SwanShadow Gives Thanks, Volume 19: Viva Las Vegas Edition

By any measure, 2022 has been a year of change and transition at Casa de Swan. Including a wholesale relocation of Casa de Swan. Plus… well… other things.

At the beginning of the year, the Pirate Queen decided that she wanted — borrowing a line from Fleetwood Mac — to go her own way. I decided not to contest, because what would be the point, really? We determined that we would end our partnership as amicably as possible, and I think we accomplished that. For public consumption, I believe that’s enough said.

In the meanwhile, I needed to decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life, and where I was going to do it. As much I would love to move “home” to Hawaii, the land of my earliest childhood memories and the place I consider myself to be “from” as much as I’m “from” anywhere, the economics and logistics just weren’t feasible in the present moment. Nor were the economics favorable to staying put — I could certainly manage it, but on somewhat Spartan terms, and without much to show for it in the end.

I’ve visited Las Vegas at least once a year, and occasionally more than once, for most of the past 20 years or thereabouts. I’ve enjoyed being there as much as I’ve enjoyed being anywhere that isn’t in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And folks from Hawaii do refer to Vegas as “the ninth island,” because so many kama’aina vacation or relocate there. I ran the numbers, and the finances clicked.

So I loaded up the truck (okay, the professional movers loaded up the truck) and moved to… well, not Beverly — Hills, that is. Still, a place with plenty of swimming pools and more than a few movie stars.

As you doubtless know by now, the drill is that every Thanksgiving I create an A-to-Z list of people and things for which I’m thankful. It’s not intended to be comprehensive; listing everything that gives me cause for gratitude would be an impossibly daunting task. Therefore, I choose 26 items — one for each letter of the alphabet — to represent everything else for which I’m appreciative. In honor of my new home town, this year’s list has a specific and intentional Vegas focus. I am indeed thankful for my new life in this oasis in the high desert, and for the possibilities it offers. Hopefully I’ll continue to feel that way as time moves ahead. To this point, I’m confident that I will.

Before we start, I’m especially thankful for The Daughter and her family, which is due to expand by a second Little Dude early in 2023. One thing that my move to Las Vegas has enabled is a tangible legacy for them, which gives me comfort. I love them more than life itself. And, as odd as it may seem under the circumstances, I’m thankful for the Pirate Queen, and for the years we shared together. I would not be the person, or in the place, I am today were it not for her. I wish her happiness in her new life.

With that overindulgent preamble, let’s get to the list.

On this Thanksgiving weekend in 2022, I’m grateful for…

The Art Houz. It’s a nicely appointed movie theater and venue space in the heart of downtown Las Vegas. The eight cinemas are all comfortable, usually uncrowded places to watch a film. They don’t have an IMAX screen or show 3D prints, which means I have to go elsewhere if I want to see something in one or both of those formats. But that’s a minor quibble.

Bellagio’s Conservatory. The Bellagio Hotel and Casino features a huge themed floral display that changes for each season: spring, summer, fall, Christmas, and Lunar New Year. Each new design is spectacular, and always different. Best of all, it’s open without charge to the public, and photography is encouraged (unlike the philosophy in the casino itself, where snapping off photos — especially with a professional-grade camera — can get you escorted out).

Championships. Both of my professional basketball teams — the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces — won the championship of their respective leagues this past season. The Warriors, of course, notched their fourth trophy in the past eight years. The Aces, however, not only won their first title, but also brought the city’s first-ever professional sports championship to Las Vegas. One of my first acts upon moving to Las Vegas was becoming an Aces partial-season ticket holder, and it was definitely a winning move; the games are exciting, the level of play is top-notch, and celebrating a team headed for the heights is always fun. The Aces’ starting five — eventual league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year A’ja Wilson; Chelsea “The Point God” Gray (as talented a point guard as anyone in the game who’s not named Steph Curry); three-point demon Kelsey Plum; WNBA Most Improved Player Jackie Young; and either former Sixth Player of the Year Dearica Hamby or workhorse Kiah Stokes — made every outing a blast to watch. I’m looking forward to cheering them on as they defend their title next season.

Department of Motor Vehicles. I know, I know… everyone hates the DMV. But I have to say that every one of my visits to the Sahara Boulevard office of the Nevada DMV went surprisingly smoothly. Sure, there’s a wait even if you have an appointment, but the office is bright and spacious, and all of the staff I dealt with were professional and friendly. Hopefully, I won’t have to go back anytime soon — a Nevada driver’s license is valid for eight years — but if I have such occasion, I won’t dread it the way I always did in California.

