Amid live ammunition and tequila bottles you might just find the American Dream. Martin Robinson grabs two cohorts and revisits Hunter S Thompson’s debauched odyssey.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the realisation that this trip would be nothing like the film took hold. I said something like, “I feel a bit light-headed; we’re getting too old for this sh*t.” And suddenly there was a terrible roar in the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming, “Jesus H Christ! I’m in agony.”
My attorney was crushed forward in the passenger seat, his knees jammed under the dashboard. Behind him, my spiritual adviser was bent double on the tiny back seat, saying, “Pull over, I can’t feel my legs.” I hit the brakes and aimed the car off the highway.
It was almost noon, and we still had more than 100 miles to go. They would be tough miles. We were in a fireapple red Porsche 911, which was wholly impractical for the testicular requirements of three grown men, all already seriously hungover after one night in the US. But there was no going back, and no time to rest. We would have to ride it out. I was, after all, a professional journalist.
I had $300 in expenses, most of which I’d already spent on extremely thoughtful supplies to combat the effects of the type of hard drugs binge seen in Fear And Loathing… The trunk looked like a mobile branch of Boots. We had 16 bottles of mineral water, half a pint of moisturiser, five packets of ibuprofen, a large bottle of factor 50 suncream and a whole galaxy of balms, gels and exfoliators.
My attorney snapped as they swapped places. “We have two choices: in the front, constant pain. In the back, intermittent pain.” Boo hoo. We roared off again, with Kashmir playing at an incredible volume. God I was ill. How long could I maintain? How long before I start jabbering, panic, and turn into the oncoming traffic? Jesus, did I just say that? Or did I just think it? Was I talking? Did they hear me? I must break the tension. “We’re on our way to Vegas to find the American Dream,” I yelled. “And you can’t do that in any other car than a fireapple red Porsche 911. Besides, it was your idea.”
Fifteen hours ago we had been sitting in the bar of the Shade Hotel in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles. My attorney and spiritual adviser sat bored as I explained our task. “In the film, they take vast quantities of drugs to mirror the insanity of American society. But, as with all road trips, it’s really about male bonding.” We were mid-thirties men, with responsibilities. This was our last chance to do the road trip we’d always blabbed about in weak moments of drunken sentimentality.
Communication Breakdown came on and my attorney called for more drinks. “I have some advice for you,” he said. “We need a very fast car with no top, and we need to play Led Zeppelin for the entire journey.” Goddamn it, he was right. If a thing is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right. Two phone calls later, I’d ditched the rental car* and used my influence as a professional journalist, a man of integrity, to beg Porsche for a car. Successful, we drank all night, swam in the ocean at dawn, and were told off by lifeguards with muscles where their heads should have been.
Bad hearts and blindness
On the highway, I was reeking of tequila and a mid-life crisis. My spiritual adviser was contemplating the road ahead, “This is so dull.” With some of the most spectacular desert landscapes on the planet surrounding us, it was a ludicrous statement, but a correct one. LA to Vegas is just one interminably long, straight road. Call me a moaning British git, but it could do with a couple of roundabouts.
After seven hours of driving and bickering, Vegas loomed. The satnav took us right through the glitz of town to a whorehouse. How dare it judge us like that? I switched it off and U-turned back to the MGM Grand. A discreet hotel, typical of Vegas, it has the look and atmosphere of an Ancient Greek bath-house on ‘Orgy For Zeus Day’.
We quickly made enemies. My spiritual adviser lost it at the check-in when we learned one of our rooms wasn’t concessionary. “We have to pay?” As a ‘worker’ in the British music industry, this was deeply disturbing to him. After he dropped the c-word, I explained he had “a bad heart” and hurried him away to the bar. We had to work fast. In the absence of acid, mescaline or an adrenal gland cut from a living human, we had to sully ourselves with hard liquor. Once sufficiently twisted, we hit the Strip.
Every form of humanity was at this American Dream watering hole. Millionaires and models, junkies and joggers, herds of the obese, a roller-coaster careening overhead between a shrunken Statue Of Liberty and a Lynyrd Skynyrd theme bar. In truth, reality is so messed-up in this town, there’s no need for psychedelics.
“Street meat,” said my attorney to a group of passing girls. My spiritual adviser was also being nice: “You’re all squares.” We were losing control among the tourists. We had to escape to find the high-rolling Vegas. The classy Vegas. The one where Prince Harry jiggled his ginger gonads.
