Some years ago, I sat in a hotel room of the Golden Nugget waiting to attend another in my wife’s long line of (big) family reunion celebrations that night. Not to be outdone, I’ll confess my (small) side once had them, too — though we liked to call them Christmas. Anyway, sitting there gazing out the window, with the heat shimmering off one more hot summer Saturday evening, I recalled when I first came to Las Vegas…
Dad returned to the lives of his second set of sons around the start of the 70s. Mom had taken him back in. ‘Lost Wages’ always had a pull on the old man. He’d been there sometime during the 60s. Right before Howard Hughes started playing Monopoly and buying hotels, with real properties, on The Strip. In the summer of 1975 he came looking for a co-pilot to help him with the driving for this excursion.
Being I was on a summer break from college, and encouraged by mom, I raised my hand. Why not? I’d just turned 21 and been driving for five years. Had no sense, either. So, he and I piled into his pine green ’71Vega — the ironies just keep comin’ — and headed out Interstate 15 for Las Vegas. Put another way, across the desert…in a crappy car. In August.
Did I mention his Vega had no air conditioning? I think it took us five hours to get there. Five. Hours. In 115° heat…with Dad. The damn thing almost seized up half-way there, too. I don’t have go into detail on how joyous that was, do I?
This the mid-70s. Definitely not today’s resort city with all its neon-highlighted, corporate, and family friendly attractions. No. This was the Vega$ of Frank Rosenthal‘s era. He ran the Stardust, Fremont, Marina and Hacienda casinos. The same one chronicled by author Nicholas Pileggi and spotlit in his book, ‘Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas’. The very one adapted by Martin Scorsese on film as Casino.
Dad and I eventually checked-in to some cheap little motel near the start of the main drag. A stone’s throw from the sign below we saw as we drove into town. It greeted suckers…er, visitors entering from the west. Within eyesight of The Hacienda, which for this trip was the first place we’d head for. At least, we didn’t end up buried in the desert like others back in the day when it was all over and done.
Back then, the trip from L.A. to L.V. crossed a sea of scruff and sand. Real desert. Nowadays, you hardly see any of that. Drive it today and you’d discover urbanization, with plenty asphalt and concrete poured over four decades, has filled in most of the empty arid regions we once sailed…er, canoed…across. There was you, the sand, and what could be one very long lonely stretch of highway out in the middle of a very hot nowhere.
Near ride’s end, Vegas would appear as a small set of glittering edifices among meager greenery situated in the middle of the dunes. Only after cresting the last of countless desolate sand hills the 15 bisected. Hours later. We’d spend, literally and figuratively, the rest of the hottest, driest weekend I had yet imagined popping into and out of casinos. A den I now could legally stroll, and leave my money in. With the old man, or alone.
The return trip was when dear ol’ dad finally tossed me the keys for the drive home. Hot Dog! Luckily, I thought, it’d be a slightly cooler, more relaxed journey than the one we had on Friday since the old man planned to return Sunday evening. What did I know?
I can still recall the expedition back. Especially since Dad slept most of the way home. Leaving me the lone driver. He had a habit of checking out (in more ways than one) by this age. Turning 60 myself today, I understand this better. It’d be only the second time I’d come to know what true darkness really meant. A sixth grade elementary school camping trip my first. Both occurred without a moon as chaperone.
Born and raised in L.A., with its plentiful iridescent street and building lighting, hardly readied me for this. Only driving across the barren wasteland between here and there could do that. At night, moonless, with only the car’s headlights, and those of any other autos sharing that lonely road, for fellowship. Brought a whole new grasp to being solitary.
Came to this realization when the lights of those other random vehicles finally peeled off the interstate as we passed through Baker, California.
Few things prepare one for driving through the dark nothingness of the desert, seemingly by yourself. With only sheer utter blackness staring back in the rear view mirror at eye-level. Felt like people fell by the wayside, and me into an unlit hole. Abandoned. Grew up with a fair amount of that. At the moment, in a car, with only my unconscious father for wee company. His snores a reminder of the long-held indifference he’d shown his children over the years.
Oh, those ironies.
Probably not much of a stretch at all for the truck drivers who make a run like this by themselves. For a 21-year old who hadn’t been out of state till now, it was an experience…a token of sorts. But damn it, I wasn’t about to ask for his help. That time had long passed. Still, I was never happier to see the Podunk town ahead when it finally appeared in front of me as I crested that g*ddamn car over another dune.
Don’t know who the Hell lived out here, but I was sure happy they did.
Seeing the small island of salvation that was Barstow still registers. Twinkling out of the dusky, eerie badlands that swallowed the Vega. Me behind the wheel…to all intents and purposes, companionless. The pitch-black miles and thoughts now fleeting behind me with what lay ahead. A minted adult. “I’d made it!”, I excitedly thought to myself. I turned in proud delight and said half-jokingly to my father , “Look! It’s civilization, Pop!” My old man never stirred.
I guess you had to have been there…