Elevators. Mr. Otis does not, in fact, regret.

Free parking. Tourists and locals alike complain about the high cost of self-parking at resorts on The Strip, an amenity that was free for decades but now is increasingly expensive. Get outside the neon corridor, however, and it’s noteworthy that most of the other places you’d want to go in the Vegas Valley don’t charge for car space. I’ll be glad to enjoy one of the perks of my full-season ticket membership with the Aces next season: free parking on game nights in the Mandalay Bay garage.

Gateway Arches. Everyone knows the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign at the south end of The Strip; there’s almost always a lengthy queue of visitors waiting to snap a photo in front of the iconic image. Many visitors don’t realize, though, that this sign is actually more than four miles south of the actual limits of the City of Las Vegas. (I’ll presume that most of you are aware that the so-called Las Vegas Strip is not within the boundaries of Las Vegas, but instead spans two unincorporated areas of Clark County — Paradise and Winchester — south of the city proper.) Recently, the City erected a pair of criss-crossing arches across Las Vegas Boulevard just north of the city limits, near the STRAT Hotel with its ginormous observation tower, with their own sign welcoming guests to the “City of Las Vegas.” There’s also a nearby corner marked by two fifty-foot-tall showgirls that makes a perfect — and rarely crowded — photo opportunity.

Harry Reid International Airport. They haven’t changed all the signage yet, but earlier this year, the State of Nevada renamed the former McCarran International — one of the busiest airports in the nation — after longtime US Senator Harry Reid. Why? Because the airport’s former namesake was a notorious racist, anti-Semite, xenophobe, and McCarthyite. Good riddance to him and his name.

Interstate 15, the main north-south thoroughfare through the Vegas Valley. People drive insanely on it. That’s not the freeway’s fault.

July 4th, which is the day I first arrived in Las Vegas not as a visitor, but as a new resident. I’m sure there’s some irony about me landing here on Independence Day. Or maybe it’s coincidence. They’re easily conflated.

Kroger. As a longtime Safeway customer in California, I was disappointed to discover that my grocery shopping experiences at the chain’s local affiliate, Albertsons, were… disappointing. On the other hand, I have generally enjoyed my visits to Smith’s Food and Drug, a branch of the huge Kroger chain. In particular, the staff at the Smith’s where I usually shop (on Rancho Drive, near Charleston) are always helpful and friendly — so much so that I once pulled a manager aside to compliment them on the attitude of their employees. Also, I find most of the Kroger in-house products to be of good quality and a decent value.

Luv-It Frozen Custard. I’m making it a point to investigate off-the-beaten-path eateries that are touted highly by veteran locals. Some of these prove overrated; others live up to the hype. One that surpasses even the lofty claims made for it is Luv-It, an unassuming frozen custard stand located in a seedy area just off Las Vegas Boulevard south of downtown. The product itself is astonishingly good — handmade, rich, and creamy, they serve it straight-up or in a dizzying variety of sundaes and shakes. But the real hook is the fact that only a couple of flavors (aside from the standard vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry) are available each day. Luv-It publishes a monthly calendar on its website and Facebook page so that you can plan a visit when your favorite is Flavor of the Day, or when there’s a flavor you’d like to try that might become a new favorite. I have yet to try a flavor I didn’t like (the root beer float flavor could use a couple of jolts more root beer in my opinion, but it’s still pretty tasty), and I go out of my way to drive by when either malt creme or butter pecan are on the menu.

Mount Charleston, the tallest peak in the Spring Mountain range that defines the western edge of the Vegas Valley. Snowcapped from autumn until spring (its indigenous name, Nuvagantu, means “where snow sits” in Paiute), 11,916-foot Mount Charleston ranks eighth among the most topographically prominent mountain peaks in the contiguous US. (“Topographically prominent” is how geologists describe a mountain that is notably taller than anything else around it. For reference, Mount Rainier in Washington state is the most topographically prominent peak in the lower 48.) Charleston is definitely the most topographically prominent thing I can see from my living room window.

Neighborhoods. Most visitors never see much of the Las Vegas area outside of the two main tourist corridors, The Strip and Fremont Street. There is, as I’m discovering, far more to the Vegas Valley than those. I’m making it a point one day each week, often on Sunday afternoons, to drive around in an unfamiliar neighborhood just to see what’s there, and what it’s like for the people who call it home. I’m finding Las Vegas and the surrounding area to be a remarkably diverse place. Did you know that Las Vegas is statistically the second-least racially segregated large city in the United States? (Surprisingly, Tucson, Arizona ranks first.)

