Sometimes it seems we don’t live in a city so much as some neon-clad media specimen, one constantly under the prying gaze of countless authors, columnists, bloggers, tourists and a million grammar-torturing Yelpers. It’s fun enough — until the haters show up. Like me, surely you’ve read some glib, dismissive or baldly inaccurate account of Las Vegas that’s had you clenching your fists in the instinctive posture of hometown defense, muttering through a stiffened jaw: You. Just. Don’t. Get. It. Do. You?
We know them well. There’s the Snickering Schadenfreude Piece — a more recent journalistic vintage — that tsk-tsks at New Sodom’s shattered economy and wags a shaming finger at our heedless growth and bad judgment. There’s the Weathervane Story in which the writer trips into Vegas for a passing pulse check, making a few swift compare-and-contrasts to the broader American zeitgeist. Then there’s the “Real Vegas” Travel Article whose writer slips off the Strip a few blocks for some color (if not substance) — respectable efforts, I suppose, that are, in the end, just that: efforts. (You can taste a sampling of these on p. 11).
This has everything to do with Carlsbad, New Mexico. Let me explain. Okay, it wasn’t my first choice for spring vacation. (Rome.) But, hey, it’s where my significant other’s mom and dad were, and I had vacation time to burn, and, well, yeah, maybe I was secretly a little bummed that instead of mugging in front of Trevi Fountain or gazing into a reasonable facsimile of God’s face in the Sistine Chapel, I’d be at Carlsbad Caverns taking snapshots of vaguely obscene stalactites and marveling at bat guano — but lemons, lemonade, etc.
But the bummer evaporated, because here’s the thing: Living in a tourist fishbowl has helped me be a better tourist. Harboring that faint throb of indignation over a thousand wrongheaded Vegas accounts in my mind, I solemnly applied the Vegas Golden Rule to Carlsbad, treating it like I would want the countless parachuting journalists and bloggers and scribes to treat my hometown: With earnest, aggressive curiosity and a strong desire to engage.
I vowed to find the Really Real Carlsbad — and I found it. I found it at the Trinity Hotel, a restored, late-19th century bank building converted to a popular lunch spot. (I recommend the bacon-wrapped shrimp over green chiles). I found it at the Blue House Bakery & Cafe, which felt like a tornado had dropped a homey Portland java dive into in the middle of a working-class neighborhood. And I found it at — yes — the Carlsbad Caverns, where I marveled all gog-eyed at stalactites and stalagmites while keeping claustrophobia at bay. My girlfriend, who grew up in Carlsbad and had delivered grave warnings about what a monstrously, terrifically, mind-crushingly boring time I was in for, had this to say: Thanks.
Yes. Thanks, she said, for opening her eyes with my enthusiasm and curiosity. Thanks for giving her own dawning fondness for her hometown a nudge. Thanks for getting nerdily and infectiously excited about stuff that she’d never really seen or never considered or had pre-emptively dismissed with the jaded eyes of the longtime local.
What can I say? I had a good teacher. The trips in these pages — from familiar regional jaunts to more far-flung excursions — make no less a demand. Go forth, Las Vegan, with fresh eyes. We will build a better tourist.