Saturday, 25 June 2011

How to beat the Casinos.

The air in the car was one of excitement as we started seeing the first Casinos in Nevada, big, tacky overlit Bastions, declaring Cabaret and all you can eat buffets started to appear on the horizon once we passed the Hoover Dam, the enormous feat of human engineering that marked the boundary between Arizona and Nevada. We also gained an hour, as the time zone shifted from Mountain to Western time. We came into Vegas at dusk, the lights were coming on just as we arrived onto the strip and tried to locate our respective hotels, Pat and Judge in the old school Circus Circus Casino, made famous by Jonny Depp hallucinating out of his tits in the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was about a mile and a half away from the main strip and Emma and I in the Imperial Palace, no less old school but right in the thick of the action, our balcony overlooked the Bellagio fountains and was closer still to some kind of outdoor club which played obscenely loud music until 4am every morning. No matter, we thought, we are in Vegas after all.
We met Pat and Judge, still sweating from their trek from Circus Circus and immediately embarked on a $1 frozen Margerita binge. This was to set the tone of our Vegas experience, the cheaper the better. The first night was a quiet affair and we split up at about midnight, Pat and Judge, after making sure they had enough water and hiring a guide so as not to get lost on the impressively long walk back to their hotel said goodbye and we got some beers in and went back to the room to watch how to play all the different variations of Poker and listen to the thumping Usher medley being played in the tent club just outside our balcony.
The next morning Emma and I awoke to the eerie quiet of no Usher and left our room to go out and try to find some natural light. As we made our way through the casino it was remarkably similar to when we had previously walked through it at midnight the evening before. A Tina Turner lookalike belted out Simply the Best before climbing off the stage and taking over from Lady Gaga on a blackjack table and dealing to the vacant eyed patrons who looked like they may not have seen their rooms that night. All the tables were full and almost everyone had a drink in front of them. Welcome to Vegas.
We went outside, blinking in the sunlight and got ourselves a beer, crossing the road we were just about to enter the Bellagio when I spotted Dog the Bounty Hunter chatting to someone at the entrance. If you’re not familiar with him then that’s your loss, the guy is a HERO. His golden mullet spilling onto his well muscled shoulders was just as I remembered it from the Bravo marathons I used to do as an unemployed gentleman. Best day of my life. I didn’t have the balls to go and speak to him so we went into the Casino and had a wander. The place is incredible, we walked past the $200 tables with little Chinese guys in suits betting more in one hand than we spent on a month’s accommodation in Bolivia, people playing that dice rolling game the rules of which may as well have been written in Hindi for al I understood them, but people seemed to be having a lovely time nonetheless. Eventually we entered the famous Bellagio buffet, the biggest all you can eat buffet in the world. We had many a discussion on how they could possibly run it at a profit and came to the conclusion that it was impossible. A sushi chef hand rolling sushi to order, Fillet steak, Pork Belly and gourmet Pizza sat side by side with Mountains of king prawn and lobster with about a hundred other things for you to eat in between. It was impossible not to feel guilty at the unashamed excess on display. I’m writing this in India and having seen full families sleeping on a blanket next to some of the busiest roads on the planet I can’t help but feel ashamed to the core of my being. Luckily, I’d never been to India at the time and I gorged myself with the other pigs blissfully unaware of what a horrible person I’d inadvertently become. It got to the stage, and I’m not proud of this, where I was filling a plate with steak among other things and eating only the pink bit of the medium rare cut of meat before discarding the ‘wastage’ and going up for yet another plate. After the first I wasn’t even hungry, any more, after the second dish piled high with all sorts of delicious stuff it was actually painful to eat and after the third, well I was actually worried about what was going to happen to me when I finally attacked the desert shelves. I stumbled out of there clutching my stomach and groaning in very real pain. Emma looked at me in disgust, shaking her head and scolding me like she’d caught me stealing 2 quid out of her purse, not angry, just disappointed.  And all this cost was 20 of your American dollars. Once I’d regained the ability to walk we carried on into the casino and going  entirely against the spirit of Vegas parked ourselves on the penny slots and did not leave until we were niiiice and toasty, me on free coronas, her on free double cosmopolitans. If you’re interested, we ended up about $16 dollars up with these pathetic, frugal bets so in your enormous bloated face Vegas, we took on your casinos and WON!
The next day, by way of an activity, we made our way down the strip to Glitter Gulch in downtown Vegas, this is where the glory days of Vegas took place, the Vegas of legend and folklore where the gangsters ruled with impunity. It’s obviously not like that anymore, but still definitely worth a visit, the main strip where the battered old casinos, very obviously from the 70’s, scream at you for your business like tired 65 year old whores. The ceiling of the whole complex, lights up all day, trying it’s hardest not to look like the Rock’s skinny, balding cousin in comparison to the recent billion dollar refurbs that the strip has had in the past 5 years.

