Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Day at Tule Springs Park

At one time, Tule Springs was easily identifiable as a large patch of green in the middle of the desert just off US95.


Today, it’s a little harder to find, but well worth the effort.

My son and I spent an afternoon there about a month ago.

“When I was a kid, we used to come out here for field trips,” I told my kid as we were driving there, right after we passed a strip mall with a grocery store and a gas station.  “None of this was here.”

“'Back in my day,'” he replied, imitating the voice of a 300-year-old person.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of signage to point you to Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs (its official name). Otherwise, I don’t know how I’d find it since the housing developments hide it from view.

I decided to head out to Tule Springs primarily to use it as a backdrop for some portrait shots, but also to explore the grounds. The last time my son had seen Tule Springs, he was this size. (He’s the short one.)

My son just turned 18 recently. Here he is, having a stare-down with a goose in about the same area.

The area of Tule Springs has been around for literal ages. It includes the designated park that bears the name Tule Springs, as well as the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, which is full of Ice Age fossils and includes the Upper Las Vegas Wash.

Water in the desert is a rare and beautiful thing. For centuries, people and animals were drawn to the numerous springs in Southern Nevada. Tule Springs was one of those areas.

Flash forward to the 1940s, and Tule Springs Ranch (which later became the park) was a divorce ranch. Nevada had only a six-week residency law for divorce, which was the shortest residency requirement in the nation at that time. If you had big bucks to spend on your divorce, you could get in some horseback riding and fishing while you waited for the time to pass. It was also a working ranch.

By the time I was a school kid, the buildings had long since become “historic,” and the grounds had become a city park. The property and buildings were officially listed on the United States National Register of Historic Places in 1981.


The geese and peacocks are a defining feature here, and they’re brave. We were stalked by a group of geese I dubbed “The Tule Springs Welcoming Committee.” This group of avian panhandlers never gave up hope we would feed them.

We also spotted a pelican. “Look, a pelican,” I said when I first saw him paddling toward us.

“We don’t have pelicans in the desert,” my son automatically responded, but he hadn’t seen the bird yet.

“Well, that’s a pelican,” I pointed out.

“Yup... that is a pelican,” he agreed when he spotted the bird. Mr. Pelican was floating close to the shore, clearly eyeballing us to evaluate the likelihood we would feed him.

The second time we encountered the pelican, he was brazenly cozying up to some people at a picnic table. When my son and I walked by, we were apparently too close for comfort. He abruptly spread his big wings and took to flight, almost grazing my son’s head as he circled over the pond, landing just ahead of us on what appeared to be one of his favorite picnic tables, judging by the pelican droppings.

The people Mr. Pelican had been so friendly with said, “The rangers told us they don’t know where he came from.” However he arrived, Tule Springs seems like a good place for him, all things considered.

Fishing ponds dot the grounds, and there are plenty of places to picnic and enjoy the greenery. The historic buildings and accompanying placards give a wonderful idea of what living in Las Vegas was once like.

It creates an odd dissonance for me to see Tule Springs surrounded by houses. But it’s reassuring to walk through the park, much of which remains unchanged from what I remember from my grade-school years. And it’s always a treat to be able to share something with my son that’s relatively unchanged from my childhood--a rarity for Las Vegas natives.

In this city, things change quickly. A timeless place like Tule Springs is treasure, and I’m glad we have it.

Have you been to Tule Springs?


All pictures by Terrisa Meeks (you can see more pics of my day at Tule Springs on fickr)

Monday, September 05, 2016

What it was Like to Grow up in Old Las Vegas

Once upon a time, I lived in a city full of mobsters, entertainers, cowboys, colorful gamblers, and an abundance of open desert. It's a time that's passed into a kind of mythological status, so it's only natural that one of the most common questions I get is: “What was it like to grow up in Las Vegas?”

We used to get started gambling early around here
(I'm kidding, of course)
This question is almost always posed with wide eyes and, I think, the hope that I have something  juicy to share, like a mobster dad or a mother who was an exotic dancer.

