Finding the sweet spot
The changing dynamics of the West Coast’s premiere rally
Laughlin, Nevada, April 23–27—If you pump that bandit’s arm long enough you’re just bound to hit the jackpot. That’s the perception and the philosophy that drives the casino business and, by extension, the entire state of Nevada, and it can also be extended to the Laughlin River Run: If you keep showing up annually for enough years, you’re just bound to hit the right combination of factors to pay off big. Years pass when it’s too hot, or too windy, or too crowded, or too volatile, or too vindictively policed, and for many it becomes just too much of a gamble to justify the expense and the long miles of desert crossing to do the event. But sometimes you get lucky.
Those are my thoughts on Friday afternoon, sitting out front of the River Palms casino at a table right beside Casino Drive. There’s a lawn and shady palms and even a red tablecloth, and the temperature is maybe 80 degrees with a soft cooling breeze. Traffic is sparse, a band’s playing, the haute-custom creations of Matt Hotch are arrayed nearby, and for the reasonable sum of $8.25 I’m dining on a tasty Hell Dog—the biggest hot dog I’ve ever seen—and washing it down with a cold draft beer. Jackpot.
My day started in Kingman at Mother Road Harley-Davidson’s annual parking lot party, a small-scale affair compared to the crush of parked bikes and vendor stalls that transform Laughlin into a sea of canvas and chrome for the weekend, and that makes it feel downright folksy by comparison. Adding to that folksiness is a Wild West reenactment show being performed there that is so laughably awful and amateurish that it achieves a certain brilliance. There’s food and music, a handful of vendors and a most excellent bikini bike wash, and it feels a world away from Casino Drive, which, in fact, it is.
The River Run has become something of a two-year cycle for me, as over the course of my last four visits I’ve alternated between staying in Laughlin one year and Kingman the next. The way it’s worked is I plunge into the party immersion of Casino Drive, with its hermetic high-rises and elevators and frenetic foot and vehicle traffic and noisome gaming floors and cop helicopter overflights and frantic itinerary of activities and shows until I’ve OD’d on the whole high-strung spectacle, and then take refuge the following year in Kingman with its reasonable motel rates, bike parking next to your room, real restaurants and rich Route 66 historical roots. But ultimately I feel once again the tug of the Laughlin buzz and return there to get my fair share of abuse, both self-inflicted and otherwise.
Another attraction to staying in Kingman is the ride over to Laughlin and back, setting out in the morning up old Route 66 to Oatman with the sun at your back and the stern desert mountain landscape ahead in vivid detail, and returning at sunset, the sun again at your back, over dreamy Highway 68, with its flawless pavement and high-speed sweepers through the mountains. This year I set off on that loop, arriving in Oatman around noon to discover the town less crowded than I’ve experienced in the past, and found a parking spot right on the main drag near the town’s center. That’s a first for me, and while there were still a whole lot of bikes and bikers flooding the narrow street, the scene remained relatively sedate. Even the burros were on their best behavior, tolerating the noise and crush of shutterbugs and refraining from public copulation for the most part.
The vast majority of the riders in Oatman had come up from Laughlin, and that might explain the restrained behavior since, as I soon discovered, they’d already been through a sobriety checkpoint to get there.
Whatever you might say about the overbearing and meddlesome Clark County/Vegas Metro cops in Laughlin, they’ve got nothing on the Arizona constables who, for no constitutionally defensible reason, are stopping every single vehicle going to or coming from Oatman. The checkpoint is set up in the middle of nowhere on pin-straight Boundary Cone Road, at a ludicrous time of day to be trolling for drunks. There’s no escaping it unless you want to detour a good 40 miles out of your way. At about 1:00, I pull up to the cordon of cones and cop cruisers and am greeted by an officer right in my face informing me that this is a sobriety checkpoint (duh), and that they’re looking for impaired operators (double duh), and have I had anything to drink?
“Nothing. Not a drop,” I reply indignantly. (This, of course, is a lie. I’ve actually had two Red Bulls, a Monster, a quart of antioxidant water, and a Wile E. Coyote jelly tumbler of Everclear. But why bring it up?) “OK, have a nice day,” he advises, and I don’t know why they always say that.
Turning onto Casino Drive in Laughlin, I’m greeted by the big Riverside Resort sign with the words “Rooms Available” scrolling across its display. The same message is scrolling at intervals on every other casino sign in view, and it’s clear that this year’s event is far from a sellout. That conclusion is borne out throughout the day on Friday, and it makes for a casual day on the strip. Convenient parking is reasonably available at all of the vendor areas fronting the casinos, and at times there is so little traffic on the street it’s spooky. Finding a chair in the shade of a canopy at the outdoor party zones—a near impossibility most years—takes little searching. And, as I’ve noted, the weather is absolutely perfect, and strolling through the vast vendor precincts is leisurely and comfortable in the breeze. This is fun.
Then, come Saturday, the town explodes. The masses have arrived at last.
