This article originally appeared in The Daily on Oct 4, 2011 and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
Every Day I’m Shufflin’
In late July, I flew to Las Vegas with a woman I will call Fleur, in service of a story idea so doomed and ill-conceived I hesitate to even tell you what it was. You will have your suspicions. Writers only go to Las Vegas for one reason, really. It is our World Series of Poker, except more pretentious. But the process is not dissimilar. You train, get your weight up. A semi-competent feature here, a not-totally-botched essay there, and then, one day, when your editor is particularly distracted, downtrodden, or simply in need of something to believe in, you push your meager pile of chips to the center of the table. You look your mark in the eyes and bluff. “It is the fortieth anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” you say, your face calm, confident, “and I want to go there, to write a piece on the book, and the American Dream.”
You don’t expect him to say yes. Pitching stories on the American Dream is what writers do when their hearts are empty, their minds blank. It is the equivalent of stalling for more time, throwing a Hail Mary down eight with time expiring, a way to mark your commitment and plucky optimism before admitting defeat and moving on to something with a chance of actual success.
Plus Las Vegas is an awful place—particularly so in high summer, when hackers converge on it for their annual conference, DEFCON, and the heat is powerful overhead. The city’s overpowering forces of boredom bear down. Loitering out in the desert with people inclined to regard you and your chosen profession with hostility, attending their conventions, witnessing their off-road races, chasing the ghost of Hunter Thompson around casinos that have done everything in their power to efface any kind of historical context or nostalgia at all—this is not something you actually want to do.
He says yes.
The subtitle of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.” The book is a semi-fictional account of a drug-fuelled rampage undertaken by Thompson and an accomplice over five or so days in Las Vegas. Having been sent to cover the Mint 400, “the richest off-the-road race for motorcycles and dune-buggies in the history of organized sport,” Thompson, who took the alias Raoul Duke, and his lawyer friend, a Samoan named Dr. Gonzo (the sobriquet was a nod to Thompson’s favored style of prose), proceed instead to ingest heroic doses of intoxicants, dragging up and down the Las Vegas strip in a red Chevrolet convertible. By the end of the book, the men have destroyed two hotel rooms; kidnapped, drugged, and possibly sexually assaulted a young folk artist from Montana named Lucy; and robbed a North Vegas diner at knifepoint. As a finale, the duo attend a National District Attorneys Association Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
“If the Pigs were gathering in Vegas for a top-level Drug Conference,” Thompson wrote, “we felt the drug culture should be represented.”
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas condensed two distinct reporting trips into one continuous, deeply unreliable narrative. The first, in March 1971, was an assignment to write captions for a Sports Illustrated piece about the Mint 400; the second was in April, after Thompson was sent to cover the drug conference for Rolling Stone. Combining them was triage: according to his biographer, William McKeen, Thompson had first filed to Sports Illustrated “a straight account of the race,” leaving out the narcotics but including “lucid reportage about gambling history and the story of how Las Vegas sprung from the desert.” The piece was “aggressively rejected.” It was not what the magazine had asked for.
Thompson brought “Dr. Gonzo” along because he was working on another piece for Rolling Stone that year about Rubén Salazar, a Mexican-American journalist who had been slain in Los Angeles during the National Chicano Moratorium March in August, 1970. Gonzo’s real name was Oscar Zeta Acosta, a flamboyant, gun-brandishing attorney, Chicano activist, and friend of Thompson’s who shared the writer’s penchant for terrifying defenseless strangers. Thompson hoped to use Acosta as a source on (and, eventually, subject in) the Salazar story. Taking him to Vegas was an excuse to get him alone, and away from the tense and violent vibe that had descended upon Mexican-American radicals and their police counterparts back in L.A. Plus, the two men liked to do drugs together.
In addition to his double- and triple-dealing with Acosta, Sports Illustrated, and Rolling Stone, Thompson also had a book contract to fulfill. In the triumphant aftermath of his first book, 1967’s Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, a yearlong account of riding with the gang, Random House signed Thompson to write about the death, or the life, or the savage heart, or something, anything, about the American Dream.
His letters to his editor, Jim Silberman, from this period are exactly the sort of letters you’d expect from a writer who’d given himself an impossible assignment. The dawning horror is palpable. In one of Thompson’s many attempts to renege on the deal, he wrote to convince Silberman that the manuscript—which by 1971 Thompson had been working on unsuccessfully for more than three years—was “hopelessly inconsistent” in “the context of time, tone & focus.” Thompson suggested “lacing all this bullshit together chronologically” and publishing it anyway.
“It is a millstone,” he wrote, with equal parts machismo and terror. “It prevents me from focusing seriously on anything else—while at the same time tying me to a project that I’ve never understood or had any real faith in.”
As I read these frantic letters on the plane, cocktail in hand, inexorably American Dream bound, it occurred that the project Thompson was so desperate to jettison in the year he wrote Fear and Loathing was pretty much the same one I’d managed to get my editors to assign.
“You can’t send a man out in a fucking Pinto or a VW to seek out the American Dream in Las Vegas.” – Hunter Thompson, letter to Jim Silberman, May 9, 1971
But can you send him in a cherry red subcompact Chevy Aveo? Our car sat optimistically on the rental lot, a crimson speed hump. Jigsawed together, our suitcases almost fit in the trunk. I folded myself into the vehicle’s cockpit. A pointed coughing could be heard; outside, Fleur indicated her door was locked. I pulled up the little nubbin.
“Find us some indigenous Las Vegas music,” I shouted. Our windows were manually wound down. Fleur’s blond ringlets were untamed in the highway breeze. The Aveo pushed 45, 50 mph on Interstate 15, engine mewling beneath its tiny hood. “We’re only listening to Sinatra in this town.”
She fiddled with the radio. Quasars sounded rhythmically. Synths fistpumped. Every day I’m shufflin’.
“This is not Sinatra,” I said.
“I think it’s LMFAO,” yelled Fleur, rolling the dial for the next station. The rapping of Berry Gordy’s kin again filled our car’s modest interior. I stabbed at the dashboard in search of an off switch.
Ahead of us our destination glinted, or glared really—64 stories of ersatz gold, reflecting down on the Spearmint Rhino stripclub in daylight, a Nordstrom’s, acres of vacant lots. The hotel windows were a tawny yellow, a patina of polyester substrate sadness. Inside, on glass doors by the shallow swimming pool, a redundant maxim was mounted in massive gilded letters: “As long as you’re going to be thinking anyway, think big.” The quote was attributed to Donald Trump.
“Seven days?” the receptionist at the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas asked, her tone somewhere between incredulity and pity.
“That’s right,” I said.
“That’s, um…” she paused. “Why?”
A valet jimmied our bags out of the Aveo’s trunk.
Inside our suite the sunlight shone blue through the building’s yellow film. It was like being in the belly of a dying goldfish. Fleur, a nudist whose mystic California spirit, this close to home, was already breaking free of its melancholy East Coast cage, stripped down and headed for the Jacuzzi tub and TV in our bathroom. The heated yarling of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” rose from behind the door.
Our windows looked north, at the dirty white spire of the Circus Circus Hotel and Casino, where Hunter Thompson had once tried to purchase an ape with the help of Bruce Innes, the well-regarded Canadian singer-songwriter. More failed journalism here, hinted at in the pages of Fear and Loathing: an aborted section of the book about Jay Sarno, mastermind of Circus Circus and Caesars Palace, who’d supposedly wanted to run away as a child and join the circus. Instead the little magnate ended up building his own.
“It’s pure Horatio Alger,” Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing,“all the way down to his attitude.” But Sarno wouldn’t speak with Thompson. Hence the ape, and the magnificently bent passages in Fear and Loathing about following mescaline with ether and watching a “half-naked fourteen-year-old girl being chased through air by a snarling wolverine” above the Circus Circus blackjack tables–yet another assignment gone savagely wrong and then hastily salvaged through bluffing, alcohol and acid.
Thompson was a savant at this kind of writerly failure. 1970’s “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” the first instance of Thompson’s soon-to-be signature “gonzo” style (hence Acosta’s character in Fear and Loathing), was the result of a reporting meltdown so total that the writer, way past deadline and unable to manage anything but single unrelated sentences and “gibberish” at his typewriter, was reduced to mailing random paragraphs pulled from his shaky first draft and drunken diary of the proceedings to Scanlan’s Monthly in lieu of an actual story. The magazine, which would be defunct within a year, ran the piece anyway, to great acclaim.