In my case, my dad was a bartender and my mom was an accountant.

My parents moved here around 1960. When I was born, Dad was working at the Flamingo. Over four decades he worked as a bartender or food and beverage manager at a whole bunch of legendary Vegas places that no longer exist, like the Aladdin and the recently imploded Riviera.

Here Dad is hanging out after work (notice no tie) at what looks like a pool bar. Once he was done with his shift, he usually went off to visit one (or more) of his bartender (or dealer or waitress or entertainer) buddies, which appears to be the case in this photo. This was probably taken around the time he worked at the Flamingo in the early 1960s.

Dad was, to my mom's great irritation, that guy who always “knew a guy.” And that guy never showed up when he was supposed to, nor did he ever do what he said he would. Take, for instance, the "painter" who painted my parent's bedroom with an earthy shade of exterior house paint that looked terrible and made the room feel like a cave. Dad was pleased, but Mom not so much. (In later years, Dad hired another guy he knew to do paneling on one of the walls, which took twice as long and cost twice as much as originally quoted, and did not improve the cave-like feeling.)

My mom worked mostly as an accountant, but she also sold flight insurance at McCarran for a while, as evidenced by this picture. Mom's the one with the lei. She also happened to be gorgeous, as you can see.

Mom once told me a story about the day she was out shopping with her hair up in curlers when she ran into Della Reese. She spotted Della, whom she knew (remember, it was a small town), and tried to duck out of sight because she was embarrassed. “Here I am in curlers, and there she was, all beautifully done up,” was kind of how Mom described it to me. I think Mom may have said a brief hello, but she scooted out of the store without stopping to chat.

Later that night, when Della saw my Dad (I’m guessing at work), she told him, “Your wife is stuck up.” Mom told me she was horrified when Dad told her (I bet he laughed), and I’m not sure how that perception was corrected, if ever.

We went to a lot of shows and restaurants, most of which my parents never paid for—unless you counted the generous tips paid to the maitre ‘d, the cocktail waitress, the waiter, and so on. Mostly, these were people my dad knew, who returned the favor when he comped them at his bar when he was working. It was an unwritten rule that if you weren’t paying for the meal or the show, you’d better be tipping well.

It wasn’t all shows and glamour, of course. We had a pretty regular family routine, although life with two partiers (as we would call them today) had its ups and downs. But they bequeathed me a huge supply of great stories, which is a good thing for a writer.

When I was a teenager and finding things to do without my parents, Las Vegas was still largely rural on the outskirts. I went to gymkhanas and off-roaded with my friends. The Red Rock Loop was a two-way road, and it didn't take long to drive out of town. Seeing the Milky Way required only about a two-hour drive… if that.

In some ways, getting used to the city-fication of Las Vegas has been harder than adjusting to the changes on the Strip. Gone are the ranches and the wide open desert I remember. Most of the places from my childhood are gone or irrevocably changed.

Still, I find the city fascinating and the desert alluring.

My son has grown up in an entirely different Las Vegas, a place that's far more urban than when I was a kid. He's rather blasé about his famous hometown, and while he still has some distinctly Vegas Native tendencies (like never taking anything someone hands you on the Strip and a love of vast, wild places), his experience growing up in Vegas is almost as if he didn't grow up in the same city that I did at all.

Are you a Vegas Native? Leave your story, please!

In August 2016, Vegas Girl celebrated its 10th anniversary. This post is a part of three-part series revisiting some of Vegas Girl's most notable stories.

All pictures from the giant family photo collection of Terrisa Meeks.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

The Unsolved Murder of Stephanie Isaacson

In 2007, I originally wrote about the troubling and tragic death of 14-year-old Stephanie Isaacson in 1989. Out of my 22 years with Metro, ten of them were at the front desk of the Crime Lab, and this unsolved case remains one I cannot forget.

