“Deal me in.”
I flopped a Grant on the table.
The grey-haired lady slips the $50 bill into the coffer with a crooked smile that matches her crooked hat and I think to myself that I’d better watch this one, she probably deals off the bottom of the deck. Makes me nervous when they never stop smiling. Somebody hits a jackpot back on the Colorado Belle’s casino floor, bells sound and yellow lights twirl. I wonder if it’s an omen or whether this gambling houses’ luck has been dried up.
The red and black carpets of the riverboat gambler-style casino are worn thin from foot traffic. The smell of smoke has taken up permanent residence indoors, an invisible layer that clings to walls, floors, ceilings. I hide my gaze behind dark sunglasses like the pros on TV.
I size up the competition from behind the amber lenses of my Oakley Monster Dogs. Leather-vested veterans wear billboards of patches from past rallies. I look close at the long haired, cowboy hat-wearing guy in front of me. Is that Chris Ferguson? Competition is going to be fierce. Seems like I wasn’t the only hombre looking to score a chunk of the $4000 in cash and prizes up for grabs in Laughlin’s Early Bird Poker Run.
“Draw,” she tells me.
Kingman, Arizona’s Mother Road Harley-Davidson was a miniature Laughlin, with booths, vendors, food, and live entertainmant. They really went all out to be the first stop of the Poker Run.
I reach into the bag and grab my first number. It’s a blind draw. I won’t know my hand until the end of the poker run. She hands me a yellow map with directions to my next stop. I study the list, about five turns in a 40-mile jaunt to Kingman, AZ. The next card will be dealt at Mother Road Harley-Davidson. I fold the paper carefully, securing it into my chest pocket, and head out the smoked glass doors of the casino.
I scan the sea of bikes outside the Colorado Belle for my ride. Even in an ocean of chrome, it’s easy to find the 2008 Big Dog Pitbull. Its stretched, one-piece steel fuel tank sets it apart from the rounded tanks of the Harleys that surround it. I thumb the starter on the 117 cubic inch S&S-powered motorcycle and breathe in my morning cocktail of spent fuel and carbon monoxide. A twist of the throttle unleashes an auditory treat, a chest-pounding thrum of a V-Twin that echoes off the side of the nearby Edgewater casino. A car alarm goes off in the distance and serves as my starting gun.
Crossing over the Laughlin Bridge I turn left as Bullhead City, Arizona quickly becomes a speck in my side view mirror. The road begins to steepen as the highway crests at a spot between two monolithic boulders. It’s early spring but already the land is brown and dry, the earthy canvas broken on occasion by the spindly green leaves of water-hording Yuccas. The land is hard and desolate with little suffering for fools.
The road continues to rise. I see a green 4000-foot elevation sign and continue to climb. The torque-filled Pitbull makes quick work of the ascent. A stiff crosswind jabs me in the chest, but I just roll on the accelerator harder, more determined. A buzzard up ahead feeds on roadkill, waits until I’m almost upon it before taking flight. I run over its black shadow in my path. I ride on as the wind whispers the secrets of the Mojave.
The saloon girls in Kingman know how to show wayward cowboys a good time. Unfortunately, I was on a mission so I didn’t have time for a cold drink and some good company.
Kingman is no longer the little truck stop in the desert that I remember. Despite rows of buildings that have replaced sandy lots, the supersized Bar & Shield on the arch of Mother Road Harley-Davidson lets me know I’m in the right place. A live band jams under a big white tent as the smell of greasy fair food fills the air. I make my way through the crowd admiring the turquoise and silver of a local craftsman, determined to get in and out quickly with my card. I take my second draw and hide it from the long haired Chris Ferguson look-alike who came out of nowhere behind me. My second card secured, I pull out the yellow sheet with directions to my next stop. It’s going to be a haul, starting with a 70-mile stretch on I-40 West. And me on a rigid.
Big rigs have chewed the road to hell on the interstate out of Kingman. The Pitbull’s 41mm telescopic fork is doing its damnedest to smooth out the front end, but hitting hidden chuckholes at 75 mph has the impact of a medicine ball to the gut. Dual springs and thick padding on the leather solo seat save me from the majority of hard knocks, but the road is brutal. I cut back my speed and ride cautiously until the road smoothes out beyond the city limits.
The strip of I-40 I’m traveling on is called the Purple Heart Trail. The Purple Heart Trail was established in 1992 by the Military Order of the Purple Heart. It is a symbolic trail throughout all 50 states to commemorate the men and women who have been wounded or killed in combat while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. The stretch I’m on cuts through a great arid valley surrounded by treeless mountains. The wind that was cool in the mountain passes above Kingman is now hot and headstrong. I zip down the front of my leather Shift 967 jacket to cool out. My shirt inflates from the blast of hot air as I pop the Pitbull into sixth gear. The V-Twin’s exhaust spreads out in shock waves across the flat countryside, a booming, bass-filled note.
The straight sprint down I-40 takes a little less than an hour. The sign for Golden Shores up ahead means it’s time to exit the freeway. I pull over at the end of the off ramp and reach in my shirt’s chest pocket to check my map. It’s gone. Opening up my jacket may have helped cool me down but it also blew the map right out of my pocket.
Hooch’s was the antithesis of the Mother Road stop. If it weren’t for this sign, I’d have ridden right by it and probably ended up lost in the desert.
