LAUGHLIN, NEV., APRIL 25-29—For 30 years now the Laughlin River Run has shared a unique symbiosis with its host town, as the event has played a major role in the development, identity and reputation of Laughlin, and vice-versa. That relationship has also had an impact on the entire tri-state region both economically and in terms of popular perception, and while it’s impossible to know how those factors would be different had the original River Run never occurred, we do know from where we stand today that the two entities have shared one thing in common above all else: that of being long shots that have paid off big time.
It was 46 years ago that an enterprising young Las Vegas club operator with an eighth-grade education by the name of Don Laughlin renovated a derelict motel and bar on a dirt road beside the Colorado River at a bleak place called South Pointe, and opened for business with a dozen slot machines, a pair of gaming tables and four guest rooms. He named his establishment the Riverside Resort, and over the ensuing years it worked out pretty well for Don. So well, in fact, that when the time came 20 years later to bridge the Colorado and expedite access to what was in the process of becoming a mile-long stretch of hotels and gaming palaces along Casino Drive, Laughlin ponied up the $3.5 million construction cost out of his own pocket and then donated the span to the states of Nevada and Arizona. Chump change. In this famously mineral-rich precinct on the blistered edge of the Mojave Desert, peppered with gold and silver mines, it was a boarded-up motel that proved the richest strike of all.
By the time that bridge was completed in 1987, the River Run had already been taking place for five years. Over the 30 years of its existence, the
River Run grew from 400 participants in 1983 to a high-water mark of some 75,000 a decade ago. The number receded to the 30,000 level during the recent hard times, but rebounded nicely to the reported 43,000 who stayed over in town this year, and to explain that persistent popularity you need to look not at the harsh and far-flung locale, but at the calendar. Credit the run’s 30 years of booming life to the month of April when the pent-up juices of the winter-weary bikers are at the bursting point and in need of immediate purging, such that a spell in the desert and a spree in a casino sounds like a pretty good idea. They’ll endure heat, racket, traffic, cops and exorbitant prices to get relief. That’s the way it is with juices.
By contemporary standards that original turnout of some 400 or so riders might seem humble, but bear in mind that those participants rode a good distance across the emptiness of the Mojave to a little-known and woebegone casino destination in the infancy of its development. In that context it was a sizeable turnout for what was decidedly a wild-assed escapade at the time. It caught on, nonetheless, and it’s worth noting that what developed from there was the mother of all casino parking lot runs—also known as elevator runs, because you tend to spend more time riding an elevator to and from your hermetic high-rise hotel room than you do riding a motorcycle. While that concept originally struck most saddle tramp traditionalists as heresy, it’s proven visionary, establishing a whole new approach to a biker rally, one that has proliferated nationwide and which synchs perfectly with a demographic that’s grown older, more affluent, more sedentary, and more receptive to ever wider-ranging spins on what bikers are, where they’re willing to go, and what they’re willing to sleep on when they get there.
Even so, after 30 years the River Run remains something of an enigma. Rarely free of controversy, never free of a chorus of detractors who have freely deployed terms like Gestapo, hellhole and rip-off to color their point of view, the run has nonetheless continued to attract huge crowds of otherwise sensible bikers, without ever once in its history acknowledging any faults or backing away from its overt profiteering.
The River Run has also proven to be remarkably resilient throughout its long tenure, barely batting an eye at the brawl at Harrah’s in 2002 that left three dead and caused the cancellation of a number of established events across the country, and caused many others to be subjected to an unprecedented level of scrutiny from local governments and law enforcement. In Laughlin, that was just a cost of doing business. A reputation for wildly windy conditions and wicked weather incursions at times hasn’t dampened the resolve of the crowds much either. But what all those factors have done is leave the impression—especially in the minds of slavering motojournalist newshounds like myself—that in all likelihood something of extreme interest is going to happen, and if you’re not there you’re going to miss it.
Leading up to this year’s event that likelihood loomed large indeed. To start with, a pair of weather systems—a cyclonic high-pressure system
from the south and an anticyclonic low from the west—were meshing like gears just south of the Laughlin region in the days immediately prior to the run’s Wednesday kickoff. It was playing unseasonable havoc from Albuquerque to Flagstaff to L.A, and Laughlin lay in its path, so there was the tantalizing possibility of some humdinger happenings in the troposphere. Sweet.
Add to that possibility the question mark hanging over last year’s surprise reappearance of a sizeable contingent of patch-wearing Mongols MC members congregating conspicuously—and provocatively—at the Aquarius Hotel and Casino, previously called the Flamingo, and the one-time annual River Run headquarters of the Hell’s Angels. The presence of the club at the Aquarius outdoor Party Platform adjacent to Casino Drive as well as a fracas within the casino itself that caused a lockdown of the gambling floor for a number of hours naturally raised the specter that something might be in the offing come this year’s event, the 10th anniversary of the Harrah’s brouhaha.
