The intention the night before had been to just have a couple of beers and then get an early night, as the tour left early. This never happened and I awoke with a dull ache in my head, and a mouth that felt like a dung beetle had crawled in during the night and left a small turd on my tongue. Despite this I still managed to get up in time. The Canadian girls hadn’t come down from their room the night before, so I asked Ingvild to tell them I said goodbye. When the tour bus arrived we threw in our stuff and set off on our journey across the American Southwest.
The bus was indeed full. In all there were thirteen of us, including our guide Klaus. Klaus said he was German/South African. He also insisted that each time we stop we must switch seating in order that we all get to know each other.
The minibus drove on through the pitted streets and highways of LA, and after what seemed like an eternity we finally reached the city limits. Now we were in the desert. The multilane highway slimmed down to a single road; a dry, dusty brown earth lay either side and stretched off to an arid mountainous landscape upon which scattered clouds formed patchy shadows. It was so open and desolate – a far cry from the cluttered, smoggy streets of the city.
We made a short lunch stop at a factory outlet in the middle of nowhere before heading to the Nevada border. This was where the gambling life began. The actual stateline housed a themepark, hotel and casino. We entered the casino and walked through a tunnel of blinking and beeping slot machines, to the sound of money being won and lost. This was only the beginning though, there was more to come. The main reason for stopping here was the roller coaster. Klaus had tickets that got us on for half price if we went in pairs. Unfortunately I was in the toilet when he gave them out and no one else wanted to go. So I lost out. I wasn’t bothered though, there was still the Stratosphere.
Las Vegas is Spanish for ‘The Meadows’. It was discovered by a young Mexican scout called Rafael Rivera. He was part of a 60-man party led by Mexican trader Antonio Armijo. The party was making its way along the old Spanish trail to Los Angeles in 1829. While the party made camp Christmas day 100 miles northeast of present day Las Vegas, a scouting party rode west in search of water. Rafael left the party and ventured into the unexplored desert alone. Many days later he discovered Las Vegas Springs and staked it as a reliable water source for other travellers. This discovery shortened the Spanish Trail to Los Angeles, facilitating trade within Mexico. In 1835 fifteen Spanish families established a town at Las Vegas springs and by the time the United States took possession of the territory there was a thriving community of some 1500 Spanish settlers. A few years after Fort Union was built and the city began to grow rapidly. In the years to come such notorious men as Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Doc Holiday were to come and seek their fortunes in this city. When the ‘Wide Open Gambling Bill’ of Nevada was passed in 1930 major casino action soon moved into Vegas and paved the way for Las Vegas to become the entertainment capital of the world.
The thing about Vegas is that it’s in the middle of the desert and reliable water source or not, it hardly seemed fitting to call it the meadows. So I figured that either this man had a sense of humour, or he was so delirious from lack of water that he was hallucinating. But in actual fact the name is more appropriate than it sounds. Prehistoric Southern Nevada was in fact a virtual marsh of abundant water and vegetation. But over the years the water receded and an arid, parched landscape evolved. However water was trapped below the surface of the Las Vegas valley and sporadically surfaced to nourish plantlife, thus creating an oasis in the desert as the life-giving water flowed to the Colorado River.
We arrived late afternoon. After mile upon mile of barren emptiness Las Vegas just seemed to suddenly appear. It didn’t ease us in gently with suburbs like most cities. We just hit the city limits and were instantly engulfed in giant magnificent hotels and casinos all lining the multilane highways. It was quite spectacular.
We went straight to our hotel, which was just a simple Days Inn adjacent to the Strip. Klaus paired us off two to a room and told us to meet in the bar at six. My roommate was Neil. He was from England and on his way home after travelling in Australia for the past year. Once we’d settled in we met up with a few of the others in the bar for an early drink. Although Klaus intended for everyone to get along and not go off in groups, it can’t really be helped because not everyone has the same interests. Our little group consisted of Mark, Neil, myself, a Dutchman called Bart and a Danish guy called René. As we waited for the others we played on the black jack machines to warm up for the evening; not that any of us intended doing any heavy gambling that night, after all we were budget travellers.
At six o’clock everyone was gathered together at the bar, sipping our one complimentary drink offered by the hotel. The security officer eyed our group curiously. He then approached and informed the two Danish girls in the group that they had to leave the area because they were under age. Both were nineteen and able to drink back home. But as the legal age is twenty-one in the US they had no choice but to leave. So we all finished our drinks and headed out for dinner.
