In the last years of their shared life, my parents often went to Laughlin, Nevada. In fact, that was the destination of the last trip they took together. On the way home, my mother felt ill, and she died nine months later.
My mother loved to play the penny slots, and when she could no longer go to a casino, my brother bought her a slot machine. She kept a bucket of quarters by the machine, and even though she only won her own money back, she spent many happy hours in her own private casino.
I never understood her fascination for the game. It seemed boring to me because there was no real challenge except to keep playing as long as you could before your allotted money ran out.
I’d never been to Laughlin, and since I needed an escape from my failure to find a place to live, last weekend I headed to Nevada to the hotel where my parents always stayed. I treated myself to a prime rib and crab buffet dinner, then wandered the riverwalk that connected the casinos, which were strung along the Colorado River. An advertisement for a jet boat trip to Lake Havasu caught my eye, so the next morning when the ticket kiosk opened, I went to buy a ticket, but they were sold out. Determined to get out on the water, I went to get a ticket for a more localized boat tour, but I got there too early to buy a ticket.
So I hopped on a water taxi, paid for an all day pass, and didn’t get off again for five hours. If I hadn’t been kicked off when the boat needed to stop for refueling, I might be there still. There was something so soothing about being on the water, feeling the power of the engine beneath my feet, the rocking of the waves, the surge of speed when the boat accelerated.
It seemed like a carnival tour, watching all the activity of the vacationing hordes. People riding jet skis, sunbathing on a minuscule beach, wading in a roped off area. People excited about eating, shopping, playing.
Most entertaining of all was Captain Joel, the taxi driver, who had a kind word, a joke, a flirtatious tease, or a witty comment for each of his passengers. He kept a bag of gold fish crackers to feed the birds who met the boat. If he was late handing them their treat, they hopped aboard and helped themselves. One perky fellow named Black Jack even attempted to steer the boat, but as Captain Joel admitted after we almost ended up on the rocks, he hadn’t yet trained Black Jack to steer properly.
At one port, striped bass were waiting for their treat, jumping out of the water to catch the orange crackers. It seemed cannibalistic to me to feed fish to fish, but Captain Joel assured me the crackers were whales, so the fish were nibbling on mammals.
Captain Joel had been a park ranger when he was young, flipflopping between Alaska and the Everglades. After seeing every bit of the USA and Canada between those two far points, he is now a world traveler. The most fascinating story he told was about his visit to the Galapagos Islands. Apparently there is a barrel there where people drop addressed but unstamped post cards for other tourists to pick up and hand deliver when they get back home, a tradition begun in the nineteenth century when sailors would leave their mail for homebound ships in the hopes the letters would get to their destination. Captain Joel hand delivered four such postcards to people in Huntington Beach, who were amazed both by the post card and the delivery system.
When I had to leave the boat, I went to the casino to do a bit of gambling in my mother’s honor. At first, it was as boring as I remembered, then I got into the swing of it, enjoying the energy of the place, enjoying the whir of the spinning icons in the machine, enjoying even more when I won. At one point, my twenty-dollar seed money grew to about a hundred dollars. I considered taking the money, but decided that the tribute to my mother was about playing the game, not necessarily winning, so I used the money to play the maximum bet instead of just the few pennies at a time I had been playing. I enjoyed feeling like a high roller, felt, in some way, my mother’s presence. And then an old lady came and hung over me. Wouldn’t go away. And I lost the illusion of my mother’s presence. The old woman sat on the stool next to mine and asked me to teach her to play. Although she was there with her daughter and son-in-law, she seemed lonely, chattering on and on about her dead husband, her new hair style, her family, so I tried not to resent the intrusion and helped her. Weirdly, she started to win and I began losing. And continued to lose. I was actually glad to zero out because then I had an excuse to leave without being rude. I wandered around the casino for a while. I didn’t want to go back to my room and do the things I always do — read or use the computer — so I went back to play again. Again, I started winning, and again, the old woman came to play and chatter next to me, and again I lost.
So I went out and took a couple more circuits on a boat taxi, then went to bed.
The drive back was hard — not just the unremitting heat, but the feeling of foolishly losing all that money.
