Leaving Yosemite, I was informed that Tioga Pass – the strip of rt. 120 that cuts through the Park – was closed because of weather. It was raining in the Valley, which meant that at 9000 feet there would be snow, and I could only imagine the crazy road I’d been on the previous day slicked with ice. That meant I had to go the long way, heading back west into California before I could grab the highway through the Mojave Desert into Nevada.

From the extremes of the mountain climate, I headed into the extremes of the arid Mojave, lit at sunset with burnished oranges and long shadows. Between the Nevada border and Las Vegas there is next to nothing – a few towns that seemed mostly excuses for gas stations, and a few rest stops, for which I was thankful. I’d been drinking a lot of coffee and covering a lot of miles; the breaks were good, if only to get out and stretch my legs and hear the crunch of the desert gravel under my shoes.

Out of the dark, Vegas hits you as a deep glow, and as you get closer the lights untangle from the general mass and form themselves into tall hotels and neon signs. It’s not like a city at all, but instead like a life-sized model of a city, like a dream.

Everything here is tall and skinny, so that every room in every hotel has a view of something, or of the great black nothing that lies just outside the city’s borders. Everything here is also fake. Or, I guess, fake-but-not-fake. You know how sometimes it happens that you dream and in your dream you fall asleep? Think of Vegas as that only inside-out, as if you could wake up from your waking into a world that’s just like this one only more so. Crazy talk, right? Well, Vegas is a crazy place.

I checked into my hotel and took a spin around the casino floor, listening to the music and the errant beeping of the slot machines, the quiet calls of the dealers at the tables. I wondered, though, what else there was to do in a city built upon gambling. So I took a walk around, and it doesn’t take much searching to realize that Vegas is full of amazing things to see and do without dropping cash on craps and Texas hold ‘em.

There’s tons of shopping and games, roller coaster rides and incredible shows. Outside the casinos, fountains perform regularly, wowing spectators with gusts of water choreographed like ballet dancers. In front of Treasure Island, there is a pirate show that goes off every half hour, and from the sidewalk you can take in all the music and explosions as two ships face off in a battle for ownership of an artificial cove. I took a swim at the hotel’s outdoor pool, and considered heading to into the casino to try my luck, but I decided instead to tour through some of the city’s famous hotels. So I checked out the amazing indoor canals at the Venetian –where you can take a gondola ride through a replica of Italy’s most beguiling city – and explored the shopping at Caesar’s Palace before rounding out my evening with a trip under the model Eifel Tower at Paris.

I managed as well to head to a performance by Cirque du Soleil, and to eat at one of Vegas’s famous all-you-can eat buffets. When I come back, I want to check out the Blue Man Group in action, and to be brave enough to plunk down at a poker table and see what happens.

For now, though, my travels have to move on, and I’m planning a drive through Utah and Arizona for my next stop at the Grand Canyon. Check back in to see how it goes….

Can’t wait to see Vegas for yourself this summer? Be sure to check out our USA: California & the Grand Canyon program!