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A Southwestern USA Expedition: The Other Las Vegas

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The Las Vegas Strip occupies such an outsized position in the American consciousness that it's easy to forget it is a tiny segment of a large metropolis of over two million people, a number that has tripled in the last quarter century. A sizable percentage of tourists never even leave the Strip when they visit the city. Even though we were fascinated by the visual spectacle and energy of the Strip, we are avid explorers of American cities and we were sure to give Las Vegas sufficient time to make sure we took in all the highlights.

Because of my shoddy planning we only had time to see a couple of things away from the Strip on our first full day in Las Vegas. We had lunch at Lamaii, a pretty good restaurant in a large conglomeration of East Asian restaurants and businesses that extends for about two miles along Spring Mountain Road to the west of the Strip. It's an impressive concentration of Asian enterprises but I don't really agree with its informal name of Las Vegas Chinatown. Aside from the fact that there are easily as many Korean and Southeast Asian signs as there are Chinese, I didn't get any sense of the area having any Chinese character from a residential or cultural standpoint comparable to the Chinatowns in NYC, Boston, or San Francisco. I'd call it more of an East Asian commercial district, similar to what they have on a smaller scale in Denver, Houston, or Atlanta. I was still envious of what they had compared to Miami, a city where authentic Asian restaurants of any kind are very few and far between.

Another Las Vegas feature I was excited to experience was Omega Mart, a metaphysical interactive art experience in the form of a surrealist supermarket. Omega Mart is part of a larger complex called Area 15 which is housed in an enormous warehouse right by Interstate 15 in central Las Vegas. Outside of Area 15 is an array of interesting, futuristic sculptures of intimidating size that hint at the weird environment one is about to experience inside.

The interior of the warehouse is illuminated only by blacklights and various light-emitting displays. It was fairly crowded and noisy in the late afternoon with a pumping electronic music soundtrack. It was set up somewhat like a mall with virtual reality attractions, boutiques, and restaurants on two levels.

One side of the warehouse was devoted to Omega Mart. At almost $50 per ticket we had made a substantial investment in this novel form of entertainment that I understood very little about. It seemed that underlying the exhibit was some form of mystery we might be able to solve, but no one seemed able or willing to describe what that mystery was let alone how to discover the answer. The entry of Omega Mart was superficially similar to a small supermarket but on close examination the products were clearly not real. The market stocked everything from Organic Moth Milk to Butter-Scented Air Freshener. It was a very entertaining parody of American consumerism and we probably could have spent an hour just in the market amusing ourselves with the creative packaging.

There are several ways to escape from the market into the huge complex of rooms behind and above, but my favorite was the secret tunnel through the refrigerated cabinet. We found ourselves in a maze of small rooms and large open spaces, each with a completely different creative design. Connecting the different spaces were secret tunnels and slides that were ideal for kids our age to explore. Most of my attention was spent on keeping up with them and making sure they didn't get lost. Interspersed in the rooms were some video displays and texts with repeated themes that hinted at the underlying mystery, but it quickly became clear my kids weren't about to start focusing on some obscure conundrum with such a cornucopia of sensory stimulation around them. In the end we had to beg the kids to leave after almost three hours and even after watching several YouTube videos I still have no clue of what the mystery was about. I think it's a better plan with young kids to focus on exploring every room and secret passage and ignore the metaphysical challenge, at least on the first visit.

After emerging into the bright light and heat of the Las Vegas afternoon we drove to Downtown Container Park, a small arts and shopping district constructed mainly from shipping containers. The entrance to the park is watched over by a giant metal sculpture of a praying mantis. Inside is an eclectic mixture of galleries, boutiques, and cafes surrounding an enormous multilevel play structure and a performance stage. There wasn't a show going on while we were there and the area in front of the stage was filled with kids building with oversize Legos. It was so much fun for the kids we let them play there until it was time to go back to the Strip to watch the volcano eruption at the Mirage. I was still guilty about the distance I'd made them walk that morning.

