Sunday, September 27, 2015

To the Desert


In March and April, 1971, author Hunter S. Thompson and prominent Mexican-American political activist and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta took two trips to Las Vegas, Nevada for two assignments: writing photo captions for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's coverage of the Mint 400 and covering the National District Attorneys Association's Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs for ROLLING STONE.  Thompson's experiences—injected with a dash of gonzo journalism and psychedelics—became the great counterculture novel FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, chronicling the demise of 60's peace and love hippy sensibilities and foreshadowing the excess and greed of the late 70's and 80's.

The decadent and flashy novel replayed through my head as the Southwest plane sliced the cool and cloudless afternoon and touched down onto Nevada soil—my first sojourn to Vegas.  The tan, sandy landscape contrasts the green and wet climates I normally inhabit.  My lips are already chapping.

I am traveling with Adelle, my ghoulfriend, and Huxley, a plush hippo we purchased at Disney's Animal Kingdom during a Thanksgiving excursion.  Plush hippos are only capable of four things: sleeping all day, snuggling, traveling to exotic lands, and eating people.  Today, Huxley was in good spirits, so the other flyers were safe as we exited the plane and entered the desert kingdom.

Slot machines thrust their hungry hands in front of newsstands and bathrooms; their electronic hum denies soda dispensers and fast food outlets a chance to speak.  Several air-weary souls are already feeding the slots dollars which they happily slurp.  Slot machines seldom choke on cold hard cash, especially when the bills wear a few zeros for badges.

We hop a shuttle to the Luxor, passing several seedy motels before hitting the edge of the strip and getting dropped off at the Egyptian pyramid that would be our home for the next few days.

The Luxor's architecture is beautiful, a magical blend of ancient and modern.  Egyptian deities adorn the walls, watching mortals kneel before swank bars and neon salvation.  Starbucks and Chris Angel, gift shops and poker tables, restaurants and exhibits—an entire city filled with everything you could possibly need or desire confined within the towering edifice.  My first glimpse at how easily Las Vegas molds reality.

Techno hangs in the air while we wait for check in, throbbing out of sync with the dings and alarms of the slots.  Where New Orleans is a city rooted in live bands and jazz, Vegas is an electronica mecca.  Ads for world class DJs like Tiesto, Benny Benassi, and David Guetta flash across screens everywhere you look.  Already Las Vegas is showing me how deep its relationship with electricity runs, how insistent it is on being modern and cutting edge.

The front desk clerk is deep-south friendly, and explains that although our room is on a lower level of the pyramid, we have a great view of the pool and we can upgrade to a higher spot between 11 a.m and 3 p.m. the following morning.  After opting for the late check out on Monday, we get our door keys and ride escalator 2B to our room, throw open the curtains and behold our amazing view of the pool.

Not what we expected, but we didn't travel to Vegas to hang out at the room, perving out watching people splash around in their swimwear.  I've already lived in Florida.

The room is nice.  Huxley takes to it right away.

In the bathroom, we have soap that looks like a pyramid.  I instantly make it a mission to collect as many as these as possible.

We take to the strip, beginning next door with the Excalibur for dinner at Buca di Beppo were we have fried calamari and a pasta dish Huxley picked out.  The food was excellent, and our waitress was top notch, turning us onto a free brownie dessert for filling out a survey online.

After dinner, we barely had enough time to race to the forecourt of Caesar's Palace where we caught a performance of ABSINTHE, a risqué vaudeville/variety show featuring acrobats, low-brow comedy, tightrope walkers, tap dancers, and burlesque dancers under a striped Spiegeltent.

We were VIP, so we sat in the third row and Adelle and Huxley sipped complimentary champagne from plastic flutes while the lights dimmed and the fog machines kicked on.  As cigar box girls peddled absinthe cocktails, a disembodied voice filled the room and asked us to not photograph the performance, so I don't have evidence of the following events.  We were also warned that there would be vulgar language and jokes, so I settled in my fold-out chair and hoped for the worse.

The first act featured a man stacking and climbing chairs until he stood high in the tent's apex, occasionally sliding one of the legs at the bottom of the stack off the edge of the table he was building on.  This was followed by our first burlesque act of the evening: the Green Fairy, a scantily-clad vixen wearing green, feathered wings, singing while swinging high above our heads.  After an act featuring four Russians balancing on each other, the host of the show, the Gazillionaire, and his assistant, Penny Pibbets, dove into a raunchy stand-up routine that singled out audience members and curicified them for being too sexy, too ugly, too young, too old, too gay, too republican—the works.  No one was safe, and I found myself wishing Huxley was large enough to hide behind.  Their wrath never focused on me, and soon the stage was filled with a striptease-within-a-giant-balloon act, more acrobatics, roller skate ballet, amazing tap dancers, and a tightrope act, all interlaced with silver tongue humor and beautiful performers.

We left the show and managed to catch the dancing fountain show from windows in a shopping corridor linking Caesar's Palace to the Bellagio.  In this same hallway, we saw an outfit worn by the great Nick Cave.

