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Central Valley meets Vegas and Vegas loses out
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The last time I visited Vegas, I was driven by an appearance on the popular History Channel TV show "Pawn Stars." That was February of last year.

Last weekend I returned to Vegas, not to again be on the show- don't think I haven't tried - but to partake in the 90th birthday gathering of my girlfriend Sarah's grandmother. She lives in Florida, still golfs, walks around with great ease, has a charming wit and all, and wanted to whoop it up in Sin City. Family poured in from southern California, the Bay Area and Minnesota.

Being Central Valley raised and normally only exposed to something no larger than the Vintage Faire Mall, each time I go to Vegas it's with jaw-dropping disbelief at the excess. We stayed at the Tropicana so nightly we had a view of the New York New York Casino with its intense sensory overload of flashing lights and engineered skylines that trick you into thinking you're in the Big Apple. On the other side of the street was the mysteriously green glowing MGM, a monstrosity of a casino resort. The strip is Times Square on steroids on 24-hour cycles.

Vegas is obviously all about extracting as much money as humanly possible. Everyone is looking to make a buck, from the Kid King of Pop doing Michael Jackson moves on the sidewalk in exchange for pocket change to the $32 per person casino buffets to the costumed Buzz Lightyears and Jack Sparrows charging to take photos with visitors. There's ample overpriced trendy stores. There's the blatant selling of sex, from minimum-wage immigrants trying to hand off cards of naked beautiful women with blue stars strategically placed on their bodies to make them legal to the drive-by billboard trailers with illuminated photos of women with their panties pulled halfway down and giving us pedestrians that come hither look. Just dial up and have one delivered like a pizza. No wonder temptation runs sizzling hot in Vegas.

Then there are the casinos where thousands line up in smoky rooms downing booze and hoping that lady luck smiles on them so they can change their life in some significant way. If they keep drinking they won't care - or be attuned to the havoc they are creating on their financial status.

Vegas is Vegas in all its grandeur because someone is paying for it - all of those who feel compelled to go there. Those casinos - like the $3.9 billion Cosmopolitan that opened in 2010 - aren't built because they're giving money away but because they're taking it away from the suckers at the slots or tables. If you have a good time doing that, fine, just consider losing cash to be the cost of entertainment.

I didn't drop one dime into a machine nor did I play tables. But we dropped a ton elsewhere. Seeing the Titanic exhibit at the Luxor Hotel for four set us back $130. The three-night hotel stay somewhere around $575. Four tickets to the Michael Jackson One show at the Cirque du Soleil at Mandalay Bay cost about $600. A measly meal at Hard Rock Café was close to $60.

Obscene prices for your average Central Valley dweller - at least this small town newspaper reporter's salary.

We decided not to check into the helicopter rides or experiences of shooting an AK-47 in the nearby desert for fear that we'd have to take out a small loan. There are free things to do while in Vegas. You can leave the strip and check out one of the west's most fascinating engineering marvels - the Hoover Dam - or check out the world famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop.

I'm yesterday's news as far as Pawn Stars goes but I still get reports of people seeing me on the re-runs. Supervisor Jim DeMartini told me he saw me on TV around Thanksgiving. Still, I couldn't resist taking Sarah and her two boys to again check out the world famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in the seedier part of the Las Vegas Strip. I pulled into the parking lot and things looked very different. Rick Harrison added a whole new building next to his pawn shop that contains his own Rick's Rollin' Smoke Barbecue & Tavern and several touristy shops. I understand that he sunk $3 million into the Pawn Plaza enterprise. A parking lot attendant informed us that the famous Rick Harrison himself would be serving drinks at 8 p.m. but we had other plans that night. Besides, last year I had private time with him between takes to talk about politics. Driven by money all the time, Harrison expressed interest in a cattle ranch and when I suggested that he check out our Valley he flat out said California was not a state he ever wanted to do business in because of the control freaks of Sacramento.

I perused the shop and shook my head at the prices. One item was a cut signature of our rotund President William Howard Taft, mounted behind plastic and commanding a price of $3,000. Being a collector who knows such an autograph is worth more like $100, I carted my verbal disbelief to Sarah who was pressed against another counter. The employee overheard me talk about the ridiculousness of the price I saw and asked what item. He insulted my intelligence by suggesting that was my opinion - actually fact - and suggesting "some people would argue we are underpriced." Maybe but the Village Idiot wasn't in town that day so I was spared the argument.

I informed the non-famous clerk that I was on the show last year and he acted like so what, big deal. He asked where I was from and I told him. A guy next to me turned and said, "Hey, I'm from Modesto and my friend here is from Ceres." No kidding, he looked at me and recognized me after I said I was the editor of the Courier. That Jeff was in town for a youth tournament.

It is a small world after all.

We were done with the shop and headed to get a bite at a taqueria restaurant blocks away. Outside were two emaciated individuals begging for cash and muttering to themselves as they looked at the ground. This was the antithesis of the excessive pleasure-seeking high-roller, "stays in Vegas" sex crowd down the strip. Vegas is no more real than hippos in Disneyland but the sight of in-the-gutter addicts strung out and hungry was. I see that sight everyday back at home.

Back in the hotel elevator, small TVs were bombarding us with commercials for the hotel comedy club, rock show and Rich Little still doing impressions of bygone celebrities the 20-something crowd have no clue about.

Vegas was okay but didn't make me feel any better about myself. It's a place where the rich and those who pretend to be rich play. That place reeks of excesses of which I am not accustomed.

As we drove south on Highway 15 on Sunday morning I could see Vegas get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. It felt like a relief. I was actually looking forward to a quiet place that didn't use me as a cash cow at every turn with such blatant force and not feeling bad for desiring some peace and quiet. A place where I can be me again and not lost in the gawdy glitz.

If you think about, Vegas is about people wanting to escape from who they really are and paying a high price for doing so. That's one thing that should always stay in Vegas.

There really is no place like home.

How do you feel? Let Jeff know by emailing him at