Jacob Lake, Arizona Architectural Hubris and Losing at Blackjack

Australia has really bad Mexican food. What little of it there is to be found is perfunctory at best. In particular, the guacamole –- lo, the guacamole. Greenish mayonnaise. There should be a UN resolution banning the practice.

Sophie had to listen to me harp on the subject for the nearly three years that I lived there. So it was a tension-charged moment when we pulled up in front of La Super Rica in Santa Barbara.

The guidebook says it was Julia Child’s favorite Mexican restaurant — no small recommendation. It’s not so much a restaurant though, more like a shack kitchen with an adjoining tent where people eat. The plates are about $2 each. They come out looking like they were grilled on the pavement, but they taste amazing. There’s something in that chorizo.

If years from now it comes out that La Super Rica’s chorizo was made out of people, I will not lament. It’s that good.

Los Angeles was Los Angeles. Lots of traffic, insincerity, and a population in myriad layers of denile. I guess what irritates me most about the place is when people base their affection for it on myths and exaggerations; the beaches, the weather, the “laid-back” attitude, celebrity spottings around every corner.

Horse pucky.

I have a theory that everyone in New York acts like they’re miserable, but they’re really having a great time. And in Los Angeles everyone pretends they’re as happy as can be, while spending all their quiet moments in vacant despair.

Anyway, we drove around and saw as much as we could in a day; Venice Beach to Olvera Street.

We stopped in at iFilm, the streaming video site that put my clip up ten days ago. It’s been downloaded almost 300,000 times since then, so they invited me to pop in for a visit.

We wandered through the front door, and since there wasn’t a receptionist, we flopped down on the couch and waited for someone to notice.

A guy finally asked if he could help us. I introduced myself. He lit up, ran over and gave me a big hug. It was Doug, the guy who initially asked permission to use the clip, and who I’d been emailing with ever since. Doug apologized for the “Hands Across America” moment, worried that he’d crossed my personal boundary. I guess I looked pretty stunned.

Evidently I’m not very recognizable from the video. I pretty much have to start dancing for people to make the connection –- which is a-okay with me.

Doug took a cigarette break and talked to us. Doug’s job is to sift through the internet searching for “Viral Videos”; clips of any length or subject whose only unifying quality is that they capture peoples’ interest. Their content can be anywhere from America’s Funniest Home Videos, to the Zapruder film, to some guy dancing badly in various countries around the world. Just so long as people want to watch it.

Doug gets links emailed to him constantly. Burned CDs filled with clips are sent in the mail. Every day he scans a wide selection of blogs and aggregators of random web detritus in search of stuff with that nebulous quality of watchability.

I told him he’s like a radio DJ from the 50s, before record companies figured out how to control what gets airplay.

“I prefer to think of myself as a curator,” he said

We spoke reverently of Jon Stewart’s legendary guest spot on Crossfire, which is iFilm’s all-time most-downloaded clip –- not counting a lame Miller Lite super bowl ad that was ambitiously cross-promoted.

The rabid attention poured on the Crossfire clip was completely organic and absolutely warranted. What’s really surprising about it though, is that all the other top-rated clips beneath it involve gratuitous nudity of some kind — or at the very least Paris Hilton. But Jon Stewart ripping into Tucker Carlson trumps them all.

Doug mentioned that MSN just contacted him about putting my video on their home page the next day. He asked if I was okay with that. I asked why I shouldn’t be. He explained that another iFilm clip that got put on MSN’s home page racked up a half million downloads in a day. He said the only issue was whether I was ready for that kind of attention.

To date, nothing that’s happened as a result of this whole thing has really bothered me. Almost all the emails I’ve gotten –- and we’re talking well over a thousand –- have been good-natured and delightful. I’ve been waiting for the oceans of goodwill to turn into black pools of bile and hatred, but it hasn’t happened yet. So I’ll tempt fate a little further.

Moving on…

Five hours to Vegas, paid $3.25 a gallon for gas, stopped briefly in Barstow, which has completed its metamorphosis from a sleepy truck stop to an uninhabitable block of overpriced “outlet” stores and nutritionally irrelevant quasi-food.

But that’s nothing compared to Vegas.


We stayed at the Luxor. Neat idea shaping it like a pyramid and all, but it might be the most inefficiently designed space I’ve ever inhabited. Heading down one of the “inclinators” to grab a soda from the food court shouldn’t be attempted without good walking shows, map, water bottle, and day pack.

All the casinos are designed to make it nigh impossible to leave. We wandered through Caeser’s Palace for almost an hour looking for a way out. It’s like a roach motel.

But we conquered Caeser’s Palace, and we conquered Excalibur, New York, New York, Monte Carlo, Bellagio, and Wynn. We walked from one end of the strip to the other and back. It took us nine hours.

There’s a really big thing happening to the Vegas strip that I suspect will change it dramatically in the coming years. Almost every construction site we saw was a residential tower filled with high-priced condos. Apparently someone has figured out that a lot of people would actually like to keep property on the strip, rather than having to pay to stay in casinos. What’ll it be like when they’re scooping up dog poop in front of Circus Circus and MGM Grand? I can’t even imagine.

