Ten years before I got married in Las Vegas, I cruised down the Strip, pulling in for a snoop at every chapel from the quickie drive-thrus to the garden gazebos festooned with chubby cupids and pulsing pink hearts (not to mention a few places that made me want to get out the Pledge cleaner and give their faux bridal bouquets a good dusting). I was doing research for a novel about two English girls who decided that The Wedding Capital of the World would be the best place to find a husband – with an average of 315 vows exchanged a day, the air is practically 70 percent oxygen, 30 percent confetti.
In the story, Izzy opts for the Graceland Chapel and a congregation of "Elvi" in every incarnation from gold lamé jacket to Jailhouse Rock stripes, whereas Jamie favors Excalibur’s Canterbury chapel, on account of her groom being a knight from the hotel’s medieval jousting attraction, thus entitling them to a staff discount. But for my own ceremony I needed something a little more dignified.
My husband-to-be was an electronics technician in the US Navy, pretty much the antithesis of all things kitsch and rhinestone. My first impression of him was of a "Baby Obama" – disarming manners and classily cool. Which rather begs the question: Why a Vegas wedding at all?
It was the logistics more than anything. Back then Jonathan’s "liberty" days were scarce and required paperwork to rival an Italian legal bureau. I’d barely seen him the past year – first he was relocated to the world’s largest Navy base in Virginia (3,000 miles from my pad in Los Angeles) and then he spent six months fighting pirates in Somalia, like you do. So when he called and said he had a "wedding window" just over a week away I knew the only place we could be assured of a timely turnaround was Vegas.
Which doesn’t sound very romantic but that was actually quite a plus for me. Despite writing chick lit for a living, anything relating to princess fantasies makes me queasy. The other plus was the drive.
I have this theory that I get an extra kick out of cruising through the desert because it is so unlike anything on my home terrain. I grew up hemmed in by the high hedgerows and winding lanes of Devon, UK, feeling like I had to breathe in every time I passed another car. But out here, surrounded by an eternity of blue sky, I can more than exhale, I can fling my arms wide, revel in awe at the vastness of it all and release my inner "Woohooo!"
"Dusty terracottas become shadowy purples, sometimes fading to barely a breath behind a gauzey haze."
It starts to feel like a proper road trip about an hour out of LA., when the engine starts grinding into the elevation of the San Gabriel mountains and signs advise you to turn off your air conditioner to avoid overheating. For a while, I keep pace with a freight train made up of 60 or so containers that look like little Lego bricks chugging though the pleats and folds of the landscape.
I like the fact that it’s one road (I-15) for the next 200 miles, though I do dive down Ghost Town Road around the halfway point, forgoing Calico’s tumbleweeds in favor of Peggy Sue’s 50s Diner. Here it’s more of a "ghost of Elvis" vibe with the excess of retro memorabilia – Marilyn, Betty Boop, I Love Lucy and an incongruous but strangely appealing Spock cookie jar. Personally, I think the best things to eat in a diner are breakfast or pie. I perch at the counter for a slice of lemon meringue and, when I pay, the waitress hands me a ticket, "Take this to the gift shop and they’ll give you a bubblegum or a Tootsie Roll." I chew on it as I peruse their "Diner-saur" park and then hit the road again.
Did you know that Joshua trees only grow in the Mojave Desert? Nowhere else in the world. I wonder if it’s the grittiness of the earth here? On occasion, it appears as if a strip of tarmac has been laid through a giant quarry. In the far distance, the mountains slope and shift colors with the movements of the clouds above – dusty terracottas become shadowy purples, sometimes fading to barely a breath behind a gauzey haze.
For mile upon mile, there’s no other cars or signs or life.
You might think with all this time and wide open space a person’s mind could wander and start questioning the whopping commitment they are about to make. But in fact, I find the silent, slumbering quality of the scenery calming – as if I’m clip-clopping through the prairie on my wagon.
I want to marry this man. I never thought I’d say that but I do.
I make another quick pit stop in Baker, home to the World’s Largest Thermometer and the Mad Greek restaurant. I can’t help myself. They offer baklava shakes.
Just over an hour to go now. There’s a little neon tease in the form of Primm with its three casinos and rickety rollercoaster. Then, a sign for Sandy Valley Correctional Facility – unbelievable! Even the prisoners here get neon, turrets and a buffet. Oh. My mistake, that’s the Gold Strike casino, standing solo beside the highway.
In an ideal world, I would make the last stretch as the sky burned sunset pink then hit the Strip with the neon in full fizz against a black sky.
But today is different. Today, I’m not here to drink foot-long margaritas and marvel at the latest extravaganza from Cirque du Soleil.
His flight should be getting in just about now…
The Little Church of the West is the oldest chapel in Las Vegas, built in 1942 and so authentically quaint it has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s set off the Strip, nearest to the gleaming gold of the Mandalay Bay (where we’re staying) but instead of the ching-ching-ching of the slot machines you can actually hear birds tweeting. It’s made entirely of wood – wooden paneling, wooden pulpit, wooden pews seating just 50. Bijou but lovely. Judy Garland got married here. And Shirley Bassey, Telly Savalas and Richard Gere. Even Angelina Jolie (to Billy Bob Thornton). It’s also the chapel where Elvis married Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas, which is about as iconic as it gets.
I think the most common assumption about a Vegas wedding is that it won’t feel legit, rather more like a scene from a movie, but as soon as the pleasingly sincere minister welcomes us I know it’s the real deal. My best friend Emily is watching via Skype in her pajamas from the UK, my iPhone propped on ye olde organ so she can view us, and when Jonathan and I are pronounced man and wife she squeals with joy. As do I.
After the pictures and a celebratory glass of Perrier Jouet, we dine atop the Eiffel Tower overlooking the Bellagio fountains. And then fall asleep in the cab back to hotel, all of four minutes away.
The next morning I have to drop my new husband at the airport. It feels surreal to share such a magical moment and talk of going through life hand in hand only to part. I’m in a daze on the drive back to LA. Did it really happen? Am I really a Mrs. now?
And then the sun comes out and my eyes are drawn away from the desertscape to the steering wheel where the diamonds on my left hand are winking and flashing and dazzling.
So it wasn’t a dream.
I experience a thrill as I realize I now have a new road trip to plan, crossing eight states to reach my new home in Virginia.
Lead image - Adrian C.
I-15 - Andre Manoel
Little Church of the West - Steve Moses
Bellagio Fountain - Nan Palmero
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