LAUGHLIN, NEV., APR. 24-28–As I rode to the River Run this year, I observed what appeared to be a significantly larger number of bikes headed east than I’ve experienced in the last few years. Then, once I got to the Colorado Belle where I would be billeted for the weekend, I noticed that the line at the check-in desk seemed longer than usual. I wrote it off at first to unfortunate timing on my part, but then on Friday evening as I made my way through one casino after another, the gaming floors were doing land-office business and the bars were packed. The Riverside, Tropicana, River Palms, Edgewater and the Colorado Belle were reportedly at full capacity for the week, and by the end of the weekend, the Laughlin Tourism Commission estimated that the event grew by 15 percent over last year’s turnout—putting it somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000.
By way of verifying the improvement in this year’s attendance, I checked in with a number of vendors I’ve developed relationships with over the years. Doug at WindVest had good things to say, and Tim Melody of Old School Eyewear was upbeat. Mark Wolfram with Küryakyn was busy selling and installing his products, and “Smudge,” owner/operator of Fairfield Pinstriping, was all smiles when I dropped in at his booth.
It’s no secret that ever since members of the Mongols MC engaged in a shootout with some Hell’s Angels on the casino floor at Harrah’s in 2002 resulting in three deaths, the law enforcement presence during the River Run has become oppressive. Over the protests of casino owners, local merchants and, of course, River Run attendees, a phalanx of Vegas cops has been imported each year with instructions to come down hard on pretty much anyone for even the most trivial infractions. The ironic twist here is that despite the storm trooper tactics employed by the out-of-town bulls, attendance has continued to rise in recent years. This year I noticed a definite reversal of the get-tough policy displayed by law enforcement officers. To me it felt like an ominous pall had finally been lifted, leaving a light-hearted vibe to dominate the proceedings.
Of course it didn’t hurt the general ambiance of the scene that the amplified voice of Michelle Dell, the force behind Hogs & Heifers in Las Vegas, could be clearly heard 100 yards away in any direction as she held forth from atop the bar of that establishment, which had been set up on the sidewalk on South Casino Drive in front of the Edgewater Hotel and Casino. Though I never witnessed any parent covering their children’s ears or their eyes (those heifers/bar wenches were scantily clad), anyone who came within range of Michelle’s trademark bawdy banter got an earful. Let me put it this way: On the “Hyland scale of off-color expression” there’s objectionable, inappropriate, beyond-the-pale and then there’s what comes from Michelle’s diabolical mind.
Each year the Heroes Poker Run, which always starts on Friday of River Run weekend at 10:00 a.m. in the parking lot of the Tropicana Hotel and Casino, gives me a chance to see River Run co-founder Joe O’Day. Joe is always good for an opinion or two on a range of topics. As usual, there was a contingent of retired military men in attendance, always in good spirits and willing participants in the event. The Tropicana staff, under the supervision of Gwen Coroson, assistant marketing director for the Tropicana and the River Palms, had the proceedings running smoothly. Once again this year Scott Kellerman, co-owner of Antelope Valley Harley-Davidson in Lancaster, California, along with his wife Laurie ensconced in the passenger seat, led the procession of 336 riders plus 100 or so passengers out onto South Casino Drive. We rolled over to Highway 68 and made our way to Mother Road Harley-Davidson in Kingman, Arizona, some 30 miles away.
You can count on the scene in Kingman to be pure bedlam. There was a band cranking out tunes at a decibel level that exceeded a Harley with straight pipes revving for show, and there were also food vendors and trinket merchants aplenty. All the bikes in the dealership were arranged and displayed for maximum exposure. And then there was the vendor area. This year a number of major vendors chose to exhibit their wares at Mother Road H-D including Drag Specialties, Arlen Ness, Memphis Shades, Saddlemen and Cobra Pipes, among others.
Later that day, I carved up the eight-mile canyon section of Route 66 on the way from Mother Road H-D to Oatman, and then cruised on down the rest of Route 66 into Topock where I headed north on Route 40 to the Pirate Cove for some feminine eye candy. I then dropped by the Bullhead City Bike Fest put on by the SoCal Harley-Davidson Dealers Association in conjunction with the Bullhead City Chamber of Commerce at Bullhead City Community Park, which was renamed Harley-Davidson Park for the event. The site is situated on the river diagonally across from Harrah’s Hotel and Casino.
Once again this year, the Bullhead City Bike Fest featured a raffle with a new Harley-Davidson as the prize. There were Poker runs, tattoo artists, non-stop music from local bands and demo rides on the Harley fleet with Patrick Lilly, the head road captain from Mother Road Harley-Davidson, leading the rides. There was a classic car show, prize drawings and a vendor village that included a booth set up by the Law Tigers, who came onboard as a major sponsor of the event.
