Guide to Las Vegas

As you approach Las Vegas at night in a plane, you see a glittering jewel surrounded on all sides by empty darkness. The plane banks and soon the city lies beneath you, closer now, like a great spider web of lights arrayed beneath you. Before long you pass low enough that the shimmering mesh fades to the wide swathes of landing-strip brilliance and black tarmac. As the plane sidles up to the concourse, you could almost forget the city you saw from above, as though you were in any other airport in America, except that out of the side window you see them — the castles of the City of Sin, her casinos. Across the landing field they beckon you with the wanton neon eyes of Lady Luck, and you hasten to disembark.

The airport is filled with the raucous clatter of a hundred slot machines, all vying for your loose change while jet lag settles upon you. You look around and decide that everyone playing must be waiting for their flight, and you have better places to be. You stumble wearily down the concourse, passing window-boxes filled with images of the history of McCarran International Airport and the World’s Most Original City. Catching a taxi is easy; you just wait in line along the front walk and a guy tells you to stand near such and-such a post. The driver isn’t very conversational (although there are exceptions), and you can’t help but get the picture that you are his hundredth customer of the evening.

Your casino is stunning — it doesn’t matter which one you picked, really; they are all stunning — but more of the clamorous slot machines convince you it is time to turn in for the evening. Or maybe grab a drink.

The next morning you awaken to the sounds of hammering, sawing and loud engines. You look outside and catch a bleary vision of the omnipresent construction. Just across from your bathroom window a man walks on a narrow beam, his hand lazily guiding another beam hanging from a crane as tall as the tower in which you stand. “Jeez, what did I do last night?” you think. Starving for breakfast, or whatever they call it when it is 1 p.m., you head out into the casino hallway. You suddenly feel invigorated, and you remember reading that they pump oxygen into the recycled air. Energized and hungry, you don’t care. It’s party time again.

A few days later, your body aches, your feet hurt and you are dry as a sandbox, withered from the cheap drinks, arid desert wind and over-conditioned air. Jeez, what did I do last night? A short taxi ride to the airport through a sun-bleached mirage and a long flight home, and you are gone.

For many people, this is Las Vegas. One length of road, known as the Strip, filled with all the money, booze and temptation anyone could want. Many of them probably remember it more from the postcards and souvenirs they carried away than from the drunken bouts of feeding one-armed bandits, doubling down on blackjack or flirting with the keno runner girl. The games, the casinos, the shows, the mad frenzy of light and spectacle, these represent Vegas to most people. They are right — and wrong.

Six-Sided Land

Today Las Vegas is a jigsaw puzzle composed of six wards, each represented by a Councilman (called Councilwoman when appropriate). The wards are adjusted after each decade’s national census according to legal requirements that their population remain within five percent of each other. Even the clumsiest of conspiracy theorists cannot help but look at a map of the ward boundaries and see backroom deals and corporate compromises written between the lines. The most valuable real estate in town is divided between Ward 1 and 3 right down the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard South. Similarly, downtown finds half of the Fremont Street Experience in one district and half in another. This shouldn’t come as any surprise given that vice, illicit or otherwise, has formed the politics of Vegas since before its official inception on May 15th, 1905. It is a lot easier to understand the city if one ignores the patchwork puzzle of Councilman voting districts and focuses instead upon The Strip, Downtown, UNLV, North Vegas, the residential districts and outlying areas of special import, such as Nellis Air Force Base, the Valley of Fire and the Hoover Dam.

The Strip

From the highway that leads into Vegas, the neon glow is perceptible 50 miles out. Ten miles from the city you can hear the hum of the lights if you stop to get out of your car and listen. A huge portion of that buzzing brilliance originates in what is indisputably the heart of the city, the Strip. Traditionally spanning the three-and-a-half miles between Hacienda and Sahara Avenues, the Strip begins at the southern end of Las Vegas Boulevard with the Welcome to Las Vegas sign — dating from the early ’50s — and runs north to the nearly quarter-mile-high Stratosphere Tower. More than 30 of the city’s most extravagant casinos line the Strip, their otherworldly realms offering more than two million square feet of adult Disneyland.

