Photograph by Meg Bernhard.
It was 115 degrees outside when I left my house, around 5 P.M. My steering wheel was hot to the touch. So hot, in fact, that I had to steer with the bottom of my palms; some people store gloves in their car during the summer, but I keep forgetting. This was the second Friday of Las Vegas’s heat wave, our seventh consecutive day over 110 degrees. The National Weather Service had issued an excessive heat warning: “Dangerously hot afternoons with little overnight relief expected.” Emergency room doctors treated heat illness patients. At the airport, several passengers and crew members fainted after a plane sat without air conditioning on the tarmac for hours. A man was found dead on the sidewalk outside a homeless shelter.
I drove a few minutes downtown to a Deuce bus stop near Fremont Street, and when I parked I saw a woman in a one-piece swimsuit and tube socks posing for photos in a square of shade. My bus pulled up, and I climbed to the second level. We cruised south, down Las Vegas Boulevard, past wedding chapels and personal injury attorney billboards. The Deuce is my favorite way of traveling to the Strip.
At the Treasure Island stop, two women, their faces pink and perspiring, slid into the seats behind me. “I couldn’t stand there for much longer,” the first woman said.
“That woman doesn’t have any shoes on,” the other said. I looked out the window. A tourist had taken her tennis shoes off and was sitting barefoot at the bus stop. I learned on the news recently that the city’s burn centers had seen an influx of patients with pavement burns, often second- and third-degree.
“There’s a bra,” the first woman snickered, pointing to a blue garment lying in the middle of the street. At the faux Trevi Fountain in front of Caesars Palace, a couple stood on top of the ledge, posing for photos.
“Watch them fall in.”
“It’d probably feel good.”
People crowded every inch of shade at bus stops and awnings. A homeless man sprawled out on a strip of grass. A cardboard sign read HOT, HUNGRY. Bachelorette parties moved in packs, most members clutching plastic cups full of beer, or those giant tubes containing boozy slush. Another time I was on the Deuce, a woman on board claimed her slush tube contained fifty shots. She was very drunk, so no one challenged her.
I wanted to know what would compel someone to visit this city during what could be the worst heat wave of its history. I suppose I too wanted to get out of my air-conditioned house. Now that I was outside for the first time in days, I was surprised at how many people were walking down the Strip. I guess people simply like to go on vacation during the summer, especially Europeans, and many of the accents I was hearing did seem to be German, French, Spanish, and British. Likely many of them had been planning these trips for months. They probably didn’t think that extreme heat—unlike a snowstorm or a hurricane—was a dire enough climate event to warrant cancellation. Maybe experiencing history was part of the appeal. I’d read that some tourists were visiting Death Valley, which holds the title of hottest place on Earth, just in case it broke temperature records that week.
“Endurance tourists,” a friend texted me.
I got off the bus at the Bellagio. Two bellhops, clad in black long-sleeved shirts and pants, loaded bags into a cart.
“We do get the hottest part of the day,” said one bellhop to the other.
“But at least we have the shade.”
Inside the Bellagio’s botanical garden, a giant poodle wearing small boots to protect its paws against the hot pavement stood next to a display of fragrant flowers. I took a surreptitious photo. Then I remembered that a photographer friend’s face had been logged in a casino’s registry after she tried reporting a story inside. I put my phone away and drifted onto the casino floor, where the AC was blasting. Five men in Hawaiian shirts were crowding around a roulette table. The dealer turned to one of them and asked what bet he’d like to place next.
“Whatever you want, we don’t know,” the man said.
“We’re fucking idiots,” another chimed in.
“This is debauchery,” said a third.
The dealer spun the roulette wheel. The men urged the wheel to land on red. Presumably, it did, because they erupted into cheers. In my Notes app, I wrote, “claps and hand shakes and one guy slaps another’s breast. Manhood.” Manhood was an autocorrection, but I can’t remember for what.
Outside, at the Bellagio fountain, a thunderous sound erupted. Arcs of water sashayed through the air as onlookers took videos of the show. According to the Bellagio’s website, the resort sources the fountain’s water from wells, not from Lake Mead or the Colorado River, which are in drought. Twelve million of the fountain’s twenty-two million gallons of water evaporate each year.
Elsewhere on the Strip, machines sprayed pedestrian walkways with mist. Air conditioning poured out from restaurants. In the shade I almost forgot I was in the Mojave Desert.
A man with a cardboard sign reading GOD BLESS US looked parched, so I gave him my water bottle. Now I was out, so I went to the Cosmo’s Starbucks and asked if I could grab a cup of tap water, and by grab I meant can I have one for free. The barista told me that, after tax, the water cup came out to $1.08. I wouldn’t be there long, I reasoned, so I left without water.
The temperature had dropped to 114. A Jesus guy held a sign and yelled, “Vegas wants your money. God wants your soul.” Two showgirls wearing booty shorts and feathered wings took a photo with a teenager and asked how he’d like to pay. A man standing next to him forked over a twenty-dollar bill. “You owe me for that,” said the man, presumably the teenager’s father, as they walked away. Two other showgirls dressed in sexy cop outfits fanned themselves in the LINQ Promenade. “Some girls choose to work in the direct sun,” one of them, a Vegas local, told me. “Those girls are fucking brave.” A couple walked by, and a showgirl leaned over. The man’s face warped with surprise. “Did she just pinch my butt?” he muttered to his partner. At the Flamingo’s live flamingo exhibit, a woman whispered to a gaggle of ducks, “You’re just as fabulous as them.”
At the Deuce stop near the Flamingo, some fifteen people had already gathered. They were all together, on some sort of family trip, and were headed to Fremont Street for the night. From them, I overheard that a bus had just left, but that the next should come soon.
We waited. We sweated. We stepped off the curb to peer down Las Vegas Boulevard, willing the bus to arrive. More people gathered. A couple from the Netherlands. A man in a chef’s coat. The heat was making us cranky. Couples bickered. The chef cursed into his phone. A half hour passed, then forty-five minutes. Things were starting to feel desperate. Finally, I decided to ask the question that was nagging at me. “Why did you come here? In this heat?” I asked the first group. A middle-aged woman with square glasses grinned. “We’re Canadians,” she said, as if this explained things. “We’re crazy.”
Meg Bernhard’s essays and reportage have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Her book Wine, with Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, was published this year.
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