Crunching some numbers
From a high-water mark of something over 80,000 participants in 2002, the year of the mood-altering fracas at Harrah’s, the numbers at the River Run declined precipitously, working back up to the low 70,000 range in 2007. The number fell off again this year to the low 60,000 range, owing in large measure, no doubt, to the wretched state of the economy. But that factor doesn’t fully explain the changed dynamic of the rally this year, or the odd disparity between the crowd sizes on Friday and Saturday, or the once unthinkable availability of hotel rooms in the heart of the happenings all weekend long. Something else is at work here, and part of it is the RV/trailer contingent that has long been a signature River Run phenomenon and continues to grow briskly. That much is apparent from the traffic heading across the Mojave to Laughlin, which this year was decidedly heavy on the toy haulers and light on the bike packs, and it was also apparent from the multitude of RVs parked in Laughlin, out at the Avi Resort (where dry spots are free) and elsewhere in the region. Then there’s the distinct possibility that more and more bikers are viewing the River Run as a weekend affair rather than the five-day fandango it’s promoted to be and are finding ways to circumvent the three-night minimum enforced by the Laughlin hotels. That it’s now apparently feasible to take off from LA or Phoenix or Vegas on a Friday whim and find lodging in the rally region is doubtless welcome news for the half-a-hair impulsive types and the chronic procrastinators among us. Once word gets out, though, the possibility arises that the numbers will shoot back up and start the whole process anew.
Beyond all of that, it’s hard not to get the sense that the River Run has achieved a certain maturity, having largely retreated—with the unsubtle prodding of law enforcement—from its wild extremes that were once a reliable source of annual outrage and tabloid newsiness, and settled into an easy formulaic groove. The ingredients of the formula are a flurry of big-name concerts, which this year included performances by Foreigner, Black Crowes, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Foot and Joan Jett, a big-buck custom bike show, a couple of beauty pageants, the Miss Laughlin contest and Hawaiian Tropic Model Search, and a pair of poker runs comprised of the wide-ranging, big-purse Early Bird Poker Run, and the American Heroes Charity Poker Run that takes the pack and the party over the mountain to Mother Road Harley-Davidson in Kingman in support of various veterans’ programs. And then there’s the shopping spree aspect of the deal, a sort of moto-miracle mile boasting bar-none the largest, densest concentration of motorcycle parts, products, accessories, apparel and rolling stock in creation. Rounding out the overall bill of fare are the doings out at the Avi Resort—which include daylong drag racing on Friday and Saturday and yet another expansive vendor zone—and the slate of parties and poker runs at Mother Road H-D in Kingman.
That’s the basic formula, but not the sum of the River Run’s attractions, at least not for me or anyone else enamored of desert riding and Route 66 lore and nostalgia. You can view the rally—as most do—as an obligatory hard charge across the wastelands to a neon oasis on the banks of the Colorado, or you can view it as something much richer, and something deserving of a little homework. With a good gazetteer (I use the Benchmark series) the whole desolate region comes alive with perspective and place names; the Newbury Mountains, Black Mountains, Cerbat Mountains, Dead Mountains, Black Mesa, Paiute Valley, Sacramento Valley, Detrital Valley, are just a few of the prominent landscape features that compose the immediate rally region, each distinctive in its way. The hardscrabble aura of old Route 66 is omnipresent in these parts as well. And the Route 66 Museum at the Powerhouse Visitors Center in Kingman is a treasure for roadside Americana fanciers, as are the vestigial diners, hotels and motels in the city’s historic district.
Also on the subject of historic Route 66, this year saw a happy development in the return of Roy’s Motel and Café, a famous landmark in the woebegone wide-spot town of Amboy, California. Long a popular fuel and socializing stop for River Runners riding up from Twentynine Palms and points south, as well as for riders detouring off of I-40 in order to faithfully follow the remnants of the Mother Road, Roy’s reopened for business on Friday the 25th after a three-year closure, and the gas pumps flowed once more. (Albeit with a gallon of premium going for $4.69—which sounds steep, but was actually only a dime more than the gougers in Needles were getting. In Kingman, the price was as low as $3.65.) Further restoration and development of the facilities and town are reportedly being planned.
The scale and dynamic of this year’s River Run were reflected in the police blotter tally which found arrests down by fully half from 2007. Traffic-related injuries were few—a half-dozen in all—but sadly a pair of fatalities resulted when two bikes collided head-on. Not accounted for in those numbers, though, was an accident on I-40 which occurred on Sunday during the mass migration home. Riding up upon the stalled traffic, I hit the white line and made my way to the head of the mess, and there a CHP cruiser was parking sideways in the road to block all passage while up ahead a group of bikes were parked on the shoulder and the riders were down in a roadside dry wash ministering to a rider who, I heard, had blown a tire and crashed. While scores of riders dismounted and milled about in the harsh desert sun waiting patiently and somewhat somberly for the highway to reopen, a guy got out of his RV with a case of bottled water and began distributing it. And then two bikers came up the white line, identified themselves as off-duty firefighters (sporting Wind and Fire patches), and the parked bikes were quickly moved out of the way to give them access to the wreck. It was a distressing finale to an enjoyable weekend, but also gratifying in the way my fellow River Runners responded to the situation.