Get Big Pivots

This year it was butt-cheeks. Up and down the Las Vegas Strip from early morning until late night were young women, always in pairs, feathered up in colorful plumages, all eager for eye contact and conversation, all revealing the most posterior skin possible without being 100% bare-ass naked.

I tried not to leer. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. If you can’t be a dirty old man in Vegas, where can you?

Every third year or so I visit Las Vegas in mid-December for a conference about the Colorado River. I remember that first year vividly. I had made a beeline to Hoover Dam, for a tour of that colossal engineering feat that has reinvented American West, taming an unruly river and giving Los Angeles the electricity and water it needed to become the sprawling metropolis it was to become.

Then I began studying the casinos, shops, and hotels that line Las Vegas Boulevard. I had understood that Vegas was built on artifice. At the Venetian, I watched gondoliers steer their boats in canals on a concourse lined with shops and restaurants. The Excalibur was a late 20th century interpretation of King Arthur’s court.

But I was caught off-guard, frozen temporarily at the intersection of realities, the factual and actual, the feigned and artificial, as I strolled through a shopping complex with a backdrop of a North Africa desert setting. The lighting suggested dusk at the oasis. Mentally, I staggered briefly. Hadn’t the sun already set on me several hours before when I was at Hoover Dam?

Gradually, I came to understand that on the Strip in Las Vegas, all is illusion and allusion.

Vegas on that first trip was relatively cheap for a cheap-skate like me. I stayed at a hotel across the street from Caesars Palace, where the water conference was held, in a casino/hotel built around the vague theme of the Orient. Even then it was headed for demolition. The Great Recession delayed the wrecking-balls and the rates got even better, one year plunging to $23 per night. But the rooms were still good, frankly better than anywhere else I stayed on my annual rambles.

That cheap hotel is gone now, replaced several years ago by something taller, shinier. The Strip has also transformed in other ways. The Cosmopolitan, which opened in 2010, was the first of the high rises that had no visible outward theme. It has been joined by many others, also tall and sleek. They are thin, too, as sleek as a competitive cross-country skier. One of the newest towers tilts, reflecting a new theme in architecture that I first observed in Toronto and Vancouver.

But if sophistication has itself become a theme in the architecture, hard on the Strip, it’s still bright, dazzling lights, a place that never sleeps, always hustling, a constant barrage of come-hithers.

A few of the feathered femmes carried faux whips. I brushed off their entreaties although one evening I did pause long enough to see cell phones pulled out to record a staged butt-whipping of a cowboy-hatted tourist by these bill-hatted dominatrixes.

Many see the displays of water on The Strip as the greatest illusion of all. The Mirage and Treasure Island have waterfalls and lagoons, while the Bellagio delights every hour with its choreography of water squirted high into the air under a rainbow of lights. This occurs in a place that gets about 10 centimeters (4 inches) of precipitation naturally. My first year to the water conference, somebody from the Sierra Club in Los Angeles asked whether this wasn’t a cavalier use of water in a desert environment.

Patricia Mulroy, then the boss of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, lectured her inquisitor about the economics of Nevada. A giant proportion of Nevada’s economy is tied up in the Strip, and the water use of those recycling fountains and other features is miniscule. Ostentatious, but miniscule.

The water comes from the Colorado River, itself mostly derived from winter snows in the Rocky Mountains around Steamboat Springs, Telluride and other mountain resorts. The water yield of melting snow has been squeezed by rising temperatures, the heat stealthily stalking streamflows through higher evaporation and transpiration rates even in big-snow years. Meanwhile, Vegas has grown, the city and its suburbs surpassing Manhattan in population in 2000. It hasn’t looked back, though. It has figured out how to use less water, not more. It has done so by reducing water for lawns. Illusions are only permitted on the Strip.

Vegas has become more expensive. This year I paid $75 a night at Circus Circus, one of the older properties. Extending my stay through Friday night, I later discovered I paid $250, the result of charges stealthily tacked on by the website hotel-booking company. Ouch! I’d rather have taken a faux butt-whipping in public from one of those young women in feathers.

Allen Best
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