I only minded the sweat—dripping down the back of my neck, the front of my chest, the creases of my knees. Even in a summer dress so thin and small I could wad it up in one hand, with every window open and the roar of desert wind whipping past my ears at 80 miles an hour, in air so dry it could evaporate a drop of water the moment it hit the dusty earth, the heat was so cloying, so unrelenting, that it wrung water from my protesting pores the way a skillet forces a strip of bacon to sizzle and sweat. The air conditioner in my ’94 Mitsubishi hadn’t worked for years, and I was too broke to rent a car. My options were to either not drive 300 miles across the desert from Hollywood to Las Vegas, or to steel my resolve, hit the road, and simply close my eyes and think of England while the heat had its brutal way with me.
Staying home in Los Angeles was unthinkable. More to the point, staying away from Vegas was unacceptable. The Mount Vesuvius-evocative barometric conditions were a paltry deterrent from my goal, an obstacle easily dismissed with one toss of my wind-bedraggled hair. I had to get to Las Vegas. I had to get back with the missing chunk of myself. I had to be reunited with my heart.
When I was 16 years old and visited Las Vegas for the first time, in the middle of the night on a road trip across the country, while the first downpour in almost a year pelted Glitter City and I walked barefoot along the slippery pamphlet-littered sidewalk because the ground was too slick to navigate in my sandals, I could not have conceived of a day when I would keep returning to the place willingly, like an unholy pilgrim drawn back and back and back to the site of a mystical miracle. It was early in the morning of September 11, 2002 that momentous first visit to Vegas, when I walked along the warm and rainy strip around 3 a.m. It was exactly one month and one day before my 17th birthday. As I walked on the pedestrian overpass over Flamingo Road, I saw a disabled homeless man begging for coins, silhouetted by a halo of neon and glittering casino lights. In one moment, I understood everything I’d ever need to know about what is wrong with Las Vegas. I didn’t think I would ever want to go back.
Ten years later, the pilgrim was dripping sweat on Joshua tree-lined 15 North, not only willing but anxiously eager to get back to the twisted city— and not for the first time, either. This sweat-drenched, windblown pilgrimage was one of many that had come before it and many that would come after, and the mystical miracle was that my heart and soul were stuck in that tourist town in the middle of the Mojave. The boy I loved beyond comprehension was there, and so was my best-ever friend. Both had moved within months of each other, the year before, for unrelated reasons, from Hollywood to Las Vegas. As life without either was inconceivable to me, these ritual journeys became a necessary evil. What I never anticipated was how quickly the unbearably hot, frequently traffic-bogged and bewitchingly moonscaped route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas would become what Vegas itself had, surprisingly, already become to me: A welcome, familiar home and a startling source of comfort.
I absorbed the panoramic view of the craggy mountains, the dusty and dry flatland, the occasional tufts of yucca blossoms, the changing light show in the sky that my boxy car’s windows afforded me. There were plenty of cars on the road, but they moved swiftly. I never saw the 15 completely deserted, though this was truly a desert, at any time of the day or night. I was not the only one to whom it was imperative to shuttle between the two quirky cities at any hour and with any amount of preparation. I wondered, sometimes, what the other drivers were rumbling toward or away from. I wondered what was on their minds and who was in their passenger’s seat. I wondered if they were repeat customers or first-time users of this rabbit-hole-to-Wonderland highway. I wondered how many of them felt the peaks and valleys of emotion I felt as we glided across the peaks and valleys of the desert. Because I always had emotions while driving between Los Angeles and Las Vegas—and they were always either rushing highs or crashing lows.
On the way to Vegas, I usually felt excited, elated… full of anticipation. I get happy and eager easily, about even the simplest things, so a weekend trip to visit my favorite people would send me into Chihuahua-level tremors of excitement. It never got old to me. I never outgrew the butterflies I’d feel when I crested the final hill and saw the outpost of Primm and the Nevada border spread out before me and realized that my goal was only 45 minutes further at most. At night, my heart would race faster when I got close enough to see the fog of light that indicated Las Vegas was hovering just out of sight. Any moment, I would be greeted either by my best friend, her loverman, two striped cats, air conditioning, a late-night snack, and a couch-and-jammies movie… or else by an impossibly tall and thin boy with indescribable hair and a kiss so passionate it made me stupid and swoony.