On June, 1, 1989, Stephanie Isaacson left her house at about 6:30 a.m. to walk to Eldorado High School. She cut through a vacant desert lot at Stewart Avenue and Linn Lane on her way, which was her usual route. Her shortcut was not a good idea that day.

When Stephanie didn't come home that afternoon, her father started looking for her and soon found out she had never arrived at school. A search turned up her body in that desert lot. She had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

Terrible crimes occur every day. I know this because I read the reports and saw the photographs of pretty much every homicide committed in Metro's jurisdiction between 1984 and 1994.

At the time Stephanie was killed, my nieces were close to her age and lived only a couple of miles away from where she was found. The tragic and senseless nature of this crime felt very close to home, because it was.

A young girl being violently murdered while walking to school is deeply disturbing. And in this case, that brutal crime went unsolved and unpunished.

I wrote to the Cold Case unit to ask if there were any updates to the case. I didn't expect to hear a surprising new development, but I had a sliver of hope that there would be something that had changed. A person of interest. Some new development that hadn't received much press.

Sadly, the reply from the cold case investigator was very short: “We've nothing to update... sorry.”

Periodically, I receive comments on the post from people who knew Stephanie, most recently on August 12, on what would have been her birthday. Stephanie's mother wrote:

Today we would be celebrating Stephanie's birthday if she were still with us. I am her Mother and I can tell you that "time does not heal all wounds." This tragedy will always be an open wound for her family and friends. I miss her every day. I wish the low life who stole her from us could be brought to justice. I still believe there is someone out there who knows who did this. I just wish they would have the decency to come forward and tell who committed this horrible crime, but I don't believe it will ever be solved. I love you Stephanie. 

Did you live in Las Vegas in 1989 in the area of Stewart Avenue and Linn Lane? If you know anything about this case, it is not too late to speak up. You can contact the anonymous tipline at Metro or contact Metro's Cold Case Unit.


Note: In August 2016, Vegas Girl celebrated its 10th anniversary. This post is a part of three-part series revisiting some of Vegas Girl's most notable stories.

Photo by Terrisa Meeks

Friday, September 02, 2016

Mystery Shopping in Las Vegas - An Update

When I first published the post “The Truth About MysteryShopping in Las Vegas” in 2011, I had no idea how much interest it would spark. 

The allure of getting paid to shop remains high, no doubt fueled by totally false ads about earning hundreds of dollars per shop.

Here's the deal: in Nevada, you cannot become a mystery shopper unless you have a work permit and are working for a licensed private investigator, as a regular employee—not an independent contractor—or if you're an actual private investigator. Period. All those websites that promise mystery shopping jobs right away are misleading, at best, and outright scams in many cases, like the money order cashing scam I encountered ("cash this money order and wire the funds out of the country".... yeah, no).

If you're looking for legitimate work as a mystery shopper, do your homework. Remember that old saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.”  And don't let high-ranking websites fool you. One of the top five returns on my recent Google search for “mystery shopping Las Vegas” was for a membership to get mystery shopping jobs online, with no mention of Nevada's laws or licensing requirements.

I wrote to QSI, a Las Vegas company that offers legitimate mystery shopping work, to see what might have changed since I wrote my post. Their Vice President, Lety Gonzalez, was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

Q:  What do you think people should know before they apply to be a mystery shopper in Las Vegas? 

A: Before folks apply to be a mystery shopper in Las Vegas, they need to know that mystery shopping is a part-time job to supplement income or do for extra money. It is not something that will earn a ton of money, although there are some folks who do mystery shopping full time.

They should also know that they must apply with a licensed PI company and are required to obtain a work card from the Private Investigator’s Licensing Board (PILB). Nevada is the only state with these requirements. Shoppers are paid every two weeks and are W2 employees, NOT independent contractors.

Q. How often do you have someone apply with you who’s been duped by a mystery shopping scam before finding you?

A: I haven’t encountered too many folks personally, but I have heard that it is very common. Receiving a check without having done any work or filled out any report is one to keep an eye out for. A legitimate mystery shopping provider (company) would not pay a shopper prior to having the mystery shop completed.

