We cross the border from California into Nevada—rampaging fires having forced a last minute change of itinerary— passing a gas station with attached brothel and a mobile tattooist on a graffiti splashed parking lot before arriving at our overnight stop.
In the hotel’s ground floor casino, roughly the size of Swansea, blank-eyed, chain-smoking rednecks, varicosed thighs spilling over padded seats, force feed quarters to colonies of slot machines which squat like bloated toads, noisily gulping their monotonous diet. We cough our way to the exit and plunge into the humid air of The Strip, where sweaty-palmed pimps thrust flyers (‘Girls, girls, girls!’) into our bewildered hands as we hit the toxic, migraine-inducing cocktail of strobe lights and thumping bass.
Three hours later—after a brief aesthetic reprieve at the Bellagio fountains—we’ve jostled a quiff of Elvis not-quite-look-alikes, a conga of feather boa-d ‘hens’ from Wigan, and a wiggle of lurex- and- leopard skin- clad trannies on our clammy walk. My hair stinks of burger fat, there’s a streak of ketchup on my sandal from a slippery set-to with a box of fries tossed aside by a twenty-five stone tequila- fuelled Hells Angel but on the plus side I’ve renewed acquaintance with my inner snob. Rod’s plea to ‘embrace the spirit of the place’ is drowned out by my groan of ‘But there AREN’T any pyramids in Luxor!’ as the unmistakable shape of the eponymous hotel looms into view, its interior vying only with Caesar’s Palace in its teeth-grinding inaccuracy. Clearly, my concerns in this regard are not widely shared: two teenage girls-- twenty-first century Columbuses, both- -have just disembarked from a ‘Gondola Experience’ at the Venetian and are now reliving the adventure as they teeter along the sidewalk next to us.
‘That’s gotta be like, WAY better than Venice Yurp. My mom went there once and she said the river smelt, like, gross and this restaurant she went to, they hadn’t even HEARD of stuffed-crust pizza’. Her companion, struck dumb by the horror of such revelations, slurps her vat of radioactive-green Slush Puppy, nodding in wide-eyed agreement.
The girls announce their intention to indulge in some retail therapy and we follow suit, nobly resisting the temptation to buy any of the following: a $4,000 rhinestone studded, calfskin purse; a mink-trimmed, cashmere lap-dog gilet (POA); and later, in what modestly claims to be the biggest souvenir shop in the world, a glow-in-the-dark dice bracelet and pair of poker chips earrings at a special $1.50 (this month only). Unfortunately, nowhere seems to stock portable oxygen tanks, which we were banking on to deliver us safely through Nicotine Worlde and back to our room: taking a deep breath, we run for it.
The morning after our one night stand in Sin city -- her bleached and botoxed blowsiness laid bare in the unforgiving glare of daylight-- we wave an unemotional farewell and head off to pay a visit to her genteel neighbour. Boulder City, a mere twenty nine miles and whole world away, was purpose built in 1931 to accommodate the thousands of construction workers on the nearby Hoover Dam who had been pouring into the area since 1929 and Rod has read that in its Colonial-style hotel there’s a museum dedicated to that remarkable achievement. A legacy of its past, it is one of only two towns in Nevada to prohibit gambling. Big tick. Its ban on serving alcohol--regarded as an equally dangerous temptation to the dam workers—was, however, repealed in 1969. Another tick. My prejudices are as selective as they are irrational.
It’s a compact, pleasingly-proportioned town and we easily locate the hotel, just off a manicured park--one of many green spaces the founding fathers saw fit to provide for the growing populace-- a fact which adds another megawatt to the beam which has been spreading across my face since we left Vegas behind. In a corner of the elegant building, the man behind the museum desk greets us with an apology: ‘I’m real sorry you folks don’t qualify for a concession so that’ll be a full two dollars please.’ With his bow tie, tweed jacket and mellifluous voice, he’s a dead ringer for Hollywood legend James Stewart and in the time that it takes him to issue our tickets we learn that he’s called Saul, is eighty two years old and a retired music teacher.
The museum is quirky, intimate, absorbing: it brings a human perspective to the awe-inspiring feat of civil engineering that we shall see later; a reminder that the dam is made not just of concrete and steel, but of muscle and sweat. We discover that, contrary to urban myth, no workers are buried in its concrete depths, though around 100 died during its construction; that ‘high-scalers’, the men who hung from ropes on the canyon wall as they drilled and blasted, were amongst the best paid and included Native Americans and circus performers. The walls are lined with photos of hollow eyed men, women and children who endured the hellish extremes of Nevada’s climate whilst living in tents in the slums of ‘Ragtown’, the makeshift precursor to Boulder City. Blushing, I silently concede there once were worse things to contend with than tastelessness when seeking a bed in Nevada.
We are the only visitors and when we emerge Saul is waiting for us in the hotel bar and restaurant -- social hub of the town-- with a pitcher of iced ginger beer. We’re cajoled into staying for lunch during which we are introduced Bob, editor of Boulder City Review (‘There you go, ma’am, latest edition with my compliments’) and Mary-Lou the florist, who’s just popped in to check arrangements for a forthcoming wedding reception, and who shudders eloquently upon learning where we spent the previous night. Drug store owner Chester’s announcement to the assembled company, between mouthfuls of ‘eggs over easy’ that Mrs Kaplowski’s hip operation has been a success but that the Goodman twins have tonsilitis, confirms my suspicions that I’ve inadvertently wandered into a scene from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ .
Later, sporting a Panama and carrying an ebony cane, Saul walks us to our car, through tree-shaded streets lined with quaint shops, art galleries and superb bronze sculptures depicting the town’s unique heritage. As our guide doffs his hat in farewell I realise something more enduring than the mid-afternoon sun has started to restore the shine to the self-proclaimed Silver State.