During fall break, I went to Las Vegas.
I walked the strip, went to buffets, wandered through the casinos and played shuffleboard at 1 a.m. — I did the normal Vegas fall break activities that the dozen other USU students I saw also did.
I watched Utah State beat UNLV in a pretty entertaining football game, and talked to USU alumni who had driven down from Logan. My trip wasn’t all fun and games however. While all the other activities were fun, I was really there to see Mandalay Bay.
I wandered the halls of the hotel, and was struck by how normal it seemed. Tourists were gambling or checking into their rooms. People were still attending events and conventions there. Yet right across the street was the site of the worst mass shooting in US history. A man had shot more than 500 people and killed 58 from the 32nd floor of this building, and everything looked fine. There was a #VegasStrong sign hanging from the roof of the building and there were shirts in the gift shops, but that was all.
A mile away from the hotel at the Welcome to Las Vegas sign was the memorial garden created in honor of the victims of the shooting. That’s where I saw the real impact, the visible sorrow of those who were still dealing with the loss of life.
Among the tourists taking pictures in front of the sign to prove they went to Vegas were somber-faced individuals there to pay their respects. I saw a long line of crosses labeled with names and photos. Piled around each of them were toys, figurines, articles of clothing and other little items that meant something.
There were several families with red-rimmed eyes gathered around some of the crosses. One woman was sprawled out next to one of the crosses; tears ran down her face and her breathing was ragged.
I sat down next to her and introduced myself, then I asked for her story. She told me for the last three weeks, she had been unable to bring herself to come here. She had even missed her daughter’s funeral, because she couldn’t believe she was dead. The reality of her loss only hit her when she came to Mandalay Bay to say goodbye.
The woman continued to talk. She told me she had talked to her daughter minutes before the shooting happened — her daughter had had a long day and was just going to see a few songs with her friends before turning in for the night. The next call she received was from the police informing her about the shooting.
I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it is for a parent to lose a child. Yet, that was this woman’s reality. This woman and so many others received calls that night informing them of the loss of a loved one. So many people stayed up that night, eyes fixated to their phones as they checked in with all their friends who had just gone to see a concert. So many people were injured and killed.
Just the fact that something like this mass shooting is even possible says something about the state of our nation. Even the fact that this isn’t the first mass shooting I’ve seen on the news says a lot about the state of our nation. Change needs to happen. And it needs to happen soon, before someone manages to top the devastation that we saw three weeks ago.
I’m home from Vegas now, but I still smell the casino cigarette smoke, and my feet still ache from the miles I walked. Those will fade, but the stories I heard, and the memorial I visited will stay with me for a long time.