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This issue of Desert Companion includes a travel guide to mountain towns — where to stay, eat, and play, and what to see in five high-elevation, low-stress destinations within a day’s drive (or less!) of Las Vegas. Bonus: an adapted excerpt from the forthcoming book Chasing Giants: In Search of the World’s Largest Freshwater Fish.

Vegas Kid Getaway

Person throwing a bowling ball down a lane
Lourdes Trimidal
Desert Companion

Locals casinos gave my immigrant family places to hang out, like Strike Zone Bowling

Near Sunset and Stephanie, Sunset Station Hotel and Casino stands as a marker of Henderson’s southeast side. Driving by it on my routes through the area sometimes unlocks a small part of my childhood – Strike Zone Bowling Alley. My family and I frequented the spot during the Sunday midafternoon hours of my elementary and middle school days.

More than a decade later, my sister and I found our way there again one recent afternoon. Walking up to Strike Zone, I noticed its unremarkability. Tacked onto the side of a nondescript, brown building, away from the casino entrance, its purple neon entrance sign is the only indication of a venue. Inside is a huge, empty lobby leading up to the casino area, where stray slot machines are scattered at the far end. The brown, orange, and red lines of the carpet make obscure, endless patterns — the quintessential flooring of a Vegas property.

Past the second entrance of Strike Zone, the room stretches out with more decorated flooring, now spotted with blue neon lighting from above. This runway was my siblings’ and my track to the registration counter, which we raced to get there first. The familiar, deafening sound of knocked-down pins and the thud of bowling balls welcomes you. As a family of seven, we registered for two lanes because each lane only allowed four players. This time, my sister and I played at a single lane without bumpers, a graduation from our childhood crutch. The hot-pink 8-pound ball was the one I’d always played with, and picking it up again reminded me of the times I shyly walked by the other lanes to find it.

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My family usually played a couple of rounds, or until boredom set in, and Dad, the best bowler, would have to play the rest of the game for us. Despite bowling almost every weekend, my scores never got any better, only averaging a little more than 100 points. Nothing seems to have changed in adulthood, judging from the one round I played with my sister.

Growing up as Vegas kid meant never taking a picture at the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign until you were an adult because your family avoided the Strip like the plague. It meant visiting Station Casinos properties and other local hotels tucked away in suburban nooks at least once a week. While my parents emptied their pockets in the slots, I roamed the dusty, smoked-filled halls of neighborhood casinos, looking for a getaway like a tourist on the Strip. That getaway, for me, was bowling centers, arcades, swimming pools, and movie theaters — family recreation spaces that I thought were normally housed inside hotels, a phenomenon I now know to be uniquely Vegas. These were indoor playlands for my family, immigrants living in the southeast side of Henderson since arriving in 2004. Along with Sunset, we also frequented Green Valley Ranch Resort and South Point Hotel Casino for bowling, movies, and buffets.

Strike Zone is nothing special, but seeing it again, I appreciated the memory of what these spaces meant to my family back then. It means even more for the professional bowlers and local clubs, or to senior citizens and veteran groups who have weekly bowling meetups. When two Station Casinos properties were demolished and another closed last year, the bowling community recollected their time haunting the alleys of those hotels. Strike Zone’s demolition day will probably come during my lifetime, making way for a newer resort. I don’t bowl anymore, but perhaps I’ll also be left reminiscing about it. In a city with hotels that are so ubiquitous they seem as natural as the desert, these family entertainment centers are burrows of cozy leisure for us, the desert rats.