I found a really great breakfast spot the next morning. The 24th Street Cafe (24th Street near Chester) was an old coffee shop, which may have pretensions toward being “chic”, but fortunately the prices and clientele haven’t caught up yet. Great waitress who called me “honey” and kept refilling the coffee cup, great local regulars who had conversations about things you rarely hear in SF (crops, the church bazaar, gas prices), and great hash browns.
A quick trip to the Salvation Army for the thrift store fix, a stop by the gas station (pump first THEN pay), and Bakersfield was history.
I followed the route of what used to be US 466 out of Bakersfield, through Tehachapi, Mojave (the town and the desert), and Barstow. Currently, the road is California 58 from Bakersfield to Barstow and I-15 from Barstow to Las Vegas. It’s interesting to see the terrain get progressively hillier and browner moving east from Bakersfield. This part of the Mojave Desert is actually pretty far above sea level (upto 4800 feet at Mountain Pass near the Nevada border). I even felt inspired to take a few nature pictures, knowing full well it might ruin my image.
Barstow is a strangely wonderful place. Its main reason for existing seems to be its role as the junction of a number of major highways. One of these highways used to be Route 66, the “mother road”, before it was replaced (at this stretch at least) by the cross-country Interstate 40, which begins in Barstow. Barstow was a pilgrimage I had to make because Greensboro, my hometown, used to be the eastern terminus of I-40 (it now cuts all the way through to Wilmington).
Main Street is home to much roadside beauty, including the El Rancho Motel and the Beacon Bowl and Coffee Shop (East Main Street), where I felt compelled to have lunch. As luck would have it, a busload of high school age Belgian tourists felt compelled in the same manner at the same time. Each of them paid individually…with travelers checks. This tended to slow down service tremendously as there was but one increasingly harried waitress. Good food though. I was well-fed for the remaining desert crossing.
Las Vegas in the daytime is so ugly it hurts. It’s flat, full of vacant lots, and sand blows through all the major intersections. The roadsides have no grass or plantings, only sand and dirt. The surrounding mountains have no trees. The buildings are without any trace of color. Suburban sprawl of the most generic king surrounds the city. It’s hard to imagine a more unappealing locale for a resort destination.
And tourism is most definitely what Vegas is all about. It’s the only local industry covered in the press (casino receipts are up six per cent this year), and tourist facilities are everywhere. It’s almost hard to imagine that anyone lives here if you don’t leave the “strip”. Of course I did leave the strip.
The good thing is that things look much better at night. Perhaps it’s because you can’t see anything but the lights. White trash culture has been raised to an art form here. EVERYTHING is tacky and gaudy. It’s inescapable. Don’t get me wrong; this is not necessarily a bad thing. My tastes run toward the lowbrow, after all.
The locals complain about all the tourists, although without them there would be more or less nothing here. They complain about the lousy drivers, although most of the cars I saw pulling out in front of me, stopping for no apparent reason, etc. had Nevada tags. I had flashbacks to the love-hate relationship I noticed while living in Myrtle Beach. I think I saw lots of the same tourists as well.
The reason for the trip was the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention. Home was the Palace Station Hotel and Casino. Vegas rule number one: EVERY business doubles as a casino, including the Seven Eleven and the corner bar. The host was Duncan. The political issues of the week were the write-in candidacy of Jack Russell (a dog) for City Council and a new Nevada law prohibiting sexual relations between teachers and students, even those above the age of consent (16 in Nevada).
Duncan summed up Vegas very well when he pointed out that the only vice still legal in the city is gambling. Therefore, non-gamblers find little to do there. Vegas is a lot like Times Square; it’s been cleaned up too much. The city even advertises itself as the largest theme park in the US. It’s pretty much true. Reality seems unable to gain a foothold here.
Random notes: walking is not something which can be easily accomplished in most sections of Las Vegas. I tried it. It didn’t work. Smoking, on the other hand, is very easily accomplished. You can do that ANYWHERE…