The whole notion of living on the strip is alarming. Every facet of the place seems explicitly designed to make me forget all my biological processes. I eat when I’m not hungry, I think it’s day when it’s night, I’m awake when I should be asleep, I’m wagering my earned income on the arbitrary results of deck shuffles and spinning objects. My basest urges are being coaxed and manipulated from every direction. After a while I feel less like a human being and more like an assortment of wants and impulses connected to a wallet.

But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Far and away the most astonishing casino –- at least in terms of raw architectural hubris –- is the Stratosphere. It is no less than a direct affront to God. When King Nimrod conceived the Tower of Babel, he at least had the decency not to add thrill rides.

The Stratosphere tower is 109 stories tall and shaped like a frilled toothpick. It’s also the tallest U.S. building west of the Mississippi. And yes, at its peak there are four working amusement park rides.

The worst of them is called X Scream.


It’s a rail about 30 meters long with a sliding car poised at the rear end. A dozen or so people sit in the car, and then the rail lifts up like a piece of construction equipment and extends out over the edge of the building. The car is released and it quickly slides to the front of the rail until its passengers are staring straight down over the edge at the ground below. The rail raises and dips wildly as if it’s trying to shake the passengers out of the car.

Sophie and I got our first, unexpected glimpse of the thing while sitting on a bench in the glass-enclosed observation deck on 108. We were enjoying a nice night view of the Vegas strip, when all of a sudden our view was blocked by the large green piece of machinery hanging down outside the window with a bunch of helpless passengers screaming hysterically inside of it. The force of the car sliding down the rail caused the entire building to lurch back and forth. Both of us were so terrified we couldn’t bear to look. I felt like vomiting. Sophie had to get back on the elevator and wait for me at the bottom.

The Stratosphere is basically a giant middle finger extended with pride into the heavens. I am not a religious man, but if I were up there, I think I might be a little offended.

Back at ground level, I caved to my Blackjack urges. My run was utterly typical: won big, lost bigger. I ended up down $200, which to me is pretty significant, but not devastating. And in hindsight it was almost worth it for the privilege of gambling next to what is certainly the biggest loser I’ve ever encountered.

I didn’t catch his name, but he seemed like a Joe. Joe is a full-blown gambling addict. He doesn’t work; gambling is his living. And if that night was any indication, his annual income is well into the negative. He blew at least $500 while I was sitting there without even seeming to notice. He just kept pulling out hundred dollar bills and making his tokens disappear. All the while, he rambled incessantly to Sophie about her Australian-ness in a thick New York accent that sounded not unlike a goose being repeatedly struck with a hammer.

“Do you got koala bears down there?”
“I went to da zoo one time and tried to hold a koala bear, but dey wouldn’t let me. So I got a picture wit a stuffed one instead.”
“Really? Wow.”
“Hey, do you drink a lot of dat Foster’s beer down there?”
“Actually, no. Australians don’t drink Foster’s.”
“…Yeah, I’ll get down dere someday.”
“Maybe if you didn’t gamble so much.”
“If I didn’t gamble so much, I could drive dere in a limo.”

Joe decided he was on a roll and started hitting on Sophie, offering her his comp ticket to Bite, a vampire-themed erotic dance revue. She declined.

Joe asked Sophie what she did.

“I’m a lawyer. But we’re called solicitors in Australia.”
“Oh yeah? I coulda been a lawyer. I got a real good memory.”
“Well…that’s not really what it’s about –“
“Ya ever seen dat movie, Presumed Innocent?”
“You know, with Indiana Jones. I knew who did it from da very beginning.”
“Uh huh. It’s not really like that, though.”
“I tell ya. I need ta find a good woman. I wouldn’t be gambling if I had a woman. I just do this cause I’m bored. If I had a woman I’d take her to shows…All I want is a girl who’ll treat me as good as I treat her. My last one, she was cheating on me. I took her to Niagara Falls. I shoulda thrown dat bitch in.”

Joe was surrounded by a four foot cloud of bad karma that just barely enveloped me without affecting the dealer. The dealer could turn anything into 21 and I just kept on sucking until I was wiped out. It was loads of fun.

My brother-in-law Dave introduced me to Vegas’s 36 hour rule. It’s a simple rule: don’t ever stay longer than 36 hours.

I didn’t.

We headed up north into the Nevada desert and tracked down the entrance to Area 51. I went there a year ago on a different road trip. The previous time, it was well after midnight on a moonless night when we turned down the unmarked dirt road. The thirteen miles of blank desert were chilling, and the stern warning signs that appear out of the blackness were like angry ghouls jumping out at us.

This time, not quite as scary.

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Yes, I danced in front of the signs. It went well.

Turning back the other way, we passed into Arizona, briefly entered Utah for a drive through Zion National Park, then arrived at Jacob’s Lake about 40 miles north of the Grand Canyon. Tomorrow we visit the north rim –- one of the many things on this trip I’ve been meaning to get around to for a long time.