TRAVEL
The Long Way Home
Part II
Live From Vegas

The Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada was our first major stop. If you watch a lot of TV shows about weird, forgotten roadside destinations, then there is a good chance you know this one. And because why-the-fuck-not, the motel is also located next to an early 20th century cemetery. They say it’s haunted, but I unfortunately didn’t get to run into anything along paranormal lines. I didn’t even find the place to be all that creepy. Unfortunate, given its gleeful commitment to being completely overwhelmed with clown posters, graphics, toys, and other sights. All this at least allows me to understand why other people would rather poke their brains to death with their own tongues. They'll take that over ever walking into a room full of creepy clown stuff. Certain artifacts were disturbing. No doubt, there is something unsettling about a hotel lobby that has hundreds of clown models and figurines. If nothing else, the motif emphasized the fact that I am not afraid of clowns. I am respectful of the reality that any one of them will eat my fucking soul.

The last known photo of the author (Image © Cara Gullotta). 

The last known photo of the author (Image © Cara Gullotta). 

The woman who worked the desk while we checked out explained the history of the place to me. Everyone who worked there had been there for a decade or longer. There was no real secret or strange story behind why a grown man built a motel dedicated to clowns. He just likes clowns. That’s it. Something about that is appealing in an odd way, or at least admirable.

Tonopah is a lot like many of the southwestern towns that are close to no longer even existing. It was one of the better ones. The next highlight over from the Clown Motel was a casino/hotel/restaurant. Our waitress sobbed deep and hysterical in the kitchen for unknown reasons. Dozens of elderly men and women played penny slots against the unhappy, dusty, half-finished Wild West atmosphere.  All this still amounted to a lot more personality than other places can lay claim to. They are at least aware of their singularity. There are still several offbeat motels along Route 66. There are plenty of depressed restaurants with neon creatures. None of those offbeat casino/motel/restaurants are like the one in Tonopah. None of the other disintegrating motels along the known and unknown highways are like the Clown Motel. These places will continue to drop, as the towns they exist in continue to disappear brick by brick. This isn’t the start of a protest song. I like these places. Cara does, too. A lot of people do, but a lot of people don’t, as well. They will either die quiet, or they will become baffling historical sites. This will happen, regardless of how you feel about it. If nothing else, it’s worth noting. If you’re interested, and if you can find the time, see these places while they’re still standing.

The International Car Forest of the Last Church will stand forever. This was one of the stops that Cara wanted to include on the trip. Admittedly, it struck me as the kind of place I could appreciate just as much from the comfort of a moving car. Without question, the Car Forest lives up to its name. Dozens of vehicles are embedded into the ground at a variety of angles. Most of them are decorated with graffiti and other items. It was worth getting out of the car for. A certain low-key magnitude sweeps over you. You get out of your car. You stare at these vehicles. People took the time to re-imagine them as something far more interesting than their original purpose. When I’m grateful for looking at the cars, I’m grateful for the fact that I didn’t find the whole thing to be silly.

The International Car Forest of the Last Church in Goldfield, NV (Image © Cara Gullotta).  

The International Car Forest of the Last Church in Goldfield, NV (Image © Cara Gullotta).  

The Car Forest and the Goldwell Open Air Museum are outdoor oddities of the highest order. Both were part of how Cara wanted to define the trip. It turned out that she was right to think I would enjoy them, too. Their contrast between what they represent, and where we were headed, which was Las Vegas, would become clear to me when we pulled in to Circus, Circus several hours later. In terms of quantity, both the Car Forest and Open Air Museum don’t have a lot to offer. Quality is a better word for both of those spots. This quality is realized on a person-to-person basis. What struck me about the Open Air Museum was the fact that you could leave something behind. A pole with some old pieces of clothing attached held dozens of business cards, scraps of paper, and even odd fragments of jewelry. You could also write on the clothing, which I did, in spite of how little room was left. The sheer history of humanity in the surreal sculptures, when combined with all the little personal bits and pieces people had left in their wake, shook me. I would imagine this was somewhat inspired by being in the middle of nowhere.

Heading for Vegas, I made it a point to remember exactly how I felt in these destinations. So much stillness and sand beating against the weird things people had built. My mind was prepared for a culture shock with Vegas, especially since all this is in one state.