Oscar Goodman. For many years, he was the most prominent attorney representing the interests of the… um… underworld elements that ran much of Las Vegas back in the day. Now, he’s one of the more colorful symbols tying together Vegas’s mobbed-up past and its megacorporate present and future. Often seen at major events with a classically attired showgirl on either arm, or holding court at his namesake restaurant in the Plaza Hotel downtown, Oscar served three terms as mayor of Las Vegas before term limits forced him to pass the torch to the current office-holder — his wife Carolyn.

Performing arts. One of the draws for me in moving to Las Vegas is that there’s always a show to see. Live music, theater, comedy, and performing arts of every description abound here; there are seemingly endless venues to catch someone doing something entertaining. Among my favorites is the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, a modernized version of a vintage concert hall located right downtown. I saw Kansas at the Smith Center in September, and was seriously impressed by the place.

Queensryche. “Jet City Woman” is a classic. They’re playing Vegas in March. I may go.

Randy’s Donuts. Familiar to Angelenos and filmgoers alike for the iconic doughnut-shaped sign marking its original SoCal location, Randy’s opened a Las Vegas branch this summer. Although they also serve cake doughnuts for customers who lack discerning palates and don’t know any better, Randy’s raised yeasted doughnuts are quite simply the best doughnuts I have ever tasted. I don’t eat doughnuts often, but when I crave one, Randy’s is the spot. I don’t even mind that they don’t know how to spell “doughnuts.”

Seven Magic Mountains. You can see them from the freeway as you drive into the Valley from the south: seven towers made of brightly painted boulders stacked atop one another. You wonder to yourself, “What in the world is that?” So you pull off at the next exit, drive several miles down a deserted two-lane blacktop, and arrive at your destination, a makeshift parking lot in the middle of nowhere. A signboard explains what you’re looking at: an art installation entitled Seven Magic Mountains, created in 2016 by Swiss-born sculptor Ugo Rondinone. Positioned on federal land, the “mountains” (pillars, more accurately) were intended to stand only temporarily. The original two-year contract was extended for another three years in 2018 due to the exhibition’s popularity, and negotiations continue that would allow the sculpture to remain indefinitely.

Tacos El Gordo. Like Luv-It which I mentioned earlier, Tacos El Gordo is one local joint — more accurately, a chain of joints — that more than merits the high praise and lengthy queues it generates. In many decades of taco consumption, I can’t say that I’ve ever eaten superior tacos to those I find at Tacos El Gordo. The ordering set-up is unique: you first decide what kind of meat you want — they have everything from the familiar carne asada and pork adobada to more specialized traditional fare such as beef tongue and pork stomach — then queue up in the line where that meat is being served. When it’s your turn, you tell the cook how you want the meat served; you can get it dished up in tacos, sopes, tostadas, quesadillas, or any of several other preparations. You then take your food to a central counter where you pay, and order a drink if you choose. You are now ready for one of the most sublime culinary experiences of your life. Seriously, if you come to Las Vegas and you don’t dine at Tacos El Gordo at least once, you have cheated yourself. Hot tip: Skip the always-inundated central Strip location, and drive or Uber/Lyft a few miles south to the new branch across from the Town Square mall complex. Same terrific food, but with more seating and far shorter lines.

Utilities. I would not want to imagine living in the desert without the benefit of air conditioning in the summer, and heating in the winter. (This may shock you, but it’s chilly in Las Vegas between November and March, especially after sundown.) So far, I have only positive things to say about our electrical power provider, and only minor quibbles about the company that delivers our TV, internet and wifi connections.

VersaCart. My grocery and household shopping excursions would be far more onerous without the collapsible cart I use to transport my purchases from my car to my condominium. The VersaCart might look dorky, but its carrying capacity is deceptively huge — I have yet to make a grocery run that I couldn’t transfer in a single load — and it operates flawlessly. I frequently get compliments from other residents who want to know where I got mine. (Amazon, for the record.)

Wedding chapels. I can’t swing a cat without hitting a wedding chapel — not that I am (a) literally swinging cats, or (b) attempting to assault wedding chapels. As touristy and tawdry as the tradition of the Vegas wedding is, I have to admit that it always makes me smile to see a dressed-up couple waiting outside a chapel for their turn with the officiant, or departing with beaming faces as they begin a new life (or maybe just a new few months, let’s be honest) together. I guess I’m not quite the misanthrope I imagine myself to be.

