Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The View That Did It

Southern California is the land of predictable space. If ever you spot a rare parcel in Los Angeles or anywhere within the region, you might think, based on the size, that it could soon be a parking garage, a drive-thru convenience store, a Walgreen's, maybe even a strip mall, and you would be right. In fact, over a year ago, there was one in Valencia, which began at a corner on the left, and stretched to a barrier of trees far on the right. Obviously, with how measured it looked, it had to become a strip mall and indeed it did, a high-end strip mall with the pricey Bristol Farms supermarket as its anchor. There's no surprise to what could become reality here in retail and parking.

The first night my family and I were in Las Vegas, arriving a little after 9 p.m. after having endured what should have been documented widely as one hell of a desert traffic jam, I felt uneasy when I got out of the rented SUV after we had parked in front of our room. This didn't feel right. A concrete wall, and then a fence after that, and was it certain that shady figures didn't hang out here? It felt like Miami after-hours. But whereas there you can feel the darkness at times, that which you'd rather remain separated from, this darkness left you alone. It has no reason to bother you. Why should it cause trouble for people just looking to gamble? That wasn't quite what I was after at that moment, feeling heavily the sense of an abandoned area, even though we were just off the Strip and our hotel (sort of) was next to the Hooters Hotel and Casino, not far if you walked and not even a minute to get there if you drive.

Then next to the SUV, I shook off that worried feeling and looked around closer. This was the first time in years upon years that I felt unencumbered by strip malls and any shopping districts trying to make themselves part of the feeling of an area. I don't mind malls so much, nor some of the shopping centers surrounding them, but you start to notice quickly wherever you are that the mall looks so incongruous to where it is.

Maybe that's pushing it though. I don't think often about that anyway. The only way you know you're in Valencia in the Santa Clarita Valley is if you spot the shopping center with the Pavilion's supermarket and then the Valencia Town Center Mall another block up. That's the only distinction Valencia has in being Valencia. I think I was just looking for something unique about where I was; you know, outside of the gargantuan Las Vegas Strip close to us.

My first taste of the unique was in seeing planes take off from McCarran International Airport right from where I was standing. I had never been that close to an airport. Living in Casselberry near Orlando in Florida, my parents took me to Orlando International Airport to watch planes take off and land, but we still had to drive for a bit to get there. In Coral Springs and Pembroke Pines, we'd go to Fort Lauderdale International to watch the fighter jets and other aircraft take off from there for what was then the Shell Air and Sea Show, catering to the thousands on the beach. Yet, we still had to drive out to there, about 25 minutes or so, using the highway. Same thing with Los Angeles International: Time spent on freeways and we're there. There was never any airport close to me until this moment. And here I was, watching a 737 take off (even in darkness, I can figure out what plane is in the air), and I was so impressed by this. Comes the third trip to Vegas and we're driving along roads where we see planes on approach to McCarran, seemingly hovering right above us, as if they had the capabilities of helicopters, the closer ones extending their landing gear. I loved this and it's why I want to be there. Plus I've seen other photos from Vegas online showing 747s taking off from McCarran, so I'm set, as the 747 is my favorite aircraft. Doesn't matter which model. I like them all.

Being that Vegas is right in the desert, you don't have to go far to find what you want. No one would dare drive for a time to find, say, a pharmacy, or a blackjack table. If you want it, they got it right nearby. It ties into what I wrote early this morning about having focus in Las Vegas, and only being there because you know what you want. The landscape reflects it. It also leads into some welcome unpredictability, such as spotting a CVS Pharmacy along the Strip, as well as thousands of feet of a souvenir store with t-shirts and trinkets cheap enough to give to relatives and blow the rest of the money on slot machines and other games of generally failed chance. The New York-New York casino has this locked photo wall, I think near the slot machines, showing people who have won big, holding big checks. One of the people in the photos was holding a check for over $400,000. I want to be that person, but I've reconciled myself to the fact that it's never that easy anyway and you apparently have to gamble big to win big, and risk losing big in the process. The biggest amount I've won was $10 from a $0.25 slot machine at the MGM Grand on my first-ever night in Vegas. Spent $2 trying to win more and pocketed the other $8.

Even with finding what I never expected in Vegas, that's not what did it for me and made me feel like I was home. Not the generously short skirts the Caesar's Palace cocktail waitresses wear, not the barrage of billboards and video advertisements along the Strip that offer so many possibilities, and yet never account for the too-few hours in the day and especially the night; not even Mandalay Bay, where I wish I could live.

We were three miles from Hoover Dam, standing on a roadside, looking out at houses near Lake Mead. One had a fountain right on the driveway and I wanted that as my house. It had that sense of relaxation I wanted in a house. Then we drove up to the Hacienda Hotel and Casino and parked in their lot. Never expected to find a casino this far out, but considering tourists visiting Hoover Dam, it's logical, if not for how empty it was when we went in after the experience that made Las Vegas home for me.

Adjacent to the Hacienda is a mountainside that you can walk on. It has benches along the path where you can sit and remain stunned at the view. The deep blue waters of Lake Mead, smoother than you'd expect a lake to be. I looked out at this, at a tall, separate chunk of rock across from where we stood, and it felt like all the dreams I ever had in my life had combined to create this view. This is where I needed to be from then on. This is where my life could bloom better than in the staid Santa Clarita Valley.

I think about that view often, along with the belief that if you can't find inspiration in Las Vegas as any kind of writer or artist, then you'd better quit your craft. The stories are not only in the faces of the gamblers you'll find in the casinos. There's also those you can imagine walking along the edge of the road in the emptiest parts of Las Vegas, away from the Strip, as well as that view of Lake Mead. And then you tie your own life together with everything you see. And you become a new person, different from what you believed yourself to be. Never believe that nationally-held stigma about Las Vegas. Any city that can thrive in the desert is more noteworthy than a hundred Clevelands.