Longform

All bets are off: Westword writers head up the hill to Black Hawk and Central City

Page 6 of 9

But she's reluctant to talk about that. She'd rather talk about the positive parts of the job — about how, if you get in a jam in the canyon, "flagging down a bus is as good as flagging down a police officer"; your cell phone won't work there, but bus drivers have radios. Or about how the canyon road came to be, built up from the infrastructure of the narrow-gauge railroad that originally ran along Clear Creek. Or about how, even if this is a wildlife area, she still thinks it's unsafe not to have lights along the road. "How streetlights would bother the wildlife but a million headlights don't, I don't know," she says. She's so informed on the particulars of driving a bus along this route, it's hard to be sure if the 160 turns she mentioned are documented somewhere or if she just counted them herself.

Somewhere along those turns, the conversations die off and the radio falls silent. A few people sleep; some look out the window. Outside, the canyon slips past, illuminated in the strange, washed-out light of a mottled, watercolor sky that hasn't been able to decide all day whether or not it wants to be overcast, the sun straining through a paper-thin cloud with all the intensity of a brand-new dime. The light is fading when the bus pulls up to its last stop in Central City. For Bonnie, the trip back down the hill will be her last run of the day, but for the last stragglers getting off the bus — the working stiffs and the gamblers alike — the day is just beginning. — Jef Otte


5 p.m.

The "Medical Marijuana" signs on the front door make it clear there's no casino inside 125 Main Street in Central City. But still, would-be gamblers keep coming into Gaia's Gift.

Before it became a dispensary in March, one of three in town, the building was home to the Central City Visitors Center. Before that, it was home to Mayor Willie's Casino, one of many casinos that have come and gone since gambling was introduced here. And even though it has since been stripped down to its stone walls, remnants of that incarnation remain — including the ornate wood-and-brass cashier's booth that has found new life as the dispensary's office.

The people who come in looking for blinking lights and buzzing machines instead find a lounge decorated with thrift-store couches. The only buzzing comes from the Nevil's Haze and THC-infused Rice Krispie treats. Every now and then, Gaia's Gift is visited by a drunk fresh off a losing table who wants to buy some weed. Since you need a medical marijuana card to buy pot here, just as you do at any dispensary in the state, those drunks usually leave disappointed.

Other visitors treat the dispensary like another tourist attraction. "People just come in and want to see what it's all about," says owner Sean Kittel, who moved up to Central City last month. "Since we opened, I have had more pictures taken right out front of our building than anywhere else."

He's found himself offering an overview of our state's MMJ industry to some unlikely people: parents concerned that their kids back home might be using drugs; farmers from Kansas who want to see what a hemp plant looks like; curious octogenarians from Canada who want a break from the slot machines. Sean enjoys giving the educational talks, he says. That role comes with the territory in a small town. A town that got its start with the state's first gold rush, then gambled on gaming two decades ago, and now could make its pot...off pot. — William Breathes


6:45 p.m.

Dealer Hank has the hands of a magician and the spiel of a carnival barker. No sullen grunts, no tip-hustling fake show of sympathy for those tough breaks, just a steady patter about Little Debbie snack cakes and crazy eights and don't spend it all in one place — unless, of course, the place happens to be the Fortune Valley Casino.

Other blackjack dealers ask if you want to place an insurance bet when their upcard is an ace. Hank offers a commercial: "Insurance brought to you by Geico. One phone call could save you 15 percent or more."

When one player collects six dollars on a double-down and whoops it up as if she's broken the bank, Hank goes along with the gag. "Your play is too strong for my table, ma'am," he says. "Perhaps you'd like to check out our deli."

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