The Summer of 1998 Part IX

I also had the prescience to load brother Bill’s bike on the back so I could have a pedaling partner. As we set out, Blaine’s usual cautionary mode surfaced when he looked back and saw the bikes bouncing around on back and asked, “Do you think they’re secure enough?” All I could say was, “Buddy, I can see the handle-bars in the rear-view mirror. It’s when I can’t see them, I know we’re in trouble.” We set up camp at designated site no. 312, then took off on the bike trails to do some exploring. We eventually found the historical area the lady at the check-in lodge had told us about. In a nutshell, it was an assemblage of buildings (a lodge, boathouse, and pavilion) constructed in the early 1920’s for the affluent San Franciscans to retreat to and satiate themselves in the simplistic pleasures of the time-croquet, badminton, ballroom dancing, strolling on the pier, and a steamboat excursion around the lake. Then the sights and sounds of a bygone era started creeping into my mind: exquisitely dressed women with parasols and tuxedoed gentlemen, strolling the grounds as they waited for the big band to start playing. And, of course, everyone arrived by train, the elite in their own Pullman car…what a grand way to travel and enjoy the scenery. We biked back to our site with a whole new concept of how people entertained themselves back in the Golden Age.

What made this excursion such an unexpected treat was that our campsite had a pile of rocks around an ash-filled pit…the genuine article for outdoor cooking (as opposed to the aforementioned upright metal monstrosity). Actually, it came as no surprise, since I specifically inquired as to whether the campground had such an amenity when I was calling around for vacancies. And since we had that fortuitous info, we filled up the van with firewood “borrowed” from brother Bill’s more than ample stash of logs and kindling wood. I was really eager to exercise my expertise in building a perfect cook-fire. It had been many, many years since I had someone to campout with, so I couldn’t help but show off a little. First, I used my little G.I. shovel to clean out the pit, then I stacked the rocks just right to support my cook-grille.

My log-splitter came in handy for breaking up the larger chunks into more volatile pieces. I bridged the pit with several long logs, on top of which the kindling was placed, and on top of that I carefully placed some of the split halves. With a few pages of the Rocky Mountain News crumpled up under this pile of timber, I used but one match to ignite the conflagration. We were well on our way to having one heck of a cooking fire. The menu was wieners on a wire with a compliment of chili with beans (heated in a saucepan). As darkness fell, I dredged out one more of my camping accoutrements – a butane lantern. I held my breath as I clicked that sucker on…the delicate filament was still intact. What a blessing that was. I couldn’t have been happier for Blaine…he was in hog heaven, as they say in the east Tennessee hill country. It was like an aphrodisiac for him – cooking out over a fire and scoping the young ladies.

A young man soliciting fire wood from the back of his flatbed truck approached us with a deal we couldn’t refuse…we bought five dollars worth just in case. Blaine rationalized our purchase with, “He was just a guy trying to make a living…an entrepreneur on wheels.” With that kind of Botkin reasoning, I couldn’t disagree. After an excruciating hour of situationing and positioning his bedroll in relation to the campfire and the planets, my buddy finally rolled himself to sleep under the stars. The anticipated ursine fears had all but evaporated, since we had taken all the precautionary measures not to leave any incidentals laying about that would attract our bear friends. I laid in my van bed, gazing up at the constellations and chuckling to myself…I was recalling how I jocularly told Blaine not to leave his perfume and chocolate candy laying around.

The next morning, we split a six-pack of eggs, cooked over-easy in my ten-inch cast iron skillet (with toast and jam and left-over wieners as substitutes for sausage). Unfortunately, my partner-in-camping did not have as good a night’s sleep as he had anticipated, due mainly to, as he put it, “bumpy ground”. In spite of that, he said, “It was all well worth it, laying there under the stars. It’s been too long since I’ve done this”. Again, I was happy for him. I could still use my erstwhile coffee pot for boiling water for cleaning our utensils (I had eschewed java for almost a year because of its association with lighting up a cigarette). We toured the grounds on our bikes to scope out other sites for future reference. We agreed that if and when we camped out again, Camp Richardson would be our choice. Along with the usual restrooms, it also had shower facilities…we felt lucky to be there.

Stateline was just a whipstitch down the road, but the gelatinous-like traffic protracted the trip immeasurably. The one solace of the drive was panning the myriad motel activity along the highway, most of which beckoned road-weary travelers with their cutesy and colorful signage (Log Cabin Courts, Whispering Pines, Dew Drop Inn, Totem Pole Lodge, etcetera), And they all appeared so cozy and comfortable (most of them being one level), a delightful departure from the homogenized chain motels one encounters along the Interstates.

