|Excalibur, Las Vegas|
LAS VEGAS — When Dante passes through the grim portal advising all who enter to abandon hope, and descends into the upper suburbs of Hell, he is immediately surprised at the sheer number of damned souls he finds.
"I would not have thought that death had undone so many," he observes, a line that came to mind when we arrived here from Los Angeles.
You can't enter this most improbable of cities without being awed, first by the enormous fantasy casino buildings —15 of the 20 largest hotels in the world are in Las Vegas — and then by the mass of humanity crawling through them.
We were bound for the Excalibur. I would have preferred something fancier — the Bellagio — but in consideration of the boys, we settled on this 4,000-room mega-hotel with a medieval theme. The valet drop-off is as wide as a six-lane highway, but can barely handle the army of ever-arriving gamblers. Some 37.5 million people visited Las Vegas last year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Having been here once before, a brief visit 15 years ago, I of course planned to skip Vegas entirely on this trip — once is plenty. We would return home through Arizona. But my older son wanted to see Hoover Dam, in nearby Boulder City. Hence Vegas.
We had no sooner given our car to the valet and stumbled into the Excalibur lobby, on our way to the 16, count 'em, 16 check-in stations, when we were greeted warmly by a man in a suit and steered to a kiosk offering show tickets. Another man shook my hand. This unexpected personal touch confused me.
"Las Vegas must really be on hard times, if they're glad-handing everyone who walks into the Excalibur," I thought. The second guy launched into a spiel about bargain tickets. We were interested in taking the boys to the hotel's swordplay extravaganza, so listened politely about how a dinner package would normally cost $300, but he could let us in for $50 —"that's $12.50 a person," he added, doing the math for us, perhaps under the fair assumption that anybody who could do simple arithmetic wouldn't go to Vegas.
That seemed awfully low for a dinner show, but there is a recession on — tourism in Vegas was down 4.4 percent last year — so who knows? We were about to sign up when he explained that, of course, at such a low price we'd need to first learn about the joys of time-share condo ownership, a two-hour orientation which . . .
We bolted like rabbits.
I'll admit, I was irked and offended, and got more irked and offended every time I walked into the lobby and had to dodge the time-share shills, avert my eyes and run away.
As minimal as the standards of taste and hospitality are in Vegas, subjecting your guests to real estate hustles every time they walk through your Brobdingnagian lobby seems beyond the pale. But then I suppose the time-share condo scam pales compared with the thinly veiled robbery of gambling itself, one of the rare vices that merely puzzles rather than entices me.
Then again, nothing is more inexplicable than another man's pleasures — a fact I was reminded of after my last column, about California pot prescriptions, drew emails from fervent potheads, complaining that I was denigrating their source of innocent relaxation.
There is something to that. It is too easy to scoff at, oh, the guy who spends 10 years of his spare time constructing a matchstick model of the Eiffel Tower in his basement. You need to force yourself to remember, "Well, it must have been worthwhile to HIM — he did it, voluntarily."
Obviously, this gambling stuff must have allures. These people come here of their own volition to pour their money down this rat hole. And indeed, I felt obligated to go to a blackjack table and lose the small parcel of cash I had allotted for that purpose. A task, which, at $10 a chip, took all of five minutes.
Hoover Dam, by the way, was thrilling. If walking through the low ceilinged, stale-cigarette-reeking casino floor made me doubt the value of humanity — "If a meteor were going to destroy earth, I'd hurry here, so the loss wouldn't seem so bad," I told my wife — Hoover Dam, this massive yet elegant curve of concrete offered a certain redemption. We made this. There was the added bonus of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge, a delicate span being constructed across the Colorado River nearby.
We all agreed that Vegas has been the low point of the trip. We even preferred Reno, which we hit driving west to the coast. Yes, Reno was small, and forlorn, but the buffet at our hotel — the Eldorado — was much better than that at the Excalibur, the staff was far friendlier, with no insulting timeshare pitches, and you could play blackjack for $5 a hand, which doubled my playing time.
We checked out of the Excalibur and drove to a lodge on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It hardly seems possible that both places — Vegas and the Grand Canyon — could coexist simultaneously on the same planet, never mind bookend a single day. But they do and they did.
—Published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 3, 2009