I do my best to turn on my photographic memory but the memory card is empty. The word ‘Hooch’s’ keeps going through my head. With a 50/50 chance, I follow my instincts and go right. A few miles of riding with no one in sight makes me question my decision until I finally catch up to a group of riders headed in the same direction.
A white electric billboard with busted out lights and a black arrow on top point to an old adobe building, signaling that I have found my next destination. If there was any mistake, black lettering on the sign states “Hooch’s Open 6AM – Bikers Welcome.” The circus-like atmosphere of the Mother Road stop will not be found here. The building is small and unassuming. If not for the sign and the bounty of bikes parked out front, I would have ridden right by it.
The only way to the outside patio and my next card is through a bar filled with loud conversations and a group of bikers taking the liberty of being outside of Laughlin to don their colors. Hooch’s is a true biker haunt, a place that feels dark even at midday. I feel the eyes of the vest-wearing guys giving me the once over.
Without a map, I’m screwed. The lady who dealt me my third card gives shaky directions. A fatal accident on County Route 1 has caused the route to be changed. I scribble down what she says – left at the stop sign, go 17 miles, look for the ‘Y’ in the road, stop at the Avi Casino. Ambiguous at best. I leave with a pack of riders hoping they are part of the Poker Run.
We made it! With the 2008 Big Dog Pitbull providing the punch, we found the vaunted patch of pavement affectionately refered to as Old Route 66. We didn’t need no stinkin’ map, either.
Exiting Topock, Arizona, the road quickly narrows to single-lane cross traffic. The road gets much curvier, rolling up and down through dry washes and past flash flood warning signs. The asphalt is a lighter grey than the stretch of I-40 I was just on and it doesn’t take long before I realize I’m on Historic Route 66. Alone, in the middle of the desert, and with no map at my disposal, I feel like a pioneer. How many tires have rolled over this small patch of pavement before me heading West with dreams of success?
The road comes to a ‘Y’ at Boundary Cone Road. Motor homes have set up shop in a temporary roadside market at the convergence of the two roads. I had written down “go left at the Y” but the majority of the bikers in front of me go straight. I roll the dice and keep the Pitbull aimed forward.
Rolling over a short hill, traffic comes to a stop. What look like Indian ruins or an abandoned mine sit on an outcrop to my right. A dark haired girl sells tacos by the side of the road at the turn into a makeshift parking lot behind a row of rustic buildings. A weathered sign welcomes riders to Oatman, Arizona.
Worn wooden buildings with hitching posts line the streets as vixens in turn-of-the-century garb stand enticingly in the open doors of old saloons as player piano music chimes in the background. I ramble by the Glory Hole and down the main street, the sidewalks so choked with people that making progress is impossible. I poke my head into the historic Oatman Hotel and wonder how many dollar bills have been tacked up on its walls. I listen for the ghosts of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, former guests of the motel who stayed there on their honeymoon. Walking through the mining town of Oatman is like turning back the clock on history 100 years. I want to stop at Olive Oatman’s Ice Cream Saloon and grab me a big scoop but finding the table for my next card takes priority so I press on.
Modern two-wheeled marauders pulled up to the hitchin’ posts of the Glory Hole in the historic mining town.
I head back down the stretch of Route 66 which brought me into Oatman, back to the Y of my indecisiveness. I take my place in a long two-wheeled convoy headed back toward Laughlin on Boundary Cone Road. Riders traveling in the other direction give us a hand signal to slow down. An Arizona State Trooper sits on the side of the road about a half mile up, radar gun in hand as he strictly enforces the 45 mph speed limit.
After about half an hour the ziggurat-styled building of the Avi rises like a mirage out of the desert. In an area starved for water, the resort’s palm trees and green grassed golf course seems out of place. The sense of history instilled in me at Oatman wanes. The Avi Resort and Casino is clean and contemporary, neon lights and valet parking. I pull in with my hair twisted by the wind, my lips dry and cracking, my face sunburned and sweaty. Despite my grungy appearance, the doorman greets me like royalty.
With the last card in my pocket, I cut over to Needles Hwy for the 11-mile run back into Laughlin. It’s almost 2:45 and all hands have to be turned in to the Colorado Belle by 4 o’clock. With 1916cc of power in the palm of my right hand, the Pitbull begs to be open up again but traffic is heavy and the road well-patrolled. I get back to the Belle with an hour to spare.
Somehow the long haired Ferguson look-alike has beaten me back. I stand behind him in line, holding the envelope containing my cards while I wait to have my hand validated. I peek over his shoulder while he reveals his pair of Kings. Not bad for a straight five card draw. I knew this guy was a ringer.
I get up to the scorer’s table to turn in my hand. The scorer reveals my first card. Seven of diamonds. An auspicious start, but I hold onto a glimmer of hope. I see my second card. A five of hearts. No help. A nine of hearts follows. Plenty of red cards but different suits, so a flush is out of the question. My fourth card is an eight of clubs. I’m holding a five,seven, eight and nine – maybe I can pull out a straight. Even a small straight should put me in the winnings. I hold my breath while she reveals my last card – a deuce of spades. I’ve got a hand full of crap. I leave the table, down a fifty, but I can’t complain. In the spirit of the Wild West, I had ridden hard through the harsh landscape of the Mojave, over the historic grade of Route 66, and turned the pages of time with my visit to Oatman. Though my poker hand may have been a bust, I still leave Laughlin with a rich cache of memories.
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