BY SHAWN GOFF
I pulled back the bolt of the Mosin-Nagant and held my breath. I squeezed the trigger as the rifle sprang back into my shoulder, and smoke seeped from the end of the barrel into my nostrils. As I repositioned my feet, hundreds of bullet casings rattled on the floor of Battlefield Las Vegas.
Turning 21 never felt so great.
This fall, I spent a long weekend in Sin City as a tag-along on a father-son trip. My friend Elias was with his father Joey, who had been to Vegas two times before.
I now understand why Gram Parsons famously wrote: “It’ll swallow you in.”
When we got off the plane and walked down the strip, our “Dad” told us we could go into the nearest convenience store, grab a beer, and walk down the street drinking it.
I admit I was nervous, my imagination running wild with thoughts of our certain arrest and take down on the strip by rogue thumper cops.
But hours later, I was a wily veteran of public drinking, walking out of a gift shop with a 7 per cent beer called Big Hurt, which I bought for a dollar.
Las Vegas used to be a gangster paradise. It’s now a tourist destination tempting around 40 million people per year, and hauling in a ballpark amount of $4 billion USD.
The draw isn’t so much gambling, as an opportunity to be a different person, to be treated differently, and act without embarrassment and repercussions.
I knew why I was there: I was celebrating a milestone birthday on the eve of my graduation from university. I wanted that elusive escape, to be someone else. I wanted to party like someone would have back in the 1950s.
Reginald Sheppard, a marketing professor at the University of New Brunswick, said most people are drawn to Vegas by simple curiosity.
“Only around 12 to 15 per cent of people actually go to Vegas to gamble,” he said.
St. Thomas University sociology professor Matthew Hayes says Vegas is an industry built on this idea of a place where the impossible becomes possible.
“Las Vegas has simply set itself up so a lot of these activities are expected, and their entire industry caters to it. Whether it’s prostitution or shooting a rocket launcher at a van,” he said.
The landscape itself is impossible, a desert city where waterfalls flow over artificial rock structures throughout the downtown.
While it may seem silly to admit it, I was inebriated a lot of the time in Las Vegas, except when I was motorcycling through the desert.
Even though I was unsteady, I remember seeing so many different faces.
The old lady with a 32 ounce cup of liquor.
The obese family from Texas wearing shirts that said “he’s my president” with designs of President Elect Donald Trump pointing into the air as eagles soar over his head.
The drunk man at White Castle who ordered a mountain of burgers, and yelled, “I told you it’s onions and cheese!” at me.
There’s no doubt these people had seen the same movies I’d seen, such as The Hangover or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which make you want to go to this fantasy desert and do it right.
“Often in popular representations of certain fun places of the world, like Brazil for instance, it’s represented in the media as a place where the normal rules, sexual propriety, don’t count,” Hayes said. “There’s an association with freedom and travel.”
In fact, prostitution isn’t legal in Las Vegas. It’s only legal outside of Las Vegas, in the rest of the state of Nevada.
This didn’t stop a “lady of the night” asking my best friend, his Dad and I “what we were doing tonight.”
There were also men in suits on every street corner asking you if you wanted a free cab to the outskirts of the city, to indulge in Nevada’s many brothels. Some of these “sex butlers” as I call them handed out cards that would say “call 999-GIRLS – WOMEN STRAIGHT TO YOUR HOTEL ROOM.”
But there was no point. We could just go to one of the many casinos and play blackjack while girls danced on the tables. I could only imagine they’re making a killing, just like everyone else in the Vegas business of cards, booze and entertainment.
There’s a world famous brothel called “The Chicken Ranch”, which is actually a restaurant too. Perfect for taking your family to dinner, and grabbing a t-shirt or hat on your way out.
One thing is for sure, nobody in Vegas will judge you for what you do.
A man with long, curly, rock and roll hair, walked over and poked me on the shoulder.
“Where’s your beer?,” he asks
“I’m all out,” I say.
For some reason, though I was already stumbling, this man bought me a beer without me even asking.
“I remember when I turned 21. Everyone deserves to party while they’re young,” he said to me.
It left me with a lot to think about. Why not have this kind of unassuming kindness everywhere we go? Why is Las Vegas the one place where we decide to be free and treat others how they would want to be treated?
It’s probably because of money. Look at any casino in Las Vegas, and you’ll see more slot machines than you can throw a $1 Pabst Blue Ribbon lager at.
“Everything is by design for the purpose of teasing people,” Sheppard said.
And he’s right, because when we would stop to eat or grab a drink in Vegas, I couldn’t help but throw a few dollars into a Britney Spears slot machine, just to see what would happen.
“The idea of excess is what drives the development of this kind of tourism, to places like Las Vegas,” Hayes said.
But for me, excess is just what I wanted. For others visiting Vegas, it’s easy to see why they might want excess too.
As more bullets were loaded into my next rifle, the PPSH-41, I thought about how I had only seen a small slice of the Sin City. But it wasn’t a bad thing, because I felt like I had filled a huge gap in my life that only a city like this could fill.
I turned 21, and I was doing what I wanted when I wanted, and feeling respected for this exercise of my own free will. For now, this happened to be drinking a beer in public and smoking unfiltered camels at the Hoover Dam.
Everyone should be able to do that at some point in your life, or some version of it.
I know carried the feeling home with me. It’s a funny thing to say after a weekend like this, but I came home knowing that it’s time to grow up.