We'll always have Vegas
For the fourth time in my life, I drove to Vegas last weekend. It's about 290 miles from Los Angeles to Sin City, so if you leave at the right times, take the right highways and drive recklessly and inappropriately, you can bang out the trip in 200 minutes or less.
Here are the benefits of the Vegas drive:
1. You don't have to deal with McCarran Airport, or as it's better known on Fridays and Sundays, The Seventh Circle of Hell. With so many things to despise about McCarran, I don't even know where to begin. Out of the 50 worst moments in my life, 23 of them happened when I was caddying and another 16 happened at McCarran. Twelve of those 16 moments were actually the same moment: me killing time at the America West gate for four hours on a Sunday night, completely hung over and dreading my cramped flight, wondering if I might be stuck there for the night, sitting on a disgusting carpet reading the same newspaper for the fifth time and talking myself into the three reprehensible food options (Taco Bell, Burger King or Pizza Hut) because God forbid if they splurged a few bucks for a Subway.
And that's just one reason to hate McCarran. Standing in a 30-minute taxi line in 105-degree heat while a Ron Gardenhire look-alike chainsmokes Winstons two feet in front of you ... well, that's another. I could go on. And on. In fact, the single greatest decision I made this decade was driving to Vegas for All-Star Weekend and leaving after Sunday night's game, which meant I missed the airport apocalypse on Monday morning -- by all accounts, the biggest disaster in McCarran Airport history and such a monstrosity of a travel day, it easily could have been a Spike Lee documentary.
It's interesting that the people who run Vegas spend so much time and money on creating sleek advertising campaigns and encouraging billionaires to splash billions and billions into new casinos that the city doesn't need, and yet, they're perfectly willing to keep forcing the crappiest airport in the United States on us. It's the first thing you see when you reach Vegas and the last thing you see when you leave. That's not important? Instead of pushing for an NBA team that can never happen after the All-Star Weekend debacle, maybe Oscar Goodman should spend a little more time worrying about his dump of an airport. Just an idea.
2. Yeah, it's an hour flight from L.A. to Vegas, but that doesn't include getting to LAX, checking in 90 minutes early, going through security, killing time at the gate, making the hour-long flight, getting a taxi and getting to your casino. The total amount of time ranges from 3 1/2 to 5 hours depending on delays. Why not spend that time in the car cranking music and making cell phone calls?
3. From a competitive standpoint, it's fun to set a record for the drive and see if it can be broken the next time. (You're right, it's not that fun. But I'm overcompetitive and enjoy the challenge of breaking completely mundane personal records. I mean, who can forget the time I drove from Wellesley, Mass., to Stamford, Conn., in 2 hours, 4 minutes? That was like Wilt's 100-point game -- we'll never see a performance like that again.) For the L.A.-to-Vegas drive, it took me a few times to figure out the right route (I skip the 5, cut through downtown L.A. and take the 2 to 134 to 210 to 15) and the right times to come and go (between 9-10 a.m. leaving, before 10 a.m. or after 9 p.m. going back), but now I have this thing down and you could see a three-hour drive in your lifetime. I'm not guaranteeing it. Just saying it's a possibility.
4. The drive itself is alternately entertaining, frightening, relaxing and disturbing beyond belief. For one thing, the temperature starts climbing as you hit the valley. On Friday morning, I left L.A. and it was 84 degrees. Around the 45-minute mark, as I was hitting the 15 and heading into the desert, we were around 92. Then it started climbing and climbing ... 93 ... 95 ... 97 ... 101 ... 103 ... 105. By the time I hit Barstow (a "city" at the two-fifths mark that has a bunch of gas and food options), we were sitting at a cool 107. Just to be safe, I pulled off, bought some water and pretzels, fueled up my car, checked the air in my tires and headed toward a stretch of I-15 that's within 100 miles of Death Valley, a stretch in California that gets so hot, somebody said at one point in time, "We need to name this place something like Death Valley" and everyone actually agreed with him.
How hot was this stretch at noon on Friday? The answer: 114 degrees. I'm not making this up. Lemme tell you something ... when you're driving near Death Valley and it's 114 degrees outside, you check to see if your car's on the verge of overheating about 25 times per minute, you think about stuff like, "Do I have any other loved ones I should call, just in case?" and "I filled my car with oil a few weeks ago, didn't I?" and basically have a heart attack the entire time. In a weird way, it gets you in the right mood for gambling that weekend -- you're rolling the dice by zooming by Death Valley signs.
Three other interesting facts about this stretch: First, there's an exit called "Zzyzx Road," which ended up being the title of the least-grossing movie of all-time. Second, if you stop off for gas or food at any point between Barstow and Vegas, you'll feel like you're filming the first 10 minutes of Eli Roth's next movie for the entire time you're outside your car. And third, to ensure that as many cars will overheat as possible, they always get some road work going somewhere around Primm (about 30 minutes from Vegas) in which two lanes get blocked off but nobody is actually working. So even though you're close to Vegas, you're still terrified.
5. Thanks to the beauty of self-parking, once you arrive in Vegas, just pull into your casino's self-parking section, park near the closest entrance door and you're checking in within five minutes. It's fantastic. Nobody even stops you as you're heading into the garage. And sure, maybe this led to every gangbanger in Oakland and L.A. driving up for All-Star Weekend, parking for 48 hours, wreaking havoc on the Strip and eventually ensuring that Vegas will never get an NBA team because so many tourists, cab drivers, blackjack dealers, waitresses, bartenders and locals were horrified that the weekend turned into a modern-day "Escape from New York," but hey ... you gotta love self-parking!
