Vegas and I have a tumultuous past. Seventeen years ago I flew across the desert into the blinking Legoland of slot machines and all-night buffets in pursuit of a puppy-love affair. Purebred it most certainly was not. We had met in the Midwest, where he was singing four-part harmony in a quaint jewel-box musical. As luck would have it, the show transferred him to Las Vegas. With a few extra waiter shifts to pad the coffers, I arrived for what I hoped would be a romantic getaway. Like doubling down in a game of blackjack, I threw all my chips into that weekend.
We parachuted out of a tin-can airplane with instructors that reeked of stale beer. We wept through Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère. We rented mountain bikes and pummeled through Red Rock Canyon. And at the airport, after four days of nonconjugal bliss, he broke up with me at the gate. (One of the incidental blessings of increased security is that such awkward scenes now play in the back of a taxi or sequestered in the corner of a short-term parking lot.)
For the next week I listened to Cyndi Lauper’s "I’m Gonna Be Strong" and wailed like a banshee on my linoleum floor. I would never love again. I would never risk again. The scars healed eventually, though, and I put the tenor with those puppy-dog eyes to rest. But I’ve never forgotten Vegas. All these years later, a lifeline tugged me back, saying, "Shake your heart around a bit to remind yourself that it’s still beating." So, I thought, "Vegas, here I come. Show me what you’ve got!"
Life in the Fast Lane
The amount of time I’ve spent behind the wheel about equals that of that ill-fated romance. I gladly gave up my Chevy Cavalier (with a license plate that read STAR2B) for New York City’s subway system, so when I find myself ready to burn rubber at Exotics Racing, my stomach starts churning like the day I accidently drove into a gas station. (Whitney Houston was on the radio. I was distracted. What can I say?)
Emblazoned on a banner in the holding garage is a Henry Ford quote: "Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built." The airborne testosterone is thicker than gas fumes as I make my way out to the tent. Everyone has his camera out, snapping photos of Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Porsches, Aston Martins and more. With thirty cars in rotation, Exotics Racing operates the world’s largest fleet of supercars.
To me, they look like candy. Banana yellows, cherry reds and lime greens peel their way under the tent. Participants jump in and out of driver’s seats, striking Mario Andretti poses, then craning their necks into the engines like puffins burrowing for food. I wonder what color (not make or model) car I’m going to get and if it’s an automatic. I’ve never shifted a gear in my life.
We pile into a seminar room that reveals a map of the newly built, 1.4-mile course along with a few other diagrams. The track’s eleven turns include an 11-degree bank and 1,800-foot straightaway. Designed by French racecar driver Romain Thievin and business partner David Perisset (co-founders of Exotics Racing), the track has no limit except fear. The instructor rambles on about various models, quick-shifting transmissions, and horsepower and torque. My eyes begin to glaze over. I’m back in high school math class, calculating how I can cheat my way through another midterm. Not to worry, he says: "Think Italian. If it’s behind you, it’s no longer important."
Decked out in prescription sunglasses and a helmet fit for Charlie Brown, I climb into a Porsche 991 Carrera S with my instructor, Jeff. He talks about about accelerating here or cutting hard there. I drift again, thinking my reaction time is best when witty repartee is involved, less so when I’m handling a $100,000 car. Peeling out onto the track, Jeff encourages me to be smooth on the brake pedal and accelerator. "Hard right to the apex, accelerate hard! Go full throttle! Break! Cut to the double cones! Break harder! Cut to the right! Accelerate! Harder - all the way to the end! Break hard. Harder! You gotta break harder!"
So it goes for five laps as Jeff firmly guides me through the course, urging me to put the pedal to the metal and just as quickly reel in the speed to navigate hairpin turns. Too frightened more than glance at the speedometer, I catch myself at about 120 mph. The car can reach 187 mph and accelerate from zero to 60 in just over four seconds. I’m happy to survive without destroying the transmission or burning out the tires.
On my way back to the Strip, moving at a comfortable snail’s pace with a hired driver behind the wheel, I remember Gary’s comment, "Think Italian. If it’s behind you, it’s no longer important." That sentiment is far bigger than the racetrack. My extreme Vegas adventure has only begun.
