Category Archives: Las Vegas

America: In conclusion

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It’s actually a load of different countries tied together with strings of Arbys and Taco Bells. In some, people are very busy accumulating more and more stuff; in others people are a further along, working out what to do with the mountain of old stuff they can’t afford to run or fix, like mills and factories, warehouses, mines, the trucks and fridges and boats and trailers in their yards, and Detroit. I like those places best.

Aside from that, other observations based on nothing much: for a country obsessed with safety and litigation, they have a very laissez faire approach to hairpin bends (and guns, obviously), tacos are definitely the national dish; you don’t get postcards showing cactus in the snow; the cleaning staff in 99% of the places we stayed were Hispanic and overtly deferential; if you put the fried chicken at the back of Walmarts and took away the little cars you’d give the people who need it most a really good workout; there’s sugar in the ‘natural’ yoghurt, and sink holes under Louisiana, and tunnels full of aliens under New Mexico (can’t remember where), and cupcake ATMs in L.A; sisters (well, people) are doing it for themselves when it comes to building a home, and cowboys are making a comeback in those there hills.

We started in messed-up, empty Detroit (playground of the inspired and energetic), continued through Ohio and the eastern states,Virginia and West Virginia, all wide-open spaces, rural retreats, Amish furniture stores, bail bondsmen, payday loans, attorneys, pawn shops, and guns and ammo stores. I’d had a taste of the Triangular heart of middle-class North Carolina with its good wine, good cheese, good books, good works, travelled through tidy towns with libraries, art trails and bible groups, past green fields with white picket fences and sleek horses looking over them. Preacher men warned against loose women, wrongful ways on the radio through the Carolinas, Southern Baptists sang in Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, and by Alabama it was the story of the blues, of civil rights, gulf oil spills and grits. In Cajun country, in Louisiana, it was frottoirs and boudin, and Bloody Marys, dancing at breakfast with old men in hats, and basking by a lake in the heat talking to duck hunters in camouflage. We’d driven under the crystal bright, anything is possible skies of Texas, met unicycling children in the back of beyond and stepped back in time to a world of drunk cowboys, Mexican silver miners and Apache raids on the saloon stables in places where they shoot rattlers and eat chillies with everything, in New Mexico. We’d observed golfers in Scottsdale, 70-year old dancing girls wearing nothing but feathers in Palm Springs, and left behind done-in L.A., with its big mess of smog and flyovers, for a California that was cheeringly, drippingly, wild. After standing at the western edge for a bit, we turned back, wheels spinning, along the fringes of Yosemite, the Mohave Desert, the Grand Canyon and the Sangre de Cristo mountains – the best of wild America, arriving in Memphis, the day after another shooting, when everyone’s thoughts – albeit briefly – were focused on the worst by-products of a ‘civilised’ America.

I read – and love – travel books by experts writing about things they know but they aren’t the books that make me travel. It’s accounts of enthusiasts  abandoning themselves to journeys of discovery that set me off with the packing again. On the whole, I don’t buy a ticket and fly across the world to see something I already know about; I travel to places that are for some reason obscure because it appears I am addicted to the process of discovery – what’s around the next bend? on the next block? what’s up in the north / down in the south? what’s that hotel like inside? what’s the local food? what kind of person lives here? what do they do?  could I live here? could I really live here? Is this my Somewheresville?

So, America. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of an obscure destination, but it was unknown to me (and it’s a big place, so most of it still is). All places are fascinating, odd, surprising to anyone seeing them for the first time whether that’s Slough or Mombasa or Santa Fe. You wouldn’t think that could be possible by looking at the Must See Tourism Attractions (museum, building, monument yada yada), but it is. It really is. Someone at some point in every country has made a subjective selection, and over time that selection has become official. Seeing these certain things is tantamount to obligatory . . . (particularly if you happen to be a travel journalist whose elbow is in the firm grip of the local tourism representative) . . . which leads to stress, inevitably some disappointment, and an experience on a well-worn tourism loop which, while possibly pleasant, is quite unlike the kind of experience people living in the country have on a day to day basis.

