I rank irony first among virtues. I worship a sardonic God. I am not just typing.
I am testifying. I saw Him once. I thought I was dead. He smirked at me, reached out his hand and tossed me back. Just like that.
I have been laughing ever since.
I laugh at the plague of locusts that descends on Laughlin on the opening day of the 27th annual River Run. At least I think it is the opening day of the run. Wednesday? Right?
Doesn’t the River Run always start on a Wednesday? Of course, this ain’t my first rodeo so I rode in here on Tuesday night. I didn’t want to get caught in any of them long gas lines. Out there in the desert, you know? And, Wednesday morning when I saw all those locusts and nary a single biker I sure felt proud. I mumble to myself.
I mumble to myself. Live with it. Everybody else does.
Essence Of Stupid
This time I mumble to myself, “Boy! Them gas lines out there in that desert must be just awful this year. Awful. Nobody is hardly even here yet. I sure am glad I paid for that extra night.”
Yes, yes. I know what you already know. It just takes me longer to get there than you. I am a moron. But you see, the irony of being a moron is that I always understand how stupid I am in hindsight. Then something new comes up and I immediately forget.
So it is not for another two days that I am actually able to look back and see myself as everyone else would have seen me that Wednesday-a grinning, happy fool shuffling alone through a carpet of dead and dying insects mumbling to himself, chuckling over some completely imaginary victory that has unfolded entirely between his two sunburned ears.
Not only mumbling. Oh no. When I get into my happy place there is hardly a thought I don’t say out loud. Sometimes, what is happening between my ears is that I am the life of the party. Sometimes I tell myself jokes and laugh.
Sometimes I share my astounding wit with hotel employees, like the fine fellow slowly sweeping thousands of dead bugs into a neat pile in the middle of an abandoned parking lot. “Locusts.” I laugh.
“Grass hoppers,” he corrects. See what a pleasant fellow I am? I have struck up a conversation with stranger already.
“Locusts would be more metaphorical,” I think. And apparently, I also actually said that out loud.
Because my new companion suddenly stops his sweeping, leans on his broom and sort of squints at me. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
I guess another reason I keep forgetting how stupid I am is that I keep running into people who make me seem smart. “Bars open yet? You know?”
He sort of nodded his head and threw his eyebrows off toward the far end of the lot. “Ask ‘em yourself.”
Swamp Trash Childhood Flashback
So I did. And they were. And I chugged down a couple of beers for breakfast which made me dizzy.
I have always liked to get a little dizzy. Being dizzy reminds me of the happiest days of my childhood. We were living in a swamp at the time. There was a little mosquito problem, as sometimes occurs in swamps. So, once or twice a week the county would send an insecticide truck down our road to spray. And eventually, all the other little swamp trash rats and I managed to figure out that truck’s schedule.
We would gather early to wait. And, we would fill our wait with comb fights and rock fights and with a game we made up that mostly involved poking at each other’s faces with sharpened sticks and with other such innocent, childish delights. Then when that insecticide truck would finally come down our road we would all run behind it for as long as we could and breathe in the fumes as deeply as we could until we got too dizzy to stand.
Yeah, yeah. I now understand. This may have been how I got stupid in the first place. Or maybe not. It does not matter. It is too late now and I still like to get dizzy.
Sons Of Anarchy
So I started off my Wednesday with a couple of beers on an empty stomach and the next thing I knew I was buying a set of Sons of Anarchy soft colors from a very pretty blonde with a very nice body. Don’t ask me why. It is just another one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time.
I do not like the television show. It confuses me. From what I can remember of that morning now it seems like I was trying to insult the imaginary motorcycle club in some way by appropriating their imaginary colors without their imaginary permission. It was something like that. I don’t know. I remember the blonde, mostly. Maybe she talked me into it.
I put that shirt on and I did not take it off until a hatchet-faced, blonde security guard finally stopped me at the Riverside. “Sorry, sir. We have a no-colors-allowed policy here at the Riverside Resort.”
I laugh. Again. “You know, this isn’t a real club.”
“Take off the shirt or leave.” She wears cheap sunglasses, a big radio and a big badge.
“No, sir! You have to wear a shirt on the casino floor.”
More grins. I think this is great. “Make up your mind.” She is not amused by me. She thinks I am an asshole. She jabbers into her radio. I raise my hands in the universal gesture for stop. “I’m leaving.” She jabbers some more as I make my escape.
