Day One: The London Hotel, Los Angeles ($335 a night)
Oh yes! Thirty three nights in Las Vegas, staying a single night in each of the hotels that line the city’s famous Strip. Has man ever conceived a more perfect way to spend five weeks?
“Ugh. That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard”.
It would be fair to say that my friend Sarah doesn’t share my enthusiasm for my trip. Moreover, it turns out her opinion is shared by the majority of my American friends. “You’re an idiot,” said another, when I explained my brilliant plan. “Are you freaking kidding me?” wondered a third.
Even my insistence that the trip is “for work” has fallen mainly on deaf ears, except in the case of my friend Kate, who snarkily enquired if that meant I was planning on becoming a prostitute.
Actually, Kate isn’t far off the mark: the naked commercial truth is that I have a new book to promote. It tells the story of how I spent three years almost drinking myself to death in hotels around the world, and my publisher — in the form of my “Publicity Manager”, Jess — asked me for ideas on how I could promote it. “I could spend a month dicking around in Vegas hotels and writing about them” I suggested, without really thinking through how much work that would actually entail.
Jess’s reaction to the idea went way beyond mere professional approval: she was positively bouncing with excitement, while also seething with jealousy. And her enthusiasm and envy were shared by every one of the Brits and other Europeans to whom I mentioned the plan. My friend James from London promptly canceled all of his meetings and booked a plane ticket to join me for a week.
I’d expected a mixed reaction, but not one so neatly divided along nationality lines. My non-American pals can’t imagine a more fun place to spend a month than Vegas; while my American buddies would rather put their eyes out with the blunt end of a cocktail umbrella than set foot in the Bellagio or the MGM Grand.
So what gives? Why do so many Americans turn up their nose at Vegas, while we foreigners can’t get enough of it?
For a start, Americans’ familiarity with Vegas has matured into the mother of contempt. Forty years have passed since Hunter S. Thompson and his “Samoan“ Attorney jumped in their red shark and began the journey which would forever brand Vegas as the global center of decadence and depravity. In the four decades that followed the publication of “Fear and Loathing”, Las Vegas has swollen unrecognizably wider and taller and brighter and costlier and pornier. Compared to Thompson’s bleak and gritty Vegas, today’s Strip is like Disneyland — if Disneyland doubled its prices and paved its streets with badly-Photoshopped hookers.
Hollywood hasn’t helped: last year’s most popular movie— The Hangover — told the story of a gaggle of man-children who travel to Vegas and nearly drug themselves to death. Indeed, every single Vegas-based movie or TV show from the last couple of decades — Fear and Loathing, The Cooler, Showgirls, Leaving Las Vegas, Honeymoon in Vegas and every episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation — has delivered broadly the same message: Vegas will mess you up good.
And then there’s the mounting economic argument against celebrating the town. Over on the Daily Beast, Meghan “Daughter of John” McCain blames Vegas’s reputation as a den of reckless abandon for the fact that her father is no longer able to visit — lest Democrats accuse him of possessing poor judgment. Of course, a cynic might suggest that McCain’s choosing Sarah Palin as a running mate says more about his risk-assessment abilities than does enjoying a sly game of craps, but his daughter’s point stands: Vegas is not a place where sensible Americans should visit.
Why, then, do we foreigners still adore the place? Aren’t we supposed to be the cultured ones? Well, yes. And that’s sorta the point: we love Las Vegas for precisely the same reasons that we love America. The town is the living, breathing embodiment of the phrase “only in America”. Frankly, no other country but the USA would have the solid brass balls required to build the place; to see a patch of desert and declare “what this place needs is a bunch of casinos, hookers and a big, glass, Egyptian-themed pyramid with an American flag suspended from the ceiling!”
Sure, the Chinese have the money and the love of gambling, but they lack the showmanship: there’s a reason the Triads have failed to produce their own Sinatra. The Saudis love to waste their oil money on giant playgrounds surrounded by sand, but their squeamishness over booze and naked women takes them out of the running. Europe? Please. The Germans lack the sense of humor; the Spanish would never get it finished, we Brits don’t have the space — and the French? Two words: Disneyland Paris.
No, Vegas is as quintessentially American as a teenage kid pleasuring himself with an Apple Pie, and in the past half century or so it has grown to reflect all of the best and worst of the land of the free. The impossibly beautiful women; the love of risk-taking and the life-changing consequences those risks can bring; the sense of well-packaged fun; the really freaking amazing weather. Hell, the town even has its own Statue of Liberty, just like the one that has beckoned so many immigrants to a new life on these shores. Except, of course, the Vegas version has its own roller coaster. Tired and huddled masses? Not any more!
And yet — I’ve been in America long enough to see both sides of the argument. A couple of weeks ago, when I found myself slipping into a rut in San Francisco and wanted to recharge my pro-American batteries, Vegas still seemed like the natural place to do it. And yet, I’ve become Americanized enough (pants, aluminum, ‘erbs) that it troubles me to see the embodiment of America’s magic fall on such hard reputational times.
And so here I go. I’m writing these words from my room at the London hotel in LA, where I’ve just arrived from San Francisco. Tomorrow morning I plan to rent a suitably American car (a Viper? a Challenger? Suggestions in the comments, please) and drive three hours across the desert until I hit the Sahara. From there, I’ll just follow the best deals along the strip, writing about whatever fun occurs along the way.
More importantly though, I want to spend the bulk of my trip away from the bright lights. To meet some of the people who work and play in Vegas, with no less hubristic a goal than to figure out what modern Vegas can tell us about the state of the American dream.
I want to spend one day with a Vegas cop, and another with some kind of sex worker (“FOR WORK”). I want to find God in a casino chapel and ask a real-estate agent to explain why the Vegas housing market is so screwed that people have to live in storm drains. I want to meet someone who lives in a storm drain. I also want to get married to a cocktail waitress dressed as Elvis, shoot an assault rifle, jump off a building and talk to fat people in the Burger King at the Luxor. God, I hate the Luxor, but I bet some interesting stories pass below its stupid pointy roof.
I don’t know how many of those plans will come to fruition: given the length and potential cost of this trip, I should probably have done some better planning. All I know for sure is that you’ll be able to follow my Vegas adventure every day, right here on the HuffPost. I’ve set up a Twitter thing for the trip too, if 24 whole hours is too long for you to wait between updates.
It’s perhaps fitting that, while various American editors were interested in a one-off piece about the trip, it took the Greek-born founder of what is now the content arm of America Online to see the full potential of the adventure. “You have to write a daily diary!” cried Arianna Huffington when she heard about the trip. “And take this Flip Cam! Get video!”
God bless you Arianna: the American Dream is you.
OK. Enough. I have a car to arrange and various supplies to collect, and then tomorrow it begins.
“Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas” – Hunter S. Thompson
To be continued…