Tuesday, October 03, 2006

#146 - Why We Need Las Vegas

We've been in Utah the past several days. Mrs. Woody's brother married his long-time girlfriend up near Sundance, and the whole family gathered for the event. Even though I'm up to my neck in corporate alligators at work, I decided to take two days on the return trip so I won't be such a zombie when I finally (if virtually) show up at work tomorrow.

We always use St. George at the southwest corner of the state for our halfway point on such trips. I like St. George, if only as a place to visit. It's just too darn'd hot for my personal taste, so even when considering places for retirement (plan now!) I don't think St. George would make the cut. But it has that overcrowded small town flavor for which Utah is so famous, and I love the temple there.

The hard part is making the trip from Dixie to Reality via Outer Darkness.

St. George, being in the extreme south of Utah, has long been called Utah's Dixie, and even has a college by that name. Reality is, of course, Orange County where we Woodys currently reside. "Outer Darkness?" Need you ask?

Black holes, by definition, are so dense that they literally suck all light into their tight gravitational fields (or so I'm told). Little escapes their prison walls. Likewise, there are places on earth today that tend to suck all the light out of men's souls, and one such place happens to be Las Vegas. Or, at least, that portion of Las Vegas that immediately surrounds Interstate 15, including the world-famous "Strip."

We hit Vegas just about lunch time today. At first we thought that we might just sail through by cleverly planning our trip for a non-weekend day. Most unfortunately, there was a nasty accident at about the midpoint alongside the Strip which backed traffic up for at least 45 minutes. While crawling along, I had plenty of time to reflect on just why I despise the town so much.

I must caveat first by stating that Las Vegas - minus the Strip and all related gambling and adult businesses - has much to recommend it. Or, at least, it has the Las Vegas Temple, which will be the only thing that prevents Las Vegas from ending up as a gigantic sink hole on the map at the Second Coming. Pretty much the rest of the town is subservient to the great spiritual black hole that Vegas has come to represent.

The predominant thought that ran through my mind while crawling along the always-under-construction I-15 was that Vegas is spiritually void. Everywhere I looked I saw monuments to man's greed and avarice. The Temple is not (so far as I've ever been able to see) visible from the freeway. Therefore the mind must dwell on the glitz and flash that Vegas' many gambling establishments use to entice weak-minded fools to part with their supposedly hard-earned money. This is Vegas' only "contribution" to society, as seen from the freeway.

That may be unfair, but it brings to mind a story that Mom used to tell me. Many years ago, Dad took her to one of the local horse tracks to watch a race or two. Horse racing is, after all, still considered to be the "gentleman's sport," and Dad thought Mom would enjoy watching the thoroughbreds go through their paces. However, as soon as Mom entered the betting area, she was overcome with a feeling that a spirit other than one from God dominated that arena. It was, as she described it, nearly palpable and she has never set foot near a track ever since.

Likewise, I have had similar experiences with gambling establishments. In my so-called "starter marriage," my ex-wife wanted to visit a casino. We chose "Whiskey Pete's" at the state line, primarily to take advantage of one of those extremely cheap prime rib dinners they always advertised. She thought it might be fun to waste a few nickels on a slot machine, and I was curious to see a casino, so I agreed.

Turned out you have to walk through the casino to get to the dining area. Then you get to sit with an unobstructed view of people gambling and allegedly having the time of their lives while you eat. We played our nickels and, so far as I was concerned, satisfied the curiousity.

A few years later we had to lay over in Vegas due to some car trouble. We holed up in one hotel (no idea which... I think I've sublimated the experience), and took the kids to Excelsior to see some of the more "kid friendly" entertainment there. Once again we had to walk through casinos to get to anything interesting, but this time I was struck with just how uncomfortable I felt there. Perhaps it was because I had my kids with me, and I was feeling protective of them. In any case, my fascination with Vegas had clearly worn off.

Nowadays, Nevada is a state to be driven through whenever possible. I try hard not to stop along the way, unless we're visiting some place of historic significance, such as Virginia City. Today, however, we had to stop in Moapa for a pit stop for the Woodyettes. Moapa is a reservation for the Moapa Indians, and they have a casino/fireworks shop/eatery kind of truck stop right off the highway. I deliberately drove around to the eatery, reasoning that there would be restrooms there and we might avoid the casino. Unfortunately, those restrooms were closed for "cleaning" (as if such a thing could happen at a truck stop) and we were forced to use the restrooms in the casino. To get to the restrooms we had only to skirt around a corner of the casino - just a few paces, really - and we were home free.

But we weren't, truth be told. As I stood in the hallway waiting for my daughters, I happened to watch one gentleman work one of the video slots. I'm guessing he had a card, because I never saw him use any actual coins. He just kept pushing his buttons. Time after time he pressed the buttons and watched the screen as it rolled the symbols around and around. The whole time I watched they never did line up in his favor so far as I could tell. He stopped only to take an occasional swig from his beer, then resumed his near-religious devotion to the slot. As I watched I couldn't help but notice how spiritually empty that man seemed to be. This was, admittedly, a judgmental observation. I knew nothing personally about the man. But the old adage of avoiding even the appearance of evil certainly seemed to apply here, because this man looked like one who had nothing for which to fight. No burning cause that would drive him to greater aspiration. No concern for anything but his own personal economy. No family that he would choose to protect over his own dreams of an easy windfall. He appeared to be living the worst of man's lies to himself: Lady Luck can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams overnight. We choose to overlook the possibility that Lady Luck is really just Satan in drag, waiting to pull you down to the depths of your own personal hell.

Then we drove through Vegas. The mother of all selfishness.

Still, all was not darkness and grim foreboding. Mrs. Woody had, just that morning, purchased a book of stories related to our temples and the experiences that bear testimony of the work performed therein. Faith-promoting stories of the highest caliber. The kinds of stories that remind us that miracles really do happen in these modern hedonistic times. No sooner would I feel my spirits ebb because of the darkness around me, than Mrs. Woody would decide to read another story aloud to us. Instantly my spirits would soar above the filth and emptiness that surrounded us, and before I knew it we were nearly home.

Our home - cluttered and unkempt as it may be these hectic days - is still a refuge from the world around us. I returned home today to find the news blogs abuzz with the scandals and idiocy of the day: another congressman caught in a sexual scandal; North Korea ready to test a nuclear device; political campaigns that appear to be striving for a degree of mud-slinging and intelligence-insulting as yet unattained in modern times.

No, I need Las Vegas to remind me that, no matter how bad things get around me, I can heal from these assaults when I surround myself with light. And I don't mean the neon variety.

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