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Escapes: The West reopens

Greetings, travelers and those who would like to be.

I’m Christopher Reynolds from the L.A. Times Travel section, stepping into the large shoes of just-retired travel editor Catharine Hamm and hoping to pass along some ideas and tips that might help us make the best of this strange, busy, sad, powerful historical moment.

As much of California reopens, we have plenty to report. Camping ideas, for instance. National park tips. Firsthand reports from openings in Santa Barbara and Las Vegas, and from the very quiet cabin of a pandemic commercial flight (masks on, middle seats empty).

Who thinks about running away from home in the middle of a global pandemic, in the wake of historic demonstrations against institutional and individual racism?

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Many of us, actually. Not necessarily to dodge trouble or responsibility, but to be recharged, or reassured, or to learn something. Three months at home can be a long time.

And in California right now, we have a surge of reopenings among hotels, parks, campgrounds and other tourist attractions, despite worries that coronavirus hospitalizations are rising in some areas, and despite county health officials who are still urging us to put off nonessential trips.

Whether or not you’re ready go to anywhere today, now is the time to study options.

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Our briefing today bounces around California, hops over to Las Vegas, goes up in the air and considers a few places where this country’s African American culture and history are powerfully displayed.

California opens up (outdoors)

Hikers, campers, trees and a lake are shown.
(Nazario Graziano / For The Times)

How is California reopening? Let us count the ways.

Assistant travel editor Mary Forgione (who is also the voice behind The Wild newsletter — sign up for it here) has taken a good look at this summer’s ever-evolving camping options. Her report takes us from KOA compounds to national parks, national forests, state parks and beyond, and includes several helpful pandemic-era rules for the trail.

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If her words have you thinking hard about setting up camp somewhere, then check out my story on gear that you’ll be grateful for — the stuff you’ll need after you’ve got a tent, a sleeping back and a stove.

New wildlife warning. Six feet. Leave room to pass hikers, but way more space from bears and bison.
(Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times)

We’ll also tell you about the California’s nine national parks. (Spoiler alert: They’re all open, to varying degrees, as are the state’s two national recreation areas. But there are a couple of big asterisks: In the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, neither Alacatraz nor Muir Woods is ready to reopen yet.)

California opens up (indoors)

Hotels, dining rooms — many of this state’s indoor spaces are swinging back into action. (The museums, not so fast.)

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— For the story of how one of Santa Barbara’s oldest streets has taken on new life — and banned cars — I walked several miles on State Street, had great sushi, heard charming Irish music from some buskers ... and saw so many people without masks that I started counting.

— For still more on California’s reawakening, here are updates from the Pacific to the Sierra — that is, from Catalina to San Diego to Mammoth.

— Also, before we cross state lines, let’s consider Sacramento for a minute. Not the scenery, but this fraught political, economic, epidemiological moment, in which lots of hotels are reopening and some health experts would like us to stay far away from them. Which way?

In Las Vegas, the risks resume

Action resumes on the craps tables of the Golden Nugget casino early June 4.
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)
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Once Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak decided to let casinos begin reopening as soon as June 4, the scramble to resume gaming, and raking in revenue, was on. Several casinos opened downtown in the first moments of the day. On the Strip, several more opened over the course of the morning and afternoon.

To open, all casinos and hotels made many changes to keep people healthier: sneeze-guard screens at front desks and some gaming tables, reduced room capacities, reduced dining room capacities, temperature checks for arriving hotel guests and mandatory masks for workers (including lifeguards). But for casino guests, there was no mask requirement. Nobody could be sure how that would work out.

I flew to Vegas to watch it unfold — first the midnight openings downtown, then the surge of guests rushing in to the Bellagio, all taking place in the shadow of anti-racism demonstrations in Las Vegas and across the country. Here’s my account of it, including the Fremont Avenue bartenders dancing in bikinis and face masks.

I thought that scene was wild. But after I left on Friday afternoon, it got wilder. And Times sports columnist Arash Markazi was there at the Cosmopolitan casino to see it. The room made him nervous: a lot of bare-faced guests in close quarters, showing no hint of concern about virus transmission. In the new Las Vegas, he writes, “the coronavirus pandemic is in the mental rear-view mirror of many visitors, and mask shaming is in vogue for some tourists trying to return to normalcy.”

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To keep an eye on Vegas as reopenings continue, we have Jay Jones tracking the major casinos and hotels. By his reckoning, 21 of the 35 resorts along the Strip will be open by July 4.

Two stories from the sky

Masked passengers fill a Southwest Airlines flight from Burbank to Las Vegas on June 3, with middle seats left open.
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

To report that Las Vegas story, I flew. Here’s my account of the short, strange round trip.

But you don’t have to believe me. Our “Fly Guy” columnist, flight attendant Elliott Hester, offers his own account what is was like to be at work aloft again.

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Four great places for African American culture

When this pandemic does ease and Americans feel better about flying and exploring busy urban settings, many will be thirsty for chances to celebrate and learn more about African American history and culture.

Here, drawn from our pages since 2016, are four places with a lot to offer, especially musical heritage:

— Washington, D.C., where the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture opened in 2016.
— Harlem, New York, which has been enriched and complicated by a 21st-century renaissance and accompanying gentrification.
— Chicago, where country blues took on an electric edge in the early 20th century.
— New Orleans, where Royal Street has echoed with sounds of jazz for more than a century.

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What we’re reading

I’m been a fan of theculturetrip.com for a while, but the site’s short, well-illustrated piece on the history of Juneteenth and Galveston, Texas, is a fascinating read.

Elizabeth Landau’s Smithsonian magazine feature on the Maya ruins at Uxmal, on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, is a longer read, and deeply rewarding.

End paper

While I was in Santa Barbara enjoying the street life and worry about masks, I encountered two people who stuck in memory. One was Ruth Marshall, a senior wheelchair user who was out on the street walking her dog.

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From her upbeat voice, I could tell that Marshall was smiling under her mask. But the mask had a grin of its own, a wide, printed one that drew almost constant compliments from strangers. This, I thought, is a person with a healthy attitude.

The other encounter was more of a glimpse, really: young bicyclist who came zooming up the street at dusk, racing along with no hands on the handlebars, no mask on his face, no worries in the world. Basically, he was a living illustration of the idea that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

Here they are. Which one are you?

On State Street, some Santa Barbarans sports masks, some not.
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)
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Be safe, everybody, and let’s keep thinking about where and when that next trip should be.


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