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Coming to terms with Las Vegas, all over again

Photo by Greg Blake Miller

Photo by Greg Blake Miller

The sky had emptied itself long ago, maybe in the early spring, maybe in prehistoric times. It was anyone’s guess. The blue was pale and endless, yellowed by midday glare. My son and I had gone out in search of bugs. Nobody was anywhere. When the sky had emptied itself, perhaps the world had, too. My son sensed, though, that there were eyes lurking behind narrow windows. It was the fifth day of July, the third day after our move to Las Vegas, and our sixth neighborhood stroll. My son looked around, tugged on his baseball cap, and said, “People must be wondering: Who are those people who always walk?”

On this day, we were People Who Look for Bugs. My son was holding a clear plastic jar with a mesh lid. We would catch a bug, look at it, let it go. We used to do this in the backyard in Oregon, and on sidewalks scattered with unswept oak leaves and pine needles. There were no homeowners’ associations in our corner of the South Eugene hills. Not much besides tort law kept those sidewalks from getting buried altogether. As a side benefit, we had magnificent bugs—golden-green wood beetles and spiders the size of your hand. The houses in our neighborhood were middle-aged and so modified by do-it-yourselfers that they seemed homemade, a sort of artisanal clapboard, mildewed from the day it goes up. The clapboard itself seemed to generate spiders. We called our area Spiderburgh.

It is 112 degrees. The sun has frightened the bugs into hiding. We give up on the sidewalks. The little green park at the entrance to our neighborhood seems promising. We walk across the lawn. My son reaches down, brushes this way with his palm, then that. The lawn is dry but well mowed, immaculate, resistant to the buildup of fallen petals and sludge we had grown used to during the long, wet Oregon spring. There are no sow bugs. The grass is beetle-free.


I am not a stranger to this place. This is my home. My parents moved here in 1971, when I was 18 months old. In 1986 I moved away for school, and I wasn’t back for much more than visits until 1999. Those visits, though—two, three times a year—were unforgettable, a sort of time-lapse experience of the suburbanization of the 1990s. At fewer frames per second, the changes were all the more striking. When I think back to those days, I have the general impression of an animated Movietone News war map, with pale tan spreading across the screen to mark the advance of stucco subdivisions. No municipality had actually banned other colors. It appears to have been a voluntary penalty. Clark County, meanwhile, had indeed prohibited further planting of the infinitely climbable fruitless mulberry, which was allergy inducing and nonindigenous and, for a child of the Vegas ’70s, as emblematic of the city as the old Frontier “F.” Steve Wynn blew up the Dunes, which was fine, and the Dunes sign, which was not fine. The Landmark fell down, not of natural causes, and was replaced in the skyline and the popular imagination by the far less imaginative, though equally functionless, Stratosphere.

My nostalgia for the lost world of pre-’90s Vegas, though, is not a longing for its return. A significant portion of my childhood consisted of drives up and down East Tropicana and Flamingo, and the experience was about what you would imagine. Yes, in the 1990s we blew an epochal opportunity for smart development and green construction and rapid transit and all the rest. And, yes, I missed the desert lots they kept paving over. But let’s face it: When I was in sixth grade, kids used to hang out at the 7-Eleven on Flamingo and Sandhill playing Galaga and bothering old ladies. So the mid-’90s emergence of the Sunset corridor, with Mountasia Family Fun Center and the little water park outside Crocodile Café was something of a revelation, made sweeter still by the post-Pepcon disappearance of “The Henderson Smell.” Sometimes I’d visit town with a big stack of work and I’d tuck myself away in Café Sensations, where I’d get distracted by a copy of James Reza’s old Scope Magazine. My city wasn’t what it once was, but it seemed to be growing into something interesting.

That promise pulled me back in 1999, and for the next seven years I watched my hometown driven mad by the lotus flower of easy money. We visited acquaintances in their big, beautiful houses and listened to their monologues on why now was the time for them to trade up. My wife and I started our family during those Vegas boom years, and took long walks in brand-new parks, and presided over the opening and closing of a great little magazine, and built the kind of friendships that last. When the time came to leave for the Northwest, it was a bittersweet departure. We had bought our first house in 2000. We sold it in 2006. The boom wasn’t so bad after all. We did not expect to return.


My son and I climb to the top of the playground slide. There are no bugs up here, but there is a gray dove in a mesquite tree. The dove is an arm’s length away. It looks at us and does not leave. I feel that we are trusted. Truth be told, I do not mind the silence of these streets, or the emptiness of the sky, or the way the bugs have sequestered themselves for the day. As I stand up here I realize that it was the silence, the desert emptiness, that I loved most about my childhood Vegas. I loved the tumbleweed lots and deserted pioneer shacks and desolate sun-scorched swimming pool decks. These were the images that stopped time and started dreams. This moment feels that way. My son and I shake hands over the empty bug canister and promise to keep the Oregon spirit alive within us. They were beautiful years.

We climb down from the jungle gym, strip a sycamore seed ball down to its fuzzy insides, and take it home in the canister. We will walk again in the evening. My son will see his first cicada. Everything will be fine.

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