Back on the strip, the lights are so bright they blot out the stars, and the complex walkways heard people over the multi-lane road bisecting the sparkling Las Vegas Boulevard.  

This maze of allows visitors access to all the hot spots, each casino its own glitzy world distracting you while slipping two sticky fingers in your pocket so effortlessly that handing over your money is a legitimate pleasure.   

That's the great con of Vegas.  While New Orleans scam artists come to you in the form of street hustlers selling strands of broken Mardi Gras beads or betting five dollars they can tell you where you got your shoes, Vegas swipes your wallet the moment you cross the welcome sign.  Food is expensive, and there is no shortage of shows, shopping, drinking, and gambling to indulge every whim.  Going in with that knowledge, however, prepares the visitor to spend…and enjoy.

I begin searching for a green plastic Las Vegas visor like Hunter S. Thompson wore during interviews when discussing his novel.  In and out of several tourist trap gift shops, I find the visor, but not the color I'm seeking.

By the time we returned to the Luxor, the arid night has left my skin feeling like a salted slug.  I know with all the walking I should be sweating, but not a bead of perspiration appears on my arms or brow.  I'm a thirsty creature by nature (I assume this has something to do with a wager I lost to Tantalus), and I found that unquenchable impulse exponentially enhanced by the atmosphere's lack of humidity.  We take some water and fall asleep peacefully in the comfortable beds.

The next day, I got us lunch from Johnny Rockets at Excalibur while Adelle got dressed.  As I waited for the food, the restaurant filled with Kool and the Gang's "Celebration," and four soda jerks came from behind the counter and danced to the music.  All but one of the girls really got into the dancing; only one seemed embarrassed, and I sensed by her off-time awkwardness that she was new to the gig.

After lunch, we went back down to the front desk and moved our room.  This time, we landed on the 18th floor.  Alas, our view of the pool was gone, but it was well-replaced.

We moved our stuff and explored the Luxor's lobby where they were showcasing Bodies as well as a titanic exhibit.  Adelle and I found the chapel and posed for a photo in order to execute a hoax on our loved ones back home.

Posting on Facebook, without any comment or explanation, we sat back, licked our lips, and waited for responses.  Feeding our pleasure, many people congratulated us, liked the pics, and my phone started ringing.  Several friends in California offered to drive out to Vegas and celebrate with us.  Glorious success!

We hit the strip again, this time starting with Mandalay Bay where we visited the aquarium.  

 Not as impressive as the aquarium on the New Orleans Riverwalk, there was still a lot to see.

I notice the Las Vegas strip is clean, like Disneyworld spotless.  

 No graffiti adorns the walls.  No plastic neon green Hand Grenade yards to stumble over.  New York, Rome, Paris—all well-kempt.  Well, except for the bums.  There's plenty of them, but they seemed a little less aggressive than the khaki dogs begging for spare change and leftovers in the French Quarter and the Marigny.

By the time we finished, Adelle's mom, Anna, had arrived from South Florida.

We regrouped at the Luxor, got her into the room, and then hit an Irish Pub.  Anna had soup and wine while Adelle had a dark beer.  I've been abstaining from alcohol, so I had water while we talked about our lives.

We wandered around, checking out casinos and making our way to the heart of the strip where we ate at Rainforest Café.  

Our waiter was on point.  He had us laughing and told us a lot about the strip's history, including how the original MGM burned down in the worst resort fire in Las Vegas history, killing 87 people, and then was subsequently replaced by Bally's because several cultures will not stay on sites where great tragedies and loss of life occurred.  He also clued us onto the location of the largest chocolate fountain in the world, at the Bellagio's Jean-Philippe Patisserie on the promenade of the Spa Tower.

After dinner, Anna retired to the Luxor.  Adelle and I attended a production of EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL at Planet Hollywood's V Theater.

Again, pictures were not permitted, but our host let us snap a quick pic of the him and the stage before showtime.

The show was excellent.  It was a lot of fun, and the production did a good job of showing the audience a great time.  We'd purchased tickets in the Splatter Zone, special seating in the first three rows surrounding the thrust stage where the actors and stagehands could drench the audience in fake blood.  During the intermission, one of the players came out and made sure the white shirts signed by the cast that came along with Splatter Zone tickets were properly doused in the warm, cherry-smelling blood.  Using dangling intestines as a macabre soaker, everyone in the Splatter Zone could not hide from his wrath.  

Afterwards we were granted the opportunity to meet and greet the entire cast.

This show is a must-see for horror fans, and Splatter Zone tickets are a necessity.

More gift shops and no trace of a green Las Vegas visor.  But I did see a dinosaur.

The next day, we got an early-ish start.  

While snapping photos of the sheer opulence of Caesar's Plalce, I got separated from Adelle, Anna, and Huxley. 

I wandered around until I found this statue of David.

Adelle called, and we hooked back up around the poker tables before taking brunch at Gorden Ramsey's Pub and Grill.  Fish and chips, lamb burger and fries—another fantastic meal.  For dessert, we shared red velvet and sea salt caramel cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory.  I sipped cappuccino while we waited for the moving statue show. 

