Vegas: The Edge of Civilization

I watched the barren terrain of Nevada crawl past below the wing of the plane and wondered, “why here?” Why would anyone build a metropolis of excess in the middle of the desert? Why would people choose to settle so far from life and water?

It was my first visit to Vegas. My friend had decided somewhat randomly to go to Vegas for Christmas this year, and I decided somewhat randomly to join her. When I booked the trip I had just lost my job, and I had no idea whether I’d even have an income in December, but it was cheap, and it seemed somehow the right choice for this holiday season. I’d never had much interest in Vegas before. It’s not really my kind of party.

“Disneyland for adults,” I’ve heard several people call it, and that’s about right when it comes to the strip. It’s a marvel of set design. Fake Paris has some lovely art deco touches and an amazing fake sky. The Venetian is vast and gorgeous, with its fake canal and narrow lanes of shops. Each casino-hotel has its excesses and quirks. The Luxor — where we stayed — has vertiginous open walkways facing the interior of the massive pyramid, and elevators that ascend sideways at an angle, with much jerking and squeaking.

It’s like walking through a monument to a dying civilization. It can’t last. Global warming will make it implausible to get enough water to the middle of the desert, and it will become too hot to visit in the summer at some point. The amount of electricity needed to keep the place lit up is ridiculous, and might simply become unsustainable. The monuments to ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire are nothing if not ironic.

I love its silliness and excess. I love the novelty drinks you can carry down the street, the kitschy decor, and the extravagant carpet designs. The glossy sleaze factor reminds me of Amsterdam, and the sincerity of the street performers reminds me of Barcelona.

But I didn’t really “get” Vegas until I went to the oldest part of downtown. We were looking for a good old school dive bar, and the internets offered up Atomic Liquors. This was the first free-standing bar in Vegas, and its windows face the North edge of the city, where the blankness of the desert feels absolute. In the 1950s, this was the place to come watch atom bombs tested in the desert at the Nevada Test Site 65 miles to the Northeast, used by Los Alamos National Lab (LANL).

It was in this postwar era that Las Vegas became a den of debauchery and gambling. WWII had ended in our favor and brought an era of unimaginable prosperity, but in the early 1940s, it must have felt like the end of the world for many. Those working on the Manhattan Project at LANL in New Mexico were creating the most destructive weapon in human history — one that would put the final exclamation point at the end of the war.

We had prosperity after the war, but we still had that horror hanging over us. We have the power to initiate a real apocalypse. So a bit of debauchery and fantasy at the edge of civilization makes a lot of sense. It’s a place to watch the end of the world with a strong drink, from a safe distance. It’s a place to believe that wealth, comfort, and luxury can be had by anyone.  It’s a place to take comfort in the excesses of civilization, before they disappear.

I’ll Walk, Thanks

On hot summer days in Coeur d’Alene during my childhood, I walked to the beach barefoot. It was about six blocks from my grandparents’ house. First I had to get across the packed dirt and gravel driveway where grandpa parked his excavating equipment. Then there was a short section of unpaved road on Lost Avenue, with more sharp rocks and sticky oil spots, then it was just smooth, hot pavement all the way to Sanders Beach. Sometimes it was so hot that I had to scurry from shady patch to shady patch. The coarse, rocky, glacial sand that makes up the beach was the final obstacle. I had to run to the water to avoid burning my soles, all the while looking for broken glass. The relief of standing in that chilly, clear water is not something I can compare to any other sensation.

I didn’t much care for wearing shoes as a kid, much to the chagrin of my grandma, who was worried (rightfully) about splinters and broken glass and germs. She made a little tsk noise whenever she spotted the black soles of my feet. I used a pumice stone to rub off the layers of dirt when I took a bath.

