Las Vegas and I got off to a rocky start. We arrived at the Strip at around 3pm to the sight of a man hanging out of a taxicab at the traffic lights, his head close to the ground and spewing up a liquid tinted with a colour so unnatural I hoped to never see it again. “Ah,” we collectively sighed and giggled from the inside of our van: “welcome to Vegas.”
But let’s begin at the beginning. We were travelling from California through a desert defined by countless cacti and neon rest-stop signs advertising obscure diners. We passed the sporadic markings of trailer-park settlements and houses scattered across the landscape. I couldn’t help but wonder just who lives here? What kind of life exists so far out and away in this barren and boundless place? What does that look like?
Don’t misunderstand me, though. I have a strange love for the desert. There is life here: a quiet, burning kind of life, but you just need to know how to look. Maybe it’s the litany of times I’ve read the English Patient, or the fire I had in my stomach the first time I heard Desert Places by Robert Frost read aloud, but either way, I have an odd affection for this desolate space and its hills concealing mad, hidden hermits. It’s a romantic vision I know, but it kept me occupied during our long drives.
It is out of this desert that Las Vegas arises. And arise it does — people often rightly remark at the way the city seems to appear like a mirage out of the emptiness, its bright lights leading the way. Our approach may not have been a la Fear and Loathing, but once we arrived I recognised the city Hunter S Thompson described (minus hallucinogenic monsters, of course). Its lights are blinding, disorientating and reflective of the apt Samuel Johnson quote Hunter cities in his preface: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
It seems everyone here is either running away or chasing after something. Drowning some part of themselves in a thick layer of liquor and false hope. Like a warped American dream, there is so much posturing and peacocking: we all want to be something other than what we appear to be. We leave our real selves at home.
Some are escaping the drone of a mediocre, Middle America life, while the clothes of others still carry the scent of smoke from the bridges they have burnt on their way. Almost all are here for a good time, some never got the memo that the party was over. There is a palpable energy that says you’re on the edge of something glorious — so close you can taste it on your tongue. Just one more hand, one more slot and you’ve got it. It’s that edge that is so alluring, but deep in our gut we know the house always wins.
On the surface it’s all scintillating lights and opportunity. A handpicked concoction of the world’s most famous sites are mashed together; the Eiffel Tower standing just metres from Caesar’s Palace and the pyramids, while New York New York down the road is wrapped with a rollercoaster. It is a surreal and turbulent place.
Yet after a while, it begins to grow on you. It’s designed to be dazzling; triggering elemental parts of ourselves and knocking us sideways. It’s so easy to be absorbed into the convulsing, changing masses that swarm and sway and consume endlessly. We too got drunk on it. We were also swept up into the iridescent and hypnotic lights, we were charmed by the illustrious displays of wealth and winner’s stories. You learn to live off that glimmer of hope, or as Bukowski would put it, that “hummingbird chance.”
Maybe it’s the day-long drinking that limbers up our hearts and wallets. But the city is a feast for the senses; every synapse is overrun and suffocated with stimuli as you stumble down crowded streets and into gaudy casinos. Everything looks so perfect from far away. The hostesses ply you with drinks and suggestive smiles, and a misleading sense of comradery sits next to you at the poker table. All the while coruscating lights from slot machines sing as we sink ever further into a city that exists to exhume and excuse all of our darkest impulses.
But there’s a sickness on the streets you can’t escape. The magic is lost when you step outside, or if you examine your surroundings too meticulously. Caesar’s Grand Palace becomes cheap plastic if you lean in, as the statues turn to plastic mannequins and the murals reveal themselves to be little more than fancy wallpaper. Nothing here rewards inspection or reflection, just look to the Venetian’s sky. I guess Las Vegas is like most things: enchanting as long as you don’t look too closely.
New York, be damned — this is the city that never sleeps. Even if only because the casinos have banned clocks and natural light is non-existent. Back on the Strip, high ballers rub shoulders with the homeless, who squander their begged change on slot machines and second changes. But all hope ends up face down in gutter come 4 am when reality sets in and the people with homes return to them. The rest stagger on faltering forwards, minds fixed on their next hit and bones impervious to the cold.
Then what else can we expect from a city like Vegas? We asked for avarice and we got it. There are few other places on earth that can conjure such a clear image in the mind and then deliver on it. Searching for morality here is like going to the Antarctic and complaining about the snow. It is the capital of vice and bad decisions, and if you wanted a sophisticated city-escape, you should have stuck to Europe. My mind harks back to the Christians with placards trying desperately to save my soul, don’t they know where they are?
All that’s left is to cast aside the casualties of capitalism and drink enough that the city’s edges blur. We turn a corner and walk down Fremont Street and bask in a Vegas that once was. It’s all Elvis impressions and retro signs, but this is what we came for, wasn’t it? I’ve got a couple dollars more and some chips in my pocket, I don’t know. Maybe this time it will be different.