I had thought of including the journal of the entirety of my trip to Vegas and Los Angeles with Pip. But on reflection, what happened in LA stays in LA.
I see no reason to not share my Vegas memories though!
Monday 24th September 2012
Our trip to the US gets off to the worst possible start with a drive to Heathrow that takes two hours instead of fifty minutes. It’s pissing down, and the M25 is clogged with lorries. We find the off-site parking and marvel at the inefficiency of the check-in system. I’m ready for my pint of Guinness by the time we actually enter the airport. It helps the breakfast slip down. It’s the second restaurant we try, since we sit at a table in another and are ignored by several members of staff for five minutes until I grow impatient and snatch my coat off the back of the chair. All I hope is that reaching the US will give us a temporary reprieve from the usual shitty British customer service.
We’ve brought the wrong plug points with us too. They’re for European sockets. Frustratingly I had the right ones in my hand earlier in the morning but neither of us double-checked and we’d guessed incorrectly. Another purchase and expense that should have been unnecessary.
Things start to improve when we arrive at our departure gate. I’m reading a Doctor Who target novelisation – Malcolm Hulke’s ‘Doomsday Weapon’, for the first time in about two decades. I tweet about it, copying in Katy Manning, and she effusively replies! Pip is insulted to hear that it’s made my holiday.
The first leg of the flight is surprisingly comfortable. I have a real problem with flying, in that the endlessly recycled thin air invariably makes me ill. To compound matters, I’m a tall man, and my femurs (the longest bones in the human body to begin with) are proportionately much longer than average. On every flight I ever take, I seem to end up sitting behind a diminutive woman who has oceans of space but who nevertheless insists on shoving her seat right back into my face the second the no-smoking sign is extinguished. This is never done apologetically, nor after politely asking if I mind (I do), and invariably ends up in a row that requires a steward to arbitrate, since the reclined seat instantly cuts off the blood supply from the knees down and makes using my food tray as a writing desk an impossibility. If I had my way aeroplane seats wouldn’t recline at all. It’s the only way to stop the terminally selfish from essentially suffocating me for hours at a stretch.
All the seats on this plane were economy plus (which we hadn’t paid for – bonus). This meant that when the seat in front inevitably reclined, my knees were unencumbered and I could enjoy the flight in peace.
It was thus with optimism that we arrived at Chicago, four hours before our connection to Las Vegas. This was to prove short-lived as it meant clearing customs on the way through. Rounding a corner, we arrived in a corridor full of hundreds of people standing unevenly in line. There was no signage or official to tell us what the situation is. After a few minutes one finally appears, marshalling non-US citizens to one side of the corridor and US citizens and green card holders on the other (he had a strange habit of dropping the ‘n’ in ‘green’, leading me to wonder what was so special about the Greeks until I figured it out). The queue for US citizens moves swiftly and efficiently, but after we’ve been in Chicago for an hour and seen nothing more than the drab confines of a corridor we start to worry about making our connection.
A middle-aged, slightly portly official with an ill-advised moustache appears from behind an ‘authorised personnel only’ door. He whistles, pushes the cap to the back of his head, and mutters with heavy irony;
“Welcome to America.”
His little quip (timed to perfection, which made me suspect he wheels it out on a regular basis) causes a ripple of uneasy laughter. He then adds that if we think the queue is bad in the corridor, we should wait until we’re round the corner. Others laugh, but somehow I don’t think he’s joking.
After two hours we’ve inched forward maybe twenty feet. The only officials who appear are there to herd us to the far side of the corridor and not to answer questions or concerns. There’s no explanation as to what the hold-up is, and many people are becoming frantic about making impending connections.
I make the inevitable comparison to the road to Auschwitz, which Pip misunderstands to mean I’m comparing how we’re being treated to the inside of a concentration camp. My point is more subtle: disempowering people by treating them like criminals for no reason, keeping them in long, unmoving lines for hours without end, starving them of basic amenities (we’ve endured an eleven-hour flight and are tired, thirsty and desperate for the loo) and withholding all information is exactly how the Nazis treated their prisoners prior to shepherding them onto trains, and it’s appalling that such behaviour is replicated in a civilised country.