Fleur had bathrobes sent up. I called down, told them to bring around the Aveo. We had a race to cover.
Every day is different…And so it is with the night…Life moves slower and faster at the same time…Spirits of space and energy, hidden in plain sight…While days are fleeting, and quickly pass…Night time allows passions and dreams to roll…This July in the barren deserts of Southern Nevada, it will happen again... Without daylight there to count the toll…KC HiLites Presents The MIDNIGHT SPECIAL In Primm. Nevada a SNORE 2011 Points Race Two Nights of Racing July 29th-31st - “SNORE Midnight Race Promo,” July 18, 2011
SNORE stands for Southern Nevada Off Road Enthusiasts. On their website, they describe themselves as “a family of off road desert racers helping to promote desert racing in and around the Las Vegas, Nevada area.” “Family” here can be taken literally. The 42-year-old SNORE is made up mostly of a small handful of Las Vegas clans—Bakers, Barretts, Flippins, Freemans—who hold many of SNORE’s administrative positions and sit on its board of directors. In addition to the Midnight Special, the race toward which Fleur and I were bound, SNORE stages around six events a year, including Laughlin’s Rage at the River, in December, and the Battle at Primm, in February. It was SNORE that resurrected the Mint 400 in 2008, after the demise of the race and its namesake hotel two decades earlier.
Once, correspondents from Life, ABC, CBS, Sports Illustrated, and so on—“the absolute cream of the national sporting press,” as Thompson described them, perhaps ironically—came to the desert to report on the Mint, in which Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Lee Majors are said to have competed and which billed itself, in the old grandiose Vegas style, as “The Great American Desert Race.” Vanna White was a onetime Mint 400 Girl, as was TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter. But desert racing is mostly a subcultural curio in Nevada now, especially in the Las Vegas area, where the concept of “entertainment” has long since been hammered and forged into a far less dusty and more cash-intensive pursuit. In 2011, according to Gene Lund, SNORE’s genial media director, “We can’t even get the local papers to write stuff” about the weird races that take place around the suburbs of the cities they cover.
How to state the folly of our coming here, to Primm, Nevada’s Midnight Special, in winking attempt to retrace the steps of Hunter Thompson, who 40 years ago badgered the locals at the Fabulous Mint 400 and then drank his way back to the Circus Circus without even bothering to find out who had won? We were too well-behaved, Fleur and I. Our hosts were too earnest and sincere. None of them had heard of the publication for which I was ostensibly covering their race, but they knew that we had come from New York, and the sheer distance and improbability of it all had impressed them, or least triggered their innate politeness. Shortly after we had arrived, one kind buggy driver offered Fleur a ride in his makeshift-looking vehicle, so she could get a feel for what it was like to accelerate at high speeds around the lumpy hills and right angle turns of the unpaved sand. Gene sat patiently with us in his pickup, answering questions about horsepower and local unemployment and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
“Can’t say I’ve heard of it,” he said, furrowing his brow.
Our arched eyebrows and ironic pursuit of the pursuit of the American Dream would not go over well here. Nor could we pretend for the benefit of our friends and family that these people were scary, or deranged, that we had been in terrible danger and just barely escaped with our lives. These men and women were merely Southern Nevada Off Road Enthusiasts.
“You guys are from New York?” asked one young onlooker, as we canvassed our way through the race-side spectators. “Let those people back there know what they’re missing. Sitting out here, watching dirt trucks drive in circles. Meanwhile they’re the ones designing our clothes and shit!”
Someone from a more practical part of the country, however, had likely conceived of the fluorescent yellow safety vests Fleur and I were now wearing. “All Media Personnel must wear safety vest on the course with ‘MEDIA’ on the back,” the online registration form had said. I had not taken the request seriously. We had come in our fancy New York jeans, pushing the Aveo steadily south from Las Vegas to Primm, a dusty gambling town off exit 1 at the Nevada/California border. Primm is “the first and last place to spend your money in Nevada,” in Gene’s words, though one doesn’t imagine the coked-up packs of Los Angeles bachelorettes screaming up I-15 in the other direction stopping to gamble here of all places, home of a Terrible’s casino complex with hair-scraping Styrofoam drop ceilings and the smell of despair wafting from the carpets.
Our media rendezvous was at the Primm Valley Resort. Above us a lonely trapezoidal monorail, the word “Primadonna” stenciled on its side, passed at an uneven crawl—a failing kinetic sculpture, like something from Epcot Center that had taken a wrong turn fifty years ago and was just now running out of gas. Inside the casino, the press safety briefing had been cancelled. The trade photographers—there were no other journalists—had taken to the bar instead, veterans of not getting hit by gigantic out-of-control trucks on the darker and more poorly marked reaches of the course.
We had no such skill set, a fact that Gene, a round, bearded bus driver and food service worker with an intimidating look but gentle manner, immediately sussed out. “Just make sure you’re on the inside of the curve,” he said, pointing at a bend in a photocopied map of the course, a jumble of squiggly lines drawn on paper and marked with inscrutable X’s. “When those guys come screaming around, they’re liable to fly right off and at you.” His son, Gene said, averting his eyes from the look of fear dawning on Fleur’s face, would go pick us up a couple of vests at Lowe’s.
We wandered out, abandoned the Aveo in order to detour on foot around Buffalo Bill’s, another beaten-down and jaundiced gambling palace encircled by a winding and unreasonably long roller coaster of a hue that had probably once been describable as yellow. It was out past the rear parking lot of Buffalo Bill’s that the race would be held, and as we came up behind the casino we began to see it, or rather hear it, engines revving in the fading light. Tractor-trailers and big semis idled in the lot. Shirtless dudes splayed out in flatbed trucks. The course’s infield was on the far side of a dirt berm crowned with a row of pickups. A black power plant rested in the middle distance, marking the race’s outer boundary.
The Mint 400 is the sport’s crown jewel because it is exceptionally drawn out and brutal—four 100-mile laps through punishing dust clouds, six-to-eight hours in a savagely bouncing vehicle without relief or sustenance. (“Did you bring snacks?” Fleur asked one driver we met who’d ran in the Mint. “No ma’am,” he said politely.) But because of a conflict with the Nevada Bureau of Land Management, known locally as BLM, involving baby desert tortoises—and, separately, a horrific 2010 accident in the Mojave Desert that left eight racing spectators dead—SNORE and the Midnight Special had been forced off their usual expansive course on Moapa Paiute Indian land and onto an 8.6 mile tangle of winding turns in the back lot of a destitute casino.
How much information can I ask you to tolerate about a subspecies of racing you are never likely to see firsthand or even on television? Would it help if I told you about the Class 11? The Class 11 is a modded-out but otherwise completely stock Volkswagen Bug with external shocks in the front and back, a roll cage, and that optimistic swell of a hood up front. It looks like Timothy Leary’s idea of a tank. Gene describes the hybrid as “a hard ride,” and SNORE rules protect the Class 11s more than they do the other cars. If, say, a big monster truck is so unchivalrous as to bump a Class 11 mid-race, the larger car is immediately disqualified. This is because the little guys “can’t get out of their own way,” said SNORE “Sergeant At Arms” Mark Bass, let alone someone else’s.
The Class 11s draw crowds in the parking lot, so hypnotic is their mix of cuteness and malevolence. About half the cars here have stock bodies; the rest are buggies and Lilliputian pickup trucks and exoskeletal assemblages of wheels and roll bars. The class of the car mostly refers to the type of body it possesses and how many dollars you’re allowed to put into it. Class 1s and Trophy Trucks—two classes limited only by “as much money as you think you have to throw away,” says Gene—are thus both the envy and the scorn of the assembled racers, as they are both the finest vehicles on the course and also the ones that require the least hustle and sweat to create. Most of the more expensive cars’ owners supposedly come from wealth: casino magnates, construction company owners, online entrepreneurs, and people who have better-than-average sponsorship connections. Trophy Trucks in particular feature ludicrous upgrades like Ferrari paddle shifters, $800 LED light bar lamps and $50,000 suspensions, and are said to be able to fly hundreds of yards through the air off the course’s bigger jumps.
Most of this information came from a lengthy and lucid monologue delivered by Gene as he drove us, pell-mell, across a muddy, bumpy field strewn with rocks and puddles brightened by various light towers. The best vantage point to see the competition, he said, was from right in the middle of it. We climbed in his truck and parked ourselves on a strip of land no wider than 15 feet between two switchbacks. Across the dirt a man with a checkered flag lined up the cars of the first heat. It was around 9 at night—race time. (The Midnight Special is the most nighttime-centric race on the SNORE circuit. Though it looked cool, this is less a gimmick than a concession to Nevada high summer, which is brutal all the way up to 8 p.m. or so. In July or August at noon, a steel car might as well be the inside of the sun.)
