Montana nudged me awake, cracking open the plane window. He always wants the window seat to see outside, I always want the aisle seat so I don’t have to climb over people to use the bathroom. It works. Hot white light spilled onto my face, and I squinted out. Down below, big brown mountains jutted up from the desert. Woah. Mountains! A sight for swamp-sore eyes.
We touched down, grabbed bikes from baggage claim and wandered blearily to the airport shuttle. I’d booked the cheapest room I could find in Vegas, a place where MTV filmed a season of the Real World. The shuttle driver grudgingly let us load bikes in the back of the empty bus. An older couple in furs and a lady with long red fingernails were waiting inside. We drove down the strip. Immediately gridlocked in traffic.
As we inched along, I got excited. The Bellagio! And Circus Circus, where Hunter S. Thompson destroyed a room in Fear and Loathing. And the little Eiffel Tower! Vegas was exciting.
I checked my phone for the fiftieth time. I was feverishly texting a guy from Craigslist who was selling a nifty Volkswagen Rabbit truck. Don’t sell it, I prayed. Don’t sell it. We need it!
The driver dropped us off at the very end of the Strip. We dragged our bikes into the lobby of the Gold Spike. The place looked like a kinda-dirty Target ad, but I wasn’t complaining about a room in downtown Vegas for $40 a night. A girl with a laptop checked us in. We dropped our bikes in the musty room, cranked up the AC and hailed an Uber to take us to the Volkswagen.
“Man, I gotta move,” our driver Dan told us. “I’m sick of this place. These brown mountains, no trees. Every summer the news channel does that thing where they crack an egg on the pavement and fry it. I’m moving to Montana.” I looked at the craggy tan mountains looming over the desert city, bathed in pink sunset light. There are worse places you could be.
A day later, we went to the bank. I called our bank at home to tell them we were about to withdraw a whole bunch of cash in Las Vegas.
“Oh, Vegas!” The guy on the line crowed. “I love it there! I go every year. Wow, good luck.” We weren’t gambling on the slots, though. Just on a car.
We rode our bikes to the Rabbit, and Montana crawled around under the car for a little while. I made small talk with Jose, who was selling it. He needed the money to go to school. We needed the car to escape from the city and start over on our trip. Win-win. Montana put the key in the ignition and the Rabbit belched black diesel smoke. It ran for a while, clattering away, then cleared out. We gave our new best buddy the money, signed the title, loaded bikes in the back and drove away into the bright-hot Vegas sun.
That night we celebrated by walking the city. We went downtown to the dingy-hip art district, walked around the Pawn Stars shop, then took a bus into the strip. We strolled through almost all of the casinos, got cigarette smoke in our hair and gaped at the gondoliers in the Venetian. Montana played a dollar in the slots. We didn’t win.
I was a little sad that we were already married, so eloping in a tiny wedding chapel wasn’t an option. As we waited for the double-decker party bus back to our hotel, I watched the fountains of the Bellagio blast water back and forth to Celine Dion. Montana flipped through a stack of hookers’ business cards he’d collected through the night. The tiny Eiffel Tower loomed over us, glowing bright. A short Mexican woman tapped Montana on the shoulder and slipped him the business card of a pretty lady named Candice.
Man, Vegas was weird. I kinda liked it.
The next day we went to the DMV and made an appointment with the closest Volkswagen shop. The Rabbit needed some work if it was going to make it back to Pennsylvania.
We left our hotel and drove to a Wal-Mart south of the city. For $200, we got everything we needed for our car-camping expedition. Propane stove, cutting board, plastic bins to keep all the stuff in the truck bed, cast-iron pan, a cheap Coleman cooler, and food in normal quantities! It’s amazing how much you can carry when you’re not carrying it.
We drove out of Vegas to Boulder City, supposedly some kind of desert mountain biking mecca. It was late as we pulled into the Bootleg Canyon parking lot. (Winter-late, which means it was only 6:30 and it had already been dark for almost two hours.) A few small campfires burned next to some Sprinter vans and trucks with big-travel bikes leaning alongside.
Montana had read about this place on the Mountain Bike Project app. I guess lots of other people did too. According to the description, this place had a bathroom and a cold shower (but who needs hot water in the desert?). It was only a half-mile from town. We could stay here for a few days and wait for our appointment at the Volkswagen doctor.
We parked up the upper parking lot and started cooking dinner. With the light of my headlamp, I ripped open a pack of sausages and sat down on my tiny child-sized camp chair. Almost giddy with the delight of cooking on a full-sized pan. Another headlamp came bobbing over in the dark.
“Are you all here for the race?” The guy asked. Oh. We didn’t know about a race.
“You can camp here, but I’ll need all this space for my vendors tomorrow morning around six.” Ah. Turns out the Nevada state downhill championships were at Bootleg Canyon that weekend. Now all the campers made sense. We finished our sausages and moved the Rabbit to the lower parking lot.
We blew up our mattresses and set them in the truck bed. The campground was quiet, and the air was still warm from the sunny day. Down below, the lights of Boulder City twinkled. The jagged edges of the mountains were just visible in the half-moon. I was glad to be out of the city.