Our destination is Montego Bay — a gambling casino that, despite its name, sits at the edge of a dried-up primordial lake. We are on the "fun bus" to West Wendover, Nev., along with 50 other riders, nearly all of them Utahns.

It is raining and kind of gloomy as we enter the western desert, but inside the fun bus, spirits are high. We are sailing along I-80, through the surreal topography of salt and emptiness, toward the border and its faux Caribbean paradise. Already we have left behind our ordinary lives and are hurtling toward a place where we have no assignments due or laundry to wash.

In their towns of Tremonton and Centerville, Beth Ballard and Fae Francis are senior citizens. On the fun bus they're teenagers again, giggling about the penny slots looming on the far horizon. Ballard and Francis met because Francis' sister-in-law was Ballard's neighbor. The three were gambling buddies for years — coming out to Wendover since before there was anything on the north side of the street, says Francis — and when the sister-in-law died 10 years ago, the two friends took on the task of cleaning out her house.

They found her gambling money in a jar and decided the best way to honor their friend was to take the money to Wendover on her next birthday. They've been celebrating her birthday that way every September since then. And making other trips for fun, as well.

This morning Ballard got up at 5:30 to catch the fun bus in Ogden at 7:30, stopping in Salt Lake City to pick up more passengers at 9. There are several fun buses, including Le Bus and Donna's Tours, which make the round-trip to Wendover seven days a week, sometimes twice a day, sometimes six or seven buses at a time. For $12 you get the ride and a coupon book good for a free $10 buffet, $7 in cash and a free cocktail. You could theoretically take the trip, not gamble and come out ahead. On Le Bus, the bingo games start part way through the desert. For one dollar you can play three games, for the chance of winning $15. Technically, that's gambling, which is illegal in Utah even if you're in transit.

"The first game will be a blackout," says our "host," Bob Eva, talking through a microphone at the front of the bus. He begins to call out the numbers and we scan our cards, already feeling lucky.

"How about a whiteout," shouts a woman at the front of the bus, whose luck is lagging behind.

Later, after Jane Brown from Oley, Penn., shouts out "Bingo," Eva presents her with her winnings, then passes out Styrofoam cups full of soft drinks. Outside our windows the rain has stopped and the sun is shining.

We are being transported, as David Kranes says, from "practical to possible." Kranes, a retired University of Utah English professor, has long been fascinated by what he calls border realities and dream spaces. He has written novels and plays set in casinos, and he currently works as a consultant to help casinos design those spaces better: less frantic, more open and ordered.

"And what happened in The Crossing — from state to state," writes Kranes about his first car trip to Nevada years ago, "was: The rising of Expectation, increase of Appetite." The first time he ever drove across the Utah desert toward Nevada to gamble he says he felt like he was on some kind of Homeric journey, piercing the dark, battling the elements, crossing an Ancient Sea.

When we get to Wendover, the bus stops at all the casinos. Like Ballard and Francis, we get off at the first stop, Montego Bay. We step inside the casino, into the dark, timeless space. At 11 in the morning the place is fairly empty, the whir and ping of the slots subdued.

Beverly Stromberg and her husband drive to Wendover every Tuesday from their home in Grantsville. "We should be going to the temple," she says. In fact her daughter is kind of shocked at this new development in her mother's life. "My answer is: 'I'm not hurting anyone.' " To which her daughter replies, "Yes you are. You're setting a bad example."

But Stromberg sees it this way: "I don't buy jewelry. I don't buy clothes. I can't read, because I'm going blind from diabetes." And she hates going to the movies these days. "Do you know how tired I am of seeing what people now call 'boobs'?"

"Old people come (to Wendover) for one reason," she says. "To get out of the house. To be entertained." Not that she really likes the newfangled machines.

Francis, on the other hand, is fascinated by the technology, the newer and fancier the better. The new penny slots, she says, with their changing themes and even minor plot lines, tickle her. Ballard, the consummate good sport, doesn't care much for the new machines but happily keeps Francis company as she plays them.

You can take the fun bus in the morning and come back in time for dinner, or you can keep gambling and take the 1 a.m. bus. Or, like Ballard and Francis, you can stay overnight and gamble for an extra day. Or, for that matter, stay for as long as your luck or your money hold out.

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On the bus back to Salt Lake City the mood is usually more subdued. There aren't even any bingo games, maybe because some riders wouldn't have a dollar left to play with. Asked if he broke even, retired auto mechanic Jim Boyd answers "Partially."

We are driving east now, away from glitz and promise, back to our real lives.


E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com; lois@desnews.com