More than 35 million people a year make their way through Las Vegas, and they drop a gambling bankroll averaging over $500 apiece. It should come as little surprise that one of the city’s monikers has become “Lost Wages.” Most of that money turns into the plastic chips and metal tokens that glide across velvet-topped blackjack tables and into hungry slot machines. At the end of the night, the vast majority of cash stays locked safely away in casino vaults, while broken gamblers scuttle off to their lonely flights home, perhaps pondering how best to explain their misfortune to angry wives or jilted lovers.

The word casino originally meant “gathering place” in Italian, but Vegas has reinvented the word, as it has reinvented so many other things. Jack Binion, Bob Stupak and Steve Wynn are often named as the celebrities of Las Vegas, but the City of Sin’s true celebrities are her sanitized-yet-tantalizing wonderland dens of iniquity, the casinos. Many visitors to the city remain unaware of the people who move and shake the politics of the World’s Most Original City. Few, though, can forget the shining black pyramid at the Luxor with its pillar of light reaching into the heavens, the gigantic lion standing next to the MGM entryway or the towering heights of the Stratosphere. Each of the great casinos has its own theme, built at tremendous cost and inspired by grand architecture, reinforced by hundreds of costumed employees. Each of the great casinos has its own character, putting on a show for thousands of visitors every night, and each of them are beguiling con artists ready to talk you out of every last dollar.


If the Strip is the heart of “Lost Wages,” then downtown is its soul. Here the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad sold the original 1200 lots that transformed Vegas from a collection of tents to a boomtown in two days. The casinos that litter downtown Las Vegas are almost universally older, less ostentatious and much smaller than the castles of light that dot the Strip. To this day the twin neon cowpokes, Vegas Vic and Vegas Vicky continue to bring a glowing Western motif to the soul of the city.

Las Vegas Valley

The residential developments that feed from the trough of the City of Sin spread ever further across the Las Vegas Valley. The 1.4 million people assigned to the Las Vegas metropolitan area are really the total populace of Clark County, according to its 2000 census. More than half of the urban area actually lies outside Las Vegas city limits. Communities such as Paradise, Henderson and North Las Vegas are indistinguishable from the City of Sin save for their proud signs struggling to maintain a separate identity. To the west, the planned communities of Summerlin, Spring Valley, and Enterprise house most of the city’s upper and middle class populations. To the east, the townships of Sunrise Manor, Winchester, and Whitney contrast them in both age and demographics.


The majority of the University of Las Vegas lies northeast of McCarran Airport, between Flamingo and Tropicana and off of the Strip. The William Boyd Law School and the business degree program train many of the new professionals who take the reins of power in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, the medical school can’t reverse the rapid decay in Las Vegas’ medical community: the withdrawal of a major insurance player from the Nevada market, and increasing malpractice suits are forcing doctors to pass along true costs to their patients.

North Las Vegas

North Las Vegas boasted a population of about 125,000 as of 2000. While large areas of North Las Vegas are being rebuilt — or demolished to make way for new residential districts — the bulk of the area is run down. A lot of underworld figures maintain houses that are out of place for their posh remodeling and luxurious interiors, as well as for the presence of armed guards. Other areas of North Las Vegas are downtrodden ghettoes such as portrayed in Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Mexican and black minorities live in terrible conditions exacerbated by a corporate culture that continues to restrict them to the worst jobs and habitats available. Crime is rampant and police travel in packs when they cruise the area. Initiatives to restore, raze or resurrect North Las Vegas come before the city council on a regular basis, but few overcome the politics of the city and apathy of the public.


With a population of about 200,000 people, Paradise is the largest unincorporated community in the United States. The suburb lies southeast of Vegas, not far from the Strip. Like its southern neighbor, Henderson, Paradise is quickly outstripping the city proper in terms of growth.


Henderson forms the southern edge of the fast growing Las Vegas metropolitan area. The 1990 census marked Henderson as America’s fastest growing city. With a population over 207,000 people, Henderson is the second largest city in Nevada. It is separated from the Strip by seven miles of residential sprawl, and from the Lake Mead Recreation Area by about a mile of mountains and desert. Henderson has its own themed hotel resort casinos, but they are newer and less renowned than the ones found on the Strip or in downtown Las Vegas. The best-known ones are probably El Dorado, the Sunset Station and the Fiesta Henderson Hotel Casino. By the time of publication, the Green Valley Ranch Resort should be open as well. Henderson is the ultimate example of urban sprawl spreading farther across the Las Vegas Valley every year as the metropolitan area of the City of Sin grows at an uncontrollable rate.

