This weekend I went to Las Vegas for the first time. The following is my account of the experience, in as close to chronological order as possible.

Thursday, 6/22/06
I left work a few hours early to go over to Carolyn’s lab. She was putting samples through an X-ray crystallography machine, and I got to help her prepare the samples. Admittedly, it’s not a particularly glamorous job, and if one had to do it over and over again, it could easily become boring, but I still felt like Watson and Crick doing work on the structure of DNA (in this case it was analyzing samples for parts of a fuel cell, though).

I went home and had some lunch before Nick and Carolyn picked me up to head to Nick’s house. From there, Nick’s parents drove six of us to the airport: Nick, Carolyn, Doug, Naomi (Doug’s wife), Cassandra, and me. Cassandra was along for the ride because she was heading to New York and her flight was leaving about when ours was. Once we got through the ticket line and the security line, we settled in for a couple hours of waiting. We had a game of Wizard to pass the time.

Eventually, we got on the flight, and it was a quick and easy 2 hour jaunt to Vegas. I was in the back of the plane, though, and the windows were obstructed by the engines. We landed, picked up luggage, and headed out to the taxis. I’m glad I packed all of my stuff into one carry-on bag. We dropped off Nick and Carolyn at Harrah’s so they could pick up our tickets for the comedy club, and Doug, Naomi and I got to our hotel (Paris), and checked in and dropped off all the bags. Then we walked to Harrah’s quickly, grabbed a quick bite to eat (a mammoth chicken burrito), and rushed to the comedy club. It was a very tight schedule thanks to the delayed flight, but we made it.

The comedy club was fun. There were two comedians and a host, and they were all funny. It was a good show. Afterwards, we started the walk back. At Margaritaville, we stopped for a drink. I have an uncanny ability to summon the beats of Michael Jackson to the minds of the DJ, and we weren’t there long before I ended up on the dance floor, instantly creating a circle for myself and eliciting the cheers of nearby dancers. Some people really appreciated my skills, because I had a total of $7 stuffed down my shirt, which was just about enough to pay for my drink. Still, I was the only one of my party willing to dance, and I hate dancing by myself, so I didn’t stay long. We made it back to Paris, got back to the room, and the second I sat on the bed my body decided that I was done for the night.

My first few hours in Vegas I was was stunned by the sheer magnitude of everything. There were so many buildings, all of them were huge, there were so many people, there were so many employees, so many advertisements, so many people on the streets handing out advertisements for escorts, so many beautiful people. I immediately felt very poor and very insignificant. There’s a lot of money in Vegas, and a lot of people.

Friday, 6/23/06
We start off bright and early. I got a call from Antonio saying he found some money for me to do InfoStar at SC06, which was good news. We then went downstairs for breakfast, but were intimidated by the lines, so we made our way over to the Bellagio, where we found lines just as long. We ate there anyway, and I had a tasty crab omelette. Afterwards we toured a gorgeous glass store. Then we crossed the street and went into Bally’s, trying to find the monorail. This was when I first noticed how frustrating casinos are. They have signs to bring you into the casino, but then they dump you there, and it’s impossible to figure out how to get out. We were moderately successful, but it still took us 10 minutes to get through the casino and all of the shops to the back of the establishment and find the monorail. We took the monorail from Bally’s down to MGM Grand, in which we saw a pair of live lions. Then we went over to Excalibur. Our mission was an infamous Krispy Kreme, where we enjoyed a fresh Krispy Kreme donut. Honestly, though, it just tasted like a donut, not the ecstasy laced oral orgasm everyone makes Krispy Kreme out to be. Still, I participated in everyone else’s enjoyment.

Next we walked through the Luxor, where I got to see the inside of the amazing pyramid. When you look up inside the building, it is truly amazing how large it is. When you look horizontally, you feel cramped. That’s the next thing I noticed about casinos: for as large as they are, they feel really cramped. Maybe it’s because I’m countrified and I’m used to windows and sunlight and being able to have space, but these casinos are completely packed with things. The ceilings are never white. They range from paintings of blue sky and clouds to ornate gold decorations, to painted black ductwork, but windows don’t exist. Even exits are hard to find. Every step there is some machine or person waiting to take your money. And every detail of every casino is so immaculately planned and engineered so that it’s all absolutely perfect and streamlined. Remarkable.

After the Luxor, we made our way to Mandalay Bay, where we found the Shark Reef, and toured that. They gave us electronic tour guides like cell phones that dictated a short description when the appropriate number was dialed. Mine went quickly to my pocket and remained there after hearing the first couple speeches. The exhibit was entertaining, and I saw many different fish and sharks. They even had petting of some stingrays. The sharks were being fed at the time, so there was a veritable frenzy in the tank.

