Travelling Small Town America: The Other Las Vegas

It may come as something of a surprise (or not, depending on how well you know me) if I declare an eternal fascination for Las Vegas. Not, I might add, the neon glitter of Las Vegas, Nevada, but the understated historic charms of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

This is the place you’d holiday with Bill Collins (in matching salmon-coloured sports coats) rather than Richard Wilkins, where the only peacock feathers can be found on the peacocks they belong on, and finding a Busted Flush may require a trawl through the local thrift store for a John D. MacDonald novel.

The New Mexico version was the original, established in 1835 when this part of the world was the property of Mexico. It was an important link on the Santa Fe Trail and many of the Old West legends, including Wyatt Earp and Billy The Kid, peopled Las Vegas at various times. Doc Holliday ran a saloon there (and killed a man in a gunfight); another bar owner was Robert Ford, who murdered outlaw Jesse James. In its heyday, Las Vegas was not only one of the biggest cities in the region but reputedly one of the roughest, its reputation for lawlessness far exceeding Dodge City or Tombstone.

The city’s fortunes picked up further with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1879. It was at this time the town split in two with Old Town based around the original 1835 city square while New Town was anchored by the railway station two kilometres to the east.

The glory days of Las Vegas lasted until the 1950s, when rail travel was supplanted by the automobile and the burgeoning interstate highway system. Santa Fe, that tourist-choked Disneyland of adobe, the town that launched a thousand homeware stores, became the drawcard for interstate visitors and Las Vegas went to sleep, a lucky occurrence for those who enjoy a destination with lashings of history. There are more than 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, from richly-ornamented commercial buildings through to the pristine residential streetscapes of Lincoln Park, Carnegie Park and the North New Town district.

One stand-out is the extraordinary Montezuma Hotel, otherwise known as the Castle, built in the Queen Anne style as a luxury spa resort by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company. Completed in 1886, it replaced the first hotel, which opened in 1882 and burnt down the same year, and a replacement building that suffered the same fate.

The first building in New Mexico to have electric lighting, it continued as a hotel until 1903, then underwent varying uses including a Jesuit seminary. In 1981, it was bought by American industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer as the site of a United World College, which continues to this day.

Las Vegas also stands out as a location for film-making. In the silent movie era, it was favoured by cowboy star Tom Mix (about 30 films he either starred in or directed utilise Las Vegas as a backdrop). More recent films include the 1984 action adventure Red Dawn (Patrick Swayze loved the area so much he bought an 800-hectare ranch nearby, where his ashes were reportedly scattered following his death in 2009), Convoy (1978), John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), All The Pretty Horses (2000), and Wild Hogs (2007). Actor Val Kilmer also has a 2,000 hectare ranch outside town.

There are two movies that will forever be closely associated with Las Vegas. The main street of Old Town was used in Easy Rider (1969), where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride behind a parade and are arrested, meeting Jack Nicholson in the town jail. And extensive use was made of Las Vegas in the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men (2007), especially the Plaza Hotel on the Old Town Square.

Built in 1882 in a High Victorian Italianate style, the Plaza Hotel is a stylish and comfortable base from which to explore the town. The adjacent Charles Ilfeld Mercantile Building, which opened in 1891 as the first department store in the southwest, was restored and added to the guestroom inventory in 2009.

Las Vegas is small-town America at its most striking. The locals are friendly and hospitable, there’s a good mix of antique shops, book stores and cafes, and the relaxed pace of life makes it an ideal rest stop on any road trip through America’s southwest. For architecture and movie fans, the attractions are even more compelling.

Words and photos © David Latta


The End Of The World Came To Bombay Beach A Long Time Ago

Maybe I’ve seen far too many horror movies but when you’re in a place as bizarre as Bombay Beach you can’t help but constantly look over your shoulder. Once a thriving resort area in the desert east of Los Angeles, it now resembles the backdrop for a George Romero zombie movie.

Bombay Beach lies on the shores of the Salton Sea, which is anything but. It’s a lake, covering some 970 square kilometres in the middle of the Sonoran Desert that takes in parts of California, Arizona and north-western Mexico. It lies 69 metres below sea level and, throughout the ages, has alternated between lake and salt pan.

In its current state, it was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River broke its banks. In the 1920s, it became a resort area for the growing population of Los Angeles and communities began to spring up on its shores. By the 1960s, the lack of freshwater infill and low rainfall saw salinity levels rise high enough to periodically endanger the fish life.

Although boating is still popular, the towns of the Salton Sea withered to the point of death. The romantically-named Bombay Beach is just such an example. An hour’s drive north is Palm Springs, a fabulous enclave of mid-century architecture and wealthy celebrity residents, eternally stylish and forever locked in a time capsule of swimming pools, backyard fire pits and a classic car in every Richard Neutra-inspired garage.

