Someone once told me that there’s nothing uglier than Las Vegas Boulevard during the day, that seeing the bones of the city laid bare in the white desert sunlight, stripped of their neon façade, is something no one should experience. I disagree.
For me, it’s always been the moments just before and after dawn on the Strip that evoke the deepest sense of I-shouldn’t-be-here. Those hours — after the bars have closed but before the thousands of people sleeping in hotel rooms have risen — feel like purgatory.
One thing no one tells you about 3:30 a.m. on the Strip is this: You might need sunglasses. The sky is still black, the drunken masses are reaching their final crescendo, and the lights from the 270-foot tall LED screen at the Palms flash like a summer lightning storm all the way from Flamingo Road. In the distance, a billboard for 1 OAK nightclub bears the message “Ended up at 1 Oak,” which might as well be the official slogan of the Strip during that transitional period between the party and the hangover. No one is really anywhere on purpose. Just past the Stratosphere, people ride rented bicycles down the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard. Barefoot women stand in dirty fountains, high heels dangling in their hands. At the Venetian, a medic guides someone onto a stretcher. Near Carnival Court, a scuffle between two men breaks out and then ends when both parties realize that they are too tired to fight, and it is time to go home.
Outside the Encore, lit-up rooms look like stars in the sky, each one representing a tiny world where those inside are ordering late-night room service, or falling into bed, or staring out at what’s left of the night. There are no lights on at the nearby Fontainebleau hotel. The second tallest building in the city has been sitting unfinished for a decade, and in the shadows of the early morning, it looms like an abandoned palace.
At 4 a.m., XS Nightclub lets out. A trail of gold confetti streams from the exit, all the way through the casino and out onto the sidewalk.
“Every night,” a security guard says, looking at it.
Someone locks the door to the nightclub, despite the protestations of a trio of women who are trying to get back inside, and soon enough the din of the crowd dulls and subsides.
5 a.m. turns the Strip into a true no man’s land. The chorus of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” streams through the empty casino floor at the Palazzo. A guard walks a stoic Belgian Malinois past rows of unoccupied slots. On a screen above a video blackjack machine, a beautiful blonde dressed in sequins invites the vacant room to come play.
A different sort of nocturnal species takes over outside — actual animals. Ducks float in the Bellagio fountains and waddle down the Linq Promenade toward the unmoving High Roller observation wheel. Feral cats prowl parking garages. If you walk through the gardens behind the Flamingo, you’ll see the resort’s flock of pale pink namesake birds waiting silently in the darkness.
If you are lucky enough or lonely enough to be wandering the city in the hours before daylight, you can witness the strangest thing of all: the sight of Las Vegas readying itself for another day. At Caesars Palace, porters push mops across marble floors. At the Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, horticulturists replace every single stem-cut flower in the intricate topiaries. At the Mirage, divers swim in the 20,000-gallon tank behind the front desk, cleaning coral by hand as angelfish float around them. Landscapers replant gardens in the medians along Las Vegas Boulevard. A street sweeper putters past the Arc de Triomphe outside of the Paris. Watching this routine has always felt illicit to me, as if I’ve just walked in on someone who is not yet dressed, or I’m watching the rehearsal before the performance.
For some reason, at almost exactly 5:41 a.m. each day, runners appear on the Strip. It is a coincidence, but it feels intentional. The sun strikes the golden tower of Mandalay Bay like some sort of urban alpenglow, lighting up discarded champagne flutes on the sidewalk below. Soon, they will be plucked off the pavement and thrown away. Las Vegas is the only place I know that throws an elaborate celebration every night, cleans up in the morning, and then immediately begins the next day’s festivities. This constant resetting is like a mandala, only less spiritual. Or maybe it’s extremely spiritual, if your religion consists of buskers on pedestrian bridges singing Beatles songs and the unexpected pleasure of finishing a glass of Scotch at the exact moment that the dancing neon lights turn off.
At 6:30 a.m., a Zamboni-like vehicle arrives to sweep away the confetti outside of XS Nightclub. It’s strange to think that this superfluous yet mundane action is a part of someone’s job. An everyday event that requires an employee to set an alarm, make coffee, and drive to the Strip while the rest of the world sleeps. This person, whoever he or she might be, climbs into the seat of the vehicle each day and navigates the halls of the casino, following the pathway of glitter and sweeping it away bit by bit until there is nothing left, as if the party never happened at all.