Friday, April 19, 2013

West Wendover, Nevada: A Travel Tale

The male flight attendant was wearing a glittery elf cap in Christmas colours, with large spongy ears. It was mid-April. My partner and I were on a plane en route to West Wendover, Nevada, a desert town that straddles the Nevada-Utah border, and site where one can lose $160 in slots faster than you can say "Wendover Will." (Or "Bendover in Wendover," which never fails to make us chuckle like children.)

This is what happens when your partner turns 50 and you promise him a big gift, his choice. G's dream was to sit in a casino, slap down a $100 bet on an NHL game, and smoke a fat cigar. (First problem: his cigar, a Cuban, was confiscated at the airport, and G was told he could have been arrested; local cigarillos would have to do.)

G began throwing his spare loonies and toonies into his Edmonton Oilers piggy bank four months before our departure. Two days before we left he broke in and added them up. "Two hundred and thirty-one dollars," he announced, stacking the coins in columns on the dining room table, ready for exchange at the bank. "My gambling money."

I decided not to judge a vacation by its elf hat, and soon we were deposited on the western edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert with our fellow Albertans, and a few Saskatchewanians ... I always root them out.

Wendover Airport was previously known as Wendover Air Force Base. During World War II it was a training base for B-17 and B-24 bomber crews. It was the training site of the 509th Composite Group, the B-29 unit that dropped the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs, and remains one of the most intact and historic World War II training airfields. The Enola Gay B-29 hangar still stands. I did not go on the tour; I learned this on Wikipedia.

We were quickly shuttled five minutes from the landing strip to our casino-resort, the elegantly-named Montego Bay, one of five major hotel-casinos in this micro-mini Vegas, and the best of the three in the consortium that includes Rainbow Hotel-Casino and Peppermill Hotel-Casino. This particular sprawl of a resort--just below Interstate
80--was an upgrade (for a mere $20 each), and G had dreams of sitting poolside in the sunshine with a beer. However, as has proven with the rest of the world, spring's been slow to visit Elko County, Nevada; the pool was not even open.

One of the attractions--apart from the easy flight, with a brief touchdown in Salt Lake City before the final hop over to West Wendover, population approximately 5000 (and approximately 75% Hispanic, according to Mr. C, whom you will meet a few paragraphs from now)--was the price. For $450, tax in, the two of us got the flight, a 3-night stay in a lovely room with two king beds, plus a view of the parking lot and the Welcome to Utah billboard; a few 2-for-1 meal coupons; some gambling discounts; and an opportunity to explore a fresh landscape and meet new folks. You can't get much for $450 these days. You can't even get close to Banff for that.  

During the Allegiant Air flight we read the glossy Wendover brochure and learned that one local restaurant, Pancho and Willie's, featured $3 margaritas. Well, that was a no-brainer. We got settled in our room just before dinner, then declined the hotel-to-hotel shuttle bus that came 'round every 15 to 20 minutes, opting instead to orientate on foot. We hiked in the cool-but-not-Albertan breeze over to the margarita-enticing Mexican restaurant. First things first.

Me-to-waiter: "!Hola! Do you have other margarita flavours besides lime? Say raspberry, or strawberry?"

Waiter-to-me: "Yes, we have peach, strawberry, raspberry ..."

Me: "I'll take a raspberry."

G: "Strawberry for me."

Don't you love restaurants that automatically bring a generous bowl of warm chips with sides of salsa, sour cream, and guacamole to your table? (Naturally, I eat far too much of these and cannot finish my meal proper.) I ordered carne asada; G had steak and something with claws.

The first margarita went down faster than you can say: "Where does this 'player's card' go into the slot machine?" I ordered a strawberry margarita for Round Two, but a few slurps in I realized it was hitting me hard, as hard alcohol is wont, and I couldn't finish.

Stuffed to the tops of our ears, we asked for the bill. WTF! Our margaritas were more than double $3 each!

Me-to-waiter: "Excuse me, but your margaritas are advertised at $3." I pointed to the bill.

Waiter-to-me: "Ah, that is only the lime margarita. Anything else is special."

Jesus in a boat! Being quintessentially Canada (read: polite), we paid the bill without complaint, but he should have told us. Back among the glitter, clang and smoke at Montego Bay, I made certain to tell anyone I recognized from the flight not to fall for the old $3 margarita trick.

G made some good hockey bets, including Calgary over Edmonton (his team), which paid $1.75 on the dollar, and Night One came to a close.

It is fundamentally guaranteed that I will sleep well on my first night--and only my first night--in a hotel. Dark, quiet, and precisely the right temperature, Room #5013 did not disappoint.