Afterwards, we took the tram to Excalibur and walked over to the M&M store. Unfortunately, a burst pipe on the second floor made that area inaccessible. The second floor had all the bins of different colors, so we were very disappointed. Overcoming our grief, we headed to New York. We found the roller coaster and got tickets. There was almost no wait, which was nice. The coaster was fun. It had a loop, a twist, a few drops; all the elements one expects from a coaster. At the first drop I was uncomfortable, but then I realized what a coaster is like, and I enjoyed the rest of the ride. On the way out, we had to pass through an arcade. We saw a DDR machine and Carolyn wanted to see me on it. I didn’t recognize any of the songs, but I still picked hard ones. I know that at my peak I would have had no problem with them. I can still see the screen right and process the arrows in my head right, but my connection to my legs was slower. I felt like I was moving through slush, and I didn’t do nearly well as I wanted. It was still enough to impress the people there, but not me.

We wandered back to the hotel and took a small break in our rooms. We had done all this before 1, so we were a little tired from all the walking. About 4 we headed down to the Paris Buffet. It was everything you’ve ever heard about a Vegas buffet; tons of food of all kinds. It wasn’t the best quality food I’ve had, but it was a buffet, and some of it was very tasty. I had quite a bit of food, and a few desserts.

Next was a lengthy walk to the Venetian for Blue Man Group. The tickets for the show were $126, but they were worth every penny. It was absolutely amazing. The music was great, the audience participation was fun, the acts were entertaining and creative, and the technology they used was just, wow. What a great show.

After the Blue Man Group, we got in a taxi for the Stratosphere. All of the things you hear about Vegas are true: the hotels force you to go through casinos and shopping areas, it may only be a block but you’re better off taking a taxi than walking, taxi drivers are crazy, and you spend a lot of time standing in line to get somewhere where you stand in line. We did eventually make it to the top of the Stratosphere, and it was a great view. Then we headed up to the Big Shot, which propels you up at 4Gs to the very top of the structure. That was a fun ride. Then we did Insanity, which has an arm that swings you out over the street and then spins you around so that you are essentially horizontal facing straight down 1000 feet and spinning around. That was awesome. Finally, we tried the XScream, which was a bit like a slide that ended looking down on the street. Of course, the car was stopped before it left the track, but it was still a rush.

We took another taxi back to Paris. Doug and I went down to the craps table, and I was introduced to the madness that is craps. There are so many rules, and I struggled to understand just a few of them. I started with $50 and played with it for 3 hours. At one point I was up $120, and I put my original $50 in my pocket and played with just the earnings. Eventually the table soured and I left with my original $50, a few free drinks in my belly, and many strange feelings.

I can honestly say that I don’t much like gambling. When I was playing, time stopped. The three hours could have been 3 days or 3 minutes. I wasn’t really happy when I was playing. I knew in my brain that past results don’t affect future outcomes, and yet in the absence of information about the future I was relying on the trends as my only source of information about when to bet. It really made no sense at all, and it was exactly what everyone else does, only I was keenly aware of it at the same time. In the end, Doug and I walked away at 3:30 am with exactly as much money as we had at 12:30 am, only more tired.

Saturday, 6/24/06
Saturday morning I was up bright and early and ready to go, despite the late night. We started off downstairs with some crepes. Afterwards we took a cab to an indoor skydiving place. We managed to get there just in time for the next session, so we didn’t have to wait at all. We went through a class and instructional video, then donned our gear: a baggy suit, ear plugs, goggles, a helmet with facemask, and gloves. The group of about 13 was split into two groups, with Doug, Nick, Naomi, and me together in the second group. We watched the first group go into the room. It’s about 20′ in diameter, with padding along the sides between the windows, and padding along the outer 3′. The chamber extended up about 20′. The main floor was a wire mesh, with another wire mesh a few feet below that, and a huge spinning fan below that. First people started in the center in the correct position, and the fan speed increased until they were airborn. The instructor stood in the middle and kept the person stable. After a while, the next person in the group did the same thing. Then they tried jumping into the middle from the outside. Sometimes people would jump too hard and be propelled to the other side. Other times they didn’t jump hard enough and would be pushed backwards. It looked very difficult to control.

