LAS VEGAS & TONOPAH, NEVADA
Updated: Aug 16
Imagine the Old Man of Nevada had two sons.
The elder is the sensitive one, imbued with a sense of family heritage and honor. Stories of his forefathers' days of pioneers and prospectors had inspired him as he built his ranch in the bosom of the home of his birth . He is in touch with nature, his favorite way to spend time is being with his horses on his ranch or going to rodeos with his wife and children. He dresses without show, works hard and plans to retire here.
His brother is a very different animal. He needed to escape from family and duty to flee to the bright lights to buy that Lamborghini. He is the flamboyant one, a heady hedonist, sharing his days and nights with a steady conveyor belt of beautiful TWBs (This Week's Blonde). He's nothing but a showman, mixing with fame, fortune and beauty, who also happened to make great amounts of money from the gambling tables. He has no time for the past, or even for the future. He lives for today. His bling is his king.
So who are these two siblings? The first son is called Reno. The second Vegas.
These two cities are often compared with similarities, but in truth they are very very different.
Reno, the self-proclaimed "Biggest Little City In The World", may occasionally trumpet its merits as a casino megalith but in reality it has a healthy human heartbeat that is deep rooted in its colorful history of silver mines, boom and bust and natural wonders. It stands as the hub around which the historic Virginia City, Carson City (where the State Capitol sits) and the stunning beauty of Lake Tahoe revolve.
Las Vegas, meanwhile, has an artificial heart. It is an extraordinary, brash man-made phenomenon, the definitive home of unadulterated fun. It has not evolved out of the lifeless, arid desert and carries no Nevada heritage on its flashy, padded shoulders. It has been hewn and constructed out of sterile earth solely to create a faux world of glittering human indulgence.
These two cities define modern-day Nevada, two pulsating hubs in 110,000 square miles of barren scrubland and desiccated sagebrush. To drive from Reno in the northwest to Las Vegas in the south is a tortuous, mind-numbing ordeal where straight roads stretch out ahead of you towards the horizon. You are in danger of burning out your cruise control. Huge trucks, some dragging two further trailers, thunder past you, looming down in your rearview mirror before thundering past in the opposite empty lane, almost pushing the RV off the road with a rush of air. Seven hours, 439 miles, broken only by the occasional roadside company of a clutch of dark wild mules (burros) scratching amongst the sand and rocks for a solitary blade of nutritious grass, is broken by just a couple signs to say you are entering a town of one-time significance. You then spot small clusters of decrepit houses and trailers but anyone who once lived here has clearly had to surrender to the reality that this isolated desert existence is not longer tenable.
The only notable stopover en route is at the small forgotten town of Tonopah, perfectly placed at the halfway point. This was at one time a thriving, prosperous mining hub, enriched by the discovery of silver-ore. Why anyone chooses to live there today is a mystery. The story goes that prospector Jim Butler lost his burro one day, well over 100 years ago, and went looking for it in the hills. On spotting him, old Jim, with a ruthless lack of affection or appreciation, grabbed a rock to throw at the poor beast and was surprised to notice how heavy it was. Thus, in this bizarre donkey-king fashion, Nevada's second-largest silver strike was made.
With the town soon booming, the five-storey luxurious Mitzpah Hotel rose in its center in 1905, at the time the tallest building in the whole of Nevada. Today Fred and Nancy Cline of the Sonoma wine fame have renovated it and it has recaptured all the luxury and style that attracted the likes of Howard Hughes, who married his second wife, Hollywood film star Jean Peters, here. Billionaire reclusive Hughes had two passions in his life, airplanes and women. Allegedly, the Mitzpah was one of his favorite playgrounds. Today, its most famous resident is the 'Lady in Red', the ghost of a decapitated lady of easy virtue wearing a red dress, who apparently lost her head in a tiff with an ex-boyfriend. Her troubled apparition allegedly appears regularly and has given the Hotel the reputation of one of the most haunted houses in America.
North of the old and tiny railroad town of Mina, the railroad long gone and the inhabitants with it (just over 100 remain), the journey is lightened by a bold and unmissable sign, 'Wild Cat Brothel'. Formerly the Playmate Ranch, it used to be run by 'Little Bill' Wilkins (one can only imagine how he earned his unflattering sobriquet) but was bought a few years ago by a Phil Maita and relaunched as the Wild Cat. It is one of the 21 legal brothels in the state. Apparently Phil gets his female aide to chat up the truckers on citizens band radio, trying to persuade the drivers make a quickie stop. When we drove by, it was clear she was not having any success as the car park was empty. Presumably, the truckers preferred another four hours of tedium trundling on to Las Vegas to a four minute fumble in a dusty desert whorehouse.
Arriving in Las Vegas is a sharp jolt back to reality. From endless miles of nothing you are plunged into 5 lane highways, all chaotic with jostling cars endlessly switching lanes. These encircle the gigantic casinos on the Strip which dominate the skyline, not just in size but with their shimmering, glaring giant screens enticing you with Donny & Marie, Cirque de Soleil and million dollar slots. And the current President's shining gold tower stands as the proudest member of this congregation, glowing as his own personal statement of dominance and wealth... and immodestly bearing his name in huge letters.
We were prepared not to like Las Vegas, having visited before. But the overused 'What Happens In Vegas, Stays In Vegas' does it a great injustice. This town is a winner. It is exploding. Buildings are shooting up everywhere, from the new Raiders' super-stadium, still in skeletal form, to yet more extravagant hotels rising out of the ground, surrounded by a bevy of cranes adding floor after floor.
It would be totally wrong even to compare Reno, the Biggest Little Town in the World, with Vegas. At Reno's heart beats a pulse of Nevada bonanza history and humanity. It is a town first and a casino second. Vegas's hearts has an artificial beat, pumped up by injections of over-charged entertainment, gigantic glitzy gambling halls and unashamed commercialism. But, to our surprise, we liked it. It is a place where adults can have fun, unapologetic and unashamed fun. It has fabulous restaurants where you can pay $500 for a Wagyu steak or chose a brilliant $9.99 buffet and be waited on by courteous English-speaking staff. Two fabulous casinos stand out - the Bellagio, with its waterspout show every few minutes and the Venetian with its recreation of Venice have somehow created the ultimate in luxury accessible to the masses. And let's be honest, anyone who doesn't like to be served free cocktails by a beautiful young waitress, with her long legs emerging out of her micro-mini skirt and tapering eventually down to her high heels, is just a miserable old grump. Then there's the Eiffel Tower at the Paris, the Roman Forum style of Caesar's Palace, the enormity of the MGM Grand - it goes on and on. No, this is a great place - as long as you stay on or near the Strip. And there is no need to venture further as it is all here.
Below: our favorite, the Venetian, with its outdoor and indoor sky that changes to night as the evening progresses.
May 1 was our Wedding Anniversary so after a drink and a winning handle-pull at the slot machines at the Bellagio, we took our table at the top of the Stratosphere, an illuminated concrete tower with a revolving restaurant at the top. The view over Las Vegas as dusk turned to night, as the lights come on for miles to see, is indelible from your memory, as are some of the prices on the menu. But remembering the day we won our marital jackpot and finally getting it together needed to be celebrated in style. And it was. Unforgettable.