The flag dropped. We watched the first fleet of cars shoot forward one by one, disappear, then careen back in sight as they passed ten yards in front of our windshield. Their tires threw up big gouts of spotlit dirt, and you could see the crunch as they landed after going aerial over a little salvo of humps directly ahead of our truck. Another turn and the racers were behind us, accelerating up a hill, hurtling through the air past the truck’s bed, and landing in a fishtail that sent them off to points unseen.
The radio crackled, and Gene said he was needed further up and out on the course. It had rained the night before and during the day as well, which meant that the course guides, black arrows on bright orange cardstock nailed to wooden markers, had come down in spots. This had become a particular problem at the track’s southeast corner, where racers were improvising their way around a 90-degree turn in a way that was giving some of them unfair advantage, and sending others hurtling out onto forbidden BLM land.
Gene headed screaming down the dirt, dodging racecars, the truck bouncing through neon pools like we were on a military raid, dirt and noise and dim shadowy figures hurtling by the windows. Fleur was in the backseat, clutching a door handle.
The turn in question was indeed poorly lit and sudden. Fleur and I remained in the cab as Gene conferred with Robert Gross, Race Steward, whose strong resemblance to the John C. Reilly of “Talladega Nights” only added to unreal feeling of being this far out on the sand. The two men decided to rope off the offending shortcut. Fleur and I looked on from the safety of Gene’s truck as they began hammering matching pairs of posts into the ground about ten yards apart, stringing up pink tape between the wooden stakes. As they marched their makeshift corridor up toward the bend, one buggy spotted Gene in the dark so belatedly that the churn of the truck’s tires showered dirt on our guide as he oléd out of the way. Gross, beside him, didn’t stop hammering, even as he was forced to dodge yet another car, his arms windmilling for balance, 40- or 50-mph contact missed by six or so inches.
“I was worried about your life there,” I told Gene back in the pickup, my voice maybe cracking a little.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. He shrugged.
Afterward Fleur and I walked through Buffalo Bill’s dazed, still in our safety vests. From the casino’s front lot, the traffic jam back to Las Vegas was a solid red line tracing the road up from the border. We joined the procession of cars with California license plates in silence. We made it perhaps a half mile up the interstate, then waited, unmoving, as the thing metastasized. Cars took to both shoulders and then, incredibly, piled up there, too. Even off in the scrub—where we watched the distant tail lights of fed-up pickups freestyling their way home across the desert—you could see the off-road traffic halt, and then backup in the darkness.
Things got tense and weird. One car took a hard right, perpendicular to traffic, and then just sort of stopped for a while, blocking two lanes. People were hanging listlessly out of car windows. They were walking around. I felt deep pity for the poor Los Angeles residents who five hours ago had said, “Vegas, baby!” and hopped in a car, bound for neon. Now the drugs had run out and the traffic was at a standstill.
"Maybe they gassed the monorail, like in Japan,” Fleur said, as if Vegas was already gone, wiped off the map before we could locate the American Dream in some poetically deserted suburban subdivision or casino subbasement. No southbound cars could be seen. Off to the shoulder on the gravel I noticed a guy in shorts just sort of grinning, his legs spread in the dirt. “Would we go off the grid?” Fleur asked.
My friend, who does not smoke, reached into her bag and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lighting one. In her version of the apocalypse, “Nobody takes.”
“It’s all barter,” she said. I disagreed—we would die out in the desert. Or we would survive, covered in blood. But we would not be bartering our meager water supplies and cigarettes for food and mercy. That would not be the way it ended.
Topless at the Sahara
Ten miles and three hours later, we crept by the twisted and burned husk of a van.
Our traffic jam merited a small article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal the next day:
New Mexico Man Dies in I-15 Accident Near Jean
By Lawrence Mower
A New Mexico man died in a roll-over accident Friday night on Interstate 15 near Jean.
Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Loy Hixson said man in his mid-30s was thrown from the vehicle and died after the accident at mile marker 11.
The Dodge van he was driving struck a concrete barrier in the median and overturned about 8 p.m. The cause of the crash was unknown. Authorities did not release the man's name.
Nobody else was injured in the crash, which closed down two lanes of the three-lane highway for hours.
In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Raoul Duke is forever stumbling onto a newspaper or turning on the television and finding bad news. This was a literary tic of the era. Joan Didion, too, was always opening the paper in her essays from the 1960s and ‘70s and reading something implausible and horrible that nevertheless contained some special personal psychic resonance. Fear and Loathing contains newspaper stories—some perhaps real, others surely not—on heroin overdoses and unlawful executions in Vietnam, scenes of PCP addicts clawing their own eyes out and Muhammad Ali in prison. One of the more outlandish and obviously made-up wire stories in the book bears the dateline “Aboard the U.S.S. Crazy Horse: Somewhere in the Pacific (Sept. 25)” and the headline SHIP COMMANDER BUTCHERED BY NATIVES AFTER “ACCIDENTAL” ASSAULT ON GUAM. It begins: “The entire 3465-man crew of this newest American aircraft carrier is in violent mourning today, after five crewmen including the Captain were diced up like pineapple meat in a brawl with the Heroin Police at the neutral port of Hong See…”
Part of this is performative self-loathing, a journalist expressing distaste at himself and his own kind. “Why bother with newspapers, if this is all they offer?” Thompson wrote. “Journalism is not a profession or trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits.” One thing lost on me as a teenager, reading Fear and Loathing my head alive with drugs and laughter at Gonzo and Duke’s antics, is the pervasive deadline anxiety—nay, panic—that shadows Duke throughout the book. Maybe you have to be a writer yourself to understand it. At one point, with his attorney fled back to Los Angeles, his expense account drawn down, his hotel room full of six hundred bars of translucent Neutrogena soap and the dregs of a once mighty drug stash, the Mint 400 long since concluded, its winner still (to him) unknown, Duke looks up in the air to see “a big silver smoke-trailing DC-8 taking off.”
“Was Lacerda aboard?” Duke wonders, naming his photographer on the Sports Illustrated job. “The man from Life? Did they have all the photos they needed? All the facts? Had they fulfilled their responsibilities?” This professional torment was a feeling I knew well and would come to know even better in my seven days of wandering the Las Vegas strip in search of the punchline to a joke I had made several weeks before, high in News Corp headquarters. Had the American Dream been in that traffic jam? Should I ingest illegal drugs for the sake of realism?
It was only day two and my confident façade was cracking.
“Like, how can I help?” asked Fleur, wrapped contentedly in a bathrobe on our couch. “I feel so relaxed right now!” I left her to the room service she’d ordered and went looking for my photographer.
Let’s say his name was Ramon. We’d first encountered him at 4 a.m. the night before in the Trump lobby, wild-eyed and trembling. Ramon had been told the rough outlines of his assignment and so on the JFK runway had decided to eat some psilocybin mushrooms, to get into the proper state of mind. His plane proceeded to taxi for three hours on the ground in New York, then retreated to the gate, Finally the air traffic controllers brought our addled photographer and his fellow travelers back out onto the tarmac, where they waited another two hours before departure. Ramon showed us artfully shot videos of the small fly, trapped in his seat’s window, that had been his only companion for those claustrophobic and vision-intense five hours.
Since then Ramon, whose specialty at home is the artful photographing of nude women and drunken intelligentsia at New York parties, had only been subject to more abuse. There was the second day of the Midnight Special, back in Primm, where Fleur and I had watched him reluctantly scale a chain-link fence and crawl out onto the rocky sand below the course’s mighty dike jump. Ramon prostrated himself, shooting up at the cars flying directly above his head. He waded into the crowd of spectators on the hill overlooking the race and began taking portraits. “Ayo Bam Bam,” a shirtless dude called to another shirtless dude, slicking back his hair for Ramon’s camera. “Come get in this shit!”
