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Las Vegas: The glowing neon pig of the desert

Gary Hubbell

“It’s a sick old whore of a town, isn’t it?” said my friend Jon when I told him that I had just come back from Las Vegas. Yes, I agreed, but she was an old whore who had married into a lot of money and spent a whole bunch of it on plastic surgery.Man, what a town.I suppose you already know all about Las Vegas. Judging from the throngs of people who were there, most everybody in America has been there recently. My friend Mike paid my way for a five-day trip to Vegas if I would come along as his photographer on a golf project he was starting. Not a bad gig – taking pictures of pretty models on a warm golf course in the desert in January. He was trying to keep the budget down, so we stayed at the Tropicana, one of the older hotels on the Strip. In its day, the Tropicana was the cat’s meow, the happening place to gamble and relax in the desert. It’s a huge hotel, with two 20-story towers of at least 1,000 rooms each. If it were placed in any major city, such as Cleveland, St. Louis, or even Los Angeles, it would likely be the biggest hotel around.Now, however, the Tropicana is out of date and well used, home to the budget-conscious gamblers who just need a place to sleep between money-losing bouts in the still-busy casino. It either needs a major upgrade or, better yet, a complete demolition.No matter. It’s been done before. Las Vegas is in an arms race of “bigger, better, more fantastic,” and casinos that were considered the rage just five years ago suddenly seem passé. For example, the MGM Grand is a beautiful giant hotel with green-tinted windows that make it glow like illuminated jade from a distance. A 40-foot golden lion and a fountain graces the entrance, and of course there’s the obligatory neon lights everywhere. Yawn.The New York, New York casino across the street is a more happening place. On the outside, the skyline mimics the best of the New York landmarks – the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge. When you step inside, it’s just like wandering the streets of downtown Manhattan on a Saturday night, with Irish pubs, Italian restaurants and brownstone buildings. The Venetian has a section where you’d swear you were wandering through Venice at dusk. There are alleyways of shops, bakeries, restaurants, and even canals and bridges, complete with gondolas and gondoliers.And, of course, the card tables and slots are thronged with people gambling. There’s lots of money on the tables, anytime, all the time. Las Vegas tried a family-themed vacation park idea for a while, and found that while Mom and Dad and their three little kids were playing all day in the theme park, they’d spend $100, but Dad wasn’t at the blackjack table blowing the next month’s mortgage and Mom wasn’t putting the car payment through the slot machines.After a couple of years, Disneyland in Vegas was trashed, and they came up with a much more potent marketing slogan: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”Everybody is looking to get laid. Apparently escort services can’t advertise on billboards, so they drive around with delivery trucks carrying 20-foot moving billboards, advertising “Girls, girls, girls!” Mexicans stand on the sidewalks, handing out cards featuring naked women and phone numbers to call. That’s only if you can’t hook up on your own. At the Hard Rock casino, the circular bar was thronged with 20-somethings in trendy clothes. The women had hip-hugger jeans and midriff tops, sparkly makeup and tinted hair. The men wore their shirts untucked, their hair tousled, and their shoes had square toes. It looked like salmon swimming upstream to spawn. What a scene.In the “older” clubs, men and women alike looked their best, dancing awkwardly to ’80s hits played by a good but weary cover band, and tried to wipe the pain from their brains as they “celebrated” their divorces.In the midst of it all are hordes of Asian tourists walking the Strip, gawking at all the lights and sounds, snapping countless pictures, and generally getting in the way.The entire scenario is played out in the throes of a massive denial. How can one town support dozens of giant hotels with fantastic amenities, if not for gambling? How many people have thrown away entire fortunes, placing their families and futures in jeopardy, after throwing it away on the craps tables? What does it cost to keep all those lights lit, those linens changed, those AC units blowing cold? Las Vegas is a massive energy pig, and in times when energy is costing more and more, Las Vegas keeps building bigger and bigger, consuming more and more.And then there’s water. That’s where we have a say in it. By the time the Colorado River reaches the Mexican border, it’s a salty little trickle of silt and agricultural runoff. A great deal of our Colorado River water is pumped through fountains, golf course irrigation systems, and hotel plumbing in Las Vegas, Nev. The dusty hellhole of a valley that holds Las Vegas receives only 4 inches of rainfall a year. Everywhere I went, Las Vegas residents were asking me how much snow was in the Colorado high country this year. Every time I answered that we have a great snowpack this year, they breathed a sigh of relief.A hundred years from now, today’s Las Vegas will be seen in a totally different light, refracted in a prism of energy and water scarcity. We will see it as a colossal waste, a once-in-a-million-years phenomenon of greed, lust and excess.Gary Hubbell and his wife, Doris, own OutWest Guides, LLC, in Marble, where they outfit summer horseback rides and autumn elk and deer hunts. Gary is a freelance writer and photographer and a native of Carbondale.


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