The first array of fountains burst forth from the lake as soon as the song began. The water jettisoned out, forming a giant fan that waved from side to side. In a heartbeat, the fan disappeared and the fountains began to pop like shotgun shells.

And I’m proud to be an American! Where at least I know I’m free….

As the song swelled, the water rose. The great “Boom!” of the water cannons coincided perfectly with the notes of the chorus. Jets propelled the fountains higher and higher, building up for an epic finale.

God Bless the U…S… A!!!

A roar went up as streaks of water rose a hundred feet into the air. The drops splashed down like a tropical rainstorm. Within moments, the lake was still once again. It was simply spectacular.

That’s what you get, though, when you spend the Fourth of July in Vegas.

It all started as a joke. Somebody said: “We totally have to do a Vegas roadtrip sometime” and that “sometime” turned into immediately. We found a great hotel deal on hotwire.com and booked a couple of rooms for two nights. I don’t think any of us even recognized it was the week of July 4th until hours later. Once we realized it, however, our excitement jumped to a whole other level. Spending any sort of holiday in Vegas has “crazy adventure” written all over it.

We left early on Tuesday. Ten was back on board, as always, for a roadtrip, and we brought Jimi along, as well.  I am now fully convinced that part of why Vegas looks so spectacular is because its surroundings are so terribly dull. The drive took us through small towns and desert for four hours. But when we arrived, it all seemed worth it.

Our hotel was a block off the strip. It was called “LVH”, which apparently used to stand for “Las Vegas Hilton” before it got dumped by the Hilton franchise and was turned into the “Las Vegas Hotel”. It was certainly not a 5-star resort, but it was cheap and convenient. After dumping off our bags, we met up by the pool. The pictures online had completely distorted the reality of the swimming area. The pool was tiny and swarming with small children. The row of palm trees that had lent such an exotic appeal online looked about as miserable as the lifeguards who sat in the blinding sun all day long.

Ignoring these realities, we grabbed some lounge chairs and soaked up some Vitamin D. It wasn’t long before we began to feel that tingling, frying sensation.

“How about we clean up and head to the Strip?” I suggested. The boys nodded enthusiastically. We parted for our rooms and I pulled out my cellphone to call my friend, Lindsey. Lindsey was one of my best friends in high school (back in Santa Cruz, CA) and I hadn’t seen her in years. Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, however, I knew she was spending the week in Vegas! I gave her a buzz and we giggled like the schoolgirls we once were.

“Do you want to meet for dinner somewhere?” I asked her.

“Sure! We were just about to meet up with some other friends at Toby Keith’s Bar & Grill, if you want to join,” she offered.

I laughed and answered, “Of course it would be Toby Keith’s.” Lindsey was a die-hard country fan. One of my last high school memories with her was attending a Kenny Chesney concert at the Giant’s stadium in San Francisco. “We’ll meet you in an hour?”

“Sounds great! Can’t wait to see you!”

I got dressed quickly and met the others downstairs. I told them the tentative plan, hoping that they wouldn’t mind the restaurant pick. They didn’t at all (I’m pretty sure they were starving and ready to eat just about anywhere). We hopped aboard the monorail and landed on the Las Vegas strip just moments later.

We spent a minute just soaking it all in. The lights, the crowds, the sheer immensity of the hotels. There is really nowhere else like Vegas. We met Lindsey and her friends at Toby Keith’s, where all the waitresses wore chaps and the walls were decorated in a collage of concert paraphernalia. Lindsey and I spent the first half of the meal catching up on college and families. The second half was filled with laughter over the crazy things that had already happened to them in Vegas that week.

“What’s your plan for tonight?” Lindsey asked us.

“Well,” I said, “we were kind of hoping to go see a Cirque show. Sometimes if you buy tickets right at the box office before a show, you can get in cheap just to fill the empty seats.”

At least, that was how I’d wrangled cheap Broadway tickets in New York last year. I had no clue if we could do that in Vegas, but I was willing to give it a shot!

Lindsey and her boyfriend decided to join us on this little excursion. They had yet to see anything other than the free Treasure Island show. We bopped from box office to box office, finding most closed and others sold out. Lindsey and her boy finally excused themselves and said they were going to meet up with some other friends. I was bummed to have failed on the tickets, but it had provided us with some quality catching-up time.

We spent the rest of the night wandering. We watched the fountain show at the Bellagio half a dozen times, until we realized that they would be repeating “God Bless the USA” incessantly throughout this Fourth of July week. Inside the Bellagio was well worth our time, too. Giant glass flowers decorated the ceiling, a greenhouse showcased beautiful flowers (even orchids!) deeper inside the hotel, and the walls were decorated with elaborate carvings and impeccable paint jobs. But, it was the poker room that truly grabbed our attention. Hundreds of people sat around green, felted tables. The dealers all wore dark vests and ties, while the players themselves dressed in a variety of garb. Some wore gaudy Hawaiian shirts, while others tucked themselves away in hoodies and dark sunglasses.

We edged closer to the tables, trying to figure out what the stakes were. Jimi let out a low whistle.

“Those are five grand,” he said, nodding towards the yellow and green-striped chips a man had casually tossed on the table.

“That’s five total?” I asked, trying to count the number of chips he’d set down.

“Five thousand— each

We were staring at twenty thousand dollars. I felt a chill creep down my spine.

We walked back through the casino without speaking. The noise of the slot machines slowly transformed into the buzz of white noise. The night air served to dim the sounds even more. I felt like I was in an old silent movie, staring up at the bright lights with wide eyes.

For some, the night was still young. We, however, were quite ready to retire for the evening. Tomorrow, the Fourth of July festivities would ensue and we had a lot left of Vegas to explore.

To be continued…

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