Dinner came in the form of an all-you-can-eat buffet. It seemed this type of meal was common all over Vegas and most of the big exclusive hotels lay on an extravagant spread. The one problem with this though is that you feel you really must get your money’s worth.
For me this was exacerbated by the fact that all this food was laid out in front of me in such a way as to positively tease my tastebuds. Large portions of red and white meat lay there soaked in a variety of mouth-watering sauces. There was a large pot of creamy potatoes, pans of greasy chips, vegetables, savouries, and much, much more. And to mop up after was a basket of bread rolls. And it was all-you-can-eat, so when I’d finished that I could go up for seconds, and thirds and so on until my stomach could take no more. And when that happened, there was dessert.
I had forgotten about that.
But how could I resist the delectable array of ice creams and fudge brownies with cream. So I manipulated my stomach in order to make room for dessert. I was certainly getting my money’s worth, and my stomach was beginning to show it.
After the meal Klaus took us on a short tour that took in a few of the shows, then dropped us off at one of the casinos. He informed us that he would be going back to the hotel at eleven o’clock, and if anyone wanted a lift then they were to be at the bus then. This was the part I liked. The freedom to do as I pleased. That’s the only thing I don’t like about taking a tour, when you get to do or see something there is always a time restriction. Well I was free now and intended to make the best of it.
We watched a mock battle between the English and French in eighteenth century battleships outside one of the larger hotels. It was quite an impressive display, although the actor’s accents were a bit questionable.
When the show ended we crossed the road and entered one of the smaller casinos. A bottle of beer cost one dollar in the casinos, so I got myself a drink and decided to see if the practice earlier had paid off. I surveyed the area for a black jack machine, got myself five dollars worth of quarters (well come on, I am a backpacker after all) and dumped them in one of the many coin buckets that were in abundance around the machines. I then plonked myself down at my chosen machine, lit a cigarette and was ready.
Now I blended in with the many other slot machine junkies. I couldn’t believe just how addictive this actually was. The more I poured coins in, the more that came out in the winning tray. I must have been there for over an hour, winning one minute and losing the next. The flashing lights sent me into a trance-like state. I was oblivious to everything around me. As far as I was concerned the rest of the world didn’t exist. It’s quite easy to see how someone could lose their life savings in one of these things.
Eventually I managed to prise myself away from the machine and made my way to the cashier with what was left in my bucket. All around me was the sound of money hitting tin. Someone across the room won big and sirens and flashing lights alerted everyone to this fact. It all seemed very clever to me: a big win that sends the adrenaline rushing and makes you believe that you can do the same. Consequently more money gets poured into the machines. The fever has begun.
On my way to the cashier I came across a lost-looking René. He had missed the bus back and couldn’t find the others.
‘Do you know the way back?’ he asked.
‘Err, I think so,’ I replied.
I told him to wait while I changed my winnings. At the cashier I was surprised to learn that I was up by five dollars, and so decided to go paint the town red on the winnings; well at least have a drink at the hotel bar. Until now I hadn’t really spoken much to René. But now that I did I found him to be very funny. In fact his humour was right on par with mine, which made the walk back extremely entertaining. He had a strange monotone voice, with an almost psychotic tinge to it. I could imagine him in an old black and white horror movie, or narrating late night episodes of Tales of the Unexpected.
As we left the casino we found ourselves on the nerve centre of Vegas, the Strip. A mile-long road of massive theme hotels and casinos, each catering to the every whim of the visitor. It was extremely tempting to just stay out all night, but we had an early start the next morning. The only thing I knew for sure was that our hotel was on the street parallel to the Strip, so I figured that if we walked straight up we would soon see it.
Vegas was positively alive with people and flashing lights. Earlier that evening Klaus had told us that one man alone was responsible for changing light bulbs. Now that was without doubt the only job in the world where you could guarantee a job for life. René and I walked along, making detours through some of the casinos along the way, until we came across Ballys; a casino that is reputed to be owned still by the Mafia.
Obviously we had to take a look.
The place was magnificent. We traversed an extremely long, moving walkway that whisked us through fountains, over rivers and eventually to the entrance. It was almost like entering a palace. I wondered how much it cost to stay there. I had been told that during the week many of the hotels offer cheap deals. So I made a mental note to return one day and treat myself to a room in one of these places.
We strolled through the entrance and into a huge room filled with blinking, beeping and flashing machines, each with a zombified human-being sat in front. Waitresses dressed in skimpy outfits kept the zombies supplied with free drinks, only expected a tip every now and then. René and I each took a picture, after which I suddenly had a terrible thought.
‘You realise that we now have incriminating evidence in these cameras!’ I said to René.
