Riding a Train Across the Country to the Wrong Las Vegas

What happens in Las Vegas stays in New Mexico.

Las Vegas Nevada
Photo: Getty Images/Corbis Documentary

My journey began in New York and ended around 700 miles east of my intended destination of Las Vegas, Nevada. It started with a weekend in NYC with some grad school friends, where we drank far too much. So much, in fact, that my passport was able to pull off a tremendous vanishing act.

I was an international student from England, so losing my passport was particularly painful. Plus, my brother and some friends were set to come over in a couple of months (far too short a time to go complete the whole passport replacement process) and we had already made plans to fly to Chicago and then Las Vegas to do a road trip around the Southwest. But no passport meant no flights.

Still, we vowed to make it work. We partied in my New England college town, then drove to Boston, and, again, partied. They got on a plane to Chicago, arriving in less than three hours. Isn't modern technology wonderful?

I went to Chicago by train, arriving in slightly under 28 hours. Isn't transport based on technology from the industrial revolution wonderful?

After I finally arrived in Chicago on Easter Sunday, we saw the sights and checked out some bars; Chicago is a wonderful metropolis. Then, we prepared for the next stage.

Our destination was Las Vegas, where we would pick up a car and drive around the great American Southwest. We went for breakfast with a grad school friend, Keith, before our respective flights/19th-century transport. Keith offered to walk me to the station. We chatted on the way:

Keith: How long is your train?

Me: Around about 2 ½ days.

Keith: Are you sure? It feels like it would be longer than that.

Me (smugly): No, here's the ticket. It says right there.

Keith (unsure): Well… it must be then.

I had a suspicious feeling something was wrong. Nonetheless, I had a reasonably pleasant journey crossing the vast, changing landscape of America. I crossed cornfields, mountains, and desert. I sat with a taxi driver who'd quit his job because of the racism he'd witnessed. He'd packed up and was headed off to Vegas to try his luck.

We made slow progress on the rails. The lurking feeling that something was wrong grew. I checked my ticket over and over again: Arrives 10:30 a.m. There could be no mistake, but how could we make the distance in the allotted time?

I woke up on the morning of my planned arrival, checked the map, and found we were nowhere close. So I asked the guard for a larger, more detailed map.

The map showed the nearby stop: Las Vegas, New Mexico. New Mexico? New Mexico. I was going to the wrong Las Vegas.

Las Vegas New Mexico
Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images

I left the train at a quiet, isolated town straight from a Sergio Leone Western. It was surrounded by desert. Saloon doors actually swung open, and a man stood on the street holding a rifle over his shoulder. This was not the Las Vegas I had imagined.

I immediately bought the next ticket to Las Vegas (Nevada), but it didn't leave until the next day. I called my friends and told them that my train had broken down and that I would meet them later. I figured I'd lie rather than be the butt of all jokes forever. I found a hotel room, napped, and went looking for a bar.

I swung two saloon doors open with immense satisfaction and sat down at the bar. I ordered a beer, speaking slightly louder than necessary so people could hear my British accent. Heads turned and I was immediately recanting my story to the locals.

A lot happened in that blurry evening, and I made a large number of very temporary friends. There was a nice older couple in the bar. There was a very delightful younger couple, one of whom offered me his sister for the evening (thankfully she was out of town). There was the town wrestling champion (not a lie), and a grizzled, knife-scarred man missing the end of a finger.

Later in the night, a man I had not spoken to stared aggressively across the bar for a good hour. Sensing that he was not the friendly type, I oh so innocently asked my new friends if I might have a problem. They had a word with the staring man and he promptly apologized.

The evening ended with one of them suggesting we go back to his house and do some cocaine. I declined as politely as an Englishman can.

I left Las Vegas (New Mexico) the next morning, met my friends a few hours later, and complained about my train breaking down. We met halfway between the Las Vegases and proceeded by car to the Grand Canyon.

Years later, I still haven't been to the real Las Vegas, and my friends still don't know the truth.

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