Now that I have some perspective on the experience, I am glad I spent the money. All I truly lost was my original stake, and since it allowed me to play and to channel my mother for five or six hours, it was money well spent. I also feel as if I have a greater understanding of my mother, which was priceless.
Another weekend is coming up, and again I need to escape. I considered going back to Laughlin, but I don’t think I could handle that long drive in the heat. Besides, it wouldn’t be the same. The experience was profound, a once-in-a-lifetime gift of connection, wealth, feeling free. Being.
(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)
July 13, 2016 at 2:47 pm
What an amazing and original adventure!
July 13, 2016 at 3:01 pm
What a DELIGHTFUL post! I did much the same thing in my mother’s honor. She would only play the penny and nickel machines, and my dad ‘said’ he did the same.
However, after my mom was gone, Dad and I took a ‘memory trip’ in the RV, and went to Vegas, “downtown” to the Gold Nugget where they usually stayed, and as I walked away to a different section of nickel slot machines, I gawked as my dad slipped a $100 bill into a slot machine! I stood for a moment, astonished, then realized that my dad had probably always bid higher ‘in the old days’, because at home in Texas, he lived a routine, careful, and frugal life. …… or maybe he didn’t. Perhaps he was only bidding higher that one time as a tribute to my mom. I’ll never know the truth, which wasn’t my business, anyway.
It was FUN to realize that as an adult, my dad no longer had to be ever-so-careful, and sly, because he evidently was no longer worried about setting an example, but instead, we laughed, talked, and acted like the best of friends, except at night, when I hugged him tight and expressed my appreciation that he was willing to take that trip with me, when for a few moments, we both knew I would always be his little girl…. Trips down memory lane is somewhat good for the inner child within us.
Keep up with these posts! Sounds like you are really getting into being a relaxed traveler, have passed many of the tough goals you set for yourself, ……and your writing sounds so much more like you are blazing your own different style of traveling!! I felt like I was on that boat with you, and could feel your pleasure as I read along!!
July 13, 2016 at 11:25 pm
Betty Rountree says it all; I was thinking just the same thouhts when reading this post Keep going Pat and keep right on posting 🙂
July 14, 2016 at 2:52 am
We were there just a couple of weeks ago. I was having one of those late-afternoon “I must get out of the house and go somewhere” moments so we hopped in the Jeep and headed for Lake Mead. But when we saw the cutoff to Searchlight, we thought, hey, why not. And that led to Laughlin. Loved the boating atmosphere. We’d recently gotten a GoPro and have been thinking of places to take video and it was such fun taping the boats on the river. It was late in the day so we didn’t do the boating thing ourselves but it sure looked fun. Good for you, Pat!
July 14, 2016 at 9:28 am
If sounds like a fun trip.
July 15, 2016 at 5:28 am
Water taxi trips are fun. Other than the drive there and back, what a great trip.
July 16, 2016 at 6:58 am
Enjoyed your article and pictures.
July 16, 2016 at 8:13 am
July 16, 2016 at 1:57 pm
Welcome to our Paradise Mr. Bertram. Your blog sure brought back a lot of sweet memories. My mother was also a great lover of the old real money machines. Our love of this area actually began in Bullhead City. Laughlin was just getting up and running. So we would at first visit friends who had left CA. for the blessing of Colorado River and the goodness of the life here. After 30+ years of visiting friends we had our daughter and her family set up residence in Laughlin. Eventually I retired from 28 years of U.S. missionary work to make my home in Bullhead City so I can visit my daughter, my granddaughter and 3 of my great grandchildren. Choosing to make the move to share my greatest loves during the last prime of my life.. Peace and all Good as you follow your journey back to Paradise time and time again.
July 16, 2016 at 2:21 pm
Sounds lovely. I’ll be going back, but I want to make sure that the fun I had playing the slots in my mother’s honor fades first. I don’t want to become a gambler!
July 17, 2016 at 9:17 am
I loved reading your story. I too love being on the water and that is the real draw to this area. Hope you find tranquility and peace in all your memories.
July 17, 2016 at 11:02 am
Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed my story. Here’s to the eternal river.
February 18, 2018 at 3:36 pm
[…] of doing, but the two times I specifically went to Nevada to gamble, this state line trip and my Laughlin Adventure, I got into it. Yesterday, I sampled many different machines, but the Dragon Spin game was the most […]