Then there was the ghost town of the Desert Mesa subdivision, out in a sweltering corner of North Las Vegas, where city-subsidized housing had been initiated in 2004 and then subsequently abandoned, half-built. It’s a manifestation of the 21st century Vegas that never was. Historically built on credit, Las Vegas, long the fastest growing city in the nation, was leveled when the credit dried up. At 13.4%, Nevada’s unemployment rate is the highest in country. More houses are foreclosed upon in the metropolitan Las Vegas area than in any other comparable city. All along the modern Vegas strip are eyesores and burgeoning-eyesores like the 2.9-billion-dollar-and-counting Fontainebleau, three-quarters built and then abandoned in bankruptcy proceedings, a turgid blue thing of glass and steel situated on an empty lot. At the other end of Las Vegas Boulevard is the two-year-old CityCenter, said to be the most expensive private development ever attempted in this country, whose structurally flawed Harmon Tower remains vacant, a 26-story billboard for a project too unsafe for human occupancy and too costly to tear down.
Ramon fired gamely away at the skeletal edifices of Desert Mesa in North Las Vegas, their walls bashed in for the wiring, the heat unbelievable overhead. We traversed empty sandy lots, each leveled off at a precise interval. One ruin had the street address of #444, despite having no street. Chain link fences and barbed wire surrounded the last outpost of houses left to be demolished. Plywood covered the windows. On the ground nearby was an open manhole with a rock wedged into it. Dead palm trees made mounds of debris with white trellis fences, discarded plastic lawn chairs, ripped out carpet and toilets, car tires. One house was entirely burned out, its roof collapsed. Blacked bits of steel and insulation made a mound inside. Yellow fire hydrants stood impotently on the perimeter. Across the street the Aloha Vegas trailer park advertised houses for sale. As we walked listlessly back to our car a salvage truck drove by with a refrigerator and scraps of tar roof lashed to its bed.
A visit to Las Vegas in 2011 can easily degenerate into an orgy of disaster porn, and this one immediately had. A local tipped us off that the Sahara, that old Rat Pack redoubt, which closed in May after its owner declared its operation “no longer economically viable,” was holding a fire sale. “Everything goes!” advertised the sign outside, including the furniture from the casino’s 1720 guestrooms and suites. Any civilian was allowed to come in and bid, so we went there, too.
It was eerie, walking around in the dimly lit Sahara, the tables quiet but still there, tagged for sale. A roulette station, “no wheel,” was being sold for $2200. Garish $6500 beaded chandeliers mingled with $325 armoires and red striped sofas, stained mattresses, a green mesh children’s playpen, chip sorters, cash counters, old desks with inlaid leather, fake plants. Heaps of pillows and bedding, signs for valet pick up and drop off. The gaming floor smelled poignant or maybe just dusty.
“Do they have glassware here?” Fleur asked.
“They got everything!” said Mike, the security guard. Mike’s job was, he confided, “boring as shit.”
“I want to work in a normal casino,” he said, “with people drinking and gambling, the noise and all that.” He gestured around, indicated how quiet it was. We were the only scavengers in there, give or take a few others wandering in and out. Most people would never have the opportunity to walk into one of the greatest gambling temples the world has ever known and finger inexpensive vases, walk the carpet Dean Martin had walked, sit heedlessly on the Thirsty Camel’s tattered barstools, maybe even take one home ($85). But there is no tourism in Las Vegas for the weak or the failed, no will to look behind the curtain.
Were we even behind the curtain?
“The ‘secret of Vegas’ is that there are no secrets,” Dave Hickey once wrote. “What is hidden elsewhere exists here in quotidian visibility.” Writers seek the American Dream in Las Vegas because our country’s blind enthusiasm and unceasing avarice and tacky ambition and failure to take care of its own people are on full display here. Then we go running around in bankrupt casinos looking for some kind of secret clue, like the depressing truth isn’t obvious to everyone the moment they step off on the plane. The only thing we would find in the Sahara would be the opportunity to hang out in a historic penthouse suite.
Spending time in the Sahara’s famous Alexandria top-floor suite, Mike said, was the one perk of the gig. And it was amazing up there, the view stretching off from the narrow concrete balcony to the north and east, dead-ending at the mountains. The suite’s four-tier chandelier was still in place, as was its vintage fuzzy green carpet and musty drapes. Mirrors dotted the ceilings above the outlines of where the beds used to be. In the master bedroom there was still a control panel with an analog radio dial embedded in it. Sinatra had spent time with dozens of willing women here at the Sahara, maybe even in this exact room, the mirrored ceilings alive with the sound of room service waitresses slipping in, sliding their metal carts over to bar the door.
Ramon was so taken with the place that he brought back an 18-year-old girl with him the next day for a topless photo shoot, making the disaster porn analogy baldly literal. “I'm going to be in Vegas for the next 5 days,” he had posted on his Twitter account the night he arrived. “Looking for sexy & strange exhibitionists to photograph.” A young woman had gotten in touch—Ramon said the first thing he did when he saw her was check her ID. She brought her boyfriend along, a small man whose protective abilities Ramon dismissed. But even that kid couldn’t resist the penthouse.
How this particular desolation binge ended is not a proud thing to relate. Fleur had gotten some bad news from back home. We had seen a lot of sublime and symbolic deterioration, done some firsthand reportage in the cradle of the American recession. But Thompson had not spent his time in Las Vegas suburbs sifting through the debris of failed construction projects. He had not whiled away his mornings looking up employment statistics online. Our debauchery quotient thus far was low. We had a few drinks, Fleur and I, while Ramon headed back to the hotel to check and see if his social media solicitations had drawn any further replies.
We started, I guess, at the Cosmopolitan, the only casino in Las Vegas to open in 2010 (slogan: “Just the right amount of wrong”), born of a storm of lawsuits and defaults that left the steely and self-consciously modern edifice in the hands of its primary investor, Deutsche Bank. Neither Fleur nor I had the will at this point to think grand thoughts about the implications of this fact—a bank running a gambling operation when it was precisely this behavior that had sowed such deep chaos in the first place.
As with CityCenter, the Cosmopolitan’s planned condos had become hotel rooms instead, but its aggressive and subtly anti-Old Vegas aspirations nevertheless lived on in the casino’s nightclub, Marquee, transplanted to the strip from New York’s throbbing Meatpacking district. The club looked happier here, less embarrassed in its high-heeled, bare-ass fervor. Bridge-and-tunnel is not a concept in Las Vegas. You’re either about to get thrown into a hole in the desert, or you’re surrounded by people who look pretty much like those on line at Marquee, drowned in cologne and packed into mini-dresses and stilettos, the men in box-toed footwear, billowing button-ups tucked into jeans.
The entrance line was furious so we took up positions at the bar opposite the club, watching women wobble into its black gate on high heels, and then emerge, hours later, barefoot. They were a lesson in the imperfection of the human form, I thought, the tequila working its sage magic. Here were these women who so desperately wanted to wear these pumps and yet couldn’t, their steely commitment undermined by alcohol and balance issues.
After midnight on any given evening on the strip you can witness a steady stream of shoeless girls being flung into cabs waiting in patient lines outside, driven by drivers so defiantly resigned they make New York City cabbies look like punks. These are the sort of men who can watch a woman projectile vomit over the side of their cab for 20 minutes straight or listen to a busted-out gambler heedlessly weep in their backseat and still maintain a kind of optimism about humanity, their city, and their prospects. “You’re my last customer of the night,” your driver might say, as you frantically try to revive your comatose date. “The Palms is a good place to pick up fares!”
It was one of these guys who betrayed us, in the end. We had been drinking tequila, gabbing with some home furnishings conventioneers at the blackjack tables. But these casinos are like padded rooms. “In this town they love a drunk,” Thompson wrote. “Fresh meat.” Intoxication in Las Vegas is a form of conformity. All we had done was find another way to fall in line. Fleur placed wagers for her mother, a new age woman who’d called earlier that day and bid Fleur to put down a few dollars on 6, 7, 10, and 14 at the roulette table. We watched the dealer sweep the chips away.
“Let’s go to the strip club,” Fleur said. It was on our way home. Why not?
“Spearmint Rhino,” I told the cab driver.
It was a classic swindle, so old school I almost didn’t mind. Hurtling north down Industrial Road you could see all the casinos from the back, their true hulking size and malevolence revealed. Our Ethiopian driver made friendly conversation.
“You ever heard of the Diamond?” he asked. “Totally nude!”
But what about the Spearmint Rhino—wasn’t that the place to go, the most venerable strip club in these parts, not to mention just blocks from the golden Trump?
“Totally nude!” he insisted. The Diamond was bottomless as well as topless. It was a true locals’ spot, he said. He did not inform us that it cost fifty dollars each to get in, or that they do not serve alcohol in the bottomless strip clubs of Las Vegas, but in the end I respected the dude for his hustle. I hoped his commission was significant. A hostess seated us in the black depths of the Diamond, served us seltzer and lime.
