Long live what, exactly?
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
As you read this, I’m on the highway, speeding through the desert on the way to Las Vegas.
Gambling? Ha, I only gamble with my life. In some twisted way, money seems too important to risk. That’s why we’re going more for the rock climbing and warmer temps at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, which is just west of the riff-raff.
My girlfriend has never been to the iconic American city. So we’re spending the week there.
Las Vegas is a sticking point for cross-generational lore. Stories, books and movies are continuously captivated by it, and a lot more. Johnny Depp, playing Hunter Thompson in the movie, “Fear and Loathing,” even suggested that the “vortex of the American dream” was at a spinning bar in a Las Vegas hotel – Circus Circus.
Indeed, the Strip might be the vortex of our fake, glitzy-glam-wowza-biggest-best-gimmie consumer culture; and if it is, that’s sad. But if it is, it seems important for every American to at least see it once and find whatever introspections might be drawn, just like a pair of cards. Besides, it’s not like it’s no fun at all.
My first trip to that artificial city of light was on spring break, my junior year of college. I drove out with two other buddies who had also just turned 21. Our focus was rock climbing, but we were just as curious to find strange adventure in that fabled place.
Mars Volta sang in a high, wailing voice, “N-o-w I’m loooost, lost. Lossst,” to a head-bang beat when we rolled into town. I’d never heard the band until my buddy cranked it up in his car that afternoon. It seemed eerily appropriate in a way I never forgot.
I sat in the backseat and gazed at the Martian scene as we passed through. People looked like fish swimming in an aquarium. Some looked uptight. Some smiled. Some prowled and some staggered.
Orange sun blazed through the haze, casting long shadows between the towering fountains and hotels. We kept driving and found a campsite on a BLM road 30 miles off, on the city’s western horizon. There, we stood beside our tents and watched the Luxor beam shoot straight, white light to the stars on a moonless night.
Days later, we started our city adventure by getting drunk with “Sonny,” a bum on the strip. Later, I wrote a story about it for a journalism class “cross-cultural” assignment. That’s when I learned extreme poverty and exorbitant wealth travel together. Sonny lived off the giant’s cascading crumbs.
We spent 24 more hours in the city. I even lost $1 in a slot machine before I gave up and simply watched. Being a small-town boy, any city seems daring to me. I’d rather face mountains ropeless than a city alone.
By the end of that first trip, we were all cranky and ready to be out of the hustle. Returning to our tents was a return to sanity and a world that made sense.
Since then, I’ve passed through for an occasional night on other road trips, but this week will be my third time actually going to Las Vegas.
In the past, I’ve peeled out of the Circus Circus bus parking lane driving my friend’s Honda stick, tires squealing and burning like a lonely, tortured note in a void of emptiness. I’ve passed out on a cheap motel floor with dead cockroaches, eaten breakfast in dark casino basements I can’t find my way out of due to all the mirrors, and in general felt very lost in the culture there.
I guess that means I have more to learn about myself and the values of what is at least a definite part of our culture. It sometimes seems we suck the Colorado dry for little more than a big splash while school budgets are hacked to build more bombs, jails and border fences, and the earth is strip-mined to build more iPhones and LED lights for the buildings that will generate lots of money that will be used to build more buildings.
Still, I’ll have fun out there in the desert. Hopefully I’ll catch my first Cirque du Soleil show and show my girlfriend a good time.
It’s not like I have the power to undo Las Vegas. The city’s more of a symptom, anyway. So I’ll go ahead and feed the animal some more of my dollars. Perhaps if I observe the thing long enough I’ll find our fixation with it. Even as you read this, I’m singing, “Viva Las Vegas.”
– Derek Franz’s column now appears on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month in the Post Independent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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