I hit the jackpot in Nevada, and it wasn’t because I’d run into some luck on the roulette wheel.
It was where I met my travel buddy Ian, a good mate of mine known as Laingy, who had arrived on the Las Vegas strip in style – in a convertible Mustang.
It had been some journey for him too. While I had been driving through the night to this bright light city, Ian had been flying through the night to Los Angeles from his native Australia before hiring a car and making the same journey through the desert.
It all followed on from a conversation we had on my last night in Melbourne, where I’d been talking about my onward journey and how I’d quite like to complete the trip with an overland stretch going from coast to coast in America. One of the only problems back then was finance and the fact it would mean spending a long time on my own.
“I might be up for a bit of that – its something I have always wanted to do,” Ian said over a pint.
And from there, the idea snowballed. Fast forward a few months, and in the searing Nevada heat, I’m walking across a dusty car park just off the Las Vegas strip to once again shake Laingy’s hand.
“Welcome to Las Vegas,” I said, laughing.
“Bloody hell, 24 hours ago I was scraping ice off my car, and now its 45 degree heat,” he laughed back in his usual Aussie accent.
It was a slightly surreal meet-up, orchestrated through free wifi spots and Facebook messages thanks to the lack of a mobile phone, but we’d managed it. I’m well on the way home now, but to have a good mate with me with similar interests will make this leg all the more memorable.
While Ian had to travel to Vegas the quickest way possible, I had begun my Route 66 adventure from Los Angeles by starting at the end. Officially, Route 66 was the way the population migrated west from the Chicago and eastern states following the war and great depression. Known as the ‘mother road’ it was built to help people make their way towards the Pacific in search of work and riches.
As a result, California is often seen as the end of the road, with Santa Monica pier the finishing point for this great American journey. And so it was only natural, making the first leg of Route 66 solo, that I took our car to the far end of the road, to Santa Monica Boulevard and to Santa Monica Pier, complete with its markers that this was, indeed, as far as you can go on the 66. Any further, and you’d end up wet, which is precisely what I did.
Having spent six months with the Pacific being the ocean I have looked at off the coasts of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, it was time to finally say goodbye to it. I had learned to surf its waves, been washed up onto its shores at Bells Beach in Oz, spent countless hours gazing at the horizon over its glinting waters and bobbed around on boats upon it, and now it was time for a final paddle and a photo. After all, you cant make the coast to coast trip over the States without the obligatory proof shots touching the opposing oceans of the Pacific and Atlantic.
I walked to the end of the pier, taking in the street entertainers, music and atmosphere along the way. The mist and smog which had shrouded LA during my three day stay began to lift, revealing the beaches of Santa Monica to be just as stunning as they appear on the big and small screen in movies and television programmes back home. They were full of people enjoying an extended holiday period, families from across the States who have made their own epic journeys to the coast. Now it was my turn to head east, and ultimately, back home – from now on, every mile I make in the car is a mile closer to home, and the end of an unforgettable nine months.
The 66 starts at the junction with Ocean Boulevard, and after one last photo of the Route 66 marker tribute to Will Rogers, one of the world’s greatest celebrities back in the Twenties and Thirties, I got back in the car, took a last look at the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and set my horizons to the Atlantic, more than 3,000 miles away.
It felt completely normal to be setting off, pulling away from a parking bay, knowing that there was such an epic drive ahead. It was slightly surreal if anything, getting into a car and turning the radio on as if I was just popping down to the shops. Yet for me, this was a one-way journey east.
The drive through LA took me all the way through Beverly Hills and past the Hollywood Sign, where I stopped for one final look at the nine famous letters, before heading out to the Interstate 210 north.
Its not quite following the exact route of the 66, but then its impossible to follow it all of the way these days anyway, as much of the route has been repaved, re-routed and re-classified. Besides, passing so close to Las Vegas, it would be rude not to pass by and spend a while amid the bright lights and high rollers.
First, there was another minor detour. There was an interesting place I wanted to visit on the way, a place that I had seen on a Discovery Channel programme a few years back, and was amazed by the scale of it. All I will say is have you ever wondered what happens to aeroplanes when the airlines either go bust, cut routes or simply retire some of their aircraft?
Well, they get sent to California and to the Mojave Desert, a place that I have to drive through in order to reach Las Vegas. Because the air is so dry, and days of rainfall are so few and far between, metal doesn’t rust. And a Boeing 747 is made up of a lot of metal, which if left sitting in the elements for too long without maintenance, will corrode and render hundreds of millions of pounds worth of plane useless.
So they get flown to the aircraft graveyards and boneyards of the Mojave Desert, where attempts are made to remove or disguise logos and distinctive paintwork before the planes are left to sit in the sun on an extended holiday of their own.