My feet have always been my primary and favorite mode of transportation. There have certainly been times when walking was the only option and I would have preferred a ride, but for the most part I love to walk. Some of my favorite childhood walks were parts of annual rituals. On May Day, my aunt would take me and my cousin for a walk in the woods across from my grandparents’ house to pick wildflowers for May baskets. When the leaves changed in the fall, grandma and I would go out collecting pretty leaves to press between sheets of waxed paper and flatten in books. Grandma also liked to walk through alleys to see what people were throwing out, on the off chance she might find something good. And of course the most fruitful walk came on Halloween, when I would return with a pillowcase full of candy.

Neither my mother nor her mother ever learned to drive. My mom tried, a couple of times, but she gets panicky even as a passenger in a car. She ended her pursuit of a driver’s license after she ran her friend’s car into a telephone pole and totaled it while having a panic attack. Grandma seemed satisfied using grandpa as her chauffeur, and occasionally she would walk to the drug store, or even call a cab to go run an errand. She was a borderline hermit, so not being able to get around easily didn’t bother her. Ironically, grandpa Frank both ran an excavating business and collected vintage cars, so there were always about a dozen vehicles around that only he could drive.

The morning after my grandma died, in the pre-dawn sub-zero hours, my mom and I went for a walk. It was my mom who showed me that walking could be a form of therapy… and it was also a form of independence. In my teen years, walking downtown to buy a new novel at the Bookseller or a record at Total eclipse became my favorite pastime. I would sometimes buy a $4.99 paperback and take it to the little café where they sold French pastries and sit there on my own, reading and eating a Napoleon. I already had a pretty good idea of who I was at fourteen.

I did learn to drive. I made it through driver’s ed (barely), but since I lived in a car-free household I didn’t get to practice, and after I moved to Seattle I let my license lapse. I learned again in my late 20s, after depending on public transport and my ex-husband for many years. In retrospect, it feels like the driving lessons were part of my escape plan from the marriage. Things fell apart shortly after I got my license, and I left with my very first car: an old Toyota Camry. I’m a decent driver, but both traffic and freeways stress me out… so I prefer to walk.

The idea that every adult is entitled to — and in fact needs — to own a car is a new thing, and largely an American thing. If you think about it, it’s really pretty ludicrous. The resource usage is huge, health and safety risks are high, and it’s a financial burden for most people. And yet we convince ourselves it’s a “need” and not a ridiculous luxury. Of course, American cities were largely designed to accommodate cars (and not so much humans). If you can’t afford to live near your work, or if you have kids, it does become something close to a necessity.

My liberal education started early. I was in the gifted children’s program, and in our tiny weekly meeting we would do fun thought experiments like, “what would happen if every adult in China owned a car?” Bad things, it turns out. Like polar ice caps melting and cities so polluted it’s dangerous to go outside. But of course that’s just extremist… oh, wait. That’s happening now. The American way of life is spreading, and that is fucking terrifying.

We can’t afford for the rest of the world to treat car ownership like we have since the 1950s. In fact we can’t afford to keep doing it ourselves. And we’ve known that for years! But infrastructure hasn’t changed to support car-free living. There’s not a rail system like they have in Europe, and most cities struggle with public transportation. Car sharing is available in some areas, but if you’re stuck in the suburbs you’re pretty much living in the land of parking lots too big to walk across to go to the store across the street.

I don’t own a car anymore. My Toyota  was totaled about 3 years after my divorce. My neighborhood is about as walkable as you can get, and if I want to go on a road trip there’s a rental car place within walking distance. There’s also Zipcar and Car2go and Uber for everything else. And Postmates. And Amazon Fresh. The idea of paying for parking, insurance, car payments, gas, and maintenance sounds… not worth it. But I seem to be relatively alone in that point of view. Maybe because I never got used to depending on cars to get around? Even when I owned a car, I only actually drove it once every week or two.

I walk a fair amount in my daily life, but when I travel, I spend hours walking, sometimes randomly exploring, other times with a destination in mind. In Barcelona I sprained my ankle walking down the stairs to breakfast. I was in so much pain I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk at all, but I pulled myself up and gingerly limped down to the dining room. The plan for that morning was to go to Sagrada Familia. After taking my time over breakfast, I decided to carry on with my plan. It was just one change on the subway.

