Everything you’ve heard about Las Vegas is true. Stuck in the middle of the Nevada desert, an overgrown relic from Roosevelt’s New Deal, the city is a neon-lit, air-conditioned oasis; a huge, glitzy cubic zirconia set in sand. The Strip, at least, is exactly as it looks in the movies, all fluorescent lights, tits and limousines, people on corners hawking night clubs and whores, and feathery showgirls who’ll pose for a dollar. Walkways connect one sumptuous hotel to another, all of which boast their own casinos, nightclubs, bars, restaurants and anything else that might increase their slice of Vegas’ $6 billion-a-year pie. To differentiate themselves from one another, almost all Strip hotels are extravagantly themed: Ancient Rome, complete with miniature Colosseum, lives on at Caesar’s Palace; a half-size replica of Eiffel’s masterpiece towers over the casino at Paris, and our own hotel, the New York New York, boasts its own roller-coaster. You can spend days just touring the hotels: most of them feature unusual boutiques and attractions to lure in punters. The most famous is the Bellagio’s fountain show, set in an eight-acre artificial lake, which sends elaborately choreographed 400-foot jets of water into the air throughout the night, but the best was the pirate show at Treasure Island. Set on a full-scale pirate ship in front of the hotel, a troupe of all-dancing buxom sirens kidnap a chiselled young pirate and lip-sync their way through twenty minutes of cringe-making innuendo (“Bring your salty seamen into my cove!”) It was both hilarious and awful, but bizarrely we were the only ones laughing…
We also went to the MGM to see its famous lions, apparently all descended from the one that roars at the beginning of all MGM movies. When a brisk scour of the building yielded zero lions, we were told by the concierge that they were no longer in residence after one of them, presumably fed up with the hordes of fleshy tourists gawking at it, went berserk and savaged its keeper in front of everyone. We looked up the video on YouTube afterwards but nobody got their face eaten or anything so it isn’t that interesting.
The New York New York, Las Vegas
If you have ever been to the United States you will appreciate how filthy-dreadful the food is. Many people are horribly overweight, but really there are nowhere near as many as there should be. The average American in constantly bombarded with adverts for things that make arteries go clang: French fries, drippy buns, deep-fried pastries fossilised in sugar. Obviously Vegas is a bit special because, well, it’s Vegas, but where in the UK can you buy a dozen Krispy Kremes and a bagful of freshly popped jalapeño kettle corn at 4:45am? Nowhere, which is why we could be found eating ourselves sick after a Friday night out – quite literally in Maxine’s case, who was putting in some serious face-time with the porcelain throne the next morning.
While Max was choking up some curiously cinnamony stomach bile, Merce and I went down to the casino to piss away some of our holiday money. Despite elaborate fantasies of winning half a million bucks on the 25c machines, I’m not much of a gambler. We were too big a pair of pussies to sit down at the proper tables and play craps or roulette so we just spent our quarters on the slot machines, which require all the brainpower of a lobotomised tomato. I always thought a small amount of strategy might be required to ‘hold’ the reels at certain points, but that isn’t the case at all. You just sit there waiting for your arse to seize up and your right arm to either get a repetitive strain injury or beef up disproportionately like those crazy-dedicated world arm-wrestling champions. In fact, most of the machines don’t even require you to physically pull the lever yourself any more, which means even a quadriplegic with a short stick and a good set of teeth could play if he wanted to.
“How are you doing that?!” I asked Merce frustratedly, jamming my hand against the buttons for the seventeenth consecutive losing spin.
“Just lucky I guess,” she said, cashing out a $17 return on a $1 investment. “Ooh! I think I’m up nearly $30 now.”
At least I was getting my money’s worth in free drinks. The casinos are staffed with scantily-clad waitresses who wander around serving players complimentary beverages to keep them gambling, even on the small stakes machines. I looked around while I waited for Merce’s infuriating winning streak to ebb. It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday and the casino was a hotchpotch of dead-eyed gaming veterans mechanically pulling their levers, middle-aged Californian weekenders and young men with horrible shirts and horrible moustaches already betting recklessly on the blackjack tables. Occasionally you’d hear a whooping from the depths of the casino. No hardcore gamblers yet though, they seemed to come out at night. Not that you can tell when it’s night-time, the casinos are eerily time-less. They keep them bright and windowless so you can’t tell how many hours you’ve whiled away in their pits. I wished I’d brought a watch.
“I’ve just lost $2 in a row, I think I’m going to go cash out,” said Merce, one of nature’s risk-takers.
“Wait up,” I said, sucking down the dregs of a free G&T and trying not to smack up the bitch who’d just won $123.50 on the thieving bastard slot machine I’d just vacated.
Later that evening I came up from the frozen margarita stand that was exactly 32 paces and a 16 second lift ride from my side of the bed. A man of the overenthusiastic and horribly moustachioed variety was lying prone in front of our door, emitting a faint whiff of weed and wee. I stepped over him.
“Maxine, there’s a man sleeping outside our room. He smells a bit…medicinal.” We were on the 29th floor, miles from the elevator. God knows how he got there.
“Ooh! We should go and take a picture!”
We gave him a bit of a prod but couldn’t get the guy to move, so I called down to reception.
“Guest services. What can I do for you today?”