6. If you don't get a rush at the end of the trip, when you know you made it and you can see the skyline of casinos in the distance ... I don't know what to tell you.
Anyway, that's what it's like to make the Trent & Mikey Memorial Drive from LA to Vegas. I headed there for the annual trip with my Vegas crew (for a full description, check the Vegas features from 2001, 2002 and 2004), which was just like every other Vegas trip we've ever had: Marathon gambling binges into the wee hours, far too much smoking and drinking, the inevitable Saturday night dinner when everyone ate too much and spent the next few hours fighting off a food coma, dozens of inside jokes, two guys getting slaughtered at the tables (this year, I happened to be one of them) and everything else that always happens.
The only things that change every year other than the hairlines? The dinner topics. At the annual Saturday dinner 10 years ago, we were probably eating at the Rio dinner buffet and talking about strip joints, ATM limits and the plusses and minuses of playing craps when you're stoned. At this year's dinner (held at a foofy sushi place at the Wynn), topics included cholesterol, epidurals, fertility drugs and signs that you're having a heart attack. I'll go out on a limb and say that we're getting old.
There was one off-the-charts highlight this trip. I almost hesitate to tell you about it because I'd be spilling the best-kept secret in Vegas, but screw it: We stayed at the Wynn this year even though they have the stuffiest late night gambling scene in Vegas -- $50 and up tables and a crew of rich middle-aged gamblers who all look like they were extras in "Igby Goes Down" or "The Ice Storm." If you ever wanted to play blackjack with surly divorced women working on their 19th glass of pinot grigio, or 55-year-old guys wearing suits and calling each other "Trip" and "Hunter," this is the place for you.
Still, it's worth staying there once because of the Wynn's lavish outdoor blackjack setup, which includes ...
• Eight blackjack tables surrounding one of those square outdoor bars like the one where Young Flanagan worked after he fled to Jamaica in "Cocktail." Once you've gambled outdoors, your life is never quite the same. That's all I'm going to say.
• Mist machines that blow cool mist on everybody so they don't overheat -- a crucial wrinkle on Saturday, since it was 107 degrees and all.
• Tucked behind the tables, a beautiful European-style pool. That's a fancy way of saying, "It's OK to go topless there."
If there's a better male bonding experience, I can't think of one. We were there when they opened the tables up at 11 a.m. and we were still there when they shut them down a little after 7 p.m. For the first three hours, nobody was willing to pull a Jackie Robinson and break the topless barrier, which led us to decide that the Wynn should (A) hire five or six strippers to go topless at noon every day (just to break the ice), and (B) hire Ronald Jenkees to produce an album of techno songs with titles like "Take Your Tops Off" with songs like, "Come On, Nobody's Looking," "We're All Friends Here," "Unleash the Hounds," and "What Do You Have To Lose, You're Already Divorced?"
Around 3 in the afternoon, once everyone had a few drinks in them, the tops started flying off. OK, not really. But maybe two dozen women made the plunge over the next few hours, including one, um, heavyset woman who nearly caused a riot by wading into the pool with 75DDDDDDDDDDs. (It was like being there when the Baby Ruth bar got thrown into the pool at Bushwood -- people were scurrying for their lives in every direction. The thing about European-style pools is that most of the uninhibited women who go topless are usually people you'd never want to see topless.) Either way, it's a win-win -- between the seedy "players" making runs at the topless girls in the water, the Baby Ruth moment, the horny blackjack dealers getting constantly distracted, the tropical feel of being outdoors and the Mardi Gras/beads element, we had 10 weeks of entertainment and comedy packed into eight hours.
Things peaked around 6 p.m. when an attractive blonde in a bikini joined our table, complained to the dealer, "I haven't had a blackjack in three days," then told us confidently, "If I get a blackjack, I'm going topless." This prompted the pit boss to come over and tell her that she couldn't go topless, so they negotiated for a little bit, ultimately deciding that she could flash everyone instead. This conversation actually happened.
Out of nowhere, this turned into the most exciting blackjack shoe of all-time. Every time she got an Ace or a 10 as her first card, the tension was more unbearable than the last five minutes of the final "Sopranos" episode. Finally, she nailed her blackjack and our side of the blackjack section erupted -- it was like being in Fenway for the Roberts Steal. She followed through with her vow, left a few minutes later and we spent the next 20 minutes debating whether I could write about it without coming off like a complete pig.
You know what? Screw it. These are the things that happen in Vegas. I'm not condoning them, defending them or judging them. But that's why I don't mind making that 290-mile drive to Vegas and risking my life in Death Valley -- not because I might see someone flash the crowd at a blackjack table, but for the 20 minutes afterward when my buddies and I are rehashing the story and making every possible joke about it (most of which can't be printed here).
In many ways, Vegas has become the ultimate cliche, a swollen self-parody of itself, as exemplified by the "Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" campaign and all the overcrowded weekends. But it's still a Hall of Fame male bonding place. That's why we'll go next year, and the year after that, and the year after that ... and maybe we'll be sitting at the Saturday dinner in a few years talking about colonoscopies, mortgages and braces, but at least we'll be laughing and busting each other's chops like always.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.