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Letter from Las Vegas

I just took a Scenic Airlines flight over the Grand Canyon. A small passenger plane that went skimming high and low about the rims and gorges and buttes, the airy pinnacles and steeples of this granite wilderness—the afternoon partly misty, partly cerulean, perhaps not the right weather to show off the immense sight. Certainly I’ve gotten more buoyed up, I think, on the color photos or color films I’ve seen—or is that simply another indication that “reality” is possible for us only when glimpsed through the eye of a camera? Mooney Falls, majestically thundering over a cavernous precipice (at least in the old Living Nature series), looked like a dulcet, snowy stream from the air, and Havasu Falls, a mile or so away, was even more fragile, perfect for a diminutive Japanese garden.

The Havasupai Indian village—the tribe has been here for 800 years—appeared to be almost a series of ant hills, the white roofs of the government-built houses and the accompanying greenery caught in a sandy repose at the bottom of a daring crevasse. We did fly close to a remarkable configuration called Ship Rock and then almost as near to another called Window Rock, whose giant umber sports a hole large enough for a plane to pass through. As our guide noted: One loses all sense of perspective in the Canyon.

But this is clearly territory that one must explore—to the extent that it is possible—on foot, or journey through on horse or mule. Tours, I think, are out of place, much too effete or institutionalized a way of “getting to know” the rugged life. In his book The Man Who Walked Through Time, Colin Fletcher marvels at the Canyon’s sheer depth, says that if you put one Empire State Building on top of another, and then added two more, they still wouldn’t kiss the lip of the gorge. Notes, too, that now it’s no longer necessary to create great works of art—so he says—what’s necessary now is to preserve the great works of nature that we’ve got—a familiar theme, incidentally, throughout the Southwest.

The first American to navigate the Colorado and chart the canyon through which it flows was a one-armed Civil War veteran. Adler, not Freud, may be the psychologist for the adventurer. Major Powell, a geologist, went with a crew of ten men, three wooden boats, and then kept moving ever onward for eighty-four days, at the end of which he had left only seven men and one boat. At the Visitors Center in the Canyon musem, there’s a diorama depicting the expedition in temporary disarray, Powell and his men patching up one of the surviving crafts or shaping new oars out of piñon pine. The most poignant aspect of all this, though, is that these fellows had no idea where the river would lead—or leave them. The men made jests about the “Great Unknown,” which they traveled blind, but to Powell the jests always seemed severe or demonic. In his journal he admits that there was sublimity all right, but that the region around the “fretful river” was more hazardous and impenetrable than the Alps or the Himalayas.

The endless gradations, the inner and outer gorges, the steep strata and threatening pits, the mesas and plateaus and minarets, the emblazoned ridges and embayed rims spun out in priestly purple, vistas in slate gray or chilled rose, metamorphic at top, sedimentary at bottom, these reminded me of some sort of wild sculpture, which looked at with appropriately impressionable eyes might seem to resemble Aztec or Hindu temples…. I was thinking of the intricate carvings and massive devotional shapes that the purely physical splendor of the Canyon suggests, and which the various designations—Brahma, Zoroaster, Deva—emphasize.

The Havasupai believe this Herculean terrain to be the abode of the gods, that indeed they live among divine spirits, and so are protected and embraced by heaven itself. No wonder Lawrence regarded the Southwest as the Indians’ revenge on the pioneering Americans—the latter, according to him, always trying to break free of fate, “be masterless,” and the former accepting, as Lawrence counseled the white man to do, the decrees of Nature, letting the gods master us, and so realize “true” freedom. In one of his essays, “The Hopi Snake Dance,” he says he had his doubts about an animistic religion, and many more about “going native,” but no doubts about what was what. “We make reservoirs, and irrigation ditches and artesian wells. We make lightning conductors, and build vast electric plants. We say it is a matter of science, energy, force…. But the Indian says No! It all lives.” Well, the Canyon, I suppose, proves his point. We, as tourists, seem de trop, while the Havasupai “fit in”—800 years is a long legacy; and the neighboring Navajos, the largest tribe in the States, go back over a thousand.

Las Vegas, on the other hand, is a man-made paradise, the fallen Adam in the arms of a neon serpent. Tom Wolfe, in the middle Sixties, thought it the ultimate in psychedelia, and now Mario Puzo, in his pugnaciously affirmative Mario Puzo Inside Las Vegas, imagines it a sort of therapy for everyman:

What possesses a group of mature people who know what life is all about to think that gambling can solve their problems? Desperation, that’s what, and something to put a little spice in your life.*

I ended a three-day stay, not in one of the plush hideaways like Caesar’s Palace or the MGM Grand, but in one of the older, seedier hotels called Silver Bird (formerly Thunderbird). I use “seedier” only in a financial sense, since the Bird and Vegas are remarkably clean. The garish lights and sights are really a carnival of innocence—Vegas swings, for singles, that is, but only if you go looking for it—and the city attracts family types or senior citizens more than any other group that I could observe. Hour after hour you can watch them strolling the Strip with canes or kids—there’s a Youth Hotel, strictly for teenagers and preschoolers—as if they were back home on the boulevard of a suburban complex. (Did I hear that Vegas expects to count nearly ten million visitors by the end of the year? And yet, to me, the Strip seemed less crowded than Manhattan does at five in the afternoon.) Here in place of Key Food or McDonald’s you have congresses of elementary school principals or physicians and surgeons ogling “the hottest slots in town,” Arabic or Moorish façades hobnobbing with emblems of the Old West (some sort of flying carpet serves as the marquee of the Frontier), “fun paks” and “innkare,” “lowball” and “lucky bucks” vying with the Congo Showroom and Ondine aux crevettes roses….