Becoming desperate, Pip and I shed our English personas and indulge in a spot of queue-jumping. It’s less than ninety minutes before our connection. Despair hits in when we round the corner and realise the man with the moustache wasn’t joking – we’re not even half-way along the queue.
Catching our connection is now an impossibility. Neither of us is in any mood to bow to the disgruntled folks behind who moan about queue jumpers, and we slip into the next queue that snakes through tunnels of ribbon cordons a good few hundred people and several hours before we should. One diminutive woman patrols the lines, ordering people to the back of the queue if she spots them queue jumping, reminding me of the dinner line from school days. Presumably the budget won’t stretch to electrified fences, machine guns and searchlights.
When we can finally see the customs desks we realise at once what the hold-up is. Of the twenty or so available desks, only around half is staffed. The bulk of the queue comprises large families of Chinese, who take about half an hour each to process. They wait their turns patiently and in good humour, sharing jokes with one another and enjoying the thrill of being in America. Their bonhomie is, to put it mildly, irritating, and my imagination is besieged with violent thoughts.
When we finally reach the front of the queue it’s our turns to be interrogated by the less-than-hospitable customs officers. Mine is undeniably a local; the swept-back hair and Chicago accent unmistakable. He begins the grilling; interrogating me as to what possible reason I could have for having the audacity to land on US soil.
“Holiday,” I tell him, trying my best not to sound sarcastic. My fingerprints are scanned.
The phone on his desk rings and he grumpily answers it without looking at me. I stand there like a lemon whilst he yells down the phone before slamming it down on the receiver. He turns his irate gaze upon me.
“You ever yell at your colleagues?” he asks.
“Absolutely. Sometimes it’s the only way to get them to do what I want,” I answer, matching him for deadpan.
He seems to like my response and cracks a smile, then airily stamps my passport and temporary VISA and tosses them back in my general direction.
“Enjoy your stay,” he says, already gesturing the next person forward.
So long as it doesn’t get any worse than this, I think to myself.
Pip’s experience has been less surreal, but before we can chat we need to sort out getting to Vegas. By the time we collect our baggage (which is ridiculous, considering we’re taking a connecting flight) our scheduled flight, if it’s on time, had left ten minutes ago. But thankfully flights are never on time, are they?
“I’m sorry, that flight to Las Vegas left ten minutes ago,” the slightly chubby United Airlines employee cheerily informs us.
“Christ in a canoe,” I mutter.
“Let me do the talking,” Pip wisely intervenes.
Our lady scours her system, pursing lips and slight shakes of the head signifiers that we should prepare to suck up bad news.
“All the flights to Las Vegas tonight are fully booked. There’s two available seats on this one,” she says, showing us a time. I have no idea what time it even is any more.
“How long is the wait?” I ask.
“Ten hours,” she tells me.
She can detect by the Incredible Hulk-like change in my previously demure exterior that I am not going to take this news lying down. I launch into a diatribe about the way we’ve been treated, and that it’s hardly the customer’s fault. I end with dark mutterings about informing our insurance company.
Her fingers dance like fraught ballerinas over the keyboard and within a few minutes she has secured us two seats on a flight to Vegas that leaves in four hours. Pip thanks her profusely. I am slightly more reserved, but she has won me around nevertheless.
We find the drop-off point for our baggage. This is a stationary carousel staffed by two Hispanic men who are chatting to one another, one casually leaning a heavy boot upon somebody’s luggage in order to support his relaxed elbow. They are surrounded by a few dozen suitcases.
“Can we leave these with you?” I ask.
One of them breaks off their conversation momentarily to airily tell me to just leave them with the rest of the pile.
I convince myself that we’ll have seen the last of our luggage.
Stopping to cope with the appallingly sign-posted corridors, we nevertheless find our way to a monorail that takes us to the correct terminal for our connection. One of our fellow countrymen is regaling a family of Americans with stories of passing through Chicago. He says that this is his fourth business trip to the States, always going via Chicago, and that he now has a 100% record of missing connections. Apparently they joke about it in his office. The Americans say, “Oh my” a lot and shake their heads sadly, wondering why Obama doesn’t sort it out.
