The First Trip in New Baleau- Autumn of 1981 A Leave of Absence Leads to a Most Memorable Trip Part XII

I bought a roll of silvers so that I could put my $20 worth in to the kilowatt surge by playing the inane one-arm bandits. Gambling had never been part of my temperament. I was never good at poker because I was terrible at bluffing. In essence, when dealing in hard, cold cash, I would literally “choke up” when confronted with having to out-wit the guy across the table. I had always managed a conservative life-style when it involved money…I was not a risk-taker. But being conservative doesn’t automatically exclude one from the gambling world.

When it came to a life-style philosophy, Dad would have been sandwiched between Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, Jr., but he loved to gamble, in moderation, of course.. He was almost unbeatable at poker, and he would usually win at the crap table. His mind was wired in to numbers and he had an uncanny sense of odds and probabilities. Those particular genes were never passed down to me.

Oh, I could add a column of figures in my head as fast as a calculator, and mentally execute the other three rudiments of math with inexorable ease. To ease the paralysis of dull stretches of Interstates, I got into the habit of doing mathematical calculations in my head, not just for my own information, like figuring the average miles per hour driven up to that point (102.5 miles divided by 3.3 hours, including pit stops), but also to keep the cobwebs from collecting in the old cerebrum. Sorry, I seem to have digressed somewhat.

As I was gazing at the endless rows of slot machines being jerked and stared at by robot-like bipeds, I tried to fathom any semblance of thought process or simple logic to use in confronting those money-gulping machines. Then the odds and probabilities hypothesis hit me; the chances for a return on an investment should be greater from a slot that had been previously pumped full of silvers with no, or little, profit to show for all that frenetic funding. I stood at a vantage point where I could observe several middle-age female patrons as they fed, pulled, and then scrutinized the spinning fruitballs.

Neither of the ladies were having any luck, my patience being finally rewarded, as one of the wanting women wandered off, giving the bandit an obscene parting gesture. Well, my Einsteinian theorizing paid off, but not before feeding the insatiable monster a five-roll dinner until I had netted a “profit” of $120. During that frenzied feeding, whenever I hit a sizable payoff (meaning I had all my cherries in a row), I got a taste of the addictive power that gambling could bear on a person. When 80 silvers came clattering into the metal pan (the sound of which I called acoustical profits), it didn’t matter that I was on my third roll of 20’s. I felt like I had “won” $80. If I could win that much, why not try for more? I was in grip of chance.

Another casino ruse was the mirror backing on the coin-catching trough, giving the illusion to the susceptibly deceived patron that he or she was gazing down on almost twice as much coinage as he or she actually had. One gaming rule that I retained from Dad was to take only what I could afford to lose into the casino…leave the rest in a safe place. When I walked out of that plenum of profit pursuance and took a deep breath of the clean night air, I thought of the darkness and stillness of a world not too far away. It was a pleasant walk back to The Sundance.

Gambling was strictly a nocturnal activity, as far as I was concerned. The next day only reinforced my desire to avoid the bizarre and windowless interiors of the gaming halls, and instead, to enjoy the great outdoors. And what a day it was: dry and clear, a Colorado blue sky with the temperature about 75 degrees.

It was a perfect day for lolling around the pool, reading and scribbling some travel notes. I ventured over to my old friend, the Holiday Inn, that evening, just to check out their layout. There was a paucity of slot players, so I wasn’t able to assay my odds and probabilities supposition. After the fortuitous fortunes of the night before, I was satisfied just to break even. I tried to not get absorbed in to hoping that I could achieve the gambler’s quintessence, that is, to parlay one’s winnings into even bigger fortunes.

You know, I admitted to myself that I felt silly standing in front of that stupid machine, stuffing it with silvers, and feeling like I was pulling the arm out of its socket. In order to compensate for my self-consciousness, I found myself shifting my weight back and forth, keeping my non-pulling hand busy with a cigarette or a soda (I would even show off my ambidexterity by left-handed pulls), and continuously glancing around at all the other banal activity. All those shenanigans were just a ploy to show that I wasn’t completely mesmerized by the blur of the spinning fruits.

