A Travelogue of Photos and Text
On our way from Tucson to Sacramento on a road trip last month, Sean Ongley and I found ourselves with two nights in Las Vegas, at Paris Hotel, at the center of the famous Strip — a four-mile portion of Las Vegas Boulevard that lies outside the city limits of Las Vegas. Located south of downtown in the township of Paradise, Clark County, the Strip has seen rapid development since the mid-1990’s. Although it isn’t home to the oldest casinos in Vegas, the largest, spectacular resorts are there, the ones we see in the movies. It’s a place where more than gambling vies for tourists’ cash. Now the Strip draws the bulk of visitors — over 40 million in 2014 — seeking Las Vegas, outside of Las Vegas.
From the windows of our 12th floor room, we looked out on the Arc de Triumph replica, and the encircling line of taxis and cars in the valet line. Across the Paris is the Bellagio and its photogenic fountains. Down a few blocks is Caesar’s Palace, and then the Mirage Hotel which towers like an open book standing upright, with windows for words, and palm trees and greenery spilling into another pool reflecting the blinking and slipping lights of the continuous slideshow.
On the rooftop of the shorter building next to the Paris, there are stacks of white patio chairs. I noticed them in the morning, along with the joggers that the day brings. Clean white patio furniture, stored up top out of sight. I wondered if there was a rooftop somewhere with piles of clean white towels (in our hotel room alone, I counted ten towels; one spa trip presented three more; a swim in the pool, two more). I was suddenly curious, if not fascinated, with the efficient linen services and the sheer quantity of delicate soaps that get placed and then tossed or taken from the Strip’s 62,000 hotel rooms. What generates and lies off this place popping up in the desert like a cruise ship in the middle of an ocean?
Going beyond the Strip by foot only for a few hours, I toured wide alleyways lined with hotel garbage, recycling rooms, and parking garages. Hotels boast superior locations without Strip prices, on Koval Lane.
Two young women walked silently down a side street against the concrete wall of a parking garage, wearing fishnet tights, black top hats, and french cut leotards, their asses as exposed as the palms of their hands. Before turning to walk up the garage ramp, I asked if I could take a picture. “It’s all for tips,” one called out with the detached evenness of a repeated line, declining one more customer, myself, as the younger woman quietly watched, as if in training, “And we’re not at work anymore.”
I arrived at an impasse for pedestrians, the on and off ramps for Interstate 15 and turned around but not before watching the sunset there. Crisscrossed by phone lines, and traffic signs, the pink settling on the dark outline of distant hills and desert, quickly punctured the insular feeling of the Strip.
At a 7-Eleven on Koval, I bought a sandwich for four bucks and then started shooting pictures of the display. The cashier narrowed his eyes at my camera. I was swiftly asked to leave. I stood outside and ate the sandwich next to a brightly lit gift shop, watching planes flying low overhead. They fly overhead frequently here, to and from McCarran International airport, people coming here to Las Vegas, many getting into rental cars or connecting flights to head to other cities.
Being immediately off the Strip, walking down Flamingo Road along Caesars towards the freeway, produces a sense of obscurity, like no one could find you. On the Strip, I couldn’t escape the feeling of supervision. I’m a game piece on a game board, shuffling from the little cities with their theatrical replicas, the Statue of Liberty in New York to the Eiffel Tower, through a maze of boutique clothing shops the size of newspaper stands, past the canals outside the Venetian with its costumed gondoliers, following the rules of the board. I felt it while crossing the pedestrian bridges over the Strip, up escalators and into casinos to wander where sidewalks stopped or crosswalks were nonexistent. We become like puppets in a way, not in complete control of our navigation if even a bit distracted. You end up in the lobby of Ceasars when you’ve just gone out for a walk. If I looked long enough at anything, whether it was a gondolier, a card dealer, or hustling men and women snapping call girl cards with their finger tips, I expected someone to shoot me a sly look or a smirk, giving something of themselves away for free.
We didn’t make it to old Vegas on Fremont Street or to the towns like Henderson where kids grow up with schools and sidewalks. We first drove along Tropicana Boulevard and stopped to take pictures of empty parking lots and old signs for business no longer there. I don’t know why abandonment draws us, maybe it’s the room to dream and fabricate a history. Maybe it feeds on a disillusionment we are beholden to or need confirmed. I noticed an Italian Clothing store, and a pizzeria in a vacant strip mall, feeling a nostalgia that didn’t belong to me.
These pictures all point back to the Strip in some way, they’re taken in its shadows, they are of some of its backwash. As a tourist, not knowing anything else to reference, to see, to define the city by, my shots were all determined by its absence. And so for a photoset we set out to document aspects of Vegas other than the Strip, it became about the Strip.
I’ve heard people encouraging their friends to go to Vegas. You have to to go once just to see it, I hear them say just before adding that they’ll never go back. I feel the same way about the Strip, but I want to go back to Vegas, to take more peeks behind the stage curtain, and walk so far from the Strip, that you’re not in the theater anymore at all, but somewhere else in Las Vegas.