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June 26, 2017 Nonfiction

168 Hours on the Las Vegas Strip

Erin Langner

168 Hours on the Las Vegas Strip photo

You would be forgiven for thinking Vegas is not the place for you. Over forty million people are lured here every year, but you thought you’d never be one of them. Historically, it has been a destination for abandonment, not for staying. Between 1776 and 1829, a Franciscan friar, a French fur trader, and a Spanish scout passed through without stopping. The Paiute tribe endured the Mojave Desert’s harsh conditions for over seven centuries, until the U.S. government stole their land in 1848. Mormon missionaries arrived in 1855 to try to convert the Paiute people but didn’t last long, returning to Utah a mere three years later. Only the scout's understanding of this place persisted: The Meadows, or in Spanish, Las Vegas.

But, if you have ever been abandoned, or just felt abandoned, by a parent or a lover or another source of intimacy who was supposed to stay, the reconstructed worlds you’ll find inside a casino may have something to offer. You can get to know them—their defining amenities, their personal aesthetics, their signature scents—if you treat them as individuals and visit them one by one. 168 hours on the three-and-a half-mile section of Las Vegas Boulevard South known as the Strip could be the antidote you need more than you want.


Night One: Encore Resort and Casino

Walking into the Encore, your lungs will open themselves wide to the feeling of extra oxygen in the air. This gleaming, golden, gently curving tower at the northernmost end of the Strip that spares no expense on twisting topiaries that pop around the Picasso paintings in the lobby will give you confidence in your decision-making skills. If nothing else, you know how to feign sophistication by sunbathing Euro-style atop a plush, off-white chaise, surrounded the lushest AstroTurf you have ever seen, lingering long enough that even you become convinced that you belong here.  Your self-doubt will evaporate like the layer of mist that hovers over the casino’s Lake of Dreams, just before the dancing light show starts.

Try dining at Costa di Mare for dinner. Anyone eating the buttery, al dente squares of ravioli alone here does so by choice, not out of necessity; the waiter won’t flinch when you say, “Party of one.” He also won’t care that you inherited the money you’re using to pay for this trip from a grandmother who also loved to travel but with whom you agreed on few other matters. The old Vegas truth is strong in these parts: all money is good here.


Night Two: Circus Circus Casino

Most people don’t come to Vegas seeking an authentic experience, but for those who do, Circus Circus is for you. Enter the casino through the shiny, cotton-candy-colored mound of mirrored glass known as the Adventuredome. The echoes of racketing roller coasters and splashing water flumes and children’s screams may inspire you to immediately turn around and find somewhere else to stay. But, keep in mind, Circus Circus has been a destination for tourists since 1968, making it the rare instance of enduring history on The Strip. The lizards came to life from the carpet near the front desk so memorably in the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that you will almost be able to see them as you wait in the hour-long line to check in.

If you misplace the hotel elevators every time you try to return to your room, remember that they reside in the very back, buried by the thickest pillows of cigarette smoke and the swarm of fake-change-clanging slot machine screens. You will know you’ve gone too far when you find yourself rotating, on a platform beneath the carousel bar—the same bar where Dr. Gonzo nearly succumbed to his fear, in the movie.

Gonzo at least had Raoul Duke, even if he was imagined. Within a few hours of drifting through the circus tent, it may seem like you have fallen down a deep vortex that heightens any distance you already felt from the people you still have in your life. You will feel stranded in this place where you know no one and want to know no one and just keep wandering circles until you can find your way back to your bare bones, $40-a-night room and begin counting the minutes until you can check out.


Night Three: Caesars Palace

Spend your next day at Qua Spa. Hidden down a long corridor near the Augustus Tower, in Caesars Palace, for the cost of one night in Circus Circus, you can lay on a bed of tiny bubbles that’s molded to fit your body’s contours with the precision of an Italian grandmaster sculptor’s hand.  When you lean into the midnight-blue hot tub and inhale the fumes of fresh chlorine, it’s as if they have the power of hypnosis to release you from your memories.

Everyone moves through Qua in silence. The heated loungers are surrounded by ample perimeters of space so no one wakes you if you nap or speaks to you if you remain awake. Clothing is optional here, and shedding your layers will heighten your relaxation. Don’t worry about the vulnerability. Here, you’ll find the easy, anonymous kind; you can put yourself out there by barely even trying.


Night Four: The Mirage

You can’t miss the 20,000-gallon saltwater aquarium behind the front desk filled with 450 fish from 85 different species. The magenta anemone puffs and shimmying, striped angelfish and lurking, chartreuse eel choreograph the kind of spectacle you knew you’d find on the Strip. They take you places that feel so far, so exotic, so unreal, they distract you from how near you are to the place from which you came. The Mirage started the mega-resort era when it opened in 1989 on junk bonds and a million-dollar-a-day operating budget; few believed it would last, much less inspire the decade of fantasy-themed, resort-building frenzy that followed in its wake.