And on the way back, invariably, I’d be in tears.
It’s a hard thing to drive away from your heart, no matter how much you enjoy the visit. It’s even harder when that heart’s taken a pummeling. Looking at that time in my life in the rearview mirror, it’s easy to see that no amount of giddy anticipation and no number of ritual treks across the Mojave moon would be sufficient to keep my heart in one piece, beating in both my chest and his, because every time we met he would rip it in half again. No matter how much I loved him, it wasn’t enough to make him love himself—and so he couldn’t truly, fully, selflessly love me. I was determined, on every journey, to force a change in the pattern: This time, I’d tell myself, I won’t buckle and cry, no matter how he pushes. This time, I’ll let any cutting thing he says slide off my back. This time, I’ll exude such sunshine and happiness right from the start that even if he pulls up in his car with a vacant look in his eye and barely says “Hello” to me, his ice will thaw into a puddle of liquid love.
This time, my love will be enough.
It never was.
I’d cry the whole way home. I’d cry because I loved him so much and couldn’t stand that I was driving away from him. I’d cry because I wanted to stay in that stupid city where, I’d learned, there was plenty to love, if you didn’t mind seeking out the peanut butter cake and the $1 margaritas and the free perfume samples and the red rocks to watch the sky from and the penny slots that don’t quit and the wonderful people living in the maze.
I’d cry because I wanted to be in his world, in his room, in his arms, and a combination of his moods, his choices and his distance meant that two out of three was the best I could hope for at the best of times.
I’d cry because I wanted to be sitting on my best friend’s couch with two striped cats and three kinds of Chinese food, playing Beatles Rock Band.
I’d cry because Las Vegas was my exquisite high, a hit of the most intoxicating drug, and the highway separating it from me was the opium den that set the stage for my dazzling trip. The buildup was intense, and the comedown was always brutal. Vegas is not supposed to be real life, but it had become my reality. The 15 Freeway was the tunnel Alice tumbled down when she followed the White Rabbit.
I’d cry watching the shining city recede behind me, the setting sun glinting off the glass of countless resorts and lighting up the ring of mountains as I sped unwillingly back along that same freeway to the world where I had a job and paid bills and wasn’t in the same place as the people who held my heart.
I could feel the visceral pull of Las Vegas, holding me, sucking me back as I struggled begrudgingly against it, past Primm, past Baker… and somewhere before Barstow, the pain would lessen. I physically felt Las Vegas relent and release me; the crushing agony lifted and my tears dried. I’d finish my drive lost in thought, and I’d go to sleep already planning my next magical quest in the sweat-dripping heat, sometime in the weeks ahead.
It was a time in life that couldn’t last. I have been to Las Vegas only 3 times in the past year. The boy I loved to the point of sickness isn’t mine anymore. My best friend spent the better part of the year in school and wasn’t free much for visits. I drove back to Las Vegas for the first time in 7 months. In a nostalgic twist of inconvenience, I couldn’t afford a rental car. I drove in my own 20-year-old Mitsubishi, sticky with sweat in the summer evening. I smelled the hot desert air as it tangled my hair. I marveled at the moonscape. I saw Primm glittering ahead of me and I saw the haze of light like a garish halo over Vegas. I was looking at a photo album of an earlier time; I was smelling a perfume that reminded me of somebody I knew. I was hearing a song that made me remember a party I went to once. I was seeing someone who looked like someone I used to be close to.
I opened Las Vegas like a box of treasures for one weekend… and then I put it away.
I’ll go back to Vegas again. I’ll take that highway out and I’ll see my friends. But it won’t be the winding, whimsical, bewitched pathway through an enchanted forest to a magical kingdom that once it was.
It will be a hot drive through a familiar landscape to a beautiful and terrible town.