‘You’re right,’ he replied, raising his eyebrows in a feigned expression of concern, ‘they will be rushing to seal the exits right now.’
‘Right,’ I said, eyes scanning the area, ‘let’s stroll casually towards the exit and keep an eye out for suspicious-looking men with Italian/American accents.’
Due to skilful tactics, or the fact that no one was following us, we made it out alive and have now sent the films to the Feds.
Back in our hotel we plonked ourselves at the bar and ordered a couple of drinks. Even there it was possible to gamble. Built into the surface of the bar were more slot machines. An old man across from us was pouring a fortune into his. He won a lot, but just kept putting it back in. In the end he walked away empty-handed.
Sat next to me was a tubby, middle-aged man clad in denim dungarees and a red baseball cap. Whilst ordering one drink after another – spirits followed by chasers – he told us all about himself.
‘I’m an Apache,’ explained Eppy, ‘from New Mexico.’
‘And what are you doing here in Las Vegas?’ I asked.
‘I live here. I work as an electrician,’ he replied, downing his whisky in one gulp and then ordering another as he moved on to the chaser.
I don’t suppose there was much call for an electrician in an Apache tribal camp.
As the evening progressed he became more and more drunk.
‘So what about you cowboy?’ he slurred, allowing a heavy hand to land on René’s shoulder.
René’s bottom lip quivered as he fought to suppress the laughter welling up inside him. Seeing me laugh behind his back didn’t help much. Before René could reply Eppy turned and called over some bloke he didn’t even know, and offered to buy him and his wife and drink. We had befriended him and he didn’t offer us the same courtesy.
The man was from New Jersey. He was quite tall and stockily built with a head of wild hair. The ensuing conversation sounded like a scene from a Robert De-niro or Al Pacino movie.
‘So how you doing?’ asked Eppy.
‘Yeah pretty good. We’re down about six hundred bucks about now. But hey! You gotta do what you gotta do, you know!’
‘Fuckin A!’ replied Eppy, most eloquently.
Eppy had told me that he starts work at five in the morning. And tomorrow was a workday. He didn’t leave the bar until three. Having someone like that working on the electrics in Vegas, wasn’t a very comforting thought.
We left Vegas at eight the next morning and headed out to the Grand Canyon. Along the way we stopped at Williams in Arizona. Williams is a small town situated on the original Route 66, the infamous trail that brought the settlers from the eastern territories. It was also where we were sleeping that night. We stopped there for a bite to eat and a look around the tourist shop, then headed out to the canyon. Klaus first took us to a lookout point before leading us to the start of the trail that led down into the canyon. We were at an altitude of 8000ft. The view was breathtaking. The mighty Colorado River which had carved out this natural wonder over thousands of years, was just a tiny trickle of water in this immense gaping wound in the earth. As we stood on a ledge that dropped off into the depths of the earth, René and I stared open-mouthed and simply said: ‘Fuckin A!’
The canyon is one the seven natural wonders of the world. It’s five million years old and 277 miles long. We were stood at the edge of the South Rim – the north rim being 1000 feet higher and having a wetter climate. This giant crater is one mile deep and eighteen miles wide in some places. The inner southern half is hot and dry, and is only accessible by boat, mule or foot. We were going by the latter.
It was already quite late in the afternoon and so we were warned not to go down too far, as the fine for being in the canyon without a permit after nine at night was $200. I was unstoppable going down. I wanted to get as far as possible. In fact I wanted to go and swim in the river. The small, dusty trail zigzagged its way down the edge of the crater, occasionally taking us across a ledge representing a sheer drop onto the jagged rocks below.
Halfway down we passed one of the park rangers. He echoed the warning about being in the canyon after nine. His advice to us all was to turn back before the three-mile point. When that time came the rest of them had to drag me. We had been hiking for ages and the river was still just a trickle in the distance. I wrestled with the idea of risking the fine and continuing on alone. It was warm enough and I felt sure I would find a cave to hide in. But then again snakes live in those caves. Also my backpack was back up there in the van. Common sense won over and reluctantly I followed them. I would just have to return another day with a permit. The walk back up was a different story, though. Going down I had been running on adrenaline. Now my enthusiasm was drained and I puffed and wheezed my way back up, the empty water bottle a cause for concern. So I was eternally thankful when we passed a tap that produced fresh water piped from a nearby stream.
At the top we remained there to watch the sunset, but were all so busy talking that we missed it. We then drove to Williams, checked into our motel and ate at a local Mexican restaurant. From there a few of us popped into the local bar for a night-cap. This was a real country bar. The only thing missing were the swinging doors, much to my disappointment. I’ve always wanted to do that.
