My mother was a mathematician and minor gambling addict. After she died I found a computer she had designed that fit into her shoe so when she sat at blackjack tables she could count cards with her toes. When I was nine she took me to Vegas for the first time. Back then kids were allowed in casinos, so I stood beside her as she bet. Once I found a whorehouse coupon on the floor of the Golden Nugget, advertising a special on tandem tonguebaths. Shrimp cocktails were 99 cents and they still are. Champagne was free and it still is. Las Vegas may be the human hair trap of American civilization, but I love the place and took my own daughter there recently to point out where the Desert Inn used to stand.
I don’t love everything about this outpost of Confederate-flag waving idiocy, but I love the Smoky Mountains, the moccasin shops, the pancake houses and the retro motel called Marshall’s Creek Rest. I wish I could subtract all the touristy rest of this Tennessee armpit—the collection of Ripley’s museums, the myriad of weird indoor miniature golf courses, the T-shirt shops, the fudge shops, the gaming arcades and all the pregnant teenagers smoking unfiltered cigarettes—but in truth it’s known as the “Hillbilly Las Vegas,” so my affinity for the place is hardwired.
Even though this place has been inundated with an onslaught of ass-crack tourist shops that all sell the same made-in-China penis-shaped bottle openers, and even though almost every bar has reduced itself to whoring a tenuous Hemingway connection, there still remains a number of strong attractions from it’s historical past to keep me coming back. Places like the Schooner Wharf Bar, for one, where actual human barnacles—pickled in alcohol—will appear to enchant you with tall tales of their salty lives. The last time I was there a gnarly man named Spackle told me of his most recent shipwreck. “It was just me, the mess chef and a German shepherd that survived.”
Anyplace that sells authentic swamp-moss voodoo dolls as souvenirs is gonna have a place in my heart. Not only that, the entire Bourbon Street region is an open-air bar. Regardless of the crowds of high-fiving frat-boy asstards hooting their way down Bourbon Street, there are still enough secret, mysterious, moss-covered alcoves for you to tumble into that will give you stories to tell your grandkids. In fact, that’s how I fell in love with New Orleans before I ever even went there. It was the stories handed down from my father about how he saw Louis Armstrong perform at Preservation Hall, and how the city itself was a wonderland of music, danger and mystery, and how the New Orleans cuisine was so delicious it could withstand your Hurricane-cocktail numbed taste buds to register as the most delectable experience of your life—it’s because of this and the fact that this magic can still be found there that I love this place.
Hollis Gillespie writes a weekly travel column for Paste. She is a writing instructor, travel expert and author of We Will be Crashing Shortly, which hit bookstore shelves July 22. Follow her on Twitter.