Pricing from $199 for five laps.
Next page... indoor skydiving!
The taxi drops me off on Convention Center Drive, a stone’s throw from the Strip. It’s 9:30 in the morning, and I’m early for my Vegas Indoor Skydiving experience. Sitting on the stoop of the unassuming building that looks more like a wholesale furniture warehouse than an über-cool adventure zone, I drink my decaf and trace the cracked asphalt with my shoe. Am I going in the wrong direction? The last time I was in Vegas, I jumped out of a real plane in the middle of the desert. Now I’m just going to bounce around a padded wind tunnel. It feels ... middle-aged.
Fortunately, once the doors open and I’m whisked inside, I get an undeniable man-cave vibe. The crew is rolling in - lean, young guys perhaps a little hung from a late-night gig. High fives are exchanged while I sign the second waiver of my trip, suit up and head to the briefing room.
Nick, my instructor, is a strapping, post-Blue Man Group actor-musician. He stands tall and broad. Well, hello, professor! As he demonstrates the positions that will allow for the most flight, his deep and velvety voice rolls over me like clouds on a lazy summer day. "Stay relaxed," Nick suggests. "Just let the air take you away. The more you tense up, the quicker you’ll fall off the air stream."
I’m equipped with goggles, helmet, earplugs, and a hot pink-accented jumpsuit. This is not the way to Nick’s heart, I’m sure. We hop into the padded wind tunnel, quickly practice a few curl falls, and the operator cranks up the fans toward 120 mph. Then it happens: "Something has changed within me. Something is not the same." I am Elphaba from Wicked. I am Robin (not yet old enough to be Batman) jumping off the couch as a 4-year-old. I am Superman, or at least Superboy.
I rise toward the wind-tunnel sky and am not sure if I’m crying or if the wind is causing my eyes to water. I have taken flight.
Nick and I are on a carpet-flying honeymoon. He gently keeps me at the center of the current, sometimes barely holding a wrist or ankle and other times wrapping around my waist like a child clutching a helium balloon. It’s oddly intimate, and when he lets me go it’s only a matter of seconds before I flail into the sidelines. Back on my feet, he signals me to dive in again and - woosh! - I’m whisked back into the air. My three minutes literally fly by. For a triumphant finish, Nick goes solo and shows off his veteran moves, shooting into the air and spinning 360 degrees.
We say our goodbyes. I give him my card; he’s polite but decidedly professional. It’s another one-sided whirlwind romance, but far different from the one 17 years ago. This time, there will be no banshee wailing. Just a mischievous grin and a reminder that the world can lift me to the most unexpected places.
Vegas Indoor Skydiving
Pricing from $85 for a single flight.
Next page... Guns and Ammo Garage!
You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun
I grew up in the suburbs when doors were left open and neighborhood kids played Kick the Can until sunset. The Horton family, a few houses down, had hunting rifles in the basement. I never saw Mr. Horton handle any of his arsenal, which was securely locked and displayed in a glass-door china cabinet, but the way the Horton boys played with their Army figures behind the garage - setting up mock explosives and intricate attack patterns - led me to believe that they were well-schooled in handling firearms. I, on the other hand, was more at ease drawing movie poster replicates and collecting Publisher’s Clearing House stamps.
On the surface, this childhood baggage easily fits through the doorway of the Guns and Ammo Garage, a 12-lane shooting range and gun store located across Interstate 15 and a short drive from the southern end of the Strip. I’m feeling confident after my first two extreme adventures. "Yeah, man. I can pop off a couple of rounds. No problem. Take those biatches out, yo." What? Where is that voice in my head coming from? Too many late nights watching "The Wire" and suddenly I’m ready to go undercover.
Lipstick-stained women sporting multiple piercings and tattoos staff both the shooting range and the store, which you can leave with a long gun "in less than 20 minutes" if you are a Nevada resident and pass the perfunctory background check. A friendly and knowledgeable bunch, they set me up with a Beretta M9 handgun and an UZI 9mm machine gun. I pick out my paper targets, which include the standard outlined silhouette and a more threatening zombie about to eat the face off a buxom victim.
