Las Vegas X4

Our first sight of Las Vegas, approaching on I-40 after 38 years, seemed to still be an insignificant string of high-rises in the distant valley, dominated by the Stratosphere Tower. Scale can be deceptive.

By the time we got to the Circus Circus KOA Campground (a very large, nice, parking lot behind the casino), we still didn’t really comprehend the magnitude of change.

Looking down the Strip, we saw rows of casinos and their tall hotels, side by side. Hmmmm, by the map, the Venetian was only a few blocks away.

Blocks in Vegas are no ordinary blocks. Each of the new resort-hotel-casinos is a vast complex of outsized buildings and architectural effects. (Think of your largest shopping malls, with megawatts of bling). You can walk past a casino for a quarter of a mile and still not pass it!

Fortunately, there’s a good double-decker bus system for tourists, The Duece, which charges $5 for 24 hr, off-and-on-anywhere-on-the-Strip rides.

Unfortunately, even if you could be transported directly from door to door, you’d still walk miles once inside, always through a casino, to find restaurants, ticket offices, and anything that isn’t directly part of gambling.

A simple thing like drinking water, essential in the Strip’s desiccating winds, is hard to find. It’s not possible to carry enough water to stay hydrated, and the few drinking fountains we found bubbled tepid water that tasted bad. We were, however, tantalized everywhere by opulent splashing fountains, the design of which, in Vegas, seems to be a competitive sport. (Bellagio’s still holds the championship)

Somehow, the Las Vegas Strip turned me into a would-be statistician. I wanted to know how manyelevator/escalator inspectors there are. How many light-bulbs, dining chairs, lavatory door latches, water pitchers, square miles of mirrored glass, polished granite are here? How many recycled gallons of fountain water are in play every day?

It took awhile getting acclimated to moving around without the truck, but we got pretty good at it and were soon doing the town and enjoying it.

On Tuesday, Bruce’s birthday, we visited the Guggenheim (yes that Guggenheim) Hermitage Museum in the Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino: 37 paintings by the artists who broke away from academic standards of their day, like Cezanne, Mondrian, Picasso, Manet, Leger, and others, many on loan from MOMA, but some early works we’d never seen. We explored the Venetian, which has spared no expense in recreating renaissance architecture (complete with fabulous ceiling frescoes), and eventually found the working indoor reproduction of Venetian canals on the second floor. We had a light supper of very good chicken quesadillas in an ‘outdoor’ café along the canal, where gondoliers sang mostly Italian opera as they oared

embarrassed-looking tourists past our railing. The trompe l’oeile twilit-sky above us was quite uncanny, further separating us from any sense of real time.

Rested and fed, we went downstairs to see the Blue Man Group show. They are still finding creative new uses for PVC pipe and are as weird and as fun as ever. The timing of their alien-innocent responses to each new development had us giggling or howling most of the evening. The music was immense and one drumming effect vibrated our upper sternums like a deep, satisfying massage. Toward the end of the production, miles of recycled white crepe paper magically appeared behind us, to be pulled overhead and passed down to the front creating a great sea of white illuminated by black light and freezing in the strobes. Giddy and invigorating!

Wednesday, we spent a couple hours viewing and reading our way through The Bodies show in the Tropicana (human bodies, dissected, plastinated in layers, showing all the different systems of our anatomy: respectfully and scientifically presented and utterly fascinating) Afterward, we found the gallery and glass ceiling flowers by Dale Chihuly, and other imaginative gardens at the Bellagio. We watched its famous fountains dance, marveling at what well engineered nozzles can make water do.

We grabbed the Deuce to the Wynn, to attend Monty Python’s Spamalot, which truly deserves every award it has received. A wonderful mix of Python crazy, Broadway wit, and Las Vegas glitz. We came away with fantastic memories, a genuine, Python-plastic Holy Grail, the musical’s sound-track (which may give Willie Nelson some serious competition in the truck), and a mug that says, “I’m not dead yet!” which seemed appropriate after such a big day.

In Vegas, daylight is time sleep, to recover and get ready for another night on the town. At 5:00 p.m., we decided to try for tickets to a Cirque du Soleil production, (there are five different ones here in different casinos) and got tickets to Kà, in the MGM Grand. Kà is so far outside the box of theater or circus entertainment that it’s almost impossible to describe. A thin plot about royal twins, a boy and girl, abducted from their coming of age celebration and their ensuing adventures and reunion provide a simple vehicle for stage set wizardry that’s anything but simple.

Picture two index cards stuck to your upturned palms in horizontal position. One hand can move freely up and down, back and forth. The other hand can raise its card to a vertical plane and every tilt or angle in between. Now: in this production, the card that remained horizontal was a 25’ x40’ stage. The card whose surface could be tilted, was a 15 million dollar, 25’x50’stage. The dancers, acrobats, and combatants functioned and played on this plane in ALL its positions! Their footprints could even create black and silver ripples like water, even when vertical.

For a shipwreck scene, this stage was a level beach, complete with sand. Then, it slowly tipped to vertical, spilling all the sand into an unseen abyss and rose up to become a sheer mountain headwall, where acrobats climbed, dropped back, fought, and fell off, each controlling his own, almost invisible cable. At one point, in contrast to all this high tech engineering, two characters crouched downstage on a low walkway and the vertical wall/stage far behind them bore the gigantic shadows of their skillful finger shadow puppets, harkening back to man’s earliest theater in caves. Touching. Genius!

After the show, we had a late supper at the Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill, which was another kind of genius at work. Pork bratwurst with braised red cabbage and mashed potatoes, and artichoke and goat cheese agnolotti with parmesan and truffle essence.

We shared a lemon semifredo of linzer pastry, lemon cream, and strawberry compote that was cold, tart, sweet, light, and…and…oh, bliss!

Well, we have to conclude that there’s some extraordinary talent in this town, quite apart from the gaming industry. Four days, many rides on the Deuce, many miles walked, two fine exhibits, three fine shows, and we never gambled a cent!

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