We opened the curtains to morning sunshine. Not quite the warmth we'd hoped for, but certainly we could get away with shorts and T-shirts on our 10K run. G had packed a few oranges (funny they didn't get confiscated). We quickly devoured them and then we were off, running west and straight through town, past all the not-so-glamourous hotels, the gas stations, the concert hall (we were told we missed an excellent show and there was not a bad seat in the house), the fast food restaurants, the fake grass, the West Wendover Welcome Centre (say that three times fast!); the fire hall, the broken glass on desert sand, the garbage (on desert sand), the Utah or Nevada plated vehicles, the early-morning gamblers, the guys who started at the strip club and stayed up all night.

We ran to the end of all the businesses, and turned into the residential part of town -- Nevada side, the Utah part is simply Wendover, no West -- where chainlink fences around new-ish, pink stuccoed houses were the order of the day, and I felt like I was in a movie where folks with thick southern accents called out Sunday morning greetings and Rottweilers bared their lovely teeth. We passed the elementary school, then the high school, and circled back past Wendover Will toward home. 
Me (huffing): "We should have the $3 breakfast at the Red Garter. We go right by it!"

G (not huffing, but sufficiently red-faced): "No, let's just go back to our hotel."

Me (squinting at the time and distance-measuring Garmin on my wrist): "This is going to be longer than a 10K run."       

G: [no response]

By the time we'd chugged back up the hill and clocked in almost 11K, we were good and ready to take a gander at the nearest menu. This time: Montego Bay. Every time I ordered it seemed G looked across his less-than-heaping plate at my meal with envy. I had the breakfast burritos, and again, I couldn't get near the end of them.

After brunch we walked to Utah. I stood in front of the post office. 

I picked up strange prickly things on the ground and closely examined them whilst sitting on a rock.

I peered west.

I took photos of a creepy, derelict play area, and wondered where all the children were. Really, where were they?

Then it was time to put our money where the slot machines' mouths were. Now my parents had me and my sibs playing rummy for nickles and dimes before I was old enough to tie my shoes, but I am a novice at casino gambling and had zero expectations. Still, perhaps I should have read the signs a little more closely, or maybe they purposely keep those places underlit so neophytes like me will confuse symbols: I thought I was putting my money into a 25 cent slot machine, and I actually plugged a 25 dollar machine. It
immediately swallowed my hard-earned $25, and I will never, ever make that mistake again.

While G wandered between the sports bar (20 screens showing the Masters Golf Tournament, wrestling, college men and women's  basketball, college women's bowling (?), and hockey) and blackjack tables, I zigged and zagged between the slot machines, and a little bit of magic happened: I'd put in a ten dollar bill, push a few buttons on a 777 game (easiest to play) and suddenly, with a great deal of ringing and near-to-blinding lights, my ten spot had turned into $107 ... $114 ... $131!

And this is how they get you. You see it's almost impossible to cash in when the going is this good -- just a few more tries, and then I'll quit -- and I eventually lost it all. And more. G even slipped me 40 from his billfold, and that was gone faster than you can say: "Did you see that 75-year-old woman in the French maid outfit serving drinks? That is why you need a retirement plan!"

What I've learned is that gambling is ridiculously good fun when you are winning, but it is mostly a colossal waste of time to sit before a robotic-looking machine and robotically punch buttons between two geriatric heavy-smokers. The mere noise of the place -- bells, sirens, whistles, screaming women -- plays in your head for days after. What I've also learned: when you gamble you drink for free.

Gambled out, and not terribly interested in learning about the dropping of the world's first atom bomb, what is one to do in an isolated gambling town on a Monday morning? Well, go on an ATV adventure in the high desert, of course. We had previously discussed this possibility with airport-queue friends Sandy and Dwayne -- a pair of Newfoundlanders now firmly ensconced in the big-money town of Fort MacMurray -- and agreed to do the tour together at 10:45.

Perpetually on point, G was watching for the tour company rep, and when the mini-van drove up, we snapped up to the driver's window to enquire about gloves and jackets: we knew it'd be cold up thar in those hills. (Hell, it was cold enough down below!) The driver assured us he had the full gear, gloves to goggles, and minutes later we and our friendly new friends were bumping out of West Wendover into the barren, monochromatic hills.

"My name's Clinton," the driver\tour guide said, "but I go by Mr. C, because I got tired of people thinking I was a woman."

Well, we were glad to have that cleared up for us.

