Escape from Salt Lake
The teams in the West Regional are transported to Energy Solutions Arena in buses that say "Le Bus" on the side, in pink. It's a touch of real French class in a city known mostly for the Mormon church. Would you believe that this same coach line also makes multiple daily trips across the Salt Flats to West Wendover, a town on the Utah-Nevada border that exists solely to sate Utahans' gambling fix? Le Bus carts busloads of (mostly elderly) folk to the Montego Bay and the Wendover Nugget, where they pull slots and eat the $15.95 buffet and then come back to sleepy Salt Lake or Ogden or Orem, pockets lighter, bellies heavier.
My old high school friend Jessy, who's lived in Salt Lake for six years, told me about West Wendover with equal parts excitement and disgust. He said Anthony Hopkins filmed The World's Fastest Indian out in the Bonneville Flats and stayed in Wendover during the shoot; when Hopkins described the town on Conan O'Brien's show in 2005, the actor called it "the armpit of America." I tried to find that Conan clip on YouTube, and had no luck, so I asked Jessy if he was certain that Hopkins' metaphor was "armpit."
"If it wasn't 'armpit,'" he said, "it was something like armpit. The point is the place is dirty."
Three days in Salt Lake can make you yearn for dirt. Downtown SLC can be eerily empty and clean. When I walked the 12 blocks back to my hotel from the arena after the Sweet 16 games at 2 a.m., I encountered only four living persons and one piece of litter. Someone, perhaps a dejected Syracuse or Xavier fan, had discarded a ticket stub from the doubleheader. I'm not normally inclined to ground-scoring, but this stub was in mint condition -- even the Salt Lake litter is pristine -- and it was from one of the best nights of basketball I've ever covered. I pocketed it as a souvenir of an upset (Butler's) and an epic (K-State's). There was a day to kill -- and games to watch from St. Louis and Houston -- before the Bulldogs and Wildcats were set to play here, with a trip to the Final Four at stake. I rented a car and called Jessy on Friday at noon and told him we were making the two-hour drive to Wendover.
The casinos in West Wendover are the closest sports books to an NCAA tournament venue this season. I'll get to that. But first, the ride: Three-quarters of the reason for making the trip at all -- and the whole reason for doing it in the daylight -- is the scenery: Wide-open, surreal, incomparable vistas for miles upon miles, starting with the Great Salt Lake itself on the right, and the Oquirrh Mountains on the left. I was at the wheel, just kind of staring out at the lake, when a blue tarp blew off the top of a black SUV about 200 yards ahead of us. Cargo tumbled out on the asphalt at 75 miles per hour. First a mattress, then a baby stroller, then a car seat -- but no baby, luckily. And it all missed our lane, luckily. A crash was averted, but serenity, for a good half-hour, was lost.
The Salt Lake gave way to desert and a few long-since-closed roadside motels before we reached the ancient floor of Lake Bonneville: the Salt Flats. There was the constant urge, during this stretch of highway, to veer off into the chalky expanse. Not just because I'd seen Hopkins' Indian bike break a (cinematic) land-speed record there, or recognized it as the setting of 60 different Pontiac commercials, but because there were tire tracks everywhere, from people who were bored or adventurous or stupid enough to go off-roading from the shoulder of Interstate 80. It had rained and sleeted intermittently on the trip, leaving standing water in places on the Flats, so it was impossible to tell if the ground would be sturdy or spongy. Some of the tracks ended with deep ruts and footprints. I had a Nissan Altima from Avis with about eight inches of ground clearance. Thus the only venturing we did into the Flats was on foot.
The last landmark before Wendover is the Tree of Utah, which isn't a tree but rather a giant metal sculpture that's a modernist interpretation of a tree. It's surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, which is topped with barbed wire, making it like a lot of Utah: weird and difficult to access.
Down a dirt road adjacent to Wendover's abandoned Air Force base -- where the Enola Gay crews once trained -- is the city's best attraction. Fastest Indian Alive isn't the only film set there; Con-Air shot its desert crash-landing scene on the base, and the filmmakers were kind enough to leave behind the plane.
I would've liked to spend more time inspecting that plane -- Con-Air is a guilty pleasure, and I've seen it maybe five times, despite being a Nicholas Cage hater -- but we only had an hour until the start of Ohio State-Tennessee, and needed to scout out the casinos.