It was a pretty bad sprain. Every time I put weight on that leg the pain was intense. I hopped down to the subway on one foot. Of course the connection to the second train required a quarter-mile underground walk that isn’t visible on the subway map. By the time I emerged in the shadow of that melting spire, my ankle was blue and swollen to twice its size. I would have given anything for a cane. But I hobbled through the breathtaking cathedral-in-progress… each step a religious experience in itself. I found a pharmacy, learned the word “aspirina,” and made it back to my hotel without crying. I spent the rest of the day wrapping cold cans of Estrella in a towel on my ankle, then drinking them when they got warm.

This was just a reminder of how much things change when you can’t walk (as much as usual). It was a painful inconvenience, but ultimately I healed and walked on. My biggest fear (well, top 5 anyway) is that I’ll lose mobility when I get older. Walking has always been my independence.

Tonight, I will walk to see a concert. Tomorrow morning I will walk to work. If I’m not too exhausted by Monday, I will walk home from work, too. Wherever I go, I’ll walk.

The Girl from Coeur d’Alene

lake-coeur-d'alene-idaho

In recent years, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho — where I lived the first eighteen years of my life — has been earning high praise as a beautiful gem in the mountains with a plethora of activities for the vacationer. This article holds it up as the #1 mountain town in the United States. I can’t disagree. Coeur d’Alene is a great place to visit, but I’m still not sure I’d want to live there.

I love my hometown. Mostly. When I was a kid, I didn’t think about whether I liked where I lived, or if I might like somewhere else better. It was what I knew, and I didn’t have any complaints apart from the fact that it seemed unreasonably difficult to spell Coeur d’Alene.

As a teen, I started to think I belonged somewhere else, and I was probably right. I was listening to The Cure and getting interested in exisitentialism and dadaism and art that went beyond the Northwest landscape. The town was too small. The minds were too small. And we had to special-order all of our music. I left in 1990.

As I get older I start to feel more nostalgic. I miss the heavy arid heat of summer that we don’t get in Seattle, even when it’s hot. I miss the thunderstorms, and the outrageous sunsets over the lake. And I especially miss the lake. I was in that lake constantly during my childhood summers, and now every time I submerge myself in that clear, cold water it’s almost a spiritual thing. Rebirth. Returning to the source.

scda_lumber_mill_1936_t470Coeur d’Alene is a beautiful place, with forested peaks cradling the glacial lake — though every year there are fewer trees and more new homes, status-symbol eyesores and time-shares. The tourism industry has taken over and transformed the town. No more mills spewing plumes of steam on the horizon and sounding whistles to mark the passing hours. Early shift. Lunch break. Swing shift.

Everyone worked at the mill back in the 1970s. Both of my parents worked there at one time or another. I have no idea what the term “pulling green chain” means, but I heard it often, and it didn’t sound like much fun. My general impression is that all of the local kids who worked summers at the mill after high school are lucky to still have a few limbs.

My spot on Sanders beach was officially on mill property, way down at the end past the log boom. The mill watched over the beach, like a benevolent machine, calmly steaming. The sound of saws was a distant and continuous buzz-buzz.

My senior year of high school, our local land baron bought the mill and burned it to the ground, to put in a golf course. When I came back to visit in 1992, the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar was almost too much to take. I have never been so horrified by the sight of a golf course.

The North Shore Motor Hotel
The North Shore Motor Hotel

As far as I’m concerned, Coeur d’Alene’s growth as a tourist destination is making the town more hideous by the year. One of the problems is the local land baron mentioned above (Duane Hagadone) and his architects who apparently hate beauty. The buildings are monstrosities. When I was a kid we had the North Shore resort, which was sixties-modern and swanky. Shag carpet in different jewel tones on each floor. The Cloud 9 restaurant and bar with a 360-degree view. Now the focal point of the whole town is the cheap-looking 80s castle-thingy that was built on the foundation of the North Shore.

