A Desert, In Two Senses

A Desert, In Two Senses March 25, 2015

I RECEIVED NEWS RECENTLY that an old friend has had some health issues, so I trekked to Las Vegas to see her and catch up. I hadn’t seen her for almost five years, and I found much had changed with her — and in Vegas; my friend because of her illness, and Vegas because the number-two industry in the city, after gambling, seems now to be the demolition of any building with the slightest hint of wear or anachronism.

Author and urbanist Jim Kunstler has said of Las Vegas:

In evolutionary biology, at the threshold of extinction organisms often attain gigantic size and a narrow specialty of operation that leaves them very little room to adapt when their environment changes even slightly. This is the predicament of Las Vegas. Its components have attained a physical enormity that will leave them vulnurable to political, economic, and social changes that are bearing down upon us with all the inexorable force of history.

Las Vegas evolved as a crude extrapolation of several elements of American culture: the defiance of nature, abnormally cheap land, vast empty space for expansion, and the belief that it is possible to get something for nothing — these elements all presenting themselves there in the most extreme form. The trouble with extrapolation as a growth model is that it assumes the continuation of all present conditions in the future, only more so. Since this is not consistent with how the world works, systems organized on this basis fail. Anyway, to extrapolate urban growth based only on extreme conditions invites certain catastrophe, since the law of unintended consequences will produce ever more compounded skewed outcomes. The destiny of Las Vegas, therefore, would seem bright in the same sense that a thermonuclear explosion is bright.

While Kunstler is onto something there, I think he’s being a bit too categorical.

For one thing, not everyone in the city is employed in facilitating tourists’ vice. My friend is a massage therapist for one of the resorts on The Strip. There are places to book helicopter tours of some of the spectacular nearby scenery, guided hikes in the nearby mountains and canyons, and so on.

For another thing, even on the notorious Strip — Las Vegas Boulevard, where most of the major resorts are located — it is possible to have good, clean fun. For example, we rode a contraption called the “High Roller” which bills itself as the tallest Ferris wheel in the world, and we took in a magic show by the duo Penn and Teller that was quite entertaining. I saw advertisements for a show with Donnie and Marie Osmond, and you really can’t get much more wholesome than that.

That said, Las Vegas has an unmistakably degenerate atmosphere that always makes being there a somewhat enervating experience for me.

I remarked to my friend that for people with certain kinds of vices, Vegas is a place to get deep in trouble very quickly. The bars never close, so if you’re an alcoholic, you can literally drink around the clock — as long as you’re not making an overt ass of yourself it is unlikely you will ever hear someone say, “I think you’ve had enough.”

A couple decades ago, I had a girlfriend whose father was a compulsive gambler, and he had moved to Las Vegas and gambled away her and her sister’s inheritance (he’d been a rather successful businessman before he retired). We drove down and visited him once, and I watched my girlfriend fight back tears as we saw him drop breathtaking amounts of money on the craps table and lose it all. I once asked a dealer if management would intervene if they saw someone losing lots of money, and she said, “Honey, that’s what they want.”

While actual prostitution is not legal within the city limits of Las Vegas (though I suspect that if you’re dropping lots of money at the Baccarat table, there is probably someone on staff who Knows A Guy), practically everything else up to that limit is on offer — in fact, is available in truly heroic quantities. There is a street named Industrial Boulevard that runs parallel to The Strip, and because it is a convenient alternate route to get around the core of Las Vegas (The Strip is a parking lot for most of the day), we went up and down it several times during my visit on our way to various places, driving past mile after mile of stripper emporiums, some of which were the size of Costco stores, their signage promising to provide customers with a view of all the female flesh they could ever want to see (and then some).

I’ve mentioned my love of deserts before, so driving into Las Vegas from the desert during Lent was an eye-opening experience. The peaceful, austere beauty of the surrounding desert made the glittering, louche emptiness of a city whose purpose is indulging hedonism all the more stark, and disturbing.

My stay in Las Vegas reminded me of a long-ago episode of The Twilight Zone titled, “A Nice Place to Visit.”

The subject of the story is a common criminal named Rocky Valentine, and the episode begins with Rocky being killed in a shootout with police. He then “wakes up” in an afterlife that he assumes to be Heaven, where a character named “Pip” appears and explains that he will be Rocky’s guide and can provide whatever Rocky wants at any time.

After spending a month surrounding himself with beautiful women and indulging every vice he had during his life, Rocky finds that the allure of the place has faded, and he is going out of his mind with boredom. He summons Pip and tells him that if this is Heaven, he wants to give “the other place” — Hell — a try.

Pip laughs and says, “Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea you were in Heaven, Mr. Valentine? This is the other place!”

In the customary coda at the end of the episode, Rod Serling says that Rocky “now…has everything he’s ever wanted, and he’s going to have to live with it — for eternity.”

"If I am only now scaring you, I need to bring my A game. :-)"

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  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Matt, In reading this I am reminded of the fact that some years ago (maybe 20?) the Southern Baptist Convention had their national convention in Las Vegas. (For all its faults, Vegas is well set up to handle mammoth conventions.) This caused quite a controversy in the member congregations: many objected to going to a modern day Babylon. The SBC leadership responded by scheduling outreach and missionary efforts while they were there. Unlike Jonah in Ninevah, however, I do not think the city rent its collective garments and appealed to the Lord for forgiveness.

    I have never been to Vegas, but I stopped in Reno on one move across country and I think Reno is similar, albeit on a smaller scale. The starkest image in my mind is Wendover, NV, which is on the Utah-Nevada line and holds the casino closest to Salt Lake. It is a poor, hardscrabble desert town with one shining casino, a few hotels and motels of varying quality, and some trailer parks for the workers. Here you can see the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, greed and desperation, very very clearly.