Gaudy, bawdy Las Vegas

by Nancy.Lyon

Las Vegas is built on cliché and hyperbole, incongruity and anachronism. And that's exactly what makes it such fun

Howdy folks, from gaudy, bawdy Las Vegas, Nevada. And greetings from the zany drag queens at La Cage, the talking camels at the Luxor, Liberace’s ghost and the sexy pirates at Buccaneer’s Bay and...

Ho, ho, ho - I’ve just had my watch picked right off my wrist. Such a thing to happen in a Roman catacombs. In Caesar’s world of 2,000 years ago, there were no wristwatches. But this is Vegas - where all centuries, epochs, countries, styles of architecture, and styles of decadence happen at once. Where volcanoes erupt, knights jousts and albino tigers and lions pounce, just to entertain you.

On the kitschy Vegas Strip, you can go from New York City to a gladiator’s heathen Rome, King Tut’s Egypt, King Arthur’s medieval England, a 24th-century space station, all with the hail of a taxi. In this entertainment town, twinkling audaciously in the parched Mojave Desert, you can watch dolphins frolicking in saltwater pools and pirates fighting in a fake Caribbean Sea. You can watch the sinking of the Titanic or the sinking of a British frigate after a fully-rigged pirate ship bashes it with cannons, while French cancan dancers and Radio City Rockettes kick on and on, and gamblers bow to an 8,000 lb, gold-plated Thai Buddha for good luck.

Las Vegas is built on cliché and hyperbole, incongruity and anachronism. That’s the fun of it. The Las Vegas News Bureau touts the 350ft-high glass pyramid Luxor hotel thus: “The world’s most powerful beam of light atop the pyramid is visible to pilots 250 miles away in Los Angeles. The atrium in the middle of the pyramid can hold nine Boeing 747s stacked one on top of another.”

Only in Las Vegas, could I travel back 20 centuries to Caesar’s Rome to have my Timex Indiglo Navigator lifted off my wrist. It happened in the Sultan’s Palace Theatre of Caesar’s Magical Empire, after the magician dragged me on stage to be part of his act. 

That evening began, as all Vegas evenings begin, with a walk through a few flashing, binging casinos. In Las Vegas hotels, casinos are purposefully situated between the guest rooms and the lobby. You must pass by rows of one-armed bandits to get to your room. My first night at the Bellagio, I’d gambled - or, as they prefer to say now, “gamed” - my wad to get it out of my system. In Las Vegas, the average gaming budget per trip is $500. Mine was five cents. I gambled one nickle and won five. Then quit while I was ahead.

My ears ringing with Bellagio and Caesar’s Palace slot music, I finally arrived at Caesar’s Magical Empire to greet my dinner companions. A card-shuffling magician led us into the small, dark Chamber of Destiny. After a statue of Caesar perked to life, raised his arm and turned his thumb down, the Chamber suddenly dropped a few storeys. We stumbled into a dank, misty catacombs, where a Roman centurion and the smell of meat awaited us. But was it to eat - or to be eaten?

Ceronomus the Sorcerer lead us into a flickering dining chamber. We were instructed to tear our pentagrams to signify beef, pork, chicken or veggie and drop them into a gunny sack. (Obviously, the soothsayer would divine which order was whose.) Goblets of wine and our wizard’s dry British wit kept us in stitches, until we were rushed through dessert and led into the cavernous Sanctum Secorum. Giant leering gargoyles, leaping fire, forbidden crypts and bottomless pits - the setting for an Indiana Jones adventure, but for the wisecracking skeletons named Habeus and Corpus.

A few magic shows later, I was called from the audience to become a stooge in a magic trick. There I was, alone on the stage of the Sultan’s Palace Theatre, feeling around in a little black bag for a rubber egg. It seemed like the dumbest magic trick of all. The egg that had been inside the bag a second ago had vanished. Then presto! The egg was back in the bag. Had it dropped from the ceiling? I limped off the stage in disbelief, when the bow-tied prestidigitator said to me, “Oh darling - here’s your wristwatch.”

My wristwatch? Its thick leather band had been looped tightly twice around my wrist. And I never felt a thing! “Darling, don’t you know how magic originated? To pick pockets!”

I love Vegas. Here, every megahotel is a mini-Disneyland. You can gawk for free. You can spend a fortune on a room above the Bellagio’s $30 million art collection of Gauguins, Picassos, Cézannes, Matisses and Manets - or bed down at the Las Vegas Backpacker’s Resort, a budget motel or even a trailer park. Regardless of room rates, nobody sleeps in Vegas. My friend Lucy had a room in the Treasure Island Hotel’s fake pirate village. Outside her window, every 90 minutes between 3pm and 10.30pm, the pirate ship in Buccaneer Bay blasted the British frigate Britannia, filling the air above the crowds with real fire and real smoke, as the frigate and crew “sank” into the fake Caribbean Sea. She thought the whole thing “a hoot.”

Incongruities. Vegas is lousy with them. Where else can you be browsing in a ritzy hotel shop selling $10,000 writing instruments and $4,000 crystal-encrusted Judith Leiber handbags - and learn all about the evil tumbleweeds in West Texas? The glittering fruit-shaped evening bags had caught my eye, and so I got to talking with the salesperson from Ada, Oklahoma about them. But we quickly veered off to West Texas. “If you ever go there, don’t ever stop for a tumbleweed,” she warned me. What?“If a tumbleweed gets in your way, keep on driving, honey. Never get out of your car to look at a tumbleweed. You can die." Die???“Tumbleweeds always travel in groups. If you stop, they’ll collect around your car. Then you can’t open your doors or windows. And you're stuck inside, and you can't see to drive. And nobody can see your car. So if you don't get hit by a truck first, you'll get asphyxiated."

I always thought tumbleweeds were cute lazy things in country and western songs. Horrified to know they’re as evil as Roman centurions with nets and tridents. You learn the darndest things in Las Vegas.



Nancy Lyon's travel adventures began on her 13th summer when her mother, a bored and restless Indianapolis housewife, hauled her four young daughters into the family station wagon and drove off to Acapulco - with no man, no plan, and no Spanish! Nancy has tried to top that rollicking rite of passage ever since, with North American road trips in a yellow 1970 Volkswagen camper "Dame Gitane," a busking-with-Celtic-harp tour of Europe on which she dragged her Mom, and larks from Tunisia to Malaysia, Egypt to Ireland and Australia, and in between. Nancy's first travel piece appeared in the New York Times in 1973, and when the Times featured her article on California's Death Valley in an advert to promote its travel section, she was hooked on the genre. Nancy's work has appeared in British and Australian magazines, GEO, New York Magazine, Ms.,Travel & Leisure, The Saturday Review, the Chicago Herald Tribune, the Miami Herald, In Dublin Magazine, the Montreal Gazette, and U.S. and Canadian alternative newsweeklies. The Toronto Star called her book Scatter the Mud: A Traveler's Medley, "impressive...with prose by turns as frenetic as a Galway barroom jig, or as balefully evocative as the most mournful Celtic ballad." After lives in in Manhattan, San Francisco, Switzerland, Dublin, Montreal, Quebec, and the Finger Lakes Region of Western New York State, Nancy now abides in Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands, where she uncovers odd Scottish things for with her piper-hubby Gordon Mooney.