Hagadone’s retail development of the main street — as well as the expansion of malls and box stores to the North — put the local shops like The Bookseller and Total Eclipse records out of business. Though I suppose the global economy would have done so regardless. Hagadone tore down the classic Wilma theater, where I had seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time. To this day, there is nothing but an infuriating empty grassy space and a bad mural where the Wilma once stood.

Ugly castle-thingy
Ugly castle-thingy

Downtown is now fairly useless to anyone who isn’t a tourist. The quaint shops trade in overpriced Northwest kitsch, mediocre local art (along with some surprisingly good local art), and gaudy jewelry. The downtown restaurants are pretty much terrible and overpriced (look elsewhere for good food). Happily, the Iron Horse restaurant and bar is still totally un-classy and attracts “bikers” (read: retired, overweight people on  expensive Harleys), and reminds me that I’m in Idaho and not Northern California.

The main problem with Coeur d’Alene (and most of Idaho) is the prevalence of small-mided conservatism. People lined up at 6am to wait for a chance to meet Sarah Palin for a book signing a few years ago. She spent a few of her college years in Coeur d’Alene. If anything, the town has grown more conservative since my childhood. The working class has been driven elsewhere, or reduced to jobs at call centers and fast food restaurants. The anti-gay rhetoric abounds as Idaho struggles with gay rights issues and bullying. And yes, it’s all white people.

The neo-Nazis — who had their compound outside of town — were driven out a decade or so ago when a Native American woman sued them after their guards beat her and her son when they stopped to ask for directions. It was the whiteness of North Idaho that attracted the white supremacists, and I’m sure there are still some lurking. Overall, there’s not much overt racism today. It was the Swedish settlers 200 years ago who refused to hire non-white labor, creating a pocket of whiteness in the melting pot.

Regardless, there’s an undercurrent of intolerance familiar to most small towns. It’s not scary — like my dad’s hometown of St. Maries (“Come for vacations, go home on probation!”) — but my LGBT friends stick to the places they know they are welcome, and otherwise don’t draw attention to themselves. You never know when you might accidentally tap into someone’s hate.

Someday, I might want to live in North Idaho again. I long for the landscape sometimes, even amongst all of Seattle’s spectacular views. Now I can tap into culture and buy books and music anywhere I can get on the internet, so access is no longer an issue. But I still have a love/hate relationship with the town. I always like to visit, though.

The thing about Iceland is…

I just visited Iceland for the first time, and it was every bit as stunning as I’d imagined. It definitely falls into the “a nice place to visit” category for me. One of my Pacific Northwest quirks is a penchant for large trees, deciduous trees, forests… foliage in general. The lichen-covered lunar landscape doesn’t quite cut it for me. I’d definitely like to visit again, and for longer next time… maybe in the Summer. The thing about Iceland is…

Almost dawn, around 9:20 AM
Almost dawn, around 9:20 AM

It’s very far North. I knew this, of course. Their midsummer days are endless, and in Winter daylight hours are few. Being a Northish girl, I’m used to some lesser degree of this. But I’ve lived my entire life around the 47th parallel and Reykjavik is at about the 65th. The furthest North I’ve traveled before is Stockholm, at the 59th parallel. So I should not have been surprised that in Reykjavik in February the sun rises around 10AM and sets before 6PM. I got to watch the sunrise every day, which is something I’ve done rarely in recent years. The downside is that going out before noon basically means enduring the Arctic dawn. It can be very cold.

Icelanders are nice, but not at all friendly. Don’t expect service with a smile in Iceland. This aspect was kind of refreshing, actually. No one wanted to be my friend, and that’s fine, because I mostly prefer to be left alone when I’m traveling. I rarely stay in B&Bs or hostels because I don’t want to have to make conversation. I’m weird, I know. I prefer to observe people, rather than interact with them. If I had wanted to make some Icelandic friends, apparently the key is binge drinking. I read in a couple of places that getting to know the locals is best done between the hours of midnight and 10AM over several dozen drinks.

