Stuck at a tiny casino in the middle of nowhere a few yards from the Nevada border on the edge of Death Valley. High wind warnings flash on my phone. We can track the destruction along the entire path back to Palm Springs. The tattooed bartender working his regular 12 hour shift from 6pm to 6am keeps comping me three finger pours of Jameson while Jackpot the resident bar cat keeps me company snuggled up to the warmth of an overly glitzed video poker screen on the bar top. Outside around the fluorescent green pond littered with old west mining kitsch the geese mean-mug like mafiosos with a hiss as ducks tumble across the lawn like feathered bocce balls in the wind. The animated chatter of tourist conversations in Hindi and Cantonese and Spanish. A puffy old man with a Santa Claus beard and worn overalls jokes red faced with a girl in white fur coat and shiny white go-go boots joined by a rugged woman with leathery face at a table. I grab a couple more drinks to go and head back to the RV to check on my spicy curry chicken thighs with peas in the oven before settling in to watch the last few episodes of Warrior Nun. The metallic zip of tiny pebbles into the Rialta like meteorites slicing into the desolate skies as we shudder and rock against the ceaseless wind. Life is good.
This enormous 15+ foot roadside cow sculpture, Alphie, was rescued from the Holy Cow Casino in Las Vegas that was being demolished. Purchased for $2,200, Alphie was relocated here in 2002. I found a bit of history here.
Longstreet Inn Casino & RV Resort
Accommodations in Death Valley were limited and pricey and our timing left us dubious about any first-come location so we found a nearby RV park within a casino just on the other side of Nevada. Only a few minutes drive to Death Valley Junction and on to the park. It was one of those family destination kitsch joints that never really seemed to come together. A vast expanse of desert nothing, and then this oasis complex before even more nothing. It ended up being quite fun. Unlike the sun-baked campgrounds in the valley we had access to a small restaurant, a store, clean bathrooms, and a bar open 24 hours. After exploring the park I would lounge in the casino and watch a fascinating menagerie of tourists and desert folk congregate and drink heavily or loner slot machine campers parked at their favorite spots, seemingly never to move.
Off to the side of the casino someone had constructed this sad “petting zoo” of several metal pens with a cow and a sad looking half sheared sheep in one pen, two donkeys in another pen, and two goats in a third, all of which looked bored to near suicide. Except one of the goats had this interesting relationship with a chicken that would come and sit beside it. The goat would lovingly stroke it’s nose along the chicken’s feathers with its eyes closed and the chicken would stay there beside him for hours being petted. The chicken was free to roam and there were other chickens and ducks and geese that roamed around the grounds without visiting the larger animals. It was sweet. And bizarre.
Area 51 Alien Center and Brothel
This far out into the Nevada desert, it’s UFO country. Area 51, a bulk of unexplained sighting, and an unlimited supply of roadside alien kitsch. Highway 95 from Vegas to Tonopah, highway 6 down to Crystal Springs, then highway 93 back to Vegas form a loop through the vast expanse of desolation and former nuclear test sites, secret places that are still forbidden to know about. I haven’t made the whole loop myself but we did get to drive along the bottom loop to Amargosa Valley before heading south to Death Valley. And right at that turn you get a good taste of alien tourism at the Area 51 Alien Center. Basically a gas station with an expanded tourist trap section and alcohol in the front with an alien themed brothel in the back, the Alien Cathouse Brothel. Next door you’ll find all of your explosive needs at Alamo Fireworks where you can both buy and detonate a variety of explody things.
Palm Springs Travelodge Adventure
We had to return briefly to Palm Springs before our west coast roadtrip to fix a coolant leak so we booked a suite at the Travel Lodge where East Palm Canyon Drive makes a 90 degree turn west at the edge of the mountains. The reviews were questionable but the price was right so we rolled the dice.
We knew something was wrong when the soul-worn desk clerk unloaded about how understaffed they were and how impossible it was to work there. Our next clue came with the dismal condition of the room. But we still hadn’t quite grocked that we were in the middle of a full-on criminal operation.
