It was Monday when my husband and I stepped on the plane. A non-stop flight from Buffalo to Las Vegas for two people who hadn't taken a real vacation in almost a year.
We took so much for granted that day. We gave ourselves an hour to check in at the airport and find a seat on the plane. We barely even noticed when our ticketing agent waved us to the gate without asking us basic security questions.
We were giddy with excitement. Neither of us gambled, but our books assured us that Las Vegas had grown beyond its gaming roots in the past decade, evolving with explosive speed into a carefully themed entertainment kingdom everyone could enjoy.
Slot machines greeted us at the gate, and we could see much of the famed Las Vegas Strip from the McCarran Airport runway. Gargantuan casino palaces and megaresorts dominated the boulevard, each one with its own meticulously crafted theme.
Here, in the midst of a barren desert, lurked imaginative and overwhelming casino resorts modeled on some of the most spectacular places ever conceived -- Paris, Egypt, Italy, Camelot, Monaco, Venice and yes, New York City. They rank among the largest hotels in the world, easily overshadowing their older casino sisters closer to downtown.
Matt and I spent our first day taking it all in, blissfully unaware of what was to come.
When I awoke on Tuesday, I turned on the TV and watched as a tower of smoke appeared on the screen. Many minutes passed before my fuzzy head could grasp what I was seeing. From that moment on, our vacation was no longer a celebration, but a long exercise in staving off sorrow.
Yet perhaps what shocked us almost as much as the hijacking disasters was the way Las Vegas reacted to the tragedy. Not with the hedonistic stubbornness that one would expect from the gaming and entertainment capital of the country, but rather with respect and patriotic fervor.
Changes were immediate. Uniformed security guards conspicuously roamed the casino corridors and occasionally asked to see our room key. The nearby Hoover Dam was closed for two days and dropped tours for the week.
Casino shows were canceled, and some of the free resort attractions that relied on explosions and pyrotechnic effects -- such as the volcano outside the Mirage and the pirate ship battle outside Treasure Island -- were off through the weekend.
Large casino televisions that ran self promotions were now tuned to the news. Casino players and hotel guests filled the sports book lounges where CNN was broadcast on the same monitors where horse races had appeared the day before. From there, we watched President Bush address the nation.
In a city known for its ability to throw together fabulous productions filled with glitz and flair, Las Vegas got ready to display American pride at its best.
All the megaresorts' giant, outdoor screens, which once hyped individual casino shows, stars and restaurants, now ran electronic images of the waving American flag and the words "God Bless America."
Over the next few days, every major casino made sure real flags were draped prominently over their gaming palaces. Even the upscale shopping boutiques and restaurants were adorned in red, white and blue.
We took the skywalk to the New York-New York casino and stared at the fake, but imaginative, New York City skyline. We wondered whether the architects had some premonition in 1996 when they chose not to include the trademark Twin Towers in their final design. Only later did we learn the towers were deliberately omitted because they dwarfed the skyline.
Despite the dismal turn of events, we made the best of things.
We enjoyed visiting the famed white tigers and lions in the garden zoo run by magicians Siegfried and Roy. We even took one of the few rental cars available to us that week (most cars were rented for one-way trips out of town) and viewed the impressive Hoover Dam from above.
We also rebooked our Tuesday show tickets for the MGM Grand's multimillion-dollar production called "EFX!" and ended up with slightly better seats on Thursday. The show was hosted by '80s rock star Rick Springfield, an engaging showman who ended the evening by saying, "I know it's been a brutal week. But doing this show reminds me that we are free."
On Friday, our last full day in Las Vegas, my husband and I honored the missing and the dead as part of the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. The Treasure Island resort casino opened one of its wedding chapels to those seeking reflection. White bows and silk flowers still adorned the pews. A slot machine worker cried in the back row as chapel attendants outside talked about the refunds they've issued to prospective newlyweds.
Even the gamblers who continued to win and lose at the casino tables with frightening consistency all week long observed a fleeting moment of silence. For a short time that night, the Strip's decorative lights went dark.
We spent the evening at the Grand Canal Shoppes in the Venetian resort hotel. A musical troupe stood in a mock-up of St. Mark's Square and performed Italian pieces. For their last song, they substituted their regular number with the National Anthem and urged everyone to join in.
The wave of voices grew in size and strength as hundreds of shoppers, browsers and restaurant patrons stopped what they were doing, picked up mid verse and sang with greater passion and conviction as the song wore on. Suddenly, this place wasn't Las Vegas. It was the same place every one of us has been since that fateful Tuesday morning.
Saturday (the second day the airport was reopened for business), we headed to the airport. It took us two hours to check in and get past security. Most of that time was spent standing in line.
Yet no one fussed. No one complained. They wound out the terminal doors and into the street with patience, if not grace. When a passenger ahead of us remarked on the line, another responded, "This is nothing compared to what those people in New York went through. I'd rather stand in 10 lines than face that."
Four hours after take-off, our plane touched down in Buffalo and the entire cabin exploded in applause.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you God!" exclaimed the woman seated behind us.
Las Vegas was remarkable. But it was very good to be home.