Times have definitely changed. I couldn't imagine my parents taking my two sisters and I to Las Vegas on vacation. We always went camping in National Parks instead. When I was growing up, Vegas was as foreign as Marrakesh. It was a mysterious, slightly sinister place where Sammy Davis and Dean Martin hung out, but it was certainly no place for a family of white-bread, middle class Lutherans. If my Mom was any kind of barometer, Las Vegas was more or less the summer home of Satan himself. But as I mentioned, times have changed. Standing in front of me at the cab stand at the Las Vegas airport is an attractive, well-scrubbed family that has no problem with the city whatsoever. They're from Houston. Each of them is wearing matching TAG Heuer sportwatches and are talking excitedly about going to see Siegfried & Roy.
These people, and thousands like them, have transformed Las Vegas from sin-city to a place a busload of visiting Baptists could enjoy. Sure, people still smoke and drink and stay up all night long gambling, but somehow this decadence has managed to become as American as Apple Pie. You see young couples struggling with baby strollers as they attempt to negotiate the steps to their upstairs table at Planet Hollywood. There are almost as many listings now for baby sitters in the Las Vegas yellow pages are there are for escort services. Kids are everywhere. On an average afternoon you'll see more teenagers with coupon books for Wet & Wild walking up and down the Strip than you'd see at The Mall of the Americas.
Granted, this hasn't all happened overnight. It's been coming for a long time. But on this particular visit, the transformation seems complete. For the first time in recent memory, the gauntlet of street people passing out brochures for the downtown titty bars is gone. The ankle deep piles of discarded flyers on the sidewalks are gone. There aren't even many posters for "The Girls of Glitter Gulch" perched on the roofs of taxi cabs. In less than a year Las Vegas has become sanitized, homogenized and much easier to rationalize as a destination for well-scrubbed families from around the world. If visiting Las Vegas used to seem like going to the zoo, it now seems a lot more like looking in the mirror.
Nowhere is this transformation more visible than at the new Hard Rock Hotel. This shrine to the post-MTV generation points directly towards the future. Instead of acres of lurid, florescent, floral print carpet, there are bleached hardwood floors. Instead of another all-you-can eat buffet there is the tasteful elegance of Mortoni's, a new Peter Morton creation every bit as good as the L.A. original. Gamblers sit around funky black roulette tables in the shape of grand pianos. Slot players pump rolls of dollar coins into spiffy new Jimi Hendrix machines hoping to line up three Purple Haze symbols for the big jackpot. The Cashier isn't even called a Cashier anymore. You cash in your winnings at "The Bank of Hard Rock." At a casual glance, there isn't a single square foot of traditional green felt in sight on the casino floor.
Don't get me wrong though. These are all cosmetic changes. Scratch the surface and you'll find that Las Vegas is still a place where self-indulgence reigns. Where greed is a mission statement. Where people still believe their luck can actually change against impossible odds. The only difference now is that the row of shiny Harley Davidson bikes parked in front of the Hard Rock Hotel belong to thirty-something doctors and lawyers. And the multitude of brides walking in full wedding garb through the casinos with a rose in one hand and two kids in tow in the other are likely to be your co-workers.
Vegas hasn't changed. People have changed. Avarice and greed are a lot closer to what now passes for family values than many people would care to admit. Las Vegas has become a place where you can see quite graphically that Andy Warhol was right. Not only does everyone want their fifteen minutes of fame, they want it now. Nobody is buying delayed gratification anymore. They worship instead at the temple of ten-to-one odds. With a wallet full of traveler's checks, a new swimsuit and just a little luck, life is sweet.
One morning after breakfast, I notice that a section of the Mirage where I am staying is roped off. Universal is filming Sargent Bilko and Steve Martin, the star, is being asked to walk through a section of slot machines over and over again. With each successive take, Martin appears more and more like your average working stiff. He may be worth millions, but he has to stand on his mark and wait for his cue just like the extras. Between takes, he drops a few quarters in a nearby slot. None of this is lost on the assembled peanut gallery of hotel guests who are much more interested in making their own movies than in what the director is doing. When the director says action, a small army of camcorders begins recording. These assembled guests could care less about Steve Martin. They are totally absorbed with their own fifteen minutes of fame, using their camcorders to record both the event and each other from every possible angle, for no other reason than to prove they were there. The whole experience is disorienting. Am I watching a movie? Am I in a movie? Or did the Mirage just hire Steve Martin to be part of the everyday afternoon spectacle? This whole thing might just be an indoor alternative to watching the Pirate Ship sink next door, or the volcano out front errupt at fifteen minute intervals.