As we inched along in traffic, I had time to jest with my companion about what I deemed to have been a bloated bear scare perpetrated on us by the young lady at the check-in desk. I said to Blaine, “You know, in all the remote, mountainous retreats where I’ve camped out, I’ve never, ever, seen a wild beast of any kind. I do believe I have an anti-animal aura about me that repels undomesticated creatures”. Anticipating my friend’s cautionary retort, I quickly added, “Hey, don’t worry…I never leave any enticements laying around outside the van, and that includes perfume and chocolates”.

I turned left at Harrah’s (right on the Nevada state line), and we start the interminable search for a cheap motel room. The inflated weekend rates were in effect all over the place. Blaine opted to go the pedestrian route (instead of biking as I would have done), so I trolled behind him in O1′ Baleau, meandering from block to block. The motel marquees unabashedly sported gaming motifs – Ace in a Hole, Lucky 7, Easy Eight, etcetera. Perseverance finally paid off, as ole Blaine boy somehow telekinetically found an unpretentious motel of sorts, the appearance of which resembled a re-shuffled apartment dwelling. Never you mind, the nightly rate was $18.00. He jumped on that like a chicken on June bugs. There was only one parking space available, and that was right in front of “our” room no. 3 (we were splitting the cost).

As I was changing into my casino dudes inside the van, one of those quirky afternoon thunderstorms descended on Lake Tahoe. I rode out the deluge with a glass of wine, while contemplating all the good fortunes that had been bestowed upon us over the last 24 hours. I was thinking about all those unfortunate soles at Camp Richardson, ducking for cover as their campfires smoldered in the downpour. “Was all this a portend of what our luck could be at Harrah’s?”, I asked Blaine after the rains had subsided. “I hope so, Bubba”, he said, “I really hope so”.

As it turned out, of Lady Luck left us at the front door to Harrah’s. But no matter, we had a fine time anyway, pulling slots and playing blackjack. When you lose, you lose, but in the interim winning a couple of big pots made the whole evening worth the while. I’d hit a couple of Double Diamonds with a Triple Bar, and out would pour 360 one dollar silvers (“I need a bucket…where’s a bucket?”). I’d have to admit, it gave me a rush, fleeting as it was. The casino floor took on the ambience of one big party – people milling around in a holiday mood, and cute cocktail waitresses offering free alcoholic libations. Pour and mix well with TV’s continuously blaring sporting events and an array of live musical performers, and you have hedonism at its apogee. One of the nightly entertainers was Sonny Turner (formerly with The Platters) who, along with his new accompanists, dished out a medley of “oldies but goodies” from the ’60s and ’70s. Excuse the jaded phrase, but it was a “blast from the past”.

When I wasn’t gambling, I just enjoyed sitting and observing the whole operation. For example, one of the least redeeming occupations of mankind had to be the “overseers of the tables”, or the “stooges” as I called ’em. These were the suit-and-tie gnomes whose sole purpose in life was catch any cheating, either by dealers or customers. These “guardians of good faith” strolled about behind the tables, hands clapsed behind their pork-trailers, looking so smug in their pretentious role of asserting authority. I almost felt sorry for those poor guys. At least, they had a job. I watched a blackjack dealer, “setting up” her table in readiness for the players – it was tantamount to a surgeon preparing for an operation with her dexterity in handling the decks of cards.

It was hypnotic watching her. I also got my kicks by looking up at the ceiling and facetiously waving to the “goons on the catwalks” behind the glass (mirrored) panels. Just imagine what their honorarium would be when they caught someone cheating the house (how does one cheat at slots?). My mortal fear was they would drag me off to some subterranean chamber and threaten to amputate several digitals with a skill saw unless I confessed to my subterfuge. Imagination running amuck. One curiosity common to casinos was there were no clocks. As I thought about it, a time-mechanism seemed incongruous in this hermetically sealed environment, where day and night melded imperceptibly. As I was about to leave the den of inequity, I could hear the ubiquitous outcry of some lucky crap-shooter who probably had just rolled a “hard eight” to win a big pot. I turned to Blaine as we exited and said, “Isn’t that Lady Luck standing over there next to that light post? Guess she didn’t feel like joining us tonight.” “Yeah, he replied, I sure missed her.”

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