Sunday, April 7, 2013

History Channel Tourism In Las Vegas


The highlight of our trip: Cat and me backstage at Count's Vamp'd with the Count, Danny Koker, and his buddy Kevin Mack, stars of the History Channel's Counting Cars.

Last week my wife Cat and I took a short vacation in Las Vegas to celebrate her birthday. She's been trying to get me to go for ages, but the gambling-glitz-and-glitter, excess-for-the-sake-of-excess, what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas ouvre just has no attraction for me. Neither do the shows, other than Cirque du Soleil.

What finally got me out there was the History Channel. We're fans of several of the network's shows that take place there. It started with Pawn Stars, then spun off to American Restoration, and most recently Counting Cars, which has become Cat's favorite.

I like Pawn Stars because they really do get all kinds of random interesting stuff in. Rick Harrison is a treasure trove of fascinating trivia, and he brings in local experts to augment his knowledge. And of course I like American Restoration and Counting Cars because they're People Building Stuff.


View of the Aria hotel from our room on the 22nd floor of the Vdara. The hotel was very nice.

We spent the first day in the center city strip where our hotel was located. The masses of people and noise exhaust the senses. Everything's outrageously expensive, though just a couple blocks down the strip things are priced for normal humans. The competition for your attention is relentless. Why I had resisted coming to Vegas for so long.

My kind of vacation is the place we used to have near the Damariscotta River in Maine, where I had a small sailboat, a sea kayak, and a rowboat with an outboard, plus Cat's boat with 225-horse outboard. The Damariscotta drains to open ocean, and there are times during flood tide where the tidal current exactly counteracts the river current, leaving a surface like glass. Each stroke of the paddle carries you 30' in a smooth glide across the water. Pure serenity!

But the strip never was our real destination. Friday afternoon we rented a car and headed out to Hoover Dam for some quieter sight-seeing. The dam is on the Colorado River along the border between Nevada and Arizona. A highway bypass bridge was completed just downstream of it in 2007. Prior to that traffic would actually have to cross the dam after winding down the access road, taking an hour to do what now takes a minute.


The 4 intake towers behind the dam. You can see the visitor traffic along the top of the dam, what used to be the only crossing.


The view back to Lake Mead.


In the distance, the highway bypass bridge.


View from the bridge down the face of the dam to the generation station.

Then we embarked on our tour. Our first stop was the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop in north Vegas, where Pawn Stars is filmed. We had read reviews of tourist visits there, so knew what to expect. It's an unassuming place, nothing fancy, with a quarter of the public space now given over to gift shop for the show. The stars are no longer able to work the shop during normal business. The line outside can get big. We got there late in the day, so it was down to normal chaos.

One of the counter staff was telling someone how they managed the show shooting schedule. They have to close the shop and turn off the overhead music. As the line builds outside, they bring in some people, then shoot a few quick scenes with the stars. A single episode may take a week to shoot in little bits.

It can get hectic. He said Chumlee had come into the store earlier in the day after filming, and they almost had to close the place down. I wonder if these guys can even do normal mundane things any more, like go grocery shopping!

It was fun to see the items we had seen on the various episodes. We gawked and took photos like everyone else.


Inside the store.


Cat puts on her pawn shop 'tude.


Outside as night falls.

Saturday we headed back to the north side to Rick's Restorations, site of American Restoration. Glenn was out front greeting people and directing them to the public areas. He was the perfect ambassador, calm and laid back.

We went on a brief tour inside the shop area. They have sliding doors with windows where you can watch what's going on, though it was quiet that day. Once again, it was fun to see some of the things from the show.


Out front at Rick's Restorations.

Rick Dale, owner of Rick's Restorations, is popular on woodworking forums for his focus on building things with pride and making the old new again. I like to see the restoration processes since I restore old tools for use, like these and these.

From there we headed over to Count's Kustoms, where Counting Cars is filmed. The showroom is filled with big boy toys, cars and motorcycles restored or tricked out.


With the Shelby Mustang Cobra GT350. For our daughter Shelby, who's birthday is April Fool's day. Photo by Shawna at Count's.

Fame is a fickle thing. Every sword cuts both ways. Each of these businesses has had to bring on extra staff and rearrange their space to manage the tourists, increasing the cost of overhead and interfering with their work.

But it's helped create a few new local jobs, and they've added good revenue streams selling merchandise. So while the increased foot traffic hasn't necessarily done much for their primary businesses, the secondary businesses appear to be doing well.