My mind was right to think like that. I have been through Las Vegas a couple of times in my life, but I have never actually spent any time there. To be honest, I’ve never been in a huge hurry to go. Gambling is one of the few vices I have managed to avoid. This is in spite of my dizzying cocktail of poor impulse control and an open mind. I have always thought it best to just keep it that way. My hatred of losing being much greater than the thrill of diving into pure chance is also a factor.

But I had fun in Vegas. It helped a good deal to have someone who had been to the city before, and knew how to have a good time. It was even better that Cara’s idea of how to have fun in Vegas had zero to do with gambling. Of course, we did gamble a little, but that was due to my insistence that we may as well. I learned that if you are even inclined towards a manic personality, Las Vegas is can the city of dreams. Otherwise, it's a nightmare orgy of hallucinatory chaos and contradiction. At one point, I thought that this was no longer the city made famous by full-tilt boogie insomniacs like Frank Sinatra and Hunter S. Thompson. We gambled in Circus, Circus. We visited the AdventureDome, which turned out to be a lot more enjoyable than I would have ever guessed. We met up with a friend of mine at the finest sushi buffet I have ever experienced.

Through all this, I realized that I had been wrong to think that the city was somehow different now. I wasn’t there for the glory days of the Rat Pack. I have only Thompson’s word on the kind of town that would host a giant, stupid motorcycle race. What I can do then is guess. I suspect that the heart of Las Vegas has pretty much remained the same through the onslaught of the decades. It doesn’t matter who runs the show, mobs or faceless, joyless corporations. More than any other city I have ever visited, keeping in mind that I have yet to travel beyond the relative safety of North America, Las Vegas has a hysterical, somewhat unhealthy obsession with altering the present to anticipate the future. All Las Vegas has done through the years is expand on the people they want to appeal to. No matter what you want to do in a city that is geared towards nothing but base pleasures, Las Vegas will attempt to accommodate you. You can’t visit most of the old casinos, but you can indulge Vegas’ feverish dedication to proving that they care about their history. You can gamble for days. Celebrate your winnings by having sex with three dwarves, and a woman who looks like Anna Kendrick’s twin sister. Visit fever dream theme parks. Drink in the open, congested air. Take in one of the nine thousand shows going on at any given time.

The people who sold me a ticket to see Weird Al, before selling Cara a ticket to see Zombie Burlesque, were perfect examples of the frantic, constant movement of the city. They knew everything about every show, juggling a wide range of questions and orders with relative ease. At one point, someone remarked to me how it was a slow day in Vegas. I looked around. Hundreds and hundreds of people from all over the world filled the streets with laughter, heavy drinking, and conversations in a dizzying collection of native tongues. For a moment, I thought she was joking. She wasn’t, and I was amazed that she seemed quite calm under the maddened circumstances. It was clear that she was just a citizen of her unique city.  

Other cities are open all night, but few feel as artificial as Las Vegas. That’s obvious enough to anyone who has even just seen a movie set in modern-day Vegas. The town still has to function outside of the madness it sells to as many tourists as it can grab. That’s when things feel strange. Las Vegas is home to hundreds of thousands of people. It has all the things people need to live in a metropolitan area. The sushi place I went to with Cara and Drunk Monkeys’ resident Horror Movie World Champion (and all-around swell fella) Taras D. Butrej was packed, but not with tourists. The surreal touches to Vegas are not the decadent casinos. It's not in the city’s insistence that it look like a cokehead lecturing on world geography and architecture for all eternity. You will find the surreal element in remembering that people do live here. Heady artificial components exist side-by-side with the restaurants, gas stations, schools, and other obvious essentials that other places have. This bothered me a little bit, but there was rarely time to think about it. If I wasn’t visiting the fantastic Pinball Hall of Fame, I was crossing Weird Al off my concert bucket list. I walked the Miracle Mile with Cara at one point. You can drink yourself stupid and gamble non-stop. Lord knows I did both of those things. The city does indeed have more to offer than what a first-timer might expect. If you like talking to strangers, and I do to the point of annoying people who are actually with me, you’ll never get bored. The obnoxious construction worker from Chicago, his friend from Quebec, and that man’s girlfriend were highlights. So was the young Vegas local who was showing a visiting female friend around.

Taras D. Butrej and Gabriel Ricard. 

Taras D. Butrej and Gabriel Ricard. 

Later, I saw the local and his friend running through one of the Circus, Circus parking lots. With them was a street sign they had stolen. It was a sight that made me wish I had hung out with them just a little more.