During one of my trips to the elevated exchange/change booths, I struck up a conversation with the lady attendant. With each succeeding silver purchase, the rapport was casual and friendly. It was around midnight as I sauntered by her booth on my way to an exit, when I heard her voice softly projecting: “I get off at 12:30”. Well, I was still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, so I hung around until her replacement came to relieve her. While we were having a drink at the bar on her “casino account”, I learned that Joanne lived in Sparks (10 miles east on I-80) and commuted by taxi.

She was a divorcee in her late thirties with a teenage son, all of which seemed to be a typical position for a woman of her age. What I found atypical about her life was that she had never been east of Nevada, therefore, lending our conversation primarily to her inquisitiveness about where I had lived and traveled. I thought it would be a gratuitous gesture to give her a ride home, for which she was very obliging. Joanne lived in one of those indigenous institutions known as trailer (or mobile) home parks (or communities), their unnerving ubiquitousness being most prevalent west of the Continental Divide.

What piqued my inclinations was the paradox of the parked home…probably 90 per cent were never pulled along the open road, but at the same time, their appearance always exuded an air of intransigence despite the profalactive flowerboxes inevitably hiding the cobwebbed wheels. I did have a pleasant surprise – the rectangular box camouflaged the spaciousness inside. We talked over a cup of coffee and then I made my way back to the Frisbee’s Inn in the wee hours of the morning. My neighbor’s room was dark, so I guessed she had got her quota for the night.

The next day, Saturday, October 31st, had a definite air of the forthcoming winter – a cold northwest wind had whisked in a gray cloud cover. Unlike the day before, it was perfect for staying indoors. And what better way to spend it than to watch college gridiron clashes on the ol’ tube. That evening I revisited the Holiday Inn and chatted with Joanne during her breaks.

The joint was really jumpin’ with what seemed like hordes of football fanatics, festive over their fortunes of that evening. I was sitting at a vacant blackjack table just watching all the crazed celebrants when suddenly I found myself absorbed into a “gang of eight from Boise State” (they were Boise residents, not students). Nevertheless, they were whooping it up over their home team’s rousing defeat of archrival Nevada Reno. Even though the schools were in Division II A, it was big time football for those folks. The atmosphere bordered on the bacchanalia of Texas – O.U. bashes in Dallas every October. No sooner than I had revealed that I had never even set foot in the state of Idaho, they all extended an invitation (no decline accepted) to come up to Boise, that is, if I learned to pronounce the city’s name correctly (phonetically, Boy-see, with no accents).

One of the distaff side of the group, a lady named Sam, was particularly adamant about me visiting the Potato State since she offered her phone number. Well, I thought, why not? They were such a hospitable bunch, they could have charmed the fur off a fox. I performed one more taxi service for Joanne and told her it was time to move on. She was a little disappointed, but understood. I also told her how grateful I was to have had a friend in what could have otherwise been a very lonely place.

There I was, 18 years hence, driving along the same general roadbed in the opposite direction with old U.S. 30 having been superseded by I-80. Much to my delight, remnants of the Lincoln Way were still visible, thereby excavating the memories of spending a real “night on the road”. I actually did spend an overnight in somewhat the same vicinity, only it was cradled securely amongst the 18-wheelers at a spacious and commodious rest area.

It had been lightly snowing in Reno when I left, so I was all the more anxious to head in the general direction of Denver, albeit I was detouring a little to the north to see a new state, a new town, and a new friend. That was the coldest night that I had experienced on my autumn-turning-quickly-to-winter odyssey and I was giving myself a little pat on the back for having installed all that batt insulation wherever possible (the blankets and down cover helped, also).

The next morning I awoke to a clear, cold, and windy day – my least favorite weather conditions. It always gave me a lonely feeling, kind of like an unforgiving had blown away the protective cloud cover. The plains Indians had a word for just such a day, but I couldn’t recall it. I figured it was that scintilla of native blood in me that precipitated that friendless feeling. Anyway, I was even more determined to get on the road, bound for new faces and new places.

At Winnemucca on I-80, I turned north on U.S. 95 and drove through more unending emptiness. A sign denoting “open range” meant that cattle could roam freely from one side of the highway to the other. “Holy hunger cramps”, I thought, as all I could see for those cows to feed on was half-and-half – one part dirt to one part scrubby sage. And then there were the semi-paved roads, one of which read, “Paradise Valley – 29”, that seemed to take off into the middle of nowhere. I shouted out through the openness to the nothingness, “What the heck do you people do out there?”