It's worth remembering that these are not manufactured celebrities. These were all established businesses that have been built over years. The pawn shop has been in Vegas for over 20 years, Rick's nearly 30. Count's Kustoms has been operating for 15. They're real people who've worked hard to build something. The shows and resulting fame are a nice payoff for all that effort.

For lunch, we headed over to Count's Vamp'd. This is a rock bar and grill owned by the Count, Danny Koker, star of Counting Cars (he also has a tattoo parlor). Cat had made dinner reservations there back in December, and she was vibrating with excitement to see the place. Danny's band, Zito77, was going to be on stage that night.

Then we headed out to the Clark County Heritage Museum. Administrator Mark Hall-Patton is a frequent expert examining historical items on Pawn Stars.


Cat with the air-raid siren at the Clark County Heritage Museum. Restoring the siren was an episode of American Restoration.

Saturday night, we got our booth at Vamp'd at 9:30. Of course, our bodies were still on Eastern Time, so to us this was dinner after midnight. The food was great while we watched the opening act. I think they dedicate an entire spillway at Hoover Dam just to power the bar's sound system.

Then at local midnight, Zito77 came on stage. Danny is 3 years younger than me, and you can tell we grew up in the same musical era, sharing similar tastes. They played Golden Earring, a bunch of Doors and Led Zeppelin, ending with Aerosmith's Train Kept A Rollin'. I was in 10th grade when I bought that album used from a buddy.


Danny on stage. Livin' the dream, brother!

During the 2-hour set, Danny mentioned that it was also Kevin Mack's birthday weekend. Kevin is Danny's right-hand man. Kevin was up on stage with the tambourine and circulating around the tables. He had actually been the one who had responded to Cat's emails setting up the reservation.

Cat went over to wish him happy birthday, and he came over to talk for a few minutes. He asked if we were staying for the whole show, then said he'd see if we could meet Danny afterward since we'd come all the way from Massachusetts and waited all that time.

So at 2:30AM, Kevin came back to the booth and took us backstage. Danny came up and we all shook hands and started talking about the show. They're both the nicest guys, very down to earth. Ok, yeah, badass with all the tattoos and bikes, but Danny's a happy guy, always a big smile on his face. I'll just note that I don't think I've ever been mistaken for a Bad Ass Dude.

I told him he's got to be the hardest working guy in Vegas, running three businesses and playing music half the night. He appreciated that. I also told him what I really like about American Restoration and Counting Cars is that they're shows about people building things with their hands, with pride and skill and craftsmanship.

I said I could see it was a labor of love, and I was glad he was able to make a living at it. He said he had turned it from a hobby to a business 15 years ago.

Danny and Kevin both couldn't say enough about the History Channel. They said the network has been very supportive getting the show going and letting them do their thing. Now they're even busier with a promotional travel schedule.

I couldn't pass up the opportunity for some shameless self-promotion of my own, so I gave Danny my website card, as one builder to another. I'm not particularly a car guy, but I love to see anything being built, the more so by hand, one piece at a time. Hand-cut dovetails or hand-welded steel frame, it's all cool.

We got photos and I told Danny he'd really made Cat's birthday. Big thanks to Kevin and Danny!

Season 2 of Counting Cars starts next week, and they said episode 1 is really looking great. We have the DVR set.

Easter Sunday we headed out to Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area. I had backpacked through similar territory at Philmont Scout Ranch with my son as a Boy Scout Scoutmaster back in 2005. In addition to a scenic drive and hiking trails, there's lots of fantastic looking rock climbing, single- and multi-pitch routes, though my climbing days are pretty much over.


View 3 miles across the valley at Red Rock Canyon.


See the little white specks in the middle of the rocks? Those are climbers.


A briefly-used quarry area from early 1900's.

One of the amazing things about this area is that distances appear to be nothing in the clear, dry desert air. It's a large flat valley, so the view across is unobstructed. On the highway, you can see downtown Las Vegas and the mountains beyond as you drive past a sign that says downtown is 19 miles away. It completely screws up your sense of perspective.


View back to the red rocks above, 2 and a half miles. The ridge in the right background is the Black Mountain area of the McCullough Range, 30 miles distant.

The other thing that threw me was getting used to the landscape. There's very little vegetation, mostly rock and clayey-looking dirt and sand. So what to my eyes looked like an abandoned lot was actually a city park. I had to reset my esthetics looking around. Outside the suburban area, it gets barren fast.

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