This ongoing series will share short lists of artists’ favorite things to do or see in Las Vegas (including nearby day trips). In some cases, these lists become more nostalgic or idiosyncratic musings about a city many visitors can’t believe we call home.
FIVE THINGS WHICH MEAN HOME TO ME:
Born and raised in Las Vegas, I have seen countless places come and go without any warning. It is not often that you can count on having something around for a long time, so when you find something, hold onto it, because it may be imploded the next day. Many of my favorite childhood memories throughout the city are gone, with only traces of a decaying building or a corroding neon sign still in place. My list is a collection of places that have made it through the test of time in a city that revels in the new and flashy, often turning its back on nostalgia and history.
- Boulder Highway – what is so special about a strip of road? Originally the first highway in Las Vegas, it hosted workers on their way to construct the Hoover Dam and now lives in the long shadow of the Las Vegas Strip. It is a magical place to me, filled with rose-colored childhood memories. To anyone else, the road may look like a sketchy, post-apocalyptic society on Mars. Looking beyond the bizarre surface, a couple treasured gems shine: Mystic Falls, located inside the middle of the atrium of Sam’s Town Casino is an attraction that offers free daily shows – all I need to say is lasers, waterfall, animatronic animals – all set to music! – and tall boys of Tecate in brown paper bags for purchase from the bar. Shows at 2:00pm, 4:00pm, 6:00pm, 8:00pm and 10:00pm daily. Continue to make your way south down the highway and you will come across Crystal Palace Skating Rink. No bells and whistles here, unless you walk in when they are playing the Tootsie Roll song. Just a classic skating rink that has not changed the décor since I attended my 5th grade field trip and slow-danced with Johnny. No alcohol, but plenty of Lemonheads and nachos to wash down that tall boy. Go a little bit further south and you have almost driven the whole stretch of Boulder Highway, landing you at the pearly gates of Hot Dog Heaven. A freestanding cash only Hot Dog stand with super crisp Diet Coke. I recommend the fire dog to add a little pep in your step (sadly, since this writing, Hot Dog Heaven has closed). Bonus content, just off of Boulder Highway by a few miles is Shan-Gri-La Prehistoric Park. Steve Springer, a retired English teacher, constructed a dinosaur park in his front yard including over 45 dinosaur statues and is well worth a trip for all ages.
- West Wind Drive In – As a young kid, my mom and aunt would load myself, sister, and four cousins into the car to haul us to catch the latest showings of Super Mario Brothers or PeeWee’s Big Adventure. Finding the perfect parking spot, they would then set up a camp of lawn chairs and a cooler filled with homemade tuna fish sandwiches. The light pollution from the city is a bit off-putting, but all is forgiven when you pop open a cold one, feet hanging out the back of your SUV, enjoying being outside amongst the other movie-goers. Long gone are the days of video rental stores or making a special night of going to the cinema. Today, the drive-in experience becomes more of a pilgrimage, a social gathering drenched in nostalgia. West Wind opened their first movie theater in 1952, and the Las Vegas location has an amazing neon sign that is worth the trip alone. General Admission is $7.50.
- Pioneer Saloon – A lot has changed since 1913 when the Pioneer Saloon first opened, however the bar seems unscathed by time. Just shy of an hour outside of town, it is smack dab in the middle of the desert. Much like a hidden oasis filled with rubies and ice quenching water after a long stretch in the sun soaked desert, driving up to the saloon is half the fun. The interior and exterior walls are of stamped tin and manufactured by Sears and Roebuck. The place is soaked in history and fiction alike. Clark Gable frequented the bar over a course of three days while waiting to hear if his wife, Carole Lombard, lived through an infamous plane crash near Mount Potosi (she did not, in case you are wondering). Food and drinks are aplenty, and they even have grills outside to rent and cook your own food while enjoying the scenery and drinks. For the adventurous, the surrounding area is also big for ghost sightings and tours.
- Circus Circus – In 1968 the Las Vegas Strip introduced one of its most eclectic casinos, fully equipped with a big tent. It’s been a long time since its opening day, and the changing tides of Las Vegas have greatly moved away from the kitsch and style notes of Circus Circus. Yet even in its decay, it is still one of the most beautifully bizarre places. But you can’t go into Circus Circus without going through Slots of Fun, one of the few places left with coin-operated slot machines. Walking through the place makes me reminiscent of its days of former glory; in a city that no longer cherishes mirrored ceilings and the buzz of neon which is ingrained in a local’s blood, this history is worth everything. Many of the original casinos are now gone; just recently the Riviera was closed and imploded after sixty years. Going to the new casinos can be fun at times, but they are catering to tourists and have very contemporary design schemes that lack the pizzazz of their predecessors.
- Driving with the Strip in the rear view – Stay with me for this one – one of the best things about Las Vegas is leaving (temporarily). Almost any direction you choose will lead you somewhere: about four hours south and you are in LA, or four hours north you are surrounded by pine trees in Utah. About an hour or so out of town is Tecopa, Califonia which is a small desert town filled with bathhouses, a date ranch farm (get the date shake), and Death Valley Brewing. In another direction is Nipton, CA which then leads into a drive through the Mojave Desert and can end up at Amboy Crater if you follow. You don’t have to leave the state – Nevada has a treasure trove of sights to see as well. Very close to town is Bonnie Springs Ranch and Motel; every room is themed for a touch of kitsch and a good night’s sleep. Heading east on Veterans Memorial Highway takes you to a very peculiar town called Cal-Nev-Ari (shameless plug – you can pop over to our blog for a photo essay on it). Let me specify, these are not glamorous locales, you will not find a Starbucks or have steady wifi. But if you like fringe societies with eclectic personalities and stories that will fill the silence, hop in your car and start exploring.
Mikayla Whitmore is a Las Vegas native. She has exhibited at multiple venues including P3Studio at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Contemporary Arts Center, and the Marjorie Barrick Museum. Her work explores the potential of the photographic image in an attempt to explore the way memory functions. During her solo residency ‘When the Night Comes’ she functioned as a archivist of memories seeking to re-order phantasmal visual instances in time. Using overlooked objects to create an installation to create a lucid mindscape corrupting memories over the course of a month. She currently balances her studio practice with work as a staff photographer, researching dinosaur species, and planting succulents. Mikayla is a regular contributor to the blog and has been the curator of our Instagram page for this past year. mikaylawhitmore.com
Title image: collage by the artist.
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