From fifteen-thousand feet, Las Vegas is invisible. The desert floor of Nevada stretches on until it disappears into the ether of earth’s hazy rim, with minor undulations here and there, grey mountains shoved up through the sand like bones in a compound fracture.
The first indication that civilization exists here too, is when the mirror’s edge of the windows on the Luxor Casino twinkle back at your airplane as if to say, “hey, Sin City will see you now.” That’s if you believe Las Vegas is some measure of civilization, but to go further down that path would be to assume this travelogue is more philosophical than it could ever want to be.
The Luxor, like more than a few things from the nineties, resembles something else in a weird, love-it-and-hate-it kind of way. It’s a huge glass pyramid that could pass as a bigger brother to the clear one in Paris, France, nestled next to the Louvre, but just like movie sequels, this one ends up being more expensive, larger, and yet somehow less tasteful than what came before, at least on the outside.
Ominous PA announcements permeated the air: “unattended luggage will be confiscated and destroyed.” I wondered what they did with the unattended minors.
McCarran International Airport, where you’ll land a few minutes later, is itself a crash course in Vegas culture. I’ve been here just once, and it was with significant measures of turbulence causing my jetliner to nastily fumble it’s way onto the runway. Disembarking at the terminal, I ran into slot machines the minute I stepped off the jetway, shamelessly bolted into the floor and asking for your cash like mechanical panhandlers. I kid you not, here these are more commonplace than all other amenities, and when an American airport has more of something than rent-a-cops, you know you’re no longer on the West Coast.
Ominous PA announcements permeated the air: “unattended luggage will be confiscated and destroyed.” It was like I’d stepped into a dystopian John Carpenter movie, just utterances away from being told personal cremation services were available if desired (a’la Escape from New York). I wondered what they did with the unattended minors.
Once you filter your way down to the arrivals level of the airport, you’re greeted by an impressively empty space the length of a football field, every inch clad in marble — the only thing seemingly missing are election posters for Citizen Kane. I stood still and drank it all in, the expense not spared, the expansiveness yet pointlessness of the space, before being ushered on by more PA announcements, asking you on no uncertain terms to refrain from loitering here as well as anywhere else.
I think the moral is that McCarran airport doesn’t feel like it belongs in this world. Which is kind of an apt metaphor for the city it serves – it’s a transient, fantasy space in which you’re welcome just long enough to gamble, squander, or otherwise spend your money, after which time you’re viewed as a potential threat.
What the city lacks in apparent hospitality though, it makes up for in heat, and there is probably nothing that will prepare you for that. The second the sliding glass of the terminal doors open, molten air floods in, splashing against your skin and seeping into every unsecured seam of your clothing. At first, the air feels wet, but this sensation soon turns to dryness, something you don’t notice right away. That revelation comes some time after the forty-eighth hour of your stay, when, at some godforsaken hour where the night fades into morning, you rise like a zombie, dryly trying to find the nearest CVS that will take your sad, Canadian money in exchange for Vaseline to shove up your nostrils.
Quickly, I cut short my plans to walk the strip and surrounding areas to familiarize my whereabouts. Until now, I’d only known Las Vegas as the battleground where I rescued hostages in not one, but two Rainbow Six video games, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the in-game minimap wasn’t too far from reality. I thus instinctively strafed my way to the Riviera Hotel (which had not yet been imploded in 2014) stopping into random businesses along the way to make use of their air conditioning like level-ups.
The Riviera (or “Riv,” as they really, really wanted you to call it back then) was another rapid-fire lesson in Vegas norms. Approaching it from the street, seven (or is that fourteen) twinkling brass buttocks greeted me at the door; the statues for the resident topless showgirl routine, Crazy Girls. Ironically, the revue could at least lay claim to being an original source of entertainment in the hotel complex, as the other two resident acts were soundalike knockoffs of other more recognizable troupes – or tropes. Note the use of the word original, not to be confused with classy.
You see, instead of Chippendales, the Riv had “Men: The Experience,” which sounds a shade traumatic. Likewise, rather than hosting magic belonging to a certain Mindfreak of the Criss Angel variety (whose act lived a mile or so down south on the strip in, you guessed it, the Luxor) you could instead see a satisfactorily foreign-sounding Jan Rouven do his thing. I never saw any of these magic shows, but I’d guess the guaranteed attraction was watching your money instantly disappear at the box office.
