Driving from Las Vegas at night, the first glimpse is from Spirit Mountain, almost five thousand feet above Laughlin. Darkness below, darkness above, and at the very center: a line of light—red, white, turquoise, yellow, pink. Casinos. The blaze of them all the more startling because for an hour we’ve been driving through nothingness. Or what appears to be nothingness: the dark desert mountains and the dark desert valleys with the occasional blip of civilization (signs for Girls! Girls! Girls! Steak & Eggs only 5.99! Endless Slots!), then–blink, blink–gone.
(The nothingness of the desert, it must be noted, is an illusion. The desert mountains are not mounds of dirt; they are covered in blooming cacti and Joshua trees, home to mountain lions, coyotes, kit foxes, butterflies, and birds with outrageous names like pyrrhuloxia and phainopepla. Not to mention the Joshua tree, which is an ecosystem in and of itself. One the most pretty desert birds, the Scott’s Oriole, drinks nectar from the Joshua tree’s flowers, forages bugs in its trunk, and builds nests out of its tough leaves in the safe, shady canopy.)
Laughlin straddles the western side of the Colorado River. On the other side, it’s Arizona and the town of Bullhead City. Bullhead makes its money fixing Laughlin’s broken slot machines and catering to tourists–mostly white-haired retirees in RVs–who trickle over from Laughlin. To the north of town, the Great Davis Dam and the Spirit Mountain Wilderness and more desert and more desert and then the Hoover Dam and then Las Vegas–O great glittering, terrible jewel.
We’re spiraling down from Spirit Mountain on Highway 167 in an old Land Cruiser, which Chris has lovingly named the “Global Warmer” due to its ability to guzzle astonishing quantities of gas. The check engine light is blinking on and off, off and on, and the air conditioning won’t stay on unless we hold down the button that says AC and if the AC doesn’t stay on the car will overheat. I suggest finding the duct tape and taping the AC button down, but first we have to find the duct tape, which is somewhere in the back, all mixed up with my various bags of clothes and cosmetics and Chris’s binoculars and spotting scope and camping equipment, including a red bottle of kerosene which keeps knocking against the metal door. Knock, knock. The casino lights are flaring and it’s my job to say something positive about the check engine light. Something like, “It’s going to be just fine!” and “Do you know any good mechanics around here?” Chris answers in the negative. “Well, that’s okay!” I say. “Because the Global Warmer’s going to be just fine!” Chris pats the GW’s dashboard, and we keep gliding down to the valley below.
We’re close enough so that I can read the signs. Here are the names of the casinos: Harrah’s, Aquarius, Riverside, Golden Nugget, Edgewater, Tropicana, Pioneer, and, last but not least, the Colorado Belle. The Colorado Belle is not a Mississippi riverboat from the nineteenth century, but it sure as hell looks like one. Huge fake wheels lit up with blinking neon. Fake smoke stacks also lit up. A pretend balcony.
I turn to Chris and give him the Look.
“I know,” he says, turning onto Casino Drive. “I hate Laughlin, too.”
Chris has business in Bullhead City tomorrow morning and everyone knows that casinos have the cheapest hotel rooms, so we’re staying here. I made us a reservation at the Edgewater because Chris saw a billboard for it thirty-odd miles back. The lady I talked to on the phone was named Karen. She spoke in a slow, smooth voice, repeating everything I said. “I’d like a king, please.” “You’d like a king.” “I’d like nonsmoking, please.” “You’d like nonsmoking.” This went on for a long time. “I’d like to pay with a Visa card, please.” “You’d like to pay with a Visa card.” It all felt rather meditative and I come to the conclusion that Karen was most likely a Zen master in disguise as a hotel clerk. Chris wasn’t so sure.
The town of Laughlin, like many Western towns (Lake Havasu City, AZ; Pahrump, NV; Sun City, AZ, to name a few), is young. In the 1940s, Laughlin (which wasn’t even called Laughlin at that point) had one bar and one motel that serviced fishermen and workers constructing the Davis Dam. After the dam was finished, the town shuttered until Las Vegas hotelier Don Laughlin bought up some land and built the Riverside Resort in the late 60s, which was soon followed by the construction of other casinos and more developments and a golf course, etc. Hence, Laughlin. Motto: “It’s Like You Own The Place.”
We pull into the Edgewater. It’s not as pleasant as I had hoped, but it’s not so bad, either. But Brenda, the hotel clerk there, tells me that we’re booked over at the Colorado Belle (“It’s our sister hotel, you know”).
“I’m confused,” I say. “I talked to Karen at the Edgewater just a half an hour ago.”
“Karen?” the clerk says. “No Karen works here.”
In order to get the room keys, we’ll have to register in the lobby of the Colorado Belle. We drive over. From far away, the Belle has some novelty value: I can appreciate that there is a hotel shaped like a Mississippi riverboat. But, up close, it’s another matter. I see that some of the neon bulbs making up the “wheel spoke” are dead. The place is forlorn. I’m reminded of Death in Venice, that Thomas Mann novella. The aging main character, Aschenbach, falls in love/lust with a young boy. In order to attract the boy’s attention, he dyes his hair and puts on makeup, but everyone can see the wrinkles and white hair, how hard he’s trying.
In the car, I turn to Chris. “I have to sleep in this thing? What if it gives me weird dreams?”
“They’ve got your credit card number,” Chris says. “So, yeah.”
I walk into the lobby, awash in cigarette smoke and the jittery click-and-clang of slot machines. In typical casino style, it’s unclear where the hotel front desk is. I pause for a moment to gather my bearings. There’s man who’s sitting in front of the “Phantom of the Opera” slot machine. He’s drinking whiskey on the rocks and pulling the lever, over and over. A cherry! A horseshoe! A four-leaf clover! I spot the small sign: “Hotel Check-In” and follow the blinking, bedazzled arrow.
The hotel clerk smiles like she’s underwater, too much pressure bearing down for her muscles to form a true smile. Her name’s Sharon.
By the time we make it to our room (New Orleans-themed: red lampshades with dim bulbs, paintings of riverboats), it’s only 7:30 in the evening, but I’m exhausted. So’s Chris. The casinos don’t bother him, but he’s worried about the Global Warmer. So am I, vaguely. If the thing doesn’t start in the morning that means we’re stuck here. I take a hot shower, then fall in a bed that surpasses expectations. Silky white sheets, perfectly stuffed pillows. How is such a thing possible inside the Colorado Belle? By 7:50, I’m asleep.
When we leave in the morning, the Belle’s lights are still blazing, but it’s dwarfed by the big desert sun that’s quickly angling its way high. Dwarfed by Spirit Mountain pink and beige in the early light and by the blue of sky, the hazy, see-through clouds. The car starts. We pump gas across the street, check the oil, decide we need more oil, and buy a yellow container of the stuff. Chris pours it into the car’s great belly. I chew on a pastry left over from yesterday’s breakfast. By 8 am, we’re gone.