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Headline:Escapes are fun, but the

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, Albany Times

Headline:Escapes are fun, but the

bill comes due Las Vegas

A visit to what used to be called Sin City - an outdated name, really, now that we're so accommodating nearly everywhere of behavior that once stayed in Las Vegas - can mess with your head.

I'm not talking about how messed up your head got when you lost track of all those rum drinks you ordered on the casino floor. I mean how, if you're paying attention, the place smacks you upside the head with the effort we humans exert to change reality.

We love delusion, and nowhere can we see that more clearly than in that corner of the Mohave Desert where two million people thrive in an economy based mostly on make-believe.

Take water, for starters. Las Vegas wouldn't exist if not for the reality-changing impact of Hoover Dam, which impounded the Colorado River, the source of 90 percent of Las Vegas' water. The region has been in the grip of a drought since 2000, but even if rainfall returned to 20th century norm, experts warn that the kind of growth the area has experienced over the past several decades can't be sustained.

But facing up to the reality of a looming water shortage isn't popular anywhere in the West, especially with so many politicians pretending that man-made climate change isn't real. It's a fundamental slip from reality, and an existential one: You can't build a massive city in the desert if you're not going to be realistic about its residents' thirst.

Even with its gravel lawns and almost unbearable heat (it was 115 F. a couple days during my visit this week), Las Vegas is an oasis in the western desert. But in the old cowboy movies, an oasis in view often turned out to be a mirage, and believing in mirages - the suspension of disbelief - may be the skill most needed to appreciate Vegas.

The Strip, the Fantasy Road of Vegas, is no longer much like what the old Rat Pack movies depicted. Now it's part Times Square, part Disneyland, both places not known for their adherence to reality. Vegas adds the overlay of the casino industry, which couldn't survive if people didn't ignore the certainty that "winning" in gambling is a fleeting reality, at best, since the house always wins in the end. The Strip is its own four-mile zone of alternate reality.

There's the massive New York-New York casino, presenting a streetscape that could almost make you think you're in 1940s Manhattan. It's close enough to authentic that the U.S. Postal Service accidentally used an image of its Statue of Liberty replica on a stamp commemorating the actual statue. Across Las Vegas Boulevard is the Paris casino, with its half-size Eiffel Tower and two-thirds size Arc de Triomphe. Inside are shops and restaurants that make you imagine, if you squint a bit, that you're in a charming French hamlet.

Or maybe you prefer Italy. You could persuade yourself that you've been there by visiting The Bellagio, which is inspired by a town of that name on Lake Como. There's a (real) art gallery near the casino, and a small botanical garden in a conservatory with larger-than-life animatronic swans that seem to turn their heads to gaze at you.

There's a lot more in Vegas - big-name acts, magic shows, Cirque de Soleil, and did I mention the gambling everywhere? - which has led it to become one of the nation's top tourist destinations. My little inventory here isn't meant to suggest that the place isn't swell in its own way; I will surely look back on breakfast with my daughter at Mon Ami Gabi at the Paris casino as a Top 10 event of 2018.

But we were talking about fleeing reality, which Vegas enables. It's OK to do that, even healthy to do that, in small doses. But life has a way of catching up with fantasy trips. Even the most lavish casinos look bleak as dawn breaks on sad slot players and disheveled down-and-outers. The glare of daylight is no more kind, figuratively, at least, to people who make fact evasion a way of life.

Some of you are surely hoping now that this column won't take a political turn - please, must we always come back to our public responsibilities? - but the reality is that we Americans have lingered in fantasyland too long already. Just look at Washington.

We can't spend more and tax less, or maintain international order by trashing other nations' economies, or build a more civil society even as we denigrate each other with language our parents taught us not to use. That's just not realistic. We can't pretend to support education while short-changing schools and scorning science. We can't claim all Americans are equal and then turn people away based on their sexual orientation or race or religious beliefs.

It's good to be home; I like Upstate better than Vegas. But when it comes to alternate realities, all of us are often perfectly happy to believe in mirages.

Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union. Contact him at rsmith@timesunion.com.

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