Xeriscaping: the art of landscaping for a desert environment. It’s an essential skill in a place where water is at an extreme premium. By the way, if you wonder whether Las Vegas isn’t about to run out of water any second, it may be helpful to know that nearly 98% of the water used as an indoor resource in the Vegas Valley is recycled. If it goes down a drain here, it passes through one of the world’s most efficient reclamation systems to be used again. And most of the water on display in outdoor venues — think the Bellagio fountains, for example — is 100% recycled. Las Vegas is better at reusing water than almost any other metropolis on the planet. We’re doing okay for the time being, thanks.

YouTubers. In the months when I was preparing for the big move, I gleaned a treasure trove of information about Las Vegas from a number of YouTube channels specializing in local news and lore (Las Vegas Advisor, Not Leaving Las Vegas, Jacob’s Life In Vegas, Turn It Up World, Miles to Memories Vegas, Dale McKenzie), real estate data (Las Vegas Gal, The Thomas Group — Christina of The Thomas Group represented me in my home purchase), dining recommendations (All You Can Vegas, Derek and Catherine, Bill and Lisa’s Food and Travel), and entertainment tips (Travel Ruby, Norma Geli). I appreciate all of these hardworking folks for their valuable content, and I hope to be in a position soon to pay at least some of it forward.

Zappos. The Las Vegas-based online footwear and clothing retailer (an Amazon subsidiary since 2009) has contributed a tremendous amount to the community, in particular the downtown district. Zappos HQ currently occupies the building that formerly housed Las Vegas City Hall; the proceeds from the transfer enabled the city to construct a striking new City Hall adjacent to several other city and county government facilities. The Zappos Theater, part of the Planet Hollywood complex, was home to Britney Spears’s lengthy residency; today it hosts country superstar Miranda Lambert among other A-list performers.

As always, friend reader, I am enormously, inexpressibly grateful for you. I know some of you have followed this annual post since its inception, and have supported my other writing projects as well. May the year ahead sustain you in sound health, in good humor, and in peace, and may we all be around to give thanks together again at this time in 2023.

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2 Comments on “SwanShadow Gives Thanks, Volume 19: Viva Las Vegas Edition”

  1. Donna Says:

    Once again, you have not disappointed this faithful reader. Well done mi amigo of more than four decades!!

  2. Tom Galloway Says:

    As a former Las Vegan:

    Re: Free parking. I’d suggest getting an MGM Rewards MasterCard. No annual fee, and its main perk is automatic status in the program such that you get free self-parking at the Vegas MGM properties (I think there may be exceptions for those close to the Roomba during events there). I think Caesar’s offers a similar deal, but my poker locale when I visit is the Bellagio so MGM suffices for me.

    Re: Supermarkets. While not in your neck of the cactus garden, if you haven’t already I suggest checking out International Marketplace on Decatur, just off Flamingo. Huge place with a very wide variety of foodstuffs from all over Europe and Asia, a bit from Mexico and points south.

    Re: Frozen treats. Alas, Vegas also used to have two worldclass gelato places, but both have closed.

    Re: Smith Center. Vegas is still in the process of realizing it’s grown into a major US city (now 29th metro area in terms of population) as opposed to just a tourist spot. The opening of the Smith Center a decade ago filled a major hole in terms of large city amenities off the Strip.

    Re: Seven Magic Mountains: Alas, I was reading yesterday that a member of BTS posed in front of it for Instagram and their fans have apparently taken it as a blank canvas challenge so there’s now often *lots* of graphitti unless recently cleaned up.

    Re: Zappos. It was less Zappos as a corporate entity than its founder Tony Hsieh who really pushed for and contributed lots of his own money to the revitalization of downtown Vegas, as well as moving its HQ downtown. Alas, he suffered from an increasingly toxic lifestyle (let’s just say comparisons to Vegas-era Howard Hughes were made) and died in a house fire (in New England) a couple of years ago.

    The other thing I find really interesting about Vegas the city is its sizable Chinatown/Asian area on and surrounding Spring Mountain Road a mile or two off the Strip. It’s unique in a number of ways, mainly in that it didn’t exist until 1995 when a strip shopping mall focused on Chinese restaurants and businesses opened and things grew around it. It’s not a housing neighborhood, although some apartment complexes are starting to be added to the area. But shy of the Strip and maybe part of downtown, it’s by far the strongest good to great restaurant area in the city IMO.


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