13 – Las Vegas: The Final Showdown

From Los Angeles to Las Vegas

The last day on this epic journey has arrived. This is no time for quiet reflection on the past two weeks. There’s a lot of life left in this trip, and also a lot of mileage to cover on what promises to be one of the more exciting drives we’re about to take. The final ride and the last leg looms, starting with the legendary drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, immortalised in so many films, including, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, ‘Swingers’ and ‘The Hangover’….and now, you can add ‘The Ongoing Adventures of Nige, Sue and a Rock Band’ to that list.

On the recommendation of our hosts in LA, we left somewhere around midday to reduce the impact of traffic. We set off, stopping off for fuel early on to avoid another ‘situation’ like our journey to Palm Springs. Whilst parked up we noticed that we had a clear shot at the Hollywood sign from the fuel station. Time for a token pic……but with zoom required.

The volume of cars was staggering at this time. We did get stuck in some traffic, but it could’ve been a whole lot worse if we’d travelled any earlier or later. It wasn’t too long before we were out of LA and back on the glorious, yet treacherous desert trail to our final destination, Las Vegas.

It was on this journey that we passed through Barstow, the place named in the opening line of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to hold.”  I got Sue to film the drive ‘around Barstow’, whilst I set the iPod to fall in line with the start of ‘Combination of the Two’ by Big Brother & The Holding Company (the song used at the start of the film, complete with narration from the soundtrack). The opening begins and the cool, psychedelic music fires out in the car as I put my foot down to career down the open Interstate. I start to reiterate lines from the film, like how “we can’t stop here, this is bat country.” Me and my weird mind wanting to recreate film moments. Sue just gives me that look and says, “Shut up you dick!”

I’ve missed driving on these open roads after four days in the big city, especially when the terrain of the desert and picturesque mountainous rocky surroundings start to paint the areas beyond the road. There’s a few of those completely straight roads like we travelled on a few days earlier, where you can see a good a few miles ahead to the peak. I soak it all in one last time and try to imprint the images on my mind so I can savour the memory forever. The scenery is indescribable at times, and I’m beginning to understand why this journey, and others already taken on this trip, is so legendary.

We finally enter Nevada after nearly four hours of driving, leaving California behind after five eventful days. Although we are still in the desert, the outer rims of the mountainous scenery appear smoother and the conditions less harsh. It amazes me how terrains change between States almost immediately after crossing the border. It’s happened here, and it happened in California from Arizona too.

We are thirty minutes out or so and civilisation appears on the horizon. I ask if that’s Vegas? It could be from this distance. The buildings come more into view, but it turns out we hit Primm, a kind of mini resort by the looks of it. A little further down the road and the same happens again, but it turns out to be Jean, another hamlet of a resort just plonked in the middle of the desert. These weird little resorts sit on both sides of the road and feature rollercoasters and other attractions. The area they cover isn’t big at all. It’s hardly Alton Towers. There’s nothing beyond them that suggests any other habitable community resides beyond it. It’s a strange idea, but provokes the thought that maybe this is how Vegas started considering how close it is.

Fifteen minutes out, surely the next sight of buildings will be Vegas. I start to feel like we’re on our way to Blackpool keeping an eye out for the tower. I’m still astounded that this huge gambling and entertainment city is going to appear out of nowhere right in the middle of the fucking desert. Who thought of this idea? What were they on? If anything! I was of course aware that Vegas is in the desert, but until you drive it and realise there is actually fuck all around, it really does hit home and blow your mind how this has grown to become the enigma it is today.

We curve to the left and pass a mountain that’s close to the side of the road. As we round it, I don’t need to ask whether that’s Vegas in the distance anymore, it’s obvious that it is. I feel like a part of me is returning home. I’ve only ever arrived in Vegas by plane before, so to do so in this fashion is something quite special.

It may have been cool to pull up at our hotel and let a valet park the car, but we decided to return the car the day before we left so we didn’t have to mess about in the morning before our flight. It would’ve been nice to drive down Las Vegas Boulevard too, but given the amount of traffic it now houses, it would’ve been futile and would only serve to delay the night. I was ready to let Vegas whisk me away to its fantasy like existence now.

We said bye to our Chevy Malibu that had been a huge part of our trip. It may be difficult to drive the Honda at home after this driving experience. We took a taxi from the car rental to The Rio Hotel & Resort, one of the better known hotels in Vegas. I thought it’d be nice to spend our last night in a bit of luxury, and at £25 between us for one night, who could say no to that price? The decision to return the car early was a masterstroke as the queue of cars waiting at self and valet parking was outrageous. Not for us though as we pull up outside and are inside the hotel straight away. The queue of cars outside was mirrored by the queue of people at reception. I’m not sure if there was an event on tonight, but it seemed to be particularly busy for early evening on a Tuesday.

The queue was worth the wait once we were able to check in. Our 6th floor room was huge, probably a larger square meterage than our flat at home. It was so plush with a king size bed, its own dressing room area, and a view to die for through huge panelled windows that looked out onto Las Vegas Boulevard in the distance. It was a great way to end the trip, and I was torn between wanting to end it in typical Vegas fashion, or just enjoy this lavish room for all its worth.

