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On the (Fun) Bus: How a Panda Made Me Realize I Might Like Gambling 

It's 10:20 - precisely - on a Wednesday morning and I'm running at what in the post-athletic phase of my life passes for a sprint

It's 10:20 - precisely - on a Wednesday morning and I'm running at what in the post-athletic phase of my life passes for a sprint across the Target parking lot, chasing a 40-foot charter bus with the word "Classy" written in cursive on its side. For the first time in my life I am (without irony) about to miss a bus. And I should mention that this isn't just a bus, but a "Casino Fun Bus."

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Then, the air brakes hiss on the behemoth and it comes to a halt, a pair of spectacled eyes peering back at me through a massive side mirror. The door opens and I sheepishly board, hurriedly saying something mostly apologetic but slightly embarrassed and take a seat with eight pairs of eyes taking a quizzical look at the out-of-breath and slightly sweaty man 40 years their junior sitting in the third row. Again, this is the Fun Bus, a free shuttle that twice a week busses Central Oregon residents up to Kah-Nee-Ta Resort and Casino on the Warm Springs reservation for about four solid hours of fun, or gambling, or both.

I have been in a casino exactly three times before I find myself on this bus. Two of those occasions involved walking through Las Vegas hotels en route to a room I was sharing with no less than five other people after spending a pair of foggy nights at Phish concerts at nearby UNLV. On the third occasion, I actually gambled - one solemn quarter into a slot machine for which I received nothing in return. I didn't get it, and I still don't as the bus stops in Redmond and picks up another eight white-haired folks, but I'm fully aware that other people love the casino experience, as well as the free transportation experience, which makes the Fun Bus a rather desirable service, even for a Wednesday afternoon.

A placard above the driver reads:

Your Operator


Safe - Reliable - Courteous

And Bob is each of those things, and so is everyone else on the bus, for the most part...well at least in terms of reliability and courtesy as it's difficult to judge one's level of safety while sitting on a bus. A good faction of the bus riders seem like old friends and from chatting with an impossibly friendly baseball-cap-and-thick-glasses-wearing man who only offers his first name - George - some of these folks ride the Fun Bus every week. But not George, he says he only comes "sometimes."

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But today is a sometimes sort of day and after landing at Kah-Nee-Ta, capping a two-hour drive from Bend that ends with a scenic surge through 11 miles of winding road and rolling hills dotted with wild horses, George and I are sitting side by side. We're saddled up at one of the many rows of slot machines, the kind that used to be called "penny slots" back in the days when slot machines still accepted pennies, that clatter and glow in the slightly dim confines of the two-story Kah-Nee-Ta casino. George is describing to me the scoring system for a slot machine called 50 Lions that intermittently emits a digitized roar. Even after five minutes, as George gradually wins then loses a modest three dollars and something cents, I still don't quite get it. But that doesn't stop me from continually repeating one-cent bets on my own machine which, I should add, is Panda themed (totally cute, right?), attempting to turn the complimentary $3 in cash we receive upon unloading from the bus into something more. That's right, the resort gives you free money after a free two-hour bus ride.

"You almost missed the bus this morning, didn't ya?" George says, not breaking his gaze from his slot machine.

I mumble something even I can't understand - something in between "I had to stop by the office" and "I thought I was on time" or perhaps a combination of both. I see George three or four times during the rest of the day as I pop in and out of the casino and each time he says, "You winning big?" He says it with a smile and I just smile and shrug, not wanting to let him in on the fact that I have managed to play on the complimentary three bucks for going on two hours now, never betting more than a penny at a time.

There's more to Kah-Nee-Ta than the casino, even if that feature is the obvious focus of my fellow Casino Fun Bus riders. Kah-Nee-Ta is an expansive golf resort and hotel that was built in the 1970s, which is evidenced by the architecture: boxy, beige and surrounded with plenty of cement. That said, the interior of the casino is largely modern, same with the restaurant. Kah-Nee-Ta also has pools and entertainment - in fact, just two nights earlier sound effect master Michael Winslow of Police Academy fame was in the house. The following weekend brought country legend Tommy Overstreet to the resort, but on this Wednesday afternoon, it's just Duncan, a constantly laughing bartender, and myself in the Appaloosa Lounge. Duncan giggles when I say I rode the Fun Bus up that morning. I'm clearly not prototypical Fun Bus material and I realized this somewhere back in the Target parking lot.

