The Two-Year Turnaround

How long does it take for a newcomer to fall for this town?

I got a lot of advice before moving to Las Vegas in April 2010, most of which fell into two categories: 1) “Don’t,” and 2) “I got really drunk at Caesars Palace in ’06 and puked on a slot machine. You’ll love it!”

Which is to say that the advice, sourced exclusively from people who had never lived here, was worthless. Many such opinions are, because in the final analysis any place is what you make of it. Some people are happy living in Nebraska, apparently.

It wasn’t until after I settled in that I finally got a bit of received wisdom that stuck. In fact it did more than stick; I’ve become obsessed with it, turning it over and over in my mind until it has worn smooth as a river stone: “You’ll hate it for the first two years,” a woman I met at a party told me. “And then you’ll start to like it.” I can’t recall if she was a native or a long-timer, and it doesn’t matter. However long her tenure, she said it like she knew what she was talking about.

Now, I’ve moved around a fair bit—Nevada is my sixth state—and I’ve learned that locals are generally amenable to sharing their knowledge. What else is there to do with a head full of miscellanea after being rooted in one place for years, or your whole life? And sometimes it’s valuable: Go the DMV late on a Saturday afternoon; here’s a dentist who isn’t root-canal crazy; buy beer on Saturday night if you don’t want to drink swill on Sunday (serious props to Nevada for its lack of blue laws). I’ve occasionally stuck around a place long enough to give some insider tips myself: There’s a restaurant in Hollywood, Fla., decorated with toilets that serves exquisite hamburgers; Tom Sawyer’s Island is a good place to fire one up at Disney World in Orlando. Not that I would ever advocate smoking pot on Disney property, like a certain New York Times writer did. Just something I heard.

But this two-years-of-hatred thing was in a different class. It was so specific, and related with such certainty, as if it were printed on the other side of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. It begged for follow-up questions because it felt like something that said more about the teller than any objective truth. Does everyone hate it at first? And why two years? What happens on day 731 that changes one’s outlook from seething enmity to sunny acceptance? Oddly, however, I don’t recall quizzing her. I just filed the pronouncement under “unlikely” and moved on.

• • •

Here’s the weird part: I’m right on schedule. “Hate” is a strong word, and overused. So let’s just say that, for me, Las Vegas took some getting used to. It’s a big town that feels little, a place developed to maximize profit rather than social connections. It isn’t the uninhibited free-for-all many nonresidents believe it to be. With some notable exceptions, it’s still a one-industry town. I’ve never lived in a place that values education less—and I’ve lived in Texas.

None of this is news, or even particularly interesting. Las Vegas has its problems. So what? As my Uncle Harold used to say from his recliner in frigid Minnesota, there’s no utopia. (But there is a Utopia, and it’s in Texas. Possibly a misnomer.) Las Vegas has a lot going for it: The area is vast and beautiful, the location is convenient, housing is newly cheap, and it’s energetic. For every minus there’s an equal and opposite plus, just like most places.

So why the two-year timeline? I still don’t have a solid answer, but I’ve got a couple of theories.

Perhaps it just takes time to realize that the city’s obvious charms aren’t its only charms. If you assume Las Vegas is based entirely on indulgence, what’s left when you’re full? Disillusionment, and right there is where I think we lose a lot of potentially happy citizens. There is beauty and authenticity here, but it often lives below the homogenized, gated, test-marketed surface, so you have to look a little harder to find it.

Or maybe you just have to stick around long enough to burn a few new memories in the old memory bank, to repeat things at intervals lengthy enough to kick-start the nostalgia gene. On Christmas Eve, for example, my family goes sledding on Mount Charleston. This tradition has happened exactly twice, but it’s already as important to me as if it had been going on for generations. I’m also fond of our infrequent, invariably windy, summer trips to Boulder Beach. Just the thought of sitting there, the wind like a hair dryer, blown trash tumbling down the rocky shoreline, makes me a little wistful. I’ve grown comfortable with my role as tour guide when friends or relatives come for a visit, and done enough return flights to McCarran to find the desert welcoming instead of inhospitable.

Whatever the reason, my probationary period is up next month, and I can see the light. If the two-year axiom proves precisely true, I intend to spout off about it at parties like a native.