Las Vegas is a Popsicle, a frosty, man-made treat defying the blistering Mojave sun. Sustained by imported water, artificial refrigeration, and a cultivated taste for sweets, our desert dessert has no natural ingredients. Las Vegas exists because it’s fun, and because it can.
Our Popsicle’s stick is the Las Vegas strip—a monumental midway spawning pleasure palaces in a swath nearly seven miles long. Here, form follows function with a vengeance. We want to entice, so we build a sugar-candy castle, or a pyramid iced with a light so bright that astronauts spot it from outer space, or a Roman temple that sucks in the suckers on a one-way moving sidewalk like a Venus flytrap. Of course, skyscrapers in more reputable cities serve the same end: to seduce. But there puritanical “good taste” binds the voluptuous message in corsets of abstract masonry. In Vegas our buildings are proud hookers in spandex and spike heels.
I love the honesty of the Strip. From the moment you step off the plane our billboards promise—in glowing but indisputable terms—that our casinos will give you nothing for your money. You will bathe in glitz, gluttony, and lust—and maybe even see a witty magic show (hint). But when you get back on your plane, you will not be bringing home the bacon. You will have been taken, and will love us for it.
Nothing here is real except your money. There are no muggers in our New York-New York, no cholera in our tap water at the Venetian. The staff at our Paris is neither stinky nor rude.
Sound like Disneyland? Well, sure, but remember that before Walt opened the gates in Anaheim, he visited Vegas, already budding with theme hotels and even a theme park—the New Frontier Hotel’s Last Frontier Village—complete with a railroad train and tracks. So in stealing from Walt, maybe we’re getting back a little of our own.
After a day of biting the heads off live bats, performers in a sideshow retire behind the carnival banners to cozy mobile homes with chintz curtains and satellite TV. Likewise, after a day of pampering losers, the knights, gondoliers, demoiselles, and Cleopatras of the Vegas midway retreat to vast manufactured communities of stucco-and-tile tract homes set in lush landscapes of irrigated greenery.
As many as 6,000 refugees from the cold and dark and cramped move to Las Vegas every month. Here, for the price of a Manhattan rat hole, they bloom among palm trees and porte cocheres. Cheap desert real estate is the tabula rasa on which Vegas immigrants write their future.
But in Vegas, one never forgets the desert. Its bony mountains loom over our oasis. Its sun sears our skin and our corneas. Its scorpions crawl onto our pillows and remind us that we are only a glass of water and a kilowatt away from eternity.
Though I imagine the desert will prevail again someday, I doubt our Vegas Popsicle will melt any time soon. Boomtowns become ghost towns only when they are mined out. Fun, folly, and the longing for a fresh start are a very deep vein of gold.
Las Vegas-based TELLER is the shorter, quieter half of the duo Penn & Teller, which has been performing magic for more than 30 years.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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