Q:  Is the demand for mystery shoppers growing?

A: Companies are always looking for shoppers. QSI specifically is always accepting applications. With more and more shops being conducted in Las Vegas and in Northern NV, we are always seeking shoppers to help meet rotation requirements. We always want new faces in the places we shop!

Clearly, there's some fun work available for people who can meet the requirements, but don't quit your day job just yet.

And beware of the scammers out there.


Have you ever done mystery shopping?

In August 2016, Vegas Girl celebrated its 10th anniversary. This post is a part of three-part series revisiting some of Vegas Girl's most notable stories.
Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Trumbull at flickr. Interview comments edited for clarity.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Quintessential Las Vegas Picture

I was asked for photos that capture the “most quintessential Vegas moment you will never forget,” by #CapturingVegas.

Now, that’s a tough question since I was born and raised here.

So I thought about what I, a native Las Vegan who writes and blogs and photographs all kinds of Vegasy things, sees as a photograph that captures the essence of Las Vegas.

First, I considered the Las Vegas Strip.

Here’s the thing I noticed about my recent photographs of the Strip: they all have that slightly off-the-beaten path, behind-the-scenes view point. That’s partly because I was working on a series of photos from parking garage rooftops  (which tends to attract security guards, by the way), but I think it’s also reflective of how many residents see the Strip. It’s fun and glamorous, but living in any exciting city (San Diego, New York, etc.)  is far different than vacationing there.

People often ask me why I stayed in Las Vegas, instead of moving away as so many people do. We have one of the lowest percentages of native-born residents of any city.

Two things kept me here: family and my love of the desert.

Only about 15% of tourists ever make it beyond the Strip, which is a shame. Hiking, biking, rock climbing, zip lining, golf, and easy access to the stunning beauty through the Southwest—Red Rock, Zion, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Cedar Breaks, Lake Mead—are right here in our backyard.

I love a great meal, a show, and taking in everything the Strip has to offer. But for me, the amazing wonders around the city are what captures Vegas.

All pictures by Terrisa Meeks. Check out my other photos on flickr — including more of my photos of Red Rock. And check out #CapturingVegas on's Twitter and Pinterest pages for other pictures of Las Vegas.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

A Day Trip to Rhyolite and Death Valley

I’ve visited Rhyolite more times than I can count, but until a few weeks ago I hadn’t been to the popular ghost town in a long time. I never grow tired of exploring the ruins.

On a clear and warm December day, my son and I made the two-hour drive from Las Vegas to Rhyolite.

We stopped first at the Bottle House, which looks kind of antiseptic to me now (I remember when it was open to the public and the grounds were cluttered with all manner of things). 
Many of Rhyolite’s ruins are fenced off, but the place is still amazing. At its peak in the early 1900s, Rhyolite had a population of about 6,000. Today, the desert has reclaimed the townsite almost completely.

We explored the area as thoroughly as we felt was wise, considering the numerous rattlesnake warning signs.

After walking around Rhyolite for about an hour and a half, we got in the car to head toward home, via the scenic route through DeathValley.

The Hell’s Gate entrance to Death Valley is just 10 miles west of Rhyolite. As we pulled into the fee station, a panoramic view of Death Valley welcomed us.

We cruised down toward the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and Stovepipe Wells. Sadly, the road to Scotty’s Castle and the historic building itself is still closed due to damage from floods in fall of 2015.  

I tried to tempt my son into climbing the sand dunes (“Look, it’s not even a very tall dune!”) , but he insisted he didn’t want to get sand in his boots. I got out and snapped photos while he read the newspaper in the car. The dunes were packed with people.
We made a quick stop in Stovepipe Wells for some water and expensive gas before heading out to catch 190 South.

