Previous Posts: Part 1
Day 2: A Different Look at Las Vegas
I left L.A. around ten, after the morning rush hour, and made it out of town without too much traffic. East of L.A. you drive through these suburbs, Covina, Rancho Cucamonga, where it feels like there’s just nothing there, no civilization, houses, office buildings, just these freeways that are impossibly wide, Red Sea wide, that all stack on top of each other at junctions like coiled snakes. I drove through the desert town of Barstow, thinking of Hunter Thompson, and wondering who lives in those towns, Barstow and Baker, that are just freeway stops for trucks and tourists on their way to Vegas, gas stations and chain restaurants and nothing else.
I hit Vegas in the mid-afternoon. I’ve been there a couple of times before, each time on a bachelor party, staying in one of the monstrous casino resorts on the strip, and I thought it’d be interesting to do something different this time, so I stayed in downtown Vegas. Old Vegas. In fact, I stayed at the Golden Gate, which claims to be the original Vegas casino. I made this decision for several reasons: 1) As I said, I wanted to see a part of Vegas that I hadn’t seen before; 2) the hotel was cheap, $30 for the night, and I wasn’t planning on gambling or clubbing anyway, because 3) my main goal was to hang out with an old high school friend of mine who lives in Vegas and who I only get to see maybe once a year.
There were a number of immediate weaknesses in this plan. First, the “Fremont Street Experience” sucks. The casinos totally lack the “wow” factor of utter outsized artificiality that the places on the Strip have and which is kind of the whole point of Vegas. The Fremont Street places just seem totally sad, kind of like one of those neglected, crumbling neighborhoods in Detroit or Cleveland, but with neon lights.
Also, I was worried about my car, which even without the guitars brought upstairs contained a bunch of boxes of my stuff and was parked in a lot directly across the street from a Greyhound station and a Western Union. Also, the shower drain in my hotel room had something stuck in it that looked suspiciously like a condom. I’ll let you judge for yourself—I don’t actually know what a condom looks like. (Joking, I swear. God, I hope my mom never reads this.)
The hotels on the Strip also have great restaurants in them, but on Fremont we settled for Irish nachos (don’t ask) and club sandwiches. It was either that or get burgers at the Heart Attack Grill (whose “unofficial spokesman,” I am not kidding, died of a heart attack less than a week later). An anecdote to sum up the experience: We saw a woman in a vaguely Peacock-ish showgirl outfit take a photo with some fat tourist, and when the tourist walked away she followed him, much to our amusement, and explained to him that they work for tips, and he had neglected to live up to his end of the transaction.
Now, allow me to make a peace offering to downtown Vegas. When you come out of the far end of the awful Fremont Street Experience, you run into a neighborhood that’s clustered with bars where the people who actually live in Vegas go to drink. We went to one of these, the Downtown Cocktail Room, and proceeded to plow through five or six high-end bourbons each (Jefferson for me, Booker’s for my pal). It was a dark, loungey kind of place you’d find in any big city, but in addition to catching up with each other, we had conversations with a very friendly, knowledgeable bartender who gave us free samples of top shelf gin when he heard me say I don’t drink gin, and an amusing conversation with a Womens Studies professor at UNLV. (In brief, my buddy said he thought universities shouldn’t have Womens Studies programs, the prof gave him one of the most horrified looks I’ve ever seen on a person’s face, and then he explained that he thought those courses should just be a part of the broader required curriculum. They ended up getting along famously.)
At any rate, had a great time getting shitfaced with an old buddy, and even though I dropped probably $100 on bourbons over the course of the night, I stayed away from blackjack tables and strip clubs, so that was a win, budget-wise.
Days 3-4: Long Haul
I got up early and hit the road from Vegas to Albuquerque. This was the longest drive, mileage-wise, of the trip, 600-plus miles. And let me tell you, we’re talking 600-plus miles of just nothing. I really wish I had something interesting to say about this drive, but, uhhh … my gas mileage wasn’t that good because the 40 is up pretty high going through the mountains from Flagstaff to Albuquerque and I was doing 85 or 90 pretty much the whole time … and that’s pretty much it.
I spent the night in Albuquerque with my cousin, who’s a couple years older than me and has lived there his whole life. We ate pizza and killed a bottle of Crown (I have to admit, he did the lion’s share of the damage, as I was still hurting a bit from the boozing in Vegas) and watched some UFC with his Marine vet neighbor. My cousin was excited because he’d just bought an engagement ring, and I met his girlfriend, who became his fiancée a couple days later. Congrats, Cuz!
I intended to haul to Austin the next day, another 600-plus miles of driving through absolutely nothing. “Windswept” really is the right word for those towns in eastern New Mexico and west Texas. The landscape is utterly flat, and the wind sends tumbleweeds and sheets of dust sliding across the roads. The buildings are squat, adobe, weatherbeaten, every town a seemingly abandoned granary and a water tower bearing the town name—just like you see in every iteration of or variation on Friday Night Lights. The most interesting thing I passed was Fort Sumner, New Mexico, the town where Billy the Kid was killed and is buried. I was going to write an essay about people’s fascination with gravesites of minor historical figures, but in the intervening period, I lost interest. Also, I didn’t stop at the gravesite.
I also didn’t make it to Austin, in part because I got off the interstate and was driving on state highways (thanks, Google), which slowed down going through towns, and in part because it was just too fucking far. I ended up staying in a motel in Abilene. I was skeptical of the Best Value Inn because there was a sign behind the desk that advertised it as, essentially, a place for Christian people to stay (I didn’t write down the exact language), but it was cheap and I ended up experiencing some notable hospitality: The night manager, whose name I unfortunately also did not write down, told me that they had occasionally had cars broken into in the lot, and when I told him that I had a bunch of my stuff in my car, he let me pull it up and park it right in front of the door, under the front entrance light, where it would be safe. Good on you, Abilene Best Value Inn.
Next Time: Tex-Mex food, the relative weirdness of Austin, and one of my favorite country songs.