Sadly, for the next three hours, I could enjoy neither as a bizarre turn of the events left the final night in jeopardy.

We were both dressed up and ready to go. I had a particular strut going on feeling the good vibes of the night, and having a sixth sense that I’d win some money. We planned to just stay in The Rio, have something to eat, a little gamble, a few drinks, and to visit The Voodoo Lounge on the 51st Floor with its rooftop bar and stunning views of Vegas. We didn’t plan on hotel hopping, we just wanted to relax and enjoy the hotel we were in with no pressure to leave at all. Well it didn’t quite pan out like that.

With only $20 to our name, a cash machine was needed to fully exploit the night for all its worth. As soon as we hit the casino floor, I found an ATM…..and that’s when trouble started. For some reason it was refusing to accept my card, letting me go through the motions of selecting how much money I want before saying ‘transaction cannot be completed.’ I automatically assume it’s a fault given my card has worked everywhere in the US up until now, so I try another ATM, but the same thing happens. Minor concerns creep in as to why this is happening. We have $20 to our name and I need a beer and to throw down on Black Jack. I ask Sue to try her card but the same thing happens – rejected. Have we been the victim of fraud? The only time we both used the same machine was in Flagstaff. Is that why our cards aren’t working?

We talk to the concierge and they suggest that because our bank cards have initials rather than full names printed on them, certain ATM’s won’t take it. That seems odd in this day and age and in this part of the world. The concierge suggested we go to the cash desk to make an old school withdrawal, but at a charge of $20? Bollocks to that! Alternatively, they think another ATM outside The Rio may work. What a ball ache this is, and it’s going to eat into our gambling and drinking time. The time is already 7.30pm and I’m gasping for a pint.

On the map it looks like these hotels on West Flamingo Road (just off Las Vegas Boulevard) are quite near each other, but when you get outside and begin the walk to the nearest hotel, you realise just how far apart they are. We walk to The Palms Hotel, the nearest hotel to The Rio, but our cards are rejected. We then venture onto Gold Coast Casino which is opposite, but have no luck again. We begin to get a little anxious and irate, but make the bold decision to walk up to Las Vegas Boulevard. Our cards worked on our first outing in Vegas in Hooters, so surely they’d work on the strip. Again, we misinterpreted just how long a walk it is. It was like a mirage. The hotels loomed large, but they never seemed to get any nearer. Aside from Las Vegas Boulevard, it appears no one walks in Vegas too, and walking alone on the side of the busy roads and crossing Las Vegas Freeway with the ruthless desert crosswind howling at night wasn’t an ideal place to be.

We arrived at Caesars Palace and I looked like I’d been dragged through a hedge backwards……Freddy Boswell sprang to mind. I couldn’t care less given the current situation. I tried my card again and my mood didn’t improve when it was rejected. What were we to do? We were sure we saw a proper bank on Las Vegas Boulevard a couple of weeks ago, so we decided to head down the strip in search of it as it seemed to be our best hope. We walked passed The Bellagio towards New York New York and still had no luck finding one. We’d walked so far that we were halfway down the strip.


We found ourselves outside Planet Hollywood and I suggest we try in here. Six years earlier, this is where we stayed and I remembered I was able to get cash out from their ATM’s. Last chance saloon! If this didn’t work then I was going to bite the bullet on a $20 charge. I can’t believe this is how we were spending our last night on tour! I found the ATM within the casino and put my card in. I wasn’t hopeful. It then came to the final screen and I pushed the ‘accept’ button. Noises came from inside the machine…..no error message as yet…..and then….as if by miracle…..two crisp $100 notes dispensed in front of me. We were saved! $200 falling from the machine felt better than any gambling win in that moment, despite it being my own money. I could now gamble and drink……and possibly eat and have money for a taxi back too….I like how my priorities worked. The relief was felt between us, and after all that walking I did suggest getting food first, if not because of being hungry, but just to take a few minutes to calm ourselves, and let the positivity that I felt at the beginning of the night return to its natural order before I tackled the Vegas tables once again.

The Earl of Sandwich glistened inside Planet Hollywood, a place priding itself on the ‘World’s Best Hot Sandwich’. Six years earlier this had been the main source of food for me and my friends as the nightlife and drinking took over sitting for civilised meals in restaurants. History was about to repeat itself. I remembered that their claim of being the best sandwich had a very strong case so I was happy for them to prove their worth again. Two club sandwiches later and I still agreed with their statement, as did Sue who was now converted.

With hunger satisfied and money now in the pocket it was now time! Vegas, you’ve had us traipsing around your city for three hours now, but your attempts to ruin our night have failed. It’s time for payback. I went in search for a Black Jack table.

Back in Black Jack

I searched and scoured and peered on every table in the vicinity, watching the dealer’s cards to see whether they were fleecing the punters, much like they did on my first night disaster in Hooters. I walked to the other side and saw a solitary player at one table. I watched two games and saw the dealer had lost on weak cards. I had a good feeling so took up a pew, throwing down $60 to be converted on a minimum $15 table.

