Have you ever had a time when things aren’t going the way you’d planned, then, you look around and realise that the ideal experience you’re searching for is right in front of your face?
My favourite movie of all time is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s also one of my favourite novels. Well, it’s not technically a novel, it’s a roman à clef – which is a fancy way of saying it’s fiction rooted in autobiographical elements.
Literature class dismissed. Here’s a roman à clef of my own.
So, I have one night in Vegas. And I plan to have my very own Fear and Loathing moment. Well, minus the suitcase of psychedelic drugs. Unless, of course …
Just kidding …
I’ve just landed in Sin City after what was probably the worst flight I’ve ever had. I won’t go into details, except to say I was seated in cattle class in the narrowest seats in which I’ve ever sat, next to a veritable Viking of a man and his bladder-challenged partner. As one might say: a recipe for much discomfort.
My ‘savage journey into the heart of the American dream’, at this stage, is looking more like me lying face down on my hotel bed and simply dreaming. Jet lag truly has me by the proverbials and doesn’t look like letting up soon. I’m so delirious that I don’t need psychedelic drugs.
I find my airport limousine (it’s a shuttle bus) and make a friend from Australia – fellow travel writer Elisa Elwin – and we make our way to our digs for the evening. Turns out, it’s a not-so-swanky hotel, way, way off The Strip, called The Palace Station Hotel. It’s by no means ‘gourmet’, but at about US$40 per night, it’s darn good value.
Our room isn’t ready, so we rustle up a 99c margarita and explore our surrounds. It’s a crazy cavalcade of gaming machines in all shapes and colours, as well as every type of gambling table one could conjur in a Vegas casino. I’m so tired that all that’s keeping me up are the flashing lights and bells and sirens signalling a lucky winner.
Because Fear and Loathing is my favourite film, my aim is to see some of the places where it was made. Circus Circus, the casino that inspired Bazooko Circus in the book, is at the top of my list. I plan to have a rum cocktail at the revolving bar, seated under the trapeze net amidst the circus scenery for which it’s famous. I’d also like to see the Neon Boneyard. I’ve already seen the Flamingo on my way in, so I can tick that off my list. As a bonus, I got to see Mickey Mouse take off his head to light a cigarette. Not exactly a Fear and Loathing moment, but you can see how it suits. I don’t have a lot of time though. I’m already committed to dinner at The Charcoal Room, which is one of the most elite, yet very affordable, steakhouses in Vegas.
However, jet lag has me beaten. I lay down on my bed and wake up two hours later. Big mistake. I’ve just broken the cardinal rule of travel.
I make my way to The Charcoal Room where I meet my fellow travellers. We are embarking on a four-day road trip through the Nevada desert. I can’t wait. We are greeted by restaurant owner, Frank, who gets my vote as one of the funniest, most charming restaurateurs I’ve met. And the food – well, easily one of my top-three steaks and the deep fried octopus is divine. If you’re ever in the area; go there.
Seated among travel luminaries from all over the globe, including Columbia, UK, Canada and Brazil, I make a deal with cocktail afficionado, Nikki Bayley, that if I go with her to the recently crowned ‘Best American High-Volume Cocktail Bar’, Herbs and Rye, she’ll accompany me to Circus Circus.
Herbs and Rye is a beautifully decorated prohibition-style cocktail bar featuring the best bartenders in Vegas. I order a Corpse Reviver Number Two from Emily, our award-winning bartender and the drink does what it claims. I now have energy to burn. Herbs and Rye is a revelation.
We just so happen to sit next to a flair bartender named Tom (I think) and he asks me why I’m enamoured by Circus Circus. Turns out, he works there. He tells me that my ‘impression’ of the place is nothing like the reality. He says that if I go there, my illusion will be shattered.
You know the saying “you should never meet your idols”? Well, after some soul-searching I decide that I’d rather keep my illusion intact and not visit the famed casino. A slight malaise sets in. I won’t get to realise a long-held dream.
We organise an Uber and drive along The Strip to our hotel. The Palace Station Hotel is one of those older-style neon and lightbulb affairs. It’s not your flashy Vegas casino, but there are no shortage of flashing lights. My accomplice returns to her room and I find a bar and a beer.
I sit and look around and I realise, I am having a Fear and Loathing moment right now.
I’m surrounded by the exactly the type of people Hunter describes in the book and that Terry Gilliam depicts in the movie. Comatose coin-dropping, cigarette smoking, doped up desperados, hooked on the neon nightmare of obnoxious money-sucking slot machines. Hawaiian shirts. Bermuda shorts. Beehive hairstyles, bright red lipstick, gaudy faux-gold jewellery and brass-tipped walking sticks. This was as Hunter S Thompson described: the savage heart of the American dream. It is more like a nightmare, but one that I feel is transfixing me and somehow luring me towards some surreal climax.
As I wander along the aisles and aisles of pokies (don’t call them that in Vegas though, they’ll think you’re talking about a brothel) I meet up with some bikies and Desert Storm veterans who are here for a fundraising event outside called Desert Thunder. It’s a friendly gathering of police, bikies and ex-soldiers. There’s live music, a motorbike race, custom car show and copious amounts of beer being consumed from plastic cups – eerily similar to the Mint 500 that Raoul Duke covers in the book.
I have a beer with the bikies and we watch Ryan Maloney – a former American Idol contestant and host of American Voices – as he plays a mash-up of Pink Floyd’s Run Like Hell and Nirvana’s All Apologies. As the boys boogie away with their partners I stop and think just how lucky I am to be here.
I say goodnight to the gang and head back to my room. I have a long week ahead of me.
Just as I thought my night couldn’t get any more Fear and Loathing, I come across this scene.
A big-lipped, mullet-haired man, tall, waifish and weedy, wearing a cream-coloured ruffled shirt and pale blue safari suit straight out of the 70s is pushing, who I assume to be, his monolithic wife in an oversized wheelchair down the hall to their room. The woman is so wide (honestly, I’m not being mean, she barely fit widthways in the hallway – bear with me) and she’s wearing a tulle and taffeta floral pale pink bridesmaid dress and she’s holding a brightly coloured cocktail, complete with hot pink umbrella and maraschino cherries. They both look so happy.
As they approach their room, they realise that she’s not going to fit through the door. This is particularly worrisome for me, because I have to pass them to get to my room. As they discuss the logistics of making it into bed, I breathe in and sidle past smiling – they both smile back, he shrugs his shoulders and she laughs a freakish falsetto. Honestly, I couldn’t have dreamed such a great ending to my night. I wish I could take a photo.
The lesson I’ve learnt tonight is that, whether or not your trip is going exactly as planned, you’re still only a step away from an amazing experience – if you just remain open to the possibilities.
I may not have seen Circus Circus, but my ideal of this place will remain ‘perfect’ in my head.
What I did have, was my very own Fear and Loathing moment, one which I will always look back on as my moment – not one replicated from a movie or book.
Have you ever had a similar experience? Have your plans ever initially gone awry, but in the end, led to an even better time than you first imagined?
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