Day 17 (September 25)

"Cheryl and Mike are going to be in Las Vegas," Daniel said.

I hummed in a not-listening way.

"We could meet them for dinner," he added.

"Of course we can't," I shot back quickly, "because-"

I stared at Daniel. He smiled at me. 

Right. We can do stuff like that now — meet friends for dinner and stay over in another city, what with our kid being someone else's responsibility. We're carefree and gay!

Well, we're carefree.

Or, more accurately, we're carefree once I got the dog an appointment at the dog hotel he likes for a night, sub-contracted the foster kittens and arranged for a neighbor to check on our actual cats. The nest might be empty but it's still thickly covered in dander.

Let me tell you about the Great Lie of Las Vegas. The Great Lie isn't "I have this foolproof system!" You don't. It's not "She actually likes me!" She doesn't. No, the Great Lie of Las Vegas is: "It's easy to get there from Los Angeles." It's not.

True, you can drive there or fly there but the cheap tickets are out of LAX — an airport currently in the middle of a comprehensive renovation slated to be finished never. You can spend an hour at LAX just realizing the parking for Southwest is ten miles outside the city limits. You can fly to Las Vegas via Burbank Airport, which is delightfully convenient, small and manageable but makes up for it by charging three times as much. Or, you can drive.

"It's just four hours!" people tell themselves and the Great Lie is born yet again. First of all, four hours in a car is never four hours. A more accurate way to describe the drive to Vegas is, "Four (LOUD DERISIVE SNORT) hours." Also, it's not so fascinating a drive. The road to Vegas is a hostile moonscape periodically dotted with rotting housing stock from the Boom of 2007 which forms a sort of Pilgrim's (Lack Of) Progress and a warning to those greedy enough to be duped by "zero-down" mortgage hucksters.  We left Los Angeles before noon on Friday but the road was already clogged with people eager for both their mimosas and their serving staff to be bottomless. Daniel and I passed the time chatting and eating what could be best described as a nauseating amount of trail mix. Five hours later, we hit the city limits.

I looked up at a billboard.

"We could see Ricky Martin!" I announced happily.

Daniel frowned. "You want to?"

"No, but we could," I said, and shifted in the seat, brushing some sunflower seeds and chocolate off my shirt. "We can do things like this now. We can start being people who go to Vegas! Why haven't we been to Vegas in years?"

"You fear the sun. You hate gambling. You fall asleep after one drink." Daniel noted.

"I'm not saying we'd go every weekend," I mumbled mulishly, finding a nice-sized chunk of dark chocolate on my sleeve and eating it. Antioxidants. 

Ten minutes later we were still staring at the Ricky Martin billboard. We hadn't moved. Even inside the car, I could feel the sun radiating every part of me not covered in cloth. I reapplied sunblock fretfully.

"I hate the Strip," I announced.

Daniel said, "I know. You tell me every time we come here."

It's nice, having traditions.

We got to the hotel, I admired the first hotel bar, cunningly located between the parking lot and the car-rental desk. We slogged through the casino. Every third row had one person sitting at a slot machine as if part of its root system. This person was of such age that gender was indeterminate and of such stillness that it wasn't completely improbable they'd died two days ago. I can only assume the air filters the casino run to keep the cigarette smell at a minimum also helps with the corpse funk.

Whatever exhaustion we felt after five hours in a car and a surfeit of cashews was immediately ameliorated by seeing our friends. You know what's great about dinner with people with adult children? How you talk about your children for a bit, and then you don't. You talk about other things. I'm not sure I've talked about other things in seventeen years. They travel together. They go to vineyards. I'm probably not going to do that any time soon (see: asleep after one drink), but we could.

WE CAN DO ANYTHING.

But what I really wanted to do was not get back in that car. After dinner, we strolled a few casinos along the Strip. More specifically, I stared at the couples under the age of 30. Almost to a couple, the woman would be wearing something tight, really short, low cut and typically backless. It was like a philosophical exercise in how much fabric you could eliminate and still be defined as a dress. These girls would teeter along in their mock-Louboutins, every third stride or so grabbing the sides of their dress and jerking downward so the entire casino wasn't doing a visual Pap smear. Nearly all of their dates were wearing what I would describe as Saturday jeans and a t-shirt that reeked of having been shot out of a cannon. She was dressed to impress voters at the Adult Video Awards; he was finally going to clean the gutters. I'm not turning into that old person who carries on about how people "Used to dress up to fly," but if I'm having to deny myself salt for a week to fit into a dress I'm going to insist my boyfriend take off the snap-back. These couples all strutted the casino's aisles, seeing and being seen, passing by the possibly dead slot machine jockeys, searching for the elusive exits and pulling down their skirts.

The interesting thing about Vegas is how quickly it's not Vegas. Ten minutes away, it's suburbs, filled with people who, according to our friends, arrange their lives to never get near the Strip unless they have guests in town. Ten minutes past that, it's lizards and spiny plants. So, the next morning, before our friends flew home and we took the four-(HA!)-hour drive back to Los Angeles, we went for a hike in Red Rock Canyon about thirty minutes west of Las Vegas.

There are dozens of hikes in this spectacularly scenic park. Being fit people about to court deep-vein thrombosis with another sitting-marathon ahead of us, we chose the hike marked "Strenuous." If the girls walking around the casinos the previous night taught me anything, it's that in Vegas you do nothing by halves. Also, a dress can be both backless and frontless.

Ice Box Canyon is less than five miles round trip. That is not why it's strenuous. The elevation is less than one thousand feet, steady and not particularly dramatic. That's not why it's strenuous. Ice Box Canyon is strenuous because it is mostly boulders and wiggly,  fist-sized rocks. I can say that for the first time since the kid left, there were stretches of time when I wasn't thinking of her. This is because not spraining your ankle while exploring a terrain reminiscent of Soviet-era missions to Venus can be mentally taxing.

There are few situations where being short is an asset. If you get trapped in a mine, I can bring you water. If someone's ninth-grade daughter has outgrown her clothing, I may get free stuff. If a hiking trail is coarse and unsteady, my lower center of gravity comes in handy. I scuttled along in a steady, not-spraining-your-ankle manner all the way up to the waterfall, stared at it appreciatively for a few minutes, took a few snapshots, and started back. Cheryl and I headed down the same path we'd come up, chatting and clambering. Here's the fun thing about a strenuous hike along a path which mostly consists of rocks of varying sizes: it's hard to notice when you've gone off it. After a while, Cheryl politely cut off my ramblings about something and asked, "Aren't we supposed to be up there?"

I looked up the side of a steep hill on our left to what appeared to be a flat road. Or maybe not. It was too far above us to say for certain. Cheryl is tall and had not chosen this path. I am short and had chosen the path. This was mine to fix. I told her to stay where she was and flung myself at the steep wall to see what if anything was above us. My resume may now safely add, "Quinn is an ungainly but marginally effective rock climber." 

Cheryl climbed up behind me to the path we'd wandered off — the real path. We found the guys who were just starting to realize we weren't where they'd expected to meet us. Daniel and I sent Mike and Cheryl off to the airport and we headed back to Los Angeles. I found the trail mix bag and was pleasantly surprised to find a few more raisins. I waved a fond farewell to the Ricky Martin billboard as we drove, squinting into the setting sun.