It was my fourth visit to Las Vegas, but this one was a bit different. This time, I stayed sober.
Vegas is not the first place you might think about for a teetotaling weekend. I associate the city with unlimited drinking. No one really cares if you’re walking down the street with a giant cocktail at 10AM. On previous visits, I pretty much drank all day.
Perhaps I am being unfair in painting Vegas as a place where one is always drunk. I know the sober community in the area is significant, but you’re not likely to run into one of their meetings or events on the strip, or in old downtown. Taking a stroll stroll on Fremont Street or through the casino floors, you might get the impression that everyone is at least a little tipsy, all the time.
Vegas hides a sea of sadness under its glossy, neon exterior. If you’re paying attention you can see it. Elderly gamblers with nicotine-stained fingers and drooping faces, hoping for better luck. Packs of giggling bridesmaids weaving on their heels and trying not to puke in public. Homeless people talking to unseen entities and inhabiting sidewalks just a block or two from all the action. Loud, drunk dudes pantomiming violence. All of the sadness swims in a river of booze. When you’re sober in Vegas, you see all the sadness
We arrived around noon, and decided to try to get lunch at the new Circa casino across Fremont Street from our hotel. Being gluten-free in Vegas is almost as problematic as being sober, but we found a deli that had a salad on the menu and people-watched while I ate yet another salad with too much dressing. It was hard to tolerate all of the blinging and bonging of the casino without the haze of alcohol to soften it, but I enjoyed watching the colorful, costumed facets of humanity stream past.
After we got checked in at the Golden Nugget, we took a stroll down Fremont Street. We revisited the strip mall behind Denny’s where we were married in 2018, then stopped at my favorite bar in Vegas: Atomic Cocktails. It may seem counterintuitive to go to a bar where I have enjoyed drinking, but in a way I needed to prove that I can sit on the patio and enjoy a club soda with lime. Which I did.
By mid-afternoon, Vegas was full of drunk people. I found myself cringing at drunken shouts and unhinged laughter. I watched one drunk dude climb the fence around the patio to avoid walking through the building to the exit. Glad I’m not him, I thought, sipping my club soda.
It was quite nice to be sober and on vacation. I could take in my surroundings, appreciate the street art and performers, dance to the hits pumped out by the “dancing DJs” (are they strippers? with flow-y scarves and laptops?) on stage, and watch the drunk people stumbling around while I appreciated full use of my legs.
We opted for the fancy steakhouse at our hotel for dinner. Eating gluten-free is pretty simple at a steakhouse, provided you ignore the bread basket. Vic & Anthony’s is a well-known national chain with roots in Texas and a heavy focus on steaks (obvs).
We were seated at a two-top near the bar, and I found myself watching the bartended masterfully shaking up martinis in front of rows of glittering booze bottles. For the first time that day, I felt a little annoyed that I wasn’t drinking. A crisp gin martini would have been the perfect companion to the jumbo shrimp cocktail we ordered as an appetizer. Holding that cold cocktail glass would have put my in Vegas steakhouse headspace perfectly. I wanted one, but I didn’t order one.
At another time, we would have shared a bottle of wine with our steaks, and maybe ordered a brandy to accompany the creme brûlée for dessert. We would have then gone out to gamble and drink, or maybe to a show. But, given we only had one night and I was doing this sober, we just went for another walk up and down Fremont Street.
The sun had gone down, and the performers and drunk crowds were out in force. Given that we were still in the grips of a global pandemic, it was surreal to see crowds of unmasked people ready to party. As the zipliners passed whooping overhead, I wondered how common it was for one of them to vomit on the crowds below. Ziplining does not seem like a good sport for drunk people.
My husband wanted to do a bit of gambling (he came out of it up $2, so that’s a win), but I was done with Vegas. I braved the crowded elevator back to our room on the 17th floor to take a hot bath in the jacuzzi tub and watch paranormal television shows on the Travel Channel, which has become something of a Vegas tradition.
It was hard to sleep with all of the ruckus on Fremont Street below until well after midnight, but I dozed peacefully, knowing I had successfully stayed sober in Vegas.
Vegas was a bit easier to tolerate and potentially more fun when I was drinking steadily. On previous trips I loaded my morning latte with whiskey to carry through the mayhem. But I don’t have to drink. That’s what I needed to prove to myself in Vegas, even if it wasn’t the most exciting visit.
Next time we go, I will look for something to do. A big show, or a tour of the dam, or some other activity that doesn’t require a drink to enjoy. There are more restaurants to try, and an infinite number of spectacles to photograph. It may sound weird, but you can enjoy Vegas sober.