It was sunset when we came to Zabriskie Point. “You can stay in the car if you want, but I’m getting out to take pictures. This is one of the most famous places in Death Valley,” I informed my teenage traveling companion. (I think it was actually my story about the counter-culture cult classic movie of the same name that piqued his interest enough to get him out of the car.)

We walked up the pathway to the overlook and marveled at the landscape, and at the large number of foreign visitors. We  heard more foreign languages than English. The other striking feature: the photographers. They lined up atop a hill just below the overlook to capture the gorgeous afternoon light, becoming as much a part of the landscape as the formations they were photographing.

Before the sky completely darkened, we headed back. The almost full moon was rising and a brilliant sunset lit up the sky behind us, making me wish I’d brought my tripod and stayed at the point longer.

On the lonely two-lane road that took us from Death Valley Junction back to US95, my son and I talked about skin walkers and chupacabras and the vastness of the desert.

It was the perfect winter day.

Have you been to Death Valley recently?

To see more photos, visit my flickr album, "Rhyolite and Death Valley"

Sunday, November 15, 2015

In the Badlands of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument

The Monument is an interesting place, whether you see fossils or not.

In the days before Las Vegas swallowed a large patch of the Mojave Desert, you could see Tule Springs as you approached from US95. It was a distinct patch of green in the middle of the desert. When I was growing up, the park and its historic buildings were popular for school field trips. I remember the extensive badlands all around Tule Springs Park, which is officially known today as Floyd Lamb at Tule Springs.

Tule Springs, however, isn't just the park—the name encompasses the larger area, which in ancient times was a marshy place that attracted late Pleistocene Era mammoths, camels, horses, and bison. Now, Tule Springs includes the fossil beds holding remnants of those creatures and the Upper Las Vegas Wash. In Vegas' boom years, parts of the badlands were lost to development, and the land that’s now protected as a national monument was nearly sold for development in 2003. Thanks to the hard work of many dedicated people over the course of several years, the new Tule Springs Fossil BedsNational Monument now protects over 22,000 acres of this fossil-rich, undeveloped desert.

I set off to find a way into the Monument close to Tule Springs Park and wound up at the end of Durango, where the street dead ends into an access point into the Monument.

Here’s the thing: this is a brand-new Monument—the newest in the United States—and if you’re expecting a visitor’s center and kiosks and a interpretive trail with a bunch of neatly labeled fossils, you’re going to be disappointed.

In my opinion, this lack of development is a major bonus.

If you like exploring wild, untamed places, you’ll find plenty of things to appreciate in the Fossil Beds. Before you get into the more untouched sections, you’ll find evidence of the area’s former life—shotgun shells, ATV tracks, trash. Beyond that, the Upper Las Vegas Wash is as wild as it can be.

The Monument is long, skinny piece of land, running somewhat parallel to US 95 for several miles and wrapping around Tule Springs Park. It’s full of Ice Age fossils, which scientists have known about since the 1930s.

I wasn’t expecting to see tusks sticking out of the ground… at least, not in the area closest to the parking lot. I did think that I’d be able to identify some fossils, but although I picked up several interesting rocks and closely examined the badlands, I was never able to identify a fossil.

(Later, in speaking with Jill DeStefano, President of the Protectors of Tule Springs, I learned that I had probably walked right over and past all kinds of fossils without knowing it. Learning to identify fossils takes some training, she explained. You can sign up with the PTS for tours, if you'd like some guidance.)

Although I may not have found any fossils, I found a landscape that made me think of the Mojave Phone Booth.

If you’ve never heard of this cult landmark, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a functioning phone booth that was out in the middle of nowhere, in what is now the Mojave National Preserve. People from all over the world trekked to the booth to answer the calls that came in from other people all around the world. Until the Park Service decided it needed to be removed, and then the odd attraction was gone.

But although that single attraction is gone, if you wander the Mojave you’ll still find deserted and abandoned mines, ranches, homes, and other eerie bits of evidence about the former inhabitants of the area.

The fossil beds are like that.

Why? Let me explain what we found on the day we explored.

