This is Eleven
About a month ago I was all, “Oh, shit, spring break’s coming, what should we do?”
“Nothing,” was my first thought, but then I pictured Jackson pale and shaking from Xbox 360 Lego Lord of the Rings poisoning and I decided it might be nice to get out of the house and go somewhere. Jack was going to have to work that week so it was all on me.
It turns out you can get two passes for two days at Disneyland for something like $400, but if you want to lay down and sleep in a place that isn’t your car parked in the lot of the Anaheim Chili’s you either need to book a hotel a year in advance or pay between $1,800 and $3,000 for on-site, Mouse-approved accommodations. The New York Times had the balls to call this a moderately priced vacation. I, on the other hand, was looking for something in the less-than-a-mortgage-payment range, so I said to Jackson, “How would you feel about spring break in Las Vegas?”
My son loves Las Vegas! He loves to stroll down the Strip in the warm night air and then cut through the Flamingo to get a burger at Johnny Rockets. He loves flipping through the sale rack at the Urban Outfitters at Mandalay Bay, looking for cardigans. He will linger on the bank of the canal at the Venetian and bask in the wonder of a ceiling that’s painted and lit to make you think it’s eternally four o’clock in the afternoon.
And it’s amazing, all of it, the effort and the money it took to build this crazy simulacrum of actual culture in the middle of one of earth’s most heinously inhospitable landscapes. It’s depressing as shit after a couple of days, but it’s still amazing.
“My science teacher hates Las Vegas,” he tells me as we’re on the walkway between the Excalibur and New York New York, heading to Houdini’s Magic Shop. “Why?” I say. “Because it’s expensive to get water here and they waste a ton of electricity.”
It’s true, Las Vegas is a blot on our collective soul. But the hotels are cheap, the shows are frequently kid-friendly, and the people-watching is fantastic. However, when I see a girl in a dress cut up to here tripping over her shoes and falling into the back of a cab while flashing the entire taxi line and spilling wine cooler all over herself to the applause of every bro in front of Caesar’s, I do not turn to Jackson and say, “Well that was glamorous!” I say, “Did you see that?” and he says, “No,” and I say, “Good,” and he says, “What happened?” and then I describe what I saw, and he says, “Oh, is that why all those guys were yelling?”
The taxi drivers make the trip half worth it. One is grumpy as hell, then overwhelmed when I give him a $5 tip for a $10 ride because I don’t want to be the asshole that made his day worse. One is silent; one has a mild, beatnik-y way of talking; one has blue hair and complains about her back giving out after so many 12-hour shifts. One tells us of how Las Vegas used to be, how his mother has been a cocktail waitress at the Golden Nugget for 38 years and once won a gold medal in the waitress Olympics, making it through her whole obstacle course without spilling a drop of the drinks on her tray. He told us that when the Mob was in control, the town had class and people dressed up; now, the local kids get hooked on drugs and commit suicide at alarming rates. “Well, that was depressing,” I say when we get out of the cab. “I thought it was interesting,” says Jackson. “I still want to protect you from stuff like that,” I say. “It’s okay,” he says, “I’m not going to be a drug addict.”
He gets his picture taken with both Penn and Teller. He buys a plastic Venetian mask after a Cirque du Soleil show and wears it under his surfer beanie as he walks down the Strip, making him look like either an androgynous child bank robber or a melancholy hipster mime.
I feel lucky that I can do this with him. We have a special bond already, me and him, so a trip like this is purely for memory-making purposes. “My mom took me to Las Vegas when I was eleven and we body surfed in the wave pool at the Mandalay.” “Didn’t you grow up by the beach? Why did you go to Las Vegas to body surf?”
That’s an excellent question. We could have easily stayed home and saved hundreds of dollars by having our faces pounded into the surf right here in sunny California. I have no idea why we thought we had to drive six hours to experience the fake equivalent of something we could do here for free. We have hamburgers and sidewalks and cabs and beds here, too. Why do we travel at all?
We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more. The beauty of this whole process was best described, perhaps, before people even took to frequent flying, by George Santayana in his lapidary essay, “The Philosophy of Travel.” We “need sometimes,” the Harvard philosopher wrote, “to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.” — Pico Iyer