sober in las vegas

words & images laura harker

It was the middle of September and two things were unrelenting in the Nevada desert: the heat and the fluorescent lights that bathed the Las Vegas strip in an otherworldly glow. The lights bled into the heat, the neon color continually screaming into the ether.

We had landed fresh from San Francisco straight into an air-conditioned airport, the city’s famous sea fog still clinging to our clothes. Somehow, we had managed to make our way to our hotel, ignorant of the blazing sun around us.

My brother and I were on a family holiday with our parents—allegedly the final holiday before we both “flew the nest”—and hence there was little chance of us witnessing Vegas’ notorious nightlife. Not even a tipsy night at the hotel bar awaited since my brother was only eighteen and, although he’d recently been instated as a ‘legal’ drinker in the United Kingdom, he had another three years to wait until he was legal the States. In an act of solidarity, I agreed to join him on a mission to experience Vegas sober…

Not having the option to while away an evening in a casino or sipping cocktails by the pool, we were apprehensive as to how we’d spend five sober nights on the strip. Our hotel was a ten-minute shuttle bus ride away from the action, down on Fremont Street, a part of Vegas that has stuck to its gold-rush roots. It’s an old-school neighbouhood, with a lot of razzle and dazzle, but not quite as bling as the main strip. So, we made the trip back to the buzz everyday. Wide eyed and sweaty.

The Las Vegas Strip is a high-concentration of activity in the desert, and there was no reason for us to leave it. The surrounding area had a Breaking Bad feel to it: desert, backstreet lawyers selling bail bonds, and infrequent clusters of ochre-colored buildings. Our five days were spent entirely on this one boulevard of hotels, casinos, and clubs.

Once we had stepped off the bus, the dry heat would hit us and we’d scramble to the nearest air-conditioned hotel. The bottom floors of most hotels are taken over by casinos—busy casinos—with no clocks anywhere. Thus, even without a drop of alcohol, it was easy to lose track of time. Our senses seemed enhanced in the casinos. Shrill beeps and overbearing melodies from the machines rang sharply in our ears. The lights glared. The air, which was allegedly freshly-pumped oxygen, was smooth and clean-tasting.

By British standards, the mornings are a fine time to indulge in a holiday tipple but early mornings in casinos mean less tourists and more seasoned, stetson-wearing settlers. This is when the locals come out to test their luck on the empty craps tables and roulette wheels. Like twenty-first century John Wayne movies, the casinos become difficult not to gawp in, especially when you’re surrounded by card playing real-life cowboys.

With all the sights and sounds of the strip, the daytime was easily spent without alcohol. But throughout the afternoon, the strip became busier and the evenings were the biggest test. We joined groups watching the blackjack tables, feasted on endless buffets, stared at the MGM lions, saw a knights’ jousting tournament, strolled through replica streets of Paris, Rome, and Florence…and the gawping continued.

Endless numbers of visitors and locals arrived to mill about under the searing sun along with a steady stream of stag and hen parties. We rolled our eyes at the explicit examples of English loutishness and briefly compared the experience to being out in any small English town on a Friday night. These groups, though transient, seemed to be part of the Vegas furniture. Everyone turned a blind eye to any drunks and everyone seemed to expect them.

We discovered that booze and gambling are so entwined in Vegas’ rich tapestry that they added to the richness of its hyper-saturated color—creating an entertaining atmosphere for both the crowds of drinkers and the two virtuous abstainers.

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