Dancing at the bar was a denim-clad couple, each wearing a stetson. Along from them sat an old man in a baseball cap, and slumped against the jukebox was a bloke bearing a striking resemblance to the cartoon character Yosemite Sam. A sign above the bar confirmed the suspicion that this might well be a rough place. It read:
Anyone causing a fight in this bar will be eighty-sixed.
The middle-aged tough-looking woman tending bar informed us that eighty-sixed meant ‘to be thrown out’.
I imagined she would be the one to do it also.
We ordered a round of beers and played pool and a strange game that consisted of sliding a metallic disc down a long wooden surface and trying to get as close to the end as possible. At 25 cents a go, it kept us entertained all night.
The next morning we stopped at the Valley of Fire National Park and Hoover Dam before arriving back in Vegas. Hoover Dam is an incredible feat of engineering and claimed the lives of many of its builders. What impressed me the most was the fact that they actually diverted the Colorado River to a better spot on which to build. Hoover Dam is one of the seven manmade wonders of the world and was built over a period of four years. It’s definitely a sight worth seeing.
Back in Vegas the night was ours to do with as we pleased. Mark and I intended to take the Stratosphere rides, after which we would hit the casinos followed by a club. Eppy was once again at the hotel bar. He recommended a club to us and also gave me a piece of advice on the Stratosphere rides. ‘When you go on the Big Shot, hold your arms out as you come down and you’ll levitate.’
Mark, René and I headed straight for the Stratosphere. At 1149-feet tall this building towers high above the rest. At the top it houses an open-air roller coaster and the Big Shot ride. The Big Shot is a 192-foot steel pylon perched on the very centre of the roof. What you do is sit on one of the seats attached to its side and wait to be propelled to the top at a speed of about forty-five miles per hour. You are then allowed to free-fall back to the bottom. Sounds exciting, don’t you think?
From the ground it didn’t look all that bad. So we joined the long queue for the elevator and were soon whisked to the observation tower at the top of the building. Standing in the queue it was a different story. Down below we hadn’t heard the screams of the riders or watched in amazement as they were shot into the air like a bullet from a gun. I began to wonder if I had been a bit hasty in purchasing that ticket.
When our turn came we were strapped into our seats and lifted slightly off the ground and suspended there. I gripped my seat and felt the wind on my face as I stared at the lights of Vegas a thousand feet below. I was shitting myself! I just hoped that the brakes were good or else Mark and I would be joining that very short list of Brits in space.
They kept us waiting. Bastards! I tried to prepare myself for what was about to happen, but it never came. Then in about two seconds I was at the top gasping for air. My heart pumped furiously and I got about a second to admire the view before we were released again. We glided back down at a speed that meant my stomach was left behind and had to re-join me later on the ground. The process was repeated a few times before being lowered to safety. I had remembered what Eppy had told me, but there was no way in hell I was letting go of that seat. It was without a doubt the most intense ride I had ever been on. We then took the roller coaster ride, but to be honest after the Big Shot a bungee jump off the side of the building would have been less exciting. I should have done the roller coaster first.
For obvious reasons we hadn’t eaten anything before the ride. I for one didn’t relish the idea of spewing it all over Vegas. It was already quite late because we’d had to queue for so long to get on the rides. Buses ran up and down the Strip 24 hours a day so we took one to the Luxor and had the buffet there. This one was even more delicious than the last. Our adventure had given us a huge appetite and we gorged ourselves to the point of bursting. A big mistake as it turned out. With so much food inside us, we waddled out of the building resembling a group of constipated ducks.
We made our way through a maze of dark, narrow streets to the nightclub Eppy had recommended. I had imagined Vegas to be dirty and very dangerous, but this didn’t appear to be true. The streets were clean and felt relatively safe.
We arrived at the club and found it virtually empty. Not such a bad thing really. We were so stuffed that all we could do was sit at the bar groaning and sipping small amounts of beer at long intervals. Any dancing or chatting up of the opposite sex would more than likely have ended up in a technicolor yawn. Inside the entrance to the club was a cash machine. A good idea if you get lucky and find you don’t have any money to buy her a drink. Although when you are drunk you lose all rational thought and might end up spending more than you intended.
Back at the hostel I was not surprised to see Eppy still slumped at the bar. We spent the rest of the evening sipping Jack Daniel’s, whilst all the blood in our bodies rushed to our stomachs to digest the big pile of food sitting inside.
We were allowed a lie-in the next morning before returning to LA for the finish of the trip, and the next stage of mine.