We visited a Picasso exhibit at the Bellagio showcasing 19 lithographs, 13 linocuts, 8 paintings, and three rare plates.  The lithographs were lined up along the wall so you could see each impression progress as Picasso moved forward in the printing process.  The paintings present focused on his lovers.  Included in the exhibit were Femme Etendue Lisant, Femme au Chignon et au Chapeau, and Femme au Collier Jaune.  While looking at the painting, I listened to an electronic curator, an iPod filled with information about Picasso and his creative process, each track lining up with individual works.

We found an area of the Bellagio dedicated to fall, and spirits of the forest.  Although manmade, the pagan effigies radiated with energy, traces of folk magic dancing in the citadel of excess.

The chocolate fountain Jean-Philippe Patisserie proved most impressive.   

Window shopping the pastries, I discovered an edible hockey mask from the Friday the 13th franchise as well as other horror-themed confections. 

Following the strip all the way to Circus Circus, I find the green visor in a store that could have been on Front Beach Road in Panama City Beach had all the merchandise been sand dollars, starfish, and seashells instead of lucky dice, ashtrays, and plastic slot machines.  Apparently, no matter what city you're in, sunblock, beach towels, and postcards are essential when stocking for the non-natives.

Anna parted ways with us, heading back to the room via cab.

Circus Circus is not what I expected.   

In the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas movie, one of my favorite scenes unfolds in this casino.  Indeed, when entering, there is a net with people juggling and performing other circus acts, but the infamous carousel bar is nowhere to be found.  A little digging and Adelle discovers that a set was built for the film.  Despite this revelation, the casino is not a disappointment.  We find an amusement park and ride one of the roller coasters after shooting at an electronic haunted house.

They were setting up their Halloween attraction, Fright Dome, but the props were in their infancy.  Looks promising from what we did see.

We hit the old strip: Downtown Vegas, Fremont Street.   

Exiting the cab, I felt as if I'd finally come home. 

 Where tourists who come to New Orleans tend to find what they expected to see on Frenchman Street with its jazz clubs, bohemians, and brass bands going to town in the streets, Fremont Street fulfilled what Vegas was in my mind.

Old school slot machines, people partying in the streets, hookers, graffiti, and marijuana smoke hanging in the air—this was a part of town that felt natural.  Overhead, giant LED screens arched across the street.  Music and images danced like fire above us as bands played on the side of the road.

 Every hour, the casino lights darken and the LED ceiling comes alive with music and images.  I managed to catch a show featuring cats.

Between us the neon sky, zip lines allowed thrill-seeker s to glide over the crowds.

We wandered past the electronic haven, and found a seedier part of the strip.  Here a giant metal praying mantis shot fire from its antenna and lured us into a shopping center made entirely of shipping containers.

Catching up with old friends from Club La Vela, we played Wheel of Fortune slot machines in a casino where foxy blackjack dealers danced over their tables, finishing up the evening by listening to an 80's cover band playing in the street.  Not only did they look the part, they sounded wonderful.

Our last full day was spent wandering through the casinos.

Adelle and Anna took a nap in the afternoon.  When I tried waking and wiggling away from Adelle, she pulled me closer and called me her heater.  That evening, I took Adelle to Chin Chin in New York New York, and we shared sushi, General Tso's chicken, and green curry noodles.  There isn't any original local cuisine in Las Vegas, but the food, although expensive, was perfect.  Coming from a city that has incredible food in every restaurant you set foot in, I was not disappointed.  

After dinner we rode a roller coaster that weaved through the New York skyline and explored Paris, marveling at its massive halls and intricate architecture.  

Spending some time observing street performers and exploring gift shops, we watched the Bellagio fountain one last time.

Before checking out the following morning, we ate burgers at the House of Blues and discovered an area set aside for an 80's party happening after our visit.

We packed our bags, said ciao to the city of lights, and hopped a plane home to the swamp.

Although I found the green visor—"a move in literature," I told Anna—my trip was not the drug-fueled insanity Hunter S. Thompson experienced.  I respected him the only way I knew how: by making the journey totally sober.  If you don’t take the past and make it your own, you're nothing but an echo.

Vegas was fun.

It's a land where Michael Jackson sings and dances almost nightly at Mandalay Bay, and down the road Sinatra still croons with a glass of bourbon in his hand.  You meet Elvis more than a dozen times, and once or twice he may be in motorized wheel chair waving an American flag and asking for loose change.  Well-dressed men on the street corners slap cards in their hands, offering you discounted admission to strip shows and escort services.  DJs mix CDs in clothes stores.  A trip around the world takes as long as your feet can walk.

Vegas reeks of excess, greed, and ambition.  The neon lights and slot machines are works of art, and like a moth to a flame, once you rest eyes on them, there is no escape.  I'll be back soon, Las Vegas.  Next time with more jingle in my pocket and more time on my hands.  It's not home, but there is no staying away.

I can't help myself; I'm feeling lucky.

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