The rest of the day is a blur. The next boring couple of days are also a blur. I think I was bored and edgy with anticipation. Like, when I was little and would wait for the insecticide truck.
A Brief Historical Aside
The phenomenon of the modern Harley rally probably started right here. Sure, Sturgis and Daytona and Laconia are all older by decades. There was a famous motorcycle riot in Laconia in 1965 when all of Laughlin was just a boarded up diner, a couple of creosote bushes and some dirt.
A Harley dealer named Dale Marschke started the Laughlin to Oatman River Run in 1983 as a fun activity for his brand new chapter of the Harley Owners Group. In the beginning nobody knew what the point of HOG was. It was up to dealers like Marschke to invent that.
Marschke knew an entrepreneur named Don Laughlin who had started his own town in 1966. By 1983, Laughlin, Nevada had 350 hotel rooms to rent on a paved road and 100 fulltime residents. Marschke also knew a guy named Joe O’Day. O’Day had a business he called Dal-Con Promotions and between the three of them they managed to put together a motorcycle event that sold out Don Laughlin’s Hotel, which he called the Riverside Resort.
Bikers from around Los Angeles, rode out to the Riverside. The Ride itself was a little cruise up the Nevada side of the Colorado to the crossing at Davis Dam, then back along the Arizona side of the river and inland to the old Route 66 gas stop of Oatman. It was immediately the biggest event in Laughlin, Nevada every year. It still is.
Every year the town got more hotel rooms. Every year the run sold them out. By 1987 the town was practically civilized with 1600 hotel rooms, a school and a new bridge across the river right at the end of Casino Drive. The far shore of the river was Bullhead City and Don Laughlin owned most of that, too.
River Run was a such a great idea that a whole, new city defined itself by its capacity to contain us. The run itself grew and evolved and got better for awhile. Other cities like Durango looked at Laughlin and said, “You know, that could be us.”
Then time passed.
The Boomer Fest
River Run was once a sloppy, rude, living biker party with few rules. Now it has become an orchestrated, impeccably sedate boomer fest. It gets worse every year.
And, while you may know that I am not smart enough to philosophize I still, as yet, do not.
So there is no way you can stop me from telling you that Laughlin is a perfect example of the kind of fatuous, pseudo-scientific mass marketing that has ruined everything else in this country. The modern biker rally is no longer ours. We are no longer the cause. We are now only the consumers of something somebody else tells us we should like.
Year after year I rediscover this and then I quickly forget:. All of these rallies are a racket. Harley-Davidson is a racket. The “biker lifestyle” is a racket.
This year my disillusionment hit me like a sucker punch and I can tell you the exact moment because when I fell to my knees I happened to glance at my watch. It was 10:47 Friday morning.
I was navigating the shoals of slots at the Aquarius and I was running out of excuses. No, I did not get the dates wrong. No, I did not go to the wrong Laughlin. Yes, I was paying $120 a night for this. Yes, I had fallen for the River Run Racket. Again.
The sound system was pumping out music that might have, maybe sounded almost hip twenty years ago: Fleetwood Mac, AC-DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd. When was that plane crash?
There are three Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute bands in town this weekend. Three. Southern Stue, One More for the Road and Skynnyn Lynnyrd are all playing concerts because, according to a press release, “The music of Lynyrd Skynyrd just screams River Run!”
The Following Takes Place At 10:46:45
Bruce Springsteen, the singer who is so popular with so many of the younger “bikers” these days, rasps Glory Days.
Glory days. Well they’ll pass you by.
Glory days. In the wink of a young girl’s eye.
Glory days, glory days.
And, I begin to stumble from the force of this blow. I want to grab somebody by the shoulders and ask them, “Can you hear the irony? Can you hear it, too? Or is it just me?”
But I do not because getting arrested is so much more serious and annoying now than it once was. And, I am falling.
“Am I the only person in this hotel who ever listens to Death Cab For Cutie? The Killers? Beyonce? Geez, Beyonce? Have you heard of her? Toby Keith? Brooks and Dunn? For the love of God! Not even Brooks and Dunn?! Taylor Swift. It has come to this. I long for Taylor Fucking Swift.”
