Screaming into the city of Las Vegas on the windstorm that whipped me out of the Mojave not three hours earlier, I’m half-lost in the industrial park warehouse district beneath McCarran Airport, swerving between the self-storage centers and truck rental depots. I’ve got the radio tuned to KOMP, a rock station who provides the lone guiding voice in the darkness.
My phone’s dead. I forgot the charger when I threw the bag in the car after taking pretty pictures of the sunset for half an hour like an idiot. I’m not flying completely blind, thankfully; a few days’ driving in Vegas gave me a decent lay of the land. However, I’m still in a sparsely-lit part of town, and I’d just as soon not get out of the car where it’s this dark, and certainly not with $2,500 worth of camera gear in the front seat.
But, lo and soft does that precious grace appear when out of the depths of the badlands appears Medizin Dispensary LV. It’s 7:30pm, and the parking lot is alive with customers from all walks. Some of these folks are clearly just getting off work, and some of them are just heading in. I can see valet parking uniforms under jackets, casino nametags hidden under scarves. Everyone’s waiting patiently in line for whatever strain strikes their fancy, whatever edible might make their night more interesting. The faces couldn’t be more blank. There’s no more excitement here than at a deli counter.
It’s unclear exactly how much cannabis was in Vegas before legalization, or how many people smoked it. One of the many downsides to making a substance illegal is that it becomes much harder to study. The game has changed, though. Since cannabis has gone “full recreational,” as a few contacts have called it, it seems like there’s a new dispensary opening every weekend. Everyone seems busy, too. For the week I stayed in Vegas proper, I never saw an empty dispensary.
I buy an $8 pre-roll of Mango Kush, and I finally head back to the hotel at 8pm. I’m starved. Crawling into the lava tubes at Mojave sapped my strength, and the drive back to civilization was considerably longer than anticipated. I am hungry, and worse, I’m starting to shiver. If you run around a desert all day, drive through the middle of nowhere for hours at night, and forget to eat, your body won’t be happy. Later, I find out this is because my blood sugar is dropping. I’m shaking and shivering from exhaustion by the time I hit Fremont Street.
Just before my vision goes completely blurry, a red-and-yellow sign catches my eye, shining bright above Fremont, glowing madly over the heads of the tourists spilling out of bars, clubs, and casinos. The sign simply reads “Le Thai, Las Vegas.” Hunched over myself, with arms folded against my chest to keep from shivering while speaking, I walk to the hostess, who’s in jean cutoffs, a hoodie, Chucks, oversized black glasses, and Sailor Jerry-style tattoos covering every visible inch of skin on her legs and arms.
“Cold?” she asks from her stand outside the restaurant. I nod. “Hungry?” she asks, and I try to stammer “Starving, in point of fact. By the way, I am Jonny Grave, world-traveling aesthete and flaneur, and I have come to enjoy your restaurant’s sumptuous selections of Thai Food. Please direct me to your nearest seating arrangement for one, thank you.” But all I can force out is “Really hungry, yes.” She raises an eyebrow, and asks “you want to eat here?”
That’s when I catch a glimpse of myself in reflection just outside Le Thai– I’m still covered in pulverized lava rock from the Cima cinder cones, sand from the dunes outside Devil’s Playground, and the dust of a thousand state highways. You could drive golf balls off the bags under my eyes, the knot I’ve tied my hair into has turned into a rat’s nest, and there’s a fresh cut across my right knee, small but still bleeding. I realize suddenly that I might look more than a little homeless, or at least mostly crazy.
I apologize to the hostess for my appearance, explaining I just got out of a five-hour long hike through the desert, and that, yes, I will in fact be paying for a meal. “Ah, I kinda figured you were some kind of nutso outdoorsy type. That camera is a dead giveaway,” she says. I’m still white-knuckling my Canon with a huge telephoto lens. Clearly, I need food.
What’s the best thing for reviving yourself after a day’s worth of trekking through the desert? A massive bowl of spicy short-rib-fried-rice. Le Thai serves most of the classics you’d find at any American-run Thai joint, but has a few flourishes to make their menu stand out. This isn’t a run-of-the-mill takeout joint; this is genuine, legitimately Thai food, inspired by Chef Dan Coughlin’s countless trips to Thailand.
My fried rice, my Singha, and the Mango Kush pre-roll do the trick. My shivering has stopped, and now I can’t stop yawning. “Sweet dreams,” the tattooed hostess says before I limp back to Gold Spike, to the tiny hotel room above the noisy patio, to a reasonably clean bed, and to a night of completely uninterrupted sleep.
And that’s how I missed my chance to see the Grand Canyon on this trip– I fell asleep without plugging my phone in, which means it stayed dead all night. I was supposed to get up at 6am for the 4-hour drive to Arizona. With my dead phone in my hand, and 8am sunlight pouring into my hotel room, I’m suddenly wide awake, scratching my head at how I could be so stupid. Even more troubling, I can’t find the charger for my camera’s rechargeable LP-E6 batteries. A quick call to my partner back home, and she tells me not to worry because I left the charger in my desk drawer, right where it belongs.