Lighthearted as it may seem, this is no joke. Guns and Ammo Garage hires only National Rifle Association Range Safety Officers (NRARSOs) to guide shooters through a session. The range itself, designed and built by Action Target, includes solid masonry walls, abrasion-resistant steel stalls and two-inch bulletproof glass that separates shooters from spectators. Yet I wonder. If things are so safe on the inside, what’s the point of that glass? I don’t want to find out.
I enter the shooting range with my NRARSO fast on my heels and am hit with a faint smell that reminds me of the sidewalk firecrackers that those Horton brothers set off so many years ago. I get a quick yet precise rundown of the Beretta. Essentially, look down the barrel of the gun toward the target, let the gun do the work, gently pull the trigger, and I’ll be on target just like the U.S. military, which has used the pistol since the 1980s. Remarkably, I have a knack for it.
The UZI is a different story. The submachine gun is made of pressed steel and feels lighter than I had expected. With it wedged into my right shoulder, I pull the trigger but can’t seem to find the right target placement. Designed by Captain Uziel Gazi for the Israeli army in 1950, the weapon is still widely used by security services. I recognize it from the haunting 1981 photograph of a Secret Service agent brandishing one during the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. I can’t get that photograph out of my mind, and it doesn’t help that expired shells are flying in front of me from the next stall.
Feeling both exhilarated and shaken by the firearms’ magnitude, I grab a few words with owner Mark Cole on my way out, peppering him with questions about what he might say to someone opposes such weapons.
"Until you come in and experience this, you shouldn’t judge," Cole said. "We see a lot of kids come in with their parents [the minimum age is 10 when accompanied by an adult] who think they’re great shooters because they’ve been playing video games, but they get nervous. They watch. They listen and find a new respect."
The gentle giant’s explanation helps me understand where he’s coming from. While I personally might prefer "Annie Get Your Gun" to a Tommy gun, trigger-happy thrill seekers can fulfill their CSI fantasies under safe, informative conditions like these.
Guns and Ammo Garage
Pricing from $99.95 for two guns (20 to 25 rounds each), target and photo.
Next page... Ziplinez Bootleg Canyon!
I’m hungover. Not from drinking, but from the adrenaline excess that is coursing through my body from the past day’s adventures. My head is throbbing from the 100-degree Nevada heat, and no matter how much water I drink, I feel las though I am breathing through a filter of corn flakes. What better remedy than to head into the Mojave Desert for three hours in the blazing afternoon sun? Flightlinez Bootleg Canyon, only 20 minutes from the Strip, has been operating since 2008, offering breathtaking views and exhilarating aerial experiences to those willing to trust their lives to a crew straight out of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, with nicknames like Pickles and Scruffy. Sign me up!
I arrive at the base camp, sign yet another waiver and sit tight as the rest of my cohorts roll in. We’re a mixed bag of bachelorette party refugees, local couples and mother-daughter outings. Cody, the ringleader, walks us through 20 minutes of flight school and finishes with the parting words, "When in doubt, legs out." (I think I’ve heard that one before!) Apparently, this is the best way to ease into the suspended breaking blocks and dismount platforms. Who am I to argue?
Outfitted with harnesses and helmets, we pile into a passenger van and switchback our way upward. Long before its recreational use, Bootleg Canyon was a Prohibition Era backdoor pathway into Boulder City and the Hoover Dam construction site. Bootleggers cooked up and distilled their illegal brew in craggy arroyos and other hidden enclaves, then moved it through town and down the Colorado River. We pass the remnants of a still chute and I’m hoping we can pull over, climb into the small cave and sip on some vintage moonshine.
No such luck. A brief hike leads us to the 3,800-foot summit of Red Mountain. Along the walk, we see downhill and cross-country mountain bikers taking advantage of the extensive trail network. The riders pinball their way down the dusty trails, and I’m relieved that I need only rely on open legs and gravity to get me to the bottom.
