While my past three or four trips into the glittery desert have centered on pure debauchery, I’m slowly learning that Vegas isn’t just about the cards and the cocktails. (Or perhaps it is, but you need those little journeys off the Strip to reset from the night before. To breathe. To keep yourself from slipping into a slot machine abyss.)
Not that that isn’t pleasurable in a sick, sad way.
This time around, on my 11.11.11 pilgrimage, I finally managed to do something different: I visited the Neon Boneyard, an outdoor museum on Las Vegas Boulevard, about 15 minutes from the Strip.
The simplest description of the Neon Boneyard? It’s where Sin City’s signs go to die.
But that sounds rather morbid, and I guess it’s better to say the neon signs in this approximately two-acre park—most of them vintage and from the golden era of neon—rest elegantly in ruins. Established in 1996, the boneyard has over 150 donated and rescued signs, like this deep lavender Algiers Hotel sign:
We toured the boneyard just before a part of the site—the future La Concha Visitor Center—was scheduled to be closed for construction. Boneyard guides are volunteers; ours gave us a one-hour walking tour inside a fenced-off lot of massive neon displays, hotel and casino marquees, fallen letters, and signs with broken bulbs.
The neon signs in Vegas, leased by hotels and casinos, are made by YESCO (Young Electric Sign Company). YESCO started the sign biz in Vegas in 1932—the first sign sold in the city was to the Oasis Cafe on Fremont Street—and set up shop in the area in the 1940s, ushering in the grand age of “neon spectaculars,” like the classic Golden Nugget sign.
For $15, you not only see these gorgeously dilapidated signs up close, but are also treated to a history lesson of Las Vegas. You learn random tidbits about the beginnings of the city; its expansion; and the major players, casino kingpins, and mafia figures that have built and shaped the Strip through the decades.
While you’re not allowed to wander away from the group, you’ve got time to linger and snap photographs. (The section of the boneyard open to tours isn’t that big to begin with, so it’s not like you can escape anyway.) I loved the colorful, unattached letters on the ground: upright, on their sides, or upside down. Stacked, clustered together, or lonely and on their own.
It’s eerie and still here. Yet…also vivid and alive. Decades of history, frozen.
Feels also like some of the letters and signs are speaking to you.
It’s cool getting up close to the bulbs within the “channeling” of the signs. When lit, the channels on the signs had helped shield the bulbs from the elements and keep the illumination strong and concentrated. Our guide said that while none of the signs are currently set up to be electrified, the museum hopes to do this someday. (Night tours of this site would be sweet.)
So, there you go. Despite what you may have inferred from my tweets this past weekend (losing my phone, jacket, and other belongings; incessant drinking; and the like), I did manage to soak into something local and non-gluttonous.
Please visit and support this nonprofit. And do note that you must purchase tour tickets in advance.
Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Writer at Writing Through the Fog. Editor at Automattic.