Short Trips: Connecticut and Vegas

On the literal frontier: new housing on the western fringe of Las Vegas, Nevada

Travel in the New Year began on Friday, January 18, when I flew north to White Plains, New York, hopped in a Lyft, and zipped into downtown Greenwich, Connecticut.  Had a delightful “reconnect” lunch with Andy Von Kennel, a young marketing whiz I worked with at American almost 20 years ago.  Super good guy.  My flight was late, which cut into our yak, and he had to zip off to a 2 p.m. meeting, but we covered a lot of ground.  Walked south on the main street, Greenwich Avenue, lined with stores of every upmarket brand imaginable; it was almost like a parody, especially when you added in the leisured wives jockeying for parking spots in their Land Rovers and Porsche SUVs.  I was bound for more proletarian transport, Metro North and CT trains east to New Haven, bound for a short weekend with son Jack. 

Greenwich Avenue

Left, the former Greenwich City Hall; right, a gravity-defying bronze in a fancy art gallery

Arrived 4:00, ambled quickly north on Orange Street to pick up apartment keys at Jack’s office (he was away with his girlfriend Reed), then south to Crown Street.  Settled in, grabbed a quick nap, and at 5:45 headed out for dinner at a popular vegetarian eatery, Claire’s Corner Copia. Tucked into a massive plate of stuffed peppers (on top of a huge lunch), then walked north to Woolsey Hall, a concert venue built in 1901 for the bicentenary of Yale University.  Ever since I began regularly attending classical music concerts in 1972 (with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra), I’ve felt anticipatory excitement prior to the start of a performance. So it was when I sat down in Yale’s Woolsey Hall for a concert by the Yale Philharmonia, a huge student ensemble directed by Peter Oundjian. (I was once more familiar with orchestra luminaries, so did some Googling before the concert – the guy’s a player, on the Yale music faculty for almost 40 years, and conductor of world-class ensembles in Toronto and elsewhere.)  

Tickets were general admission, so arrived just before seven and found a great main-floor seat ten rows back.  The excitement was well founded.  After a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Symphony #1, the orchestra launched into Shostakovich’s 11th, “1905,” depicting an uprising that year in St. Petersburg that foretold the Bolshevik Revolution a dozen years later.  It was, simply, the most intense musical work I had ever heard, full of emotion and full-blast volume, especially from the horn and percussion sections.  Whew.  Slept hard that night.

Woolsey Hall

Up early, couple of cups of coffee and a wheat bun squirreled from Claire’s, then out on Jack’s orange Trek city bike, into a cold, clear morning.  Rode across the Yale campus and onto the bikeway of the Farmington Canal Heritage Greenway, which follows the route of an old canal (then a railway) north.  I had to be alert for the patches of ice, but it was a splendid 13-mile jaunt.  When I got back, Jack was home from helping Reed chaperone a Friday-night ski trip.  We yakked for a bit, then headed out for some urban exploration, mainly in East New Haven (known to locals as “Staven”).  Met Reed at noon, and walked to a Chinese restaurant for a big lunch and good conversation, down the street for ice cream at the Arethusa Farm Dairy (some of the best ice cream anywhere), then into the car for more sightseeing, east to Guilford and Madison, a couple of pleasant old towns with traditional village greens.  I took a short, tonic nap, then it was time to watch golf on TV, something Jack loves. 

On the greenway bike trail, sailing past brand-new-buy-look-old Yale dorms

Left, a mountain of salt, getting ready for snow and sleet the next day; right, a wonderful Victoria in East Haven

Just before six, we drove a mile or so north to Ingalls Rink for a Yale Bulldogs men’s hockey game.  We opted for snacks and hot dogs in lieu of dinner (I had been eating a lot), and watched the teams warm up.  Reed had never seen a hockey game, so we explained the basics (which are pretty easy).  National anthem from the pep band, puck drops, and we’re into one of the purest, fastest sports I know.  Yale won, hooray.

Up early Sunday morning in just awful weather, sleet and rain, over to Jack’s gym for a quick, needed bike ride, then back for showers.  I was checking my American Airlines app for flight information – I was flying out of Tweed, New Haven’s tiny airport, and the weather was just on the margin.  Last stop was J. Pepe’s (1925), one of the storied pizzerias on Wooster Street, Little Italy.  My flight was late, but we got to Philadelphia, where the storm had already passed.  Down to Washington, Metro home, out with the dogs in a cold wind.  Trip 1, nice!

Five days later I flew to DFW and on to Las Vegas, only my third time there, and for good reason.  It’s tawdry, excessive, and artificial.  Las Vegas is in the West, but it’s not the West. It’s nowhere. I imagine when it first got going as a tourist destination, in the first part of the last century, western sensibility and sense of place was there, but those have been long gone.  Walking through the airport, past slot machines and a liquor store (in an airport!), I chuckled briefly when I thought about my ne’er-do-well paternal grandfather, who lived in this state for decades after he abandoned his wife and children. His death certificate listed his occupation as gambling dealer. Fits perfectly, both that jerk and the place.

I was there because Linda was there for a five-day conference, and wanted some company on the weekend.  After an expensive taxi ride with a Congolese driver (Me: “How’d you end up here?”  Him: “Life”) through massive traffic, I was in the enormous (almost 4,000 rooms) Caesar’s Palace, hugging Linda in the lobby and tucking into a light dinner.  Lights out at 9:30 (somehow I cope with 5 or 6 hour time changes when I fly to Europe, but 3 in the U.S. are harder!). 

