I like to tell people that I grew up in Las Vegas. This, of course, is far from the truth. Two or three weekends out of every year does not a childhood make, but that’s the impression the city leaves on a young mind, where a string of similar smoke and light filled weekends blend together to form a distinctive period. I grew up in Vegas the way some people “grow up” in boarding schools or summer camps or their own homes before their father started to drink – when they are older and look back on these halcyon days, they are bemused both by how far they have come and how little they have changed; by the strange, distant familiarity of the face peering back from their memory.
Las Vegas, more than any other city, is a static paradox. It is both an oasis and a mirage; it is a living, breathing, growing organism and yet, a place where time – youth, to be more precise – stands still. Visitors go to change overnight, but only to temporarily revert to some youthful, fresher, wilder version of themselves at the tender age of twenty-one. Some go to change, period.
Hard to imagine that it began as a rest stop. Las Vegas, like most cities in the United States, began as a discovery in 1829 by a Spaniard named Rafael Rivera who, admiring the abundant grasses supported by underground wells, called the land Las Vegas or “the meadows.” News of beautiful places spread quickly in those days (as was possible by word of mouth and telegrams) and Las Vegas was then visited by John C. Fremont whose descriptions of the area attracted more visitors. The Mormons followed with their Mormon Fort – a rest-stop between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City – and then came the railroad which sped things up for the Mormons and cemented Vegas as a perfect rest-stop. Had you told the folks back in the early 1900’s that less than a century later the name “Las Vegas” would conjure up images of everything from go-go dancers to more Louis Vuitton boutiques per square kilometer than Paris – conjure up everything except for, perhaps, meadows – they might have scratched their heads, spat in the dust, and gotten back on the train.
Now of course, there are no meadows, at least not in what most people know as Las Vegas. Aside from expansive man-made golf courses and the strangely jungle-like conservatories of various seven star resorts, nature is nowhere in sight. She has been razed or smothered, pushed to the edge of the city to make room for manicured lawns and imported flora. The only bodies of water (on the strip at least) are man made, worthy mirrors of their natural originals: Lake Como, the canals of Venice, Mandalay Bay… I say worthy not because one can see these reproductions and say, “Ah, now I need never to go abroad,” but because these bodies of water exist so effortlessly, it seems, in the middle of the desert. Do know that one must pass geographical graveyards such as Barstow (now the premier rest stop en route to Vegas) and Baker (home to the world’s tallest and most-often-defunct thermometer) on the way to Vegas. If you have never been and are going, you cannot imagine how the city will hit you. As a handsome Australian once said to me, one late, loud night at Tao, “You have to see it to believe it.”
The idea that it was lush nature that first attracted visitors to the area is almost comical. One never hears, “Certainly, those showgirls just paled in comparison to the natural scenery I saw in Vegas,” and only when your hotel room is facing the right way (and mine rarely does), do you say, “The view from our window was amazing.” But that is not to say the the view is not amazing – and this is the beauty of the place. It began as the meadows and is now, not even nearing its end as the city of sin, of light, of excess, of sex and drugs and alcohol. The view you see today is not only the meadows, but the evolution of the meadows into America’s Playground.
Anyone who has ever driven into Las Vegas at night from southern California on the I-15, knows this. Every time I go to Vegas, I drive and in nearly twenty-five years as a passenger of this drive, and several times in recent years as the driver, I have yet to grow tired of that opening view. Somewhere between Sloan and Arden, just before Paradise, the road takes a slight curve uphill through a low mountain range. It is around the time you and your carmates get restless, eager to get out, check in, stride across the ringing casino floor, unpack, start drinking, eating, dancing – in that order. The minutes are ticking away and half your party is already there, half in your car, another half on the way (in Vegas, no one does math). So the climb uphill. The last leg. Anticipation builds. It’s dark and despite your headlights, you strain your eyes as though you’re driving through dark, cosmic chaos.
Suddenly, the road dips and nature herself nudges you along. The mountains recede with their craggy arms outstretched, bowing wickedly to present to you the sprawling, sparkling spread that is Sin City. A sharp intake of breath. Glittering lights, geometric improbabilities – a pyramid! A Castle! A vortex of steel, concrete and glass! Paris! Venice! Imperial Japan! – all less impressive than their originals but no less startling when one encounters them in the desert. And always, without fail, as the car glides downward into the glittering mouth of the Sierras, I think with such pride as though humanity itself were my son, “Look at what man has done in this desert.”