Even folks from a world-class community like Park City sometimes find the need to get away. Faced with a milestone birthday this year and with my oldest leaving for college, I yearned to escape and get some of my mojo back. When a friend suggested I take what is known as the “party bus” for an evening of fun, warm weather, and easygoing gambling in Wendover, I decided it might be the perfect little diversion.
Wendover, for those not in the know, sits on the Utah border with Nevada—hence the gambling, which is illegal in Utah—and since it’s only a two-hour drive across a smooth stretch of desert, the bus can get everyone there and back home by 2 a.m. for less than $20. So after a quick drive down the canyon to Salt Lake City, I’m hopping on a big Lewis Stages bus painted with a wild red mustang running along its side. Fellow passengers and I settle in for some pre-Wendover fun.
Our hostess for the evening is a bright-eyed, 60-something woman named Isa, who has a thick Scandinavian accent. She wastes no time passing around a large bowl to seed the money pool with our loose dollar bills, and row by row we pass around bingo boards and get acquainted. A heavily tattooed fellow, with earlobe holes so big you could fit a poker chip through them, is already sipping drinks from a cooler with his buddy. A couple of seats ahead, a pretty brunette alternates bingo moves with texting, while the big guy next to her, in his comfortable warm-up suit, pauses occasionally to look out the window as we cruise past the vast, white terrain. Next to me is Gerald, from the Ute tribe, on his way to Wendover with his daughter and son-in-law from Duchesne. The elderly couple diagonally across from us tells us that they’re celebrating the man’s 95th birthday, and that tomorrow he’s scheduled to perform taps on his trumpet for the 1,000th time.
All of us are warming up to one another with surprising ease as the party bus drives onward, and we each hope to win the $70-dollar-or-so jackpot. The winner ends up being the quiet woman at the front of the bus. A math professor at the University of Utah, she hails originally from the Middle East, as does her traveling companion. For some reason, I had expected simple Americana on this mini Utah excursion, but even before we arrive in Wendover, I feel like a part of a melting pot.
Our arrival into Wendover is filled with anticipation. We file out of the party bus as Isa hands us food and drink coupons, then instructs us to meet back at the Rainbow Casino parking lot no later than 10:30 p.m. for departure. The air is dry, warm, and inviting, and we quickly spread out on our own like dice on a craps table. I dash into the front entrance at the Rainbow Casino to find it bustling with slot machines, poker tables, and cocktail waitresses—strangely crowded compared to the relatively quiet street outside. In here it feels like Vegas, but there’s no doubt that this town is a calmer, gentler baby sister.
I also notice the same white noise that’s piped into seemingly all casinos. It has a surreal droning effect on my mind, which isn’t all that bad: I haven’t thought of my birthday or time slipping by since I stepped into the place, and who frets over their college-age kids when there’s the promise of winning in the air? With five casinos here (Peppermill, Rainbow, Montego Bay, Red Garter, and Wendover Nugget), 3,800 slots, and more than a hundred game tables, you could easily gamble the night away, but honestly, I am happy just to take in the scene and don’t so much as put a quarter into a slot machine.
Instead, while the sun is still up, I catch the free shuttle down the road to the Montego Bay Hotel to find the spa. It’s really as simple as all-you-can-eat pie to get around here. Even though the area is officially made up of two cities—Wendover, Utah, and West Wendover, Nevada—all five of the local casinos are strategically situated on Nevada territory along Wendover Boulevard. At Montego Bay, I find a lovely ladies’ lounge to relax in and a beautiful outdoor pool in which to dip my toes. Who cares if my skin is winter white? A setting sun in the wide-open expanse of Utah desert sky rarely fails to warm my body from the inside out.
At this point, though, I have to admit: when it comes to casino country, it’s the all-you-can-eat buffet that’s the real draw for me. Wendover doesn’t disappoint. The line to get in may be long, but the mouthwatering display of food is longer, and going back for thirds and fourths is customary. There’s Chinese, Italian, Mexican—you name it— and I don’t think twice about loading up carrot cake, grilled BBQ chicken, and a roasted jalapeño pepper, all on one plate. Life is soothingly on hold when you’re in the comforting womb of endless edible delights.
All of a sudden it’s dark outside, and the strip is alight with neon. I walk the mile or so to meet up with our posse back on the bus. Some exchange gambling stories of losses and wins, but mostly we just rest as Isa dims the lights. It’s strange to be driving through the pitch-black emptiness, and all I can make out in the bus, which somehow feels small now, is the glow of the pretty brunette’s phone, reminding me of our world back home.
More Than Casinos
Check out the “other” things to see in and around Wendover.
Bonneville Salt Flats Wendover is surrounded by one of Utah’s most unique natural wonders, the Bonneville Salt Flats, a stretch of over 30,000 acres of perfectly flat white, salty soil. Thousands of visitors, commercial moviemakers, and high-speed auto racers make the Bonneville Salt Flats a world-famous destination. There is a rest stop for parking located 10 miles east of Wendover along I-80.
Wendover Will Known as the world’s largest cowboy, “Wendover Will” is a giant metal cutout that stands 90 feet tall and flashes over 1,000 feet of neon lights. Built in 1952, Wendover Will’s mechanical arm waves to people passing by on Wendover Boulevard one-half mile west of the casinos.
Metaphor: The Tree of Utah An 87-foot-tall abstract sculpture stands alone, along the edge of I-80 25 miles east of Wendover, surrounded by the Bonne-ville Salt Flats. Built by Swedish artist Karl Momen in the 1980s, the cement, tile, and Utah native rock and mineral formation is also referred to as the “Tree of Life.” There’s no parking, so get out your camera and click fast as you pass by.
Wendover Airfield Museum A fascinating little museum with photos, exhibits, memorabilia, and a full-size replica of an atomic bomb signed by the crew of the B-29 Enola Gay. During World War II, the crew of the Enola Gay practiced bombing runs over the Great Salt Lake Desert before proceeding to Hiroshima. The airplane used in the movie Con Air is also on display. The Wendover Airfield Museum is located in the operations building of the Wendover Utah airport.
Blue Lake Fifteen miles outside of Wendover, this 215-acre wildlife management area includes hot springs, wetlands, and 58-foot-deep Blue Lake. With winter water temps in the upper 70s, it’s a favorite for scuba divers from November through May.