Yes, there is something quite wonderful about getting a 44 oz. frozen margarita with eight shots of tequila for 12 bucks. Just as wonderful is winning twenty bucks with the same casual gesture that lights a cigarette. Gambling actually went well. The first night broke even, with the second night putting us ahead of the town by an intoxicating twenty dollars. That was more than I ever expected to win, so I was fine with that.

Circus, Circus was an assault on every imaginable front. This is how I imagine most casinos function. We were non-stop engaged by, immersed in, or waging war against several different species of noise. I’m pretty sure you can’t walk more than ten feet, without someone from the hotel trying to give you coupons that actually aren’t that useful. The relentless, aggressive energy of Vegas hit me hard at first. Twenty minutes after checking in, I was exhausted. Eleven years of staffing Anime conventions like Anime USA and Oakton had not prepared me for Circus, Circus on a supposed slow day. You either get used to the fact that Vegas is a parade of sensory overload being shot into your face by a classical music cannon, or you don’t. Thank god, I did. Those who get used to it either thrive, or they learn to tune out anything that isn’t of immediate concern to them. Operating somewhere in the middle of those thoughts, I still think driving back to the strip from the Pinball Museum was one of my favorite moments. Until the end of time, I will be a sucker for driving with the flow of reasonable traffic, staring at the lights and buildings of my present atmosphere, smoking a cigarette, and playing music. Every city creates this way-too-romantic mixture in its own interesting way. Vegas was no different.

What I didn’t enjoy was leaving the casino during the day. Shaking off the feeling that you have been living in an underground, air-conditioned city is difficult. My inner aging goth child was thrilled to finally know what it feels like to be a vampire.

Seeing the fountain show at the Bellagio with Cara, which was something she was particularly looking forward to, is another high point. When you travel with someone else, if they mean anything to you at all, few joys quite as nice as watching them enjoy whatever it is that sent them out on the road in the first place. I am a selfish person at times. It was important to me throughout the road trip to give her as much room as possible to dictate her own definition of adventures while in transit. I’m certain that I succeeded.

Seeing Weird Al live in concert is up there with favorite Vegas moments, as well. Made all the better by the fact that I had not planned to go until two hours before show time, Al has been on the concert bucket list for most of my life. His astonishing, well-preserved career was highlighted during the show in two ways. It featured the same sort of energy and versatility that has marked his albums and live performances for a little longer than I have been alive. It was also realized in the far-reaching collection of video clips used throughout the show. Clips that featured decades of pop culture references to the man. Also included were his parody interviews (the one with Eminem is a legitimate piece of classic comedy), as well as other items of interest. Weird Al managed the impressive feat of giving the crowd of roughly 500 people a show that was both nostalgic and rooted in the present.

The show featured several of the songs from his latest album Mandatory Fun, and you know what? They were good. "Word Crimes" and other songs are as funny and sharp as the best examples of his diverse range of material. The guy remains phenomenal at turning a phrase in his parodies. He remains capable of mocking the current top of the pops in the nicest way possible. His best work allows him to remain an astute, sublime commentator of absurd pop culture. The show left plenty of room as well for classics, including a rendition of Eat It performed in the style of Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album. Yankovic rarely spoke to the audience. He let the material do that instead. He still made everyone feel as though he was inviting us to something that would never be repeated again. He encouraged singalongs, and even moved through the crowd during a couple of numbers. The fans were definitely fans. No one was there to kill time in Las Vegas. Those who had assembled for the first of his five Vegas shows represented a range of ages and ethnicity that surprised me somewhat. There were two kids nearby who had come with their mom, and neither of them could have been older than twelve. They knew every single song. They knew the old ones, and they kept up with new parodies like “Tacky." After the show, they bought stuff from the merch table. This was a big night for them. It made me as happy as the rest of the show did. It’s not essential for the things you love to have cultural relevancy twenty-five years down the road. Even so, it's still nice to see that concept in action sometimes.

Weird Al still has it. My show was amazing, and I’ve read similar reviews from friends and others who have seen him in concert since then. Time makes irrelevant and/or ridiculous a lot of things I enjoy. That’s fine. Culture moves on. New things appear. Remakes rule the long day and endless night. Weird Al Yankovic remains unique, and as a performer and a writer, he is better than ever.

I’m sure Cara had a blast at Zombie Burlesque. She told me as such. I just know that I made a better decision as to what show I should take in. Anyway, it’s also generally a good idea to give the people who love me as many breaks from my existence as time and space will allow. 


Join us in two weeks as Gabe and Cara's journey continues.