Arriving in Las Vegas

June 28, 2024
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MY NEXT STOP, after Tijuana, was the flashy US gambling resort of Las Vegas.

Las Vegas, Vegas for short, has about the same population as Tijuana, and was conjured out of the desert in the same era and on a similar timescale.

The name Las Vegas means ‘the meadows’. Just as Tijuana was a ranch almost until the year 1900, so too was Las Vegas, the meadows in question being a sort of oasis in the Nevada desert.

Like Tijuana, Vegas was still a sleepy hollow as late as the 1950s, when, like Tijuana, it suddenly exploded toward its present condition of two million plus. It is, however, more prosperous than Tijuana: that, no one can deny.

As the crow flies, Las Vegas is about 360 km or 225 miles from Los Angeles in a northeasterly and inland direction.

Las Vegas, Nevada, amid other southwestern US cities and states. Map data ©2024 Google. North at top for this and the next three maps.

Vegas lies in the bottom corner of the state of Nevada, a name that means ‘snowy’ in Spanish, though it is mostly desert.

Inhabited at the time only by ranchers, miners, and several small bands of Native Americans, Nevada, the driest territory in the USA, was made into a state during the US Civil War because Abraham Lincoln needed the output of its silver mines to pay the troops. As such, its state flag bears the motto ‘Battle Born’ and it is nicknamed the ‘Silver State’. All the same, as late as 1940, the entire population of Nevada, Vegas included, was still only 110,000.

Both Tijuana and Vegas prospered as a result of being handy to a booming California and catering to the vices of the Californians, allowing them to do things that were illegal in California. In the case of Tijuana this was mainly drinking during Prohibition, with a certain amount of legitimate cultural tourism thereafter, while for Vegas it was, of course, casino gambling. Perhaps because Vegas wasn’t actually outside the USA, the gambling experience began to attract people from all over the 48 states of the contiguous USA as they then were, most of which didn’t allow casino gambling either.

The original oasis could only withstand a certain amount of extraction to water a growing city, and the downtown area ended up subsiding by one to two metres by the mid-1980s. These days, the city gets nearly all of its water from Lake Mead, behind the nearby Hoover Dam, and surplus water is pumped back into the aquifer beneath Las Vegas to recharge it.

Las Vegas City (inside the red dotted lines), wider metro area, Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. Map data ©2024 Google.

Here is a vintage photo of Fremont Street, one of the main streets of Vegas, just as the gambling boom was starting to take off at the start of the 1950s.

Fremont Street, in downtown Las Vegas, by night in 1952. Public domain photograph by Edward N. Edstrom, via Wikimedia Commons.

We used to have the same neon cowboy in Auckland for a while: clearly the sort of thing hick towns used to go for back then. Anyhow, here is the same area of Vegas today. Fremont Street is now covered over and lasers project an ever-changing light show on its roof. It’s where the locals go for free entertainment.

And for cheap eats, which are laid on as a way of keeping people gambling, but which a visitor like myself could take advantage of without gambling.

I got tacos for $8. The mood of the street was wild and the laser show was great!

The first place I went to was Planet Hollywood and Oceans One. You could get a meal for seven bucks and a beer for four.

I also went to Treasure Island, where you could get a full meal in the food hall for fourteen. At the Egyptian-themed Luxor Hotel and Casino, though, meals were more like thirty and steak was sixty.

The Luxor

But Vegas wasn’t the first thing I did.

First of all, I paid a visit to the Hoover Dam, as part of a longer tour that would also take in a section of Route 66 and the Grand Canyon.

The Hoover Dam and a nearby road bridge, diverting traffic which used to go over the top of the dam

More than a hundred people were killed building the Hoover Dam in the early 1930s, those being the pre-OSHA days when workers ate lunch sitting on girders.

‘Lunchtime Atop a Skyscraper’: Photograph by Charles Clyde Ebbets, published in the New York Herald-Tribune on 2 October 1932, now in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

People make fun of today’s health and safety restrictions — all those road cones and people standing around directing the traffic — but you can see the point of such modern inconveniences, even if they did get things done quicker in the old days.

They have a memorial to the workers killed building the Hoover Dam, along with some other inspirational statues and artwork, in a section of the dam precinct called the Monument Plaza.

(Unfortunately, the Monument Plaza was being renovated while we were there, so we could not visit it.)