They are easy to find, with the bright metal fuselages and tails sticking out for miles in the flat desert plains. During the airline slump post September 11, hundreds of aircraft were once stored here as people stopped flying and airlines cut costs. While the numbers are nowhere near as high now, it was still quite a spectacle to see so many perfectly good aircraft simply sitting on the sand instead of cruising through the skies filled with hundreds of people.
After being spotted by a security van taking photos, it was time to disappear, so I took off down the road towards the famous Edwards Air Force Base, a giant development that takes up a significant proportion of land, around half the size of LA, alongside the dual lane route 58 to Barstow, one of the first major towns on Route 66 outside of Los Angeles.
From here, I picked up the interstate 15, a motorway that shoots straight up to the Nevada border and on to Las Vegas. While Vegas was never on Route 66, most people who make the journey divert themselves to the gambling and entertainment mecca for a few days, if anything just to experience it. It only adds a couple of hours onto the journey, to and from the city, but it was a definite huge tick on the bucket list to visit the place.
I had timed my journey to arrive in Las Vegas at night, driving for some five hours through the pitch black desert with a couple of coffees and a bar of Hershey chocolate for company. I watched the mile markers tick down to just 100 to go, while hundreds of Californian registered cars would fly past me, no doubt full of LA residents and workers desperate to get to the fun-filled spot in the desert for a weekend of excitement.
I was still 60 miles out when I first noticed the sky ahead changing. There was a distinct glow up ahead, while the blinking lights of aircraft began to appear around me as they circled before landing their Vegas-hungry payload at the purpose built airport by the main strip.
With two long drags up some incredibly long hills, complete with warnings to turn off air conditioning to prevent engines overheating in the scorching desert heat, the glow started to get brighter, and with a final push over the hilltop, suddenly my windscreen was filled with the millions of dazzling lamps from the desert oasis known as Las Vegas.
It was incredible how the city seemed to appear from nowhere, and seemingly stretching for as far as the eye could see. It was a moment that I wished I had someone with me to share it – an almost magical time at getting my first view of one of the world’s most famous playgrounds, and a sense of achievement in the fact I had managed to somehow navigate there without the help of a satnav (paper maps – how retro!)
I continued driving, arriving on the outskirts of the city knowing that somewhere amid the neon glow was my hostel, which according to its website was near the famous Stratosphere tower on the main strip. I saw a sign for Las Vegas Boulevard, and knowing that was the main strip, made a left turn and headed straight onto it.
It was hard to concentrate on the road ahead. As I passed the huge, mock, New York skyline that marked the New York New York casino on one side, the famous MGM Grand on the other, I slowly made the stop-start drive along the main street. It was a Friday night, and I found myself caught up with scores of other Californian-registered cars that had clogged up the road as people made a similar getaway for the weekend.
For once, though, I was glad to be in a snarled-up traffic jam. It was the perfect way to take in my first Vegas experience, a place that was alien to me having never visited before, yet felt so familiar having seen it so many times in films or on television.
The names of the casinos alone roll off the tongue, mentally ticking them off as I made my way from intersection to intersection. The Mirage, Monte Carlo, Paris, The Venetian…and then on my left, the huge dancing fountains and music of the Bellagio, followed by the gigantic area taken up by Caesars Palace.
Everywhere I looked, there was something going on. From street performers to musicians, magicians and tourists all jockeying for position on the sidewalks, to fellow wide-eyed motorists driving along, taking photographs and smiling as this adult wonderland we’d suddenly found ourselves in.
And still the familiar names passed by the window – Treasure Island, with its pirate ship frontage, Circus Circus with the huge clowns and big top, or the sleek-looking Wynn complex. In fact, while I was expecting a substantial amount of neon, flashing lights and huge, money-no-object structures and hotels, the overall size of the place was the main surprise for me. It took well over an hour to make my way in the car from the south end of the strip to the north, finally spotting the familiar mast-like Stratosphere structure, and eventually, after a couple of stops outside McDonalds to use their free wifi, pulling up at the Hostel Cat. My $19 bed couldn’t have come soon enough.
Friday night, my first night in Las Vegas, and I was in bed by 2am!
The earlyish night, by Vegas standards, paid dividends the following day however. For one, the heat in the Nevada desert can sap the energy out of you – the thermometer hit 47 degrees, and just walking outside the air conditioned comfort of the hostel was enough to send you running for immediate shade. Door handles become red hot, the metal panels on the car could quite easily double as a griddle plate, and a day of sight seeing was out of the question.
“We’re going to the pool at the Monte Carlo,” came a cry from reception, raising a cheer from the fed-up looking hostel guests who were clearly sick of the heatwave gripping this part of the States.
It sounded like a good idea, and besides, it meant I would see some of the Vegas strip during the day, even if it was from the window of the hostel transport.
