Lost in Las Vegas

photo 3This morning from the 39th floor of a Las Vegas hotel room I watched the sun rise over the mountains. Impervious to the sweeping humanity below them, these mountains are the area’s only static feature and serve as a boundary to the manic development. Without their silent enforcement, who knows how big Las Vegas could get? No way will this city stop itself.

You don’t spend much time in your room, luxurious though it is. You spend lots of time walking through the hotel. This is because the exits are few and far between; if it weren’t for fire safety, there probably wouldn’t be any. Reaching one of these secret outlets requires a winding trek past Baccarat and Black Jack tables; past acres of glowing slot machines; past Chanel, Cartier, Hermes, Gucci, Rolex; past sleek bars and stylish restaurants; past dazzling chandeliers, color-changing waterfalls, giant silk flowers, colossal glass balloons, massive mosaics. Stunned by the cumulative effect of these displays, you wander for hours, lost in time, for there are no clocks in these hotels and no windows. Light and temperature, meticulously controlled, are designed to make your body forget itself.

photo 1In an effort to keep guests inside at all costs, many hotels have joined forces and created connecting passageways. These escalators and skywalks are so effortless, so discreet, that you usually unaware of the transition. How did you get from the Encore to the Venetian, from the Palazzo to Caesar’s Palace? At last, exhausted by the journey, the visual stimulation, the constant campaign of music, you stumble into a lounge or restaurant and blearily eye the menu. By then you are inured to the exorbitant prices and scarcely bother to look at them.

What did you expect? This is, after all, Las Vegas. If you think a hotel that charges $370 a night should not charge another $20 for WiFi, you have a point, but so what? Money reigns supreme here. To suggest it has a limit amounts to blasphemy. If you cannot get into the spirit of spending, you need to leave the premises. Nothing personal—you just don’t belong.

I had not been to this city in fifteen years. Previously, I recall being charmed by the clever use of faux materials. This time the sets were alarmingly real. As I walked across miles of Italian marble, I began to understand the extent of the riches involved and it made me queasy.

Many people loathe Las Vegas. It is a reckless, heedless city. It stands for all the wrong things. One day this city will run out of water—the one thing it does not have a surfeit of—and nature will be the big winner.

The mountains are out there waiting.

photo 5

An excerpt from “The Side Bar”

I’ve always been fascinated by people who can endure the stark realities of desert life. Here is an excerpt from “The Side Bar,” one of the stories in my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS. Set in the Nevada desert, this story concerns a handful of characters who work in a hotel casino.

It’s not just the people here who have stories, it’s the land. In Elko County there’s a town that was built on a blizzard-whipped mountaintop where someone found gold in the 1860s. The elevation was 10,000 feet and nearly everything the townsfolk needed had to be hauled up the icy slopes—whiskey was cheaper than water.

Every month or so I drive to a ghost town I haven’t been to before. I’ve walked into listing, cobwebbed shacks, found tin cups and plates still on the tables. Today I’m in Rosamund, about two hours east of White Horse. There isn’t much left: stone foundations, a roofless drugstore, parts of the sagging saloon. Dealers and collectors have picked the place clean, but roughing up the dirt I find two unbroken bottles: “Hamlin’s Wizard Oil Liniment” and “SOS Vermin Killer.”

While April is usually a cool month in the high desert, the temperature today is over eighty, so I hike up a stony slope and eat lunch in the scant shade of a juniper. The sky is blue, the mountains brown, just two colors taking care of everything. There is no sound, no chirping birds, no babbling brooks, no car engines, just a huge silence to slip into. I could be the last person on earth.

I take a bite of my ham sandwich and ponder the crumbling square of a house where people once ate, slept, fought, made love, had children, got sick and died. Looking at the drugstore, I have no trouble envisioning the miners, dirty, coughing, walking in and out of the door. I conjure up an old yellow dog lying in the shade, a couple of prostitutes leaning up against the posts, laughter and piano music coming from the saloon. It doesn’t take much imagination to evoke those days. Nevada has more ghosts than living people and the land is strewn with what’s left of their dreams.

It’s dark by the time I got to the outskirts of White Horse and there’s a gorgeous pink line in the west, just above the black horizon. I stop the car and roll down the window, let the night air wash over my face. It smells of sage and silver, of mica and cold clean bone. Out there, all around me, are creatures I can’t see, small desperate animals darting over the rocks. What I can see are the neon lights of town and, even from this distance, the White Horse Casino sign: a tall smiling cowboy holding the ace of hearts.

The coyotes are howling. They do this almost every night, launch their plaintive chorus into the starry heavens. Are they joining forces, organizing a hunt?  Or do they just need to know they’re not alone?

Last month a chef in Reno pricked his thumb on a contaminated chicken bone and died ten days later. A friend of mine was struck and killed by a falling eucalyptus tree while she was jogging. Take all the precautions you want, staying alive is a stroke of luck.

I think that’s why I like the desert so much—all this terrifying space, this nothingness, and me just a dot in the middle of it.

Okay. Here I am. Come get me.

Sunset south of Boulder