Mr. Mamas, the breakfast place we chose for our second morning, was a lot busier than the one we'd eaten at the previous day. In fact it was jam-packed with full tables as if the COVID epidemic didn't exist. Infection was still my biggest concern about the trip and I'd hoped that we would be able to eat mostly outdoors and keep our masks on otherwise, but there wasn't any outdoor dining here. We had to choose whether to take the last open table or eat elsewhere, and that's when we realized we were going to have to take our chances if we were going to go through with this road trip. The breakfast was totally ordinary despite the line that was forming outside. We ate and got out of there so quickly that I didn't realize they'd charged us for service and included a tip line on the check until after we'd gotten back on the road.

The high temperature of the day was expected to be 102 so there was no question that any outdoor activities needed to be completed in the morning. Las Vegas is bordered on the west by a large area of natural beauty called Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Within the area is a twelve mile scenic loop drive that comes off of Highway 159 a short distance from the city. Considering the temperature and our lack of hiking experience this was an ideal way for us to begin our exploration of the Southwest's natural attractions. Aside from the magnificent views of the multicolored landscape from the road, there were several stops where we could get out and take short walks into the rocky areas and admire the formations more closely. There were plenty of longer trails and some precarious climbs to be made but we knew there would be plenty of opportunities in the coming month to have more intimate encounters with the terrain.

From the canyon we took Interstate 15 southwest from the city. We made a brief stop at the Silverton Casino to see the mermaid show which had recently resumed after pausing for COVID. That turned out to be a flop with the kids who found it boring and unconvincing, although Mei Ling and I thought it was kind of cool. Cleo was especially critical of the scuba regulator the mermaid was using to breathe, although I'm not sure how exactly she expected the mermaid to go without one. We also had an absolutely awful lunch at a Chinese noodle restaurant inside the casino.

We got back on I15 and continued until we reached Seven Magic Mountains. The seven towers of brightly-painted limestone boulders by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone are apparently intended to evoke comparison to the naturally-occurring rock formations of the Southwest that appear to be balancing. The towers were erected in 2015 and are scheduled to be dismantled at the end of 2021 after a three-year extension granted in 2018. Rondinone's explanation of his abstract work is typically obscure, but there's no question that the Dayglo colors and dimensions of the towers make for an arresting contrast against the flatness and monotony of the surrounding desert.

We were now starting to experience the full brunt of the Las Vegas heat so it was time for an indoor activity. We headed back into the center of the city to visit the Discovery Childrens Museum. Children's museums are always on my list when we visit a major city because they are a reliable way to keep kids entertained in a constructive way and I'm often able to teach them stuff while we're inside. Discovery wasn't one of the largest or best we've been to in the United States but given the amount of time we had it more than served its purpose. There was a very fun water feature and also a spiral staircase in the center with multiple little slides and interactive exhibits that the kids loved. As with Omega Mart, we eventually had to tear the kids out of there and Spenser was asking if we were going back to the children's museum for several days afterward.

With just an hour left to kill before our dinner reservation we headed to The Arts Factory, a warehouse complex of galleries in a commercial district north of the center. I didn't see any other visitors in the quiet building although there were several artists working in their studios. We had a few interesting discussions with the artists that Cleo and Ian got involved in which I thought made the visit worthwhile.

Dinner at Mizumi was our single biggest extravagance on the Strip, where we had otherwise mostly focused on the free experiences. I had chosen our expensive Vegas restaurant carefully and as soon as we entered I felt like we had made the right decision. The interior of the restaurant was painted a deep shade of red and the decor was elegant and modern. Large picture windows displayed the impressive waterfall in the Wynn atrium outside. I'd describe the cuisine as "creative Japanese" and the food was excellent from appetizer to dessert.

Posted by zzlangerhans 23:33 Archived in USA Tagged las_vegas family_travel family_travel_blog omega_mart area_15

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