“An inebriated gentleman has passed out in our corridor and we can’t wake him up. He also looks like he might need some new trousers.”
“No problem,” said the concierge breezily, as though this sort of thing happened all the time. “Security will be right up.”
A few minutes later we opened the door to see what was going on but security had already been and gone, whisking the drunk and his piss and pot odour away in the blink of an eye.
* * *
On Sunday we hired a car and drove to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, nearly 300 miles from the faux skyscrapers and pint-sized Statue of Liberty of our hotel. In America, where the fuzz are pretty hot on speeding and the average limit is a soul-destroying 60mph, even on the big flat roads, this was a ten hour round trip. And we were hopelessly inexperienced driving an automatic car on the wrong side of the road, trying our best to adhere to a bevy of strange and un-signposted rules about right turns and school buses and fuck knows what else. We also knew from the telly that the breaking of any of these rules may well lead to swift retribution from an overweight and heavily armed member of the highway patrol, possibly by way of a sharp rap to the head with the butt of a handgun. This was of particular concern to Merce, who despite being able to reliably untangle the linguistic clusterfuck of the Geordie dialect after just three years at the University of Newcastle, was completely unable to comprehend the American accent after a lifetime of Hollywood movies and Friends.
Although we managed the trip without any speeding tickets or police brutality, the journey was a long and boring one. America is vast and relatively sparsely populated, so its roads are very long and very straight. Occasionally we’d see a billboard or lone trailer, presumably the home of some mutant cannibal of the desert, but overall the drive was just really dull. Fuck this road trip lark, you really haven’t known proper boredom until you’ve sat staring at miles and miles of sweet FA for five hours at a time. “It’ll be worth it though,” I thought to myself as I fed Maxine cheesy wotsits the size of a man’s thumb as she drove. The Grand Canyon was something I’d always wanted to see, one of the greatest wonders of the natural world. Carved into solid rock over two billion years by the untamed might of the Colorado River, the Canyon is testament to the awesome force of Mother Nature, manifested as a magnificent 277-mile vista of rugged landscape for us mere mortals to enjoy. It has five stars of Trip Advisor. I was expecting to be awed and inspired, captivated even, by this unique and beautiful natural phenomenon. It wasn’t a road trip; it was a pilgrimage.
You know what we saw, when we finally rolled out of the car five hours later?
Absolutely fucking nothing.
I am not joking. “Where’s the Canyon?!” I frantically asked the shuttle driver, whose unfortunate duty it was that day to ferry dismayed tourists from one mist-filled vantage point to another.
“Werrrrrl,” said the driver, in the tones of someone who couldn’t give less of a shit that we’d just driven five hours to see fog. “The visibility ain’t good.”
“What?! What? But it’s taken us ages to get here!”
“It’s a strange thing,” he said chewily. “It’s awlmost awlways clear, but today the fog’s gorn an’ filled it righ’ up. It were clear yest’rday, it were clear the day afore yest’rday, an’ it’s prob’bly gonna be clear again t’mor-“
“Stop, stop!” I said, on the verge of tears. “Do you think it’ll clear up at all this afternoon?”
“Who knows. Didn’t y’all check the weather forecast afore you came?”
The next day, when we’d dealt with our disappointment and unanimously agreed that Mother Nature was in fact a sour-faced, slack-twatted old whore, we decided to go to a breakfast buffet. Now, you can find good old-fashioned, gut-swelling, belt-loosening American food anywhere in the country, but Vegas in particular is famous for its buffets. ‘All you can eat’ – and that’s a challenge, not a figure of speech – is big business in Sin City, and God knows I can’t be trusted anywhere that invites diners to eat unlimited syrup, bacon, pancakes and cheesecake until they might conceivably pop. That very British determination to get one’s money’s-worth combined with our innate aversion to waste is a powerful and dangerous mix. And at a Vegas buffet, where a steady stream of staff remove and replace food to ensure a constant supply of hot, fresh options for fickle tourists, pretty much everything is potential waste.
Well, it was a disaster. Even with a careful strategy, a compulsory fruit course and super-human restraint we felt sick for the rest of the day. On the way out we passed a couple of homeless people sleeping rough on the walkways. The Southern-fried chicken with maple syrup for breakfast may not have been my brightest idea, but passing the people with cardboard signs asking for food after a morning’s worship at one of these great temples of gluttony was even more nauseating. I felt like an arsehole, and the gurgling signs coming from my stomach as it tried to process all the shit I’d just thrown down it was not helping matters. Perhaps it was karma.
You know what though? We didn’t eat for a full day after that breakfast, but there are some people who will pig out at them for every meal. There is actually a ticket you can buy called the ‘Buffet of Buffets’, where for $60 you can eat yourself into a stupor at restaurants across the Strip over a 24-hour period. And it’s very popular. There are people out there who like to eat all they can three – or more! – times a day. It blows my fucking mind.
But overall, Vegas is amazing. You’d die there eventually if you stayed too long: of sleep deprivation, diabetes, liver poisoning, bankruptcy or – possibly – venereal disease, but for a few days the Strip’s toxic wonderland is a fabulous diversion from tedious things like work and council tax; a glittering, fantastic holiday from real.
If you go to that bastard Canyon though, check the weather forecast first, yeah? It’s a long way to go for fog.