Vegas: The Edge of Civilization

I watched the barren terrain of Nevada crawl past below the wing of the plane and wondered, “why here?” Why would anyone build a metropolis of excess in the middle of the desert? Why would people choose to settle so far from life and water?

It was my first visit to Vegas. My friend had decided somewhat randomly to go to Vegas for Christmas this year, and I decided somewhat randomly to join her. When I booked the trip I had just lost my job, and I had no idea whether I’d even have an income in December, but it was cheap, and it seemed somehow the right choice for this holiday season. I’d never had much interest in Vegas before. It’s not really my kind of party.

“Disneyland for adults,” I’ve heard several people call it, and that’s about right when it comes to the strip. It’s a marvel of set design. Fake Paris has some lovely art deco touches and an amazing fake sky. The Venetian is vast and gorgeous, with its fake canal and narrow lanes of shops. Each casino-hotel has its excesses and quirks. The Luxor — where we stayed — has vertiginous open walkways facing the interior of the massive pyramid, and elevators that ascend sideways at an angle, with much jerking and squeaking.

It’s like walking through a monument to a dying civilization. It can’t last. Global warming will make it implausible to get enough water to the middle of the desert, and it will become too hot to visit in the summer at some point. The amount of electricity needed to keep the place lit up is ridiculous, and might simply become unsustainable. The monuments to ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire are nothing if not ironic.

I love its silliness and excess. I love the novelty drinks you can carry down the street, the kitschy decor, and the extravagant carpet designs. The glossy sleaze factor reminds me of Amsterdam, and the sincerity of the street performers reminds me of Barcelona.

But I didn’t really “get” Vegas until I went to the oldest part of downtown. We were looking for a good old school dive bar, and the internets offered up Atomic Liquors. This was the first free-standing bar in Vegas, and its windows face the North edge of the city, where the blankness of the desert feels absolute. In the 1950s, this was the place to come watch atom bombs tested in the desert at the Nevada Test Site 65 miles to the Northeast, used by Los Alamos National Lab (LANL).

It was in this postwar era that Las Vegas became a den of debauchery and gambling. WWII had ended in our favor and brought an era of unimaginable prosperity, but in the early 1940s, it must have felt like the end of the world for many. Those working on the Manhattan Project at LANL in New Mexico were creating the most destructive weapon in human history — one that would put the final exclamation point at the end of the war.

We had prosperity after the war, but we still had that horror hanging over us. We have the power to initiate a real apocalypse. So a bit of debauchery and fantasy at the edge of civilization makes a lot of sense. It’s a place to watch the end of the world with a strong drink, from a safe distance. It’s a place to believe that wealth, comfort, and luxury can be had by anyone.  It’s a place to take comfort in the excesses of civilization, before they disappear.