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Desert Companion

Sense of Place: Almost Home

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McCarran
Photo courtesy CJ Hoogland

When you move around a lot, the airport takes on an unexpected significance

Sense of Place: A series in which writers find meaning in specific sites around town

Of all the in-between places I’ve been in the world, McCarran International Airport is my favorite in-between place because it’s mine. LAS has become a welcome constant after growing up on the move all the time. There’s a saying my parents had framed on our wall growing up: Home is where the Air Force sends you. In the summer of 2002, the Air Force sent us to Nellis, and we became official Las Vegas residents. Later, my dad retired here, and wherever I went after, McCarran was the gateway to home.

Before there was Terminal 3, there was Terminal 1, with its notorious “McCarran mauve” palette and neon-rimmed pillars. Everything about Terminal 1 reminded me of walking through a casino circa 2002: The low, dense carpet; the faint smell of popcorn; the Strip celebrities making appearances on that safety video (I’ve watched Carrot Top try to shove a comically oversized backpack into the X-ray machine so many times it’s the only mental image I have of him). There wasn’t much sunlight, clocks were few and far between, and whatever sense of the time of day you got from the airplane windows was thrown off again inside. The slot machines were a particular novelty, flashing their colorful lights and burbling their autotuned greetings.

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Back in those days, I’d see people come party-ready off the planes, wearing their feather boas and cowboy hats, tipsy already. Every so often a guy might try to get a head start on his weekend hookups by asking where you were staying (“my parents’ house” is not a sexy answer, FYI). Once, when I came home from working at a summer camp in Lake Tahoe, a guy in a too-tight button-down pointed to my beat-up 80-liter backpack as it passed him on the baggage carousel. “What the hell?” he said while his buddies laughed, then cringed when my dad and I heaved the pack off the line.

I can see why he’d forget that Vegas locals use the airport, too. The travelers far outnumber the locals: 43 million of them and 2.2 million of us in town last year. Maybe it’s the tech scene or just a sign of the times, but lately it’s felt like the party vibe at the airport has changed: fewer feather boas, more athleisure and Apple products. The slots don’t make as much noise because they don’t take coins anymore. Terminal 3 is a beautiful, bright space with gleaming floors and sunlight streaming in beneath vaulted ceilings. I don’t have strong feelings about these particular shifts — getting to see a place change is part of the privilege of belonging to it.

Whichever terminal I’m landing at, when the plane shudders over the Spring Mountain Range, when the pilot tips our wing in salute to the Strip, when I hear the familiar chirps and burbles of the slot machines as we disembark, I feel a sense of relief. I’m going to eat my mom’s home cooking. My clothes are going to smell like home again.

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