Up at 5:30 Saturday morning, dressed, out for a little walk, across the street to Starbucks, and a delightful Talking-to-Strangers (T-t-S), the first good one of 2019, with Kurt and Sara from Los Angeles.  Trigger was Kurt’s University of Wisconsin sweatshirt.  They were in town for their daughter’s gymnastics meet.  Covered a lot of topics with sensible Midwesterners.  He was a scientist with Amgen and she worked for the outdoor retailer REI (I’m a loyal customer of the latter, and, touch wood, don’t need anything from the former!). 

Homeless person sleeping in the lee in the Flamingo Hotel

Kurt and Sara

Back to the room, chat with Linda, then out the door, she heading to a meeting and me doing a bit of exploring, then a $25 ride on a zipline.  It was my first, and I was underwhelmed – way too slow!  Met Linda for a nice lunch at a barbeque place.  She peeled off for more meetings, and I hopped on the RTC, the local public transit ($8 for 24 hours of unlimited bus rides) north on the Strip (technically Las Vegas Blvd.) to Circus Circus, a big, older hotel with Adventuredome, an indoor amusement park.  The customers were diverse, lots of immigrant families having a good time, a much better time than many of the other, wealthier tourists I saw along the Strip.  There were two roller coasters I wanted to ride, but El Loco was down for maintenance.  Probably just as well, because the Canyon Blaster was intense: upside down three times, and fast.  Maybe there was a reason the tracks were painted Pepto-Bismol pink.  Whew.  Hopped on a bus back to the hotel, grabbed a couple of beers in the lobby shop, back to the room, continued reading a great novel. 

One of the few agreeable landscapes on the Strip: a pedestrian street and a new hotel that didn’t try to look like it was from somewhere else

At left, the zipline route from the top, and at right, the view from near the end of the ride

The Canyon Blaster

Linda returned about five and we headed across the street to dinner at Giordano’s a Chicago pizza place we knew from visits there.  Tucked into pasta on bar stools outside, a nice meal.  But such a strange place, Las Vegas.

Up early again Sunday morning, back to Starbucks for coffee and time to bring this journal up to date.  Back to the room, but still had time to spare, so hopped back on the RTC Deuce bus, riding several miles north to the old downtown Las Vegas.  Had a nice T-t-S with my seatmate from suburban Seattle, in town for a trade show (he owned a company that manufactured handbags in Cambodia, and had made a lot of money in real estate there, whew).  Between the Strip and downtown were a couple of miles of ugh, tired by-the-hour motels, strip joints, cannabis dispensaries.  Downtown was trying hard, but it looked, as they say locally, down on its luck.  Hopped off the bus walked a couple of blocks, grabbed a $1.59 pre-breakfast cheeseburger slider from White Castle (first one in some years, so yummy), got back on the bus and headed home.  Enroute, it occurred to me that public transit might well be the best thing in Las Vegas: dense network, lots of buses, helpful recorded advice onboard (“the bus stop is next to Denny’s”), and a real effort to get at least some tourists out of their cars. 

 

“Recreational marijuana” has been legal in Nevada since 2017; at left, a cannabis museum downtown; at right, a billboard for a “dispensary.”

Double-decker bus used on the RTC’s Deuce route up and down the Strip

Older, shabbier Vegas; note the name of the since-1940 wedding chapel: Wee Kirk o’ the Heather; must have been targeting the Scots!

A few more scenes from downtown; at right, the citizen in the background is transferring morning beer from a can to a plastic soft-drink bottle.

Linda was just leaving for her first meeting, so I gave her a kiss and hug, showered, and zipped out the door.  The original plan was for breakfast across the street, but because I was headed to the airport on the RTC bus (to save a few dollars, and get the most out of my $8 pass), there were breakfast possibilities along the two bus routes.  It didn’t take a geographer long to find the right place, in this case Rincon Catracho, a Honduran restaurant on Maryland Parkway a couple of miles east of the Strip, right where I changed from the #202 bus to the #109.  Hopped on the #202 east on Flamingo Road. 

The Deuce bus up and down Las Vegas Blvd. carried mostly tourists, but the #202 was the route of the people.  It had been many years since I was on public transit in the West, a region where anyone who can afford a car has a car.  So the folks on the #202 were salt of the earth: immigrants, elderly, some down on their luck.  I liked them more than the tourists on the Strip.  For one, they knew bus etiquette and how to ride.  For another, they were almost all polite, thanking the driver as they got off.

I got off at Flamingo and Maryland, spotted the restaurant, and in no time was in a booth.  The waitresses and the other diners seemed a bit surprised an old gringo was there, but I smiled at everyone and felt welcome.  The big-screen TVs were airing major-league soccer from Mexico, Toluca vs. Los Tigres (from Monterrey).  Tucked into a cup of coffee and an enormous Honduran breakfast that would last me ‘til I got home in nine hours.  Hopped on the bus south to the airport, and flew home.  Not a great place, but Linda appreciated the company.

Above, fellow diners at the Rincon; below, first and second courses of my desayuno centroamericano!

The route home was clear, and Western sightseeing was superb:

Above, a solar farm south of Vegas; below, left, the Colorado River below Hoover Dam, and deeply-incised stream

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