What started out as a business trip ended up being a pleasure trip, and what started out being a tour of the casinos and attractions ended up being a phenomenal drive into the desert. Nevada was a game-changer, no doubt. As I tweeted during our stay: if you’re coming to Nevada just to gamble you’re a fool. The fewer the light bulbs, the more impressive the spectacles. This post is heavy on images, but that’s what I advertise.
I have to admit to some bias before I delve into our experiences at the bottom of the Silver State. I don’t gamble, I’m an occasional social drinker and I’m generally introverted. I hear you behind your screen shouting “Why even go, you dolt!” Sometimes you make the best of non-refundable flights and in this case it was an excellent trip. I always enjoy seeing new things, so we can start by getting the rhinestone scar that is the Las Vegas Strip out of the way.
We had a condo for the week that was well off-strip (thank goodness) and offered an hourly shuttle to both ends of Las Vegas Boulevard.
It was a welcome refuge after long, noisy hours among a complete cross-section of America. Las Vegas Boulevard is the great melting pot we all hear about in speeches, with the sole intent of lightening as many wallets as possible while making each and every
victim customer feel like they’re being done a favour. We were told Vegas was built on the premise of making every loser feel like a winner. Anyone can see the megaliths built with the billions willingly left behind by millions. We had our fill in a day and a half, the game afoot being far more brazen than even Disney would dare.
Leaving the strip behind, I was more than ever committed to visiting the inspirations behind all these shameless knockoffs. It seems as though something was lost in translation when trying to recreate the genuine magic of a place like Rome or Venice, the French Riviera or the South Pacific. Something gaudy has slipped through. Something ugly and insincere.
For a city with such disparity between wealth and poverty, I wonder how long the imbalance will hold up. Venturing into North Las Vegas you’re immediately up to your ankles in struggling humanity that could have a far better existence on even the table scraps from any single tacky house of sin, only three miles to the south. End of sermon.
The sea-change for me came when we rented a car and ventured out on our own. The closest and easiest excursion is to Red Rock Canyon, and it blew my mind. I’ve been an enthusiast of the southwest for some time, reading books and enjoying TV shows from the area both contemporary and period. The sweeping vacancy and scale of it all appeal to me.
Even being so close to Las Vegas, the Red Rock Canyon area felt like a different planet. The steady, warm breeze and utter silence were comforting, soothing in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Distance melts away into the big picture, so you’re not entirely sure if you’re a mile from something pretty large, or twenty miles from something utterly massive. Getting somewhere is part of the charm in this landscape, since there’s so much to experience enroute.
Not until I set foot did I really get the scale of the landscape. Las Vegas is in the bowl of a valley ringed by mountains. Regardless of the direction you look, at the end of the street and in the haze of distance they’re sitting out there, waiting.
An attraction I had looked forward to since planning the trip was the Neon Museum. This is a place where old signage goes to
die retire. Many of the recognizable brands and designs were here, and a wonderful hour-long tour explaining the significance and history of the signs from casinos to motels, gas stations and cleaners. This was the first part of the trip I felt I wanted to photograph with any enthusiasm. This was the Vegas I had come to see, and like many places I find I’m visiting 50-150 years too late.
Due to the extreme expense and dedication needed to restore and operate these signs, the vast majority of them are in as-found condition. The few that are restored and operating are brilliant. They also offer an evening tour to see the restored signage at its best, but with the majority being simply under-lit, a daytime tour was the safe bet.
The scale of the signage, especially from the 70s-90s, was boggling. The Stardust at its heyday had a sign that was just over 180′ and had tens of thousands of light bulbs on it. Only then did I get my arms around what a task it must be to restore and operate some of these monsters, and why there are so few completed. That said, the great majority of the signs looked impressive in their “patina” and decades of wear. Even the shattered bulbs and shapes deformed from drops or misuse had a very post-atomic charm.
I was hungry for more, and the next day we ventured out past Boulder City to visit Hoover Dam.
Hoover Dam is something we’re all acquainted with, but being on site is a different matter all together. We arrived early in hopes of avoiding the crowds and were rewarded with having most of the area to ourselves initially. We parked on the Arizona side and walked back over the spillway with about a dozen other people on the dam itself. My initial impression was one of overwhelming permanence and that solidified throughout the day.
The dam is massive on a scale that’s hard to articulate. The dimensions and figures are academic, not something the average mind can really put into terms that have any reference to human scale. For example, they’ve been supplementing the reduced flow of the Colorado River for the past 18 years by slowly depleting the headpond, Lake Mead.
