The first time I went to Las Vegas years ago I drove in from California. After hours of an unrelenting hot, craggy landscape the city suddenly emerged, a flashing, candy-colored mirage. Driving by the Sphinx and a gleaming, golden pyramid made partial sense given the desert setting, but passing by all of New York City on the next block just did not compute.
My recent second visit — on a whirlwind assignment for Lonely Planet Traveller — only intensified that initial perception. The writer — the lovely Orla Thomas — had conceived of a brilliant story angle: a juxtaposition of a set of on/off strip experiences. We met on the strip shortly after she arrived from London. Opting for an (inevitably overpriced) dinner outside, we watched a theatrical cast of characters on the sidewalk – Orla took it all in with jet-lagged eyes. A curious river of humanity flowed by: sparkling showgirls, the occasional Elvis, gently swaying people in bathing suits with fluorescent drinks. A small bastion of scowling men stood still in their midst, attempting to stem the flow of debauchery with brave signs: Repent! Jesus Loves You!
Las Vegas unfolds like a dream sequence, with an illogical sense of timing and constant introduction of interesting characters. I laugh now thinking of our first naïve attempt to navigate the time/space vacuum that envelops the Vegas strip. The iphone map showed a first destination as a mere quarter mile away. We decided to walk only to become lost for what seemed liked days down the winding rabbit hole of haute couture shops, rolling dice, smoke and mirrors.
When I think back on this assignment, I remember it in the same way I recall dreams — a strange, illogical assemblage of riveting experiences. Our schedule was jam packed from dawn to dusk (and beyond), which added to the hyper surreal quality of it all. One minute we were flying over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter; shortly after we were interviewing/photographing the Gazillionaire (host of the raunchy, but brilliant variety show, Absinthe) who stayed in his disconcerting character. Seemingly moments later, after far too little sleep, we were staring up at the industrial majesty of the Hoover Dam from our kayaks, before paddling 14 miles on the Colorado River through the Black Canyon with new friends — a profound experience that was like gliding through a giant sculpture.
All in all, it was an indescribable, word-defying adventure, just as dreams so often are. Have a read through Orla’s fantastic suggestions — and if you go, be sure to wander off the strip. A stunningly beautiful place awaits just beyond the dazzling lights.