The rollergirls … flooded the reception in various claddings of fishnet and denim, forming a lineup that snaked back and fourth three times upon itself, like a feminist Jormungand
The Riviera as a hotel proper, though, looked several decades older than even it’s late eighties renovation should have suggested. Blood-red carpet abounded on every flat surface, gilt trim fasted to the wall by the ton, cigarette smoke hanging low in the air of the casino floor, expelled from the weakening lungs of it’s elderly clientele. I downed a couple of one dollar beers, served in plastic beakers, and made my way deeper in to the building.
A roller-derby convention had gathered here for its ninth year, and once leaving behind the gamblers, trying to trade in their copious payouts of grey for silver, I immediately crossed entire generations, demographics, and even sexual identities. A giant inflatable roller skate the size of a minivan was anchored by the front desk, air compressor humming away, a white noise canvas for the colourful chatter of the rollergirls laid atop. They flooded the reception in various claddings of fishnet and denim, forming a lineup that snaked back and fourth three times upon itself, like a feminist Jormungand. If you’ve wondered why I found myself in Vegas, this was why.
Later that week, seeking a breath of fresh air from the scent of the derbies, I ventured north and south on the strip, indulging in the lax liquor laws that permit open containers of booze in public — truly the simplest pleasure Vegas has to offer — revisiting the haunts made famous in Diamonds are Forever, and They Came To Rob Las Vegas — Fremont Street in other words.
In doing so, I noticed something else that stuck with me, that the wildlife here looks truly out of place. Greasy, sweating pigeons hung out at the gas-stations like teen apathetics on a summer break, waiting desperately for the hydration of someone’s dropped slurpee or sno-cone. How these birds ever got here I’ll never know, and how they survived their pitiful existence I genuinely wondered.
Vegas claims to never sleep, but admittedly, it does. I found myself hungrily awake at 3 AM once, and ventured south, seeking fast food. I passed familiar places, wandered wide-eyed through arrays of unattended slot machines in the Wynn and Encore, row on row, twinkling like tombstones in carpeted cemeteries and continued. The only life you see now belongs to the few deadbeats still gambling, and the silent armies of custodians vacuuming, polishing, and banishing ashtrays full of expended cigarettes. And window-washers, rappelling down outdoor facades like spidermen, secreting webs of Windex onto the titanium panels of the Louis Vuitton boutique tucked between the glass stalks of the Cosmopolitan Hotel.
My days passed by quickly, and before long, the final evening arrived. I tried my luck at slots, starting with a five dollar bill, and won just a little.
Out of cash, an unable to afford further entertainment, I thought back to the flyby of the Luxor, and decided I should see this marvel of the modern world up close, before my time here was over. A desert storm, one not creditable to either Bush, marbled the skies with thunderclouds and dampened the air with dew-like rain, falling in warm little drops. I caught a monorail, and fled to drier places, huddling like a flea next to the hotel’s giant Sphynx mascot for shelter while readying my camera.
I didn’t regret going. The Luxor, as pastiche as it might be, is truly a sight to behold on the interior, as if it were a wondrous, cast-cement tribute to an Aliens or Blade Runner environ, one that feels less like a place of lodging as it does a waystation for great things. The pyramid, inverted and hollow inside, instantly makes you feel like you’ve been transported sideways to an alternate future. Find the right conference room, perhaps, and maybe you too can witness the merger going down between Weyland-Yutani and Tyrell Corp.
I shot poorly exposed photographs, and gazed up at the concave ceiling of the building in tired awe. Thunder sounded out as the rain pounded against the exterior, as if the storms of the Pacific Northwest had finally found their wayward son, and asked politely for my return.
So, fittingly, where it all began is where it all ended, a tidy conclusion to my travelogue. The next day I packed my bags and departed into clear skies, peering out the window of my plane as the Luxor twinkled back at me one final time, dejected with my betrayal and escape.
Reclining in my seat, I smirked a little, clutching in my jacket pocket, my fortune from the slot machine: a five dollar bill and a single cent.
The fantasy oasis shrunk meekly into the haze and vanished, like a strange dream does in the bright light of morning’s reality, gone, seemingly forever.
All photographs by the author.