The first group left and we went in. The first thing we all noticed was the heat. Of course, right after we noticed it, we said a collective ‘duh’ because we were in a chamber with a huge engine and no possible way to vent it or have air conditioning. We started off the party inside, and it was fun. I quickly figured out how to move around and try to stay stable, but I wasn’t without errors, and the instructor had to correct me. It was great, though. Everyone seemed to do ok. I was able to fly for what seemed like a long time, though in retrospect it was probably just a few seconds. I figured out how to turn in midair, and was able to get about 180 degrees before the instructor politely but firmly arrested my merrymaking. In the end, we jumped in and he flipped us on our backs for a few seconds of backwards flight. The whole thing was very fun, and well worth the $55. Carolyn didn’t do it, so she took lots of video of us in there.

After the flying, we took a cab to Ceaser’s, where we went shopping. The girls split off to shop and the guys went to do their thing. Naturally we stopped in a toy store and explored that for a bit, with Nick and Doug eventually buying stuffed animals. Then we went to an exotic car show. We were a little disappointed that there were only about 25 cars there. It wasn’t really worth the $5 admission. They were some neat cars, though. What was most funny was that there were about 5 salesmen there sitting around and chatting. I don’t know why they would have 5 salesmen there when they only expected to sell MAYBE a couple cars a month.

On the way out of the show, we saw one of the famous automated shows in the thoroughfare of the shops. Fire and robotic people and water and lights. It was mildly entertaining. We were right next to the Cheesecake factory, so the three of us took the opportunity to get a snack. I got key lime cheesecake, Nick got raspberry, and Doug got chocolate coconut. Three very good pieces of cake. Many people watched us eat the pie as they walked by us. Yummy.

We ran into Naomi and Carolyn later and stopped for a quick drink and rest. My knee was killing me, so it was a welcome stop. Eventually the fountain we were sitting by turned into a show and we watched it for a bit before getting bored and moving on. We made our way through the maze that was Caesar’s casino and eventually found the exit and taxi line. We took a taxi to the Bellagio, which was technically next door, but these things are so big that it was still a $10 fare just to get there. Everyone wanted to see the Ansel Adams exhibit there. I had seen it already in Montana, so I passed. I wandered around the casino for a while. Eventually I settled at some video poker, where I promptly lost a few dollars. I got up and wandered some more, stopping again at a machine; this time it was slots. I put in a dollar and made five. One more video poker stop for a loss of a dollar and I was thoroughly bored with video machines. There’s no way I could sit in front of one of those things with a cigarette and drink and keep pressing the button for hours. What a waste of time and money. Eventually I headed back to the entrance to the exhibit and found a seat. The exhibit was conveniently close to the pool entrance, so I got to watch people for a good half hour. While there were certainly some attractive people, there were a lot more average and older people that made the people-watching more ‘interesting’ than ‘exciting.’ After they finished the exhibit, they stopped next door for a snack, but I was content to stay where I was watching people. On our way out of the casino, we managed to see the last part of the water show in front. It was indeed impressive.

We went back to Paris and changed into our fancy clothes for dinner. We headed out to the Venetian, taking the monorail and walking through a few casinos. We were in a bit of a rush, and the casino signs were very little help, so it was a close call. We made it to the restaurant with 2 minutes to spare before our reservation. They had us wait in the lounge, where I ordered an $8 rum and coke. The restaurant was Delmonico’s, and it was owned by Emeril Lagasse, so it was a pretty ritzy place. Eventually we were seated and presented with the menu. I ordered an appetizer of bruschetta with a diced tomato topping. It was pretty tasty, but I had actually made something similar last week, so I was a little underwhelmed. Next we ordered our main courses. I ordered a salad with strawberries and toasted pecans which was really tasty. Nick and Carolyn had a Caeser salad prepared tableside. For our main course, both Nick and Carolyn and Doug and Naomi split a steak with risotto. I had pork chops with bacon-wrapped shrimp and sweet potatoes in a kind of wine sauce. I also ordered a side of a variety of garlic roasted mushrooms and a Riesling. My meal was amazing. I enjoyed every bite of it. It was very tasty. The others were not so fortunate. Carolyn was disappointed in the risotto, which was undercooked, and Nick was frustrated with the amount of fat in his steak. After the meal, Doug ordered a dessert of angel food cake and strawberries, and we all tried it. It was tasty indeed. In the end, they split up the bill appropriately for us. My part alone was $95. It was not a cheap meal at all, but it was very good, and it made me feel much better about my own cooking. I’ve been taking pictures lately of my meals, and it’s forced me to work on my presentation a lot more, so I’m noticing it more when I go out to eat. The first thing I noticed about the restaurant dishes were that they were white but had marks along the edge like they had been used and abused a lot. It really hurt the presentation, but made me realize that the stuff I’m preparing could be in a fancy restaurant like Emeril’s and people would enjoy it and be happy to pay a lot for it.

