Vegas: A History

It’s two-thirty A.M. in Las Vegas, and I can’t sleep. Maybe it was the coffee I had after that enormous slab of steak and glass of mediocre red wine for dinner. (Not ordering decaf was probably a mistake.)

But caffeine isn’t what’s keeping me awake. It’s the city itself.

Las Vegas is a geographic implausibility. As you fly east from San Francisco (or LAX if you’re a masochist), you’ll stare out the window in gape-mouthed amazement as you fly over the towering, snowcapped Sierra Nevada, and Yosemite National Park, and the brutal deserts of Death Valley. (Or, if you’re flying Virgin America, you’ll miss all of that because you’re staring at the live Google map on the little in-seat TV.)

And the deserts don’t stop. There’re sharp-edged hills, dried-up riverbeds, and roads slicing for miles across the red dirt in unfailingly straight lines. But then a blur appears just below you, and a big pointy thing sticks up from the blur. It’s still desert. But the Las Vegas plain is saturated with houses, all clustered around a single straight line of gargantuan, gleaming skyscrapers, in black and gold and green and every colour of the rainbow.

“Las Vegas” means “the meadows” in Spanish, but the Spaniard who gave that name to this little town must have been on some Hunter S. Thompson-scale psychotropics. This is a desert. When you touch down at McCarran International, the runways aren’t edged with lush green grass – they’re edged with dry, chalky dust. As if you needed reminding (and the sort of people who come to Vegas and play house-edge-a-riffic 6-to-5 blackjack just might), the terminal at McCarran is plastered with signs reminding you to save water by not asking for it in restaurants unless you need it.

(Now that I think of it, that’s a brilliant marketing campaign in the making. Save Water: Drink Wine Instead. Or just Turn Water Into Wine. That could be Penn & Teller’s newest trick. Speaking of which, McCarran is also plastered with ads for Penn & Teller’s show at the Rio. Their tagline: Fewer Audience Injuries Than Last Year – perhaps paying up for front-row seats wasn’t such a crash-hot idea.)

But despite being in the middle of the desert, Las Vegas has thrived. Or, rather, was thriving until the housing bubble popped, leaving a titanic oversupply of housing that’s sent prices down by a third in twelve months and destroyed the Wall-Street-mortgage-trader-weekend-party market.

Some parts of the town are still thriving, though. The golf courses at the Wynn (right on the strip, and plausibly the world’s most expensive golf course real estate outside Japan) are as green as they’ve ever been. The enormous CityCenter development was nearly canned, but is still going up (and still being frantically marketed in the lobbies of its fellow MGM Mirage properties).

And if you look down the strip from your hotel room (how to land that coveted strip-view room is a topic for another post), it’s hard to imagine that Vegas could ever truly be stopped in its tracks, ever fade off into darkness – not least because of that bloody great searchlight gizmo on top of the Luxor, WILL YOU SWITCH THAT THING OFF I’M TRYING TO GET SOME SLEEP UP HERE…

…oh wait…

…no I’m not. That coffee’s kicking in again.

I’ll see you at the blackjack tables. It’s 3am, they’ll still be open.

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