There's exactly one car on the rutted desert highway that runs past Cahuilla Creek Casino. It's my car. I've almost turned back twice because it doesn't seem possible that a place this barren and remote could harbor actual life forms, much less a casino.
But there it is, finally, perched on a rocky outcrop, a plain pale building with a small sign that says simply "Casino." The word is flanked by a flying turkey and a pair of dice—odd choices, since craps is illegal in California and any stray turkeys would be eaten by the neighborhood coyotes.
There are seven cars in the asphalt lot, and a bitter cold wind is making them rock and lurch, as though they could all topple onto their sides at any moment. The casino itself is a temporary building—a "sprung structure" made of vinyl polymer similar to the ones at big athletic events and state fairs where they need a place to house the press for a week or so. "Temporary," in this case, means five years and counting, but it's an improvement over the tent with an Astroturf floor that it replaced. There are also two trailer homes, one for the casino manager's office and another called "Kiddieland," where babysitters watch toddlers while their moms play the slots.
And that's it. The rest is rocky treeless desert, so high that it's 30 degrees colder than the rest of Southern California.
But when I open the front door at Cahuilla Creek, I'm greeted not by the sad silence I expect, but by the soft ringing of a hundred slot machines going full tilt. And for some reason all the machines seem to be occupied by elderly Asian women.
"I pay a bus company $15 a head to bring them from Koreatown in Los Angeles every day," explains Terry Hughes, Cahuilla Creek's personable general manager. We're sitting in the "conference room" of his trailer home. Behind him is a black velvet painting of an eagle.
"Plus we give them a five-dollar coupon. It's the best deal I've ever made. They all play for four solid hours and then go back to Koreatown."
But aren't we at least two and a half hours from Koreatown, I ask him.
Yes we are, he says.
And don't you have to pass three or four other Indian casinos before you get out this far, I ask.
Yes you do, he says.
Then what's the deal?
"I think these Korean women like being out in the country. I know they tell me that they like seeing the cows and horses while they're here."
The view from the Cahuilla Creek Casino: look out for coyotes. When a casino resorts to picturesque livestock as a marketing tool, you know that times aren't that great. In fact, Cahuilla Creek may have the worst location of any casino in America. Five miles outside the little town of Anza, with its two-block-long main street and its one gas station, Cahuilla Creek is on State Highway 371, which runs from Aguanga in the west to . . . well, to nothing in the east except more cold high desert.
But it gets worse. Every approach to Anza--north, south, east and west--contains bigger, fancier and more permanent Indian casinos. The nearest city with a daily newspaper is Temecula, which has the comparatively luxurious Pechanga Casino, with its coveted interstate exit. Over the mountain range to the east are four Indian casinos in and around Palm Springs. Travelers from the north would have to drive right past the San Manuel Casino, closest gambling location to Los Angeles. And San Diego is a virtual casino boomtown, with four casinos that almost approach Las Vegas in their sophistication.
"Most of our customers are local," says Hughes.
Would that be "local" as in the 1300 permanent residents of Anza, I ask.
"Well, we draw from as far away as Temecula and Hemet. We get a few drive-bys, but it is a desert highway. Actually, if we could just get that dirt road over there paved, it would cut the driving time from Hemet from 45 minutes to 15 minutes." And what do you offer them when they get here, I persist. "We have customer surveys that say people will drive here, because it's more friendly, more personal than larger casinos. We have high ceilings, so there's less smoke. And our Mexican buffet on Thursday—that's a big big draw."
You have to admire the man for getting blood out of the surrounding rocks, and Hughes does have the background. He's one of the few casino heads who's spent his entire career in Southern California, mostly at the Cabazon Indian Casino in Indio, working for the tribe whose lawsuits resulted in the 1986 Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for Indian gaming. He was a dealer, a floorman, and a poker manager at what the Cabazons today call Fantasy Springs Casino.
But on June 1, 1996, he was hired by the Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians, all 240 of them, who decided to transform their 18,000 acres of cattle ranches into something a little more lucrative. "They call them ranches," he says, "but the joke around Anza is that anybody with one cow is a rancher."
That date in 1996 was the deadline set by the governor for any tribe that wanted to be in the gambling business. Hence the tent and the Astroturf. "We had to be open by that day, and we were." At first they offered poker, blackjack, "ticket" slot machines and bingo, but after Proposition 1A was passed in April 2000, legalizing Vegas-style slot machines on Indian reservations, the bingo and poker business fell off to nothing and was eliminated. Even blackjack is on life support, with just three tables with five-dollar minimums.
Still, the casino is cozy and comfortable, with an informal dining area that makes a mean burger and a small lounge where Hughes promotes the inevitable karaoke night, with local bands on weekends. Remarkably, it only took three years for the casino to get into the black, thanks mostly to low capital investment—it is, after all, a temporary building on free land—and to Hughes' aggressive entertainment policy. The tribe built a small outdoor amphitheater--it can only be used in summer because of the cold desert nights—and managed to attract actual tourists with aging road bands like Iron Butterfly and Canned Heat. But the biggest draw has been the "Ultimate Fighting Tournament," which can attract up to 5,000 people to see no-holds-barred martial arts matches.
"The tribe is aware that this is going to be a slow process," says eternal optimist Hughes. "We have 2000 acres set aside for economic development. We think we can use the high desert to our advantage, because we're 4000 feet above sea level here, so it's 20 to 30 degrees cooler in summer. We hope to eventually have a 40,000-square-foot casino (three times the current size) and 250 hotel rooms. It would be a weekend getaway type place."
Meanwhile, the casino survives on car giveaways, "casino buck" promotions, and those frequent buses from Koreatown.
Actually it could be worse. As I drive away, down the winding mountain road that leads to Palm Springs, I pass the Santa Rosa Indian Reservation and wonder why, in this casino- crazy state, they have no gambling of their own. I found out later that it would have been too difficult to meet the 1996 deadline. They would have had to install phone lines.
CAHUILLA CREEK CASINO
Highway 371, Anza, Calif.
Theme: Airplane Hangar Moderne
Known For: Wild horses occasionally spotted on casino grounds
Marketing niche: Locals, bus business
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Medium
Surrounding area: Bighorn sheep country
Overall rating: 50
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $20 after a half-hour of blackjack: total to date: -$156