Ode to the Yucca

The recent news that the Neon Museum had saved the Yucca Motel’s sign resonated with me, and not just because it was a coup for the Vegas cultural institution that could become a first-rate museum.

One night in the late ’80s, I found myself looking to the Yucca Motel for refuge. After a relationship meltdown, I threw my meager possessions into my car and left the tiny apartment I shared with my then girlfriend, looking for a cheap place to stay when none of my friends could accommodate me. I handed over $35 to the night manager of the Yucca for a dismal room that hadn’t been updated since the joint opened.

Why the Yucca? The fact is I had loved the Yucca Motel’s fabulous neon sign since childhood. The sign is a three-dimensional, neon sculpture of a yucca plant, its twisting white bloom rising above spiky green neon leaves. While not my favorite motel sign—the Blue Angel still holds price of place—it was one of the best examples of neon in the city. In my emotional distress, the Yucca’s sign popped into my mind like a beacon.

Any Vegas native might have a similar association with the city’s less famous signs: rolling into the 76 station on the Strip for gas and “Free Aspirin & Tender Sympathy”; enjoying the smell of fresh baked bread as you emerged from the Charleston underpass and flew by the Holsum Bread sign (“… hours fresher”) late at night; drunkenly winking back at Foxy on the side of Foxy’s Firehouse Casino. Las Vegans are invested in signs—they occupy our visual and imaginative landscape in a way that the buildings can’t. Only the desert has a comparable hold on the city’s visual imagination.

Someday I’ll gaze upon the restored Yucca Motel sign at the Neon Museum, marveling at it not just as a superior example of commercial art, but as a Proustian trigger for memory. That time and that girlfriend are long, long gone, but, like so many Vegas memories, the signs that survive light up my mind the way they light up the collective memory of Las Vegas.

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