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Merry in the face of Fear

Immortalized by Thompson, Horse-Around Bar lives up to its trippy legend

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The Horse-Around Bar at Circus Circus.
Photo: C. Moon Reed
C. Moon Reed

"The Circus Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war." --Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

When I first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I felt the smug satisfaction of “getting it.” Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t writing a druggie travelogue; he was exploring the American Dream. I went so far as to assume Circus Circus was nothing more than a product of Thompson’s brain on drugs. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was real.

Its cacophonous insanity was all-encompassing, like being in the womb of a mother clown or walking into a certain writer’s acid trip. But what is sane? Especially here in “our own country”—in this doomstruck era of Nixon. We are all wired into a survival trip now. Sounds familiar, if you replace “Nixon” with “economic collapse.”

Though doubtful a bar-cum-carousel existed outside the mind of a drug-addled freak-genius, I was humbled enough to search for it. After wandering the child-infested midway, Emily and I discovered the Horse-Around Bar. Jutting like a cliff over slot machines, the bar was an island of tranquility-ish, its hypnotic spinning a prayer wheel ... until somebody won at balloon darts.

We were in high spirits, having recovered from the casino’s grim meat-hook realities. Emily was eating cotton candy, and I was ecstatic to be inside Raoul Duke’s spinning vortex of Americana. If the good “doctor” is to be believed, its movement powers Freedom. Awed by the flashing-whizzing-beeping scene, I saw no reason to differ.

The Details

Place Guide
Horse-Around Bar Inside Circus Circus, 734-0410.

Despite my initial joy, with each revolution Emily and I sunk into a deeper state of dread. Kids were climbing on the horses. A few daring children darted onto the bar, dancing impishly before the bartender shooed them off. We were under attack.

“I hate to say this,” said my attorney as we sat down at the Merry-Go-Round Bar on the second balcony, “but this place is getting to me. I think I’m getting the Fear.”

“Nonsense,” I said. “We came out here to find the American Dream, and now that we’re right in the vortex you want to quit.” I grabbed his bicep and squeezed. “You must realize,” I said, “that we’ve found the main nerve.”

“I know,” he said. “That’s what gives me the Fear.”

Though I don’t do drugs, I understand “the Fear.” Abruptly, Emily had to go. She ignored my pleas to stay another rotation.

I got him as far as the edge of the bar, the rim of the merry-go-round, but he refused to get off until it stopped turning.

“It won’t stop,” I said. “It’s not ever going to stop.”

This was the very spot where Thompson pushed his attorney off the carousel. His Fear suddenly seemed reasonable, but I stepped over. Having only consumed cotton candy and cocktails, Emily stepped unaided.

More than lurid clowns and exploding midway games, the idea of a bar that never stops spinning is terrifying. Sure, it’s now only open Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. But even when closed, it turns. Nearly 40 years later, the carousel remains an eerie manifestation of eternity.

I returned to the Horse-Around Bar around 11 p.m. The crowd was a mix of parents who had deposited their children on the midway, tourists who were slumming it and the misfits they came to see. These strangers were united by a common velocity and just-won stuffed animals. Sitting in the immobile center, this cast orbited around me, the lazy Susan of people-watching.

Since everybody was mesmerized by The Forty Flying Carazito Brothers doing a high-wire trapeze act, I befriended the bartender. With a soft accent, the person manning the epicenter of the American Dream told me how that dream had fallen short for him. How he’d left a good job in his home country in search of “something better.” When American companies wouldn’t honor his past credentials, he took work as a bartender. Now he can’t get scheduled often enough.

Maybe, by placing the American Dream inside the world’s most absurd bar, Thompson was depicting the Dream, not the bar. Maybe he was saying the Dream is only a spinning simulation of an acid trip, and we who follow it are getting What We Deserve when we end up here. Maybe this is what Thompson meant when he described the failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel? Or not. Despite the difficulties, the bartender doesn’t regret coming to America. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps Thompson just wrote a book about doing drugs in Vegas.

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