Except, what the guys from the hostel failed to explain was that we’d be sneaking-in to the Monte Carlo casino, to use their pool, and that the transport was a beaten up minivan without any seats. And when they said it would be a hostel outing, it really was, as 26 hot and sweaty backpackers began the difficult job of packing into a van the size of a small Transit.
“Let me just close the anti-police device,” said Chandler, from the hostel, as he pulled a cloth curtain across the windows to stop authority eyes from seeing just how many people had been crammed into the back.
And still more people were climbing in through the door. I’d wedged myself into a back corner, where gradually the air began to thin and sweat began to drip from the mass of packed in bodies amid the heat and the greenhouse effect that the van had without a breeze. Thankfully, and with a record of 29 people once stuffed into the van, someone was prepared and brought along a water spray to cool us down as we made our way to the far end of Vegas.
“Right, we can’t all go in as one group,” said Chandler as a steady stream of people clambered, fell and dragged themselves out from the back of the van, resembling something from a game of Twister that had gone badly wrong.
“They won’t let us in, so we have to pretend we’re going to the bar. Look at the menu, then just drift through the door to the left, grab a towel from the guy at the towel stall and meet back over to the right,” he continued.
Having sneaked into a fair few VIP areas over the years, I can honestly say this was the most blatant blag I have ever been a part of. Standing outside the glass windows of the bar, a group of 26 was whittled down into a few separated groups of threes and fours. Within a couple of minutes, we’d more or less tripled the patronage of the bar, yet nobody had ordered a drink. The barstaff looked confused at this mass of new customers, yet had very little to do. And as quickly as we’d all appeared, we’d all disappeared through a door and into a pool, amid a variety of excuses. I opted for the ‘I fancy a hotdog outside on the terrace,” excuse, before exiting stage left.
Somehow, we’d managed it. We had access to a huge pool, posh deckchairs, a river rapids area and even a DJ putting out some of the latest tunes for us all to listen to. It was a great pool party that we’d crashed, and all for the price of a dollar towards the hostel van’s gas account. I guess this was all part of the Vegas vibe.
After a few hours of doing everything I could to avoid the attractive, bikini-clad waitresses who were offering to fetch me a very expensive drink, I made my way to one of the casino halls to use yet more free wifi. Ian had arrived, according to Facebook, so I caught one of the Vegas buses and managed to spot where to jump off. As if by magic, and standing by his jet black Mustang that he’d hired for the same price as a flight from LA, was Ian. We headed straight to the airport, so he could return his car, get him signed up as a driver on ‘our’ car and headed back for more free wifi to book some accommodation.
Here came another surprise. I knew hotel rooms could be cheap in the city, but I had no idea just how cheap. For just £5 in the week, you can secure a double room near the strip. It was cheaper than my hostel, and I’d had no idea. It was partly down to this that we made a snap decision.
“I think we’re going to need longer in Vegas,” I said, knowing there was far too much for us to see in just the few hours we had initially put aside after Laingy’s arrival.
The fact that we could book a double queen bed room at the Stratosphere for just $35 was another factor. It would mean that we’d now just have just five days to drive the entire length of Route 66 and make the 12 hour trip from the end of it in Chicago to the east coast, but we’d calculated it was just about achievable.
There had been a few people in recent weeks who acted with surprise when I told them about the short time frame we had to complete the journey. “You’ll never get to see anything, or stop anywhere,” was the usual word of warning.
But Ian and I were in agreement that driving the Route 66, and making a coast to coast journey and seeing all the changes in scenery along the way, was the experience and what we were both in the States to do.
It gave us a couple of days and nights to explore this magnificent place. From wandering around the incredible malls and hidden cities that lay at the base of all the casino resorts, to taking in some of the free shows on the street, to losing the obligatory few bucks on the casino tables and putting a couple of dollar bills in the penny slots, we pretty much managed to ‘do’ Vegas.
It is a place that I am finding difficult to describe in words, which for a wordsmith, I know, is a pretty poor show. But Las Vegas is simply one of those places that it is very difficult to comprehend unless you experience it with your own eyes, ears and senses. We spent our sightseeing day visiting as many of the casinos as possible, and when I say ‘casino’ I don’t necessarily mean the gambling halls.
For Vegas is more than just Blackjack, Poker and Roulette, or placing bets of up to $15,000 on the roll of a dice (and that was just the top maximum bet we’d managed to spot) Deep in the bowels of the towering hotels and casino complexes, I was surprised by how much there was to do aside from feed money into machines. There are, of course, the glitzy big money shows featuring anyone from Celine Dion to David Copperfield, a whole range of restaurants and dining facilities, exciting white knuckle rides and experiences, but for Ian and I, the fun was in just being in Las Vegas itself.