On our penultimate day, we had to up and leave the gloriously decrepit  Imperial Palace and carry our enormous rucksacks over the road into Caesers Palace, where due to the fact that people at Emma’s work actually valued her contribution, they had bought her a night in one of the major casinos of my choice. We went in early to leave our bags with the bellhop and see whether or not we could check in. We couldn’t so we went to try and find a waitress on the penny slots. We returned to reception, dragging our rucksacks past the tanned, fit and above all, rich clientele that usually frequents the lobby of such an establishment and, half cut from yet more free, penny slot beers, started trying to lay our ‘free upgrade’ spiel on Jason, who looked like a cage fighter in a suit. He was having absolutely none of it and Emma and I looked at each other with a disappointed face. Once the check-in was complete, Jason placed the key on the counter in front of us and said ‘So, I’ve given you guys a sweet upgrade’ He really did emphasise the ‘sweet’ like that. And he wasn’t lying. We arrived at the door and put the key in the lock. The door opened into a corridor which as we alked down it, opened out into a fucking SWEET room indeed. A Jacuzzi in the bathroom facing a flatscreen TV, a huge double bed in a room bigger the than the entire ground floor of my house with the window on one side facing out to the pools and the window on the other facing out onto the strip. I’m not lying when I say it was much better than an ETAP.
We really didn’t make the most of that room, apart from a Jacuzzi at 4am we just went out and found the most hospitable waitress, by that I mean one who didn’t get pissed off when she realised that we had blatantly not put another dollar into the bandit since the last beer we had about 7 minutes ago.
All in all Vegas was amazing, but I have to say, I’d love to go for two weeks with 3 grand to waste. Then I might have something else to feel bad about apart from gorging myself on fatty foods. Next stop, Californ I A.

I'm not paying 70 dollars for that......

