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2013 Grateful 23

I’ve often wondered how Las Vegas came to be Las Vegas. What attracted all those casino magnates to the city? What prompted the glitz and the glamour?Vegas was born in the early 1900s, and in 1911, Nevada was the place to go for a quickie divorce. If you lived there for six weeks, you were eligible for one. These short-term, divorce-seeking, residents holed up at dude ranches, forerunners to the Strip’s hotels.  Who’d have thought?

In 1931, construction on the Hoover Dam brought an influx of workers and a boom to the local economy. And with all that money floating around, it was time to legalise gambling. The first few motels/casinos that opened had a distinctive western theme, like the El Rancho on Highway 91 which opened in 1941. This was followed by the El Cortez Hotel –  the first casino in downtown Las Vegas, and in 1942, the Last Frontier.

The glitz and the glamour didn’t arrive until St Stephen’s Day in 1946 – the day after Christmas, when Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo opened. Supposedly named after his girlfriend Virginia Hill (she had long legs that reminded him of a flamingo), the hotel was a flop; it closed for three months to regroup and reopened in March 1947. I’d love to know what they learned in that time. Whatever it was, it worked. The hotel turned a profit in its first month and is still going today.

But all this was happening in the desert – and it wasn’t until Siegel was murdered that the press came to see what was going on in the sand. Liberace made his debut there in 1944, Frank Sinatra arrived in 1951, and the rest, as they say, is history.

IMG_6451 (800x600)I first visited Vegas back in 1991 – and then I was enthralled. It was smaller then, more manageable. Action concentrated on the strip – the old strip. You had your plastic bucket to collect your quarters from the slots. You could spend a dollar or two on the roulette tables, or eke out your rent money playing blackjack. A breakfast of steak and eggs might set you back a fin. Waitresses were plentiful and the drinks, although watered down, kept coming. People dressed up to gamble.

IMG_6457 (800x600)Fast forward twenty-two years and the scene is a lot different. No more coins from the slots – now you get an electronic receipt you can cash in. Minimum bets are $5, show tickets start at $200, and a poolside chair will set you back $30. And yet the place is heaving. Air-conditioned walkways link the hotels so there is no need to walk the streets. Hundreds of young women in Vegas for hen parties queue up to see the Australian Chippendales. Hundreds more married women in their 40s and 50s escaping the humdrum of domesticity for a weekend, put on their glad rags and take to the town. Loud jocks and golf-shirted weekday dads walk around with jugs of beer – looking cool. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

IMG_6465 (800x600) (800x598)At night, it all looks great. But in the sober light of day, you see that the marble isn’t marble. The brick isn’t brick. The statues aren’t granite. It’s all fake, a front; there’s nothing real about it. I love to gamble and previous trips to Vegas and Tahoe and Biloxi saw many a happy hour at the tables. But this time around, something had changed. Just as I no longer felt the need to have my cards read in Madrid, my half-hearted attempt at the slots soon gave way to lethargy. I simply wasn’t interested.

IMG_6483 (800x594)This week, as temperatures in Budapest tip 40, I’m writing the last of a series of posts on my US road-trip. It was an amazing few weeks. I caught up with old friends and made new ones. I revisited places I’d been to before and discovered others I’d never heard of. With plenty of time to reflect on the meaning of life as we ate up mile after mile of asphalt, the trip gave me time to think. To evaluate. To see how I’ve changed. To remember what matters. For this I’m truly thankful.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Joshua Tree

I met Bono, the Edge, and Adam Clayton back in 1983. We had a chat for 10 minutes or so in what was then the TV Club in Harcourt Street in Dublin. I had no clue who they were and I’m sure none of them remember meeting me. I was singularly unimpressed with yer man then and not much has changed in the intervening years. When I think of U2 now and play a word association game in my head, the ones I care to mention that come to mind are Boy, War, and Joshua Tree.

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Yet if the 64 million dollar question had asked me to describe a Joshua Tree, I’d have gone home penniless. I didn’t know it was an evergreen that could grow as high as 40 feet,  2 to 3 inches a year, and take 50 to 60 years to mature.  So if their ’21’ is 60, it’s not surprising that they can live 150 years. Growing only in the Mojave desert, they have an exclusive pollination agreement with the Yucca Moth, who has evolved special organs to collect and distribute the pollen onto the surface of the flower. She lays her eggs in the flowers’ ovaries, and when the larvae hatch, they feed on the yucca seeds.  Adds a whole new slant to the chicken and the egg debate.

Curious, I couldn’t resist a detour through Joshua Tree National Park, an area in California that covers about 1,234 square miles. But the song that buzzed in my head wasn’t anything from the album of the same name but rather The Fall, by the Black Lillies and that line where he talks about flowers being so rare in the desert.  And yet, all around us, the Mojave desert was blooming. Admittedly the colour palate was pretty short on pastels, but it was beautiful for all its sameness.

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Declared a National Monument in 1936, the Joshua Tree National Park wasn’t designated as such until 1994. When stopped to buy our pass, the ranger on duty, hearing that we weren’t exactly from around those parts, gave us a lecture on the dangers of dehydration and the record-breaking temperatures expected. Now, I believe that I’ve been in a state of constant dehydration since I was born, a fact reinforced by every beautician who has ever given me a facial. Cream of any sort soaks into my skin in a matter of milliseconds, no matter how much water I drink, yet even I was surprised at how many litres we put away on the two-hour detour on the road from Sedona to Palm Springs.

Dehydration aside, though, I was once again mesmerised by the desert landscape and the variety of what’s on offer. Apparently 250 different species of birds have been spotted here, including the Roadrunner, but he must have had a casting call that day.

 

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Just two hours from the California coast, it’s pretty hard to imagine the size of this desert unless you see it for yourself. That a cool ocean breeze could be blowing so relatively near while the desert air was stifling hot boggles my sense of climatic diversity. This intrastate variety is one of the many reasons that California is so ‘special’, and I use that word advisedly. I had  CA driver’s license for two years. I’ve served my time in a state where 80% of your personality depends on the type of vehicle you drive and the word ‘like’ is a form of running punctuation (Ok, so, admittedly, I was down South.)

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If ever you want to feel how insignificant we homo sapiens really are, spend a few hours in the desert. It simultaneously reinforces both the tenacity and the fragility of the human spirit. And if you’re a solitary soul, the sense you get of being alone on this planet is one to treasure.

From the Danube to the desert – a church on the move

Before the aura reader told me that I should visit the solar plexus vortex, I’d already been. I can’t say I was strangely drawn to it for any reason out of the ordinary. It’s at the site of a church and I’m drawn to churches. Solar plexus or no solar plexus. And this church is a little more unusual than most in that the plans were drawn up long before the site was found and it was originally meant to be built in Budapest. Small world.

IMG_6077 (600x800)Way back in 1932,  a woman by the name of  Marguerite Brunswig Staude was looking at the Empire State Building in New York. Somewhere, in this edifice, she saw a cross. And from this got the idea of building a church that would also have a cross as its core. She showed her design to Llyod Wright and he worked on it with her to further develop it. In 1937, they were ready, and the Chapel of the Holy Cross was to be built in Budapest, Hungary, overlooking the Danube.

IMG_6078 (800x566)But the war came and the dream shattered. But she got to thinking… why not built such a shrine in the USA? Why should Europe have a monopoly on shrines? It would take 24 years for her dream to come true but finally, on a spur 250 feet high that sticks out of a 1000 foot rock wall, Marguerite built her church in Oak Creek, Sedona. Her wish? That the Church might come to light in the souls of men. And so it did, in 1956, the year of the Hungarian revolution.

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