After leaving Los Angeles on a sweltering, sticky Tuesday morning, I spent a night in Las Vegas. Because hey, why not? What could be more classically American than a city where you can throw fistfuls of money at slot machines and roulette wheels 24 hours a day? I mean, honestly. Can you name any other place where one can order a steak as large as a boogie board for breakfast and wash it down with champagne? Or strut around a pool shaped like a Fender Stratocaster, taking generous sips from a gallon pail of Jack & Coke?
Growing up in Boston, I always thought of Vegas as the sort of place where one could realize their most gluttonous, ill-advised dreams. And given the context of this project – watching Millennials live their dreams – I was curious to see what sort of fantasies a trip to Vegas would present.
In retrospect, it was one of the most demoralizing travel decisions I’ve ever made.
My bus was full of families with young kids and rolling suitcases. The atmosphere was rife with excited chatter as we zoomed through the desert, eventually pulling into the South Strip Terminal just outside of Vegas. I stepped off the bus and gasped as a blast of 120 degree heat swept through the bus bay. Even in the shade, being in Vegas was like standing inside an industrial oven. The wind alone was hot enough to scald any exposed skin.
We all hopped on a transfer bus that took us into the heart of the city. The famed Las Vegas strip – that electric contingent of casinos and animatronic signs shaped like cowboys or hamburgers, the one you see in movies from the 1970s – was now overtaken by sleeker modern resorts like The Wynn or Luxor. But for every casino, there were at least twenty outsized businesses hawking the kinds of passe pleasures you’d find at your local shopping mall: M&Ms, Outback Steakhouses, Axe Bodyspray, you name it. And here’s what really sent a chill down my spine – people were flocking to these stores the same way my Cambridge neighbors flocked to supermarkets before Hurricane Sandy. They’d disappear through sliding glass doors and emerge moments later lugging enormous bags stuffed to the brim with mass-produced frivolities that one could purchase anywhere in the greater United States. Something about Vegas must flick the “Impulse Buy” switch in the human brain.
The entire picture couldn’t have been more disparate from the priorities shared by most of the Millennials I had spoken to thus far; priorities like sustainable living, strong communities, and moving away from lifestyles driven by disposable income. I was so taken aback and impressed by these admissions that at some point during the trip, I must have conflated them as representative of mainstream thought. But as my transfer bus neared the end of the Vegas strip, I wondered, “Have I been fooling myself all this time?”
Every generation has many different identities and agendas. Millennials are no exception, especially when we consider how polarized (politically) the United States has become in the last ten years. And let’s face it: a lot of American identities vary with the terrain. To leave California and the Pacific Northwest behind is essentially entering another country. After the relative calm and humility of South Central LA or northern Seattle, Las Vegas felt like Mars.
I rented a room at the Golden Nugget – an aging casino at the north tier of strip, and thereby a less expensive lodging option. Still, there was nothing less expensive about the diversions that awaited inside. Tourists of all ages and ethnicities sat before computerized poker machines, feeding twenty-dollar bills into slots and joylessly pulling levers. The courtyard pool, complete with a spherical shark tank, was packed wall-to-wall with suntanned swimmers clutching enormous alcoholic drinks.
Out of mere curiosity, I wandered over to a lonely looking slot machine in a dark corner, inserted a crumpled dollar bill from my pocket, and pressed a big red button. The machine let out a symphony of musical chimes and bells that startled me, and spat out a small slip of white paper that was redeemable for $102. I couldn’t believe this. Nobody ever gets this stupidly lucky in Vegas. Bracing myself for disappointment, I found a payout machine and scanned the bar code on the ticket. Five seconds later, I had $102 cash in my hand.
Until this point, I had spent every day of the trip on a very strict budget. Actually, most of my life for the past year has been spent on a very strict budget. Suddenly, my pockets were flush with greenbacks. I could have marched deeper into the casino and tried to double my winnings, (a doomed decision that I had heard too many sob stories about to even contemplate) or plumped for tickets to a show consisting of Cirque du Soleil acrobats leaping through the air to Beatles songs. But eventually, I opted for something less costly but just as sating. I had dinner at a Vegas buffet.
Try to imagine every comfort food staple in your life experience – BBQ ribs, veggie lo mein, sirloin steaks, cotija enchiladas, even chocolate cream pie – all under one roof, in unlimited portions, and you’ll have a pretty solid grasp of what a Vegas buffet looks like. It’s a shrine to the insatiable greed of the American gut, and after three weeks of eating a lot of salads, soups, and sandwiches on the road, I was ready for a night of indulgence. My first plate was a nutritionist’s worst nightmare, piled high with roasted kielbasa, tortilla chips, mashed potatoes with gravy, sauteed green beans, and – just for good measure – a turkey drumstick. It was deeply fulfilling, as long as I didn’t spend much time contemplating things like taste, texture, or origin.
The cycle of consumption was monstrous. I’m embarrassed simply recalling it. Following suit with most of my fellow buffet patrons, I returned to the feeding trough for more platefuls of caloric excess. At some point, it stopped being pleasurable. I felt obligated to try everything in the place, even as my stomach protested, “What is this shit?!” Finally, barely able to form words with my mouth, I settled my bill and staggered back to the Golden Nugget.
I spent the rest of my time in Vegas laying on my bed, moaning softly and listening to my stomach make alarming, teutonic noises. I felt like I had eaten the contents of a cement mixer. And really, I no longer had any right to hold my head above the people seventeen floors below me, losing exorbitant sums of money at the blackjack tables or stocking up on four years’ worth of Yankee Candles. I may have beaten the house financially, but for one night – despite my pretensions, Vegas rewrote my value system.
Onward to Boulder…