The culminating part of our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas roadtrip, featuring Mustangs, Hippies and speeding tickets in the search for the American dream.

Cruise control on, decent tunes selected (Lalo Schriffrin, if you’re asking) and a hard blat across increasingly deserted, er, desert. Next stop in the blistering midday sun on the road to Vegas: Barstow. Now I’ve been to some arse-end of Nowhereville places, but Barstow is surely the arse-end of the arse-end of Nowhereville – it’s even worse than Corby. A dustbowl location with a handful of diners serving various forms of spiced cholesterol. The Norwegian was now awake and suspiciously studying his sodden hat. We picked a diner and accidentally ordered Hamburgers, Burritos, fries, Cokes and Ice Creams from staff who spoke Spanish very quickly and confused us. The Norwegian wolfed the lot, and mine, and questioned the portion size. “This American dream thing” he said, “it’s bollocks, isn’t it?” Sometimes foreigners use English in a way we Brits can’t better.

Back on the highway, an arrow-straight road with huge vistas, we had the highway to ourselves and with the cruise control set to HIGH we ate up the Mojave Desert. The sheer desolation of this place is breathtaking. It was hotter than Hades. At an exit for Field Road I pulled off for a luminescent wee. No field. Just desert. And someone else who was looking for the American dream. If the ‘PEACLUV’ registration plate wasn’t a giveaway, the marijuana leaf mural and BobMarley flag was. Hippies. A 1960s International Loadstar bus with a VW Camper welded on top was home to a smelly fellow who’s name I wrote on a bit of paper and subsequently lost. It wasn’t his real name anyway. Let’s call him Stench. He emerged from his broken down dream and politely laughed at two red-faced hungover Europeans suffering from the early stages of sunstroke. He had some interesting inkings, home-made clothing, facial piercings and tales of squatting in Rotterdam, Bristol and “that bit in between London and Scotland”. Corby, perhaps. He looked enviously at the Norwegian’s hat.


 
As we talked I gentled shuffled into an upwind position of my fragrant friend. Stench and his girlfriend were travelling across the States in their bus/home and had broken down. His belongings were strewn across the desert. There was a surfboard optimistically lashed to the back of the truck.

“This isn’t the dream” said the Norwegian disconsolately, “it’s our dream” said Stench and then, inevitably, asked us for some money. We couldn’t tow him as we were heading the opposite direction so left with a toodle pip. You can get to things that are far away in a short time if you drive very fast, explained the Norwegian (he’s an Engineer), so we sat at three figures with the iPhone set to shuffle. ‘Into the Valley’ by the Skids. Poetic timing. We crossed the border into Nevada and a place called Primm which seems to be a sort of mini-Vegas for those who found the journey this far too much and flop over the finishing line into Nevada to desperately gamble at the first place they find. I suspect Primm entices/entraps many sun-scorched travellers who stagger around the bleached streets looking for Caesar’s Palace before the vultures empty their pockets. Rollercoasters, concrete, parking lots. We didn’t stop. More highway, then suddenly the black Camaro came out of nowhere and went past us at massive speed, rocking the wobbly Mustang as it went past. I tucked in behind a Minivan, it had a tail-lift on the back with a mobility scooter on it. We saw a few of these contraptions, the lift part bobbing up and down, threatening to tip the scooter off the back and into our path. We didn’t stop. The iPhone shuffled to ‘Viva Las Vegas’ and there it was, rising out of the desert like Blackpool on crack. “What are we doing here?” asked the Norwegian. I didn’t know either.


 
Google found a Hotel. The Polo Towers Suites, 3745 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV 89109. An ambitiously priced place on the Vegas strip with brainless staff, tiny rooms, beds as comfortable as bookcases and a fountain in reception. The decor might have been designed by a Blue Square Conference league (North) WAG. Ugly families in leisurewear clogged the corridors. The price went up three times when trying to check in. We were knackered and they knew it. The Mustang was abandoned in someone’s basement nearby. Google found us The Polo Towers Suites, 3745 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV 89109 and I hope Google finds our two word review of The Polo Towers Suites, 3745 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV 89109: “It’s horrible.”


 
We staggered onto the strip, eyes tired and gritty, lights everywhere. Oriental men tried to foist lapdancing club flyers into your hand at every step. They were everywhere. They slapped their flyers in their palms like a nervous tic, then lunged forward aiming it at your hands, hoping your impulse is to take it from them. I have never had a greater urge to punch someone in my entire life. The only thing stopping me was the thought that there were thousands of the bastards and they might retaliate en-masse.

A bar. A very expensive Budweiser served by a barman who didn’t like eye contact. Another beer. “It’s gambling” said the Norwegian, “that’s the point of this place, that’s the dream” and we ambled into Caesar’s Palace. Elvis wasn’t in. I was disappointed. I wasn’t sure what to expect; I’d only been to two Casinos in my life: once in Monaco and another time in Leicester on a night out with an undercover detective who was watching bent Cypriot chippy owners launder ill-gotten gains. There are innocuous ATMs with a tiny sign explaining their hefty withdrawal fees. The Norwegian finally found a bank card that the ATM liked, got some cash and sat at a Roulette table. He put everything on red. Spin. Black. Game over. “That wasn’t fun” he said.