I have not been to many strip clubs in my life, but I’ve been to a few, and I can say for certain that I’d never before seen the rag—gnarled, white, nubby, mute in repose. There was a spray bottle too. What the dancers at the Diamond would do is hold the rag in one hand, and the bottle in the other, and sort of hit the rag a few times with whatever fluid was inside before carefully wiping down the pole at the center of the stage. Only then would they begin their act. We sat through a Bush song, and one from Staind. White Zombie. Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole.”
Finally one dancer got up to the beginnings of a familiar melody, though in my rubble-and-agave-induced fog it took me a while to place it. It was only after the woman onstage took her thong off, wrapping the garment around her wrist like a child’s scrunchie, that I figured it out. Every day I’m shufflin’, the speakers boomed. I was on my feet before Fleur even knew what was happening.
“C’mon,” I said. “We’re going home.”
“The American Dream is an assignment to write about the American Dream.” Tautological notes like this one were something I had been doing as a kind of exercise in my iPhone’s notepad throughout this trip. But though Fear and Loathing contains plenty of iffy journalism and an unreliable narrator, Thompson’s take on the American Dream in the book is actually quite clear. Perhaps predictably, he never did end up writing his actual American Dream book for Random House. But one reason for that was because after Fear and Loathing there really wasn’t that much left to say.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was published in two parts in Rolling Stone, November 11 and November 25, 1971. Random House printed the article in book form the next year. The New York Times initially reacted with skepticism but then ran a second piece reviewing the novel favorably, calling Fear and Loathing the “best book yet written on the decade of dope gone by.”
What Thompson had really done was write the decade’s epitaph. At a moment when hippie truisms about LSD and meditation being a path to enlightenment still ruled, Thompson pinpointed “the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.” The counterculture of the sixties, Thompson argued, had maintained a naïve faith that the cosmic forces that seemed to be governing things in those days were fundamentally benevolent. But what if that weren’t the case?
In fact, much of Fear and Loathing can be read as a point by point repudiation of the psychedelic sixties dream—from the promise of chemical liberation (Samuel Johnson’s “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man” was the book’s epigraph) to the presumed decency of one’s fellow travelers, a presumption easily disproved in “grossly atavistic” Las Vegas, where “they kill the weak and deranged.”
Thompson had lived off the Haight in the sixties, and written stodgy pieces for the New York Times describing the lingo and ethos of the burgeoning hippie movement there. He had been around Ken Kesey, taken acid with the Jefferson Airplane. In 1968 Thompson covered the catastrophic Democratic National Convention, where he was beaten by cops and disillusioned beyond redemption. By 1971, the year Thompson briefly became Rolling Stone’s chief political correspondent, his hatred of Nixon was pathological. (“The saga of Richard Nixon is The Death of the American Dream,” Thompson later wrote. “He was our Gatsby, but the light on the end of his pier was black instead of green.”)
On March 8, 1971, less than two weeks before he went to Las Vegas to cover the Mint, Thompson watched the tacitly pro-war Joe Frazier deal the draft-martyr Muhammad Ali his first ever professional defeat in a surreal bout at Madison Square Garden. "A very painful experience in every way, a proper end to the sixties,” Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing. He looked around and jotted down what he saw:
“Tim Leary a prisoner of Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria, Bob Dylan clipping coupons in Greenwich Village, both Kennedys murdered by mutants, Owsley folding napkins on Terminal Island, and finally Cassius/Ali belted incredibly off his pedestal by a human hamburger, a man on the verge of death. Joe Frazier, like Nixon, had finally prevailed for reasons that people like me refused to understand—at least not out loud…But that was some other era, burned out and long gone from the brutish realities of this foul year of Our Lord, 1971.”
Thompson’s eulogy for that other era, “burned out and long gone,” is also Fear and Loathing’s finest passage. It is as honest and open and idealistic as Thompson ever got in print, and he would later say it was the part of the book of which he was most proud.
“It seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time” he wrote.
“There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning ....
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave ....
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark —that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
Duke and Gonzo do eventually find what they are looking for. Late in Fear and Loathing, in a chapter called “Breakdown on Paradise Blvd.,” the narrative is interrupted by an “editor’s note” explaining that the original manuscript was so “splintered that we were forced to seek out the original tape recording and transcribe it verbatim.” What follows is a hallucinatory dialog between Duke and his attorney as they cruise Paradise Road northeast of Vegas. Eventually they stop at a taco stand, where they ask a waitress and then a cook if either of them know where the American Dream is. The cook refers them to “the old Psychiatrist’s Club”—a “mental joint, where all the dopers hang out.”
The two men head out in search of the place, but the tape fails again. The editor’s note resumes; though the recording is hard to decipher, “there is a certain consistency in the garbled sounds” indicating “that almost two hours later Dr. Duke and his attorney finally located what was left of the ‘Old Psychiatrist’s Club’—a huge slab of cracked, scorched concrete in a vacant lot full of tall weeds. The owner of a gas station across the road said the place had ‘burned down about three years ago.’”
It was Thompson’s last love letter to the pre-1968 sixties, and an unequivocal kiss off to everything that came after it. The American Dream had been badly neglected, abandoned, lit on fire—Las Vegas and its straightforward brutality were all that was left. A generation’s worth of energy and idealism had come to a head in a “long fine flash”; the reprisal was savage, immediate, and in its own way equally dramatic. The pendulum had swung all the way back the other way.
Boomer nostalgia for this “little parenthesis of light,” in Thomas Pynchon’s phrase, has not aged well for those of us who grew up under its sign. Our parents may have venerated the sixties, but most of them are stone cold products of the early seventies—the era, captured so despairingly in the pages of Fear and Loathing, when the forces of order, if not full-blown evil, reasserted control, never to let go again. And while today period pieces from those bright prelapsarian years such as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test might as well depict life on another planet, the eerie thing about reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in this foul year of Our Lord, 2011, is the dispiriting sense of recognition that runs up the spine.
Not to read his work too much against his biography, but it seems safe to say that Thompson felt that way too. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was in many ways Thompson’s peak as a writer—after that the phrase “Fear and Loathing” came to represent a franchise (“Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl”; “Fear and Loathing in Saigon: Interdicted Dispatch from the Global Affairs Desk”; “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '76: Third Rate Romance, Low Rent Rendezvous”) and the writing—always a contingent, fragile thing for Thompson—ossified with it. Thompson’s uncanny luck at a typewriter hardened into predictable zaniness; the writer’s outsized courage became bluster.
Amid a growing catalog of physical complaints related to a lifetime of drug abuse and alcoholism, Thompson soldiered on, a working journalist to the end. He filed for Rolling Stone, Playboy, and ESPN, and released collection after collection of his old letters and old copy. In 2005, in considerable pain, he wrote a brief suicide note, and killed himself at his home in Aspen. He was 67. Rolling Stone ran the note, entitled “Football Season Is Over,” in their September issue that year. It read:
“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won't hurt."
It was the last willful act of a willful man, a violent but voluntary exit from a world he no longer wanted to live in. After 1971 it had been all fear and loathing anyway.
“Your attention please. We are currently investigating the alarm system you are hearing.”
We sat among thousands of hackers and security personnel in the Augustus Ballroom at Caesars Palace. Up at the front, Jeff Moss, also known as The Dark Tangent, welcomed us all to the 15th annual Black Hat Technical Security Conference. Arrayed behind Moss were five big screens in a row, and on each of them was some version of the Black Hat logo: either an x-rayed skull in full-brain profile, or a kind of silhouette Bogart in a fedora, trench coat turned up at the neck. Little lightning bolts occasionally shot around inside the skull. Gentle techno played softly over the speakers until Moss took the stage, and then it stopped.
Part of the rationale behind Hunter Thompson covering a National District Attorneys Association narcotics conference was that there was pretty much no other place on the planet earth more dangerous for him to be. But in 2011, there is arguably no city in the entire country more terrifying than Las Vegas during the week of August 1-7, when the town is full of hackers. These are people who can remotely start the engine of a car using nothing but a cellphone, who can wirelessly disable or—if they want to—fatally overload a diabetic’s insulin pump from up to 150 feet away. That’s the type of mayhem they were demonstrating on panels anyway; one can only imagine what went on in the conference’s off hours.