"I've had over a dozen surgeries for cancer, and I've died three times," he continued. It was evident that some kind of surgery had disfigured Mr. C's face. It seemed it had been split, and rather carelessly repaired. I was hoping his visage wasn't from rolling an ATV off a high desert cliff. Now we knew.

"You look pretty good for a guy who's died three times," Dwayne piped in the passenger seat.

"Why thank you," Mr. C said.

Now it's almost a given that if a person frankly indicates that they are of one specific genre, someone they are imparting this information to will inevitably get it wrong. Pronto. In this case, it was G. Not three minutes after Mr. C made his declaration, G very audibly used the pronoun "she" in reference to Mr. C.  

I pinched G, and mouthed "He."

A pall crossed G's face. Seconds later he came up with some inane statement that conspicuously contained the pronoun He. The only thing worse than a foot-in-the-mouth gender slip is the glaringly obvious attempt to right it.

We drove a few minutes in silence. I had never experienced a moonscape such as this, with irregularly shaped hills, five kinds of bush-weeds, and the odd thousands-of-years-old trilobite petrified in stone. We seemed to be driving a long way from town, and I couldn't help but think of a horror movie I'd seen set in the Australian outback: no one survived.

"No birds, no gophers," I noted to G, who was crammed into the bench seat beside me.

"A whole lot of nothing," he may have said.

"Hey, what kind of snakes do you have out here?" I asked Mr. C.

"Live ones," he clucked.

After a minor lifetime we pulled up to a trailer and a flotilla of dusty, sturdy-looking ATVs. We signed the waivers that assured Mr. C that if we died out there in the vast desert he'd not be one iota responsible, and we got suited up in outfits that looked as if they were manufactured for galactic adventures.

Mr. C told us who'd ride which machine and he proceeded through a quick training session. "No doughnuts," he said, jerking his head toward G. "And no fishtailing," he added, winging a look at Dwayne. He pinned his eyes on me, and asked if I had any questions about operating the ATV. "You look kinda bewildered," he said, and I didn't quite appreciate the semi-mockery. "I'm a country girl," I said, perhaps with more assertiveness than necessary. "I have my motorcycle license (a white lie; I actually only have my Learners), and I've driven combines!"

Well, then.

Mr. C took the lead and we trailed along behind him, "4 to 5 lengths between ATVs." We leaned on the turns and bucked back in our seats on the steep uphills. We maneuvered over sharp rocks twice the size of watermelons. We picked up our speed on the flat straight-aways, but mostly there were no flat straight-aways. There was up, and there was down. There were salt flats and Idaho in the distance.

"My parents live over there, on the other side of that mountain," Mr. C said. "They followed me out here from California. Too many gangs there. In Wendover everyone knows everyone, and everyone gets along."
We mounted our ATVs and started our engines again. I know I wouldn't have ventured into this surreal landscape any other way, but unless you're a city-slicker or a 14-year-old boy, driving an ATV in the high desert really isn't a supercalifragilistic thrill. Plus, I'm all about vegetation. Trees. Ferns. Florals. Lushness. And water. The desert gets old, faster than you can say: "Is that a rattler?"

We stopped to snap a photo at the Nevada-Utah stateline marker, and look at a few dried out tufts of sage.


 I spied a lonely cactus.

"Have they ever shot any movies out here?" I asked, panning the barren, uninhabitable foreverness that are Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats.

"'Con Air,' 'Independence Day,' and 'The World's Fastest Indian.' Lots of westerns, and commercials," Mr. C said, proudly. "This is all public land. Seventy-nine percent of Nevada is public land."

We drove on, and it was not unlike being on a well-worn horse in a trail ride. "I have to pee," Sandy said at the next hilltop stop. Mr. C said we were almost home.


By the third night I was ready to say adios to West Wendover, Nevada and pawn shops that advertised guns. I was ready to see some children again. And real grass.

On the final morning I remembered that I'd not yet bought a souvenir fridge magnet at this place. A pedestrian practise, yes, but one I began years ago and am rather fond of. I imagine one day displaying my coveted collection on a huge metal sheet, and having grandchildren at my knee, rapt as they listen to Old Grandma Shelley wax semi-poetically about the memories each magnet evokes. I found a bottle cap with "Wendover, NV" printed on it in such small type even a clear-slighted soul would need a magnifier to read it. So what if the Bonneville Speedway had nothing to do with why I was there.

I plugged my last few American dollars into a slot machine before the bus came to return us to the airstrip. I don't know why I did that -- knew full well I was throwing my money straight away. Knew it all along.

As for G, I think he enjoyed his 50th birthday gift. Truth be told, he's already saving his loonies and toonies and throwing them into his Edmonton Oilers piggy bank, for next time.