Monday, August 4, 2008

Poking through The Boneyard

When we heard about “The Boneyard” it became an “ABSOLUTE GOTTA GET THERE” for our trip to Las Vegas. What is The Boneyard? It’s a three-acre site where the signs that once reigned over the Strip decades ago have been sent to die.

For photographers – it’s pure magic. I mean these are the signs that once lured scientists testing atom bombs into the casinos. These signs glowed their neon siren call to WWII soldiers, one-in-a-million jackpot winners and countless forehead-thumping tourists muttering “Oh my God…what have I DONE???”

These signs poured their light onto the Las Vegas of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

You get the idea, right? I love signs. These particular signs are time travelers to me.

I was beside myself when we arrived on a Monday afternoon, only to find the museum closed all day. My wife, Sheree, and I consoled ourselves by snapping pictures through tears in the fence, standing on concrete blocks and from other vantage points wise 50+ photographers wouldn't even consider. But we were like two sharks in a frustrated feeding frenzy. There a was a fence with green matting between our prey and us. We vowed to each other repeatedly, through gnashing teeth that we WERE coming back and we WERE getting into that yard.

After a couple of fruitless phone calls, on-line research and calls to affiliated groups, a picture began to form. The Boneyard is run by a small group of really earnest “protect these signs at all costs” volunteers called “The Neon Museum” ( and you have to contact them in advance if you want the tour.

Trust me: you want the tour.

We got there about a quarter to ten and the temperature was already approaching 100f. (As a matter of biological fact, this is close to the Melting Point for Canadians. Trapped in high temperatures, we will simply cease to exist, leaving behind only a little puddle, a souvenir t-shirt, a pair of garish shorts and sunglasses.)

We found out they’d lost our reservation (made only the day before) but that there was room for us. We paid the $15/head donation fee and were passed no-nonsense waivers regarding the non-commercial use of photos, given a bottle of water (“You are really gonna need this,” said the earnest young man behind the desk with a very earnest tone) and told to wait.

So we waited.

Our guide was also very earnest, much aware of her role as protector of these neon structures, and she led us across the street and FINALLY unlocked the gate to the Boneyard.

I am sure she was talking about something as I bolted into the Boneyard. I was only aware of the sound of her voice. Maybe she was even saying something interesting. But I didn't care. I was taking pictures, wandering the first of two huge lots where the signs have been placed. I was enjoying one of the best calorie free visual feasts in Vegas.

While we were there, the temperature climbed to just under 110f…but I didn’t notice. I was busy photographing, lagging behind the group, irritating our guide just a little. Sheree, my wife (who couldn’t care less about irritating anyone…but has a manner about her that defies continued irritation) was behind me, chatting amiably to other photographers and making photo after photo.

Sweat was running down my back and under my arms in undignified trails of wet. I didn’t notice. I was taking pictures and making frequent “oooooh” and “ahhhhhh” noises. I’ll take a fascinating subject over air conditioning any day.

We moved from one Boneyard into the next. A few members of our tour couldn’t take the heat and dropped out. “Pfffft,” thought I. “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the Boneyard.” I was first in line when our guide opened the gate to the second yard. My shutter finger was still quivering.

There’s a lot of broken glass. There are twisted metal shards. There’s even what remains of a “Mr. Lucky” sign that a homeless person tried to live in and subsequently set fire to. Poor Mr. Lucky has a charred arm left lying on the ground. Yup. It looks creepy.

There are manic looking clowns (I hate clowns) and high kicking cowgirls . There are voodoo heads and two-sided-way-too-cute duck signs. There’s even the old Stardust sign that I first saw when it was still in use. I passed under it often on my way to what was arguably the best buffet in Vegas each time I was in town for a magic convention. Seeing it here made me feel just a little strange. Gee…it wasn’t even that long ago. Was it?

Was it?

Signs, just like casinos, have a very short life span in Las Vegas. It’s like this whole town is suffering from a sort of attention deficit disorder that compels it to tear down old buildings and put up new ones. This place is continually re-creating itself.

Here's a skull from Treasure Island Casino with some lettering in front spelling "CSI." Apparently the people at the Neon Museum have a sense of humor as well as being earnest. Who did kill this big pirate guy?

Photographing these signs was tough because the sunlight was so intense. Even with significant changes to my Exposure Compensation, the lowest ISO setting I have and everything else I could think of, all of the pictures needed some major tweaking. (I'd forgotten my lens hood in my camera bag. And there are NO CAMERA BAGS! NO EXCEPTIONS! signs in the Neon Museum office. These signs are both firm and you know they aren't kidding.) To combat unreasonably bright shooting conditions, try working with Curves in an Adjustment Layer. You may also find a Contrast/Brightness Adjustment layer could be your new best friend.

Nope. That's not entirely true. Aloe vera is your best friend. How do I know this? About half an hour after our trip to the boneyard, Sheree and I were sitting in a way off-Strip restaurant. I'll admit I was a little vacant. The world had taken on a sort of distant "minor heat stroke" glow, I felt like a mostly disengaged spectator. I could not seem to focus. Sheree would say something to me and I would look at her with eyes that really didn't see anything and say "What?" a lot while I attempted to process her words.

Eventually she sighed and gave up and went to the bathroom, read the menu with great interest or chatted with strangers. Water and cool smoke-scented air conditioning inside the casino brought the world back into some semblance of focus.

As I began to re-enter the land of the living, I noticed a certain burning sensation in the soft skin behind my right knee. It was a space about the size of a dollar bill that I had missed with the sunscreen -- and it was a bright angry red. I walked like one of the female impersonators from the Tropicana Hotel for a few days. Ah well. Small price to pay, right?

So when you’re in Vegas, get off the strip. Go to The Boneyard. This is the secret desert location where the really big bodies are buried!

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