Chicago airport doesn’t improve much after the dingy convenience-free corridor that greets the weary traveller on arrival. Pip and I are hungry, and both in urgent need of a drink. A proper drink, that is. We find the only eatery selling booze. It’s over-priced rubbish, but we embrace our new surroundings and order burgers and Bud. The elderly waitress asks to see some identification, which sets our expectations for the rest of the trip. Even somebody like me who patently left their early twenties behind all-too-long ago is asked for ID everywhere that sells booze. Whilst this is tedious, I wonder if it’s preferable to the piles of vomit in British streets from binge-drinking teens who don’t know their limits? We never witness this in the US, and it’s another major plus point for their country.
Our drinks arrive promptly and our burgers five minutes later. I ask our waitress for another Bud the moment the food arrives, and she can’t restrain a flickeringly judgemental look. I feel like explaining that we’re British, and we’re all practicing alcoholics, but I’m too tired to banter. She brings it.
The burger is HUGE. If the quantity of meat is many degrees in magnitude greater than the anaemic portions we’re used to, I’m even more impressed by the pickled gherkin, where a few tiny slivers in the UK are replaced by a full gherkin halved in the US. One of the benefits of eating with Pip is that unwanted tomato, lettuce and gherkin is deposited onto my plate, and we devour our first meal in the US. It’s standard junk food, but it tastes amazing, and the second pint almost alleviates my dour mood.
I’ve gone into my happy place by now, and don’t recall much about the connection, except that it’s a cramped and bumpy flight which I manage to sleep through. Concerns that we’ll have to traverse customs again in Vegas prove unfounded. Our baggage arrives on the carousel within minutes, much to my amazement, and in a surprisingly small shed of an airport we’re at liberty to leave. Thriftily, we take a $7 shuttle bus to our hotel rather than a vastly more expensive cab. Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall And Saloon, our home for the next four days, turns out to be one of the first stops, and we wearily climb out of the bus and check in four hours later than scheduled.
“We’ll still have to charge you for the day,” the receptionist tells us with apologetic eyes. I fully intend to make good use of the bed, so find no reason to argue the toss.
It’s one of the smaller hotels on the strip, containing only (only!) four hundred or so rooms. The mahogany-coloured veneers are appealing to the eye, and even the rattle of an ancient (if still effective) air conditioning unit and the busy streets outside that bustle with nightlife aren’t enough to cause us any worry. We’ve made it!
We airily wonder about unpacking a few essentials then heading downstairs for a nightcap. Neither of us has much idea what time it is or even what day it is.
Instead, we sleep.
Tuesday 25th September 2012
After an intense and continuous sleep for six hours or so I awaken early just as the sun is rising. Creeping out of bed, I peel back the curtain and have another look at the view. Vegas is a completely different place during the day. It’s still early morning, and Flamingos, the hotel next door, still doesn’t have its distinctive pink neon lights on. It’s dusky too. With a view from the fourth floor we can see the Coliseum, Caesar’s Palace, and on the horizon, the desert.
We grab breakfast at a small cafe inside Flamingos. Muffin and coffee for $6. We sit outside. Within seconds a dozen or so hungry and surprisingly tame sparrows have taken an interest in us and drop less-than-subtle hints that a few crumbs wouldn’t go amiss. I oblige.
It’s the start of our first full day, and still relatively cool (we’re decked out in t-shirt and shorts all the same), so we decide to explore on foot. This is our usual holiday custom. We stick to hotels on our side of the strip, and wander around Caesar’s Palace and the Bellagio. It’s incredible just how huge they are, not to mention ornate, and every designer takes thematic literalism to a whole new level. A fish restaurant is designed with a brass-coloured frontage where a fish-tail outline is formed out of scale-shaped cut-outs. The air-conditioned interiors, mostly with high ceilings and marble floors, are refreshingly cool, but every time we exit into the open air it’s noticeably hotter.
The roads through the strip are busy with a constant flurry of through-traffic. Consequently pedestrians are forced over footpath bridges before they can move from one side of the road to the other. These bridges are wide, ornate, and replete with fully-working escalators and lifts for the disabled. They’re also home to vagrants, and it’s quickly wearying how many down-and-outs harangue you for a dollar every time you cross the street. The easiest way is to make sure you’re not walking across alone, as most of them are embittered and can be aggressive.
