Fear and Loathing at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway

“The only way to prepare for a trip like this, I felt, was to dress up like human peacocks and get crazy, then screech off across the desert”

— Hunter S. Thompson


Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any similarities between those described and people living or dead are purely coincidental and non-intentional

EDC


We are waist-deep in the arctic wash where Ocean Beach meets Golden Gate park when it becomes apparent that not only did the drugs work, but this was an exceedingly dangerous thing to be doing in any state of mind. Not yet at the carnival, indeed at this rate it's looking like we may never make it, our little practice run has gone a bit off the rails. I glance back at my compatriots — the colorful raiments of butterfly wings, body paint, and a onesie bought during a bender in Tokyo, do little to distinguish us from the roving heathens patrolling the shores. It's Bay to Breakers in San Francisco, and there have been close shaves enough today that this dalliance was a natural progression. Life! We demand. Adventure! We get one free pass a year to dive headlong into bat country and we weren't going to waste it building sand castles. The icy crash of the coming tide subsides as the afternoon sun emerges from the clouds — it's time to go back. Very soon, we would be horribly twisted and need to be on dry land to ride it out.

"Dick" cries someone behind me. "Dick Zinky!"

My friend has been calling me this since an earlier encounter with the San Francisco police. I had gone off into the woods for a tinkle, but not far enough — when I finished, there were three sets of beige shorts and aviators waiting behind me. Dick Zinky. Not a brilliant pseudonym, but with a head full of acid and complete lack of wherewithal it was a stroke of luck they let me go at all.

"Yeah. I'm coming."

lonely pika

The Electric Daisy Carnival is Decadent and Depraved

The crowd that braves the Vegas frontier of EDC is a motley band of misfits, bros, ravers and curiosity-seekers from all over the world; an extravaganza of hopped-up costumed partying to electronic music, every year the festival brings in something like 400,000 zonked out psychopaths and at least a few of those folks will die for the cause. Whatever lies within the day-glo Valhalla beyond the neon gates must be worth it because the festival, for better or for worse, is an extreme affair. Temperatures will be in the 110's during the afternoon and dip into the 90's only in the dead of night, an issue exacerbated by the packed crowds and dehydrating party favors scarfed down by the festival goers alongside a cavalcade of multivitamins.

In some ways, narcotics, not music, take the center stage at EDC. The prediction this year was over 100 felony arrests at the front gates alone, with the huddled masses smuggling oodles of molly, coke, smack, weed, 2C-I, 2C-P, LSD, ecstasy and multitudinous other chemical cocktails that make a great night even better. If the music weren't an attractive enough reason to light yourself up, the carnival promises hundreds of on-the-ground performers and art installations, a menagerie of distraction as soon as the festival perimeter is breached.

As someone with a passing interest in completely unhinged bacchanals, when an invitation came my way the response was an unequivocal affirmative — so on June 15th 2017, I migrated south with a collective of latter-day Merry Pranksters to pan for gold in the desert.


Our operation is slapdash but not disorganized. Split into a caravan of cars and flights, the lucky airborne few gossip and guess which of the pack mule automobile transports are carrying the payload. Conversation orbits but never directly addresses the notion of being apprehended because we're invincible true believers, untouchable and so much smarter and with-it than the dopey superficial hacks that are ruining the experience for the OG's. And of course the party docks without a hitch, unpacking and redistributing the dark consignment with talk of cracking open that rum right this instant completely failing to predict that we would never actually touch it. There is too much to do.

One night to survive the Las Vegas strip before tearing off into hot, dry abyss, and it begins innocuously. Hopping in an elevator, its two occupants eye us nervously. They're here for a conference, ready for a cautious night out and maybe one of those legendary Vegas shows before turning in.

"What brings you kids into town? Here for the music festival?"

"No Ma'am, you haven't heard? Those anti-fascist nutjobs are gonna have the whole place completely locked down!"

"No. Nonsense, we haven't heard anything about that"

"Yeah, they're crawling the strip tonight. Dressed in plainclothes, apparently. Mad about a metaphorical monument to excess and compromise?"

"They can't, there are so many people here!"

I shrug.

"Watch yourselves out there. It's a crazy world."