In a rare act of altruism Judge left us in our Fort Stockton Motel to go and get the problematic Goodyear Interceptor fitted and it was later that morning that we left in high spirits to make our way to Flagstaff, the last populous town before the Grand Canyon. It was a long journey, one that took us through New Mexico and Arizona the temperature steadily dropping all the way as we rose in altitude steadily all the way to Flagstaff, a nondescript town, very similar to a lot of others in the States which when we arrived was under about three feet of snow. After the laborious all day drive we were more than ready for bed which we gratefully fell into without the regulation 5 or 6 beers to which we had become accustomed.
The next day was a trip of around 80 miles to the entrance of the Grand Canyon National Park. As we drove from Flagstaff the scenery gradually became more Canyon-like and the earth changed to the familiar red colour we all associate to the Grand Canyon through years of having seen it in Books and on TV, the temperature did not rise with the altitude and we stepped out of the car at the first look-out point to a fairly chilly 3°C. It shouldn’t have surprised us as everywhere we had been thus far, barring Terlingua which had been freakishly hot had fallen victim to the US’ worst snowstorms in 40 years, the inclement weather had been following us from New York and wasn’t about to stop here.
Despite the fact that we’d all seen the Grand Canyon before numerous times in both still and moving images the view was truly spectacular, it is over a mile deep and over 4 miles wide in places and gives such a breathtaking sensation of space where it drops off into nothing that any doubts about whether or not it had been worth the trip, fell away into the void. I could write a flowery and descriptive piece about the different colours that played about the shadows which moved with the sun, about how the whole thing was a deeply spiritual and moving experience but, I’m not a homosexual poet, so I won’t.
We stayed most of the day moving from look out to look out getting different perspectives of the world’s largest overwater canyon. We had read of the Skywalk, which was a glass walkway which overlooked a part of the Canyon which remained in an Indian reservation and decided to try and find it. It was a long trip from one side of the Canyon round to the other. We were a little bit concerned that the price may be prohibitive to our backpacking budget we decided to chance it. An hour and a half later and after negotiating some of the worst roads in the United States, fearing for our lovely, shiny hire car all the way we pulled up to the entrance of the Reservation where we were met by a tall man with two long braids in his hair. Apparently alcohol is illegal on reservations such as these and so the two litres of Duty Free rolling around loosely in the boot could have made for some pretty serious problems, despite this and showing true British resolve we answered the man’s ‘Do you have any alcohol?’ question with a heartfelt and resounding ‘NO!’ Pat even managed to look a little hurt at the insinuation. And we were in. Only to be back in the car moments later moaning about how $70 was unacceptable just so that you could look through your feet at the floor of the Canyon a mile below you.
After our wild goose chase of the stingiest kind we eventually we found a nice spot to watch the sunset dip down behind the cliff line. We stayed in that spot for about an hour and a half, it was absolutely freezing and not for the first time we were all woefully unprepared for just how cold the place was getting. We were sorely tempted to leave before the sun had set but we talked ourselves into staying, citing the fact that our next stop, Vegas, didn’t spare much time for natural beauty, or for going outside for that matter, so we stayed and I’m glad we did. We stayed til the last rays dipped behind the trees and jogged back to the car, our breath, billowing clouds of smoke in the last of the evenings sun. And so it was back to Flagstaff for a nights rest before we left the natural wonders behind for a while and headed to the gaudiest, most decadent and in some ways most disgusting monuments to human excesses – Vegas.

Please could you step back into the vehicle sir........

