Saturday, April 2, 2011

Going to the Dogs

When I come to Las Vegas I rarely spend time on the Strip, but last night was an exception. I had a lovely evening with my son Ceilee, my daughter Jo, and her partner Peter. We started with a three-hour sake tasting at the Mirage (150 varieties!), and followed that up with a nostalgic visit to the Sahara, where we played some blackjack and roulette until midnight and my kids each pocketed a souvenir chip when it was time to cash out. The Sahara is one of the grand old ladies of the Strip (it opened in 1952), but the owners announced last month that they plan to close this icon May 16. We decided to pay homage to this classic casino whose time was coming to an end.

For a Vegas casino, 59 years old is ancient—not for its patrons, mind you, but for a business operating in the land of hype, where show-me-what's new is king and they overhaul the landscape of the Strip about as often as strippers change outfits (and with a similar degree of subtlety). The Sahara goes all the way back to the prime of Louie Prima & Keely Smith.

Sadly though, the glory days of the Sahara are long gone. There are many newer, glitzier hotels and casinos and the epicenter of the action has moved further south down Las Vegas Blvd. The Sahara had become a dog of a casino, and it couldn't survive the current recession.

Man's Best Friend
While many people who visit Vegas may consider casinos their best friend, I'm more of a traditionalist: I like dogs. Sitting next to me as I type is Zeus, a pit bull/boxer mix that Ceilee brought with him from Missouri when he and Tosca moved to the desert back in 2007. Occasionally he gets bored with my pecking away at the keyboard and suggests we go for a walk by placing his considerable muzzle on my thigh and staring at me hopefully (and when doesn't work he starts licking my ear).

Though I thoroughly enjoy my occasional forays to the Strip with Ceilee and Jo, the truth is that I happily spend way more of my time in town petting and roughhousing with my three granddogs (in addition to Zeus, Jo & Peter have two dogs: Yoshi and Zelda). When I stay at Ceilee's, Zeus is my regular companion. When I stay at Jo's, then I'm sitting on the couch next to Yoshi or Zelda.

[I can't help inserting here my fascination with these dogs' names. It isn't very often that you encounter a set of three arbitrarily named things and the one closest to the beginning of the alphabet starts with "Y."]

Growing up, my family always had a dog. In the years I lived at home there were only two. First Clipper, a Shetland Sheepdog (a kind of collie who left tufts of hair all over the furniture); then Beauregard, a Springer Spaniel (who was forever salivating on the windows looking onto the backyard, as he stared longingly at the birds and squirrels trespassing on "his" territory). In addition to their shared breed alliteration, these were both medium-sized dogs that lived more than 12 years, and were both well loved by the family. They were also dogs that had been bred for a particular purpose—herding sheep and fetching birds—that was spectacularly irrelevant to our suburban lifestyle.

It wasn't long after we started Sandhill Farm (back in 1974) that we had our first dog: Rochester. He was just a mutt that showed up one day and never left. He lived with us about 10 years (until the day that Mallie Phillips accidentally hit him with a pickup and Rochester died in my arms with a broken back). Though Rochester was essentially on outdoor dog, Annie would get me out of bed but letting Rochester into the house first thing in the morning. He'd race into the bedroom, jump onto the bed, and lick my face until I couldn't stop laughing.

While Rochester was the dog in my life that I bonded with most, we've had many dogs at Sandhill over the years. Mostly they're just pets, yet they help deter deer and rabbits from predating on our garden and that's a true benefit. It's wonderful that we can give our dogs so much room to roam (in sharp contrast with the 100-foot long fenced backyard that was all that was available to Clipper and Beauregard). The one strict behavior rule we have with our dogs is that they can't stay if they chase chickens.

Sandhill's current resident canines are Sammy and Biscuit, and they are loved just as much as their predecessors, though they have bonded more with other members than with me. I'm just on the road too much these days and the dogs that are closest to my heart today are the three I'm visiting this week in Las Vegas. Thus, whenever I make plans to come out here, it's not just to see my kids and my granddaughter—I am going to the dogs!

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