The good vibes transferred to the table and very quickly into the game I found myself up and on a winning streak. I daren’t get cocky and start betting more just yet. I was happy winning $15 a game and taking free drinks until I was dealt a couple of Black Jacks and had a few double down wins. Then I became a little more adventurous.

An eccentric man from Hong Kong sat next to me, throwing down hundreds of dollars on the table. He became my gambling ally and when we both won we would bump fists and celebrate. In one game I saw something I’d never seen before on a Black Jack table. The man from Hong Kong was dealt two 2’s so he split them. The next card was a 2 so he split again, and then the fourth card was amazingly another 2, so he split that aswell. It started to remind me of the Vegas episode in Entourage. He double downed on two of his hands and was within 21 on all four games. I was praying for him. The dealer began to deal his own cards. He was dealt 15 and had to hit……time stood still, and when he slammed down a 10 to bust, the table went crazy! I don’t know how much he won, but it was a hell of a lot.

I was doing ok by my own budget, reaching $250 profit at one point. The table doesn’t stay hot forever though, so as soon as I fell to $150 profit I felt it was right to walk away, happy to walk away with this amount rather than risk anymore losses. Perhaps it was a twist of fate that led us to Planet Hollywood….my old stomping ground that never failed me six years ago, and hadn’t failed me today.

We returned to The Rio. You’d have thought I’d be content with winning $150 and just enjoy the night from there. But no, this was Vegas on the last night of a life affirming two week trip. I craved more and the clouds of temptation circled me, so I pulled up a stool on another Black Jack table, leaving Sue to it on the slot machines she was beginning to become addicted too…..I think she just liked the idea of getting a free drink.

Why I decided to play Black Jack in a hotel that obviously brought some sort of bad luck from not being able to get my own cash out is a mystery. I lost $80 very quickly before walking away. Unperturbed by such a loss, I found another table and threw another $60 down and lost that in four straight games. All winnings gone! Although, it was worth losing all that money just to see the image of Sue, who’s unaware of the unwritten code within casinos, walking right through the pit behind the dealers and floor manager. I was startled and amused, and it could’ve ended a lot worse than it did. The croupiers went mental at her and I was surprised she wasn’t rugby tackled by entering the no fly zone. This was the Vegas equivalent of just walking through the private door of a bank to be behind the cashiers.

I told Sue that I’d lost all our winnings, but I loved her advice and spirit from that revelation. She pointed out that I haven’t actually lost anything and had broken even so why don’t I throw another $50 down and leave it at that? Sound advice from someone with little gambling experience.

So into the last hour we found ourselves and I still had visions of winning enough to fly us to Bermuda. I sat at an empty Black Jack table, plonking down $50 in front of the croupier. Just me and you mi amigo, I thought. A straight shootout! Who’s going to come out on top?

I started off with two losses, but then I went on a good run, and with the double down opportunities I had, I found myself racing back into profit. Thankfully, the rest of the game played out in my favour and I was enjoying these final gambling moments. This time I wasn’t going to lose it, and as soon as the $150 went down to $100 after half an hour of playing, I had the strength to walk away with a figure I was satisfied with. In reality I was never going to win enough money on Black Jack to fly us to Bermuda, but it did mean that our night in Vegas had cost us nothing at all; a completely free night was had. That’s all you can hope for in Las Vegas, not to lose, but given the enjoyment of the past two weeks, I was very much winning….. as Charlie Sheen says. Sue wanted me to carry on playing. Actually she suggested we go right through to the morning with no sleep. I love how Vegas can alter people’s principles. For someone so reserved about gambling with a take it or leave it attitude towards Vegas, she sure had bought into its eminence. However, I’d learnt my lesson and told her she needed to learn when to walk away, recommending she re-listens to Kenny Rogers’, ‘The Gambler’ for advice.


The Final Hours

After only a few hours’ sleep we lethargically got up the next day and showered, dressed and packed. We made sure the weight was evenly distributed after binning all our toiletries to try and reduce the weight, in the hope we wouldn’t suffer the same screwed over charge as our outbound flight. We were actually 5Kg within the limit this time round, making me certain that the scales were fixed in Manchester Airport to bleed extra money from people.

We took a taxi to the airport where the driver of oriental descent was basically Mr Chow from The Hangover films in terms of looks, voice and mannerisms. One final bit of comedy before we left!

After a couple of customary airport beers it was time to depart. This time I did pay the $4 to have the full range of in-flight entertainment, which helped pass the time. What didn’t help pass the time was the thirty minutes of extreme turbulence we suffered a couple of hours into the flight. This seems to be the norm when returning from Vegas as this is the second time it’s happened now. Maybe it’ll be third time lucky in the future.

I couldn’t get any sleep whatsoever on the plane so I was a little zombified when we arrived back in Manchester. I was too tired to really absorb the trip and what it had meant. Maybe I refused to go down such a melancholy and reflective process whilst I was still in the air, and subconsciously refused to believe reality lurked around the corner. I knew over the next few days I’d have to kind of summarise it in my mind and think about what it meant and realise just how significant and important the whole trip was. But not just for me, but for Sue and the band too. Once I decipher the whole experience, I’ll share those sentiments with a final blog on our tour in America.