I have to admit that the sudden rush of air from our brand new, rented, Goodyear Interceptors could have been construed, in a way, as being my fault. I was the one, after all, who had removed the inch long thorns from the sidewall and tread of the front right wheel. We had managed to cover about a thousand miles without any mishaps and I suppose fate had the right to deliver at least one such catastrophe. It could have conspired to immobilise us in the middle of a crowded city with three garages in plain view but instead we were 50 miles from the nearest ‘town’ which had 250 inhabitants housed in an assortment of crude tin shacks and tents, and 130 miles from a town that had a prayer of having a brand new Goodyear Interceptor in stock.
We made our way to Terlingua, with the onboard computer informing us of a flat tyre on our front right side and an unpleasant listing caused by the fact that the donut was a good 8 inches smaller than the other three, unpunctured tyres. We arrived at the tiny garage in the tiny town in the arse end of Texas with big dreams of a successful patch up job on the expensive, expensive tyre. The guys in the garage were real Texan men, with a robust dislike of the rest of the states and a strange kind of fascination with Pat, who as the self proclaimed least masculine man in the world, sent a confusing message to the mechanics. They looked at him, the smooth faced, bespectacled englishman who had so unselfconsciously asked to watch them fix the tyre, with a mixture of horror and confusion, but none the less gruffly nodded him into the workshop. By the time they had finished their unsuccessful attempt at fixing the tyre I’m sure they viewed Pat as a sort of daughter figure.
Unfortunately the tyre was a write off and we would have to negotiate the 80 or so miles to Fort Stockton in order to find a replacement, but the Texan kindness knows no bounds and the mechanics offered to put a spare onto our moribund rim free of charge in order to avoid having to crawl at 25 mph all the way to Fort Stockton on a donut. ‘We just want y’all have a good impression of Texas’ they said as they helped us fit the slightly balding interim tyre back onto the Chevy. The Mechanic in Fort Stockton wouldn’t be open until Monday we found out and so the weekend was set, we would be spending it in Terlingua, population 250, made up it seemed of Border patrolmen, Hippies and gun toting, 10 gallon hat wearing cowboys.
As we settled into our hotel, holding our complimentary Lone Star beers and overlooking the desertscape from the balcony of the El Dorado hotel, things started looking up. This might not be the wasted weekend we were all expecting we silently agreed as the sun went down, casting long shadows behind the cacti and taking the edge off the 95°F heat. A few beers later and we were ready for bed. We didn’t go to bed however, we took a stroll down to the local bar, along unlit roads periodically jumping out of the way of the ecologically irresponsible 4x4’s that ploughed past us.
The Starlight bar was as much of a pleasant surprise as the rest of Terlingua, we met all manner of colourful characters there, an English guy who was in this part of Texas doing a documentary on a local woman who had emigrated from China 50 years ago and was a champion ping-pong player in her youth. He was in tow with an American called Cliff an Arizonian who, by his own admission had ‘a pretty extensive rap sheet’ and a somewhat sexually aggressive demeanour who made almost every woman he spoke to, feel visibly uncomfortable as well as an affable West Virginian with a flowing hobo’s beard who was in the process of hitch hiking all the way to Alaska to live out his favourite book ‘Into the Wild’.  Many beers and Margheritas later we all collapsed into bed lightly toasted  and pleased to have ended up here in Terlingua albeit by a cruel twist of fate.
The next morning we awoke with a need for a hearty American breakfast, this we found in the heart of the ‘town’ at an establishment called India’s Cafe. The place was little more than a tin shack with a stove in it and was run by a smiling yet formidable woman called India. And her husband, who it turned out was a Londoner. I think the fact she had the same name as the cafe was a coincidence. We spent the morning eating greasy yet satisfying Hash Browns and Eggs whilst listening to the stories that made up the daily lives of the locals in this sleepy back water. None of whom could have been more charismatic than Big Mac, a local man who came to India’s so regularly that he had a breakfast on the menu named after him. It consisted of 3 pork chops, 3 eggs, 2 Hash Browns, each the size of a dinner plate, French Toast and a Flaggon of Iced Tea. This guy was enormous. His round head grew directly out of his shoulders and the only suggestion of a neck was the 5 or 6 ample folds of fat that padded the back of his skull. At a guess I would say he must have weighed about 40 stone. It came as a surprise when I saw him get up and walk, unassisted, back to his pick up and struggle back into it before driving off.
Another night of beer and chat with the odd assortment of misfits at the starlight bar followed that evening and, slightly groggy we set out for India’s for our final Terlingua breakfast. Judge took the wheel and we set off from the El Dorado hotel at a brisk pace. So brisk in fact that as we neared the crest of the hill near the hotel Judge remarked that the 70mph he was doing was ‘so unnecessary’. Unnecessary indeed, so unnecessary in fact that the local sheriff, coming over the brow of the hill in the opposite direction felt moved to hit the lights and pull us over to impart some wisdom to Judge, himself on the front line in the war on terror back there in good old blighty in his role as PC Alex Judge, mover onner of drunkards in West Yorkshires market towns.
Judge got his driving license out of his wallet and got out of the car only to be gruffly ordered to ‘Please step back into the vehicle sir’ by the sheriff whose hand rested lightly on his service weapon and who sported a khaki shirt and a pair of blue jeans as though we may, at any point, forget that we were in Texas. When he was ready, Judge was ordered out of the car and received a stern reprimand. A reprimand, that despite rolling down all the windows and straining our ears, we could not hear over our own laughter.
We arrived at India’s for breakfast well within the speed limit and sat down for another hearty breakfast and amiable chat with India and her husband. Emma and I got around to explaining the full extent of our trip to India, who, like most Americans, was both confused as to our motivation as well as mightily impressed that we had chosen to venture outwith the borders of our birth country to see the world. ‘......and then after South America we’ll be heading to South Africa’ we were cut short by Big Mac who despite his enormous bulk we had failed to notice hoovering down the last Pork Chop on his three plate breakfast at the back of the cafe ‘Watch out for them blacks!’ he offered, before sucking the last of the meat off the bone in his hand and starting the laborious process of manoeuvring himself back into his truck.
And with Big Mac’s advice still ringing in our ears we left Terlingua and headed to Fort Stockton on the penultimate leg of our journey before Vegas. The Grand Canyon. Texas, you’re amazing, but not always in a good way.