Lake Mead is now highly stressed itself: below its full-capacity surface level of 1,229 feet (375 m) above sea level for more than forty years now. The level at which a low-water emergency is declared is 1,075 feet and Lake Mead is quite normally below that level nowadays. The latest plan is to partly cover the lake with floating photovoltaic panels, which will reduce evaporation while at the same time greatly adding to its electric power output.

Here is a video I made of the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead:

After the Hoover Dam, I headed for the famous mile-deep Grand Canyon, further up the Colorado River.

Las Vegas City and Metro Area in relation to Lake Mead and the Grand Canyon. Map data ©2024 Google.

A diorama of the Grand Canyon

On the way to the Grand Canyon, we passed through Seligman, Arizona, which bills itself as the birthplace of the historic Route 66 (which misses Las Vegas).

The Route 66 Motoporium in Seligman, Arizona

The first half of the route followed by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson in the classic movie Easy Rider was on Route 66, earlier extolled in song by Nat King Cole as the route on which you “get your kicks.”

And then we went to the Grand Canyon, where there are three main tourist areas: The Grand Canyon Village on the south side; the North Rim, which is less developed and accessible from the Village by a long down-and-up hike by way of the Black Bridge at the very bottom of the canyon; and, about 30 km to the east of the Village by road, Desert View, where you can look along the Grand Canyon as it curves to the north.

The Three Tourist Areas of the Grand Canyon. Map data ©2024 Google.

Our tour guide, Claudiu, dropped us at the Grand Canyon Village, after sending me an itinerary of what to see and do.

In addition to looking over it from the top, you can also go to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. You used to be able to go by donkey, till the donkeys stopped getting used to people in the Pandemic.

Here is a photo of the Black Bridge, or Kaibab Trail Suspension Bridge, at the bottom of the canyon, a bridge that opened in 1928. It was the only crossing for hundreds of river miles till the nearby Silver Bridge was built. Building it was a heroic undertaking because of the difficulty of getting all the materials down to where they were needed.

'The Black Bridge on the South Kaibab Trail, seen from above on the trail, in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona'. Photo by Fredlyfish4, 8 December 2013, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

At Desert View, the sights include the Desert View Watchtower, with Hopi murals lately restored, and Desert View Point and the 1956 Aviation Accident Memorial.

There is a series of videos called Grand Canyon in Depth, by the US National Park Service. Here is number 5 in that series, about the Desert View Watchtower.

The aviation accident in question, the 1956 Grand Canyon Mid-Air Collision, happened when two airliners deviated from their assigned routes toward the Grand Canyon, most probably to offer the passengers a view of the canyon, at the same time.

In those days such things were permitted, but the air traffic rules were tightened up afterward.

Since then, there have still been quite a few plane crashes into the Grand Canyon caused by people sightseeing and not paying enough attention to where they were going, but only with smaller planes.

There are also 1,000-year-old ruins left by the Pueblo Native American culture, and a museum, at Tusayan, a few kilometres south of the Grand Canyon Village.

I really enjoyed the Canyon, which I have visited before, but not for years past. I didn’t go to the glass-floored Skywalk because that is an additional eighty dollars on top of the $200 I paid for the tour.

Here is my own video, looking out over the Grand Canyon.

And so, back to Vegas.

The first place I went was the Mirage Hotel. And then, to have a look inside Caesars Palace, where there was beautiful sculpture.

The Flamingo Hotel, one of the original casinos, has real flamingos. Flamingo was named after the gangster Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend, who had long legs apparently. And yeah, gangsters like Siegel were heavily involved in the development of Vegas back in the day: the film Casino is all about that.

I walked from the south of the Strip to the north.

Next to Caesar’s Palace I went to Bellagio. It has an amazing fountain show, which is in my video here.

I was at the MGM awards at Bellagio where I saw Mariah Carey on stage.

And across the road there is Paris.

On the more tragic side, there were homeless people around. and lots of drunks and topless guys showing off their chests.

The average house price in Vegas is 400,000 dollars but you can get an undeveloped section for ten thousand.

I went for a trip by Uber. Both the Uber driver and a person I went to the Grand Canyon with both said that they would not stand in a crowd outside because of mass shootings, such as the one carried out in 2017.

Here are some more scenes.


Finally, it is worth noting that as Las Vegas has a hot desert climate, the best weather is, apparently, in October and November.

Next: Los Angeles.


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