Part of the MGM, one of the biggest, grandest and most expensive hotels, is cordoned off for refurbishment. The sight of workmen, light fittings and step ladders is oddly disconcerting. I think it’s because it breaks the illusion: it’s a bit like seeing behind the scenes of a movie set. Vegas works so hard to keep its guests divorced from reality that such moments come as a shock.
By midday we’re starving hungry and it’s very warm outside so we stay indoors and search for an eatery. There are loads of restaurants inside the Bellagio. They’re all hidden in a quaint purpose-built “street”, where the buildings have stucco façades and the ceiling is painted like the sky. It’s a surreal environment designed to rob you of a sense of time.
Many of the restaurants are expensive, so even though it’ll be our second one in 24 hours, we gravitate towards a Cheeseburger place, and repeat the Chicago experience with another burger and beer combo, but without the appalling treatment this time. The food is very good and we polish it all off. A restaurant employee wanders up with a camera and tells us a photograph together on their premises is “complimentary”. We weakly smile as it’s taken. It’s all a bit awkward. She arrives back soon after we ask for the bill (check) with a postcard with our faces on, which we can have. She also presents us with two different sizes of framed photographs which we can buy. She does her best to impress upon us that she’s gone to a lot of trouble on our behalf to make our holiday memorable and provide the photos. We both look embarrassed in them. We harden our hearts, decline the offer, and head off, lesson learned. The postcard is now on our fridge.
Exploring hotels and casinos occupies us for the next few hours. We’ve been made aware of a four o’clock cut-off point, after which time long trousers and shirts become the preferred dress code. Before heading back to Bill’s to change, we stop off in The Cheesecake Factory at Caesar’s Palace. It’s getting on for dinner time and there are already early eaters piling in. We ask if it’s OK just to have a slice of cheesecake and a drink, and are shown to a table. Our body clocks are all over the place, and after the burger, we decide a slice of cheesecake will see us through to breakfast the next day.
A very handsome waiter arrives at our table to take our orders. Pip asks for a chocolate Oreo cheesecake and I opt for the vanilla. We accidentally order cocktails too. The waiter, who’s about a decade younger than me, asks for ID. I’m already getting used to carrying our passports around with us, and they’re rarely out of my pocket for the next few weeks. I go for a mojito. Pip goes for something involving bitter apple. The cakes are fantastic, but Pip’s is very sickly and filling and between us we can’t finish it. We order a second cocktail before the waiter presents us with the check. We’re not sure if he’s dropping a heavy hint that we’ve had enough to drink, but we later learn that it’s standard practice to not make customers have to ask for the bill, and if you want anything else they’ll just bring you a recalculated bill. This strikes me as a very good idea, but far too much effort on the part of the staff to see it likely to be adopted in the UK any time soon. Or any time, for that matter.
Pip’s keen to try out the casinos, so we head back to Bill’s to freshen up and change into shirts and trousers. Having taken a shine to the Bellagio, we decide to try our luck there. Pip’s Blackpool roots come to the fore as his eyes light up when he sees the rows upon rows of slot machines, all of them trying to allure you with bright flashing lights. I feel more of a lost soul, the machines as alien to me as technology from another planet.
Pip swiftly settles in to a game of ‘Lucky Lines’. I watch him for a while, trying to work out how the buttons he presses correlate to the three spinning wheels on the screen. Certain combinations appear more promising than others, and his credit goes up and down accordingly. However, it’s all a mystery to me, and I feel like a space traveller from another planet walking in on a Catholic mass and trying to make sense of it.
I reluctantly settle to a few games I do understand. Roulette is one, blackjack another. When you’re playing against a computer, it’s impossible to win (or win much, at least), and I see dollars very quickly dissipate, especially with roulette.
I start to feel very uncomfortable. Shiftily looking around, it strikes me that every gambler is in their own little world. For such a busy and large place, it’s unnervingly quiet. I have a faint sense of nostalgia too, and I pin this down to the lingering smell of tobacco smoke, a large proportion of which comes from cigars. It’s been several years since I last smelled smoke indoors.