Where does one go to charge camera batteries in Vegas? At the camera shop, of course. B&C Camera, just off West Sahara. I’m referring to this shop as “the” camera shop, not “a” camera shop, because, apart from a handful of general electronics stores, a Leica dealership, and a few odd pawn shops, B&C Camera is the only camera store in Las Vegas proper.
I called as soon as they opened, asking if it were at all possible, if it wasn’t too much trouble, if there was any way they could maybe charge my four batteries for me. “Lemme guess- you’re hopping all over National Parks, and you forgot your charger at home?” asked the voice over the line. I laughed, and confirmed his suspicions. “Come on in,” he says, “we’ve got you bro.” Still kicking myself and swearing under my breath at missing my window for the Grand Canyon, I hobble out of the hotel, and onto Fremont for breakfast.
Public Us has become my mission control for all excursions into the great, wide expanse of deserts outside the city limits of Las Vegas, and for good reason. Everything is made there. The pastries, the bread, the confections, the sandwiches… everything. Even their coffee, though roasted in Washington State, goes through a strenuous selection process. Public Us purchases the green beans, and their roaster takes care of the rest. Their Kyoto tower is something to behold, allowing gravity-pressured water to slowly extract the caffeine from roasted coffee beans over 24 hours. Also, they allow dogs inside, which makes my breakfast, and by extension, my day infinitely better.
The drive to B&C Camera is quick. At 10am, the rush-hour traffic is gone, which leaves Downtown Vegas a downright pleasant place to drive through. Art galleries, closed and shuttered at night, throw their doors wide open, welcoming in tourists from off the sidewalk. A massive grill fires smoke and cinders into the air like a giant, grilled chicken volcano behind El Pollo Mobile on Arville Street. The dense, blue cloud of charcoal smoke hangs over the parking lot like a savory fog. Getting out of the car, I can hear the stereo from ZIA Record Exchange blasting Bad Brains. In spite of having missed the chance to see the Grand Canyon, I’m enjoying being a Vegas tourist immensely.
The two clerks at B&C take my batteries in with a smile and absolutely no condescension. They ask where I’ll go for the day instead. I told them I was open for suggestions. “Make sure you check out the vintage shops on Main.”
Bordered by Charleston Boulevard to the North, and St. Louis Avenue to the South, Main Street boasts over a dozen vintage, curio, secondhand, and thrift shops. Cleopatra’s Treasures offers high-end consignment items, Patina Décor focuses mainly on furniture, and Buffalo Exchange does exactly what it does in every other town.
Main Street and its vintage shops are some of the best places to kill a couple hours, but it’s important not to overlook the real gem on the block: Las Vegas Oddities. If you’ve ever wanted skeletons from taxidermy schools, semi-radioactive rocks from outside Roswell, or a genuine tecaptl (Aztec for “scary-looking, possibly sacrificial knife”), Las Vegas Oddities has everything you need. Plenty of stuff you don’t, too. And maybe items that are illegal in a few states. Visit, but with caution.
In chatting with one of the clerks about business, particularly small businesses in Vegas, the conversation inevitably turns to the cannabis dispensaries. At first, I thought she was ready to rail against them, but she instead took a much more positive tone, saying “nah, they’re great for neighborhoods like ours. It’s a business, right? So, that means more jobs, more money, a stable local economy, probably less crime… definitely fewer Black guys in jail, right?”
When I returned to B&C for my batteries, I mentioned dispensaries to the staff, and asked if they’ve seen any change at the camera shop since grass became legal. “Not so much you’d really notice,” says one. “We can’t keep macro lenses in stock, dude” says another. “All the new dispensaries keep buying macro lenses for crop-sensor cameras. These dispensary owners buy an inexpensive DSLR, and put a nice macro lens on it for close-up shots of their bud. It’s actually been kind of nice selling so much gear lately.” I thank them for charging my batteries, and the guys give me one more tip on where I should eat dinner, and wave goodbye from the parking lot. B&C and their staff are world-class.
I spend the rest of the afternoon poking through albums at 11th st. Records and paperbacks at Writer’s Block. I’m taking my time with a Sativa-dominant “super joint.” This one is made of a full gram of shake (ground-up bud), with a quarter-gram streak of wax (cannabis concentrate, roughly 90% THC) wrapped in a natural hemp paper cone, dipped in hash oil (another cannabis concentrate), then rolled in keif (the crystalline thrichome resin and stigma from grinding bud). It cost me $30, and sent me straight over the moon.
Well-rested, high as a kite, and with fully-charged batteries, I grab my camera, and head for the Neon Museum, just outside Downtown.