After a few days in Tucson, we all piled into Katie’s car on a weekend road trip to Las Vegas for 11/11/11, a once a century occurrence and also Matt’s birthday.
We had an eight hour drive, mostly boring with just saguaro cactus and mesquite plains to look at. During our time in Zion, I had seen a sign at the north end of the park that read 150 miles to Las Vegas. It had taken Jean and I two weeks of hell to get from Zion to Tucson, now we were retracing our steps north in a single day. Hindsight, being what it is, suggested we could have spent some more time in Zion’s balmy refuge and simply met Matt and Katie in Vegas, but then again logic had nothing to do with our trip.
In fact, logic and reasoning don’t number high in my personal skill set, especially when it comes to numbers, so I was actually very afraid of what might happen in Vegas. Jeana and I, fearing the depletion of our entire treasury in the wonton moment of an all-in poker game, made a pact to remain half-continent on the betting floor.
After a stop at the Hoover Dam, we made it to Vegas by early evening and readied ourselves for the night at our off-the-strip hotel room. Matt’s dad was actually in Vegas that weekend for a conference and had offered to take us all out to dinner at Paris Las Vegas.
On our way to the casino, we made our way down the strip staring with wide eyes at the continuous length of lights and attractions. Each hotel seemed to pose as its own theme park: a pirate ship façade outside of Treasure Island, a huge, leering jester protruding from Harrah’s, and blooming out from the Paris Las Vegas casino, a replica of the Eifel Tower.
The strip held a fantastic assemblage of the gaudy and jaw-dropping. It was mesmerizing, over-stimulating, repellent, dazzling. I had a sudden urge for VIP lounges and poolside daiquiris. I wanted to jump headlong into the stream of lights and sound, spend lots of money and make best friends with people I would never see again.
We found Matt’s dad in the casino lobby trying his hand at a slot machine. He looks exactly like Matt and, not seeming a day older than thirty, could easily be Matt’s older brother. From our table at the restaurant, we watched the Bellagio water show spewing in synchronized patterns of color. We all ordered steaks.
After dinner, we parted ways with Matt’s dad to wander into the Vegas night. Well-fed and tipsy, we swaggered over to Caesar’s Palace to make our contribution to the local economy. In the marble lobby, we walked past an opulent fountain of Roman nudes, bumping elbows with the soused and giddy throngs on our way to the casino floor.
At a roulette table, we each bought in on a pile of chips and started making timid bets. I had half-expected the place to have beginners’ tables with low stakes and helpful dealers who would teach you how to play, but no one seems too ready to give you a hand in Vegas as much as they are to take the money in yours.
I had no idea how to play the game, if there is any strategy to begin with, so I just placed my chips on random squares like Gee, this is sure fun! This technique amazingly yielded dividends and I soon found my chip pile a little bigger. Caught up in the spirit of winning, Jeana and I started making plans for our earnings. No more camping! No more instant pasta! Motels and pizza every night! But as the evening continued and our piles dwindled, our plans grew modest. Okay, maybe just pizza once a week… Well, I think we have enough for brand name cereal…Okay, maybe we should just stop playing.
Matt’s birthday luck served him well and he finished the night with heavy pockets. Matt and Katie decided to head back to the hotel while Jeana and I walked around the strip taking in the sights.
Our bike trip had taken us to some strange, unexpected places and Vegas not the least among. Because of the auspicious 11/11/11 date, Vegas had seen an influx of marriages that had turned the strip into one big wedding reception. Young woman in white dresses raced up and down the streets, newlyweds clinked champagne bottles on street corners while waiting for the light to change. We passed a sloppy bridal party waltzing ridiculously to the songs of a busking mariachi band. The bride had stolen a band member’s sombrero and she staggered about with the top heavy hat turning her in circles.
The passing crowds held a potpourri of every kind of person imaginable: young service men in uniform, old couples in Hawaiian shirts and sandals, the well-dressed, the unkempt, serious winners, tottering losers- all wearing the same blissed expression, Wow Vegas.
Jeana and I held ourselves a little apart from the masses. Our trip up to this point had been one of pure asceticism, joy taken from hard work and natural beauty, but even we got lost in the glamour of the place. Its audacity and thorough charm could numb the senses of the most austere monk and after weeks in the wilderness, we kind of enjoyed the city’s unabashed appetites. We agreed Vegas is something you have to see, but we could also live without seeing it again.
The next day, the girls went for a hike at Red Rock Canyon, a nearby conservation area, while Matt and I lazed about the hotel room watching TV, waiting for night to come. After we’d seen all we could stand on the Penn State scandal, we ventured out to into the streets to sight see and try a little roulette at the Wynn.
In the light of day, Vegas loses some of its luster. The same crowds are still staggering about with the same intensity and ecstatic mugs, but without the night’s electricity and momentum, their enjoyment seems desperate and half-hearted.
At the Wynn, we posted up at a roulette table beside some hardened gamblers. Their faces looked like the worn velvet on a pool table. A few of them had been gambling since last night. They smoked cigarettes and played silently with a feverish exhaustion. Matt won some more money and declared Vegas the best place on earth; I lost some more money and swore off gambling entirely. It’s amazing how much of your enjoyment of the place hinges on luck.
Thankfully, night came soon; the lights went up and Vegas put on its sleek, black dress becoming once again attractive and mesmerizing. We went out that night with clubbing on the mind.
During our day, we had overheard the city was just teeming with celebrities. Matt and I had passed a group of giggling middle-aged woman who were broadcasting to anyone who would listen that they had just ran into William Shatner.
–He’s so nice! You wouldn’t believe how nice he is.
As proof, one woman showed me an autographed fanny pack. Shatner’s signature looked like someone had tried to sign a bar tab with lipstick and gotten the fanny pack instead. I remained skeptical.
We’d also heard Nelly was having a birthday party at a Bellagio club. For some reason, we were determined to have a celebrity encounter with Nelly, or any other once-famous luminary, believing it would elevate our Vegas weekend to the ultimate peak experience.
On our way to the Bellagio that evening, we stopped by a drink stand. The stand sold yard long, plastic tubes filled with every conceivable kind of liquor. The drinks, or “yardies”, were so big they came equipped with a shoulder strap. We’d seen other pedestrians strolling down the street shouldering this ludicrous setup and believed it impossible to present oneself as a respectable person while holding one. Taking even a simple sip required a two-man operation. Will you hold my drink while I drink? We’d heard one passerby say.
Outside of the Bellagio, we got entangled with a young club premotor. We said we wanted to see Nelly, and he agreed we should. The club promoter said Nelly was a very nice and generous person- he’d even met the man a few times himself. The promoter offered us free admission to the club because we looked like party people, and our night was set.
The club turned out to be a small nook tucked into a Bellagio hallway. We soon realized we would not be seeing Nelly that night. No matter, we danced anyways and had a grand time. As far as we were concerned, we were the only celebrities in all of Vegas.
The club, per custom, had some raised stages reserved for spirited, female dancers. These kinds of platforms always look such fun and I am constantly forgetting they are for women only. I climbed the stairs to one only to be immediately turned away by a frowning bouncer. Not tonight, I guess.
After soiling our Vegas duds in sweat and club-grime, we walked back to the hotel room, finishing the night off with some hot dogs. Half-way through my second dog, I started jogging back to the street vendor, a little ashamed, but very alive to that irresistible piece of advertising that now seems to serve as local law: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.