Having spent just five weeks or so in America, and mainly in a car in America, I wouldn’t presume to offer any useful concluding observations about what sort of thing America is. However, I hope I’ve raised a virtual glass to that intoxicating process of discovery and the freedom of unplanned drifting travel, and provided a reminder that there is no official decree that ranks the Hoover Dam as a better attraction than the little town of Luling, Texas, or the Golden Gate Bridge over a bar in Mission, or the Titanic Exhibition in Vegas over the cake-sellers at a market in Alabama. There is no travel expert who can say that a $100 dinner is  – by default – more enjoyable than a warm $3 sausage and jalapeno kolache, no-one who can actually prove there’s anything better than listening to the wind blow in the Gila National Forest, anything more beautiful than a straight line of telegraph poles going on for miles and miles under a desert sky. Cheers to that.

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High-Rolling in Vegas

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I’m going to address the issue of confusion soon, but it might have started here, staying in a pyramid with a back view of Excalibur, an enchanted Disney castle, padding bleary-eyed through a casino full of cowboys to get my morning coffee – from Starbucks of all places (desperate; not my fault).

People generally come to Vegas to get married for a month, or to go crazy in the high stakes poker rooms; I decided it would be a good place to get some washing done and sort out our baggage (no euphemism). Such a quantity of coats, bags and cases travelled in the lift to the top of the pyramid in the lift with Dave and the bellhop that people assumed Dave was famous, someone even going so far as to jab him in the chest and tell him they knew him, who was he? It was helped by the fact he was wearing dark glasses inside the Luxor Hotel Casino a place (like the ones connected to it by walkways) where sunlight – or even daylight – never permeates. The bellhop (who’d worked in Vegas for decades and could tell some crazy stories . . . and then didn’t) said Dave worked for Interpol which shut them up.

Aside from the many large elderly folk plugged into Megabucks and Return of the Sphinx slot machines and Dave, who’d stopped tucking his Western shirt into his jeans and was now “working a Bill Nighy look”, the whole place – the miles and miles of deeply-carpeted interconnected casinos – was packed with cowboys wearing crisp shirts, Wranglers and Stetsons. There were whip-cracking girls, child cowboys, cowboys roping bulls streamed live in the bars, All-You-Can-Eat-Ribs, a special Cowboy Menu (basically take the head and hooves off, B-B-Q the rest), VIP Cowboy areas, and boards advertising events like the Redneck Rodeo, Million Dollar Bucking Bull Championships, Free LoCash Cowboys Concert in the Gold Buckle Zone, and the chance to win a saddle. Turns out this wasn’t normal, but Vegas’s inaugural Vegas Cowboy FanFest. I’m very interested in cowboys. Yes, sir-eee. If I could have hung around a few days and lined up at the Cowboy All-Star Autograph Session with eight-time all-around world champion, Trevor Brazile of Decatur, Texas, I would have, yes.

Something else that caught my eye was Thunder Down Under, advertised by bare-chested men on a big billboard near our pyramid, but Dave said it would ‘be disappointing’. We did plan to see the Titanic exhibition, but in the end got distracted by working our way through the Luxor coupon book, mapping a route based on free cocktails and Dos Equis. One exhibition that is unmissable is staged every morning at the Valet Parking collection point where fresh-faced families, fragrant ladies of the night just coming off-shift, bleary-eyed losers and nauseated students wait in the shade for their cars.

I know a lot of people come here and lose money, (although I did I win BIG: $16.10 paid out with a sad smile by the cashier), but the accommodation at Luxor was really good value, particularly after maintenance started drilling through the bedroom wall and we were refunded and upgraded to a gigantic gilded suite.

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Mojave (the drive to Vegas)

If you want to feel the full, jolting, thrilling, brilliant and repulsive impact of Las Vegas, approach it from the south and west, driving through (at least skirting) the Mojave desert. It’s about 220 miles from Mojave and there’s little in between. I spent 70 miles transfixed by the glinting chrome of a truck in the far distance, thinking about life. One minute it’s dark sky, then – over a hummock – Vegas explodes into view. It’s a gazillion watts; blasting loud, the pavements packed, the streets jammed, 80 giant flashing neon screens left and right ( ‘SHANIA’, ‘WIN A MILLION $$$’, ‘SOME MAGICIAN’) in every eyeful. There was London, Time Square, the Statue of Liberty, Luxor and the Eiffel Tower all visible from first set of traffic lights.  Like fast food, Vegas is decadently satisfying for a little while. . . then you feel sick. There was a plain simplicity about Mojave – the town and the flat empty road – that I really liked and appreciated. High-fiving at the slot machines an hour later, I felt I’d let myself down.

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