Scaffolding, Space-Ships, The Strip
The drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas was a long cut through the desert,
a gradual incline.
A rolling over of the earth into the sky.
Even now I imagine the Mojave as a large crimson smudge on the atlas,
like a rubbing. Like the land
is not the land, but a soft trace that only gently
reveals the textures underneath.
I feel like if I were to look it up on the GPS again it would form
a deep red bruise on the map,
a strange anomaly between the grey and the green and the yellow markers of roads,
a place where the ground bleeds.
* * *
Our first great-american-roadtrip break after a late exiting from East LA was a huge candy-themed truck stop with a house-sized ice-cream sculpture out the front, its colours flattened by the heat. It was another oddity to add to my mental collection of
Things That Decorate the Sides of American Freeways
These are places that are so strange, so seemingly out-of-context that it feels as if they might have been some rogue idea drifting on a highway current, randomly plucked and planted, and becoming so firmly committed to their spot in the world (even when no one else is), that they cling to the rush of cars like insects in the wind, decaying into the dirt. This place only sold lollies.
As we drove, the brightness sunk away with the sun and at the last rest stop, at the edge of the preserve, everything felt darker, shadowed: deeper oranges and forest greens, a shipping container, abandoned, rusting into the earth,
the blackness of the highway more pronounced.
And the birds, winding down, blending into the carpark.
On the wall, under a heavy wooden canopy, was a map of California, a great blue footprint alone in a sea of more sun-stained blue. As if California was all there was. It wasn’t always an all-blue mess of faded borders and place names (it wasn’t always a lot of things, California), you could tell by the way you had to squint to give definition to everything. Once it would have been clearer, a sharp outline of a place, and more places, a clear and distinct ‘you are probably here’ marker to make you feel a part of something. But, like I tend to think when I think of underwater mountains and cacti suspended like seaweed, and the slow dripping of icebergs melting to eat away at all our beaches and our cliff faces;
everything, eventually, becomes the ocean.
On the other side of the highway the birds pulled up and down like ribbons, picking at something.
What are they?
I think they’re crows I say. With the kind of borderline-arrogant confidence of someone who has lived in a place for just more than a year, and feels like they understand it.
They’re Ravens, says Ruby, pointing to the sign next to the ocean map.
PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE RAVENS
It only encourages them, apparently. And they kill the desert tortoises.
Surely, we are better to distract them though,
from the tortoises.
With the scattered remains of cold fries or
the raw almonds we don’t really want to eat because we know how good they taste when they’re roasted and salted, or
the crumbs of a bag of lime-flavoured Lays that stopped tasting good halfway through but you still ate them anyway.
The last stretch of the drive saw the hills become round and layered and frozen in their melting. When cut open by the highway they angled like horns to drive between, the road tracing the curved back of a bull’s neck, riding on and on, over and over, until the mountains straddling the road became blink towns, amusement specific.
These enclaves of entertainment marked the arrival into Vegas, the lonesome theme park clambering into the spaces sculpted out of the hillside (whether by nature or by man it was unclear), seeming like they must be a part of:
The Las Vegas (And Beyond) Town Planning Guide
Here marks the edges of Sin City, this place will be fringed by roller coasters and candy floss, log flumes and Ferris wheels, the sounds of laughter and screaming will filter in through each traveller’s air-con system, mingling with the smell of hot pretzels and truck exhaust, and the delicate mess of fine steel and wood structure that supports it all will be built up like it is the scaffolding for the American Dream, as if it is pleasure and pleasure alone that will bolster each American and traveller alike, who dares dream of a more decadent future, who dares make a fated trip to Vegas.
And, as Hunter S Thompson observed a long time ago, there is a faint American Dream high-tide line on the hills surrounding Vegas, and now, the billboards, on huge pylons bursting out of the city are like old tide markers, waiting for the Dream to wash through again, unhindered, full of force, and with enough gusto to atone for the decades of gluttony this place built itself on, piece by faux-glamorous piece, like all these people, all these cheap advertisements, all the casinos and drive-thru wedding venues still hold out hope that when it does, it will practically drown the grinning, static face of Jacob the Accident Lawyer and cleanse the grease right out of his hair.
But the reality is, the tidal wave of the American Dream crashed against the hills of Las Vegas so long ago, and drew so far back, that the land is devastated and strewn with debris all the way to New York, and all the Americans, sunstroked and delusional, are still sitting in their boats, trying to row through the corn.
Arriving into Las Vegas, over the last crest of layered desert rock, was like landing a plane,
the freeway like a runway suspended above the city, the lights blossoming
against the dusk sky, an energy permeating
upwards, threatening to lift the car up.