An elderly cigar-smoking gentleman feeds another $20 bill into his slot machine, his eyes staying rooted to the screen. It’s not so much desperation I sense, but false hope. It seems a strange way to treat money, to me, and I stick to blackjack where I can at least make $1 go a long way.
A waitress arrives with a tray offering around drinks. My ears prick up and I catch her eye.
“What can I get you, honey?”
“Johnnie Walker Black?” I ask, apologetically, suspecting I’m pushing my luck.
“On the rocks?” she asks, jotting down my order.
A few minutes later she returns with a tumbler filled to the brim with ice, and similarly filled to the brim with three fingers of whisky. I try it. She hasn’t skimped. It really is JWBL. Suddenly I feel more at home. Half an hour later she walks past again, and takes the same order from me.
Pip appears at my shoulder at one point brandishing a credit slip. He’s won $58 on Lucky Lines. I can scarcely believe my eyes. Unlike the majority of gamblers in the casino, he goes at once to the cashier and changes it into cash, only some of which goes back into the machines.
We’re working together on Lucky Lines the next time the waitress takes our order, and I’m knocking back the complimentary JWBLs like soda water.
By ten o’clock the change in hours is catching up on us, and we walk in the slightly cooler air back to Bill’s. There we decide to round out the evening with a flutter in their (rather dingy) casino. A waitress takes our order. I ask for JWBL, but Bill’s is too low budget for that. She offers me a choice of two bourbons. I haven’t heard of either but ask her to fetch the first one she mentioned. It’s gluggable, but a come-down after several hours on the JWBL. My centre of gravity is proportionately harder to maintain, as drunkenness and tiredness overtake me. Pip is feeling the same way. We cut our losses and head up for a (relatively) early night. The room is refreshingly cool from the air conditioner. Pip passes out fully clothed on the bed. I think about waking him, but decide to leave him to it. Again I sleep for six intense hours, before wide-awakeness hits me.
Wednesday 26th September 2012
Pip is unclothed and facing the right way on the bed. He must have stirred during the night and settled himself down properly. I watch the world waking and the sun rising from the window.
When we’re both up and showered we stroll down to Bellagio’s for breakfast. We’d spotted a cafeteria-style restaurant there that looked reasonably priced. There’s a wait of twenty minutes for a table and we are ravenous and in urgent need of coffee. We have to wait in an eccentric conservatory replete with animatronic tree. I think the plants are beautiful enough without all the novelty items, but creating an eye-catching artifice is what Vegas is all about.
We’ve adopted the ‘when in Rome’ approach and order pancakes with bacon and maple syrup for breakfast. We’re asked if we’d like a glass of orange juice as well as coffee and say yes. It’s delicious – freshly squeezed with no sweetener. The pancakes are very filling, but I manage to finish all the bacon and about three quarters of the pancakes and syrup. Pip fares slightly less well. We’re both feeling a little sick when we ask for the check. We’re charged $7.50 each for the orange juice and have learned another lesson. It’s an altogether more expensive breakfast than we were anticipating, but neither of us can envisage being hungry again for the rest of the holiday.
Stuffed to the rafters we decide to attempt the other half of the strip, and ambitiously aim to see the top end. It’s a very, very hot day, and once we leave the security of the strip and walk past a few extensive building sites where hotels have been demolished and the saplings of new ones have appeared, we’re reminded that we’re existing purely in an oasis in the middle of a desert. The air is dry and hot. The burnt brown landscape, the same arid earth that covers the nearby aptly-named Death Valley, stretches out in a shimmering haze on the horizon.
The top end of the strip is horrible. Pip and I had planned to holiday in Vegas not long after we first got together, and our leaving presents from Borders in 2005 had been appropriately Vegas-themed (Elvis coasters, fancy cocktail stirrers and the like). Back then Pip had wanted to stay in Circus, Circus, the 1960s hotel with a theme park inside it. I take his photograph from the outside. The scarlet red paint of the exterior has faded in the strong sunlight to a shabby pink. It contrasts immediately with the modern hotels of the central strip, whose façades are glass and whose skeletons are steel. Circus, Circus is a throwback to the era of concrete. We head through the main doors and into a grubby casino that’s spread out across a tasteless floral carpet that reeks of stale beer. The same thought hits us both but it’s Pip who verbalises it.
