View from the USA: American Hustle

Las Vegas doesn't hide from what it is — a gaudy, neon church for all our decadent, debauched and superficial cravings… and it's all the more fun for it

By Aaron Millar
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:17 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 11:51 BST

Aaron Millar

Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

Las Vegas is the epicentre of American decadence. The entire country's concept of indulgence radiates from this spot. It's like a spiritual retreat for the devil on your shoulder, a church for all the shameful, superficial things that we desire the most: money, sex and naked flesh. Here, all that is debauched and shallow in US culture has been poured into a neon mould, covered in sparkle and somehow made right. It's spectacular and wrong all at the same time. Las Vegas is more than just a city in the desert; it's part of the American psyche itself.

Enormous replicas of the world's great landmarks line either side of the strip, a four-mile road crammed with lights and casinos. It's simultaneously larger than life and shrunken down, like cartoon caricatures of the real thing. As I walk down it, I'm surrounded by pastiches of stolen cultures, pumped up, hollowed out and wrapped in glittering lights: the gleaming white castle of the Excalibur Hotel & Casino, like somewhere Super Mario would live; The Venetian Las Vegas, as if dreamed up by Tony Soprano; an actual full-size roller coaster circling a miniaturised New York skyline. It's the real world transformed into a theme park. It's Willy Wonka meets Mob money — and glitz. I half expect to see Godzilla turn up and trample the entire thing like a cardboard movie set. It's that kind of place.

But damn is it fun. In a single night, I throw shapes in a space ship, get lost in a pyramid, have dinner serenaded by gondoliers and end up in a mosh pit of exactly three middle-aged men going crazy to Blur's Song 2. And, yes, I was one of them. I see volcanoes light up the street; fountains perform water ballet and dancers dangling from ribbon dressed in nothing but paint. Everything is glitz, glamour, lit up and loud. Feminism is on a break. Las Vegas, it seems, is single-handedly keeping the world's push-up bra industry alive. It's nearly impossible to look anyone in the eye. But that's also what's wonderful about this city. There are no taboos; you cannot go too far; the madder you are, the better you fit in. It's skin and lipstick and cash; pure unabashed American hedonism. Strut or get swept away.

And then there's the gambling. I play blackjack for an hour, win 50 bucks and feel like James Bond. I play roulette for five minutes, lose 100 and feel like George Lazenby. Entire rooms are filled with slot machines manned by smoking, undead automatons. But gambling's not really what Vegas is about any more. More people come for the experience now than to get rich. They come for a pure undiluted dose of decadence itself. The food is like a Greco-Roman orgy for your taste buds: I eat wagyu beef at Rivea, on the 64th floor of the Delano Las Vegas, and sip flaming sugar cubes dipped in absinthe amid the golden opulence of Sage, at Aria Resort & Casino. And the shows are, quite simply, mind-blowing. I'm not a Cirque du Soleil guy (once you've seen one fire-juggling contortionist, you've seen them all), but even I end up screaming like a Belieber by the end. And the most decadent experience of all isn't even on the strip. On my last day, I take a helicopter ride over Lake Mead, across the parched heat of the desert and into the enormity of the Grand Canyon itself, 5,000ft of crimson cliffs rising up around me; the silver sliver of the Colorado River far below. 

But being out here makes you think. Miles away from the skyscrapers and slot machines, you see Las Vegas for what it is: a pimple of neon and debauchery in a wilderness of silence and red stone. "It may not be the end of the world," the late, great Robin Williams said. "But you can certainly see it from there." And he's right: there's something apocalyptic about a city built on our most base desires, as if we're witnessing civilisation devolving to its lowest form. But there's something liberating about it too. And that's the point. American decadence isn't about exclusivity; it's about embracing your demons. That's what the church of Las Vegas is all about. Let the beast out. Party with your bad self. After all, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. And damn is it fun. 

British travel writer Aaron Millar ran away from London in 2013 and has been hiding out in Colorado ever since. His latest book 50 Greatest Wonders of the World is published by Icon Books (RRP: £8.99).

Published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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