At first, my eyes have a hard time adjusting. I’ve just stepped outside of The Venetian Hotel—its loud interior crammed with tourists and tapestries—and into the blinding heat. The Las Vegas strip surrounds me from almost every direction. Heat ripples up from the road and I have to loosen my shirt. I don’t know where to look first. The Venetian has already been a barrage to my senses, what with the constant soundtrack of slot machines and fortunes being lost. I thought going outside might actually help, but the Strip is somehow louder, lived-in, and larger than I ever imagined. Las Vegas is more than just a playground; it’s filled with so many spectacles and sensations that I have to look at things twice, just to make sure it’s really happening all around me.
Across the street from The Venetian, there’s a pirate-ship battle going on at Treasure Island. One pirate is threatening another with a sword; one ship is lurching beneath the crew’s feet on unseen mechanical gimbles; cannons fire loud blanks at one another. This is all, of course, just a few feet away from the curb and within walking distance of the promise of a live circus in one direction (Circus Circus) and a series of sixty-foot high fountains doing a hypnotic dance to classical music (The Bellagio). None of this should be here, I think to myself. None of this is supposed to be happening right now.
And yet, it is. Artificiality is everywhere I look. Cathedrals are crammed into corner lots; fireballs rise up from a faux-tropical waterfall; a reduced-size Eiffel Tower, complete with a restaurant at the top, lords over the street. People stumble and run and scream all around me. No one seems fazed by what they see, by the majesty around them. No one’s pointing excitedly at the man-made wonders around them. It’s as though all of this is perfectly natural to the herds of people pushing their way down the Strip.
To me, it’s anything but.
The Las Vegas Strip is a relatively narrow street surrounded by an unforgiving expanse of desert and rock. For all intents and purposes, there is absolutely no reason the street, and the resorts that compete with one another, should exist. That said, Las Vegas has gone through a long string of monumental changes that would keep its face changing almost as much as the ever-evolving Strip does. In 1829, a group of New Mexican fur traders were traveling to Los Angeles. Their leader decided to take a different path and they came upon a green valley with artesian springs. They named the valley las vegas—Spanish for the springs (Ferrari 5).
What I’m witnessing bears no resemblance whatsoever to what the New Mexican traders found. In fact, the closest thing to a hot spring I’ve seen are the advertisements for $100 spa treatments at my hotel. Still, Las Vegas is a place of constant change. After the springs were discovered, the city saw Mormons settle the area with a mail post between Utah and Los Angeles, the establishment of a major railroad through the heart of the city, an incredible mining boom, rapid growth following World War II, “atomic tourism,” and the first signs of resort development (Land 9). It strikes me that Las Vegas itself has welcomed so many different people for centuries, from all walks of life, that everything bears a little bit of everyone’s influence and impression.
The Venetian is much like every other hotel on the Strip: a staggeringly authentic resort that approximates the real thing for those who have never visited Venice, and challenges those familiar with the real thing to look twice. Outside, a few birds flutter past a giant clock tower and I have to remind myself that I am standing in Nevada. (The heat, which is inching ever closer to a hundred degrees, helps me remind this.) I decide to go back into the hotel; I can’t bear to stand outside too long. Long, arched walkways carry me back toward the hotel—all of which are lined with terraced staircases, stone statues, and windows with incredibly detailed carvings etched into them. Below, I see a sprawling plaza with fountains and pools, which also doubles as valet parking. It’s choked with taxis and tourists frantically checking to see if they’ve accounted for all of their luggage.
Strangely, the Venetian fits in nicely with its surroundings, what with the giant black pyramid (Luxor) just peeking over a cathedral spire. It is starting to make sense to me, for some reason. When I step into the hotel, entering one of its twenty sliding-glass doors, I am greeted with a blast of icy air. My eyes have a hard time focusing again. Now, I am confronted with the feeling that I’ve just entered the Sistine Chapel. High above my head is an incredible fresco ceiling—it stretches as far as I can see. I later learn that these are replicas of paintings by the eighteenth-century artists Bambino, Pellogrini, Rici, and Tiepolo (Fox 131).
In a few seconds, I find myself passing through a brief, but spectacular, gaming area. The air smells like it’s filled with potpourri and incense. It’s a jarring feeling, really. All at once, I’m expected to be reverential of the spectacular beauty that surrounds me and yet, I’m also staring at the decadence of blackjack tables and roulette wheels. I don’t know quite how to feel. I’m getting the feeling that The Venetian isn’t so much a hotel as it is an experience. Everything here has been designed to be felt, not just observed. Like everywhere else in Vegas, the experience isn’t just limited to the resorts themselves, but the people. I see drunken men in cut-offs staggering and cackling in one direction, while a group of Japanese businessmen in expensive tailored suits walk solemnly in the other. They pass within two feet of one another, not once acknowledging the other’s presence.
That’s Vegas, I think. Strangers and spectacle, side by side.
I make my way through the gaming area, past the cries of joy (“21!”) and murmurs of concern (“How much do we have left in our bank account?”). Suddenly, I stop. I’m staring at an immense Venetian plaza. Just a few feet in front of me is a meandering canal, complete with gondolas and men pushing them along with paddles. The canal snakes through an enormous shopping district, which has been crafted to look like a plaza in Venice: fake stone and cobblestone sprawls out beneath my feet; ornate lampposts give off faint glows of life; street performers juggling and making little children laugh. It is almost too much to put together in my head. Just beyond the throng of visitors, I see fine shops (Dolcé, Armani, Oliver & Co.) that make my own bank account feel small and insignificant in comparison.
Chef and entertainer Anthony Bourdain notes that “[The Venetian] is too clean … it’s a McFunster version of the real thing” (Bourdain). I’ve never been to Venice, let alone a hotel as epic as this one, but there’s something unsettling about all of this. It’s starting to dawn on me that Vegas is about delivering approximated versions of experiences to its visitors. Here, experiences and events are shrunk, polished, and available for sale in shopping arcades like this one. I find myself wondering, as I watch a live performer (hypnotically) act as a slow-moving stone statue, where this performer is from. I’m no longer marveling about the near-imperceptible movements of the performer’s head and hands; I’m wondering if she’s twenty-two and from Ohio.
From the crayon-box colored New York city skyline (New York New York) to the crumbling façades of an Arthurian castle (Excalibur), Vegas condenses the world and somehow manages to package it for mass consumption. It is not so much a desert of dreams as it is a Hollywood backlot of manufactured realism. Novelist Chuck Palahniuk once wrote that “Las Vegas looks the way you’d imagine heaven must look at night” (Palahniuk 82). I don’t feel it’s quite that, but Palahniuk does acknowledge a divine design that seems present in the shape and structure of Las Vegas. It’s as though someone is always watching and controlling the direction of this improbable city. It might be spectacular, and hotels like The Venetian certainly are, but underneath every golden lion-head (MGM Grand) is a hollow reality. It’s as if I’m constantly being told to look the other way, like a magician diverting the audience’s attention from what’s really going on beneath it all.
Ferrari, Michelle, and Steven Ives. Las Vegas: An Unconventional History. New York :
Fox, William L. In the Desert of Desire: Las Vegas and the Culture of Spectacle. Reno :
University of Nevada Press, 2005.
Land, Barbara, and Myrick Land. A Short History of Las Vegas: Second Edition. Reno :
University of Nevada Press, 2004.
“Las Vegas.” Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Travel Channel. 7 Feb. 2005.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Invisible Monsters. New York : W.W. Norton ; Company, 1999.