The door to the lobby opens and they scramble out. Swallowed by the maw of the Montecarlo casino floor, we descend into its glittering belly — the cacophonous din of spinning slots and blackjack substitute for conversation as we wander around sipping Capri Sun™ loaded with vodka. Noticing a few open spots at the five-dollar blackjack tables, our loose conglomeration descends into a dark spiral of just awful gambling.

Sitting down next to a New York couple with what appear to be crippling addictions, I am oblivious to the mounting tension at the table. A nice young lady comes over to ask for my drink order —

"G & T"

"Make that three"

My new friends are ready to mingle.

"So you know what you're doing, right? Last guy to come through here didn't know shit."

They're already suspicious of me. Reasonable, because in blackjack like most situations I have no idea what the hell is going on and it shows.

"Yeah, yeah. You want 21, and always split tens."

At this point I'm fairly drunk, but I know that when the time comes to split tens I'm going to do it and more than likely be punched in the nose.


The rest of the night is hazy, but I wake up the next day with three hundred extra dollars in my pocket and no black eye to speak of. So that's nice. My phone, recalling that which my brain could not, shows a stumbling group finding its way through the hypnotic games of chance and cavernous halls. Eventually we would find a driving range with a bar, and through miraculous fortune were coordinated enough to slam the occasional golf ball in high neon arcs through the cloudless night.

The hangover hasn't yet taken root, and I head to the minibar to mix a screwdriver. A few of the others are up and discussing the more immediate schedule, and I sit down to absorb. The provisions for the weekend are laid out on the bedside tables and beds, and I’m pleasantly surprised by the ridiculousness of it all.

kooky glasses tho

"So the mom van is heading out a bit early to figure out the room situation — the rape van has a few more hours."

The ignoble skiffs are an ancient faded gold Windstar and unmarked white cargo van; room enough for fourteen, though the malfunctioning air conditioning in the latter is motivation enough to hop into the earlier car.

We scream out of the parking lot in our maternal jalopy and head up the 15 to the Cannery: THE premier shitty hotel casino in-line with the speedway. Our exhausted team ambles through the portico with the exasperated locals examining us as latest examples of the unusually young interlopers that always seem to plague the city this time of year.

bad lunch

We head over to the lunchtime buffet and discuss the room assignments over the $7.99 prime rib buffet. Choking down our vulcanized steak, we divide and conquer the third floor — planning our escape route through the partied-out bodies that line the hallways and floors.

We retire to the rooms and begin preparations — priorities lead us immediately to the all important festival totem (through hook or by crook, miraculously undamaged).

sparklebuttprime

Fastening Sparklebutt to the net of a pool skimmer and draping her in electroluminescent wire, our idol is complete. We turn-in for the remaining daylight hours at hand, the steady thrum of trance pouring in from the surrounding rooms as these true EDC gurus, already halfway to the festival, perform their ablutions.


Our caravan convenes in the late evening with the expectation that the eight miles between our hotel and the Speedway will take the better part of a couple of hours to traverse. The folks in my car, the still unfortunately named Rape Van, chuckle about the strategy employed last year to streamline our exit at the end of the night.

"The real trick is pointing our car right at the exit gate. You think this is taking forever to get in?"

The traffic is barely moving — a lime green Jeep Wrangler behind us, impatient in the gridlock, engages four wheel drive and pushes off into the sand.

"Yeah this is fucking terrible."

"So we don't park where they tell us to. How can they stop us? We're in a two ton van going 30 miles an hour."

I'm not sure exactly what that means, but at this point night has fallen and our approach is heralded by ten thousand lumen spotlights tracing curious patterns in the sky and syncopated bass muddling together from every stage. All this and more, emanating from a glowing coliseum standing sentinal in the desert. Ahead, we can see organizers in reflective vests waving orange cones like air traffic controllers, but powerless and frantic as the incoherent crowd pours in from the strip.

"Ok. Now!"

We pull the sliding doors wide open and three of us dash out to begin moving an unfixed section of fence. As a gap begins to open in the border of the parking lot, the attendants start to race over but in the scorching heat and with fifty yards to cover, we have time to gather up our friends and thread the needle.

The area we uncovered was the final parking lot: the last to be filled for the night, and the first to leave when the party is over. The parking attendants are poorly staffed, and can't afford the time to chase us down, so situating ourselves pointing towards the exit we are resigned to one of two fates:

  1. Our car is booted or towed, and we are out of luck.

  2. It's not worth the hassle to find and punish us, and our misbehavior is consequence-free.

Indulging our Vegas sensibilities, the gamble seems worth it.