Black Hat is a corporate outgrowth of a far more anarchic and nonhierarchical hacker convention called DEFCON, celebrating its 19th year, and scheduled to begin at the Rio on August 4, after Black Hat concludes. Moss founded both conferences. The first, DEFCON, grew out of an impromptu gathering of hackers Moss held in Vegas back in 1992. Black Hat came along five years later, when Moss realized that he could pander to the growing corporate IT departments that were desperate for the type of shadowy and sometimes illicit knowledge he and his friends possessed. A DEFCON badge is $150 cash only, paid at the door. Black Hat badges run $1495 or more in advance and a whopping $2495 on-site, the assumption being that the companies who send their employees for education at Black Hat can afford to lay out that kind of money without blinking.
There is some attendee overlap and many of the 6000-strong Black Hat badge-holders stick around for DEFCON, which stopped counting attendance this year after the first 10,000—estimates put the final number at as much as twice that. Members of Anonymous and LulzSec—the two “hacktivist” groups famous for pranks such as publically releasing emails and other theoretically private information belonging to firms like HBGary Federal and Bank of America and taking the CIA’s website offline—were said to be in attendance, as were various law enforcement agents attempting (in vain) to identify and apprehend them.
From the stage Moss proudly informed us that this was the biggest Black Hat ever, with attendees coming from as far away as Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Taiwan, Canada, Sweden, Australia, Israel, France, Germany, and Japan. It was 9 a.m., and Ramon sat blearily next to me in the auditorium. Fleur, for her part, had opted for an extra few hours of sleep.
Moss is freshfaced and youthful looking, has glasses and smooth cheeks, and was in 2009 appointed to the Homeland Security Advisory Council. The keynote speaker, up next, was Cofer Black, a 28-year veteran of the CIA, most recently as director of the agency’s burgeoning Counterterrorism Center. Halfway through the Bush years he left the government to go work for Blackwater and advised Mitt Romney during Romney’s short-lived 2007-2008 presidential bid. In his blue blazer and oxford shirt, stubbly pate and recessed eyes, Black seemed from a couple hundred feet away like the perfect avatar for that Cheneyesque species of bureaucrat for whom death and politics are inextricably entwined. Ordering men into violent covert combat in the more obscure parts of Afghanistan, Black would go on to suggest, was a big part of his job at the CIA.
The subject of Black’s keynote was "Perspectives on 9/11 - Ten Years Later and Beyond.” Part of the general theme of Black Hat 2011, it emerged, was that information security is on the verge of becoming a lot more important in this country than it currently is—not unlike counterterrorism, which as a discipline didn’t fully catch on, according to Black, until 9/11. The gist of Black’s speech was that the digital security sector’s own 9/11-type event is coming—“A validation of threat and attack will come into your world,” Black promised the audience—at which point the bureaucratic “clouds will drop away” and “the sunlight” of resources and respect would come pouring in. You could tell Black didn’t know much about computers—what we were witnessing was a kind of battle-weary post-cold-warrior handing off the baton to new blood. “Now it is your turn, whether you know it or not,” he said to the assembled hackers.
“Your attention please. We are currently investigating the alarm system you are hearing.”
The alert notification system at Caesar’s Palace, a deeply unpleasant thing, began to sound. Guffaws immediately spread across the vast reaches of the Augustus Ballroom. Black was standing there looking peeved; the collision of literal alert systems interrupting talk of theoretical alert systems, not to mention the strong likelihood that this was a prank being pulled by a bored member of the audience—for whom hacking the Caesars Palace security system was probably about as challenging as getting out of bed in the morning—left everyone unsure of how to react.
Eventually Black decided to resume talking over the alarm, which was loud and insistent and which rendered this portion of his speech into a string of half-audible but still terrifying buzzwords: “CYBER ATTACK…NOISE…PHYSICAL DAMAGE…KINETIC RESPONSE…TERRORISM…CYBER…FUTURE… CONFLICT.”
“The cause of the fire alarm signal you just heard has been investigated. Please return to your normal activity.”
Laughter rang out across the big ballroom.
Outside the Augustus the hackers swarmed together. There was an exhibition room, crowded with booths, and booksellers out in the hall. The graphic design of these tomes uniformly involved a lot of dots and dashes and puzzle pieces nestling into other puzzle pieces. The books looked self-published but mostly weren’t. I opened one volume called “The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security” and under the heading “Trust: The Key to Deception” began to read: “The more a social engineer can make his contact seem like business as usual, the more he allays suspicion…”
Hackers are big on secrecy. Even here, at the relatively square and corporate Black Hat Technical Security Conference, attendees could choose what their badges read—I was possibly the only person in the building to have made the not terrifically informed decision to put not just my full name but also my institutional affiliation on my badge. Most people were going with a first name, or first name and second initial, max. Later, at DEFCON, the hackers we met used aliases, or simply skipped that part of the introduction entirely. Inside the exhibitor room, paranoia was the reigning concept: “Can you be breached?” was one slogan. “Know where. Know how.”
Most of the major tech and tech security companies come to Black Hat—IBM, Blackberry, HP, Cisco, Amazon, Symantec, and so on. I also noted booths from RedSeal, McAfee, FireHost, BluePoint Security, ManTech, Bit9, VMware, iMPERVA, and SecureX—the random capital letter thing is evidently a huge trend in Internet security—before my hand got tired of jotting all the names down.
Just outside the exhibition hall was a booth representing the Federal Reserve Bank. The bank was looking to attract new employees. By way of an enticement, the two women manning the table were giving away small plastic-wrapped samples of shredded US currency that looked from far away like bags of low-grade marijuana. The whole set-up was not exactly confidence inspiring, from a monetary policy standpoint. Nearby the FBI was also recruiting—“Come on up, ladies, don’t be shy!” said the guy behind the booth to a couple of onlookers. “We’re the FBI, we’re here to help you!”
In Fear and Loathing, Duke and his attorney spend all of about five minutes at the National District Attorneys Association conference. Then they stagger out of the ballroom at the Dunes Hotel and proceed to sit at the bar downstairs, planting nightmares about dope fiends and witchcraft in the head of a DA from someplace in Georgia. As with the Midnight Special, my obsequious obedience to my own arbitrary mission—a race for a race, a conference for a conference—was beginning to feel like another kind of reportorial failure. The hungover groomsmen sleeping it off in the hotel rooms upstairs were doing a better job reenacting Fear and Loathing than I was.
“A little bit of this town goes a very long way,” Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing. “After five days in Vegas you feel like you’ve been here for five years.” Time stretches around this city, and not for the better. Boredom is the real predatory force to be fought off here. Even at noon on the strip the surfeit of potential entertainments presented Ramon and I with an unrelenting yes/no dichotomy: either Celine Dion or the vast quiet emptiness of the desert, blackjack or sitting alone in our respective hotel rooms, contemplating the void. Walking down Las Vegas Boulevard I could feel the boredom pushing down on me, punishment for having the temerity to attempt the strip’s “sidewalks,” where the barrage of options was loud and the going crowded and unpleasant, a rebuke to the very idea of going outside.
Dazed, we shoved our way down the strip. Across the street was the Flamingo, Duke and Gonzo’s hideout during their second crack at Las Vegas, the hotel where they imprisoned Lucy, that young impressionable Montana girl. The orange and pink tail of the iconic Flamingo logo looked queasy under a coat of dirt and grime. The rest of the building’s once-white color had long since gone yellow. Grubby pink neon led us inside.
Thompson stayed here with Oscar Acosta, “Mini-Suite 1150 in the Far Wing.” Ramon and I walked past the horse gamblers being irradiated by the old CRT monitors on which they watched the races. At the elevator bank two Asian men in full American flag spandex bodysuits, socks, flip flops, and plastic hats walked nonchalantly past.
We rode up without interference to the 11th floor, and found room number 1150, or “11050,” anyway. The stale scent of cigarette smoke had long since been assimilated into the carpets, which sported washed out palms etched in yellow against a field of puce and brown. A room service tray was wheeled up against the opposite wall. It was quiet, the ceilings low. There was a feeling like whatever adventures might have been had here were just sad, not ennobling or memorable.
But the Flamingo’s been renovated since the early ‘70s, and today former Rolling Stone factcheckers will tell you that Thompson was forever putting in non-existent hotel room numbers into his stories. The walls on floor 11 were patterned like yellow tile and lit by neon lights that hurt to look at.
