us within several hundred miles of where my sister lives, I edited the possibility of a meet-up with her and her husband out of our plans, and my arrow rippled, went tilt, and ricocheted back to me.

The last time we saw each other in person seemed to go fairly well, but there were negative repercussions in the weeks that followed that took us years to repair. Those poison pills and IEDs I mentioned earlier. Gradually, we’ve built a relationship based on mutual respect and genuine love. E-mails with occasional phone calls have proved to be the best way for our fine analytical brains to keep Mother out of the room when we communicate.

My sister is an artist. She creates beauty from brokenness. She is at a time of life when extra drama from any quarter is debilitating and can shatter her ability to focus on the person she loves most in the world, her husband of the past half-century, and her work, including her art and her garden, which is a creative extension and further expression of her art.

And so, if you read this, dear sister, I don’t think you will be surprised to hear me acknowledge that I am deeply flawed in the ability to love department, with one exception, and you know how fundamentally Buck has had the key to unlock the massive armored door to my heart.

He would tell anyone that I am the lovingest woman in the whole wide world. And as to him, that’s not an unreasonable declaration, even for a man with stars in his eyes after all these years. But except for him, I am selfish with my time and the attention toward others I love is doled out in teaspoons.

It has been painful for me to look in the mirror these past weeks, see flashes of another woman there, and realize that I am, after all, at least as much my mother’s daughter as my daddy’s girl, hoarding love into my own little pile as though it were nuggets from a personal mining claim.

I had decided not to tell the story of our incredible trip out West; to hoard it, too, out of shame for not making the extra effort to see my sister.

But then, I read Richard Gilbert’s interview with author Alethea Black, and remembered a story of hers I read several years ago called The Only Way Out Is Through, originally published in Narrative Magazine.  Alethea had very kindly written to me back in 2009 after my story, Tenderness, appeared in Brevity. We talked about how interesting it was that both of our stories involved a deer being hit by a vehicle.

I downloaded Alethea’s collection of fine stories, I Knew You’d Be Lovely, and immediately re-read The Only Way Out Is Through.  It was even better than I remembered, maybe because I read it sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a remote lodge in Zion Canyon National Park, Utah.

While I mulled over what to do with the huge package of experiences from our trip, Alethea’s title kept playing over and over in my mind, a rhythmic back beat, like the sound of a train running over tracks late in the night on a high prairie next to a wind farm: the only way out is through, the only way out is through, the only way out is through.

Thank you, Alethea. Your words and stories, (so often described as “unflinching,” because they are), helped me turn the magnifying glass inward, remove the arrow, bleed awhile, and go on.

The silver lining of this cloud of unresolved childhood issues is this: apparently I have finally become incapable of dissimulation for my own convenience without suffering swift, self-administered retribution.

I’ve been hiding amongst the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, playing peekaboo in the Queens Garden, rim walking in the Grand Canyon, slipping on slick rocks overhanging gorgeous grottoes at Zion, and listening to stunning, other-worldly music performed in Salt Lake City. This trip became a true spiritual odyssey, a journey to me that began with a denial, and then continued with a panoply of emotions that will be carving and shaping me for years like wind, like water freezing and thawing and freezing again: exhilaration, shame, joy, fear of physical challenges and personal inadequacy, passion, perseverance, discovery, triumph, wonder, and self-awareness.

It will take some time to show, to tell.