As you finally crest the top of the Smoky Mountains and begin your long, brake pad-burning descent toward Cherokee, N.C., you cant help but feel a sense of anticipation. After all, youre driving 20 m.p.h. behind a 30-year-old RV from Ontario with one wobbly tire, which means the 15 curving miles ahead will pass in about an hour. You try to distract your impatience with the resplendent mountain vistas passing outside your windshield, uncountable numbers of majestic pine trees swathed in wispy blankets of fog the very natural wonders that tourists travel thousands of miles to witness. But all you can think of is, "GET THE HELL OUT OF MY WAY SO I CAN GAMBLE."
In fact, thats probably the prevailing thought on the minds of most travelers on Highway 441 these days. Ever since the Southeastern Band of the Cherokee Nation forged a contract with Harrahs Entertainment Inc. a few years ago, Cherokee has gone from being simply an Indian-themed tourist trap to being an Indian-themed tourist trap with a big, honkin casino. Gambling there has become a siren call to retirees and blue-collar vacationers from across the Southeast, and Harrahs Cherokee Casino is their destination, a small crumb of Las Vegas dropped into the deep woods of North Carolina.
Some may feel that this is a moral tragedy, an imposition of the white mans decadence amid the cultural values of the American Indian community. And to be sure, Cherokee itself can be a depressingly kitschy parade of endless tourist shops named after tomahawks, medicine men, feathers, etc. (Whod pick this place for a honeymoon spot? "Cmon, sweetheartlets go see the subjugation of Indian culture for a quick buck!") But if tourists are willing to pay Indians for this stuff, and if the Indians are happy to take that money, then perhaps cultural values havent been much of an issue here. And, if you look sideways at such attractions as the "Unto These Hills" Theater or the Cherokee Nation Museum, then maybe a few values do get retained and passed along.
But we werent here to judge. We were here to waste large sums of money on a shallow, meaningless experience. And, by gum, we did just that.
My partner in non-crime was one Zak Weisfeld, The Writer You Love To Hate™. Attired in a shimmery blue polyester shirt and a straw cowboy hat, he was the very image of youth gone horribly wrong. I myself had chosen a tasteful Hawaiian shirt (rayon). This, we thought, would immediately identify us as the kind of hip, swinging clientele a big casino hopes for. Weve all heard the stories of comped dinners, no-cost suites, and special VIP rooms with no-limit tables. Casino managers know theyve got to cater to the big dogs, the high rollers, if they want our business. And we were going to further that illusion as best we could.
As we fired up our Conoco-purchased cigars ($4.95 each!) outside the main entrance, we could tell already that our appearance was causing a stir among our fellow gamblers. As T-shirted families trod by in matching Nikes, their children pointing at us and giggling as we coughed smoke from the cheap stogies, we could only imagine what they were thinking as they eyed our super-cool threads. Dino, Frankie, Sammy they would have been proud. Let the Rat Pack revival begin right now, right here in Cherokee, baby (only we had to ditch the cigars because, well, they were revolting).
Striding into the large, marble-floored foyer, we stopped and surveyed our new hunting grounds. Everywhere, as far as the eye could see, where the twinkling lights of slot machines being fed coins. A thousand or so people milled among endless carpeted aisles of bleating, whistling, blooping video games, talking and laughing. And amid this din of monetary indulgence would often come the crystal-clear tink-tink-tink-tink! of pay-offs hitting thin metal pans. Circling this orgy of nickel-and-dime excess were overhead murals that vaguely recalled the great outdoors with modernist visions of birds flying over mountaintops. In the middle of the massive room, hovering over a circle of one-armed-bandits, was a small plaster mountain with a functioning waterfall. Truly, we were in a middle-class Babylon.
A number of guards stood at attention, facing the doors, hands behind their backs. They eyed us impassively, betraying no emotion, but we could tell they were alert to our presence as soon as we walked in. When youre a shark, theres no use trying to look like a minnow. We realized then that our every move would be watched, as the pit bosses waited for any kind of slip-up to nail us. Who knew what kind of ultra-sophisticated surveillance system was tracking us right now? But that was finelet the dance begin. Bring on the booze! Bring out the silicon-injected servant girls in fishnet stockings! Its Vegas time!
Zak went up to the nearby information booth.
"Where can a guy get some martinis around here?"
The young woman behind the counter blinked once.
"Im sorry, sirno alcohol is allowed on the premises," she replied.
We paused for a moment, trying to absorb the shock. How in the hell could a casino make money with a crazy policy like that?
"Well, then, just direct us to the nearest craps table," I commanded, hoping this would salve our wounds.
"Im sorry, sirwe dont have any craps tables, though we do have video craps."
Zaks lower lip began to tremble: "V-v-video craps?"
sir. All of our games are video. We dont have any dealers."
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