We found it at Craftsteak in the MGM Grand, an incredible restaurant with a level of service we were ill-equipped to cope with. “Gentlemen, I’m your waiter for tonight. Your menu is in front of you, it’s divided up into starters, main course, and dessert...” My attorney butted in, “And these are forks, presumably? And this is a table? And that’s a wall?” The stoic man designed a bespoke menu for us, which consisted of six starters, three obscenely good Wagyu steaks and five desserts. The food coma that followed left us communicating through Morse Code blinking.
Hemingway cigars and rum cocktails revived us at Rhumbar at The Mirage. The waitress had a tattoo of a scorpion on her inner thigh and wore a pair of thick-rimmed glasses. She held the exact rock‘n’roll-to-geek ratio required for my spiritual adviser to fall madly in love with her. At our table, she was presented with a napkin on which had been scrawled ‘Back Door Beauty???’ He ‘d taken a terrible risk. The girl smiled dismissively, “Yeah, that’s a funny movie,” then walked away. Didn’t she know who he was? He hadn’t made it through the Britpop Wars for this.
Vicious now, we hit Tryst nightclub at the Wynn Hotel, Prince Harry’s hangout, where every man with a bottle of Cristal is a god. And every man there had a bottle of Cristal, except us. Still, our dancing was full of vim. Not that the women showed any interest. They must have been drunk.
“Let’s gamble,” slurred my attorney in my ear, which seemed the right thing to do, lest we spent our money on a good time. Quickly we were at a roulette table, and $400 in chips were pushed at me after a $10 bet. Holy Jesus, I’m rich. My spiritual adviser had a pile of chips in front of him too, and was hysterically convinced he was using advanced mathematics to win. “Probability dictates it will be low numbers this time!” A sudden greedy lust had gripped us. Within 20 minutes we’d lost everything. We got a round in, rationally discussed the situation, and agreed the best way to fix it was to draw out new money to win back our old money. At which point I discovered I’d lost my bank card. For the first time on this trip my ‘friends’ looked genuinely happy.
Light relief with sub-machine guns
Having spent the entire night phone-fighting with the tight, Satan-worshipping swines from my bank, it was time to fulfil the Dr Samuel Johnson quote that prefaces the film, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” I aimed to refocus the trip with some morning drinking at Circus Circus, the location of the film’s best bit, when Benicio Del Toro is so lobotomised by ether that he can’t get off the revolving bar.
“Sorry sir, there’s no revolving bar.” A uniformed man was repeating this to me for the third time. “What do you mean? It’s in the film.” The man’s smile tightened. “There’s a bar over there, sir.” I was ready to kill. What would Del Toro do in my shoes? Arm himself to the teeth, no doubt. We were in the right town. If the American Dream means anything, it means ready access to sub-machine guns.
Imagine Laser Quest with live ammunition and you’ve got Machine Guns Vegas. It was a wonderful place. Girls dressed like Lara Croft sold us a Seal weapons package, and soon I was pumping 10 rounds from a Beretta into a picture of a zombie molesting a citizen. My attorney was almost knocked off his feet by the recoil from an M249 SAW, but kept the trigger held down, sending us diving for cover. My spiritual adviser brutalised an Osama Bin Laden target with an MR556A1 semi-automatic rifle, the gun that actually killed him. We were getting a taste of true grit at last, and giggling like schoolgirls.
The decision to flee came suddenly. I’d awoken the next morning in a disturbing state of intoxication. Memories of the night sprang back. Dinner at Tetsu at Aria. A waiter putting a napkin over my spiritual adviser’s lap: “Yeah, I couldn’t have done that myself.” “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that, sir.”
Bellagio, one of the best nightclubs in the world. Hundreds of glamorous women ignoring our air guitar moves. Apocalyptic illness in the toilets.
Finishing at dawn, with our heads in our hands sat before an electronic roulette wheel, saying, “Look what God did to us.”
It was time to get back in the Porsche. I wasn’t sure if we’d found the American Dream. I was sure my friends and I had found out nothing about ourselves or each other, and in fact had forgotten a few basic human functions. But the trip had served a purpose.
As Hunter S Thompson put it: “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas.”
Take the trip
Where to eat and sleep: MGM Grand Hotel (Mgmgrand.com). Our trip was organised for us by Discoveramerica.com. Eat at Craftsteak at MGM Grand (Mgmgrand.com/restaurants), Julian Serrano and Tetsu at Aria (Arialasvegas.com). Cigars and cocktails at the Rhumbar at The Mirage are essential (Rhumbarlv.com). For nightclubs try Tryst at Wynn (Trystlasvegas.com), Bellagio (Bellagio.com), 1 Oak at the Mirage (1oaklasvegas.com) and LAX Nightclub at Luxor (Luxor.com).