Watching the undersea world might remind you of another vacation, that tropical one on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where visits to an aquarium—one with glass covered in eager handprints but filled with the same kinds of fish—bound your then-unbroken family together. Or, even another one here, when your lover bought you a gin and tonic while you were waiting in line to check in among the bronze mermaid statue and the waterfalls and the rows of luscious orchids and birds of paradise flowers lining the lobby, because, that’s what this town was made for, he told you. You still can’t get that moment out of your mind.  Don’t forget to look for your own visage reflecting back in the electric blue aquarium glass and remind yourself, you wanted this—to be here alone.


Night Five: MGM Grand

The MGM Grand hotel’s elevator used to open to photomurals of Sammy Davis Jr., but those have been painted over with lifeless, gray walls. If you look hard, you might still find this casino’s former Hollywood theme hiding somewhere, but the sprawling, green building and the poppy-red carpet fields are all that remain of that other MGM that was supposed to transport you back to the Emerald City, from the Wizard of Oz. The new MGM Grand is still a good place to meet an old friend, from another era of your life, in college, when time was endless the way it feels in a casino where the lights never brighten above a movie-marquee-gold glow. Sitting with her behind the tinted glass of a forgettable Wolfgang Puck restaurant, you can binge on red wine and thick, molten lava cake that burns the tongue. You can inhale other people’s excitement like you used to, until it becomes yours again.

But, every time you go back to the room to grab a cheap lager from your stash, be sure to pass the child-friendly attraction constructed in 1993, the Lion Habitat: two real-life lions in their den made of tight, glass walls and faux boulders. They will always look tired and emaciated since they don’t have enough room to move, much less generate muscle or motivation. You may notice this in a way you never would have during college, back when you saw possibilities more easily than sadness. By check out time, you’ll be ready to move on. One night at the MGM Grand is enough.


Night Six: New York New York

You go looking for the real New York inside the New York New York casino—trees with fabric leaves once filled its center, pretending to be Central Park. But, you’ll find they have been replaced by Happy Days slot machines. It may be here that your friend asks, Why are you doing this again? just before she leaves for the airport. Explain how you want to know a place the way you know a person, maybe even instead of a person, while sitting among the tea canisters and jelly jars filling the shelves of Greenberg’s Deli, in the plaster-cobblestone-paved Greenwich Village. Admit that you’re addicted over slices of thin-crust, oily cheese from New York Pizzeria--not to gambling but to these alternative universes, even if you know they’re fake. Even if they leave you lonely, too. You can count on their brutal honesty most of the time, at least.


Night Seven: Planet Hollywood

By the end of the week, you will be tired. Of pushing through the thick groups of people lined up to watch the volcano erupt and the sexy, sequined pirates dance when you’re just trying to get somewhere. Of spending the early morning checking out and the late afternoon checking in. Of sitting at the bar for dinner and of wondering why no one else goes to buffets alone. Skip the rooftop pool surrounded only by stark-white concrete and empty, yellow-mesh lounge chairs whose coin-operated mist costs twenty-five cents for fifteen seconds of bliss. Skip the Jacuzzi sitting in the center of your room, next to the bed, because someone thought you were ripe for a free upgrade. Skip stuffing the free lotion and pens into your suitcase like you still need them.

Instead, head to the Saxe Theater for Vegas! The Show: “Everything you would expect in a Las Vegas show, and more!” The same handful of actors alternate between playing Elvis and Dean Martin, Sonny Bono and Al Capone, Donna Summer and rhinestone-encrusted showgirls. During intermission, you’ll notice how you’re the youngest person in the theater by several decades. And at the end, when the actors leave the stage, and a screen drops down, showing footage of this elderly audience’s old, beloved casinos being blown up, you’ll wonder why they clap with so much enthusiasm that they are standing. What about this place makes you love watching your old life crack up and down the middle, until it falls in on itself, disappearing behind a hanging curtain of dust?

You’ll walk out of the Saxe deadened to the endless, three-and-a-half-mile place you really think you know now. You’ll want out the next day, and you’ll get it. You won’t be able to think of coming back until the fantasy worlds are so far and reality worlds so present that you’ll forget the hangover sting that stuck to the back of your throat that night. You’ll admit to yourself that there is one place made not for staying but for going back to. There is one place where the arid air preserves everything you thought you’d never see again, until you wrestle it into the sand with your bare hands.


image: Aaron Burch