Wendover's five options, in ascending order of seediness, are the Montego, the Peppermill, the Nugget, the Rainbow, and the Red Garter. We felt it was our duty to investigate the Garter; inside, it had the appearance of a tired Days Inn conference room with a bunch of tables and slot machines. The sports book was a bar with an automated betting machine against one wall. A truly dismal place, despite the fact that the sign outside said "Casino!" instead of just plain "Casino."
The Rainbow had the most character and the best sign (seen atop this post), but no one was hanging out there in anticipation of the games, so we settled on the Nugget. It had a crowd, at least. During the second half of Buckeyes-Vols, a band walked out on the stage behind the sports book's bar. They started playing a song -- something by Melissa Etheridge -- and people began trickling over to watch. The band cut the song off about a minute in, and the singer apologized. "We're just soundchecking. Sorry." It went on like that. A minute of Third Eye Blind's Semi-Charmed Life, then another apology. "Just soundchecking!" It was early.
I'm used to watching games where the crowd -- in person or around a TV -- hangs on the actual result. The end of Ohio State-Tennessee was riveting and controversial, with J.P. Prince blocking (and possibly fouling) Evan Turner on the final play, but no one at the Nugget cared much about it. Ohio State, a 5.5-point favorite, was a long-shot to cover even if the game went to overtime; the over was already secure by then; and no one appeared to have bet Tennessee on the moneyline. There was more excitement over the final minute of Baylor-St. Mary's, an almost-unwatchable 24-point rout. But the Gaels' second-half line was -4, so they needed to lose by less than 25 to pay out -- and on the strength of two late, meaningless free throws, they got one point under that margin.
At the Montego (above) we ran into some K-State fans who'd had the same itch to escape from Salt Lake. They'd hired a driver with an Escalade to take them out to Wendover on the off-day. Wildcats fans must have a strong nose for casinos; I didn't see anyone from the Butler contingent that had made the trip. Hoops fans in general were heavily outnumbered by bemulletted middle-aged men playing blackjack, and old slot-machine junkies wearing frequent-gambler cards on long, yellow cords. A sign advertising the gambler's-rewards program stated that the card would entitle its holder to "the special attention that you deserve." Instead, when the old folks sat down to play slots and inserted their cards, they looked like dogs chained to the row of machines.
The only thing more depressing was the lack of Farokhmanesh. From the desperate cries heard in the sports book, a decent amount of cash had been bet on Northern Iowa, which was +1 when we arrived, and +4 by tip-off -- somewhat of an ominous sign. The Panthers blew their seven-point halftime lead over Michigan State, and everyone was waiting for Ali to rescue them. CBS' cameras kept cutting away to his father, who was sporting his spectacular mustache and "Ali Kaboom" t-shirt.
The Ali Kaboom never detonated, and Northern Iowa didn't cover. The Spartans were on to the Elite Eight, and all that remained was Duke-Purdue, with the Blue Devils pulling away in the second half. There was plenty of money on Duke, too -- more than a few people I chatted up in the sports book considered K's Devils at -8.5 to be the lock of the night -- but the cheering for them was subdued. Someone sitting behind me actually said, "I feel bad about betting on Duke." It's just one of those things you keep quiet about, and guiltily go collect your winnings.
Outside the casinos, there aren't many places to spend those winnings in Wendover. A Burger King, a McDonald's, and a Chevron station are about it on the main drag. A concert venue had a huge, electronic board promoting upcoming shows -- among the headliners was the legendary Michael Bolton, and the inimitable Gallagher -- but nothing on Friday. We asked the waitress at the restaurant in the Peppermill if people go to bars. She said she went to the mall.
"There's a mall in Wendover?" Jessy asked her.
"Oh. No," she said. "I leave Wendover to go the mall."
The closest mall, as far as Jessy knew, was in SLC. We did one last cruise through the town, all the way up past Wendover Will, the world's largest mechanical cowboy. The only thing after Will is a strip mall whose anchor business was a strip club. The access road to it has one sign advertising showgirls, and another that just says "Liquor/Smoke." Better to market directly -- as opposed to creatively -- in a single-purpose town in the middle of nowhere. The road beyond those signs runs parallel to I-80 for a while, before curving left, and plunging into darkness.
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