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This Was Meant to Stay There (III)
The Land of the Free (Plus Tax) (And a Tip)
There is a huge bank of slot machines less than ten metres from the aeroplane and everything about it screams Why Not? Why shouldn’t we get the party started right here and now, in the freakin’ gate, before we’ve even so much as claimed our baggage? There aren’t all that many cities in the world where you can actively want to burn $10 just for the fun of it, for the spectacle and the story, for the experience of gambling on a famously rigged game of chance no more than fifteen seconds after disembarking from the aircraft.
The slot machines are the first spectacle and you better believe they’re not the last. Lining the walls of the terminal walkways are bejewelled billboards for one or another ‘simply extraordinary’ and ‘mind blowing’ and ‘divinely debaucherous’ performance. Rolling digital screens display diamond watches, luxury face creams, pretentious perfume. There are tickets to magic shows on the left and immersive 3D augmented reality experiences to the right, Gordon Ramsey restaurants above and half naked cowboys dancing down below. The State of Nevada proudly sponsors every second billboard, each of which is a bright and official reminder that whatever happens here will stay here, a well kept secret between yourself and the city of Las Vegas. This entire walk from the plane to the carousel is one long, complex, psychologically nuanced, visually overstimulating ad that’s always facing you, no matter where you look.
A ten minute taxi to the hotel costs us $60 AUD. This commute zooms by, mainly from the awe. We’re unable to look anywhere but directly forward, at the bizarro-world skyline riddled with sphinxes and palaces and towers from long since fallen empires that were ruined by their greed.
This is the Strip. It is immediately hypnotic. It glitters in the sun but it properly glitters at night, because everything has two and a half more neon lightbulbs than it would need in any other city. Las Vegas is a weird concept. It is, essentially, one dead-straight 6.8 kilometres of road in the middle of an arid dust bowl. Real people really live here, in the surrounding counties, in the literal and figurative shadows cast by so-called Mega-Resorts, which are hotel that have multiple casinos and restaurants and shops and wellness centres and swimming pools all rolled into one monstrous complex of buildings that is difficult for the eye to even fully behold. Caesar’s Palace is so far beyond palatial, with its six colossal greco-roman marble towers, that it’s a city unto itself—its 1966 inauguration ceremony reportedly achieved ‘the largest order of caviar ever placed by a private organisation.’ Then there’s Vegas’ Eiffel Tower, more than half the size of the original in Paris, exploding out of a hotel like a sparkling, enterprising weed through concrete. Little Venice isn’t actually all that little, with its canals and cobblestone that wind around a city block. The Bellagio is a 5-star all-white convex monolith that you could just about see from space. The MGM Grand is appropriately named. There are actual, believable pyramids that look like they were airlifted from Giza and given a coat of glow-in-the-dark paint. And even if any given building isn’t in and of itself all that spectacular, it will at the very least be a flaming, almost alarming shade of pink.
The second thing that strikes us about the Las Vegas Strip is the heat. It is distinctly deserty outside. Every establishment flogs scented aircon out of doors that are always open in what seems to be a strange and misguided attempt to disrupt Nevada’s fundamentally arid climate by gently blowing cool air at it. It’s not working.
There aren’t all that many humans out with us at 9:00 a.m. There is zero in the way of birds. But streams of people will thicken with the heat—the Strip sees as many as 50,000 unique pedestrians in any given day, mid-morning is just low tide. And jogging through the emptyish streets on our first day in the City of Sin is a man wearing nothing but a USA flag speedo and leg warmers. Welcome to Vegas. He pounds the pavement at a decent clip and glitters in the sun like the buildings. Again, not the last spectacle we’ll see. On every second block of the Strip is a gorgeous person in feathers and costumes getting all up in your face for a photo. Only $10 USD. Sometimes $20 USD. How the guy in the thick, authentic, nine-foot replica of the Transformer Optimus Prime hasn’t died of heat exhaustion is a mystery to me—autobot, fall back. On any given casino floor you may see, as we saw, the profoundly elderly, men in three-piece suits playing blackjack with guys dressed as if they are inside a swimming pool, and a french bulldog in a pram. Often on the street are big groups of what can only be described as Dudes, each drinking from a footlong frozen margarita which are sold at egregious prices every twenty or so metres. Weaving between them are harried young families, running late for one or another pre-booked show. Something that we don’t see pretty much at all is the police. On the rare occasion that we do, they’re wearing bright yellow polo shirts, carrying no visible weapon, and riding bicycles with dorky helmets and gloves. If not for the City’s crest on their chests they could be tourists.
