We were driving south on Highway 37 approaching Bedford, when the caffeine really started to grab hold of me. I’m normally jittery, but the super dose of energy drinks flowing through my system made me feel like a speed freak in the Indy 500. I leaned over to my driver and screamed something like, “Can’t you take this piece of crap any faster?”
She glanced at me, then looked down at the copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas sitting on my lap and made a disapproving facial gesture.
“What is that book about, anyway?” she asked, obviously having been deprived of the great American classics in a sheltered upbringing.
“It’s about finding the American dream,” I replied, cracking a bottle of NoDoz caffeine pills.
She nodded, but her glazed look showed no signs of recognition.
We were on our way to find our own version of the American dream, albeit slightly removed from the way Hunter S. Thompson’s epic book described. Thompson’s journey to Las Vegas involved a trunk full of mind-altering drugs. Our trip to French Lick – Indiana’s burgeoning attempt at its own Las Vegas – used only legal stimulants and depressants. The caffeine was the stimulant. I was the depressant, as were the three people in the car with me – my driver, editor and photographer.
I was the writer. I’d been propositioned by a respected magazine to write a story on French Lick Resort Casino, which had recently opened its renovated luxury hotels and brought legal riverboat gambling to Orange County.
This is why the caffeine was necessary. Two days prior, I had received a call that woke me from my sleep.
“We want you to do the French Lick feature story for us,” said the voice on the other end.
It was the voice of the editor-in-chief, but it might as well have been the voice of God.
“What do you want me to write about?” I asked.
“Whatever you want. Go see what’s happening down there and write about it.”
It was a done deal as soon as I’d convinced him to allow me to bring my driver and my personal editor for guidance and advice.
We arrived at the resort well ahead of schedule, a testament to my driver’s cunning abilities. The resort and casino, controlled by billionaire Bill Cook of Cook Group, operates two formerly competing luxury hotels less than a mile apart.
Our first order of business was the West Baden Springs Hotel, whose obtrusive glass dome was once pitched as the largest freestanding dome in the world. Its recent restoration has attracted tourists from all over the globe to see the magnificent piece of architecture that was once touted as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Inside the domed atrium were dozens of guests, milling about like vermin in a dirty apartment. Old men and women who have long since given up on romance sat silently in comfy lounge chairs, staring blankly into the distance. A lounge singer serenaded the patrons with “Sentimental Journey.” I wanted to give him a tip, but feared he would spend it on nothing worthwhile – more music equipment – when what he needed was a bracing shot of absinthe to spice up his existence.
We also toured the gardens at the hotel, but the not-too-far-gone winter and remnants of recent flooding left much to be desired. From this vantage point one could look across the flooded field and see the sad reality of a derelict town framed by the luxurious hotels. Indeed, most residents of the town – heck, the entire county – would never be able to afford a night’s stay at either hotel.
We promptly left West Baden for the French Lick Springs Hotel, also the site of the revered riverboat casino. (It is not a boat, nor does it rest in a river, but the false pretense of such allows the casino’s legal operation under state law.)
Inside the hotel we were met with the “Mexican Hat Dance” playing on the loudspeaker, as well as constant reminders that KC and the Sunshine Band were getting ready to perform. This is the kind of venue people like KC and his poor band are now reserved to play. Gone are the days of Madison Square Garden, and the likes of French Lick Casino will forever sustain the careers of groups like KC, who make their livings playing to casino patrons in fanny packs.
We toured the hotel as if we were meant to be there; all the while my photographer snapped pictures of gold-gilded framing and elaborate ceiling frescos. Suddenly we were confronted by an employee who accosted us for no good reason.
“What are you looking for?” she snipped.
“I am a journalist, and these are my associates,” I jeered. “I have been dispatched to write a very important story.”
She glared at me in a spiteful way. My photographer and editor physically restrained me from resorting to violence. The caffeine was wearing off, and I was grouchy.
We found the bowling alley and video arcade where parents leave their children while they spend time in the casino. The baby-sitting duties are seemingly left to wide-eyed employees with many children of their own. A bar is just off the bowling alley, where a comely bartender named Bet made small talk with me. She complimented me on my shirt and sunglasses and got a hefty tip because of it.
KC and the band were starting to play in the performance venue, and we seized the opportunity to run to the casino for the mass exodus of concertgoers. Even with the concert draining the casino of loyalists, the floor was still packed with old women on Social Security who chain-smoked with no end in sight. Those not at the big show were entertained in the casino by a meatloaf-faced Elvis impersonator. His profuse sweat and sagging features indicated that he hated his meager performance as much as those resigned to watch it.
My photographer was not allowed to take his camera into the casino and nearly broke the arm of a twiggy security guard as a result. I assured my photographer that nothing worthy of pictures would take place in the casino, although this was merely a gesture to pacify him.
“That guy tried to touch my camera!” he sneered through gritted teeth.
“It’s OK,” I consoled. “I’ll have my editor make some calls. We’ll get that guy fired. Journalists are very powerful people, you know.”
An hour in the casino next to ghostly, sullen, plastic people was all we needed. My driver had the car warmed up and brought it around to the entrance in no time. As we drove away, the bright lights of the casino soon dropped off in the distance as we looked around at meth-producing trailers in the countryside, a depressing reality next to two massive human ambitions of luxury that loom over one of the poorest counties in the state.