I am falling. Laughlin River Run has become the circle of hell that is diminished and sanitized history. Not history as it was but an homage to history, a tribute, a satire, a parody, a lie, an amusement park ride “inspired by real events.”
I fall. I am on my knees. I look at my watch. I mumble, “Holy shit. It still isn’t even noon yet.” I do what I always do. I get back up. I look all around me. I don’t know what tripped me.
All I see are dozens of hotel employees wearing black leather vests and biker tee shirts as they clean the floor and empty the money out of the slots. A paunchy, officious looking guy in a HOG cut scans the casino floor with a long, obvious wire dangling from his left ear, like a Secret Service Agent from the Jimmy Carter years. A couple of graying bikers are staring at a slot machine as if they are trying to understand the point of it.
“It’s supposed to steal your money,” I advise them. They look at me like I am a nut.
Nobody is here. Not even cops. There are 30 percent fewer cops in Laughlin this year than last. There are no religious pitchmen on the river walk. There are 11,000 rooms on Casino Drive and at no time have they sold out and I have just about had enough.
So I do what I always do.
Back In The Saddle Again
I ride over to Kingman, to Kingman Cycles, a dusty little bike shop which over the years has metamorphosed into a beautiful butterfly called Mother Road Harley. And, there are a maybe a couple of hundred people there. And, mostly they are old. And, maybe six of them are listening to a band called the Ruffnecks. And, I am not sure what the Ruffnecks are a tribute to but I am pretty sure they are a tribute to somebody I have forgotten.
Same thing down at the Avi. Another Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute. A guy from the Ventura Angels is selling Hawaiian shave ice. “Why shave ice? Why not Italian ice?”
“Shave ice is the kind of machine we could get.” He seems like a genuinely pleasant guy. He looks like Santa Claus.
There are free tastings from the V-Twin Winery. My palette is not sufficiently sophisticated to fully appreciate how good the wine must be. Mostly, I am just there looking for a topless model named Sara.
But, I realize then that I will never find Sara. Sara probably isn’t even her real name. This is such a terrible run!
A guy hands me a brochure on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I hurry away wondering, “Why did he give this to me? Does it show?”
The tattoo booth is actually doing some business but I do not need another tattoo. Not until somebody else dies anyway. I spend a half an hour, 45 minutes tops at the Avi and then I feel like I have seen it all.
For about the ten millionth time, I have seen it all.
I find a little novelty back on Casino Drive. And, some good news. The designer chopper boom has finally gone bust.
Everywhere I look there are big bore bar hoppers with Easter egg paint jobs and billet controls going for $25,000 or best offer. For $17,500 or best offer. For $16,000 firm. I sit on the one that is sixteen grand. It is nice. It cheers me up.
If I had had $16K in my pocket that afternoon I would have ridden the thing home. I would have tried to ride it home. I did not quite fit on it. I think it was designed to be ridden by somebody who plays in the NBA. Unfortunately, I am built more like an Eskimo. But I liked the bike. I liked the price.
The temperature rises. I see a round, blonde in a shirt that calls her lady lumps “Bad Boy Toys.” That also cheers me up.
I see a guy with a little patch on his vest that reads, “I rode mine.” I blink. I have another episode of stupid. It takes me a minute to figure out what the hell he is bragging about. At first I think maybe he is bragging about the round blonde with the bad boy toys.
Sun Sets In West
Nothing is real anymore. Even the clouds look painted. But, as the sun sets Friday the energy finally starts to pick up. The town starts to roar. Finally.
This is no longer the Laughlin where the Angels had burn outs in the lot at the Flamingo, or the Vagos raced motorized skateboards, or Laughlin when every room and every camping spot on both sides of the river was full. But, I am finally starting to remember why I come here.
Not one but two police helicopters circles through the twilight, flashing across the pink and purple sky, into the black and then back again. They circle like tigers in a cage. Round and round. Everyone looks bored and restless.
I think something has to happen. Laughlin has been so boring so far that something has to happen. Everyone feels the same thing. Everyone waits. The streets roar. The desert cools.
After a couple of hours I go back to my room.
Sun Always Sets In West
By sunset Saturday all the hundreds of booths have run out of the good stuff: The bright orange tee shirts that ask, “Can You See Me Now Asshole?” The counterfeit DOT stickers. The obscene tank tops.
