I used to hate living in Las Vegas. I hated the sugar cookie-colored houses and the rows of identical-looking strip malls. I hated the lack of bike lanes and the scarcity of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. I hated that there were so few museums and that even though there were 94 tattoo parlors and several thousand bars in Las Vegas, there were only two major retail bookstores. I hated the heat – the burn your fingertips on your car steering wheel sort of heat. I even hated the people; snottily reducing the entire 596,424 person population as “superficial” and “materialistic”.
Yes, I used to be a Las Vegas-hating snob.
And I wasn’t the only one. Meeting for lunch with other recent Nevada transplants, the conversation would often turn to the subject of how Las Vegas continually failed to measure up. “It’s so ugly,” someone would complain. “Totally uncultured,” another would agree. “What a dump.” It was like Sin City was this jilted lover who’d wronged us all; luring us here with promises of flashy wealth and neon fame and then failing to deliver on its end of the bargain.
And it wasn’t just us locals who saw Las Vegas this way; apparently the tourists did, too. According to findings from a “destination personality” study conducted by researchers at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, although visitors frequently characterize Las Vegas as “vibrant, showy, sexy and daring” they also describe it as “not friendly” and “unsophisticated” as well. Of course, this is a stereotype – and maybe even an unfair one – but you don’t have to look far to find research that supports it.
The results of a geography of personality study that was published in a 2008 edition of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, for example, found that on the “agreeableness” scale (I.e, how friendly and kind a population is) Nevada’s scores put it nearly in last place. Nevada was found to be one of the least friendly states in the nation, ranking 48 out of 50. Even New York – a state whose population has a reputation for being cool and aloof – faired better at 47. To add insult to injury, the non-profit publication Education Week found Nevada’s education system to be the worst in the country each year for the last five years in a row. Just 63 percent of Nevadians graduate high school, which puts Nevada in 48th place nationally. Neither of these studies do much in the way of counteracting Las Vegas’s reputation for being unneighborly or unrefined.
All of this was on my mind a few weeks ago, as I was driving home from a hike in Boulder City. The sun was setting over the horizon, turning the mountains a dramatic orange and cherry pink and enveloping the city skyline in this fuzzy warm glow. It was beautiful. And yet I felt depressed. What is my problem? I thought in frustration. Why can’t I just be happy here? All of a sudden, several big horned sheep lumbered out of the brush and onto the winding highway in front of me. I slammed on my breaks, coming to a screeching halt in the middle of the the road as I watched a baby big horned sheep stop and turn towards me.
It was in those few moments, as this wild, prehistoric-looking animal and I eyeballed one another that I realized something profound: If I was ever going to have a hope of being happy in Las Vegas, I would have to let go of what I thought the city should be and just accept it for what it was.
Because Las Vegas was never going to have the museums of Washington DC or the 19th-century Victorian homes of San Francisco. It lacked the walkability of Portland or the convenient public transportation of New York. And no matter how many snazzy casino were built, Las Vegas would never be as pretty as Paris or Venice.
But to focus on Las Vegas’ faults is to miss the many things that make Las Vegas unique. Like it’s proximity to nature, for example. Drive an hour outside of the city and you can snowboard at Mt Charleston or jet-ski on Lake Mead. Drive a little further and you can photograph hieroglyphics at the Valley of Fire, soak in natural hot springs in Boulder City or cliff jump into turquoise blue water at Lake Mojave.
And then there are the people. While Nevadians may not place the highest value on education or community involvement, according to the geography of personality study, Nevada ranks as one of the top 10 most “open-minded” states in the country. It came in at number nine, meaning that a high percentage of people living in the Silver State are curious, creative, imaginative, independent and open to novel and unusual ideas.
What’s more, despite Las Vegas’s reputation for being a wild party destination, the people who call Nevada home are, for the most part, fairly easy-going and well adjusted. On the neurotic scale (one being the most neurotic state and 50 being the least) Nevada came in at 42. Nevadians, as it turned out, are a surprisingly creative yet emotionally-stable bunch.
I’ve lived here for three years now and it’s only been in the last few weeks that I’ve finally begun to feel like I might belong. In this city where everyone is from somewhere else, Las Vegas is, in many ways, a city of outsiders. Even the wild donkeys that roam the hills behind our houses are expats; brought to work in the mines during the gold rush and then forgotten. We’re all strangers in a strange land. But that’s what makes this city so beautifully quirky and diverse. Las Vegas may never be a perfect place to live, but if you can remain open-minded enough, you may find that it can come pretty close.
…Even if you’re a Las Vegas-hating snob like me.