The show is over. Tomorrow I’m going to Vegas
The Show is over. Tomorrow I’m going to Vegas
It was somewhere in May 2012, when I met an old man, Paul was his name, on a campsite near the Grand Canyon in Arizona USA. I was cooking myself a decent meal, when he first came by and started talking to me. He was a nomad. Not that he looked as one, but he lived as one. He was tall, nicely dressed and had a sunburned face with white combed hair. Traveling from park to park and living in a small van, just big enough for a matrass and a stove, he had abandoned an ordinary home for a more adventurous way of life. He was clearly interested in my presence, which was indeed a little odd, because I was the only one with a tent between many fancy campers. “Tell me about your hiking adventures”, he said, “I love hiking stories”. Off course I had to disappoint him, since I was just a tourist hanging around the Canyon for a few days.
I was traveling from the east to the west coast of the United States visiting in particular cities, but my longing for nature, as to find in the US in its most spectacular form, drove me to the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is a place with a lot of contradictions. On the one hand you experience an overwhelming and sublime spectacle of a disemboweled landscape, steep-sided and deeply colored in layers of different reds and ochers. Somewhere down into the Canyon flows the Colorado River, one of the most influential rivers of America. It made agriculture, and therefore life, possible in the West and gave California her image of sun grown orange country. Standing on the Grand Canyon rim makes you feel awfully small and aware of the profound notion that this particular river has flown here for more then 17 million years. This remorseless eternity of slow-motion natural violence relativizes life, or at least your time being on earth.
On the other hand the Grand Canyon landscape looks as fake as all the postcards, books and films you’ve seen of it. Walking between hundreds of tourists on the paved sidewalks of the rim, the Canyon becomes a surreal panorama. It’s beautiful, but extremely unreal. The only thing you can do is trying to capture this beauty by taking pictures of the same panorama, over and over again, in a desire to find the right frame. As Baudrillard said in his America (1988) when he talks about a desert road trip: “Snapshots aren’t enough. We’d need the whole film of the trip in real time including the unbearable heat and the music.” What he refers too is the act of real experience. Standing at the rim and looking at the Canyons’ appearance doesn’t make you part of it. It’s like watching a movie. Your thoughts will translocate to the events on the screen, but your body is still sitting on the couch.
Paul knew how to circumnavigate those contradictions. He started his hike every day at 5 am and made his way down to the river and up to the rim again in less then 9 hours. “When I go out there at the crack of dawn and hike down to the river, ooo, it’s so beautiful, beauuutiful!” I surely agreed with him, but the way he experienced the Canyon was fed with years of intense nomad life. I couldn’t possibly accomplish the same in a few days. After a bad night sleeps on the cold hard campground I started out with good courage and hiked one/fourth of the paved Bright Angel Trail, queued with fat Americans on fluorescent Nikes. A little hopeless and doomed to be a snapshot tourist I went back to the rim, ate some pizza and watched the sunset. The show was over. What did I expect? The greatness of a sublime pristine nature? At the campsite I said to Paul, hoping to shock him: “Tomorrow I’m going to Vegas.”
After an 8 hour Greyhound drive through a lunar desert landscape Las Vegas appeared at the horizon. Like the Grand Canyon also Las Vegas is a place of contradictions. In opposite to the Canyon this place developed extremely fast and those who travel by car will first discover that Las Vegas is a city where people actually live and work. Endless gated communities are slowly crawling up the deserts empty space, interspersed by lonely palm trees. But as the center is reached, things seem to be made of a more unreal substance as if they move into a void by a special lighting effect. According to Baudrillard much of America can be experienced as a giant hologram, in the sense that information concerning the whole is contained in each of its elements. This hologram is like a fine membrane where you pass trough without noticing. He points out that this is obviously true for the desert, advertising and Las Vegas. The contradiction of Las Vegas is that of the city as commonplace for life and work and the moment this transforms into the hologram Baudrillard talks about.
I experienced Las Vegas as a surreal artificial place of architectural styles and signs from which I felt immediately detached. Every building is advertising itself and its content via the ideas of what we think of as beautiful or impressive. The whole of Las Vegas is a collage of images we already know: the canals of Venice, the Eiffel tower and the Opéra of Paris, the Pyramids of Luxor etc. Soaked in luxury all casinos tell you in their own disguise to loose yourself in gambling and partying. When I walked the Las Vegas Strip I felt the same distance towards my surroundings as I did at the Grand Canyon rim. They are both places where nothing seems to be real, and jet they are more real than we can imagine. Though Canyon and Vegas differ from each other in extreme ways, which is in their natural and cultivated sense, they share the fact that they are like the rest of America neither a dream nor reality. In that way the perception of nature and the culture of the spectacle are vanishing in a meditative empty whole. In this whole, whether it’s the desert, the Grand Canyon or Las Vegas, the only certainty is its bigness. And it’s this bigness that, in the end, makes them equivalent.
When I told Paul I would travel to Vegas he wasn’t shocked at all. “Vegas”, he sighed, “I always go there for the fountains of the Bellagio, so beauuutiful!” I was surprised, but I guess Paul had recognized America’s bigness a long time before I did. Being a nomad has nothing to do with admiring nature alone. It’s al about a duration of constant awareness towards your surroundings. As Baudrillard made it clear, the sublime void of bigness, which can be obviously found in nature, can be experienced in the culture of spectacle as well. Paul thought me a valuable lesson by giving me a little t-shirt, folded from a one-dollar paper: “Don’t loose your shirt in Vegas”, he said. In other words, don’t loose your possessions/money in gambling Vegas. I think what he actually wanted to tell me was to loose myself in the bigness of Vegas, not in its material reality. That way, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon can be both beautiful, like Paul told me.