The four distinct runs accommodate multiple riders on parallel lines. Run One plunges 450 feet in 15 seconds, while Run Two soars 1,864 feet, offering picture-perfect views of Lake Mead - actually a reservoir built in the 1930s. The third and fourth runs are just as exhilarating and though maybe not as "extreme" by my newfound standards, I have a great time watching the others. The couples seem to grow closer after each run. The bachelorette girls gloat that their buddies chose to stay at the pool. And the mother-daughter reunion reveals the inevitable passage of time: the child becoming the adult.
Extreme means different things to different people, and this group’s dynamic shows the range. My temperament has mellowed out over the course of the afternoon. Maybe it’s sunstroke. Maybe it’s the wind beneath my wings. Or maybe it’s sharing an adventure with strangers and realizing that thrill-seeking can be most fun in their company.
Flightlinez Bootleg Canyon
Pricing from $159 for standard tour
Next page... SkyJump at the Stratosphere!
Leap of Faith
It is time to go it alone. My pièce de résistance begins with an ear-popping elevator ride to the top of the Stratosphere Tower, a 1,149-foot structure dominating the Las Vegas skyline. The SkyJump is the only one in North America and the highest one in the world. I am not afraid of heights, so the initial thought of plummeting 108 stories doesn’t daunt me as it might others. Yeah, this one’s in the bag.
What I find more extreme is the public display - the Anglophile procession to get from check-in to the jump platform. I sign, yes, another waiver, lock up my belongings and suit up. The powder-blue and neon-yellow jumpsuit, emblazoned with the SkyJump logo, is the latest in my superhero laundry list of costumes. I guess beige doesn’t convey "daredevil." A girl young enough to be my daughter straps me into the harness, pulling extra tight around my crotch. It becomes clear that my life is (as it has been all weekend) in the hands of strangers. In a final round of checklists, she makes sure my shoes are secure. If I fall to my death will it matter if my shoes are on? She then escorts me past the Tower shops as I notice passersby staring at this ridiculous get-up. I am in fifth grade again, in a plaid dress shirt with pearl buttons and gold thread trim. Laughter. Sneers. No, that’s just in my head. This is just plain fear.
We ride another elevator that carries us to the 108th floor. Reality sets in. My confidence and color drain. No wonder I’m not in beige. There is one jumper in front of me, an adorable Spanish teenager with his family shouting from behind the glass partition separating the descender machine and jump platform from spectators. "Jump, Gabrio! Te adóro, Gabrio!" His smooth olive complexion and gleaming white smile reveal no fear, just unabashed exuberance, and before any of us realize it, he has disappears into the abyss. The family hustles away my 10-minute Tadzio, never to be seen again.
I am escorted into the descender room. One more check of the harness and my shoes and I realize the shoe-check isn’t for me, it is to ensure that they don’t fall off and knock somebody out. "Do you want to say anything to anyone back home?" asks the operator, maneuvering my arm so I can speak into the video camera attached to my wrist. "Uh, just Wilbur. Hi, Wilbur. That’s my dog."
"Your dog? [slightly uncomfortable laugh] Is that it?"
I’m stumped. Who should I be talking to? I’m not in a relationship. My mother would be institutionalized if she were to be the last person I said goodbye to before splattering on a Las Vegas sidewalk.
"All right then - off you go!"
A few more harness and clip checks, and I walk to the edge of the platform. I didn’t bother to ask what happens at the bottom. The only advice I’m given? Land on your feet. What may happen next feels as far away as the moon. My extreme adventure has been just as much about excavating my past as creating memories for the future. A floundering existence in a breakneck world. Can I be solely in this moment? My breath catches. These are my demons at each turn of the wheel, pulled trigger or cascaded mountain. I’m OK with that. I now see beautiful imperfection on the horizon. And it’s all mine.
Three. Two. One. Jump.
SkyJump Las Vegas at the Stratosphere
Pricing from $109.99 per jump.
This article is part of our "Winter 2013" series. Want to read more?
Here's the full list»