Clark, Nye, Mohave

Most population statistics for Vegas focus on the citizens of Clark County. For many other purposes, the Las Vegas metropolitan area is assumed to cover all of Clark County and parts of Nye County, Nevada to the west, and Mohave County, Arizona to the east. Some would argue that it supports bits of Lincoln County, Nevada to the north as well as Inyo and San Bernardino Counties in California, but accepted density-based definitions of a metropolitan area would dispute this. The actual city limits of Las Vegas are dwarfed by the developments that surround it.

Lake Mead

Formed by the building of the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead has become a popular vacation and tourist spot for visitors to and from Nevada. The backed-up waters of the Colorado River cover 229 square miles and make Lake Mead the largest man-made lake in the United States. Swimming, fishing and house boating are all popular activities. Divers can explore the deep lake water, including such hidden treasures as St. Thomas, an entire town immersed under water in 1937 after construction of the dam was completed.

Hoover Dam

Some of the worst floods seen in Nevada since ancient times occurred from 1905 to 1907. As the Colorado River washed over its banks, it inspired a flood of politics as well. As is typical in such cases, nothing was done until even worse flooding occurred in 1916, when the Colorado River flooded much of Yuma Valley. The chief engineer and director of reclamation, Arthur P. Davis, proposed to control the Colorado with a dam of unprecedented height. Originally, the gigantic structure was destined for Boulder Canyon, from which the dam derived its name, but engineers discovered stress fractures in the canyon walls that forced them to move the project to Black Canyon, coincidentally placing it closer to Vegas.

Given the broad scope of the project, construction did not technically begin until the river was diverted in 1932. The physical structure of the dam was completed with the addition of the last concrete blocks in 1935; President Roosevelt dedicated Boulder Dam on September 30. The addition of massive generators designated N-1, N-2, etc. continued for a few years after that, and by 1938 Lake Mead extended more than 110 miles upstream. In 1947, Congress voted to rename the structure Hoover Dam in honor of President Herbert Hoover.

The largest hydroelectric facility in the world at the time it was built, Hoover Dam was a marvel of engineering and vision. The grand, terrible majesty of Sons of Ether technology straddled the canyon and harnessed the raw power of the rushing river. Hundreds of men died building the mighty structure, and the ecosystem of the entire area was drowned beneath millions of acre-feet of water. For a time, the Sons basked in the glow of their hubris as the Technocracy quietly usurped control of the wonder of science. But as the Grand Coulee Dam and later nuclear power eclipsed the grandeur of the dam, even the Technocracy abandoned control to the Sleepers who maintain it today.

Boulder City

Federal contractors originally planned to house Boulder Canyon dam workers in Las Vegas. After inspectors examined the environs, they determined that the City of Sin would be too disruptive to their workforce. Instead they built a small city closer to the dam project, complete with unilaterally identical buildings and a stiflingly boring layout. Mage historians looking for signs of the Technocracy’s first moves towards taking control of the Etherite project often point here. Certainly the early city showed all of the static organization and rigidity of Iteration X planners. Even today gambling remains illegal in the city, as though it were immune to the random elements that consume its neighbors.

Valley of Fire

Established as Nevada’s first state park, the Valley of Fire covers about 56,000 acres 55 miles northeast of Vegas. It is named for the brilliant red, tangerine and lavender stone formations that cover the landscape and fl are in the noon sun. Great boulders have worn into shapes reminiscent of ducks, elephants, beehives, cobras and pianos. Strange pictographs and petroglyphs covering many of the rocks are believed to be the work of the Anasazi Pueblo people who lived along the nearby Muddy River during the first millennium. The most impressive of these signs are found along a great fl at cliff face, but no one seems to understand the message left from a millennia ago.