It was about walking around the streets and through the blissful air conditioned malls, complete with clever sky effects on the ceiling to make it feel like you’re outside, and the famous canals of the Venetian. It was wandering around and suddenly stumbling across statues that move and breathe fire as part of an hourly show. Or looking closely at the incredibly intricate detail on the walls, decorations, ceilings and décor that, at times, makes it feel like you are sightseeing on a big budget film set, rather than browsing through a shopping centre. Even the security people in each casino wear different outfits to match the surroundings.
For people watching, soaking up the atmosphere, smiling at the power of the Bellagio’s water fountains as they thunder into the sky, watching the free shows such as the Sirens pirates at Treasure Island or marvelling at the fire and water show at the Mirage Volcano, there really was plenty to do – and on the whole, it doesn’t have to cost a penny. And, another surprise for me, was just how many families were in town on holiday to enjoy the experience with young children, even toddlers.
Infact, after hours – and miles – of walking around the desert delight, I think Ian hit the nail on the head when it came to describing what Vegas feels like.
“It’s like being part of a huge theatrical production,” he smiled as we dived for another blast of air conditioning in one of the malls.
He was right. It was so easy to lose all sense of reality here. There are very few clocks around, so time is no issue – as Elvis said in his song about the place, ‘turning day into nighttime, turning night into daytime’ – is a Vegas speciality. And the casinos have a very clever way of making sure everything is on hand, should you need it. The fact that most resorts have a McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger King or Subway incorporated somewhere within them is, of course, great for convenience, but the simple fact is that it’s a deliberate ploy to keep you in their four (or many more) walls for as long as possible. The longer you are, the more you spend, the happier the casino boss is and the bigger the next construction project for the brand will no doubt be.
You see, Vegas is a city built on gambling. It is only as stunningly impressive as it is, thanks to countless millions before me making a journey to the desert, and leaving with pockets and bank balances empty. It is a strange thought to look around and wonder at all the fortunes lost – and being lost at any one moment – which in turn will be put back into building bigger and even better resorts for future generations to enjoy. For this small part of Nevada, the recession is merely a word under ‘R’ in a dictionary.
I could write for hours in depth about all that there is to see – in just a couple of days, we barely scratched the surface. My top tips will always be to make use of the free parking underneath each casino, and not to be afraid of driving half a mile down the road to the next complex. It really is a deceptively huge place, with the scale and size of the hotels proving deceptive when it comes to walking around.
And I could write all about the free shows too, such as the fountains set to music outside the Bellagio every 15 minutes. But I did very little research about attractions like these, and to be honest, it came as more of an enjoyable surprise when I watched them. I wasn’t expecting the fountains to be powered so high by some of the most sophisticated water jet systems in the world – the ‘boom’ that comes out of the fountain as air powers gallons of water into the sky is impressive, echoing around the strip and rattling through your body.
The impressive jets of fire from the volcano, which erupts every hour outside the Mirage at night, combined with atmospheric music and lighting, attracted hundreds of people even late at night, while the Sirens pirate show at TI, complete with cast, fireworks, cannons and a sinking ship, brought the feel of a West End show to the street – and for free, four times a night.
Visiting Vegas on a backpacker budget was always going to be tricky, but with careful planning in the time we had, we set a schedule of all the free shows and made our way along the strip seeing all that there was on offer. It was proof that you don’t necessarily need buckets of cash to visit the place, and infact, there were many people using the cheap accommodation to relax by the pool by day, and just take in the atmosphere at night.
I did, of course, have a flutter, setting myself a tight limit of $50 to play with during my three nights in the city. With $40 still burning a hole in my wallet on the final night, it was time to hit the blackjack table in the Stratosphere before bed. Well, you can’t come to Vegas without at least having a little bit of a gamble, right?
Half an hour in, I was holding my own. My piles of $5 had actually grown, and I’d hit blackjack a couple of times. I sensed I was having a run of luck, and started adding more chips to my stake. For a while, it went well, almost doubling my initial playing fund.
And then I began to listen to the croupier, a lovely Chinese woman who I think enjoyed the experience as much as Ian and I, laughing along as we made jovial remarks about the way the hands were falling. But then, as quickly as the good run began, the bad luck came in, probably helped by her not so good advice. The dealer began hitting 21 on almost every hand, beating my 19s and 20s even when pulling up to five or six cards from the stack. By 3am, I was down to my last few chips. I put all of them on the table, apart from one.
I promptly lost, but put my final remaining, white, $1 chip in my camera case.
It’s true, the casino, in the end, will always win, especially here. But my last chip from Las Vegas wasn’t going back into the Stratosphere bank. It was joining us on the Route 66 adventure, and coming home with me.