Drawn by a loud noise at the end of the corridor, we pushed through a door marked “stairwell exit” and listened to the roar of the cooling fans we found ourselves standing above. We were behind the Flamingo marquee, the entrance to Caesar’s Palace right across the way. We looked around—it was that thing again, searching for a meaningful moment out on a fire escape, awaiting a revelation that would descend in clear lyrical language as we peered at the true shape of things from our hidden door. Down on the strip a family walked by, a mother towing a tiny brown child.
“That girl is going to be a model someday,” Ramon said. “It’s weird when you can tell that young.”
I Am Dangerous. I Am Sexy. I Am Exciting. I Am Confident.
You will have been wondering about the drugs. Did we do them? Did I find myself on Fremont Street, cowering under an awning as a digital projection of Jim Morrison mounted the roof of the pedestrian mall’s 90-foot-tall barrel vault canopy? Did I walk with many gaits, dragging first one leg and then the other, zig-zagging past blackjack tables and wolfish packs of Midwesterners? Was Caesars Palace where Fleur found her spirit animal, a puffer fish? Did she pet at it through the swank aquarium glass? Did it all end with me on my knees on the plush carpet that cradles the Bellagio Las Vegas, tears streaming down my face as I genuflected to the casino’s super-sized Liberty Bell, surmounted by a mighty Eagle that clutched lightning bolts in its talons, the sign under which I grew up in faraway Philadelphia?
Of course not.
Thompson wrote to Jim Silberman, his Random House editor, in the summer of 1971, before Fear and Loathing had even been published. He was responding to a letter of Silberman’s, which came with a check for expenses—a good part of Thompson’s letters from this year are pretty much devoted entirely to haggling over money with Silberman, Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, American Express, Carte Blanche, and all the other credit card companies Thompson had burned while in Vegas. Silberman had written and said, “You know it was absolutely clear to me reading Las Vegas I [this is how Thompson referred to the first half of his book before writing the second section] that you were not on drugs…”
Thompson wrote back: “This is true [!], but what alarms me is that Vegas I was a very conscious attempt to simulate drug freakout—which is always difficult, but in reading it over I still find it depressingly close to the truth I was trying to re-create.” He went on to tell Silberman that the editor’s reading of the manuscript so depressed him that to feel better he “ate a bunch of mescaline” and went on a violent drag race with some buddies of his. He concluded, “All I ask is that you keep your opinions on my drug-diet for that weekend to yourself…it makes it all the more astounding, that I could emerge from that heinous experience with a story.”
Is it really possible that Thompson wasn’t on drugs at all during the reporting of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?
Writers lie to their editors all the time, of course. Silberman in particular, in Thompson’s voluminous correspondence with him, seems like a guy Thompson wanted to impress. But it is true that on closer inspection some of the drugs Duke and Gonzo ingest in the book have suspiciously literary effects. How else to explain Adrenochrome, the extract of “adrenaline glands from a living human body,” a substance whose primary effects on Duke in the novel appear to be the rendering of Richard Nixon on Duke’s hotel television screen, the president’s speech “hopeless garbled,” only one word—“Sacrifice…sacrifice…sacrifice…”—audible?
Adrenochrome does exist, though it’s synthetic. There were phone calls I could’ve made to get to the bottom of this, figure out just how intoxicated Thompson had been while he was out living this stuff. But in the end I didn’t. Not because the myth was too precious to deflate. I just couldn’t see how it mattered. Sustained time in Las Vegas is its own narcotic, as dark, hallucinatory, and debilitating as any other.
“If you manage to miss the fucking mountain, I will not invite you back.”
Out in the desert, we were getting a safety lesson. Or rather, we were huddled between some parked cars, trying not to look conspicuous, while a group of armed men received a safety lesson. The hackers had arrived in Las Vegas, but before DEFCON was to begin, they had loaded up their ordinance and ammunition and driven west, out past the subdivisions and gas stations and into the scrub, way up into the Spring Mountain hills. A friend, a DEFCON veteran in town for the conference, had tipped us off to this annual rite of inaugurating the conference each year in a hail of bullets.
“It’s really worth seeing,” she’d said, “but the thing is, they hate press.” A female Dateline NBC producer had attempted to go undercover at DEFCON in 2007, employing a secret camera, but was lured to an auditorium hall and outed in front of the entire audience. (They called the game “Spot the Undercover Reporter.”) An angry mob pursued her back to her car, heckling her “To Catch a Predator”-style until she managed to reach her vehicle and drive off. The video, on YouTube [LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCvmkxO5hoQ], is not for the faint of heart, or for reporters attempting similarly misguided tasks. That had been back in Las Vegas proper, where the hackers didn’t go around carrying sawed-off shotguns. Not the case here.
“Can you get rid of the coif?” our friend had said, looking me over in the bar the night before. “And, uh, that shirt. And do you have any shoes that aren’t so white and hipster-y?” Fleur, she decided, was all right—a black t-shirt and she’d be fine. Ramon’s resemblance to a Serbian coke dealer couldn’t be helped but at least he looked vaguely menacing and outside the law. But I was touch and go.
“Reporter Found Dead.” Fleur spitballed headlines in the car. “His friends were forced to dig their own graves.” Even the Aveo looked wrong, its red too bright and optimistic. Once we got off-road it wasn’t at all clear whether we’d be able to get back on. The shoot wasn’t at a proper range or established spot. It was in a gully in among the hills, miles off State Route 160.
The trip had been full of self-loathing these past days but this was our first encounter with unfeigned fear. I felt it in my stomach as we rolled into the lot. The people we were joining were in some ways among the deadliest on earth, adept at weapons both old and new. Their guns were the least of our worries. My browser history was far too checkered for this assignment. My credit score couldn’t take the additional hit. These were men and women who could take their revenge whenever they felt like it. They could disable the Aveo remotely, leave us in the desert if they wanted to, and probably watch the brutal finish via remote camera. Or they could wait years, until I got my first mortgage or crafted an online dating profile, and take it all away with the click of a mouse.
Everyone we’d met so far had been so nice, and here we were on a bright Thursday morning near the California border, betraying their trust.
We watched from our half-hiding spot as the hackers circled up around a man called Deviant, who introduced himself as the organizer of this year’s shoot. They began chanting. “The gun is always loaded,” said a chorus of male voices, over and over again.
“Any questions?” Deviant asked. A burly guy in black raised his hand.
“What do we do if we don’t want our photos taken?”
Deviant brandished a roll of purple duct tape. “A purple X means ‘I do not belong in a photo,’” he said. You could photograph your friends as they fired rounds off into the sand, he said, but if an “X” ended up in the picture, you would be expected to delete it immediately. About three-quarters of the crowd immediately taped up. Over by a white minivan Ramon, camera draped around his neck, studied the ground.
We’d split up—none of us looked right, really, but together it was obvious, and so we fanned out across the makeshift range separately. In the Aveo we’d concocted fake names and cover stories—mine was Jeff; my hacker buddy Steve was arriving later in the day—but privacy is paramount among hackers, so no one asked us anything. More than a few of the gunmen looked like they wanted to though.
After the briefing the weapons came out: sawed off shotguns, AK-47s, short barrel Uzis, Desert Eagles, big revolvers, and, on a blanket, near the ground, a Browning M1919 machine gun. Next to the Browning a man laid out, piece by piece, a DPMS SASS, a modified AR-10 rifle which, its owner told me, was accurate up to five hundred yards, and so was currently being wasted on the range here—a mere 150 yards or so to the rock bluffs and mountain.
We watched as the hackers set up their firing zone, dragging out bits of rebar and chicken wire, old PCs, sofas, traffic lights, wooden crates, and paper targets, including an Osama Bin Laden and a couple of lady zombies. There were a few children running around, including a tiny girl with a handgun—it looked like a .22—holstered at her waist. Most of the adults wore black t-shirts despite the considerable heat, paired with gym or cargo shorts, floppy hats and shades. One guy was wearing a kilt. Several had dyed their hair purple. There were more women than you might have guessed.
Up and down the line the metallic snap of rounds sliding into their chambers could be heard. Off to the left of the main firing range three men were busy cobbling together what would reveal itself to be a 50-caliber sniper rifle, about four or five feet long. This is what U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan use to shatter car engine blocks at great distances and to kill enemies from as far as a mile and a quarter away. Its bullet isn’t much smaller than a classic Coca-Cola glass bottle. When you fire the 50 cal, a great big cloud of dust goes up around the shooter, and the ground shakes.
The all-clear was given, and the shooters raised up as one. The noise was incredible. Out of the rock face down the range you could see the heavier guns taking their toll on the shale and dirt in the back. Chunks of the bluffs that backstopped the field were flying off, chipped to pieces in a steady fusillade of automatic weapons fire. The sound was all whistles, squeaks, and bursts of full auto mayhem.