Turn off the highway, past the sun-parched Welcome To Bombay Beach sign, and you enter another world. The official population hovers around 300 but you’d never know it. Mobile homes, modest cinderblock houses and run-down timber shacks line the streets. There’s a fire department, general store and tavern but, like the streets, they seem abandoned.

It doesn’t help that temperatures sit above 40 degrees Celcius throughout summer so the residents aren’t likely to be out welcoming curious tourists but Bombay Beach appears, with its faded air of depression and decline, unlikely to ever win any Tidy Town awards. If Palm Springs is Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bombay Beach is Norma Desmond waiting for the mortician to bury her dead chimpanzee.

At the lakefront, where a storm decades ago swamped the town and necessitated the building of three metre-high dirt levee, Bombay Beach becomes a set for the zombie apocalypse. A resort and caravan park was abandoned after almost being washed away; its mobile homes, cottages and outbuildings were slowly pulled into the earth, the salt eating away and almost devouring everything.

The silence, along with the pungent stench of thousands of dead fish, is unsettling. Taking photos requires on eye on the viewfinder and another checking for anything odd, or at least odder than this, coming up behind you. The other tourists laugh nervously, get back in their cars and get out of Dodge real quick.

My curiosity sated, I do the same. After a quick drive through town, I debate whether to stop at the general store but decide that’s a bit too much like the plot of a horror movie. And everybody knows how that ends up.

Words and photos © David Latta

Par For The Course In Cancun

I’m one for the gaudy souvenir. No matter where I go, there’s always something just a little bit over the top that is worthy of taking home. As I stood before the pet shop window in a Cancun shopping mall, I was seriously considering a purchase that would not only commemorate my visit to this Mexican resort destination but forever remind me of my ignoble but nonetheless landmark introduction to the hallowed sport of golf.

Despite having been in the tourist industry for decades, where golf is not just a pastime but an important business lubricant, I’d never considered taking it up. I already had more than enough obsessions. I’d travelled with a lot of musicians and many have given up such harmless activities as trashing hotel rooms and throwing televisions into swimming pools to chase a little white ball around rolling greens. It’s all some of them can talk about. Even Alice Cooper spent much of his first stint in retirement playing golf with Bob Hope. It doesn’t get any more bizarre than that.

I was staying at the Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort, an enormous complex of almost 2,500 guestrooms, 15 restaurants and 12 bars perched on the edge of the Caribbean. The resort itself was somewhat of a revelation in that it is all-inclusive. The room rate included breakfast, lunch and dinner, every snack in between and all drinks.

Australians know the all-inclusive concept from the generally cheesy Club Med model but nothing prepared me for this. Every restaurant, from the buffet to the fine dining Italian, Brazilian, Mexican and steak house, and every drink, from the wonderful local dark Dos Equis to top shelf tequilas and Grey Goose vodka to Argentinian, Italian, French and Italian wines by the glass and bottle, were all free.

Our host, Brett, was a mad golfer and, as the other members of the group were focused on trying out the spa, I was his only possible golf partner. I’d warned him well in advance that I’d never even set foot on a course before but he overlooked such a trifling detail, something I’m sure he regrets to this day.

A Jack Nicklaus design, I’m reliably informed that it’s a 7,165-yard 72-par course with a signature 17th hole that’s a 151-yard par 3 that plays downhill to an island green. It meant very little to me then and even less now.

We fronted up to the Pro Shop on a wonderfully warm and humid afternoon and were outfitted with shoes with little spikes, golf clubs and an electric cart that included a chilled cooler full of mineral water. The first sign of trouble came on the practice range. Mimicking Brett’s stance, I fired off a few balls but no matter how I positioned myself they always went off at right angles. I could connect easily enough, I had the strength and the range but pointing them in the right direction, even a passingly similar compass point, proved impossible.

Sensing that this could be a far longer game than anticipated, Brett swapped the bucket of 20 used balls for an even bigger bucket of 50. And this for just nine holes. I considered even that overly optimistic on his part.

The greens were draped with iguanas of all shapes and sizes, lazily basking in the sun and seemingly oblivious to the danger that faced them. Some were huge, extras from Jurassic Park, and all had an upright, elegant carriage that intimated a fierce temperament. Luckily, none of my golf balls went anywhere near them, spearing past at sub-sonic speed into lakes, forests, thickets, adjoining greens, clubhouses, public roads, Mayan cultural landmarks, sinkholes, anywhere but where they supposed to go. I heard of no fatalities that day although there were times when an ambulance would speed by, lights flashing and siren wailing, on its way to an emergency call that I immediately felt responsible for.

We ran out of balls before the ninth hole and decided it was wise to give up. Later, in front of the pet shop, I felt the urge to rescue the iguanas in the window. I knew I couldn’t take them back to Australia. But I could set them free far from a golf course where they may come to harm from a golfer like me.

If the World Wildlife Fund was truly serious about saving endangered species, they should pay me never to play golf again. The iguanas of Cancun would, I’m sure, agree.

Words and photos © David Latta


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