It was great to see Bullhead City Mayor Jack Hakim and a number of city and chamber of commerce officials mingling with the half-dozen dealers in attendance. Those dealers included Mark Ruffalo, owner of California Harley-Davidson; Scott Kellerman, co-owner of Antelope Valley H-D; John Morotti, owner of Mother Road H-D; Bill Bartels, owner of Bartels’ H-D; Rich Quaid, co-owner of Quaid H-D Temecula and Quaid H-D Loma Linda; and Richard Lillibridge, owner of Biggs H-D.
In the spirit of investigative journalism, I dropped in at the Aquarius Hotel and Casino on Saturday afternoon at around the same time that a member of the Vagos MC and a Hell’s Angel got into a dust-up in the lobby last year. The two security guards on duty were tight-lipped about any reference to the incident, but they were quick to let me know that so far this year there had been no security issues. The strict “NO COLORS” policy, which included what the posted signs referred to as “NO SOFT COLORS,” probably had a good deal to do with the lack of incidents this year.
For bikers throughout the Southwest and beyond, the pilgrimage to the Laughlin River Run has become a high priority rite of spring, but beyond the obvious lure of the gaming floors at the nine casinos on South Casino Drive in Laughlin, as well as the entertainment options available at the Avi Hotel and Casino located 15 miles to the south on Needles Highway, what events and attractions would draw such a large group to such a desolate area? Ride! The cruising around the area is legendary.
The longest contiguous stretch of Route 66 runs from Seligman, Arizona, west through Kingman, Arizona, southwest into Oatman and then south down to Topock on the Colorado River—a distance of 165 miles. There are still a few wayside businesses in operation between Seligman and Kingman, which make for great photo ops. As Route 66 enters the Kingman city limits, there are some character-rich bars that make for an entertaining pub-crawl. For a quick side trip, try taking Hualapai Road on up to the Hualapai Lodge. You’ll find a decent restaurant with a knotty-pine interior, but the real attraction is a small herd of elk grazing on feed put out by the restaurant staff.
Back down in Kingman, the Mother Road becomes Andy Devine Boulevard as it passes through the city. Check out the old town area then drop in on the Route 66 Museum. From the Museum parking lot you can turn left back on to Andy Devine and then take the first left to head south on Route 66. The road goes right and crosses under the 40 freeway before turning left towards Oatman. It doesn’t take long to get your fill of “quaintness” in that turn-of-the-century mining town. During the River Run, town officials allow a half-dozen semi-domesticated donkeys to roam Main Street, begging for handouts from bikers and other tourists.
If you happen to enjoy people watching, Route 66 (Main Street) in Oatman provides some of the most entertaining opportunities available in the state—hell, in the entire Southwest for that matter. Bikers and babes saunter up and down the street clogging traffic and trying to maintain their cool despite being challenged by donkeys, almost getting run over by fools in cages gawking at the sights and avoiding donkey droppings. Did I mention the cleavage displays prompted by the hot, sunny weather?
The Oatman Hotel is legendary for a couple of reasons. There are several thousand autographed dollar bills taped and stapled to the walls and ceiling, and Bogart and Lombard reportedly spent a night there during their honeymoon. The food is, well, I recommend the cocktails. If you bear left at the fork just southwest of town you’ll continue on down a picturesque section of Route 66 to Topock, a retirement community on the Colorado River. Heading north on Route 40 to the Park Moabi Road exit will take you to the Pirate Cove Marina. The food is great, but the main attraction during the River Run is the babes in bikinis cavorting on the decks of speedboats that have pulled in to pick up a card for their poker run that takes place in Lake Havasu that same weekend every year.
For a change of pace, try heading north out of Laughlin on Route 95 towards Vegas. Then turn right on Route 164 (Cottonwood Cove Road) to get to scenic Cottonwood Cove Marina on Lake Mojave, a ride of just under 35 miles, where they offer a plethora of watersport opportunities. You may also feel the urge to do some night riding, so I suggest heading up into the mountains to the west of town on Route 163. You don’t need to go all the way up—maybe eight miles or so and turn around—but the green glow from the Tropicana makes it look like you’re descending into Oz.
Of course, if you came to gamble and the slots and the tables in Laughlin are being unkind, you may want to roar on up to Las Vegas, a mere 96 miles to the north, and try your luck in Sin City.
I get a kick out of seeing my industry buddies and my media colleagues every year, but for me, a major motivating factor to attend the River Run is to ride in Arizona sans bucket. Over the years I’ve used different entrance driveways at establishments to turn off Route 95 on the Arizona side of the river so I can put my helmet back on before I cross the bridge back into Nevada. Remember, there’s no place to perform that task once you get on the bridge, and the state line runs down the center of the river.