“It’s like Blackpool.”
The ceilings are about half the height of every other hotel we’ve seen, which makes Circus, Circus appear dingy. Its older style of architecture can’t make use of the sweeping, majestic wide open spaces of the likes of the Bellagio or the MGM, and consequently it feels pokey and badly designed, even though the premises are huge. It’s full of budget travellers, amongst which we would class ourselves, but these are the tourists who shamble around in flip-flops, bad shorts and polyester baseball caps over their greasy heads. I can see disappointment written all over Pip. We briefly venture upstairs to see the indoor theme park, which looks like an expensive modern addition. An elderly bell boy pushing a trolley along the corridor forces me to the unpleasant conclusion that Circus, Circus can no longer compete with the modern hotels of the central strip, and that no amount of money or investment can save it from a slow and steady decline. It harks back to an earlier epoch and feels like a clumsy, ugly concrete mess in comparison to the gauche grandeur of its neighbours.
We leave, and Pip suffers the haunting realisation that a childhood dream – to stay at Circus, Circus – would in reality be awful. We’re relieved we didn’t bow to sentiment and book there. So dispiriting is our experience that we don’t bother to venture inside the Stratosphere, which is immediately next door, as we’ve had all the disappointment we can take for one day. Even though it was built in the 1990s, the Stratosphere looks horribly dated too, and is somewhat isolated at the top end of the strip.
Whilst we’re at the top end of town we decide to take a bus to Fremont Street and see Old Vegas, which a few friends had advised was a must. Tired of walking in the heat, and with a fairly long ride to the old part of town, we buy bus tickets for a regular fifteen-minute service and take a seat under the shade of a shelter. Idiots bungee-jump from the Stratosphere tower. I fail to see the appeal.
We’re soon to learn that public transport, both in Vegas and LA, is every bit as useless as in the UK. We spend at least ten minutes walking to the bus stop and buying tickets without seeing a single bus pass us. We’re anticipating a short wait for the next one, but it’s over twenty minutes before one finally appears, after half a dozen have ventured back the other way.
It’s packed, too. We endure an uncomfortable standing-room-only trip north. It turns out to be worth it, as Old Vegas is instantly appealing. Legendary hotels like the Golden Nugget and the Four Queens have aged far better, and are far less foolishly ambitious than the likes of the awful Circus, Circus. We mooch around and I buy some aspirin from a chemist shop as the bright light is giving me a headache. The pancakes have served us well, and neither of us is very hungry at lunchtime, but we could do with a nibble. Having seen them in countless movies, I decide that I haven’t had the full American experience until I’ve at least tried a corn dog. At only $3 it will prove a cheap lunch. Pip’s eye is drawn to the juicy-looking slices of home-made pizza from the same establishment. We place our orders. I take both mustard and ketchup since the corn dog is uncharted territory. We eat our spoils off paper plates outside.
The corn dog is an unpleasant marriage between a sweet floury exterior, rather like a doughnut, and a meaty interior rather like a frankfurter. I favour the mustard as it’s better at disguising the taste. It’s not overwhelmingly disgusting, but having ticked off ‘eat a corn dog’ I decide that it should now become a closed book. Pip’s pizza looks delicious and he reports that it tastes every bit as good.
We spend a few hours in Old Vegas, and time the return bus impeccably. We alight close to the Venetian as I’d spotted a convenience store. We’ve learned that Vegas is an extremely inconvenient place. There are no banks or markets – nowhere to buy a quick sandwich. You’re beholden to the restaurants in the hotels, which can all charge what they like. Consequently, Vegas is expensive, and the entire absence of reminders of civilisation compound the sensation of complete artifice. It’s an achievement to find somewhere that sells batteries.
