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!

Loathing in Las Vegas

We're back from a week in Nevada. It was a wonderful trip...but when I wrote the entry below I was in a decidedly dark frame of mind.

The pic to the left was taken about midnight on Fremont Street in downtown Vegas. My camera was braced on a street pole.

The entry below has nothing to do with Photoshop There are lots of blogs and pictures to come. I'll post them as soon as I can. This one is from my travel journal. I don't usually post stuff from my journal but I thought you might enjoy it.

Here goes: picture a man sitting in a hotel room bathed in warm desert sunlight. Picture this man glowering into his computer screen....

Vegas feels like this enormous illusion everyone has agreed to suspend all reason and simply believe in. Think of it in terms of a tooth fairy for grown-ups or a Santa Claus for adults.

There’s the notion that the next pull on the slot machine can change your life (and you’re not like a starving lab rat being conditioned to sniff out the location a food pellet you’ll never find); that the drinks the clothing-challenged waitresses bring really are free (and that their feet don’t hurt nor do they mind being ogled and groped by sixty thousand “convention-of-the-week” delegates) and that Vegas is one big happy community that is glad to see you.

I don’t think it is. I think Vegas is happy to see your money.

It’s a trade-off, though. Vegas provides the illusion that your money doesn’t matter, that twenty dollar bills should be pumped into a slot machine as fast as fat little fingers can shove them there. It whispers that “All you can eat buffets” are perfectly natural and that there’s no way that pounds of fat are pressing closer to your heart. It tells you that there’s no issue at all spending hour after hour in casinos so thick with the stink of cigarettes and spilled drinks that the aroma clings to your clothes when you wake with a faint headache the next morning; that the undercurrent of desperation and greed writhing just under the casino’s surface isn’t really there at all.

We all come together, Vegas and the tourists, to continue the daily re-creation of this massive dream in the middle of the desert – a place where logically nothing like this should exist. But the complete absurdity that it is only serves to continue fuelling the legend. It’s a legend -- not an illusion because illusions are fragile. Legends aren’t. And the Vegas legend is as tactile as a turd frying on a sidewalk beneath a killing sun. In a way, the legend of Vegas is bulletproof.

I have some mental pictures of the Strip: the MGM lion in all its glittering, snarling splendor. If you can suppress your gag reflex, pop by the Excalibur and take your free daily pull on the Sword in the Stone Slot Machine. (You could walk away with a spiffy Excalibur cup or a keychain.) Take a few mental snapshots of fat families scurrying from casino to restaurant in plaid overstuffed shorts as they tote yard long margaritas in neon green plastic cups. I am thinking also about the indifferent Mexican men, who never meet your eyes, passing out little porn pamphlets to other men as they walk by…and the men who take them…and the wives of the men who take them.

I have a love/hate relationship with this city. Part of me steps back and shakes its head. Maybe it is because Vegas caters with marksman’s precision at the heart of all the things that used to obsess me: drinking, drugs, sex – all the places where my flesh aches for attention. It’s sort of like sitting and calmly contemplating a snake you know is planning bite you.

That’s why part of me wants to go directly to the Wizard of Oz penny slot machine, swill bad wine and wait for the next faint hunger pang so I can eat.

I come here, I look around me at the mountains, but my eyes are drawn back to the bright lights of the Strip and the promise of buried treasure behind each fa├žade. I think that there could be something fabulous just around the next corner but that the lovely hot sun and perfect weather only exists only in little pockets between the air-conditioned smoke-choked casinos.

This time, frankly – I find myself hating Vegas more than loving it. I find myself wanting to step back from it, wanting to step out of the powerful pull of its current. Part of me does not want to be here with these people and part of me tells the first part to lighten up (so very many parts!), that I am ruining a wonderful trip not just for myself, but also for my wife with my morose thoughts. I knew what Vegas was like. I’ve been here many times. So why is it so offensive to me now? I can’t figure it out. My irritation level is high. My tolerance for my own bullshit is very low (which is tough because I am, after all, me and escape is not practical).

I woke up in a deep funk yesterday and absolutely determined to be happy. I engaged in banter with my wife. We went to a time-share presentation at the complex where we are staying, lured by two $50 gift cards and two show tickets. We endured salespeople with the kind of frantic offers that made me feel like a slow cow, trying to traverse piranha-infested waters. Then we went to a casino to redeem our show tickets and were unable to escape its pull. We spent most of the day there.

My wife is fine with all of this. Sheree has the personality determined to enjoy wherever she happens to be at any given moment…even during given moments with morose husbands. She likes the colors and life of the slot machines. She loves the vitality of this place. She embraces everywhere we go because she has a true traveler’s spirit. I watch her and my heart fills with something so very powerful that it burbles up within me with such force and love that by the time it reaches my mouth, it emerges in nothing but defeated silence.

She sees the slots purely as entertainment, views the money as spent the instant it leaves her wallet, so she settles back to enjoy the ride. She has the ability to go to a place and take the good things from it while the bad just roll off her. She refers to my funks as “being weird.” And the first actual question out of her mouth this morning was “Are you still weird?” which poked the nasty dragon that lives in the caves of my heart, since apparently I never know when I am behaving strangely…and the very question itself makes me feel…well…weird. And then I start acting weird and there I am again: thinking “Shit. I AM weird.”

SO today, I will try very hard to be normal. I will take pictures. Lots of them. I will do my absolute best to ensure that my little “mood” does not ruin any more of my wife’s day. I will participate in the things we do and I will enjoy them. I will absolutely positively NOT be weird.

I have re-read all this just now and I have to admit that I have painted a bleaker picture than the one that is inside me. It’s not all that terrible. There are things here that are wonderful.

Our free show tickets to “V” were well worth enduring a sales presentation. “V” stands for ‘Variety’ because the show features artists who are trying to break into the Vegas entertainment scene. They were funny and a genuine joy to watch. Their lack of polish only added to their charm.

The desert wind on my face out back of the casino last night as I waited for the shuttle and listened to wonderful tunes on my iPod was warm and clean and welcome. It felt a little like God caressing my cheek.

Speaking of faces…I look at my wife’s face, happy as she travels or delights in the spin of video reels and that is lovely to me too.

The food at the Planet Hollywood buffet was perfect. I ruined it for myself by taking too much.

Come to think of it, I ruined the slot machine experience for myself by becoming greedy and personally invested in a game that I know is custom designed to separate me from my money. To be angry when the money actually disappears is…well…weird.

Come to think of it, I am happily shitting all over what really IS potentially a wonderful travel experience with my admittedly melancholy personality.

Am I able to be here and enjoy being here?


I am.

Okay, episode over.


Time to kiss my wife on the back of her neck (even though she is intent on writing something and will interpret the gesture as “weird” and will, at best, ignore it and at worst rebuke me for being insensitive to her creative process) and get on with the day.

That’s okay. Viva Las Vegas…

Time to take some pictures.