My urban disposition just couldn’t comprehend all that rurality. I was noticing that there wasn’t even any billboards to disrupt the unlimited panorama when suddenly a huge placard emerged, announcing that I was fast approaching the endmost edge of silverdom…McDermitt, the last chance to lose your hide. In the parlance of penniless poker players: “I ended up buying the table, but there wasn’t room enough on the plane to bring it home.” The crass commercialism of the casino seemed even more tasteless and removed when situated as it was, all by itself on a rock-strewn, treeless site. Even in the glaring daylight, the neon tubes were pulsating with methodical messages which numerated: “94% Winnings at Slots”, “One Free Car a Day”, and “A 6% Chance to Lose Your Hide”. What garish gall they had! I wasn’t about to be seduced by their “Come On In And Win” proposition. I just waved an “Adios” and sped and fled to the safety of Oregon’s prohibitive gambling state.

The desolate landscape of Nevada seemed to bleed over into southwestern Oregon. Yellow, diamond-shaped “Beware of Bad Bull” markers and dirt roads leading to, only God seemed to know where, “Infinity – 68 Miles”, were still in evidence. Something was curiously familiar about the identification of the potential danger that a stray steer might inadvertently meander across the roadway (or get to the other side, of course).

Then it struck me right between the horns…the black (angus) silhouette unequivocally resembled that all too familiar logo of the world’s biggest and best known brokerage firm. I wondered who was first with the idea. During one interminable stretch of highway, my eyes-straight-ahead concentration was distracted by something one could see only in the vastness of several western states (in particular, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Nevada). A sizable mountain range was running parallel to the highway at a considerable distance to the west (I guessed the ridge line to be about 10 miles away).

Typical of most ranges was the long, gradual upslope from the basin below to the base of the peaks. There was one of those mysterious dirt roads, barely discernible, etched in the inclined terrain and disappearing into a canyon. On that over-sized towpath was a motor vehicle (99 out of 100 it was a pickup) emitting a rooster-tail of dust as it streaked toward the mountain base. What made the scene all the more fascinating was that the sun was glinting off the top of the vehicle. I thought it was incredible that I could clearly see an object moving at that distance. My fantasies shifted into gear: The U.S. Calvary had just been spotted by a lone Sioux scout, and the Mustang-mounted brave was high-tailing back to his tribe with his surveillance report. There were no dumb heroes in that regiment…they high-tailed it back to the fort. Only in the wild and wonderful west!

As I rounded a curve and met yet another seemingly endless straight swath of asphalt, I tested myself with a couple of mind-rattling games that Mom and Dad used to play with me to keep my mind void of worrying about when the next attack of car-sickness was going to erupt. One such test was to estimate the distance to where the highway seemed to dead-end into the faraway mountain (of course, Dad wanted the guesstimates to include the tenths). The other riddle, more appropriate to Mom’s aptitude, was to guess which way the road turned once we had reached the mystic end. Needless to say, Dad usually won the odometer test while the “either it turns to the right or left” game was so chancy that at least two of the three of us would win. In any case, the ploy having played itself out after 14.3 miles, I usually went-agrabbin’ for the upchuck bag.

At least I could entertain myself with those games au solitaire. The three of us were addicts at playing the alphabet game with billboards (“No fair finding letters inside the city limits”), but ever since Lady Bird’s Highway Beautification Act, that source of self-entertainment had pretty much vanished from the American roadscape. Along with the clean-up-our-act campaign, pure economics had forced many colorful advertisements into retirement.

I felt fortunate being able to remember some of them, especially one that was most assuredly the first inductee in the Ad Hall of Fame (I’d bet the signs were in the Smithsonian by now). I could still recall one quatrain in white letters on four succeeding green boards followed by the fifth one with the product’s name: “In the Days/…Of the Caesars/…They Pulled Whiskers/…Out With Tweezers/…BURMA-SHAVE”. Well, to get back to the game at hand, my estimation was within four-tenths of the actual mileage, but I missed on the road’s directional turn (not literally). It kept the cerebral cobwebs clear of the cranium.

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