Vegas Vic

at the end of January, I headed out west for some much needed time off — to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. I’ve been to Vegas several times — a perk of having friends who lived there and, for a period, living within reasonable driving distance — and went to the Grand Canyon with my family when I was 11 or 12. my traveling companion, however, had never visited either so it was interesting to experience both in a new way.

it doesn’t take very long before I reach my quota for Vegas spectacle. the Strip is something else to experience and there really is a lot to see and do … so long as shopping and gambling are near the top of your desired list of activities. we spent our first day soaking up everything from the Wynn to Bellagio and I lobbied to take a break on the second day and head downtown to get a taste of what Vegas looked like in the old days.

one of the most iconic site downtown (coming in after the more modern Fremont Street Experience) is Vegas Vic, the neon cowboy perched atop what once operated as the Pioneer Club Casino. the building dates from 1918, initially serving as a restaurant, clothing store, and offices before serving as a club and cocktail lounge from 1942. the casino was one of the most successful downtown for several decades, going through a series of remodels and expansions in the 1960s and 1980s. at one point it was owned by the proprietor of the Frontier Hotel (where we stayed during our Vegas Homecoming several years ago, shortly before it was demolished to make way for what one day might be the mega-resort Montreaux but which at the moment is a desolate vacant patch between Fashion Show Mall and Circus Circus).

new owners in the early 1990s, however, found they couldn’t compete with the larger, flashier casinos popping up along the Strip and at either end of the new Fremont Street Experience and the Pioneer closed in 1995. it remained vacant for three years before reopening as a souvenir shop. the owners retained both the vintage Pioneer Club sign and Vic on the front of the building; he’s still smiling down at tourists with his hat nearly brushing up against the screen of the Fremont Street Experience — they had to shave a few feet off for the new screen to fit.

Vic grew out of an ad campaign designed to draw people to Vegas; he originated on literature generated by a West-Marquis company, offering his trademark “Howdy Podner” greeting on postcards and elsewhere. because of his huge popularity, the Pioneer Club commissioned a Utah firm to construct a neon version. the result was the existing 40 foot structure, erected in 1951; at the time, Vic waved, puffed on a cigarette and said “Howdy Podner” every fifteen minutes. complaints about his volume prompted executives to silence Vic in 1966 for nearly two decades; he regained his voice in the 1980s but fell silent again at in 2006. he stopped waving in 1991.

after the casino closed in 1995, Vic feel into disrepair with no one maintaining him. ultimately, the Neon Museum offered to perform the upkeep if the property-owners paid the electric bill to illuminate Vic each day; the proprietor declined the offer and ended up restoring the sign themselves. now he’s got a red and yellow-checked shirt and a seven-and-a-half gallon hat, rather than the white and yellow-checked stripes and ten-gallon hat of the 1960s. and at some point he got hitched to the Glitter Gal across the road.

clear skies in Seattle

last weekend our Homecoming tradition took us out west once again, this time to the slightly cooler climes of the Pacific Northwest: Seattle. as on my previous trip (to visit Christin on a weekend trip back in 2007), the weather was deceptively fantastic — in the 50s and low 60s all weekend with clear, if somewhat hazy, skies. with how great the weather’s been every time I’ve visited you’d think the city was trying to lure me out there …

we took advantage of the great weather immediately, heading out for a run as soon as the sky was light enough for us to see by. if you’d told any of us at our first Homecoming in Las Vegas that in a few years time we’d be up before 7 a.m. to go out for a three mile run we’d have guffawed and recommended you seek prompt psychological support. but we did and got to see the sun finishing its climb over the Cascade Mountains. of course, time zone changes and regular up-before-dawn habits helped us crawl out of bed, but I never thought I’d be anything approaching a morning “runner.” just goes to show what can happen over six years!

anyway, first stop of the day was the Space Needle which was in many, many ways like all of the other tall buildings offering panoramic views that I’ve ever ascended. this one just gave us spectacular views of Seattle, the Puget Sound, Lake Washington, Bellevue, the outlying islands … and if you looked in the right direction you could see the mountains through the haze. but it still offers quite a view though none with the Space Needle as part of the downtown skyline.

