"The Monster on the Hill," Merwyn Welch (2006)
I have always been a bit afraid of the thing that looms on the hillside. Though it doesn’t seem threatening in the day time and in fact its largeness is almost comical, at night it comes alive and glows like a beast with hundreds of eyes staring into the night. I have always thought that something sinister goes on inside the belly of the monster itself, so with great trepidation, I decided to go and investigate the monster on the hill in the safety of daylight.
The hillsides of the Alexander Valley are a beautiful site to see, home to all sorts of grape vines planted into neat rows to produce decadent plump fruits that will become delicious wines. The fall is one of the most beautiful times of year to view the grapes as the leaves turn from green to shades or yellow, red, and orange before they fall off and die. Driving through the valley in the fall, the valley is not only something to be seen, but to be smelled as well. The last fruits clinging to the vines are left to wither, dry out, and rot. It is the decay of these once bulbous purple and red orbs that produces the odor of fermentation, not an unpleasant smell, but one that is very strong and that alerts anyone around to the full awareness that winter is on its way.
In the northern part of the valley is the Dry Creek Rancheria. According to the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, the areas of the Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys have been home to the Pomo for more than five thousand years ("Ancient Band"). At the turn of the century the Pomo people made plans to, and successfully opened, a casino on the land that they named River Rock Casino. The casino, not really close to river or rocks, sits like a giant blemish on the side of the vineyard covered hills. During the daytime, the casino looks out of place, an enormous boxy parking structure looming menacingly over a permanent circus style tent. In the nighttime, lights illuminate both structure and tent so that astronauts on the Mir space station could clearly spot it if they cared enough to look.
The roads to the casino wind out past wineries offering tasting rooms that showcase their award winning wines. The roads in the area were a favorite driving spot for convertibles, motorcyclists, and bicycles alike. In the past, the roads were reserved for those who enjoyed the views, the wines, or the wind in their face, but now giant tour busses from all over plow up and down the countryside pushing bicycles out of the way taking turns too wide focusing on getting people up to the casino. The road to the casino is almost hidden, but a giant illuminated sign lets travelers know that they are on the right path, pulling them in like an insect to one of the bright blue lamps that will ultimately kill them if they get too close.
After passing the large sign and parking in the five level structure where self-parking is available for free. If however one is feeling that they wish to make themselves feel very important, valet parking is offered for a fee. Once the car is parked, or has been parked for you, it is time to venture into the casino. The website for River Rock describes itself thusly “River Rocky Casino features a beautiful vista that overlooks the exquisite Alexander Valley with views that will take your breath away, leaving you feeling peaceful and serene”. This statement is in fact quite true; however no one takes the time to look. The passengers disembarking from the tour busses funnel right from the door of the bus, to the door of the casino where the bus parked. Guests coming from the valet park directly at the door of the casino, pass off their keys the attendant, and sashay in the doors with a single mindedness of win, win, win! The path from the parking garage leads directly to the front door, there is no path that directs you to the exquisite views, and no one entering or leaving appears peaceful, or serene.
When the doors of the casino open for people to enter or exit, a waft of cigarette smoke overpowers and assaults the nostrils. Once inside I asked an employee with a name tag informing me that she was Denise of Guest Services how she put up with the smoke smell she replied, “what smell, oh, I guess that I just don’t notice it anymore” I found that almost impossible to believe. If not prepared for it, a fit of coughing afflicts some patrons, and others squelch up their noses in disgust. Perhaps since California has outlawed smoking almost everywhere that people congregate, and smoking has lost much of its allure with the severe medical impact, the smell is something that has just been forgotten to most nonsmokers. The casino, while in California, is on an Indian reservation and is exempt from the laws that govern things like smoking or gambling. The ability to smoke, gamble, and the free drinks while at play are absolutely huge draws to get certain demographics of people inside the casino to spend money. The casino does boast a small nonsmoking gaming area, but there is no wall to divide it from the smoking area, so it should really be sectioned off with the words less smoky gaming area instead of the word non.
Of those entering the casino, two types of people are easy to pick out. Newcomers like me seem happy, carefree, and smiling; chatting with friends and entering with lofty expectations of instant riches.
The second group enters quietly, no smile, and vacant of expression. The eyes seem dull, the complexion waxy and devoid of color, and no friends enter with them. Their eyes are focused into narrow slits, a look of sad determination, or perhaps single minded desperation, points them towards the one lucky machine that this time (for SURE this time!) will pay off in huge amounts with the fanfare of bells and flashing led lights.
The newbies take a few laps, marveling at the options of machines and table play that is available. They cheerfully point out immediate favorites, The Wizard of Oz roulette, Monopoly style automated bingo, and my husband’s personal favorite, Wheel of Fortune slot machines that every so often omit the classic “Wheel of Fortune” crowd phrase enticing the player to hopefully be the one to spin and win!
New arrivals cluster in front of a chosen machine that calls to them. A few dollars spent here, the excitement of a three dollar win on a penny machine met with squeals of delight and jovial conversation at the payout. In extreme contrast to the ecstatic three dollar winner is the vacant face shoving hundred dollars into empty automated slots, void of all joy, excitement, or ceremony. Wins are met without joy, or excitement, there must be more, there must be a bigger payout, don’t get out of the seat. If one was to stand and watch the scene long enough, one could almost see the life of the patron being sucked out and into the machine, a dollar at a time. As one Yelp review so eloquently stated, “This place is depressing. It reeks of desperation and it sucks the life out of anyone in there. The ventilation is none existent. So even if 1 guy smokes, the entire Casino can smell it. It is just an unhealthy place to be. If you're too happy with your life and want a taste of depression, come here, look at the people around you. You will be depressed by the end of your trip. Such a sad, sad place.” I couldn’t agree more Terry Y. from San Francisco!