There are more cops Saturday than Friday and they metastasize; they cling to each other in clumps or two and three and five. And, every one of them wears that face cops wear when they get scared.
Two of them pull a kid over because his girl on the back is wearing open toed shoes. I ask the girl why they got stopped and when he tells me I laugh. I look at the cops and I laugh and they don’t do a thing.
A crowd gathers on the sidewalk to watch. The cops step behind their bikes. It is all they can put between them and us. They act like guys in the joint. One cop writes. The other cop stands guard. The guard is a bobble head and he rests his hand, not quite on the butt of his gun but close by on his belt.
Now at the end, the boredom in Laughlin has become a fuse. I watch cops. Cops watch me. Thousands of people, mostly men, mostly near or past middle age, lean against every vertical surface -every wall, fence, sign-and watch like Hitchcock’s Birds watched. Bikes contest with cars and cops. An endless procession strolls, staggers, scrambles, pushes and sighs.
Geico is running Dyno Drags. A girl in a pink hat runs her Victory against some guy. The announcer tells the crowd that the Victory is for sale for $11,000. I root for the girl, same as everybody. She loses two out of three heats.
At least the whiskey booths are all still open and fully stocked. A woman yells at me as I walk to one. I don’t know who she is. I don’t recognize her. I yell back at her. “I don’t know who you are! I have never been here before! It’s not my kid!”
She pushes a little knife into my hand. Printed on one side is the important message: “The Law Firm of Kirby, Kirby & Kirby. Fees start at 19.99%.”
“Thank you! Appreciate it.”
Look, I know it is a very small knife but you can still stab somebody with it. You can cut a bra off a woman with it.
This year at Laughlin they are handing out free knives. Oh, that is great. I grow happier than I have been in days. Cheap whiskey and free knives. What’s not to like.
I take my shot and my beer and I find a vertical place to lean. I stick my new, souvenir knife in my back pocket and I sip my drinks.
The circling helicopters contract their radii. Many large men with many tattoos look annoyed by the crush. A small, pretty woman clings to a guy.
Two lunatics push a baby in an umbrella stroller past me. I don’t have to hear them talk to know they are German tourists. German tourists come to the American west every summer and they do stupid things that the dimmest American knows better than to do.
Back Against The Wall
Those of us along the walls leer and sneer and laugh at our secret jokes. I seem to have found my kind. We are all morons and as the light fades we can all only hope that something will happen. If we all just wish and watch long enough something must happen. Something little or big, something violent or cruel or cruelly funny. Everybody waits for the crash, the resisted arrest, the short, unfair fight. We wait for someone’s humiliation, for someone’s hollow victory, for life, for the next memory of this life, of this fading biker life.
Maybe this is it. Maybe this is it.
A woman struts by in a leather and chain mail bustier. She must be forty. That is always a woman’s most dangerous age. Her legs are thinner, her bust is lower and her face is harder than it used to be but she remembers who she was and every man along the wall is watching her.
We are all watching her and while we watch, without saying a word she says, “Fight for me. Fight over me. Fight for me and take me here, right now on this hard sidewalk or against that dirty wall. Take me in front of all these people here now watching, please.”
And, nobody makes a move. Because, nobody here deserves her. She is better, braver, crazier than all of us, this fading woman. She is better than me so I only watch her push through the crowd and up the street to her heart’s deepest, darkest desires or to just another Saturday night.
Just Another Laughlin
A score of these dramas pass before me. The Mongols, the Angels, and the Vagos in disguise are all waiting, seeking the next great moment in their lives. The born again and the damned. Everyone is in disguise.
I am bored and hot and getting dizzy from my drinks. The bikes and the helicopters growl and roar. A cop rides by alone, lost, and I can see he has rabbit eyes. He is a lone rabbit in a vast gathering of wolves. Everywhere the cops have become rabbits.
It is like this most years on Saturday night. The cops are no longer smug and complacent, picking out victims and toying with them the way cats make mice into toys. These are scared cops. These are cops surrounded and outnumbered by their enemies. These are cops who know better than to look you in the eye.
Some casino somewhere is blaring AC-DC and for the first time since I have been in town the music does not sound old and tired. It sounds dangerous and interesting. It sounds like something I have lost.
And, at that moment I decide I will be back. I must come back. I have to come back to see.
Next year maybe they will be handing out bigger knives.