Heart Talk


Laguna to Las Vegas and Back

By James Utt
By James Utt

Last summer, after finally taking the advice of family and friends, I fled my beloved Laguna Beach to escape its flood of tourists and sea of choking cars. My younger son lives in Roy, population 800, about an hour outside of Seattle. There, tall green trees abound, Mount Rainier shimmers with snow still on its peak, and kale withers untouched on grocery shelves. My kind of place. For a while.

My son took me on a pilgrimage to The Bigfoot Bar in nearby Eatonville. Upon entering, I realized Tommy Bahamas and Top-siders where not the order of the day in this establishment. I did manage to win friends there and lose lots of money by being the worst pool player in southern Washington. All in all, it was a fine getaway.

For my summer escape this year, my destination was a somewhat different setting. My older son recently moved to Las Vegas, and it was there that my brother-in-law and I would go to get away from the crush of Laguna Beach and commune with nature.

As our plane began its descent, and The Strip became visible, John, my brother-in-law said, “Look, there it is, The Emerald City.”

How can a resident of the finest city in Orange County be attracted to a place so many find abhorrent? My late wife, who had to visit the city on business frequently, saw nothing but a tacky, ostentatious place where drunk people gambled away money they could not afford to lose. Fair enough. But let me offer a different perspective.

How do I love thee, Las Vegas? Let me count the ways.

Start with the food. Conde Nast Traveler says Las Vegas has “more celebrity chefs than you can shake a stick at; the most master sommeliers of any city in the U.S.”

Then there are the shows. Any Cirque du Soleil show, and there are several on The Strip, is breathtaking. There are also comedy clubs, illusionists, (my favorite being Penn and Teller), and so many more things to entertain. I do miss the Liberace Museum, though.

Ah, the music. Last spring, I saw Sir Elton John in one of his final performances. He was fantastic. I have also seen Cher at Caesar’s. Some time ago, I literally bumped into Lyle Lovett at The Hard Rock. At that moment my mind screamed,  ”You just touched someone who has touched Julia Roberts!” My favorite place to hear music, as well as down a Jameson or two, is Nine Fine Irishmen at New York-New York. This pub was built in Ireland and shipped to Las Vegas. You cannot beat the up-tempo Irish music, especially when the step dancer gets on a platform and does her amazing routine.

Finally, there are the craps tables. Yes, I am a gambler. Fortunately, a better craps player than a pool player. The excitement of having 10 or 12 people cheering you on to roll that right number is a heady experience. We are a team trying to take money from the house. It brings together different ages, races, and political views. Heck! It could be the great unifier in our divided land. I don’t always come out ahead, but to misquote the famous sports writer Grantland Rice, “It is not whether you win or lose, but the fun of playing the game.”

So, yes, I did have a good time visiting my son in Las Vegas, eating big steaks, attending the Gospel Brunch at The House of Blues, shooting craps. But this “Emerald City” could never be my permanent home. After three days of 110-degree heat, I, like Dorothy, was ready to come home. Clicking my heels together three times, I was soon back in Mystic Hills, looking down at the real Emerald City. Like she said, there is no place like home. It still overflows with out-of-towners that test our patience and driving skills, make it difficult to get into our favorite restaurants, and might not know a Monet from a Jackson Pollock. But, I know why they come and I welcome them. They know Laguna Beach is a very special place, even without all those sommeliers.


James Utt, author of “Laguna Tales and Boomer Wails,” advises at the craps table to bet the pass line and take double odds.

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