We crossed into Colorado from Utah sometime after 11:00 pm. The car was running on fumes and I was ready for a break after the long leg across the desert. I’d been driving for three or four hours; my vision was starting to get unreliable, but the sight of city lights perked me up enough to get us to a filling station. I thought there might be some place open to get a bite to eat and a cup of coffee, but it was a Sunday and everything in the small town was shut down. As I drove up to the pump to fill our tank, a van with California plates pulled out onto the street headed west into the night.
A few days earlier, we had been going in that same direction, driving through the night and coming over the last rise into Vegas a few hours before dawn. There wasn’t much point to the trip, no bachelor party or epic getaway – just an impromptu attempt at adventure. Ryan was still a student and had some time off for Spring Break. I had a job that didn’t pay very well and certainly wouldn’t miss me much for a few days. Neither of us slept at all during the night. The plan was to alternate driving duties so we could each be somewhat rested when we hit the Strip early on Friday. Instead, I drove the entire way, powering through Marlboros and telling stories I knew he had heard a number of times. Ryan didn’t seem to mind; he played the role of DJ, shuffling through everything from Chris LeDoux to Metallica, and laughing along to jokes I figured had lost their punch for him a long time ago.
I got lost coming into the city, taking an exit that was either too early or too late. We wandered the surface streets for half an hour, taking turns that ended up in cul-de-sacs and at the locked gates of rail yards. The towering hotels and bright lights of Las Vegas Boulevard taunted us, seemingly only blocks away. Finally, we pulled into a gas station, topped off and got directions. The tired attendant, obviously accustomed to helping lost tourists, asked what hotel we were trying to get to. He seemed genuinely surprised to hear we hadn’t gotten a room anywhere; we were planning on just sleeping where we fell.
The next three days blended together in a mix of strangers, gambling and booze. Ryan had some luck right out of the gate, but I couldn’t get any cards to fall. I burnt through my Day One budget by noon. The bulk of our time was spent ducking in and out of the tourist trap casinos – MGM, Excalibur, Luxor. At one point we tried to up our game and wandered into the Bellagio. It was only by a minor miracle we managed to get out before the damage got too bad. Gamblers and club hoppers alike took a shine to the two of us. Ryan had an easy country boy charm that played well in the city. For my part, I relied mostly on bullshit and volume. Sometime during the second day, exhausted and in poor spirits, I sat down at a three dollar blackjack table hell-bent on winning enough money for a decent hotel room. I hit a small streak, but only scrounged up enough for a double room at a rundown casino. We stayed there the rest of the trip.
I finished gassing up and woke Ryan up to take the final shift home. He was in a pretty decent mood for being somewhere between flat broke and overdrawn. He pulled back onto the interstate and pointed us toward the mountains. The sky, which had been black but clear the entire trip, began to shed a light layer of snow on the highway. Within an hour, it was a full-on blizzard. A couple of times I suggested pulling off for the night and getting a room, but neither of us had any money and were growing tired of the other’s company. Outside of Silverthorne he lit up what might have been the 1,000th menthol of the trip. The snow was flying hard enough that he couldn’t roll down the window, so blue smoke curled around the car, soon filling it completely. My stomach, weak from days of smoking, drinking, and not eating, lurched from the smell. Bile filled my throat.