…is not what you’d think.
There are two worlds in Las Vegas, Nevada. The first is for visitors—the glitz, the excitement, and all the “sins” (gambling, nudity, and general excess)—which exists mostly for show and for profit.
The second Las Vegas is where real people make their home and living by choice, and enjoy many other aspects of this city that visitors never see.
I had the pleasure of visiting this second, more authentic Las Vegas for five days, thanks to a connection through the Camino de Santiago community. A few months ago, I accepted an invitation to speak at REI both in Boca Park (Las Vegas) and Henderson. I jumped on the opportunity!
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The night I arrived, my hosts for the week, A and G, graciously drove me down The Strip because I’d never seen it before. The weather was cooler than it had been in months, and people were out in droves to take in the sights: The Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. Castles. Drumpf’s golden, gleaming monstrosity. And the lights! The stunning marquee at The Flamingo was made up of thousands of tiny bulbs arranged in the shape of pink feathers.
We arrived just as the Bellagio fountain (which was so elaborate and extensive, the very word fountain doesn’t do it justice) sprayed streams of back-lit water higher and higher over the length of a football field, synchronized to classical music. My hosts encouraged me to roll down my window to hear it. Most of the drive, I just gaped out the window in astonishment.
Of course, as locals, A and G had seen it all many times and were mostly immune to the sensory overload I was experiencing. What I enjoyed even more was how they shared the history of each hotel and casino we passed, as well as the controversies and local issues related to their operation. Which owners were great for the local economy. Who was shafting their employees. The funny behavior of tourists. This was the Las Vegas I’d hoped to know.
More than visiting the sights in my travels, I enjoy meeting people and learning about their lives. This trip did not disappoint. For example, I met a real mermaid who swims in a giant tank at a local casino (yes, that’s really a thing). There was the young, smart, and energetic union organizer taking the upcoming election by storm (this, despite harassment by Drumpf supporters and an occasional death threat). I met a former limo driver reinventing himself in mid-life as an artist and comic-book illustrator. I was inspired by a woman who is almost single-handedly revolutionizing a formerly-scruffy neighborhood just by keeping her eyes open on her daily dog walks.
Each person I met impressed me with their creativity, resolve, and ability to benefit from the surreal experience and ripe opportunities of Las Vegas.
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On Wednesday, G had arranged a day trip for us to take together—a gesture that was above and beyond, especially since he took time off from work to do it. His plan had four destinations: breakfast, a date farm, a hot spring, and a pilgrim meet up.
Breakfast: Before leaving town, we stopped at an old-fashioned diner for a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast. Vickie’s Diner (formerly Tiffany’s) was everything you could hope for: friendly service, good food, great prices, and retro decor. The main wall featured a mural of the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign, and all the seats and booths upholstered in shades of pink Naugahyde. When I commented on how adorable it was, G mentioned Vickie’s had a makeover by a Food Network program that revitalizes old diners across the US. Our friendly waitress brought me the breakfast special with pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon ($6.75!) and G the chicken-fried steak (which looked amazing).
The date farm: To get to the date farm, we drove across some of the most barren, stark, and beautiful country I’ve ever seen. We passed Red Rock Canyon, whose colorful cliffs glowed in contrast to the black and tan mountains beyond. Before white people came along, the Southern Paiutes occupied this area, surviving on water from the marshy area called the Las Vegas Wash (Las Vegas itself means the valleys) as well as the cool recesses of the mountains that surround the area. On the drive, my ears popped almost continuously as we drove west up to the peaks and down into a dry valley bottoms, white with mineral residue from evaporated water.
Turning off the main road, we descended into a slot canyon on gravel road, the steep, vertical walls squeezing in on either side. Occasional signage described the history of the area and noted the closed gypsum mines. Within minutes, we arrived at what can only be described as an oasis. Lush vegetation and palm trees swayed in stunning greenness along the road an into China Ranch date farm.
Flocks of California quail skittered and clucked in the shade as we walked up to the Old West-style store. Inside we sampled seven varieties of dates (they grow more than twenty), plus their famous date bread and cookies. Just like apples and pears, each variety of date has a unique texture, flavor, and water content. Yum. I love dates. This place is heaven. We sat out on the patio watching bees and hummingbirds sip from flowers as we savored the farm’s amazing date milkshakes.