This isn’t to say, however, that the establishment lacks a sense of humor. Directly above the expressionless zombie feeding his paycheck into the machine is a sign that warns of gambling addictions and a phone number to call for help, 1-800-GAMBLER. The California Council on Problem Gambling estimates that 87% of Californians have gambled in their life at one point or another, and for most of those people, gambling is not an issue. The CCPG offers support to those almost four percent of that 87 who are not just at the casino for a fun night or to blow a mere twenty bucks, they are problem or pathological gamblers. I have to wonder if the signage that is posted is required by law or if it is some sort of Good Samaritan act that the casino puts out. The signs placement in indeed an interesting one as it is posted directly above an ATM machine.
Aside from the cash and soul sucking machines, the casino boasts sustenance of many kinds to keep people locked inside. Free soda and coffee machines are everywhere. Caffeine is abundant, keeping patrons alert, and gambling! What reason would they have to leave when a few paces to the left will get them a cheap hot dog and a soda, Asian delights dead center, a few steps to the left vending machines with snacks and cigarettes that can be taken back to the machines, and in the very back a full service buffet where gamblers can gorge themselves. "Don’t leave!" the buffet seems to say, with its piles of shrimp, prime rib, endless salad makings, and deep fried onion rings. Aside from the surf and turf, a dessert bar at each end of the buffet makes patrons want to linger longer, and perhaps play the table keno while they sip coffee and nibble pie. At the center of the buffet a gorgeous ice sculpture melts slowly dripping down itself. The carved block of ice, a beautiful symbol of the casinos effect of loss, disguised as art (Wilcox).
Three hours in, and my husband and I have done several laps of the casino and taken in a few of the rites of passage. That is to say, we have spent five dollars each in slot play without winning, visited the restroom, and have been seated at the buffet. We helped ourselves to the aforementioned prime rib, shrimp, and endless salad makings. I am on my third glass of iced tea, and see another bathroom trip in my future. My husband and I realize that the placement of the bathrooms is as far from the drink stations and exit of the casino as they can be, and the hall right next to the restrooms are lined with penny slots. Play before you pee! Play after you pee; just give us your money!
All over the casino there are signs posted about past winners with photos next to a lit up jack pot, or holding a comically large check for the amount of their winnings. Signs are posted about the payout rates of the games, and how River Rock has the loosest slots. I can only assume that having loose slots is a positive thing, though it sounds like a woeful medical condition to me. There are also signs posted about joining the Players Club, and there is a desk devoted to such service. To get the full experience, I had my husband sign up for a card. One produces a photo ID and phone number to the happy clerk, and then is issued a personalized, embossed player's card. The card, we are informed, can be put out on any gaming table when one is at play or entered into the machines in a special slot. The more time spent in active play equates to more points earned on the card thus raising the status of your card. The higher the status, the greater rewards are earned. The cards points gain one access to giveaways like this week’s Honda and crockpot give away, as well as discounts at the buffet. The friendly desk clerk also informs us that with the new card status, we are being given for free five dollars in machine play already loaded on the card. This is a new feature to the cards, and we are informed that this is a perk specific to River Rock. River Rock has had its recent financial woes highly publicized in recent months (Mason). Between the state of the economy, and the newer Graton Casino in Rohnert Park, River Rock has lost patrons and their money. The free play and the automatic entry to win the crockpot are all clearly ways to entice the player that River Rock is the special place for them to be, and to spend money.
The smoke in the air has officially caused my eyes to start watering, and we decide that it is time to end our visit. In the end, we leave fifty dollars lighter than we entered, though most of that was on dinner, and our happiness is still intact. Out of the corner of my eye by the exit, I see a slot machine boasting the luck of the Irish, hey I am Irish, and maybe that is my lucky machine? Without realizing my body is in motion, eyes glazed over, I head in the direction of the smiling leprechaun sitting on a pot of gold. My husband deflects me and we head towards the door, and as I start to see the light of day outside of the casino, I turn to look back at the leprechaun lit up in lights, though now he looks angry at me as I walk away, and not smiling and beckoning.
We walk outside, and the grape perfumed air is refreshing and alive. The sun is setting over the valley, and the clouds are pink and orange mimicking the turning vineyards below. The valley is beautiful, and I am leaving feeling peaceful and serene indeed, body, soul, and wallet intact.
"Ancient Band of Native People." Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Nov. 2014.
Denise. "Smoking questions." Personal Interview. 1 November 2014.
Mason, Clark. "River Rock Casino Woes Mount as Revenue is Cut in Half." The Press Democrat. N.p., 13 Sept. 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.
"Problem Gamblers." California Council on Problem Gambling. CCPG, 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.
River Rock Casino Alexander Valley. Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2014.
"River Rock Casino woes mount as revenue is cut in half." The Press Democrat. N.p., 11 Sept. 2014. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.
Wilcox, Tim. "Another Masterpiece in Ice." Facebook. 7 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.
Y, Terry. "River Rock Casino." Yelp. N.p., 2 Nov. 2014. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.