Wandering the West
November 3, 2009
It was 1970, and any self-respecting person a few years either side of 21 had long hair, bell bottoms and funny smoking habits. "American Woman" by a Canadian band called The Guess Who hit number one. "Mr. Bojangles," an old tune by Jerry Jeff Walker, was remade by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which put out a string of hits and classic albums like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in the ’70s as well. British contemporaries of Led Zeppelin like Bad Company were also running strong.
the ’80s, country acts like Dwight Yoakam and Sawyer Brown were filling indoor arenas like the old Salt Palace. And by the ’90s, Terri Clark, Sara Evans and others were putting a contemporary spin on country.
And all along (or at least since the ’60s), legendary acts like B.B. King, the Temptations and the Four Tops were headliners nationwide.
You’d think by now that some of these artists would be gardening, painting, or maybe mentoring younger rockers as producers and songwriters. But they’re all out there and even 84-year-old blues guitarist extraordinaire B.B. King still playing. And now you wouldn’t believe where they’re showing up.
Wendover, Nevada, has never been a destination for me. Everything there is bad for you smoke-filled casinos, people gambling away their money, buffets full of unhealthy food. The mere thought of coins jangling in the bowls under slot machines and keno numbers called over the loudspeakers give me a headache.
But a few years ago, while I was on Crosby, Stills and Nash’s website, looking for their nearest to Utah concert, there they were, scheduled to play Wendover, less than a mile from the Utah line. My first reaction was one of sadness. Giants of rock reduced to a casino lounge in the middle of nowhere. My second reaction was, "We gotta go!"
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Forty years ago Wendover was probably like Las Vegas in the 30s a dusty highway stop with a few broken-down casinos. Then Bill Smith and his family expanded their gas station into the Stateline Casino. Others followed, and when the Smiths expanded across the street with the glitzy Silver Smith Casino Hotel, Wendover entered its present era.
The casinos have all changed hands by now. The Silver Smith is Montego Bay, and the Peppermill, a Wendover staple at the second freeway exit into town, has differentiated itself from the others by building a midsized concert hall.
And they’re booking some slightly-over-the-hill-but-still-kicking acts. In November and December alone, at the rate of about three a week, you can see the Guess Who, Bad Company, B.B. King, Sawyer Brown, Restless Heart, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a dozen more great acts that used to fill basketball arenas, if not stadiums. There’s Sara Evans, the Temptations and the Four Tops, and even Park City part-timer Bill Engval.
Never in my life would I have thought I would ever suggest someone go to Wendover on purpose, but if you like live music, there’s good reason to go. And if, like me, you don’t care about casino "recreation," there are a few other, more cultural pursuits.
If you take the first exit on the Utah side, where the truck stop and entrance to Bonneville Speedway are, look at the bleak gray rock mountain ahead of you. You’ll see some dark holes down low on the mountainside. One is Danger Cave where archaeologists in the 1940s and ’50s found signs of habitation dating back 10,000 years the oldest traces of human activity in the Great Basin. It is a National Historic Landmark as well as a Utah state park. But all you can do is look through the steel bars that protect it from looters and vandals. It’s the same story to the south at Dance Hall Cave, which is also closed off by steel grates. It is a dry cave where the first Utahns lived not long after saber-tooth tigers and wooly mammoths went extinct. It got its name because airmen from nearby Wendover Air Field poured a concrete dance floor and strung lights inside during World War II, when bomber crews trained here.
Wendover Field itself is worth checking out. It wasn’t preserved, just abandoned, when the war ended. The Enola Gay crew trained for its atomic-bomb-dropping mission here. Row after row of barracks, hangers and office buildings stand slowly drying out and blowing away an intact air base without a mission except to give you the creeps.
So, you can spend a night listening to one of your favorite ’60s through ’90s bands, get a history lesson, gamble if you like, and still get home early after a quick overnight trip.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Park City to Wendover: 153 miles
Insider tip: Check the concert website frequently. Hot acts sell fast. I never did get the CSN tickets.