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I am in my second week in Las Vegas. It is a hell of a thing to be getting familiar with intersections and places. It is a big city in a small town. Besides a 72-hour timeout for an injection of culture in Los Angeles several days ago — when I interviewed the great Syrian musician Omar Souleyman at the Grammy Museum — I have been here.
To feel the full effect of Las Vegas, I think you have to get off the street and spend as much time as you can in an air-conditioned, windowless, dimly lit hotel casino, until you lose track of hours and minutes altogether. This gives one the potential to enter into the sanity-challenging reality bend that Hunter S. Thompson experienced in his Fear and Loathing period.
The timeless casino floor alt-world of the major hotels is tripped out. Zombified people creatures, reclining in seats, hunker down in front of slot machines, smoking and staring at the screen. Couples wander aimlessly, holding hands and huge drinks, like Adam and Eve in the concealed-carry permit age. Ubiquitous, watchful-eyed men and women patrol the tables and slot machines catlike, as bubble-glass shrouded cameras surveil from above. Time becomes a gooey blob that loses all meaning. This would be a great place to forget your mind. It might take years to figure out that you haven’t left. It’s like Hotel California, but it’s really a hotel.
I spent the better part of a day in the MGM Hotel on the casino level. My assignment was to stand in front of, and talk about, an old slot machine, the Lion’s Share, a relative antique in the 1,900–gaming machine arsenal there. It has not paid out a jackpot in more than 20 years. People from all over the world feed money into it, hoping to win the $2 million–plus payday.
It was my task to ask history-based questions of hotel guests in a man-on-the-street fashion, and walk around the casino floor as one of our cameras (and casino representatives) followed. As I walked around, I thought it would be an interesting voyage to spend a week in here and not leave the building. I would destroy all sense of reality and just exist in this windowless world. It might be depressing at first, but after I broke through that wall, there could be something worthwhile beyond that might be worth the derangement. There’s only one way to find out. Don’t be surprised if I go for that at some point and report to you from there.
I think of Howard Hughes and the years he lived in the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas, starting in late 1966. This is when Hughes really started to unwind. He stayed in almost total seclusion, his staff catering to his increasingly strange requests. His right-hand man, Bob Maheu, took care of Hughes’ rapid acquisition of hotels, airports and land in the area. Hughes stayed in Las Vegas until November 1970 and never returned. It’s kind of perfect, really. A strange man in a strange town.
I think that kind of achievable strangeness is fairly impossible now. Las Vegas is run by financial titans and corporate godzillas such as Steve Wynn, who with his elbow punched a hole in Picasso’s 1932 Le Rêve, which he’d purchased for almost $50 million. This is the kind of fucknut people come from miles around to throw their money at.
There is a story less than two hours’ drive away that is far more human and moving than anything I have been able to find in modern-day Las Vegas.
In 1865 some Mormon settlers set up in a patch of land near the intersection of the Virgin and Muddy rivers and called it St. Thomas. They were able to grow some fruit and cotton. Life wasn’t easy, but they were sticking it out. They thought they were in Arizona or Utah. When they found out they were in Nevada and had to pay land taxes in gold, many of them left. A few years later, many more came back and started building. St. Thomas started to stabilize and prosper into the next century.
All that changed with the Boulder Canyon Act of 1926. In the 1930s, when work started on the Hoover Dam about 60 miles away, the people of St. Thomas were told that the government was going to buy their land and eventually they would have to leave. Surveyors estimated that St. Thomas would be completely submerged in a matter of years, by what would become Lake Mead.
The people of St. Thomas were quite unhappy. They had built a hotel, a school, many homes, even an ice cream parlor. Many of them dismantled their dwellings for the parts and left to find a future that wasn’t under 60 feet of water. By 1938, there was only one man left, Hugh Lord. He made his exit by boat.
Over the decades, the town has made appearances as water was drawn off the lake. Now, with water in Lake Mead at a dangerous low, all of St. Thomas lies exposed under the sun. The front steps and walls of the school still stand. On the desert floor are freshwater shells.
Years ago, people who once lived here made pilgrimages back when the water was low, to visit the town that had been their home, to stand on the school steps and show their grandchildren where they used to play at recess. Most of those people are gone now.
All that remains are a few walls, the footprints of other structures and the outline of the road that used to go through. Tamarisk plants now grow everywhere, and lizards sit in the shade as the whole place silently bakes.
On the way back to Las Vegas, I imagined the city completely abandoned, coyotes running in and out of buildings. All in time.
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