We had originally planned to stay in Zion National Park another night, but expecting evening temperatures into the 90s, we decided to take off for Las Vegas–an “oasis” en route to California and a spectacle none of us had ever experienced before. We secured a hotel room for a bargain price, and braced ourselves for a respite from the more rugged lifestyle we had come to embrace on the road. Through endless miles of desert in Utah and into Nevada, I was once again astonished by the vast amount of open space in this part of the country. Barren stretches of sand rolled into mountainous reaches of parched rock face, conveying an even greater hostility to life than we had experienced thus far on our journey. Our noble Subaru in the company of my good friends became a familiar refuge from an unknown and inhospitable world. I was content to keep moving.
Out of the desert there came a mirage, or what might has well have been a mirage. It was Las Vegas. In stark contrast to the anonymity of the endless moonscape we had traversed, the civilized world emerged in an emphatic display. Signs of Boxing fights and Gentleman’s Clubs and gourmet restaurants contended for our attention, while the flashing lights of nearby establishments beckoned for our patronage off the nearest exit ramp. As we proceeded to the Las Vegas strip, I felt myself internalize a sense of reactionist consumerism–thoroughly at the whim of a grand display of hedonism and pretension. I was challenged to affirm my sense of individuality and intrinsic self worth as an alternate set of values defined the ethos of this place. Transience, debauchery, sexuality, gluttony–I couldn’t help but think about the irony that this 21st century built environment reinforced some of the most primal urges of human kind. Have we really come as far as we might think?
We got situated in our hotel room, which looked out on the MGM Grand casino and the greater Vegas strip. I had to remind myself that this was really our reality for the night. As day turned into night, we gazed out of our window and watched as the flashing lights filled the void of the retreating darkness, surely a human construction in which our very circadian rhythms were rewired to thrive in the night. I sat with the irony that this city was both altering a biological disposition while also appealing to the wants of our most biological selves.
We walked down to the lobby, where there was a casino extending to the front entrance. Fluorescent lights and music and fancifully clad patrons combined to form a world of extravagance. We had entered an alternate reality in which money was not an intermediary to fulfill basic human needs but an addictive object of play ushering in the highs and lows of emotive consciousness. I decided to try my hand at the slot machine, and within a few seconds of entering a bill into the machine it was unremarkably gone, swallowed into the abyss of insatiable money gain. We kept going.
For the rest of the night, we resolved to explore the city and make the most of our time there. It was a strange balance of retaining a sense of individual integrity and intention while realizing that everyone and everything had an agenda for you. We navigated this by trying to manifest at least some semblance of our unique selves in this place. At one point we had an animated discussion with a man preaching from the Bible in the streets, while two women in lingerie posed for pictures with passersby right next to us. Later on, Dan joined a classical music trio in the streets by strumming some cello as pedestrians passed by. But in one memorable instance, our incompatibility with this place became very tangibly clear. As we attempted to enter a particular bar/club, a bouncer sharply informed us that we weren’t wearing “appropriate shoes” for such a venue. We had been amused by the novelty of it all, but were content take ourselves and our disagreeable shoes elsewhere. We got some food and called it a night.
I left Las Vegas the next day thinking a lot of about our experience, and trying to understand why I reacted to this place in the way I did. Is this city meant to be taken seriously? Why did I have to be so analytical of myself and our actions that day? I do have a value for anti-structure, and I know it can provide catharsis and welcome relief from the tedium of everyday life–even reinforcing my resolve in that life–but I realize that for me, anti-structure needs to be an intentional retreat from a grounded foundation of purpose. Without an idea of what constitutes home, that anti-structure is an expression of escapism and for me a rather empty pursuit. I had a real sense of purpose in taking off on the road trip and fighting for a redefined conception of home, but I was too physically and existentially adrift from any real sense of rootedness for our experience in Vegas to sit right. I even harbored a latent sense of fear that the pervasive and manipulative value systems of this place might seep into my own psyche and somehow blemish my clarity of meaning and purpose moving forward, making it ever more hard to find home. Sitting with this ambiguity, I turned my sights on the open road.