We were told the dam itself has a service life of two thousand years. As such, this dam is barely entering its infant stage since opening in 1935. I felt that this engineering project was almost inhuman in its scope and execution. Ambitious is an disgusting understatement for the scale of the works here.
The Art-Deco and Futurist touches and features are sometimes confusing, since examples of this era are usually falling down or only seen in black and white photographs. As a cherry on this concrete sundae, sitting on the Nevada end of the dam is the magnificent Winged Figures of the Republic designed by sculptor Oskar J.W. Hansen. Typical of the era, the piece trumpets man’s mastery over nature, elevating the human form to that of winged bronze gods. The terrazzo surrounding the figures is an astronomical map depicting the exact time the dam was dedicated in case future humans (or visitors) can’t understand our text. That’s some pretty heavy stuff, knowing that this object will be here and hopefully operational in as many as 100 generations. Communicating that far into the future and further has always fascinated me, since languages so easily evolve and change.
“When in the course of time the composition of our world and those other worlds in space shall be more fully known, record it here for future men to see and, having seen, to speculate, investigate and carry on the search.”
-Oskar J.W. Hansen, 1935
We sprung for the Dam Tour that included both the power house and the internal passageways. After a long ride down in a freight elevator, we were led on a circuit through bare rock tunnels over 530′ under the west canyon wall. Standing atop the 30′ intake pipes, the whole facility sung with the far-off purr of swift water.
The dam appears as something found and used, as opposed to built with a modern purpose. The scale is too incompatible with mere people to have been built here by us, feeling more like an abandoned experiment by beings much further ahead on the curve than we. Paired with the landscape, it’s the sort of thing a dystopian tribe would occupy and defend, a last vestige of a past and organized culture. Maybe someday that’s just what it will be.
After leaving Boulder Canyon in the spring heat of midday, we entered the Lake Mead recreation area. What a treat for anyone with working eyes, or anyone who has ever driven a motor vehicle in anger. Every crest reveals a stunning buffet of scenery. Every mile of macadam unbroken and banked in corners.
The scenic overlooks were mostly deserted, and the silence was complete.
Further into the scenic byways the colour of stone protruding from the scrub was turning steadily more orange. Nothing had really prepared me for seeing the landscape along Nevada State Highways 166 and 167. Even the vistas traveling between what were marked as scenic pullouts amazed me.
Being out there in the spring heat under the biggest sky I’ve ever seen, surrounded by these ancient forms was a new kind of excellent.
Valley of Fire took the whole experience up another notch. The colours, the desolate feeling, the almost spiritual awe were amplified.
Grace had a fantastic time chasing lizards in the scrub and climbing on the huge structures. Better planning would have seen a bbq and cold drinks out here under the monster sky.
As if to hammer home how privileged we are to have easy access to this area, there is a memorial just inside the gates to John C Clark, a civil war veteran and hermit who died of thirst on this spot under his wagon in June of 1915. This place is as brutal as it is gorgeous, an easy fact to overlook from behind the wheel of a rented, air-conditioned Nissan.
Flashing casinos aside, Nevada was lovely and filed with friendly people. The next day we departed Nevada on a milk-run of flights back to New Brunswick: LAS>YYC>YYZ>YUL>YSJ.
Its cold here.
Now for the photography-geek subtext: This place is a target rich environment from street shooting on the boulevard, architecture or landscape. I’ve never fancied myself a landscape photographer, in fact I’ve usually considered it a boring pursuit. Now I’m thinking I haven’t been in the right landscape.
Monochrome images in this set are, as always, out of the Rolleiflex MX, Ilford HP5 and Epson 3200. It’s a setup that works for me, predictable and consistent. I used a yellow filter.
As you can tell from many of the colour shots above, I use the iPhone a lot when I travel without apology. It’s a great tool as long as the battery holds out and there’s enough light. I’ve run into noisy splotches if I don’t ask it to meter in the right places. As a rule, I treat the phone like slide film, meter for the hottest area and pull up the rest. It works fine and avoids blown-out highlights as it should. I’m mostly happy with the output.
But, (and it’s a big but), I find myself taking an awful lot of sweep panoramas lately, and they’re very good when I’m careful. This is the first time in a long time I find myself reaching for a camera that’s not in my bag. I could have used a Fuji TX2 / Hasselblad XPAN for many of these sweeps and been far happier with the process. Hopefully my lovely, understanding wife reads this and doesn’t murder me in my sleep, but I think I’m in the long-game for a second camera. (Love you, Lori!) I’m seeing more and more in a wide format, and I’m getting the hang of composing for it.