LAS VEGAS — I’ve been coming to Las Vegas since the 1980s, and have written about its ever-changing landscape over many of those years. I’ve lost and I’ve won here. But I’ve always had fun. And I’ve made some dear friends here. That is the big reason I return. The wedding of one of those friends brought me to this city last week.

Over the years I remember visiting the Sands, the Aladdin, the Stardust and the Riviera casinos, those monuments to the founding of this glittery gulch in the desert. They’re all gone now, of course, replaced by mega-resorts — dazzling new monuments of concrete and glass.

But one icon of the city remains steadfast and true: the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign — that “old friend” that greets every visitor who heads into town from the airport via The Strip.

Oct. 1 changed everything.

OPINION

Since the horrific events that unfolded on that fall Sunday night at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, there are two signs that now greet visitors. One is instantly familiar. The other is new — haunting, heartbreaking and inspiring. It reads simply: #VegasStrong.”

That social media hashtag is everywhere in Las Vegas these days — on billboards, marquees — a testament to the resilience of the city and its residents, a tribute to its mighty first responders, and a solemn prayer to the victims of a mass shooting by a man — so vile, so filled with hatred and a soul so dark that I will not give his name a presence here.

But the darkness of Oct. 1 is being met with fierce determination by Las Vegans. You can see it in their eyes, and most importantly, their smiles. Because amid all the grief, I witnessed these past few days a strength of spirit unlike I’ve ever witnessed before, a strength of spirit I can only assume, is similar in character to Boston and Sandy Hook and Orlando, where other carnage hoped to strip away our humanity.

Fifty-eight crosses, one for each of the fatalities from the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, stand near the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign and in the shadow of Mandalay Bay on Las Vegas Boulevard. | Miriam DiNunzio/Sun-Times

Everywhere I went, the locals I spoke to were Vegas Strong: The airport rental car porter, who told me in hushed tones but with a warm smile, “We’re getting better. It will take time but we will get there.” Waitresses at various pubs and watering holes (eerily void of crowds) who greeted me with a smile, but then revealed in more somber tones the stories of friends and family who were at the concert and became victims. The casino cashier, who counted out my embarrassingly meager winnings with a huge smile, and, when asked how she was doing, replied, “We’re strong. We’re gonna get through this. We just want people to come here, to visit, to enjoy the city like they used to. We find comfort and strength in that support.”

Some folks just smiled and said they were incapable of speaking of it. But all of them, without hesitation, said, “Thank you for your thoughts and prayers. It means so much.”

And then there were the hugs — with total strangers — over the course of several days. No sooner would I tell a local they were in my thoughts and prayers than I was met with a smile and a  “thank you for asking” and a hug — that tiny gesture of humanity.

A family friend walks away from the cross of 20-year-old Bailey Schweitzer, one of the 58 victims of the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas. | Miriam Di Nunzio

And nowhere was the outpouring of humanity more profound than at that “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, where a winding path of white crosses — one for each victim who was killed — created a most solemn site.

I spotted one woman searching the names until she found what obviously in her heart she couldn’t bear: the name “Bailey Schweitzer.” She knelt in silent prayer at Bailey’s cross, gently touched it and wiped away tears as she walked away. I asked if she was family. She quietly said Bailey was the daughter of her best friend. “She was a daughter to us, too,” she quickly added. And without hesitation, we hugged. A quiet “thank you so much for your prayers” amid her tears accompanied the gesture.

Hundreds of messages of prayers and support fill a Vegas Strong banner at the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign site. The site has become a memorial to the victims of the Oct. 1 mass shooting. | Miriam Di Nunzio/Sun-Times

I felt so inadequate in the moment. How could I possibly know her sorrow? But there it was, up and down the line of crosses, complete strangers embracing and offering words of support. There were tears, handshakes, and smiles of gratitude. My heart broke. Seeing all of the crosses and the glistening Mandalay Bay Resort in the distance — where this horrific event began — was overwhelming. I realized there truly are no words.

The “Wall of Remembrance” in downtown Las Vegas is part of a small park dedicated to the victims of the Oct. 1 mass shooting. | Miriam Di Nunzio Sun-Times

At the Wall of Remembrance, part of a “Healing Garden,” constructed in less than one week on a tiny plot of land in downtown Las Vegas by locals who volunteered their time to erect a permanent monument to the fallen, newly planted trees — one for each victim — provide a quiet place to reflect and somehow make sense of it all.

The marquee of the Mandalay Bay resort marquee — a message repeated on nearly every resort marquee — expresses the sentiment of the city of Las Vegas in the aftermath of the Oct. 1 mass shooting. | Miriam Di Nunzio/Sun-Times

The Strip casinos visited on what are usually crowded weekends were less so. Maybe it was the time of year, but the familiar jammed sidewalks and the impossible-to-navigate casino floors were noticeably a breeze to traverse, the noise volume greatly subdued. The howls at the craps tables were almost non-existent. Many, many slot machines sat un-played.

But Las Vegas is slowly rising from the ashes of unfathomable sorrow. A scheduled art fair went on Friday night as planned. The city’s new National Hockey League team, the Golden Knights, played its first game Friday night (on the road in Dallas) — and they won. Viewing parties were held at many bars across the city, and the joy and uplifted spirits of the hometown crowd were a welcome sight.

The memorial at the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign grows by the day. | Miriam Di Nunzio/Sun-Times

Yes, a different Las Vegas greeted me on this visit. And it’s a sure bet the city will never be the same. As I fly home, my heart is heavy but also hopeful. The city and its residents, the friends and families of all the victims, will find healing in their own way, in their own time. The visitors will come, the jubilation will return. The brides and grooms will parade through the casinos on their way from the wedding chapels. Life goes on. The town that was once nicknamed “Sin City” now has 58 angels watching over it. They will forever be Vegas Strong.

The massive stage of the Route 91 Harvest Festival site stands eerily in the distance down the road from Mandalay Bay on Las Vegas Boulevard. | Miriam Di Nunzio/Sun-Times[/caption