Nellis Air Force Base

Federal authorities established the predecessor to Nellis Air Force Base during the First World War. With passing time, the military base grew into a vast region of land, including restricted areas — each designated solely with an obscure number, as in “Area II.” Specific parts of the extensive military property include the Nevada Test Site, Lake Mead Base, highways for transporting conventional munitions, the Nevada Gunnery Base and the Nellis Federal Prison Camp. Lake Mead Base and other surrounding military areas have passed through many federal hands. Originally, they went from being public property to the province of the Department of the Interior, followed by the Army Corps of Engineers, Navy Defense Atomic Support Agency (DASA) and then back to the Army when DASA (renamed the Defense Nuclear Agency) was no longer allowed to hold real property. Finally, all properties were transferred to the control of nearby Nellis Air Force base. Much of the military site remains actively used by the Air Force for training exercises or for munitions storage.

Small Towns and Big Time Prostitution

Contrary to popular belief, prostitution is illegal in Las Vegas and throughout large parts of Nevada. Early battles over legalized prostitution pitted its proponents against large groups, including the Mormons of Nevada. Ultimately, a compromise was reached: Nevada’s state laws deem prostitution illegal in any county with a population exceeding 250,000. This means that the populous Clark County, home to the City of Sin, joins northern counties, whose citizenship are boosted in numbers by their massive Mormon families, in forbidding the legal exchange of money for sex.

Every action creates a reaction, however. Escort services abound in Las Vegas, as do massage parlors, outcall services and strip clubs. Greasy-looking guys roam the sidewalks handing out pamphlets and magazines filled with lurid pictures to anyone who will take them, even small children. Casinos offer titillating stages filled with erotic showgirls, often barely covered and sometimes essentially nude. One ad on a gigantic billboard proclaims, “Who cares if your friends don’t believe you,” with a photo of a sensual woman apparently guzzling whiskey with abandon.

Legal or not, prostitution does happen, but in Vegas it can be dangerous. Police statistics suggest that approximately one third of all hookers in the city have AIDS. High proportions of streetwalkers are addicted to alcohol, coke, heroin, or crack. Strung out, worn out and desperate, some may resort to setting their johns up for robbery, beatings or worse in order to score their next hit or keep their abusive pimps from breaking their faces or raping them. Embarrassed tricks prove loath to report to the police that they were taken by a hustler — female, male, or transvestite — and truly afraid to explain their stolen credit cards to their spouses. A more exclusive escort may be recording the act for blackmail purposes, should you happen to have an aversion to your significant other (or voting public) watching you screw some pickup in a hotel room, or finding out that you enjoy taking chocolate-smeared vibrators up the ass from leather-bedecked strangers. Urban legend even goes so far as to suggest that some unlucky stiffs fall prey to crooks who dope them up with roofies and leave them in bathtubs of icewater, their kidneys surgically removed. The need for organs is only made more desperate by the stubborn refusal of many Mormons to be donors, as though some of them believe in the Resurrection but somehow seem to feel God won’t be able to replace any missing parts.

The other effect of the Nevada prostitution laws is that all one has to do to find a legal hooker is drive across the county line. Neighboring Nye County is the nearest haven for legalized prostitution, and it’s only about an hour away. If you drive west and northwest from Las Vegas for about 60 miles along state route 160, you’ll reach the town of Pahrump, site of the most famous of Nevada’s brothels. The best known of Pahrump’s brothels are the Chicken Ranch, after its namesake in the movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Sheri’s Ranch, both of which continue to offer legal prostitution despite endless attempts by offended groups to end the practice.

Continuing north along 160, the town of Crystal, Nevada is home to the Cherry Patch, Mabel’s and Madam Butterfly’s. Farther north on Highway 95, Amargosa Valley is home to the Cherry Patch Ranch 2. Even farther afield, Angel’s Ladies Ranch calls Beatty, Nevada home, and across the Esmeralda County line, Shady Lady Ranch lies along Highway 95. Most of the brothels advertise on the Internet, with the Cherry Patch and its second location Cherry Patch Ranch 2 even providing an online menu. Of course they have trouble competing for attention with the endless parades of easily accessible pornography that entrepreneurs of vice provide on the World Wide Web.

Guide to Las Vegas

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