it was built for the 1962 World’s Fair, as was the monorail that connects it to downtown. over the course of the Fair the elevators took some 20,000 people a day to the observation deck — about 2.3 million people total. at the time, it was the largest structure west of the Mississippi River at 605 feet at its tallest point and built to withstand an earthquake of 9.1 magnitude — as strong as the one that shook the area in January of 1700 — and winds of up to 200 miles per hour. the design stemmed from a compromise between two men — one of whom envisioned a giant balloon tethered to the ground that featured a restaurant and the other, a flying saucer with a rotating restaurant (iconic 1960s or what?).

the plan almost didn’t come to fruition — since the project was privately funded (rather than by the city), the group had to find and purchase a parcel of land on which to construct the tower. by the time they got around to looking, however, nearly all the land within the fairgrounds was claimed; at the last minute a parcel of land 120 feet by 120 feet (containing switching equipment for emergency services … you’ve got to wonder where that got relocated) came available and work began. the last element — one of the elevators — was installed the day before the Fair opened.

ferry heading out to Bainbridge Island

since it first opened, the Needle has gone through a series of renovations and upgrades, including refurbishing the observation area, reconfiguring the restaurant, and (in honor of the 50th anniversary this year) repainted “Galaxy Gold” to match the original paint job. originally two separate facilities, one restaurant now occupies the entire level below the observation deck. the whole point of the restaurant: it rotates, and was one of the first ever to do so. one revolution every 47 minutes. as at the Stratosphere — don’t leave anything on the window ledge when you sit down or you won’t see it for 47 minutes (if ever). we opted for the slightly more reasonable prices at Pike Market rather than choosing from the $26+ mains at the SkyCity Restaurant. could have gotten “proudly served” Starbucks at either place, though!

Seattle was the last on our list of “hometowns” (with willing hosts to lodge us) and next year we’ll be off to someplace more wholly new to all of us — New Orleans. should be a good time and cap off what seems poised to be a busy year of travel in 2013!
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Prague Castle

two castles have defended the city of Prague from the hills of the Vltava River. the more famous of the two overlooks the Karluv Most (Charles Bridge) and Stare Mesto (Old Town). it’s been a long time since I’ve been inside a legitimate castle (the closest I’ve come since Windsor in the fall of 2004 was the appointed Castle In the Clouds in New Hampshire where my friends got married in 2008) and I’m not sure what I expected. by some measurements, it’s the largest in the world — the Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the largest coherent castle complex in the world and, put in those terms, it certainly does seem like that. there are three grand courtyards, the most spectacular church in Prague (and maybe the country), and a quaint artist lane tucked into a corner of the castle grounds.

the complex grew and morphed over 1200 years and expand into the extensive structure that exists today. really, it was rather difficult for me to comprehend it as a “castle” at all, since all of the such-named sights that I have visited have afforded one with a contained single, heavily-toured unit. none of these vast sections that are closed to the public, or areas that are still used as artist quarters, or going in and out of buildings throughout the complex and having your ticket stamped or torn at each stop. (thinking back more closely on my potential castle visits…) Trim Castle that I visited last year was a well-preserved relic of a castle. nothing so substantial as an original (or even authentically restored) roof or period-appropriate furnishings. perhaps it is a byproduct of the expectations of tourists for each site — the castle in Trim is beyond Bru na Boinne, well beyond Dublin and not necessarily on the radar or day-trip plan of traditional tourists. Prague Castle, on the other hand, is a primary destination for those who choose to visit Prague. how could it not be, dominating the city skyline as it does?

the weight of history of the place is not insignificant. the first walled building on the site was a castle and the Church of Our Lady in the 9th century, followed shortly thereafter by two basilicas and the first convent in Bohemia. there were periods of Romanesque inspiration, of Gothic inspiration, of modern inspiration, and of no inspiration at all, where the castle stood empty for periods. with the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic the castle became the seat of presidential elections and other formal state functions, though the building suffered acute ill-treatment under both Nazi and Communist rule. it’s now been restored spectacularly (no surprise), and I’ll have more on the various sites on my tour ticket as we move forward.

(and, hopefully, I won’t go quite as long between posts as I have of late …)