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Two-sided Carpeteria genie
Photography by Brent Holmes

Open topic: Hey, look at this!

Desert Companion

Thanks to an app, I’m discovering a quirky side of Las Vegas I never knew

I’ve lived in Las Vegas for 10 years, and I’ve been writing about it for almost that long. As you might imagine, the city’s typical tourist attractions have lost their luster over time, but there are still nuggets of awesome hiding in my city.

I know this because my favorite app, Roadside America, says so.

Roadside America ranks more than 12,000 bizarre sites and attractions in the United States and Canada, rating each with one to five smiling water towers; as the app notes, “a Muffler Man statue is more important than a national park, a two-headed calf more revered than a train museum.” I’ve used the app on road trips, but I wanted to check out some of the 100-plus weird diversions it recommended for my hometown. There were many I already knew about — the world’s largest chocolate fountain at Bellagio, for example — but given my insatiable appetite for interesting, overlooked curiosities, I wanted to seek out a few that have flown under my radar.

Stop 1: Two-sided Carpeteria genie
4221 W. Charleston Blvd., two smiling water towers

How many times have I driven down this road and never noticed the two-sided, two-faced genie holding a sign for a wholesale flooring company? As I stood in the vacant parking lot looking up at this larger-than-life man, I wondered how many harried drivers had ever taken notice of him. When businesses close, statues like this often disappear. Luckily, this one survives and continues to smile at drivers heading in both directions.

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In fact, sporting a newly painted bright blue outfit with a red vest and gold turban, this two-faced roadside attraction doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon.

Stop 2: Johnny Tocco Boxing Mural
9 W. Charleston Blvd., three smiling water towers

BoxingMural

Photography by Brent Holmes

Painted on the side of Johnny Tocco’s Boxing Gym, which opened in the early 1950s, this mural depicts more than three dozen champion boxers, with the late Johnny Tocco standing in the center. I was able to pick out Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield. While all eyes have been on the street art beautifying Downtown, this mural has actual significance in our city — yet, I’ve heard nothing about it. I appreciate the Downtown renaissance, but while taking in this simpler, less flashy piece of art, I’m forced to wonder if, in our desire to embrace the new, shinier side of Las Vegas, we’re losing sight of the character and charm that helped shape it in the first place.

Stop 3: Giant Licking Cat Head

Licking catCorner of Coolidge Avenue and South First Street, three smiling water towers

Officially called “Snowball in Vegas,” this sculpture of a giant cat head is apparently well known in the 18b Arts District, where it’s located, but I’d never heard of it. Created by artist Jesse Smigel, this cute, 10-foot kitty head is perched on the street corner with his tongue sticking out. It’s designed for photo ops, so I did what any normal person would do: I pretended to be licked by the massive pink tongue while my husband captured the moment on camera.

Stop 4: The Surviving Mother

2054 E. Desert Inn Road, two smiling water towers

One of the things I most appreciate about Roadside America is its inclusion of historically and culturally significant statues and monuments that aren’t given space in the average travel guide. One such example is this 8-foot bronze statue commemorating Armenian mothers who survived the 1915 genocide. It’s located at the St. Garabed Armenian Apostolic Church and Cultural Center.

Tucked in the inner courtyard of the center, this statue is sobering and surprising, commemorating an event I know little about but that clearly resonates with some Las Vegas community members. Some people might be deterred to pull into the parking lot to track down the Surviving Mother, but I see it as an invitation to learn more about the diverse fabric that makes up this strange desert city. I didn’t even know there was an Armenian center in Las Vegas, and now I want to know what other cultural curiosities are tucked away here.

Stop 5: Lucky Mustaches of Hey Reb!

4505 S. Maryland Parkway, three smiling water towers

Students at UNLV might consider it commonplace to rub the mascot’s moustache for a bit of luck before a big exam, but I rarely set foot on the campus. Given the recent controversy surrounding Hey Reb!, it felt fitting to pay this statue a visit at his home behind the alumni center.

A little luck never hurt anybody, so I made sure to rub his bronzed facial hair before moving on.

Stop 6: Pink Elephant
4605 Las Vegas Blvd. S., two smiling water towers

Located about a quarter mile from the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, this life-sized pink elephant sits at the entrance to the Diamond Inn Motel. This poor guy shows a bit of wear and tear with a broken tusk and a trunk that needs some TLC. As Roadside America notes, a diversion like this one would be a “celebrated landmark” in most towns, but its proximity to the Strip does it a disservice.

Because I’ve reached the last stop of my Las Vegas Roadside America adventure, I linger for a while, watching the traffic stream past. As someone who has been there, done that when it comes to our city’s touristy attractions, I’m more than happy to have this pink elephant — a worthy roadside attraction — all to myself.

But it also makes me a bit sad. Las Vegas, like any city, has its star attractions that draw attention, but the stops I’ve made are not far from the heavily trafficked areas. Nonetheless, thousands of people pass oddities like the pink elephant, cat head and Armenian Center every day without turning their heads.

The app has opened my eyes, but it also raises some questions: What would we see if we looked up from our smartphones and really looked at the world around us? What could we learn about a city we already think we know? What might we learn if we took the time to slow down? If you’re like me, you’ll walk away with a new appreciation for the overlooked details and, yes, quirky roadside attractions that make our hometown uniquely Las Vegas.