And, finally, there would be the renewed major involvement on the agenda of the SoCal Harley-Davidson Dealers Association who had not only taken up residence at Harrah’s, promoting room and party packages there for attendees, but had partnered with the Bullhead City Chamber of Commerce to put on the inaugural Bullhead City Bike Fest on the opposing banks of the Colorado, a short water taxi ride away from the hotel. That event would play host to another notable return to the River Run mix, the Harley-Davidson demo ride fleet.
With all of those developments on top of the numerical significance of the 30th annual staging of the River Run, this promised to be a target-rich environment for reporters, and we brought in a redoubtable crew of Thunder Pressians, including both West Coast bureau chiefs PJ Hyland and Felicia Morgan, to cover as much of it as possible. After huddling at our digs in the Mother Ship (a.k.a. the Colorado Belle Hotel and Casino) we drew assignments, drew up detailed maps and itineraries, had a few cocktails, misplaced all the maps and itineraries, and stumbled off in our various random directions vowing to hook up again someday, somehow, somewhere. That’s how professionals operate in this racket.
Being the Big Picture guy of the Thunder Press crew, I figured I’d concentrate on what had been anticipated as the big news stories for 2012, and as things developed the first two turned out to be fizzles. On the frontal weather front, those two contentious systems had pretty much worked out their differences by the time the run officially started, and they did so beautifully. It did indeed rain somewhat on Wednesday night, but come the morning the aftermath created a drama of a different kind in the form of some of the most spectacular cloud formations I’ve ever witnessed over Laughlin and its mountainous surroundings. They brought a stunning depth and an ethereal quality of light to the rugged desert vistas—vistas whose usual sun-glared featurelessness came into vivid and awe-inspiring focus. For more than a few moments that day I totally understood what I now suspect was Don Laughlin’s attraction to, and vision for, this remote riverside wasteland. The remainder of the event enjoyed some of the most ideal riding, strolling and outdoor reveling conditions I’ve experienced there as well, with copious sun, mild breezes and temperatures that topped out in the low to mid 80s.
Also quick to fizzle was any indication at all that the 10th anniversary of Harrah’s shootout would bring any commemorative mayhem. After the
ominous doings at the Aquarius Party Platform last year, it seemed a natural assumption that that’s where things might again get dicey or out of control. That proved not to be the case, or, for that matter, even a possibility since the facility no longer existed. There was no place to play, no law enforcement presence there, and, in fact, the whole 10th anniversary subject never even came up in any conversation I was party to. Nothing to see here, folks. As a newshound, you can imagine my disappointment.
The third big story lead was the resurgence of the SoCal Dealers Association’s activities over the weekend, and the emergence of the Bullhead City Bike Fest as a cross-river counterpoint to the Casino Drive main event. PJ Hyland did a thorough job of documenting that story (see page XX), but I’d like to make one observation about that event that may be of some interest, and it’s this: When the River Run originated in 1983, Bullhead City didn’t even officially exist. It wasn’t incorporated until the next year. It now has a population of over 40,000 people—about five times that of Laughlin—and it’s high time they were more directly involved in all the fun going on across the river.
The layout along Casino Drive and at the eight participating hotel/casinos, the Riverside, Edgewater, Colorado Belle, Tropicana, Pioneer, Golden Nugget, River Palms and Harrah’s, followed the now-familiar format of parking lot vendor villages and party zones. The vendor population was a manageable 179 merchants spread among four of the casinos—a number comparable to the last few years. As we noted last year, that figure—half of what it was 10 years ago—represents the “new normal” and has the undeniable benefit of freeing up plenty of real estate for both party zones and convenient parking for itinerant shoppers and revelers.
Official 2012 attendance figures reported an increase in out-of-town overnight turnout of 30 percent over last year, but you’d scarcely notice from the smooth way traffic moved, and the efficiency with which service was rendered at the eating and drinking establishments we patronized this year. As in recent years, there remained rooms available at the major hotels during the event for the impulsive types figuring on just showing up. The once omnipresent law enforcement was satisfyingly low-key as well. Police were inconspicuous in town, and while riding the once heavily-patrolled and checkpoint-interrupted Boundary Cone Road up to Oatman on Friday, for example, I spotted exactly one patrol car.
That pretty much describes the general tenor of things this year. A sense of easy coexistence prevailed for the entire duration of the event, and it was hard to find anyone complaining or anything to complain about. Laughlin and the River Run have grown up together for 30 years now, and have reached a certain maturity in their relationship, and this year the payoff was a great time for a multitude of bikers and a lucrative time for the entire region. So that’s nice. But bear in mind that this is, after all, the Laughlin River Run. Who knows what might happen next year?