It’s not cheap. You’d think tourists might benefit from the recent economic collapse and unstable currency, but no. Iceland is the most expensive place to eat and drink I’ve visited outside of (maybe) London. For example, a sandwich and a glass of wine in a café set me back about $25. That was my cheapest meal.

Drink the water!
Drink the water!

It has the best drinking water I’ve ever tasted. While in my hotel room I drank glass after glass of tap water. It was delicious, and probably has magical healing qualities because of the minerals and the elves. Restaurants generally give you a big flask of drinking water, and free water is considered a basic human right in Iceland. Icelandair gives every passenger a free bottle of Icelandic water when they board the plane. When you go to Iceland, drink the water!

The women are beautiful and available. Apparently there’s a shortage of men in Iceland. At the Blue Lagoon I observed numerous men with definitely-out-of-their-league supermodelesque blondes on their arms. I’ve also read that women in Iceland are sexually *ahem* liberated and have fewer qualms about casual sex than women in some other countries. If you’re a heterosexual man who likes thin blondes and can afford several hundred dollars for drinks… Iceland is a good place to get lucky, it would seem. Legend has it that the Vikings stole all of the most beautiful Irish women as they pillaged westward, which is why Icelanders are so much prettier than the Vikings were, and the Irish are not. There are many beautiful Irish people, but Icelanders do seem disproportionally attractive.

NB: That white stuff on the sand is ice.
NB: That white stuff on the sand is ice.

You will get into a thermal pool in below-freezing temps and soon become comfortable running around outside in wet swimwear. The Blue Lagoon was pretty busy on Valentine’s Day. Mostly Brits, with a smattering of Europeans and locals. I heard maybe two American accents. I thought any un-submerged part of my body would be uncomfortably cold, but no! After about an hour of crouched walking and/or half swimming, the cold air felt downright refreshing. I found an extra-hot nook for myself, and actually had to sit up out of the water to cool off every few minutes.

So few humans! The population of the entire country is around 320,000, and 200,000 of those live in Reykjavik. A couple of weeks ago there were over twice the number of people in all of Iceland in Seattle to celebrate a football victory. Iceland is a very empty place. Which makes some sense, as much of the island is relatively inhospitable. On top of that, the Vikings depleted the scant resources of the island, and it has never completely recovered.

Magical sky, occasional elves
Magical sky, occasional elves

The sky is magical. Despite the “Patience and Positive Thinking” demanded by our tour guide, the Northern Lights tour did not result in any Aurora. My expectations were low, so I was happy enough to have a nighttime tour of middle-of-nowhere Iceland. I’ve seen the Aurora before — as a kid — so my bucket list is not in danger (I don’t have a bucket list). The sky gave me enough amazing sunrises, sunsets, blue dusks, huge orange full moons, and artistic clouds, I felt I got my money’s worth.

So much volcano! Iceland is on top of the Eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate. I spend most of my time on the Western edge of the same plate. I’m fascinated by volcanoes. My top childhood memory is the day Mt. St. Helens erupted and my hometown was blanketed with four inches of volcanic ash. Now I have soaked in the thermal waters at both edges of the plate. That feels like some kind of accomplishment, though I never really planned it that way. Iceland has some active volcanoes, as evidenced by the 2009 eruption that inconvenienced all of Europe (and still drives novelty t-shirt sales). It also has tons of tiny volcanoes and volcanoes that look like the top half of the mountain exploded off at some point. These flat mountains surround Reykjavik. I’d like to learn more about the geologic history, because that stuff fascinates me.

There are elves. Rumors that most Icelanders believe in elves are greatly exaggerated, but there’s still a great deal of folklore about the “hidden people.” I had my airport shuttle ticket stolen by an elf — which is just the sort of mischief they get up to. I was sitting in the hotel lobby with my ticket in my hand. At some point I must have put it down, because when I got up to get on the bus it was gone. Poof. I checked all the pockets, the sofa, the table. I hadn’t gone anywhere, and no one had come near me. Clearly the elves didn’t want me to leave.