By the water jugs, Fleur looked sick.
After a while, a man wheeled a cannon—I don’t know what else to call it—up to the range. A crowd quickly formed around him. The cannon looked handmade and as we watched, its operator rolled back its weird, short barrel, which was supported by two modified wheelbarrow wheels, and poured gunpowder down its snout. People began shouting “Fire in the hole!”, stepping back to get clear of the thing. The cannon’s owner tied a length of string to a plug halfway down the length of it, donned ear protection. He looked around. And then, shrugging his shoulders and stepping back, he pulled the string.
The sound had an almost physical quality to it. The cannon came back a good two or three feet as most of us bent over in pain from the noise. A big puff of smoke came drifting out of the barrel. Did he hit anything? Was there anything to hit?
“This is everything that’s wrong with America,” Fleur hissed in my ear. And here I had just been thinking that the hackers out here, their pale skin turning red in the sun, were prime examples of the real American individualism that Thompson had been such an ardent advocate for—his heirs in this town, where everyone else was a tourist or a fraternity brother or just waiting for their kids to graduate high school so they could finally get the hell out. Soon Fleur, Ramon and I would return to our comfortable lives in New York City and these guys would go back to basements with blacked-out curtains, burning their own trash in the backyard and daily microwaving the same brand of frozen pizza. They were weird Americans, and our last line of defense when Copher Black’s online apocalypse finally came. We were just dilettantes in the desert hoping to survive long enough to get back to our day jobs in midtown Manhattan.
On top of her anger Fleur was nauseated, she said. Ramon and I had gotten what we needed, my notes jotted covertly in the Aveo between volleys of live fire. We rendezvoused at the car and slid our way over the gravel and out of the lot. Fleur raised her middle finger, and aimed it at the last cluster of shooters we saw as I pressed down on the accelerator and turned the wheel back toward Las Vegas.
Fear and Loathing ends on a funny note. After Duke and Gonzo’s trip to the Old Psychiatrist’s Club Gonzo decides to leave at dawn; late to the airport, Duke takes their big white Coupe de Ville, their second convertible of the journey, off the freeway and onto the tarmac itself, where Gonzo disembarks behind a van and just barely makes his flight. “I wondered if maybe this kind of thing happened all the time in Vegas,” Duke muses, “cars full of late-arriving passengers screeching desperately across the runway, dropping off wild-eyed Samoans clutching mysterious canvas bags who would spring onto planes at the last possible second and then roar off into the sunrise.”
There is the business with the ape, back at Circus Circus, the furtive flight from a second ruined hotel room, and then, abruptly, the decision to flee the city. Duke finds himself back at the airport, surrounded by cops and district attorneys heading home from their conference. Limping onto the plane, he has one last Bloody Mary, some cigarettes, a grapefruit that he slices up with a big hunting knife that scares his stewardess. On his way home to Aspen, where Thompson lived, Duke cadges some amyl nitrate in the Denver airport pharmacy, then makes for the bar once more, heart “full of joy.”
“I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger…a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident,” Thompson wrote.
That’s the last line of the book.
At home I had read Thompson’s finale and figured it for one last call-back of the novel’s big idea—another glimpse of an American sick at heart, papering over that knowledge with drugs (or not) and an insane, misguided belief in himself. But I no longer felt so sure. Was the last line of Fear and Loathing meant to parody the same baseless American optimism that Thompson so neatly eviscerates elsewhere in Fear and Loathing? Or did Thompson on some level mean for his ending to be genuinely happy, the way it feels, the book’s final frame frozen on a man set free by his own self-destructive lunacy?
Duke and Gonzo’s trip, as Thompson summarized it at the book’s beginning, was meant to be “a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country.” The idea was optimism in the face of the odds. It’s what Thompson’s gonzo project was about in the end. “What was the story?” Duke asks himself.
“Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.”
The American Dream was getting in a car and going looking for the American Dream.
We reconvened that night at the Rio without Ramon, who had an appointment with a burlesque dancer around midnight in his hotel suite. I missed him already. He had been a valuable ally in this awful city, and we were far from free of it yet. The Rio was DEFCON’s stronghold, and all around us were clots of black-shirted hackers. Down near the convention halls, kids slouched against the walls, surrounded by laptops and makeshift antennae. With these guys around, the casino ATMs were under no circumstances to be used, said our guide. Ditto for the elevators, and the vending machines, and anything else that plugged into a wall.
“Oh, and turn off your phones,” she said. “Unless you want them bricked.”
“Like, turned into a useless piece of plastic and circuits.”
It was like communicating by smoke signal in there, bathroom trips and scouting missions precisely planned and executed, back-up meeting points chosen in case we were separated. It reminded me of the nineties. With my phone turned off in my pocket, I scribbled notes on cocktail napkins from the Rio’s iBar, writing around the slogans on the margins: “i Am Dangerous. i Am Sexy. i Am Exciting. i Am Confident.”
I felt like none of those things. “You look wrong again,” said our friend. My hair was once again too combed, my shirt too colored, my jeans too Japanese. (“i Am From New York. i Am Minutes Away From Starring In A Humiliating Viral Video.”) What I looked like was a narc. But I had a job to do.
I went down to mingle with the hackers near the conference rooms. I admired their various badges, each signifying something different. A giant skull and crossbones meant serious hackers, I was told, and it seemed plausible, striding around as those guys did with full-blown entourages, lesser factotums laughing at jokes I couldn’t begin to even understand. Others had sheriff’s stars, a cryptic triangle, and—most commonly—the “human” badge, which is what our guide had, a neat titanium circle with a Masonic-looking eye inscribed in its center.
“Excuse me, can I help you?” one of the conference organizers said, picking me out among probably a hundred other people mingling in the Rio atrium.
“Just looking around,” I said.
“This is a private conference, sir.”
He conducted me back up the ramp, to the casino’s main gambling floor.
I was not fooling anybody. There was a t-shirt onsale from a nearby booth: black, boxy, with a pixilated video game figure on the front and the legend “I Fight For The Users” on the back. I bought it, went in the men’s room and took off the collared shirt I had been wearing, and emerged a changed man, or least like one who didn’t look like he was about to go get a drink with Colonel Sanders. Fleur and our local guide studied me. “Much better,” our friend said. Fleur stuffed the old offending garment in her bag, and we were ready.
Our guide knew of a hacker party, deep in the complex of convention halls in the back of the Rio. They’d never let us in, even in disguise, she said. But the spirit of hacking is subversion, solving puzzles, finding a way through locked doors. She had an idea. We bypassed a long column of ponytailed men waiting to get in, followed our guide through an egress marked “Do Not Enter.”
We wandered around the guts of the Rio until we heard music. In the back of the party ballroom was a service entrance and we burst through it with confidence—my first hack. Inside a giant paper dragon looked down from the ceiling. Tables were arrayed across the room, each with an abstract modified circuit board in place of a centerpiece.
The drinks were free and so we had a few. A DJ was spinning dance music—wordless techno, drum and bass, rave-y bursts of electronic sound. My shoulders tensed for the LMFAO song that never came. The dancefloor was barren, men clustered up against it on all sides. We had a few more drinks. Fleur and our guide took to the floor, began freaking each other without inhibition or reserve.
We danced there for a while. Things got blurrier. Las Vegas was alive with hackers, they were having parties all across town. We only had a few hours left in this city that I had come to loathe and we would make the most of them.
I woke up the next morning with a pain in my chest. In the bed next to mine Fleur snored gently. Our planes were due to take off in a few hours, our Vegas odyssey done. My relief, as I idly played with the bandage on my chest, was overwhelming.
I pulled the hotel comforter back, its scent as anonymous as it was the day we arrived. Looking down I saw a black compress taped on four sides to the upper left part of my chest.
The pole dancers at the Hard Rock. The legend above the door. A Sex Pistols quote jotted on a napkin by the bed: “The only notes that matter come in wads.” The buzz of the tattoo gun.
I remembered now, sort of.
“Oh, we’re definitely shaving you,” the man had said, when I removed my hacker’s t-shirt.
I peeled the tape off. Written in script underneath, right above my heart, was the word “yes.”
Nikola Tamindzic is an art, fashion, and portrait photographer. He enjoyed being lost in Vegas, but is happy to be back in New York. For more of his work, visit nikolatamindzic.com or follow him at @NikolaTamindzic.