We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when Daniel turned to me and asked for a cigarette. We’d been driving 90 mph for the last six hours and only had a few smokes left. The sun sat two fists above the horizon but the air blowing through the open windows was still scorching.
“We must reach Vegas before the sun sets,” I said.
Daniel grunted and passed the black Ford Bronco that was in front of us.
The Vegas that we were racing the sun to see was not a city, but an idea. We didn’t care about Penn and Teller or The Blue Man Group. Our Vegas was owned by Hunter S. Thompson and Frank Sinatra, Bugsy Siegel and Michael Corleone. It was a sinner’s Disneyland — the Mecca of disheveled decadence. Our pilgrimage began at 2 p.m. and we’d been heading south ever since.
The fact that we were dead set on reaching Las Vegas before the sun set displayed how little we truly understood the city. In reality, the sun is irrelevant in Las Vegas. The city is always open, so the delicious depravity can be enjoyed anytime.
We noticed the low-lit clouds were stained blue up ahead and soon we found the cause — huge neon lights began to rise from the desert monotony. Through the car stereo, Jerry Garcia sang, “You know you’re bound to wind up dead/ If you don’t head back to Tennessee Jed,” but we didn’t heed his warning. We were in Sin City.
We grabbed our luggage, a 30-pack of Budweiser, and a fifth of Jim Beam from the trunk, and walked to the front lobby to meet Taco, Christian, and Carter, three friends from high school. After some hugs and well-wishing, the five of us put on suits and started throwing down drinks. We finished the beer and poured some whiskey and Red Bulls for the walk to a nightclub called XS at the Encore Hotel.
After waiting in line in the hotel lobby, we walked through a dark hallway that opened onto a giant dance floor surrounded by tables and stripper poles.
But the real gem of XS is outside, where there are two long bars and VIP beds surrounding a giant pool. In the center of the water is an island with a third bar and blackjack tables. We ordered a round of shots to celebrate Taco’s 21st birthday, but, when the bill came to $60, we were rudely reminded that we were not high rollers. No, we were students in a city we could not afford. But we were also crafty and wearing suits, so the town could still be ours.
Through shrewd pre-gaming and the goodwill of the excessively wealthy, all five of us were sufficiently drunk throughout the night, and, when we finally stumbled away from the Encore at 4 a.m., we were all smiling. Still, we were not content to let the night end. Vegas is not a city for the easily contented.
Unfortunately, free (“comped”) drinks and the festive attitude of a craps table at 5 a.m. do not mix well with smart gambling. After a couple of hours of sinful glee, the dice showed seven for the final time we could bare. Each of us had lost $60.
In Vegas, nights don’t end. They simply melt into hot, bright, debt-filled mornings. Hangovers never last. Greasy buffets kill your queasiness, morning drinking can chase your headache away.
Hollywood would have you believe that trouble finds you at every corner in Vegas. We learned this wasn’t the case. Really, the five of us had to actively look for all the sin we found. In modern Vegas, for every gangster or call-girl, there are 50 harmless tourists. But we drank and smoked and gambled our weekend away because we had not driven eight hours to enjoy the shows.
Sometimes art imitates life, sometimes life imitates art.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the hangover began to take hold. Over our four days in Vegas, we had consumed 72 beers, 20 shots, six fifths, five cigars, four cans of Sparks, three packs of cigarettes, countless comped mix drinks, and a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. We had slept a total of 14 hours and eaten only six meals. We had all lost money at the tables and spent even more at the clubs.
I turned to Daniel, who was lying back in the passenger seat, and said, “Remember that line in ‘Fear and Loathing’ about a bunch of used-car dealers from Dallas hunched over a craps table at four in the morning, still ‘humpin the American Dream?’”
He was already asleep.
We’d tried to hump the American Dream, and it had humped us right back. Now, delirious from debaucherous decadence and sleep depravity, we were finally headed home.