LAS VEGAS — An arctic evening in Minnesota: Tracy Bridges shivered near her apartment window, weary of snowstorms and slender paychecks. She was 27, making $23,000 dealing blackjack at an Indian casino in Duluth, and couldn't shake thoughts of those dealers who had flown in from Las Vegas.
They were teaching the casino staffers and talked about high-rollers and tipsy celebrities, about the huge tips dealers pocketed. "I could do that," she thought.
That winter of 1997, Bridges quit her job, packed her Chevy Lumina and sped off across the state, the frozen Red River fading in her rear-view mirror. Five days later, she arrived in Las Vegas in darkness, the hot Mojave air flushing her cheeks, the skyline blazing with neon and possibility.
"Vegas," she thought. "Wow."
Bridges was part of a pilgrimage of aspiration that made Nevada the nation's fastest-growing state and Las Vegas one of its fastest-growing metropolitan areas. They came from New Jersey and Mississippi, from Los Angeles and San Diego, chasing the Vegas Dream: A good job, no college degree required. A cheap house, little money down. A seemingly secure niche in the middle class.
Bridges was able to build a life that made her a star at class reunions. Kami Bennett, with a $28-an-hour job at a home builder and a small inheritance, bought a black Mercedes S500, which she named Black Beauty. Craig Walsh, a union carpenter, got a tattoo on his upper right arm: a red phoenix soaring above the Luxor casino-hotel. Hope Camarena prided herself on showing her daughter that she could make it as a single mom.
They didn't know it would all crumble, quickly and spectacularly, in the manner of a casino implosion.
Camarena had been selling knickknacks at the Westminster Mall in Orange County when she got pregnant with her daughter, Alison. She would be able to afford a better life in Nevada, of that she was sure. So in 1993 she moved to Las Vegas and joined her mother and stepfather working for a construction cleanup firm. She was 20.
Las Vegas' economic boom seemed unstoppable. The Strip kept adding hotels, and suburbs chewed through the desert. In 2005 alone, the region's largest water district added more than 24,000 accounts. Many of the newcomers, like Camarena, were from California.
The number of job-holders more than doubled from 1990 to 2005, and still employers had to compete for workers.
Pardee Homes wooed Camarena to become a field customer service representative. Starting in 2005 at $18 an hour -- plus benefits and quarterly bonuses -- she was a liaison between home builder and home buyer. When she first came to town, she stretched her money by dining at the Circus Circus buffet. Soon after joining Pardee, she bought a PT Cruiser in silver, her favorite color. She drove her daughter and son, Gerald Jordano, back to Orange County for Angels games.
That same year, metropolitan Las Vegas issued 39,012 permits for new homes.
Kami Bennett chased the growth. Raised in the San Fernando Valley, she had traveled to Utah to work as an executive assistant at builder Richmond American Homes. She juggled her boss' prescription refills, getting his white E430 Mercedes washed and picking him up with a Diet Coke in hand.
In 2004, she followed him to the company's Las Vegas office, which was expanding to meet demand. Bennett, 33, subscribed to astrology (a Gemini sign is tattooed on her left hip) and "The Secret" motivational book. Hard work, she believed, would bring success.
Bennett and her husband, Jason, who works at a golf course, felt secure: They bought a 2,100-square-foot home in suburban Henderson for $417,000 and poured thousands more into renovations. Her boss once gave her a Chanel purse, which she named C.C.
"I can't live without Chanel now," she said.
What Hollywood is to actors, Las Vegas became to casino workers. They flocked from riverboat casinos near Chicago, Indian casinos near Seattle, resorts along the East and Gulf coasts.
Tracy Bridges, then Tracy Scott, met a fellow dealer, Michael Bridges, who had left Missouri and its assembly lines. They married and settled into a 1,600-square-foot home, figuring they'd soon trade in for something bigger.
Jobs were plentiful. Bored with yours? Head to another casino, or another profession. Tracy Bridges flitted from making $60,000 a year at the Venetian, mainly in tips, to selling real estate. She worked as a cocktail waitress at Santa Fe Station, a dealer at the Hard Rock hotel-casino, a server at Timbers Bar & Grill.
The Bridges bought a Dodge Caravan, a time share in Maui. They had a daughter, Victoria, whom they eventually enrolled in a $300-a-month private preschool. Nothing seemed out of reach.
Craig Walsh helped build markers of suburban sprawl (parking garages, freeway overpasses) and lavish Strip behemoths (Wynn Las Vegas). "The joke was the state bird was the tower crane," he said.