At the new Circus-Circus, rated PG, if the Vegas hotels had such ratings, there’s an incredible big-top ambiance: aerial acts at the highest level, clowns and boutiques, carousels and cocktail lounges on the middle rung, and the whole overlooking an immense lobby, with its array of roulette wheels, crap tables, Keno alleys, and row on row of one-armed bandits, stacked back-to-back like markers in a graveyard, in strict colorful regularity. Caesar’s Palace, another masterwork, is of course even larger, with a Villa d’Este promenade and a fruity barge, but its lush interior, its imperial stairways, waterfalls and grottoes bubbling beneath them, its tubular elevators enclosed in glass and sparkling gold, its dining rooms in Roman motifs, togas and statuaries, fiddlers everywhere, cater naturally, to a fancier crowd.

No one, however, is barred from entering: cowboys just in off the Humboldt Trail (hustlers, mostly, with velour pants, boots, and body shirts), and men and women in evening dress and crown jewels pass one another without blinking an eye. And in downtown Vegas, where the Y and the massage parlors are, the bookstores are full of tomes on Gambling, Porn, and Christianity—and in that order of popularity, usually.

Meanwhile, the flashing signs, operatic or honky-tonk, cut into each other’s turf—very reminiscent, in a way, of Mark Twain in Roughing It: “We prospected and took up new claims, put ‘notices’ on them and gave them grandiloquent names: the Gray Eagle, the Columbiana, the Branch Mint, the Root-Hog-or-Die…the Boomerang.”

BOOMERANG, well, that’s the prophetic heartbeat of the Southwest, past and present. A very ordinary housewife sitting next to me one night at the Dollar Nest unexpectedly began hitting a lucky streak, kept looking around for more and more cups to hold her loot, again and again coming up with three strawberries, three bars, three oranges, even the smashing three sevens which alone rewarded her 300 dollars, emitting little squeals whenever she rang a winner, a big blazing buzzer drilling our ear pits as the cascading silver went plippety plop in the leaden basin beneath the machine. In true Vegas fashion, though, she did not back off when the going was good, but kept questing for more and more, till finally in the ensuing hours lost almost all of her small fortune. Similarly, the old prospectors, according to Twain, were always being denuded of any gold they found in the Nevada hills, either losing it at the betting parlors, or in poker games in the bunkhouse, or through various other misadventures.

As for the housewife, was she having, as they say, “slots of fun”? An Australian, accompanying me on the bus taking us to the airport for our Canyon flight, remarked as we looked at the passing splendor: “Well, they certainly didn’t build these places from the winnings the customers made at the tables.” LV (“Love Visitors”) must have it down to a science: they give you the glad eye, let you strike it rich, but always, eventually, recoup any losses—and then some. The Flamingo Hilton is adding a seven-million-dollar wing to its complex—and certainly does not expect to go bankrupt by doing so. The lights ripple and twist and turn from seven to seven (Times Square of yesteryear), from seven PM to seven AM, when The Dirty Sally discothèque finally calls it a day, one of the few establishments, incidentally, not completely in the swing of the twenty-four-hour spectrum. A timeless town, Bergsonian durée made manifest. The only way you know the hour is if you’re in hock to one of the honchos—and even then you can’t count on it. This is Playland as Eden, essentially infantile, but it entrances many bored people, including lots of foreigners—or especially foreigners, who love it, indeed love America, cannot understand my “reservations.”

The other day I took a car into the suburbs to visit the Chamber of Commerce; the suburbs being mostly sand piles with ranch houses and gewgaws of Spanish origin, the dust blowing over the roads and the yards and the emerald-tinted swimming pools; the driver, mottled-faced and ashen-haired, telling me he’s not a gambler, a real gambler. What does he think of real gamblers? “Sick, man, fuckin‘ sick.” Says he knows a few. “They go crazy. Elevator operators, car washers, placing twenty or thirty dollars a day. Where do they get off doing that? And they don’t win, you can’t win. People like that don’t play to win, they play to lose. They want to lose so they can always keep playin’.” But how is that possible if they always keep losing? “They don’t always lose. You place so many bets, some of ‘ems got to be good. So that keeps them in there.”

  1. *

    Mario Puzo Inside Las Vegas (Grosset & Dunlap, $14.95), though repetitive, seems to me one of the liveliest testimonials to the splendeurs et misères of gaming fever I’ve read, full of any number of no-nonsense rationales. For instance: The casino owners could “drug you, make you drunk, roll you, blackmail you, and even knock you off. But to what purpose? You, the player, are like a husband who only carries two grand worth of life insurance. You are worth more alive, working, earning money every year to lose every year.” Still, I’m afraid, in Puzo’s morally very shallow book everything falls in the house’s favor, so much so that the jovial author himself asks: “Are the Vegas fathers paying me off?”—which is disarming, but perhaps a little like the proverbial Cretan saying all Cretans are liars.

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