After dinner we made our way over to the Wynn hotel. It’s an amazing building. I was very impressed with the marble floor, which was gorgeous and smooth. They had some cool waterfalls outside. There was also a restaurant visible as we walked by that overlooked a pond. But when we walked by, there was a show, and the pond was lit from above by a projector. It shifted the colors in a fluid way so that it looked like a pool of soft lava, or a pool of greens and blues, and it kept changing between vivid colors in flowing patterns. It was a very neat effect.

We got to our destination just before the doors opened to let people in. We were there to see the show Le Reve. We walked in and found our seats. The whole theater was circular, with each seat a foot below the one in front of it, so it rose quickly. In the center was a huge pool of water, with three channels extending out to the edge of the theater. Overhead was a huge hemisphere with an opening in the center that extended far up. Half an hour before the show there was some entertainment as people appeared in the water and did some comic relief. Eventually the show did start, and it was amazing. There were so many cool scenes with so many technical aspects, so many things to watch, so much choreography. The story was simply a woman falls asleep and appears in a bunch of different dreams, then eventually wakes up. The dreams, though, were breathtaking, and I found myself with an open jaw for much of the show. People would descend from the ceiling on harnesses, spinning, moving up and down, moving inside contraptions, diving into the water. People came in from underneath the water, and from the three outer entrances. The set was constantly changing, and there were times when the performers were walking on solid ground and then it would go under water, and then a huge platform would rise out of nowhere. The whole thing was spectacular. I couldn’t give it enough praise.

After the show we headed back to the hotel. Doug and I met and headed back downstairs to the craps table. We picked the only one available, and it was a bad table. The man next to me was chain smoking, so that wasn’t fun. And the table wasn’t treating me nicely. In the end, I lost $100. I felt all the desparation of a man who just wants to pull out another hundred and make back what he lost. All of the frustration of having gotten so many bad rolls. And all of the guilt and irresponsibility of having pissed away $100 that could have gone to so many more worthy causes. Gambling really isn’t any fun, and I can’t justify it. I don’t think I’m going to do it any more. Doug also lost $100, but when I left, he was pulling out his wallet for some more.

Sunday, 6/25/06
We were out of the room by 10. We headed down to the main floor to have breakfast. I had cheese blintzes with berries on top. Good stuff. Doug and Naomi went to the Bellagio to try to get their picture in front of the fountain. I went with Nick and Carolyn to Aladdin to wander around the shops. Doug and Naomi caught up with us and we continued around the stores. Then we gambled a bit at the machines. Afterwards, we went back to Paris and Nick and Carolyn did really the only gambling they had done all weekend. Both lost $20 playing video poker. They ended up killing exactly as much time as we needed, because as soon as they lost their money, it was noon; time to pick up our bags and head to the airport.

The taxi back to the airport was uneventful. We got in line to get our tickets, then waited in line to get through security. By the time we got through, we had an hour before our flight, so we went to find food. At about boarding time we all met at the gate, but it turned out that one piece required some maintenance, so the flight was delayed an hour. We used the time to play a game of Wizard, and I got probably the highest score I’ve ever gotten in the game. The flight back was another 2 hours, and I tried to sleep, but was thwarted by the kid in front of me who kept leaning back and bouncing against his seat. Since I’m a tall guy, my knees were touching the back of the seat, so every move he made rippled through the seat and into my knees. Not fun. He was playing 20 questions with the people in the next seat, and had no concept of narrowing down the possibilities, so he drove me nuts with 20 random questions that got him no closer to the right answer. grrr.

We landed Nick’s dad picked us up at the airport. Then we headed back to Nick’s house to pick up the cars. I rode with Doug and Naomi back to my apartment, where they dropped me. That was it. I made it home safely.

I had a great time on the trip. I definitely accomplished some of those “things you must do before you die,” so it was worth it in that respect. I’d never been to Vegas before, so there were a lot of new things to take in. Everything I’d heard from people or seen on TV about Vegas is true. Everything is huge. There’s tons of money there. The casinos are designed thoroughly, they’re gorgeous, they make sure you walk through the casino and stores as much as possible and hide the exits. There are thousands of people who are all exactly like you, and to everyone who lives in Vegas you’re just a source of revenue to them. It was a very humbling experience, as I got to see an entire world of big money that I don’t have access to and probably never will, and I got to be in a position of a little fish in a huge pond, which has never suited me.

Everything we did was amazing. The shows, the food, the rides, it was all really cool. I spent probably close to $1000 in all for the weekend, but honestly, I think it was worth it, and I will likely return to Vegas some time in the future.

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