The people were a mish-mash of middle America, Stag do’s, wedding parties, employees on a night out, a retired couple, him holding his hands out as she carefully counted their chips into them. The place smelled like a Scout hut. Men in those ghastly 3⁄4 length baggy shorts with socks and white trainers whooped, sobbed and argued with friends, wives and fiancés.

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A fire alarm went off. The people feeding slot machines never even flinched. Another beer and a show. A woman danced woodenly to some RnB number and was joined by a pensioner in a staged act of random happiness. I drank warm Budweiser from a bottle. Then a bar, overlooking the strip, for Margaritas that the Norwegian didn’t rate. There were tattooed hookers with all the sex appeal of Jimmy Saville’s corpse and a view of traffic, lights and a massive video display threatening a live show by Celine Dion. More Casinos: The Flamingo, the Tropicana, the Bellagio, Luxor – all with the same rancid atmosphere, invasive lights, bad carpets, swarms of loud people racing to their ruin.
Rotund pensioners in mobility scooters sat at one-armed bandits, hen nights queuing in obviously uncomfortable shoes outside nightclubs and locals touted tat. There’s a model of the Statue of Liberty, a model of the Eiffel Tower (minus the dog muck), fountains and light shows and an endless throng of middle-Americans burning money in the desperate hope of fleeting happiness. Another drink might make it palatable. A smashed woman overheard my accent; she was here from Basildon to get married, “Briwyunt, innit?” she shrieked through bad teeth as her bloke made a combined effort to hold her up and grope her at the same time. This is my idea of hell. Time to run.

We checked out of the “It’s horrible” Polo Towers Suites, 3745 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV 89109. No breakfast. Another needlessly complicated gas station transaction. To drink: plenty of water and some coffee in huge disposable cups; no spoons for stirring just useless thin plastic sticks. To eat: a large bag of those twisty doughnuts, chocolate and some yellow sweets that tasted like 9V battery terminals. We had both slept in and in order to get back to LA for the return flight we’d need to press on. Vegas dropped away from view in the mirror, and we ate, drank, made phone calls, discussed tunes and generally had a high-speed mobile picnic.

There was no sign of Stench when we passed his turn, but we pulled off the highway and drove on the old Route 66 that runs parallel to the new highway. Like plants growing near an oasis, there were a few signs of life near the highway exit, but the further away you got the more scarce life became. Broken houses, gas stations with no pumps and a forecourt of broken glass, mobile homes with the walls kicked in. More desert. The artery of passing trade dried up. No soft edges anywhere, scratchy plants reclaiming their place, concrete, dust and despair. I parked the Mustang in the carport of a deserted house. Who had lived here? Why would anyone ever choose to live here where there nature offers nothing to nourish life? As I stepped backwards to get a better photograph, the bushes scratched my legs and I nearly fell over the iron railings of a small grave. The headstone was a lump of rock, four screwholes where a plaque once was. All this talk of the American dream, it’s nonsense, it makes a mockery of the poor buggers who clung to life with their fingernails here. Nuked by the sun. My face was peeling off.

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We drove on to another unpleasant surprise: where the old road re-joins the main highway stood two Cops with Radar gear. They were aiming at the highway and we’d unexpectedly approached from the old road instead. Lucky for us. You can’t really hear your own accent, can you? (I say glass, not glarse). And yet, when faced with a bull-framed Copper with a radar gun in one hand and a real gun in the other, I forgot my Midlands’ roots and spoke like Terry Thomas doing a bad impression of Prince Charles. I could barely understand the words that left my own lips but think I said hello.“What’s the speed limit here?!” bellowed the Policeman. I lied, convincingly, as it turned out. “Well it ain’t a hundren ten!”. We’d only been ‘pootling along’ I said. We hadn’t noticed the Police helicopter overhead; they’d spotted us long before we got here and were waiting. “I’m so dreadfully sorry, I said”, a phrase I have never used before in my life. A polite bollocking later we were on our way. Cruise set to 100mph, our logic being that we’d encountered one speed trap so the chances of hitting another so soon would be pretty slim, and we headed west, fast, back to LA for the flight home.


 
A final meal at a quiet truck stop. I ordered the ‘Good karma burger’ purely on the strength of the name. The Norwegian ordered one of the dozens of variations of beefburger with fries. Sick of stale Bud we ordered Dos Equis beer, double XX, brewed to celebrate the turn of the millennium. The passing of time, the changing of a year number, is that really something to celebrate? You may as well call it Tuesday. It was good anyway, although my burger seemed a bit off. We tipped and as I left the waitress looked in my direction and said quietly to the sweaty Chef – “Him, he ordered the Vegetarian burger”. And so, back to LA. The American dream.

It’s just an excuse to burn like a firework in the name of self-gratification, not caring that you’re nothing but a burned-out tube on the floor seconds later, not even thinking that far ahead. As the Norwegian succinctly said – It’s bollocks. It is a damn good excuse for a roadtrip though, just don’t expect to learn anything about yourself while you’re there. We arrived at the airport, stopping to refuel the car, a homeless guy handled the pump. “I pump for tips” he explained as I dug in my pocket for some change. The Norwegian corrected him, self-righteously, “we are not tits – we are Europeans!”.

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