Back at Bill’s, we notice a large poster advertising Miller High Life for $1 between 6 am and 6 pm. It’s about five o’clock, so we make haste freshening up and head down for a beer. The barman is quintessentially Jewish in looks, speech and mannerisms, and he looks after us when we pull up two bar stools. He’s very deadpan but his eyes are lively, and he’s very on the ball in asking if we want another drink. He remembers us the following evenings, too.
After a few liveners we head back to the Bellagio, which has already become our favoured hotel. We find the row of restaurants under the artificial sky, which this time has an artificial rain storm (an ornate sprinkler system positioned above a pool). Punters flock around to see it. I wonder what they’d make of the real thing in England.
We eat at Panda Express, a slightly upmarket fast food joint (the conservation of money proving a key consideration) selling Chinese food. The meal is fairly good, though the portions, considering the cost and the generosity of most American eateries, are stingy, and I’m left hungry. For some reason I panic and order a Dr Pepper to drink. I can’t remember whether I like it or not. It turns out I don’t.
For the past few days we’ve made a habit of missing the Bellagio’s punctual water fountain display, so we ensure we catch it at least once. It’s a beautifully cool evening, and leaning against the thick stone railing around the huge pond in front of the Bellagio it feels more European than anything else. Vegas is a ‘greatest hits’ kind of place. We’ve seen Paris too, the Gallic-themed hotel with a knock-off Eiffel Tower which we’re accidentally persuaded to take the elevator up ‘to look at the view’ – which just so happens to be from the window of a very expensive bar. (We fled with our tails between our legs, but not before sampling the complimentary vol au vents.) Then there’s New York, New York, which comes complete with indoor roller coaster, and the themes within themes within the seemingly endless corridors of the main hotels. So the European feel of the Bellagio fountains is entirely in-keeping in an environment where literally anything goes.
Bang on the dot the water cannons start shooting jets high into the air, the fountains moving to the sound of a Sinatra hit. We’re in the middle of a desert and here is a spectacularly frivolous use of the scarcest necessity around. The tap water is so carefully recycled that it tastes acrid, and throughout our stay I don’t risk drinking it. The Bellagio fountains are like watching a starving man juggling with his food. Whilst it’s hard not to be wowed by the incredible display, there’s a nagging puritan inside me that can’t quite bring himself to approve. The water isn’t wasted, but it is confidently trivialised.
We head back inside to the casino, where I accidentally hit the correct combination of buttons on the one-armed bandits and somehow come away $40 and several JWDBs to the good. I feel quite smug about this. It’s my lucky night, and Pip isn’t able to recapture his winning ways of yesterday.
Once again, having packed in a lot of walking and caught the sun, we’re dead on our feet by ten o’clock. Not quite as drunk as we were the previous evening, but merry nonetheless.
Thursday 27th September 2012
It’s around five o’clock, and I can tell that no further sleep will be forthcoming. Pip is still fast asleep so I venture out of bed and read my book using natural light. I’m on ‘Backcloth’, the fourth volume of Dirk Bogarde’s autobiographies. There’s a beautiful passage in which he describes the pain and grief of losing one of his beloved dogs, a feeling I know only too well but which he captures perfectly in prose. Talking about Forwood’s duel diagnoses of Parkinson’s and cancer is more problematic, since Bogarde has relegated the man he shared his life with to solely his ‘manager’ (who seems to live with him for ‘tax reasons’). The pain of seeing his loved one in terminal decline would have resonated far deeper with just a touch of honesty, and I’m left finding the dog’s death far more distressing in the dusky Nevadan light.
It’s our last full day in Vegas, and we’ve seen all the hotels we wanted to see. We’ve booked a day trip out of town, which involves an hour’s coach drive to the Hoover Dam. The Grand Canyon had been considered, but since the only affordable option involved twelve hours on a coach we decided against.
We were told to expect a white minibus would pick us up from outside Bally’s, but a full-sized coach arrives and we’re ushered inside, then taken to the underground car park of Planet Hollywood. It’s all a bit bizarre. We’re then split into different groups and ushered onto separate coaches.
Much that we’re enjoying the grandeur of Vegas it’s nice to get out of the city for a while. The landscape soon changes from enormous gleaming hotels to small prefab apartments where many locals live, and then into a dusty road surrounded on both sides by desert. It’s bleak but beautiful, rather like the surface of Mars.