The hot springs: I didn’t know it at the time, but we were already within the boundary of Death Valley National Park in California. Which makes it all the more striking that our next destination was a hot spring. Water? In the desert?
Yes. In dusty Tecopa (which means you drink in Spanish), there’s a small cluster of houses around public soaking baths. But just down the road is Justin’s private oasis complete with well, soaking pool, and stunning views of Death Valley. His dad’s ocean-loving legacy is visible in the decor of buoys and fishing nets. There’s even an ironic little lighthouse. My hosts have an invitation for day visits having known Justin since he opened the place to visitors several years ago. Lucky me!
If you wanted to meet a dyed-in-the-wool original (and I always do), Justin’s your man. He’s officially retired, but you’ll hardly see him sit still. His background in theater and television comes through in his expressive turns of phrase, quick wit, and hilarious stories punctuated by animated gestures. A few years ago, Jason was diagnosed with a debilitating condition, but at sixty, he now walks with a spring in step and without a cane. The cure, he believes, is the hot springs. Science backs him up.
Under the shade of a palm tree, I soaked for an hour in an old clawfoot tub. The water comes out at about 108* and felt slippery on my skin. Mountains in the distance, and a dry valley before me, I was moved to tears as I relaxed. What a blessing this life is. What a miracle water is in these conditions. What gratitude I felt for the generosity of my hosts.
Later, the three of us sat in the shade telling stories and laughing. Justin paused to compliment me on my diction and enunciation. Maybe it was the company or maybe the water, I felt more relaxed than I had in months. He calls this place The Second Wind, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an oasis for the soul.
Pilgrim gathering with tapas: Mid-afternoon, we reluctantly headed back to Las Vegas. It would be easy to stay at Jason’s for days, but the final activity of the day awaited us: a meet-up with local pilgrims who’ve walked the Camino de Santiago and those who plan to go.
G told me we’re meeting at a funky hotel with a Spanish tapas bar inside. He’s right. With its low light, black walls, velvet curtains, and gilt-framed portraits hung everywhere (including on the ceiling), The Artisian Hotel would be the perfect place for a goth-style wedding. Inside near the bar is the understated, well-lit Barcelona Tapas restaurant. No, the collaboration isn’t really a logical pairing, but I think Las Vegas just likes to mess with your head.
I sipped a red, fruity sangria as people began arriving. Eventually, about a dozen pilgrims sat around the long table—including a few who attended my talk at REI the previous evening. In attendance were a charming husband-and-wife duo, several women my age, and the youngest (at 21) leaves this Sunday for Spain. We were all so excited for her, even as she tried valiantly to calm her own nerves. Her rapid-fire questions reminded me of how anxious I was before my own pilgrimage—so much to worry about, yet so little control.
Ever thoughtful, G brought a scallop shell for her pack, blessed by a priest from a local church. We took turns holding it to express a wish for her, gave her the shell as a blessing, and wished her a collective buen camino! What impresses me most is how welcoming and encouraging pilgrims are, no matter where you go. I felt blessed to be included in this gathering.
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My talks at REI went well. My topic was about the Camino as a journey for the body, mind, and spirit. Since most guidebooks primarily advise on the logistics of the pilgrimage, it felt a little risky to share about the inner journey of mind and spirit. But these are the topics I care about most. The inner journey makes us wonder things like: Why does pilgrimage unsettle us? Why do people hate the meseta so much? Why do we feel so good inside at the end, and how do you make that last?
The feedback I received from participants tells me I’d hit an important nerve. In addition to issues like finding water and bathrooms, participants’ questions strayed naturally into deeper terrain…
- Of the people you met, how many are you still in contact with?
- How do I get the most out of this as a non-religious person?
- How did the Camino change you on the inside?
- Some of my friends can’t explain what happened for them. How can I ask better questions to pierce the veil and hear about the real experiences?
At the end of my second talk, one tearful participant told me, “This is exactly what I needed to hear tonight. I know this experience is going to change my life. Thank you.”
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Being in Las Vegas for a few days, meeting real people and having real conversations was a gentle balm to me. Although I had resolved to build community and deeper connections in my post-Camino life, I’d lost track of this focus as I launched my new business this year. The people I met on this trip reminded me how important community is. We need each other in this crazy world.
Maybe that’s why Las Vegas is such a great place to live. Does the generous amount of surreal glitz drive locals together and into community? Whatever the reason, I’m glad I was able to experience the real Las Vegas and its wonderful people.