Duncan is whipping up a bevy of drinks, many of them tropical, almost all of them blended, for the swim-suited crowd that one by one are popping into the bar to grab a beverage and return to the 80-degree sunshine. For a Wednesday afternoon in mid June, the pool is remarkably full. Or at least the area around it - all the white plastic lounge chairs are occupied by an eclectic collection of families and vacationing couples. Almost exactly halfway between Portland and Bend, the clientele can just as easily be from Portland or beyond rather than Central Oregon - even if we claim this site as our regional casino. And that's exactly why Kah-Nee-Ta resort might be headed to the scrap heap of history. Warm Springs tribal members have proposed opening a new $389-million casino just a few miles outside the Portland metro area in Cascade Locks where the tribe presumably won't need to bus in Central Oregonians to fill their chairs (see sidebar for more info). In the meantime, the penny slots keep beeping away on this little corner of the reservation.

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Although I packed my swimsuit and towel in a cumbersome backpack with which I'm stuck all day, I don't get into the resort pool; it's for guests only. Originally, those seemingly 10-story, colon-busting waterslides you see on the commercials were part of my Fun Bus ambitions, but after smacking the "repeat bet" button for two hours, it had to be cut from the agenda. I immediately regret my poor casino time management that has deprived me of what would have been my first water sliding since the George H.W. Bush administration. But one cheeseburger later washed down by 15 minutes of Sportscenter, my finger is lonely for the company of a panda, a lion or any other exotic animal or mythical creature that can provide a backdrop for more penny bets.

Although Duncan was mixing up mean drinks down in the bar, the casino itself is dry. As in no booze - at all. But there are a few help-yourself soda fountains and coffee pots, perfect for supplying that much-needed caffeine boost to keep you (and me) cracking that "repeat bet" button. As I saddle up one more time, sliding my winnings voucher into a fishing-themed slot machine, George stops by again and this time he says he just won $75 but, somewhat ironically, not as a result of his gambling. On Wednesdays (and perhaps other days) casino staff chooses a random seat at the blackjack table or slot machine and whoever happens to be sitting there (or the seat closest to it) wins, yup, $75.

Everyone is standing outside when Bob returns with ol' Classy precisely at 4:15. Apparently, punctuality rides a close second to fun on the priority list for this bi-weekly bus trip. This time, I'm there waiting, too. But once we board, the head count doesn't come out right and Mary Nevins, the only other person who caught the bus at Target, notices that the head not counted is that of a peculiar man who appeared to be in his late 20s wearing a cowboy hat (with feather) and a mustache.

We're quickly approaching our 4:30 departure time as Bob and a Kah-Nee-Ta representative scour the casino for this gentleman, only to find him hanging out with his girlfriend, an employee of the resort. He says he doesn't need a ride back. His Fun Bus intentions were apparently one-way. But for the rest of us, it's back south, back to our respective parking lots. Well, until next Wednesday.

Cascade Locks Could Be the New Kah-Nee-Ta
by Sarah Esterman

The proposed resort and casino in Cascade Locks may have been given the go-ahead by Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski back in 2005, but the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs still need the approval of Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar before any building can begin. Since 1998, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have been hoping to move gaming operations from Kah-Nee-Ta to tribal lands in Hood River County.

In order to protect the National Scenic Area in their land east of Hood River, the tribes agreed to set their sights on industrial land in Cascade Locks. The $389 million proposal would require 60 acres of land to house its 90,000 sq. foot casino, 241-room hotel, 26,000 sq. foot meeting and convention facility, spa and fitness center, retail shops, cultural and interpretive center, daycare facility, dining options, and parking facilities. The tribes signed an agreement last month to buy the land so that the final Environmental Impact Statement could be completed.

If approved, the resort could bring as many as 1,400 full-time jobs to the region, which has been suffering economically for years now. Yet the opposition is just as strong. Friends of the Columbia Gorge, an organization devoted to protecting the areas in and around the National Scenic Area of the Gorge, have argued that building on the land in Cascade Locks would cause significant harm to fish and wildlife and the visual landscape.


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