Our driver is called Leo. He’s an amusing black chap with an endearing habit of sucking air through the side of his mouth after saying something he judges to be of importance. He warns us about the extreme security at the Hoover Dam, which is deemed necessary on account of the fact that an act of terrorism that destroyed the dam would be catastrophic.
A perilous road that winds around a mountain (the alarming view from the bus window was of a sheer drop of several hundred feet) leaves our hearts in our mouths, and it’s a relief to feed into the security checkpoint. Getting in to the visitor’s centre is no easier, since it requires the same body and belongings scans of airports. We’re then fed into a long queue and forced to endure a tediously overstated documentary film before joining another queue to be taken down in huge lifts that uncomfortably accommodate about thirty people at a time.
Our tour guide is a shrill, flat-chested woman who keeps distracting herself by fluffing the lines of her carefully pre-prepared patter. I quickly start to filter out her voice and settle for looking around instead. We see one of the wide metal pipes that feeds water around the dam. Then we’re taken up one level to look at the engine room – a huge hangar of complicated machinery.
The best way to appreciate the majesty of this extraordinary engineering achievement is to go outside and look at it, and as soon as we’re free from the guided tour aspect of the trip we head out and take photos from the vantage point that includes the new bridge, which looks like a spider’s web clinging between two tree trunks. I feel dizzy with the thought that we’ve just driven across it. The Dam straddles two states, and we walk around the perimeter, leaving Nevada and briefly stepping inside Arizona. There are two towers behind the dam in the reservoir where the water is held. One shows Nevada time and one Arizona time. It’s the same time. I assume this is a joke.
It’s nice to stand inside Arizona for a few seconds. It’s hotter than ever before. The wall of the dam is impressively thick but worryingly low, and my legs turn to jelly looking over the edge. Pip copes rather better. We walk back the other way and browse the tat shop without making a purchase.
On the return journey the bus stops off at Ethel M Chocolate Factory and Botanical Cactus Gardens. They’re giving out chocolate and peanut butter. With his sample contaminated and his nut allergy threatening, I valiantly eat Pip’s share as well as my own. The chocolate is over-priced, and we decide against making a purchase. We spot geckos in the cactus garden.
We’re back at Bill’s mid-afternoon. We get scrubbed up and head down to the MGM hotel where we’d spotted a Rainforest Cafe, which is essentially a restaurant with an Amazonian theme with animatronic animals and sound effects to boot. It’s the kind of thing that would be geared up towards kids in the UK, but which is fairly conservative in Vegas. The service is very good and they have a great selection of draught beers. I opt for a Samuel Adams. We both have very meaty dinners.
The streets of Vegas are busier than ever when we emerge from the restaurant. There are even more seedy guys handing out flyers for escorts, and a new contingent performing a hard-sell on dance clubs and bars. One of them recognises our English accents and announces he is from Cambridge. Having established common ground he’s convinced he’s onto a sure-fire winner, and offers us a lavish package discounted in our favour for strip bars and girls. Even after we tell him we’re a couple he’s not dissuaded and attempts to adjust his sales pitch accordingly. We wish him well and move on. He’s annoying, but not as grim as the pimps, whose presence in such numbers is an inevitable result of a city fuelled by excess, an absence of rules and pure hedonism. They are the dark side of the culture, and unfortunately part of the infrastructure that keep the gleaming hotels standing. It’s sad, but you couldn’t have one without the other.
Having had fun and success in the Bellagio we return for a few hours. I can’t quite bring myself to be in the mood. This is partly because Thursday night is the beginning of many people’s long weekends, and consequently the casino is much busier than it’s been before. I look frantically around for anyone serving drinks. We hear they’re there, but we don’t spot any. I feel like I’m bird-watching for a rare breed. Pip enjoys another good win on ‘Lucky Lines’, and decides it’s time to quit whilst he’s ahead. I’m happy to head back to Bill’s.
There’s a new series of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ airing and Pip watches that whilst I start to pack and finish reading ‘Backcloth’. Our last night in Vegas isn’t quite as memorable as previous ones, but we’re ready to leave now.