This is the deal.
You’re in Philadelphia.
You’re down-and-out because you’ve just dropped your daughter at a college among strangers in a strange city that’s 3,000 miles from home. There were some teary moments as you said farewell.
She grows smaller in your rearview mirror and it’s time to head back home to Portland, Oregon, in your black RAV-4.
But there’s a sad realization: Once you’ve traversed those 3,000 miles, you’re going to have to face domestic chaos. There’s a marital meltdown awaiting you and you’re going to have to deal with it as soon as you pull into your driveway. So with a heavy heart (and a cliché to express it) you suck it up, point your SUV west, pull out onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike and –
Whoa! Wait a minute. What’s the big hurry, mister? Here’s an idea: Don’t rush home. Head for Jackpot, Nevada!
The magical world of bladders
Traveling west from Pennsylvania to the west coast, you can divide the landscape roughly into thirds: rolling hills, then a pancake flatness that extends from Ohio to Nebraska, and finally a breathtaking dose of western grandeur.
Part two—the pancake flatness—is the hard part. To get relief from the tedium, you’d love to pull off the road, but to where? That silo in the distance? Perhaps a quick side-trip to the RV Hall of Fame in Elkhart?1 And let’s not forget about downtown Altoona.
Thankfully there’s an antidote in Council Bluffs, Iowa; this is where the Harrah’s empire (now the Caesars empire) planted a riverboat casino.
Ever been to a riverboat casino? Notice please that I said not on but to. Being on a riverboat casino conjures up images floating down the Mighty Mississip, consorting with rogues and rascals, and taking an occasional break to smoke a cigar on the deck while the bartender prepares your Mint Julep.
Being to a riverboat casino is a different story. It’s a gambling concept that, in my experience, manages to integrate the worst parts of boating: tacky carpeting, the oppressive claustrophobia of a below-deck, and being stuck in dry dock. One good thing: There’s not much danger of losing your balance and falling overboard because, as the Byrd’s sang, you ain’t goin’ nowhere. Why? Because many of these casinos are riverboats in name only.
In a state like Iowa, for example, regulations formerly mandated that casinos be constructed over water. The state’s initial impulse—to protect citizens from the evils of gambling by segregating casinos and making them more onerous to build—was a noble one. In actuality, it seems to have spurred casino owners into new levels of creativity. Look at the Riverside Casino in Riverside, Iowa: It’s land-based, but to satisfy local regulations it was built atop 29 bladders filled with water.
Talk about a recipe for success: Fill the bladders with water… and they will come.
He: “Honey I’m off to the Riverside.”
She: “Now don’t you go throwing away all your hard-earned money at that bladder-boat!”
Back to Council Bluffs and Harrah’s. It’s a riverboat casino but I cannot say if bladders were or were not involved. I can say it was claustrophobic. The word “shoebox” comes to mind. That might have been because I was exhausted: I began the day at a Comfort Inn in Toledo, Ohio, and had been on the road for 12 pancake-flat hours.
I was too tired even to count cards, which was a big part of this Blackjack Autumn-inspired excursion. However, in the odd way that gambling can defy your expectations, this bleary-eyed boy in the space of 90 minutes won $150 at blackjack, then another $157 at a lucky video poker machine. It was money that unfortunately would not stay in my pocket for very long.
Ghost-gamblers in the sun
Friday night in Omaha, which borders Council Bluffs.
Saturday night in Rawlins, Wyoming, which like most of Wyoming borders nothing.
And then Labor Day 2003: Onward to Jackpot!
The direct route to Jackpot entailed taking I-80 west to Salt Lake City, then merging onto I-84, which would take me to Twin Falls, Idaho. From there it was just a chip’s throw to Jackpot.
Given my mode of willful avoidance, this was not the route I intended to take.
Instead I was going to stay on I-80, which would lead me around the Great (and spooky) Salt Lake and right into West Wendover, NV, or just plain Wendover, as everybody calls it, because hell, in this place who needs the adjective “west”? It’s redundant because you’re in the middle of the desert and there are animal skulls by the side of the highway and tumbleweeds blowing across the highway and the ghost of Joseph Smith windsurfing across the Great Salt Lake. It’s flat flat flat, not a creature is stirring not even a vulture, until there, in the distance, is Wendover.
Shiny. Impressive. From a distance Wendover looks like Oz, but without the flying monkeys.
Up closer, it’s a bit more prosaic. In Blackjack Autumn, Barry Meadow writes that towns like Wendover and Jackpot exist “solely because people like to gamble.” And how!
Wendover consists largely of hotels and casinos, so although the town is hosting thousands of guests, its streets are nearly empty, a ghost town teeming with tourists huddled inside windowless, clock-less rooms—ghost-gamblers invisible in the Wendover sun.
I join them.
Wendover’s blackjack tables are a player’s dream, single-deck games with rules that shave the house edge to almost zero. And there’s not just one or two of these primo tables: They’re everywhere. For a card counter to lose under these conditions would be close to impossible. But that doesn’t stop me. Apparently I’ve entered the Bizarro Blackjack Universe, because I do lose. Quickly. In fact, I say farewell to most of my ill-gotten gains from the riverboat in the space of an hour.
It’s no longer Wendover to me. It’s Bendover.
Clichés abound in gambling, and it’s time to comfort myself with an oldie but goodie. To wit: I’m still up fifty bucks! And hey, that’s better than losing!
Time to hit the road. Jackpot is just 125 miles away and I’ll be there well before dark.