Reiner Banham described Vegas as being like a human base camp on an alien planet, understood almost exclusively in science fiction terms, and when you cruise into it, landing above it all in your Nissan rental space ship, you believe that maybe there is intelligent life in there somewhere,
out in the desert,
everything else carved away.
So there we were, freshly landed in Vegas, on our quest for intelligent life and the remnants of the American Dream, pulling up into our Air BnB – a beige stucco house with a white truck out the front (what surely must be the most common House type/colour : Car type/colour in Western US), feeling as far from Gonzo journalists as we could possibly be.
Under the alien-planet-purple sky we wandered around the neighbourhood before we headed to the city. The park we settled on to pause for an hour or so,
with a picnic table under a large oak tree, next
to a community center,
gave me the distinct feeling of being
underwater, the air around us greened
by a single lamp above a courtyard, looking
up through the water at it,
wavering, some young boys
in the distance running, and laughing, their
We got an uber to the Strip with no plan, no recommendations, and found what seemed to be the only cheap restaurant in the whole damn city that would serve gluten free and vegetarian food: a huge warehouse space called “Nacho Daddy.” The name appealed, but the nachos were soggy, doused in cheese the colour of fanta, and clearly targeted at the large groups of drunk 21 year olds, whose voices and bodies ricocheted off every hard surface in the place.
Las Vegas is a city designed to get lost in. Not in a way that is romantic. But in a way that is dark, promiscuous, and a little sadistic. It’s not like getting lost in the cobbled streets of a European city (where you might happen upon a small café, or a corner store selling fresh tomatoes by the kilo), but it is a claustrophobic lost, an entrapment. Following the exit signs through a casino, across a street bridge, down escalators with other lost travellers, underground through fountained lobbies and gold-trimmed wide and sprawling staircases, only to end up in the same place you started. Everything feels like a mask, a distraction from the darkness, a way to plaster a smile over the truth of where the cash comes from, where the cash goes and who the real winners are. I think you could have a good time there, but you would either need a lot of drugs, or a lot of money, and preferably both. Find a hotel with a view and a pool and then at least if you couldn’t stand the smell of drugstore perfume and beer anymore, while the persistent rattle of pokies, dice and disappointment grate at the edges of your soul, you could smoke a joint, set up an umbrella and lounge in the heat until the cycle begins again.
We discovered quickly that the Strip is an obnoxious place, masculine, best held at arm’s length. It is the white-man-on-the-sidewalk of cities, committed to its route, unmoving, stealing unapologetically from everything, but acting like nothing else really exists. And you feel good, for a moment, when it pays you attention, when it pulls you up onto its pedestal and says ‘look who we have here, the star! The big winner! The person everyone dreams to be!’ But to sustain that feeling you have to believe in it, which is fine, for a weekend or so, every now and then, with some planned and willed substance abuse, and the right people, on the right wavelength, because you have to know that the fall from the pedestal is quick and brutal, and on the Strip in Las Vegas, when you do fall, you can be almost certain that you were pushed.
If I had been in a more ironic mood (which as a cynical architect I often am), I might have appreciated the blatant theft of global icons, the indulgence of a huge opulent fountain in a parched landscape, the over-the-top renaissance-style paintings and sculptures, surely built sometime in the 80s, and already falling apart, and the sincerity in its utterly remorseless nature. But the problem is, when no one is sorry for anything, they become impossible to forgive. So I thought I could have loved Las Vegas, or the strip, but I think something in it must have dissolved since the hey-day of Hunter S Thompson. Late capitalism has a way of drowning the charming resistances of early capitalism (or in this case, the charming embraces), and then serving them to you on a platter, sodden, unmoving, shadows of a glorified past. Then, you are expected to eat it up, to be glad you’re being offered a meal at all.
That night, Ruby and I wandered a lot, not interested in gambling, and too broke to justify spending $12 on a beer, and me too sick with a head cold to walk too far without needing to sit down, until we could stand it no longer and started the process of desperately trying to leave the strip, having to go to a hotel pick up zone on the other side of an uncrossable road, waiting in the blue light of the hotel, the moon faltering through an ocean of voices and vices above us, beginning and ending the night underwater.
In the morning we thanked our host, packed our things back into the trunk of our Nissan Spaceship, and carved our way back out of the suburbs for take off, the cracked-beige houses spreading out either side of the freeway like fingers, trees between them like knives. We were listening to Sheryl Crow - her musing about neon streets, and swearing she’s leaving and won’t ever be back, us driving over the crest of Vegas into Utah, and wondering if there was any truth in what she was singing for us, if we would ever be back. In that moment we were feeling glad to be out of it, heading towards the hills and out of the basin, taking off again and out of there. Unsure about the intelligent life on the strip, sure it is there but not sure we were able to find any of it. Continuing our search for the residue of the American Dream elsewhere, wondering if, like the sun, it will rise in the East, and turn everything golden..