As a Ph.D student in physics, I went to a collaboration meeting in Boulder, Colorado in the U.S.A., and took an extra week off for driving around the neighbouring states: Colorado, Utah, Arizona,… I had rented a car which, like most American cars, had an automatic transmission which made it much easier to drive for hours on end without getting tired. At least, without getting tired of driving. I did get tired of the radio stations which in those places only played country music and sermons. In the end, in Flagstaff, Arizona, I bought two tapes, one of Bo Diddley and one of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and listened to those instead. Much better. And of course, if I say “Flagstaff Arizona”, Chuck Berry fans will already have thought of route 66, which indeed I drove on for a few miles although it is not really used as a main road anymore. Other things I remember: a Navajo guide in Monument Valley who asked me, being a physicist, to drop a nuclear bomb on Washington, bookstores that served tea, music shops that sold guns, and a tacky dancing where a married wife tried to hit on me but got stopped by her brother-in-law, and endless roads, endless roads, just like in the movies. And, of course, I remember Las Vegas.
Every night I would check in at a motel, take a shower and then lie down on the bed with a big map and see where I could go the next day. And one night, my eyes fell on Las Vegas. It seemed to be right on my route for the next day.
I drove all day, through dry land, on long, straight highways with hardly any traffic except for an occasional truck. I listened to my tapes. I made stops at gas stations and drank coffee and in a Mexican restaurant ordered a huge plate of beans (because in the U.S.A. meals are always huge) of which I only ate half. Meanwhile, I fantasized about Las Vegas: gambling, poker, James Bond, half-naked waitresses, bad taste, cheap hotels, neon lights, whiskey, cigars, silver star-shaped nipple covers, “rien ne va plus” with a redneck accent, t.v. screens, the ace of spades, dry martinis, crazy old grammas with shotguns in their handbags, stripper’s bars, the Eiffel Tower, blackjack, decadence, and so ugly it’s not even beautiful anymore.
Instead, what I got was Las Vegas. I arrived at around 5 o’clock and a sign at the side of the road said: “Welcome to Las Vegas”. The road was lined with one and two storey houses, mostly white and when I followed the signs pointing to the centre, I ended up at a quiet sleepy square, with a church, a gas-station and a restaurant that seemed to be closed. I left the square again, came back on the small main road and a few minutes later I found a motel. There were no high buildings, no neon-lights, no kitsch pyramids and not a single sign that said: “Casino!” or “Jackpot!” or “Gold!” or “Girls!”. Even the motel I stopped my car at did not have a sign that said: “Motel!”. I went out of the car and entered the small motel lobby. Behind the reception desk stood a big black-bearded man in a lumberjack shirt.
‘This is Las Vegas, right?’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said the man. ‘This is Las Vegas.’
‘Do you have … er… a … map of the place?’
He hesitated and took a little paper brochure from a stack, which apart from the name of the motel showed a small map of about 5 by 10 streets. With a pencil he showed where the motel was.
‘And where is the centre of town?’ I asked.
‘Well…’ he hesitated again and looked me up and down, as if he was trying to figure me out. Then he drew a circle on the map, around a little square which I immediately recognized as the square I had just driven around on.
‘Ah, okay’, I said, as if nothing was the matter and everything was all right, ‘so, that’s where the bars and the restaurants are?’ I stopped there because both my 6th sense and the look on the face of the motel owner told me, without words, not to say the word ‘casinos‘.
‘There is one restaurant there,’ the man said. ‘But I think it’s closed.’
‘Ok, fine. One room please,’ I said quickly because suddenly I was very eager to get out of this office and on my own again. He handed me a key to my room, and was clearly as relieved as I was.
I hurried outside, picked up my luggage from the car and ran to my room. Inside, I took the map of the U.S.A. out of my bag and had a long look. It didn’t take long to figure it out. Here I was: Las Vegas, New Mexico, city of one restaurant and a church. And there, further west, I was not: Las Vegas, Nevada, city of casinos and neon lights.
A few blocks away from the motel, I had dinner in a Burger King that was still open.