Putting some sizzle in it
Some like it hot; everyone else is in the pool
Laughlin, Nevada, April 25–29—There’s no such thing as a brownout in Laughlin. The place is literally swimming in juice, the megawatts flowing abundantly from the hydroelectric works just upriver at the Davis Dam, powering what is perhaps the densest and busiest concentration of air conditioners per acre this side of Dubai, and cooling to gooseflesh temperatures what is undisputedly the hottest patch of desert in all of parched Nevada. It’s hit 125 degrees before in this town. It did that in June of 1994—the hottest temp ever recorded in this state. It’s hit 106 degrees in the month of April before; that was in 1989 and it set a statewide record for that month. So when the mercury topped out at 105 on Saturday of the 25th annual Laughlin River Run, it didn’t break any records. It was, however, hotter than freaking heck.
The power grid didn’t bat a breaker. It thrummed along unperturbed, unimpressed, pumping the casinos full of deliciously frosty air, and into those dark, disorienting, noisy but cool environs flooded the heat-beleaguered bikers. Aside from the usual “Hot enough for ya?” small talk, nobody was complaining about conditions. Nobody except, that is, the poor sods manning the multitude of vendor booths spread across the asphalt plain fronting Casino Drive. Those sorry devils were having a time of it.
The reason the rest of the crowd—the ones who could seek periodic refuge in the chilled high-rise snake pits—weren’t moaning is because the heat is what we expect and what we’re all here for, and anything less would be a disappointment. This is unofficially the Spring Break for winter-weary West Coast bikers; the run we love to hate and the run we hate to love—but 75,000 of us show up nevertheless.
Breaking out of the winter doldrums demands that hot shot of desert sun and it also demands the opportunity to get in some serious exercise to tone the body for the half-dressed months ahead, and you get a lot of exercise at the River Run. It’s unavoidable. No matter where you’re going, you’re generally a good ways off. There’s never been a real center to this event, just a sequence of places to be at specific times if you want to catch some particular activity, contest or concert. The River Run’s exhaustive schedule of doings is spread in even-handed fashion among the nine major hotel/casinos lining a mile and a half stretch of Casino Drive.
Navigating between the various functions and vendor zones can be a challenge. Despite the heat and utter lack of shade, walking is generally more expeditious than riding since finding a parking slot within a reasonable distance from your destination is a long-odds crapshoot at best. And even though the vast parking lots in front of the casinos that have been converted to vendor malls abut one another, they’re individually fenced, so getting from one to the next requires a lot of walking in circles. That’s great for the old cardiovascular system—right up until the old heat prostration kicks in, anyway—and it’s still a lot less hassle than taking the bike from one precious parking space, out into Casino Drive traffic, and back into the next parking lot hoping for another decent spot.
If, on the other hand, your interest in the River Run is limited to hitting the casinos, the walking is a breeze—literally—along the River Walk between most establishments, and the water taxis run constantly the entire length of the strip. The four-dollar fare they charge for a fun boat trip is without a doubt the best entertainment value in town.
The grand bazaar
As harsh as conditions can get on the asphalt midway, the incredible number and variety of vendor booths remains one of the signature attractions of the run. Something on the order of 400 vendors were on-site, offering virtually every motorcycle- and biker lifestyle-related product and service imaginable, and like many attendees, I spent a good portion of each day circulating through the lots checking out the gear, starting out at the Riverside, where Harley-Davidson was conducting demo rides and had their Traveling Museum trailer parked, and meandering down the strip from there, seeking frequent refuge from the solar siege at the various shady food and beverage pavilions strategically placed in each of the casino vendor malls. Live music was provided throughout the day at these venues outside the Riverside, Edgewater, Colorado Belle, and Pioneer, making it something of a mixed blessing to seek out the shade to relax and have a bite to eat since it came with a big side order of decibels.
