On Time and Shaping Las Vegas

Neon Boneyard

Las Vegas is a strange, disorienting place.

I was twelve the first time I visited Las Vegas, in the early nineties. My cousin and I walked up and down the Strip all day, sans parents. Our fun was limited, and I pretended each casino was a Disneyland attraction. The Mirage’s erupting volcano. Treasure Island’s pirate show. The Wizard of Oz characters in the MGM Grand. It wasn’t until the road trips in college, zooming east on the 15 from Los Angeles, that I first sensed what Vegas could be.

I remember approaching the Strip from the highway: an illusion, an electric oasis in the middle of a pitch-black desert. We were just shy of twenty-one, fueled on ecstasy tablets and swigs of vodka in water bottles at five in the morning, roaming each casino until a security officer asked for identification and kicked us out. We were restricted to lobbies and pathways away from the slot machines: spaces of inaction, of limbo.

I was there, but not there — not fully part of the experience, yet somehow still contributed to the collective making of the city.

I’ve returned to Vegas many times since then: with my family for reunions; with friends for New Year’s Eve; with ex-boyfriends for weekend getaways; and most recently with my parents, my husband, and my mum-in-law. Each visit, the city has felt different, almost new. It lets me shape it each time.

On a visit about a year ago, the bartender at Gustav’s, a video poker bar in the middle of the Paris casino, told me I had a young face and asked for my ID. Fifteen years have passed since those sleepless nights with my college friends, and now I’m delighted to be asked this question. I handed him my driver’s license, and the older man to my right looked at me and said: “Yep, young face. That’s a good thing.”

It feels odd, perhaps unnatural, to age in a place as timeless and anachronistic as Las Vegas: where night is masked as day, where clocks are nowhere to be found, where things happen and are never spoken of again once you’ve left. But as I sat at Gustav’s with my husband, I knew time had passed: we met there, at that very bar, on just our third encounter. He was a traveler on holiday in the United States, and I was the girl he’d met the week before, in San Francisco, who agreed to meet him in Las Vegas for a day. We didn’t know it then, but this meeting would be the beginning — the starting point of our shared trajectory, and the first real moment that began to shape Vegas as physical and tangible: a place that stays intact even once I’ve left, that exists in the timeline of our “real” world.

In “Autofill Mythologies,” Kelli Korducki describes Google autofill as a window into the mythologies of a city: the observations, ideas, and stories of a place revealed in the detritus collected in the Google search bar. She talks mainly of the different versions of Detroit — how the myths and tales of a city aren’t the same for locals and tourists. An SEO mirror of disparity.

I think of the residue of Las Vegas in Google’s search results — our jackpots and double downs, our hopes and dreams, our secrets, our losses and darkest moments. My own experiences could populate Google autofill on their own, so I can only imagine our collective contributions, and I’m reminded of how a place is so much more than a geographic location. How a city as we imagine it  “the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare”  is as real as its version on a map.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

20 thoughts on “On Time and Shaping Las Vegas

  1. I am from Slovakia and I visited Las Vegas only once three years ago. It is most exciting city I have visited. I would definitely come back with my son.

  2. Beautifully written. The words came alive as the bright lights flashed through my mind. Walking the strip and exploring all it has to offer, what a wonderful past time. Happy to find you.

  3. This was a beautiful read. Thank you for sharing your perspective and drawing me skillfully in with the first lines. I look forward to delving more deeply into your work!

  4. Cheri…so glad i found your Blog..I will follow your other Blog as well…Its been 6 weeks for me in the blogging world and i just want to say..to find young people who think so deep is fantastic! Heart to Heart Robyn

  5. Amazing. Just found your blog recently, and I love the way you write, especially the part about residue/detritus… the link between Google Autofill and Las Vegas… beautiful.

    1. Thanks, Natalie — to be fair, the New Inquiry article goes much deeper into the Google autofill stuff. I’d like to write more about Vegas, as after my most recent visit I realize I do love it, despite its strangeness. Glad you found my blog — thanks for reading.

  6. This is beautiful, I love the way you write 🙂 I am super jealous though that I have never once visited Las Vegas and you have been so many times!

    1. Thanks, Catherine — it’s one of those places that makes more sense the more you go. (I feel this way about Los Angeles as well, which I hope to write about soon.) Thanks for reading.

  7. One of my closest friends is in Vegas right now, so I find this rather appropriate. I’ve only been once and it was when I was 16 and rather immature. Your thoughts give me things to consider, which I appreciate. Thanks!

  8. I’ve been to Las Vegas several times also, and your post struck a truth to me also, that each visit reveals fresh outlooks. I will never forget my first visit, however, which lead me to Freemont and I watched all the older, lonely people drift together as they were hypnotized by the Doors playing music above their heads, drawing them back to a younger year and fresher time when hopes were still alive for them. That is the saddest I have ever felt in any of my visits. It left a mark on me.

  9. It is amazing how certain places hold all this for us. A chance meeting, a first date, the beginning of your story together. The place you read about only in books and then it became something completely new and different every time you revisited it in reality. And then there is the new place…the place that feels like home, yet you just arrived, and you wonder…will I come back to this place again and again…I can only hope.

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