When I go back to the Rialta parked outside I spot a drug-skinny late 20’s figure nervously pacing with the general aura of a meth addicted roadie for a third string band. Shoulder length stringy black hair over a dirty black hoodie with sore pocked face. He’s picking at the sores and using his phone to inspect them. He’s also looking into the windows of the camper.
I unlock the van and give a “get the fuck away from my camper” vibe but he’s ignoring me, pacing. Then I realize he’s hiding behind the camper as backup muscle to the scene unfolding on the other side. A large man in a nice sports jersey and crisp baseball cap that I later identify as Pedro is arguing with an older man with a walker in front of a van over a bike. I gather the old man owes some money and is trying to trade the bike, presumably stolen, for some debts and they’re arguing over it’s value. The roadie-type eventually disappears down a dark hallway between the hotel buildings. When I glance down the walkway I see another slightly heavier facsimile of him also pacing nervously. I would discover there were a whole crew of these sketchy dudes working for Pedro. They crisscrossed the grounds slamming the pool gate in front of our room constantly with the confidence of a hotel employee.
They had a system. A car pulls into the lot. One of these guys approaches the car and determines what they need. They then use a system of whistles to indicate the transaction. Then the appropriate agent somewhere else in the hotel would rush out and finalize the transaction. It seemed like mostly drugs but there was also an equal amount of random items being exchanged. I’m guessing a fence for stolen goods using craigslist to sell them. This traffic was constant throughout the day. Usually up to three guys working the lot and I don’t know how many others within the complex.
I kept an eye on the Rialta through the window of the room and started to notice a variety of other interesting clues. A series of young women with quirky hair and small backpacks or bags dressed in a particular way, checking into rooms or asking people in the crew for Pedro or some other person. Maybe a dozen or so while we were there. I assumed prostitutes. But I wasn’t clear exactly how they were being organized or how that business model was working. Late one night I listened to one of these girls talking to a guy smoking on the balcony. When she asked if he wanted any services he replied quickly no, that he was there with the casino, and she seemed to know what that meant and there was an understanding, like they were working for the same people.
It occurred to me that the few suite rooms like ours were all located together behind the pool and where these girls seemed to be stationed, which meant in all likelihood our room was probably also used for this purpose. But I tried not to think about it.
That original roadie-type seemed to have a female associate. They would meet in the morning by the pool and go over things on her phone. Katy later saw them in the laundry room while putting our clothes in. Only to discover later they had loaded all of their wet clothes into someone else’s dryer while it was running. I decided to camp out by the laundry room to make sure no one stole our clothes listening to headphones. A shirtless muscled guy covered in tattoos with a sort of LA street gang vibe was waiting outside to question me about his clothes that were stolen the previous day. He paced nearby for probably a half hour.
I noticed the vending machine glass had been smashed out and all the contents stolen, the two drink machines had been pried open and heavily damaged as well. A middle aged man with a stuffed roller bag approaches me and asks if he knows me and when I say no he lingers for about 20 minutes, pacing back and forth like he’s waiting on someone. Eventually he slips some package into the back of the vending machine springs. Several such men with similar stuffed roller bags stroll by looking at me like they’re looking to meet someone. One of these guys with a tight bright pink wife beater with a bowling ball belly and balding head trailing long hair over a stubbly face approaches, frantically tapping my shoulder. When I take my headphones off he warns me urgently in a hushed tone, “Cops are coming! Cops are coming!” like I’m a part of whatever is going on, and rushes off through a back passage escaping.
I can hear the police around the corner pounding on a door over and over demanding the occupant open the door. The laundry is done before I see that drama play out fully but I later see the police towing a car away nearby.
Katy thought I might be paranoid at first about all of this going on but our neighbor approached her and tried to sell her a new iPad from his room. Then shortly after, someone rang our room asking for a seemingly fake name. Which we took for possibly a check to see if we were home. We both agreed to bring anything of value from our room with us whenever we left to go somewhere.
In the end, we didn’t personally run into trouble but it was a relief to load the Rialta and get the hell out of Palm Springs. The next night we slept in a KOA at Visalia, CA in a cold drizzle, halfway to San Francisco.