The last stop on the long vendor sightseeing trek was the River Palms, and it was also the most pleasant, featuring as it did an actual lawn, shade trees, a limited roster of exhibitors and some unusual diversions, all brought to you by the letter “B”—as in Bike Builders, Big Ass Burgers and Biker Beer Bellies. The builders included a couple of our old favorites (young favorites, more like), Match Hotch of Matt Hotch Designs, who had his incomparable Vincent-powered Vinnie LSR racer on display, and Jesse Rooke of Jesse Rooke Customs. The Big Ass Burgers were being offered at a food concession called the Harley Fuel Stop, and were positively frightening, consisting of no less than 20 ounces of ground beef (figure five Quarter Pounders) laid on a bun the size of a baby moon hubcap and served up with all the trimmings, including, one hopes, a stent. Onstage while I was there, the Biker Beer Belly Contest saw several guys—who’d just gorged a couple of Big Ass Burgers, from the looks of ’em—vying for the dubious title.
Also at the River Palms—and at every other venue on the strip—was a Jack Daniel’s booth, and it’s only slight exaggeration to say that for the five days of the River Run, Laughlin could have been called West Lynchburg. Jack Daniel’s continues its campaign to win the hearts and livers of the biker community, and doesn’t seem to have much competition from the other spirit producers, and you can’t help but love the “Drink Responsibly” admonition on all their signage. I know Jack. Perhaps you do as well, and if you do you’ll agree with me that this is a lot like saying “Fornicate Chastely.”
The new order
Covering all that vendor ground was a real workout for the legs and shoe leather, but constituted only a portion of my personal walkathon at the River Run, which actually began when I arrived at Harrah’s, at the far end of the strip on Thursday. Since I was unwilling to pay an additional $45 for “VIP parking” on top of the $560 I’d already forked over for three nights’ accommodations, I was obliged to park a good distance away and schlep my gear from the bike to the building, through the casino to the elevators, and from the elevators down a long hall to my room. Pant. The last time I spent a night in a bed anywhere near that far removed from my scoot was the last time I stayed at a casino in Laughlin, and that was in 2002 at the Flamingo (now called the Aquarius) where the Hell’s Angels were headquartered the night of the infamous incident.
See where I’m going with this? While the River Run reached a real milestone this year in celebrating their 25th year, 2007 also marked the fifth anniversary of the melee in Harrah’s, so naturally that’s where I had to stay to get some intimate perspective on how that debacle still resonates in Laughlin. It doesn’t take long to see how it still resonates at Harrah’s, as big banners strung up outside advise that “Harrah’s Supports a No-Colors Policy,” which is only half the story. They support it, all right, but they also strictly enforce it, and who can blame them? Security’s omnipresent, and everyone checking in is fitted with a plastic wristband which must be displayed to security guards at the elevators in order to get up to your room. If you lose your wristband, it costs $45 to get a replacement. If you want to bring a guest up to your room, you’ll have to pop for another $45 wristband. In practice, this whole protocol is more symbolic than pragmatic, and I quickly discovered a means of circumventing it, which I’ll be happy to share with Harrah’s security for a fee. The figure $45 seems about right.
The level of security has likewise been stepped up all over Laughlin since 2002, and this year peace officers numbering in the hundreds converged from outlying jurisdictions all around the tri-state area to hit the streets. Up in the sky, helicopters flew over incessantly, and sobriety checkpoints were set up on the major arteries at night. Even so, law enforcement wasn’t throwing their weight around, particularly, and one of the most visible reminders of their presence was the deployment of electronic signs along all the access roads to Casino Drive advising would-be bike thieves that the town has been salted with “decoy bikes” to make their lives interesting. This program started a couple of years ago, and uses bikes fitted with GPS beacons for easy tracking should they vanish. It’s an effective campaign, and thefts have been reduced dramatically since the program’s inception. This year only three bikes were heisted.
