It’s a long drive from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas, from the wilderness world to the land of fabrication. We’re up early and heading south to pick up Route 66 again, then turn to head west through Seligman and Kingman. At Seligman, birthplace of the Mother Road, there’s a long and lonely train strung along the horizon, and a cowboy in a pickup turning on to the range by a gateway. We stick to the freeway while the old route bumps off to our right. There’s a camper van parked in isolation with two waifs, Thelma and Louise, in halter tops and shorts posed on the roof staring off into the shimmering distance.
Kingman is off the highway but doesn’t originally reveal the tacky charm I had anticipated. We’re lost in the fast food outskirts before finding a Burger King off what could be the Naas Road Industrial estate where we pore over the maps again. This is always a good way to attract an American. A man folds up his mobile phone mid sentence to come, unbidden, to our assistance. With his help we’re back on Route 66, cruising by the amazing pink motels of ‘historic’ Kingman before picking up the highway again towards Las Vegas.
We head north on 93 with dust devils dancing off the road to the sounds of Sheryl Crow and Michelle Shocked on the stereo. Isolated trailers and shacks pin down handkerchief plots of minor cultivation in the arid landscape. We rise and rise until we come to the cooling variety of a maze of black rock hills. The troopers welcome us to Nevada and when we come to the edge of the plateau, there’s Lake Mead in its impossible cool blue, a fake lake held in the heat by the miracle of the Hoover Dam. Constructed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, it is surely one of the engineering marvels of the world, transforming the desert beyond into an Eden, of sorts.
The car is now recording one hundred and ten degrees and outside the souvenir store the heat blasts at us as from an open oven. A wiry old-timer plays lock-hard in the narrow car park. British or Australian, he loves the heat but for us it’s life in the oven with the thermostat flipped. A meaty black family from New York must be shedding pounds passing over the dam from Arizona into Nevada, but they’re permanently happy with it all. Golden rest rooms offer brief respite from the heat before we head off into the desert.
There are glimpses of Lake Mead against the desiccated landscape, then there’s a sudden pulse in the traffic and we’re flying into the Las Vegas freeways. Oran navigates us well through some tense moments and dizzy junctions but pretty soon we’re heading in city traffic towards the strip. We do an impressive swerve in the empty forecourt of Caesar’s Palace before finding the right route to the multi story. Then we’re bound for the gilded lobby of the hotel. Our room is very impressive with jacuzzi in the bathroom and telephone in the toilet. We can see the Eiffel Tower from our window and more of the unreliable skyline of Las Vegas.
Time for a swim to take off the desert heat. I could get to like the pool at Caesar’s Palace. You lounge there and call a barely clad waitress to bring you an overpriced, but well chilled and welcome, beer. Mind you, the prat at the next lounger has decided to try out his chat-up lines on her which she attempts to fend off with chillingly white, but all too polite smiles. My beer is warming.
Out on the street it’s hotter than you expect out-on-the-street to be. The heat brings a peculiar stillness to the air and with the banks of neon it feels like walking through a vast arcade. There are fine water sprays on the street to give some humidity to the desert air, but already my Mick Jagger lips are in need of a remould. Further on up and we’re on the Rialto bridge, with gondolas waiting expectantly. We stroll up the strip in the evening to see the pirate pantomime at the Treasure Island. I thought the desert heat dissipated at night but if anything it’s hotter and heavier in the milling crowds.
Las Vegas is not a place you either love or loathe – you can do both. It is terribly fake. The sights of the world, the Eiffel Tower, Venice, New York, ring hollow as hardboard and will be gone again in a few seasons; but it’s fun. There is beauty in imitation and glitz has its own romance. The Belaggio and Cesar’s Palace provide their own version of grandeur and perfection at a reasonable price and, for a night or two, you can maybe feel like a high-roller or an elegant courtier.
We take the monorail on the second day and sit beside a Colorado couple who are regulars here. They are from Grand Junction – before I die, I gotta see that town- and they recommend the original strip but it’s a bit far for us. Historical Las Vegas! We walk back through baking sunshine with occasional detours into the various casinos. Circus is tacky and weird, and it echoes some childhood feeling of Fossett’s, or Bray in the fifties. And besides, herself can attempt to catapult rubber chickens into a pot. Another casino with a western theme, vaguely nineteen seventy-ish is getting ready to shut down. We eat at a chrome diner and try to cool down a little.
The pool beckons again, a better place to while away the hours than in the relentless ching ching of the interior. We splash out on the Caesar’s Palace buffet tonight and this really is a meal you can shake hands with in the dark. I dream of it still but to describe it is probably too close to food porn – eat your heart out Homer Simpson!
The Boss and Davin continue on down to Luxor tonight, but Oran and I double back at New York. I’ve seen as much of the world as I can possibly take in forty eight hours. Hispanic men flick cards with sexual services all along the strip, while families and couples gawp at the Belagio fountains and the neon show goes on and on into the night.
Later, I make my own way through Caesar’s Palace casino into the wee small hours. The arcade shops are all closed, more like a mall now than the surreal, almost Italian city it has been impersonating. Some still gather at the Trevi fountain but more are pulled towards the blackjack and roulette tables. If I wanted to be distracted I could take my place at a table where lingerie clad croupiers would take my chips and maybe spin a wheel or two, or I could just play it quietly from the bar, where it’s quiet and almost empty.