Two Descansos

I’ll admit I have a fascination with roadside memorials, also known as descansos, although I’m rarely in a spot to get out and read memorials. The larger memorial closest to the access point on North Durango looks like it’s been there a while, but the smaller one atop the hill appears to be about a year old.  

Right next to the big descanso, we found…

The Stove Shrine

At first, we thought the metal parts on the ground were pieces of a car. Then we found that it was a stove that looked like it had been blown up. Then we found…. Stove Shrine.

“There’s like a bag of something inside,” my son said, peering under the dome of plastic.

“Don’t touch it,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” he replied. “That’s creepy.”

The Badlands... or, “Where are the fossils?”

“Is this a fossil?” was the most common thing we said to each other during the first 45 minutes of our hike, usually followed by, “Well, if it’s not a fossil, what kind of rock is that?”

Our preoccupation with fossils soon gave way to a general fascination with the badlands, which are littered with the remnants of their former life as a free-for-all area for shooting and ATV riding.

As we turned the corner around the first set of badlands, I saw someone had put up a rock labyrinth. We sighted in on the furthest badlands we could see, setting out across…

The Upper Las Vegas Wash

It’s big. It’s wide. It’s without any kind of trails, and it had obviously just been full of water not long before because the ground was still wet in places and we found plenty of puddles.

There were no tracks, no trails, and no people. The only thing north of us was open desert. The badlands behind us hid most of the houses. To the west, we could see the peak of Mt. Charleston, and to the east we could see the shooting complex.

The creation of the Monument protected the Upper Las Vegas Wash as well as the fossil beds. The Upper Wash is part of the valley’s watershed and drains into Lake Mead. It’s home to jackrabbits (we startled a large one), all manner of birds (including burrowing owls, which we didn’t see), tortoises, and rare desert plants like the Las Vegas bear poppy.

My son and I clambered up and down the uneven ground of the Wash, an area that I would have been nervous about venturing into had there been even the hint of a cloud anywhere in the distant western sky. It’s a mammoth (no pun intended) stretch of Wash, and evidence of the water that had just swept through (during some of the same storms that flooded Scotty’s Castle inDeath Valley) was everywhere.

After crossing the Wash and examining more badlands for fossils, we turned and headed back to the trail head.

The Weather Balloon

At first we thought we’d found a hunting snare, but we traced the string to a weather balloon, which made both of us giddy with excitement. My son was delighted to note that a handle was included for easy carrying.

(Naturally, we returned the balloon back to NOAA with pictures of where we found it.)

The Mussel Shells

“Are those oysters?

“Yep, and clams.

We were both baffled. We looked around for anything that would indicate someone had camped in the vicinity because there was a large pile of oyster and clam shells, all of which looked very modern--not to mention the broken porcelain bowls. It was a huge pile of shells. We never found a good explanation.

The Upside-down Truck Cab

…but only the truck cab, no bed, with a pile of new-looking women’s clothing next to it. I stayed on top of the Badlands while my son explored the weird scene. We again looked for anything that would look like someone had been camping/squatting, but found nothing.

It’s easy to get lost in the badlands, and we climbed atop them twice to make sure we had our bearings when we were heading back to the car.

In most badlands, you’re contending with ATVs, but here you’re free to explore without being run over. I was a little worried about the obvious evidence of illegal shooting, but never heard shots nearby or saw anyone shooting.

Groups like the Protectors of Tule Springs are doing their best to help keep the area cleaned up, to install signs, and to help educate people about the importance of the area. It’s a precious repository of Ice Age fossils and an important swath of desert that was (thankfully) saved from being sold and developed into more houses. Get out there and enjoy it before it becomes tamed.

There are several points where you can access the Monument; one of the most popular is actually at the far north end of Decatur, the site of the “Big Dig” where heavy equipment was brought in to excavate trenches in the 1960s.

Have you been to the new Monument? Or have you ever found a fossil while out exploring? If you have, leave some comments!
All pictures by Terrisa H. Meeks