Law enforcement also let it be known that while open containers are permitted on the streets of Laughlin, those containers cannot be bottles or cans—which wasn’t really an issue since no bottles or cans were being vended outdoors. And they also made a point of advising attendees that Nevada is a helmet state, and that the law would be enforced. But not in a heavy-handed way, judging by what I witnessed. A couple of lidless riders were cruising Casino Drive, and a cop car pulled in behind them. But rather than pull them over and hand out citations, the officer simply announced over his loudspeaker, “Pull over at the corner and put your helmets on.” And they did, and that’s all there was to it.
The other poker
For those willing to tear themselves away from the gambling tables, or wanting to give their dogs a break from the vendor mall walkathon, there were two organized rides taking place during the run. The first was the American Heroes Foundation Charity Poker Run, which left from the Ramada Express on Friday morning, and rode out to Mother Road Harley-Davidson in Kingman, Arizona. This ride has become a highlight of the River Run, in large part because of hospitality, Route 66 history, and relaxed atmosphere that await the pack in Kingman. The festivities at Mother Road H-D included music, barbecue, and a bodacious bikini wash, and the popularity of the ride has become such that the businesses adjacent to the dealership have taken to charging two bucks to park a bike there. When I left Mother Road, I headed—like many others—over to the Route 66 historical district to visit the museums and get lunch at an authentic Mother Road diner.
The other organized ride staged was the Annual Early Bird Poker Run on Saturday, which I took a pass on and was glad I did after talking to some riders who’d participated. That was the day the mercury went ballistic—and these poor people looked ashen. Hollow-eyed and shrivel-lipped, they could barely utter the names of the places they’d been—Chloride, Kingman, Topock—on a heat-stroked circuit of the Black Mountains.
Beating the heat
It’s 4:30 on Saturday afternoon and the temperature has climbed to 105 degrees, and I have no idea what’s going on out on Casino Drive, or anywhere else in town except the swimming pool at Harrah’s. It’s a laid-back resort scene here, indistinguishable from the deck of a cruise ship, and a far cry from anything you’d expect to witness at a traditional biker rally—but then, the River Run has long flouted comparison with other events. And it’s also a far cry from what transpired inside this casino five years ago, almost to the day. Technically speaking, there’s still a lot of “red and white” here, but now it’s just a combination of sunburn and pasty winter pallor on display around the pool.
At the poolside bar, I strike up a conversation with the bartender, a pretty young woman with a foreign accent that’s hard to place. It’s Polish, as it turns out, the country from whence she emigrated seven years ago. This, she tells me, is her sixth River Run.
“So you were here for the shootout in 2002?” I query. And she rolls her eyes, pantomimes zipping her lip, and replies in that accent of hers, “We’re not supposed to talk about it.”
Two final thoughts
Thought #1: Twice during the River Run I narrowly avoided colliding with cages that had violated my right of way. In the first instance, a big crew-cab pickup pulled out right in front of me on the Needles Highway, forcing a full panic stop and evasive zig to the shoulder of the road. The second incident occurred on two-lane US 95 south of Searchlight when a big SUV pulled into my lane to pass oncoming traffic, again forcing me unceremoniously to the shoulder. In both cases the vehicles were trailering Harleys. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of hauling perfectly good motorcycles to a rally—and to be sure, Laughlin remains one of the premier trailer-bike events in the country—I think we should all agree on one thing: If you kill a biker while trailering a bike, you should be strung up on the spot.
Thought #2: While Dal-Con Promotions, the producer of the River Run, did a commendable job of organizing and executing this year’s event, I can’t help but point out one major miscue on their part. The first Laughlin River Run took place in 1983, which makes the 2007 iteration the 25th annual—not the 25th anniversary as proclaimed on all of the official logos for this year. Think about it. The good news, though, is that since next year will be the actual 25th anniversary, the promoters can recycle this year’s logos and branded merchandise. That should save them a bunch of money—a savings we trust will be reflected in the 2008 ticket prices. Take a deep breath and hold it.