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Las Vegas -- The Real Never Never Land

Photo, alas, not the author, from Ulrikmoerk.dk

In less than 36 hours, I was rear-ended in traffic by a sleazy local lingerie-shop owner who offered free pot for my troubles; I overcame an early $70 deficit and left the blackjack table with $45 in winnings; and the hotel upgraded me to a swanky top-floor Jacuzzi suite.

Like Peter Pan magically flying Wendy to Never Never Land after describing its many wonders, a friend of mine recently whisked me away to Las Vegas for a couple of days with the simple explanation that I had to go see it.

Looking back now, I probably should have been completely satisfied with my first Las Vegas experience. In less than 36 hours I was rear-ended in traffic by a sleazy local lingerie-shop owner who offered free pot for my troubles; I overcame an early $70 deficit and left the blackjack table with $45 in winnings; and the hotel upgraded me to a swanky top-floor Jacuzzi suite. All I needed was a late-night visit from a woman my mother would not approve of and I'd be the envy of nearly every frat guy in America.

Despite this run of luck, I felt strangely disappointed upon leaving Nevada that I hadn't spotted a martini-sipping James Bond casually flirting with a beautiful European secret agent in any casinos. Or that pantsuit-era Elvis didn't shake his hips on any stage. I even would have settled for a sad-eyed Nicolas Cage lying drunk on a street corner in the arms of a well-wishing prostitute, incoherently rambling about his stressful make-believe life as a skeletal motorcyclist.

Sure, these are possibly unrealistic expectations to harbor, but then again, these are the iconic images of Vegas that have been relentlessly pounded into my head by the pop culture media/infotainment complex since I was old enough to play with fuzzy dice. In fact the narratives and stories are so pervasive that almost anyone could describe Vegas in vivid, first person detail without ever having breathed the dry desert air. Even as a naïve teen growing up in Central Illinois, I could have expounded thoroughly on the cheap thrill of driving the strip at night under the bright glow of neon lights and gaping at the flashy, trashy semi-pornographic billboards, and the burst of tangible awe felt in the sight of sleek and shimmering mega-casinos; the surreal mix of B-list celebrities, hookers, and middle-aged car salesmen named Sal; and of course the extreme peaks and valleys of booze-fueled gambling sprees. Oh, and don't forget Donald Trump, the Rat Pack and high-rolling Mafiosi.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Las Vegas might be the most mythical city in the history of the world.

This might sound like a bold statement considering Paris is designated as the city of love and once had a schizophrenic teenage girl leads its armies, Jerusalem is central to a few mythic religions you may have heard of – Judiaism, Christianity, and Islam; Hollywood produces multimillion dollar myths on a weekly basis, and the Lost City of Atlantis may be a literal myth. Not to mention there's nothing terribly mythic about billboards featuring the sweaty visage of rotund stand-up comedian Louie Anderson.

But what, save the power of myth, could cause countless hordes of people from all over the world to descend upon the bleak Nevada desert like hungry vultures to feast on an overpriced corporate theme park for adults? It's certainly not the fried chicken at the $14.95 all-you-can-eat buffets.

This is a place christened "Sin City", where the vaguely sleazy-sounding ad slogan used to promote it -- "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" -- has boosted tourism considerably this decade. This catchy phrase has cut through our ad-weary cynicism and postmodern sensibilities and has us believing that Vegas is like a magical oasis, separate from the rest of the world, where we can seek shelter from our soul-crushingly tedious jobs and unsatisfying relationships. It's where we can wallow in absolute self-indulgence and participate in six of the seven deadly sins (who's got time for sloth?) then perhaps reach the peak of moral bankruptcy by paying $150 to see Celine Dion in concert -- and there are no real consequences! Because it's ... you know, like Vegas and stuff.

Seriously, ask someone to describe Vegas and they will likely tell you it's a place to escape; a place where anything can (and does) happen. Whether or not this belief holds true is beside the point. The important thing is, like all good myths, that it feels true.

The realities of Vegas are much more humble. There are no bank robbery capers masterminded by a dozen stylish celebrities, nor will a supermodel ever stir your drink. The stimulating things only happen when you have money, and lots of it, to spend. And it's only an "adventure" in that the amount of money you end up with hinges on how well the cards/chips/balls fall.

Otherwise, Vegas trips are driven by activities that a 13-year-old boy is convinced that adulthood is defined by: drinking cheap, overly sweet cocktails, puffing on cigarettes, having no-strings attached sex, wagering in card games, gawking at naughty stage shows, and staying up until 5 am. But as most straight-talking adults will tell you -- the traffic on the strip is a headache, the food is mediocre, the cost of the shows is absurd and all the casinos are alike in their penchant for gaudy facades and décor. Truth be told, the most fun I had in Vegas was a sober TV viewing session in the hotel room with my friend, making up fake dialogue for the actors in a ridiculously overwrought soap opera on Telemundo -- something I could have done for free sitting on a couch in central Iowa via DIRECTV.

And the things that happen in Vegas? They don’t necessarily stay there. The $1,200 hole in your pocketbook doesn't magically vanish into the ether; the ill-advised marriage in the casino wedding chapel doesn't instantly become nullified (unless you're Britney Spears); and your significant other will find out about the $500 stripper one way or another.

Of course, even if we all know that the myth of Vegas is as flimsy as a house of cards, that doesn’t stop us from packing our bags for whimsical getaways to the Mandalay or Caesar’s Palace. We won’t stop telling our friends and coworkers about how much crazy fun we'll have and the copious stacks of chips we’ll swindle from the dealers at the roulette tables.

Why? Because as much as we rational adults say we don't believe in Never Never Land, that's what Vegas is: a paradise as dreamed up by Captain Hook and (likely) Vince Vaughn.

Myth, baby. Myth.

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