We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the bingo began to take hold.
Lisa Hernandez—who’s hosted round-trip bus expeditions from Apple Valley to Primm for a lucky 13 years—walked the aisle, depositing $1 into her fanny pack in exchange for each faded blue bingo card she doled out.
The first game went smoothly. Passengers laughed as Hernandez called out “I-22, toot toot,” and the driver promptly “tooted” the horn twice. A regular named George won $7 after an “X” appeared on his card, and the other riders politely cheered.
As the bus cruised through Yermo and the second game started to lag, another man softly called out “bingo” from the back. But Hernandez didn’t hear him. She announced one more spot, and a woman immediately hollered the name of the game. Riders rumbled, “He called it first!” The woman argued back, “I called it, too!” And one thing became clear: These folks take their gambling, no matter how low the stakes, seriously.
Turnaround bus trips like this used to be common. Riders could pay a small fee for a single seat on a bus leaving from multiple Southern California locations early in the morning and returning that night. But ridership dwindled during the Great Recession, as more Indian casinos opened in California and online gaming exploded.
Our bus company, Ebmeyer, previously offered four bus trips a week, says Bruce William, the company’s vice president. Now they’re down to one. And even that Saturday run gets canceled if they don’t have at least 20 riders. “It’s just been a little less every year,” William says.
Fortunately, on this Saturday, 28 people decided to give 12 hours of their lives over to Ebmeyer and Primm and gambling. The company picks up its first riders from its home base in the high-desert town of Apple Valley at 7:30 a.m.; most board at an appliance store in Victorville at 8. The bus makes its final stop at a Carl’s Jr. in Barstow—often only to pick up the Larsons, a silver-haired couple who make the journey nearly every week.
The trip is all you expect it to be. The air is thick with grandma’s perfume. There’s a raffle where one prize is a magnifying glass, which Hernandez points out is useful “for when you’re sewing.” The random younger riders exchange tips for shopping the outlet stores, while the rest of the passengers talk strategy for playing the slots.
“I love to gamble. Period,” Winnie Rueff says. “Almost everyone here does.”
Rueff, 90, has been riding a bus from her home in Apple Valley to Primm just about every month since she first read about the trips in the local newspaper 20 years ago. Vegas is “too busy” for her. And while there are a couple of Indian casinos closer to home in California, Rueff chooses not to try her luck there, for good reason: She says she never wins.
Though she’s traveled the world—and still drives—Rueff feels safer riding the bus than heading out on the open highway alone. Plus, she adds, “It’s cheaper.”
Several riders take the bus rather than gassing up their own vehicles. Thanks to heavy subsidies from the casinos, William says, the trip now costs each rider just $15. That includes a glazed doughnut, a cup of coffee and a voucher for $10 in free slot play. Win one round of onboard bingo, and the powers that be are paying you to go.
Before riders are set loose inside Buffalo Bill’s casino, they’re handed a neon sticker with the phrase “Today’s my day, I’m here to win” and a number corresponding to their bus. It’s in case of a medical emergency, Hernandez explains. One rider jokes, “I don’t think I’ll have a heart attack today.” Hernandez quips, “Well, you never know.”
It seems every other person manning the Buffalo Bill’s slots, lounging in the sportsbook and waiting in line for a hot dog have one of the trademark neon stickers on their shirt or purse. The sticker draws nods of recognition, paving the way for conversation between fellow members of the bus-riding club.
It’s normal to have 15 to 20 buses in Primm on any given day, says Rachel Zheng, tourism director for the Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas at Primm Valley Resort and Casino. Most of the buses come from California, though Zheng says many are full of Asian tourists—largely from China—who visit as one stop during a whirlwind West Coast vacation. There were 25 buses in the parking lot when Ebmeyer rolled into town, though all but ours were part of tours or private charters for company outings or fundraisers.
That’s what brought sisters Angelica and Rosa Lopez, 28 and 22, to Primm. They each paid $35 for a ride from Riverside, with part of the fee going to help a local high school improve its dilapidated athletic fields. Half the fun, they say, is the ride itself, since the private charter buses offer games plus permission to drink alcohol. Neither of the sisters gamble; instead they’re planning to spend their time at the arcade and with friends.
Rueff has her own routine for the seven-hour stay. She usually brings about $300 to play the slot machines; old-school reel-spinners, not poker or the like. She only plays quarters. And despite Hernandez’s cautionary tale of a rider who won $600 instead of $2 million by not making the maximum bet on a progressive slot, Rueff usually plays one quarter at a time. And she always eats free, easily earning enough points on her players card to qualify for a complimentary buffet.
Most buses depart at about 6 p.m., but people are already milling around the pickup area an hour earlier, sitting on the floor along the wall and crowding the nearby McDonald’s. Some are tired. Some are bored. Some are here early because Hernandez’s warning was ringing in their ears: “I’m notorious for leaving people [behind].”
The bus starts loading at 5:40. A few ladies carry onboard some shopping bags from the outlet mall. One man still has a drink in hand. John Peres, 35, is grinning from ear to ear.
It was Peres’ first time in Primm. He commutes long hours every weekday for work, so he tries to avoiding driving during his downtime. A friend suggested the bus trip, and he took it as a “little vacation” from life.
Peres saw entertainment all around Primm’s three casinos, though Buffalo Bill’s was his favorite. “I said, ‘There’s a log ride? I’m getting on that.’” Buffalo Bill’s is also where he “won big,” though he didn’t reveal the amount. “It was so much fun,” he says. “I am so glad I came.”
Others on the bus didn’t fare so well. One woman could be heard phoning a family member, letting them know she might need money for gas and cigarettes until her next paycheck.
Rueff didn’t win, either. But she still enjoyed the day and plans to go again in a couple of weeks. “It’s worth it to me,” she says, “because I have a good time.”