With the security gate looming, we divide up the drugs and stash everything we have taped to our legs or buried in our underwear. A hollowed out garage-door opener, an unopened can of Pepsi with a secret compartment — the tools for carting this stuff are legion but ultimately extraneous because the security is laughable and they shoo us through blessedly free of cavity searches and shakedowns.

The entrance through which we encroach is high in the stands and we are paralyzed by the sight, sound, and thump thump thump of a ceaseless bass that will carry on for 72 straight hours at the stages or in our heads as we battle in vain against a drug induced insomnia. But that's later. Beyond several crowded rows of resting (comatose?) festival-goers the stadium opens into the track and field. Not realizing it at the time, we are standing in the far back of the Cosmic Meadow, a location significant to me mostly for being the site at which DJ Khaled would later be booed off-stage to the frenzied cries of "Yellow Claw!". But that's later.

Cosmic Meadow

The lines for water are more organized than expected but still a seething mass, with folks drifting in and out the queues and sometimes consciousness. The tireless employees of the water tent, dealing with feckless degenerates incapable of holding a bag properly or unscrewing a water cap, manage one or two spigots at a time for hours into the night to quench the ceaseless thirst of a dancing crowd in burning Nevada heat.

The crowd is inexhaustible, as solo faces and groups of two to thirty amorphously organize and direct each other with their voices and totems over the cacophonous din. It looks inviting, and we descend into madness. I lose the others quickly as they have places to be and artists to see, but agenda-less and without a specific predilection for any particular musicians tonight I follow the gentle tug of the MDMA we had taken waiting in the water line.

pods

Wandering through the sea of elaborate costumes and high flying performers on stilts and structures and wild people shuffling through the lite-brite walkways, it becomes necessary to orienteer the fairgrounds to understand the stages and their cardinal directions. With the realization that our phones would be unusable due to cell congestion even if our dilated pupils would allow us to discern their contents, the already loose association of our group is consigned to meet when we can in as analog a fashion as possible: So North, South, East, and West become Kinetic Fields, Circuit Grounds, Cosmic Meadow, and Bass Pods, with the smaller venues dotting the space between.

triumphant

It's an electron cloud — a chaotic flux of people bumping into one another with frictive energy and yet you can't shake the feeling that all the faces are the same and it's just one nameless raver bedazzled in strip lights and EL-wire in an alchemical superposition. The thought isn't uncomfortable, though, because parallel to the eerie unidirectional sameness is the particular ubuntu unique to PLUR (Peace Love Unity Respect) culture. If entrancing music and illicit drugs are the reasons people get introduced to this extravaganza, it's the PLUR that keeps them coming back; if you embrace that feeling hard enough you may come home with some souvenirs that, far from getting you arrested, may just provide some sentimental nostalgia for raves long past.

kandi
"Covfefe" was relevant when I made this bracelet

Kandi, the delightful if twee jewelry that can range from accoutrement to full on body armor, is a perennial gift from old hats to besties, newbies, or someone who's just having a really damn good time. Bequeathed with what might as well be the rave equivalent of a secret handshake, there's something both clandestine and innocent about the exchanges, which can be seen happening unprompted throughout the evening at every stage from every corner of every class of person attending these shindigs.

The camaraderie is everything here, and it's difficult to overstate the importance. Weaving through dense & gyrating crowds in a human rope 20 people long, finding a lost ally 4 hours later (right before the finale of the best set of your entire fucking life), and just getting the hell down with the people you care about most. It's an experience, one that is simultaneously shared with the group you're in and the entire crowd of 100,000 people doing exactly the same thing. Honestly, the acid isn't even necessary — but it does help.

The sun is rising, and Kaskade is playing a surprise set at one of the smaller mobile art installations. My head is pounding, and I'm left with but one cohort standing as the rest are collapsed in a sweaty pile in the grass by the exit. This is why we're here — with a head full of molly and acid and there's fire plumes and bat country is way way west, and the music is too loud and honestly I don't think Jeff is wearing ear plugs and this might be legitimately dangerous. Life is going to be bad in a few hours and that thought and the comedown are sneaking up on us, but not yet, definitely not yet because it's real fucking good right now.

kaskade