The most unrealistic part of the Ocean’s film franchise is that, once they executed their complex and cunning casino heist, they managed to actually successfully leave the premises. We can’t even find the restaurant we want to have breakfast at. So many entrances and so few exits, and we’re spun around so many times that the little blue dot on our phone maps spasms uncontrollably. We also get lost in Caesar’s Palace in pursuit of something called the ‘Fountain of Gods,’ finding not one but two other divine fountains, which have little cherubs and toga’d goddesses adorning otherwise unexceptional escalators. Above us, the roof is domed and lit in a soft blue, to mirror the Roman Sky at dusk. The Paris Hotel and New York New York use the same effect, and in all three instances it feels eerily close to being outside. The air is cool and the lighting is pleasant and there aren’t any clocks, analogue or digital, anywhere in the entire city. The cumulative effect is that this right here is a pocket dimension, outside of the usual flow of time and space and night and day and right and wrong.
We got way up above the Strip on the way back to the hotel room, thinking it might make more sense with a bit of altitude. It does not. From up high, especially during the day, we can see that beyond the single street of the bright light city is desert. Just desert. Plain and simple planes. Sand. Cacti. Heat radiating up from the red earth in wobbly waves.
Las Vegas is Spanish for ‘The Meadows.’ I would challenge you to find a single blade of grass anywhere in the city, outside of the manicured lawns or indoor jungles of the Mega-Resorts. And such is the magnetism of Las Vegas that, when you look at it from up high, it is the desert, and not the Strip, that seems out of place.
The Fountains of Bellagio might be everything that’s good about Vegas—decadent, magnificent, ultimately pointless and wasteful, but a true joy to be a part of. It’s excessive and dumb to a point just past laughable, to a place of genuine wonder. This feeling is common on the Strip. Over 1,200 nozzles and nearly 5,000 lights shoot monstrous, pulsating streams of water to the tune of Viva Las Vegas or Claire de Lune or Uptown Funk. The water goes as high 140 metres in the air and the super big nozzles sound like cannon fire when they go off. We watched it up close on our last night in the city, footlong frozen margs in hand, surrounded by thousands of people all jostling for prime real estate, with the fake but no less striking Eiffel tower glittering behind us. It’s surreal. It runs every fifteen minutes. And by the time you’ve pushed through the throng of tens of thousands of people and finally get across the 12-lane dual-carriage way that is the Strip, the next identical Fountain show has already begun.
The Uber to the airport costs $60 AUD. We feel every second of this commute, mainly from the hangover. There’s nothing interesting at all to look at up ahead but desert and construction zones and, inside the airport, every single billboard in the terminal is pointing towards those that are coming, away from those that are going. Finally the slot machines at the actual freakin boarding gate morph into what of course they always were: one last desperate chance to win it all back, one last chance to throw it all away.
Whenever we happen to look out of a window facing anywhere other than the Strip we are reminded, because we really did forget, that we have been living inside of a colourful dream inside of a desolate place.
This is the third episode of a six part series called ‘The Land of the Free (Plus Tax) (And a Tip)’, which is about a trip I took to the U.S. of A. in July-August of 2022. Inspired by Star Wars franchise the episodes come out in a frustrating and nonsensical order, only two are out so far. In case you missed it, click here to read episode four, which is the road trip we go on immediately after this, from the City of Sin to the Grand Canyon.