Every time I flush the toilet in Las Vegas, I feel like I just doubled my eco footprint. And it's Earth Day so I am extra guilty. Not guilty enough to pack and leave of course. Well, make it: not sober enough. Spending couple days here is probably less Earth-friendly than driving from Boston to Los Angeles in our truck for no particular reason other than writing this blog. But if you are trying to understand this country, you can do much worse than ending up in the casino oasis.
Las Vegas started as a staging area for Hover Dam builders. The location was chosen because it had ample underground water sources. The prevalence of Las Vegas springs made Nevada agree to receive only 2% of water available as a result of damming Colorado river. No one thought then that it's possible to exhaust underground water reserves. But the springs stopped flowing to the surface in 1962. And since then Nevada attempts to renegotiate the Colorado Compact. Or tap the Great Basin aquifer. Naive or rational people may think that concerns about diminishing and vital resource would slow the city growth. Instead the population more than doubled over the last 20 years. It's not a small achievement: in addition to being located in the desert, Las Vegas is also a suicide capital of the nation.
Urban sprawl aside, Las Vegas is known because of the Strip and its giant hotels. They are filled with an impressive array of diversions: shops, art galleries, theaters, bars, restaurants, zoos, aquariums, amusement parks, swimming pools, fountains, canals. There is also Eifel Tower, Brooklyn Bridge, St. Mark Square, Sphinx, Forum Romanum and all kinds of other minor landmarks. You really don't have to travel anywhere else. Everything is here in its cleaner, newer and air conditioned version. You don't even have to walk thanks to the dense network of walkways and monorails. By the way, people: they are called walkways for a reason. I can somehow understand that escalator make some heavier individuals lazy, but why Americans stop the minute they enter the moving walkway is beyond me. The only explanation is some kind of motion-activated brain freeze.
In any case, it's no contest: the idea of Paris where they speak English is irresistible to the public. No wonder people get confused when presented with the real thing. And not just people. Recently US Post Office issued a stamp depicting the Statue of Liberty. But not the old and tired one that we keep in New York, NY, but the younger and more easily accesible alternative kept in New York, New York hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Las Vegas might just be the only place on Earth where you need to stay at least mildly lubricated all the time to preserve your sanity. The exuberance of fountains, fake sky, better and worse art pieces lies somewhere between audacious and offensive. Among all that excess, the casinos themselves prove disappointing. More and more are relegated to, still lavishly decorated, back passages and basements. Gambling, which always seemed mind-numbingly boring, is now devoid of its luster and allure. I blame the computers. There is no deafening sound of mechanical one arm bandits any more. Simplistic electronic games dominate the floor. Live croupiers are retracting replaced by giant TV screens with interactive machine generated androids. And sadly, there are no coins to be seen anywhere. Everything is networked and works with paper tickets and magnetic cards. People, connected to slot machines with some kind of plastic cord attached to their frequent gambler card, remind me of the scene from the first Matrix movie: rows and rows of warm bodies attached to impersonal machines which suck the warmth, blood and other unspecified juices out of them. The beautiful people are to be found elsewhere. The casinos are full of bored, pale individuals trying hard to pretend they are having good time and failing at it with each push of a button. I know that there are stakes at which gambling gets exciting, but nobody here seems to be thrilled in that way.
And, if you do enjoy gaming and that's your reason to come here, why oh why would you choose to play the slots at 10 am, in the narrow dark passage, in front of the long line of people waiting for their worse than usual cup of Starbucks brew? At least dress up and go to one of numerous nice places. And play something classic like roulette or black jack. There is beauty and art in everything. Even in losing your hapless child's college fund.
Is it possible to find a metaphor in this mess? Let's forgo the obvious: last gasp of the imperium on the edge of collapse. For all we know it might be just a good party gone dull, and not national escapism. Or is it a contrived plan for the future? The ability to erect a city in the desert will come handy when the whole planet turns warm and dry.
I do enjoy Las Vegas for a day or two. A nice hotel, an excellent meal, an otherworldly Cirque de Soleil show, a late night drink on the Bellagio terrace. I know it's an illusion but I can suspend my disbelief for a moment. I prefer the real beauty of the desert though. Or may be I am just a humorless miser.