Maybe my Dad was right. Maybe this whole thing isn't quite as simple as a generational paradigm shift. Maybe I am witnessing one of the signs of the apocalypse. My friend Janet and I aren't winning anything anyway, so we decide to find out. We rent a car and head north to visit a National Park.
As we gain altitude, climbing out of the valley toward the high desert of Northern Arizona and SouthWest Utah, it is easy to see Las Vegas as an aberration. There is a purity in the crisp desert air that creates another kind of illusion: an even more insidious illusion than the one we had just left behind. When you're driving along at eighty miles an hour on picturesque Western highways, it is easy to imagine that freedom and money are totally unconnected. That there is enough space to find happiness under these wide-open Western skies without having to play by other people's rules.
This illusion is quickly shattered when you start to see crudely hand-painted signs along the roadside warning motorists about the United Nations and the impending New World Order. You stop for gas in charming little towns that aren't even on the map, and realize you wouldn't last a week as a resident. The diversity and openness that characterize Las Vegas at its best are totally absent here. The wrong kind of car, even the wrong haircut are enough to brand you as an outsider for life. If you wanted to live in one of these high desert, largly Mormon towns, you would definitely need to play by the prevailing set of rules.
When we arrive at our destination, this feeling of playing by other people's rules is accentuated even further. Zion National Park is spectacular, and the Park Service has a plan for keeping it that way. It's all in a little book you get when you hand over your money at the entrance gate. If Las Vegas is a blinking neon sign in the desert that says Yes, then Zion National Park is a rustic hand-carved sign that says No. There are flowers you can't touch. There are streams you shouldn't go near. There are places you can't smoke. There are animals you can't feed. There is firewood you can't use to make campfires with. There are trails you can't hike on after dark. There are probably places in the middle of nowhere where you can't even pee. This is a perfect example of the government at work. A group of well-meaning bureaucrats decide they know what's best for you and all the sudden you can get fined if you recklessly walk across a creek on a dead tree trunk.
Zion, like many Western parks is trying to reduce traffic by limiting access to motor vehicles. You are encouraged to take a tram through the main canyon. Actually this wouldn't be such a bad idea, if it weren't for the fact that our tram driver has himself worked in a lather over some tourist who had passed his tram earlier in the day doing a blistering thirty miles per hour. Instead of describing the rocks above, he spends the entire trip talking about how he is going to make sure the Park Police catches this dastardly speeder and makes him pay a big fine. This guy has the zeal of a recovering alcoholic, and seems to see no irony whatsoever in his role as tram driver and protector of the public good. Telling him to "chill out" would only serve as impetus for another fifteen minute lecture, so I keep my mouth shut.
In four hours we have gone from one end of the spectrum to the other. Las Vegas is a laissez faire paradise where anything goes if you've got the money to pay for it. Zion National Park is a literal scenic paradise where absolutely nothing escapes the scrutiny of a government determined to look after your best interests. Both environments are an illusion. Given a choice however, I'm convinced I'd prefer a pocket full of money and a spin of the wheel than a scenic vista with a park ranger behind me telling me where I can pee. The contrasts are fascinating. Las Vegas is an ugly stain on the desert where smokers are still welcome, where people of every race, nationality and creed temporarily shed their differences to follow a common desire to beat the odds. If you look across the floor on a busy night in one of the larger casinos, you can almost imagine the crowd spontaneously bursting into a rousing chorus of "We Are The World." Zion on the other hand is a beautiful piece of real estate hemmed-in by a phalanx of arbitrary rules and regulations. Even the newly sanitized, family-friendly Las Vegas is a land of opportunity compared to the wide open spaces of the National Park System.
Maybe I'm wrong though. Maybe I'm just imagining this paradigm shift. It's a strange enough world as it is, without Las Vegas becoming a legitimate source of family values and the wilderness an equally perplexing source of bureaucratic rules and regulations.
Just to make sure, I decide to give the Park System one more chance. Especially since there is an even more spectacular Park just an hour or so up the road. We continue driving and arrive at Sunset Point overlooking Bryce Canyon just about an hour before sunset. The rich tapestry of forms and colors in the canyon below makes anything Las Vegas has to offer look like a child's Lego set by comparison. About fifty feet from the canyon's edge is a large sign that announces in English only that under no circumstances should anyone feed the prairie dogs and ground squirrels in the park, since they are known carriers of The Bubonic Plague. A group of Germans, completely oblivious to this rather ominous message, are feeding several rather tame ground squirrels right next to the warning sign. Maybe the Park Rangers have gone home for the day, but this is more like it.