It was on an afternoon bound in smog, that we began our journey from the city that first brought that meteorological phenomenon to the world.
Los Angeles. The City of The Angels.
That is, if you can call it a city. “Fifty suburbs searching for a city” someone once said about this sprawl of some 500 square miles that so typifies the 20th century that saw most of its growth. The two things which most struck me about this place were its almost total disregard for the conventional view of a city - that is, a centre surrounded by subordinate suburbs, and the almost complete lack of evident history.
Okay, there is a downtown LA, but nobody goes there unless they have to (i.e. if you work there). No, the life of this city is its suburbs, if you can call them that. Beverley Hills, Santa Monica, Long Beach, The Valley, Orange County and of course Hollywood. Places we’ve all heard of, because these are the places where life really goes on. This isn’t just an American phenomenon, as places we saw later - San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, have living, breathing city centres where people work and play. No. LA is an anomaly.
But equally bizarre is the fact that the place lives in present time. When buildings get to twenty or thirty years old, they’re knocked down and something new and as historically anonymous is put in its place. Because the city is so new, there has never been any consideration given to conservation like, for instance, in San Francisco. And so the city is continually re-generating itself, a bit like some colony of amoebae. And like those mono-celled good-for-nothings, the thing keeps spreading into the surrounding mountains, scrubland and desert, year-on-year. This gives the whole city the look of a “development supermarket”, where no matter where you go, everything kind of looks the same and off-the-shelf.
This is not to say the place is not ugly or uninteresting. I’ll be honest and say I quite liked the place, and that was the biggest surprise for me on this trip. There are some beautiful parts, like Beverley Hills, and some charming suburbs like Santa Monica, but above all, everything is neat and tidy, and prosperous. Okay, I didn’t wander into Compton, East LA or South-Central, but then you wouldn’t would you, and admittedly Hollywood was shabby and downmarket, as I’d been warned. But I got the sense that the place is really going somewhere. Property prices are higher than London in many parts. LA’s famous producer of the smog, the vast freeway network seems to work, traffic gets around (unlike our own “Best City In The World”) and the legendary gridlock was not evident, at least while I was there.
I’d spent a week in LA prior to our Excellent Adventure, staying with family prior to a big wedding, and alright, it was in Beverley Hills, so perhaps my positive view of LA was unfairly skewed. Regardless, I had a surprisingly fun time there and would look forward to any future visit.
Anyway, onward and upward. We made our way east across the great freeway network, venturing into San Bernadino County, home of the peculiar inland adjuncts to LA, lying on the dusty semi-desert verges of the sprawl. Rather anonymous and soulless looking places like Ontario (home of Maglite torches), Riverside and, not forgetting Bill and Ted’s own San Dimas (whoa! Excellent!), passed us by as we sped along the freeway in the beating sun. Denied an escape to the cooling sea by a range of hills, these suburbs become appallingly hot during any season outside winter, and as we travelled further east the a/c setting in the car increased… Just to add to the peculiarity of the scene, these plain and heat-oppressed suburbs sat at the base of an impressive and snow capped range of mountains – the highest peak of Mt San Antonio at over 10,000 feet being literally a few miles away.
It was through this compact but impressive range of mountains that Interstate 15 climbed through, escaping the smog and mediocrity of the eastern fringe of LA, and onto the lifeless plateau of the arid scrubland beyond. Passing Barstow, an awful looking excuse of dust and McDonalds signs tacked onto the freeway, we entered the desert proper.
It is unusual that something so lifeless as a desert can have so much beauty. It's something to do with it's stark, uncompromising aspect - a place where there are no souls, so soon after the throng of LA. But perhaps it's more to do with the dry, almost perfectly clear air. We could see for maybe up to 50 miles around without any noticeable misting or haze, save for the slight reddish tint of dust that turned the sky a unique purple at around sunset.
It was as the sun went down that we saw in the far distance ahead a spectacle of coloured and flashing lights in the middle of nowhere. It took us a full twenty minutes at top speed before we reached the source of these beacons in the desert, the bizarre gambling town of Primm. Set immediately beyond the state line into Nevada and straddling Interstate 15, Primm provides convenient 24 hour gambling as close to the citizens of southern California as possible. Named after the settler who was fortunate enough to buy a previously worthless plot of the desert decades ago, Primm now boasts three main casino/hotels and a claim the world's highest roller coaster. Needless to say, we didn't feel like stopping. I was content with the simply bizarre concept of seeing all this neon and concrete in the middle of an empty desert.
Viva Las Vegas
Within an hour after sunset we saw yet another set of coloured illuminations in the darkness of the desert. Much bigger this time, and seemingly taking forever to approach, it was the largest collection of neon in the world.
Las Vegas is a fantasy town. It bears very little relation to anything in reality, and any that is present is through an attempt at caricature. As one drives along the three-mile "Strip", one sees in between the older and now rather jaded giant casinotels such as Stardust, Caesar's Palace and Circus, Circus lie pocket-sized versions of Manhattan (New York, New York), The Eiffel Tower (Paris), St. Mark's Square (The Venetian), Camelot (Excalibur) and The Great Pyramid (Luxor). To me, the most impressive was Luxor, a fifteen story hotel in a giant hollowed out pyramid, whilst the worst was Excalibur, a tacky attempt at all the stereotypes of a Dark Ages England that always strangely looked more medieval, but without the unpleasant smells and generic pestilence.
It was a half-term holiday for schools, and there were a few conventions in town (a growing trend), so we had a bit of trouble finding a cheap room. Thanks to an independent booking agent (which apparently can be found in all the larger hotels), we got in at the Hilton (left) for only $60. Not bad for a twin room, we thought, but then amazingly, Las Vegas, used to be even cheaper. Perhaps it's the general clean-up in Vegas' image that is responsible for the increase in demand for tourists here. We saw plenty of children around, so families are now in, however I'm assured that there are still plenty of strip clubs around for those interested. Not that we were, of course... Ahem.
All in all, I'd say that everyone should see Vegas at least once, as it is a truly unique place, and although generally rather lacking in taste, as one would expect for a den of gambling, there are modern wonders here to meet the eye, and hell, just experience it for one night. That's all we did, and then we were ready to move on...