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Buffalo Thunder Hilton Casino Golf Resort & Spa

Or “Let her ride!”

Buffalo Thunder Hilton Casino Golf Resort & Spa is located just out of Santa Fe, 15 minutes down the interstate from Santa Fe’s downtown plaza. It’s a huge complex which sits about a quarter mile off the highway. There was little chance of us missing it with a 40 foot billboard complete with backlit red lettering and what must have been a 15 foot 3D HD screen advertising the upcoming events (ZZ TOP) and current competition prizes ( WIN THIS DODGE CHARGER!) blazing its message to passing freeway dwellers and burning tantalising images of high rollers into the retinas of all who let their gaze linger upon it a little too long.

Just walking through the car park we could see there was money here. Jaguars, Mustangs, Chargers, Corvettes, Porsches, lamborghinis…. Every luxury car manufacturer was represented in the parking lot. A 20 foot warrior rendered in bronze complete with bullhorn head dress, bow and arrow raised triumphantly to the sky in his clenched fist, greeted us at the entrance. The hotel complex is like no other I’ve visited. The casino, restaurants, gym and spa are quite standard but the whole complex is full of Native American art and artefacts. More Bronze figures are dotted around the complex. Another warrior of similar size stands sentry to the long lobby on the other side of the complex. Exhibits line the walls, some of the pieces available for purchase while smaller renderings of the large bronzes are available as souvenirs.

Following our very favourable dinner at the Turquoise Trail on our first night in New Mexico we ventured out of the eatery and onto the Casino floor of the Hilton resort. The layout of the casino is standard enough, cheap food near the slots, no windows or clocks, complimentary water, soft beverages or coffee for players. Smoking is permitted throughout except for a small nonsmoking area near the back.  Aware of the money we’d passed in the parking lot, we all dressed as well as our meagre travellers wardrobe would allow ( jeans & collared shirts).
Walking out into the casino, we could have been stepping onto the set of the walking dead. Slack jawed, grey faced, zombies patrolled the ranks of slots, shuffling their way to their next flashing fix. We were overdressed! Slot machines have evolved since my days of roaming the arcades on Blackpool promenade. These days it’s all about touch screens. There are no moving reels anymore. The spinning wheels have been replaced with a 3d touchscreen. When the ‘spin’ button is pressed, the wheels look like they are spinning but it’s all on the screen. The machine even makes a “clunk” sound as the wheels stop and a “clink-clink-clink” sound when you win even though there’s no money coming out. In fact, there are no coin slots in the casino. The sound of coins falling loudly signalling your win is completely artificial, emanating from the speakers in the side of the machine.

When you press the “cash out” button you receive a barcoded ticket with your winnings printed on which you can put into any of the other slots on the floor or take to the cashier and claim your spoils. I observed Mick playing on a 3 reel bandit. It took a while to figure out the workings of the machine. You can bet anywhere from 20 to 200 credits on each spin. This was a 1 cent machine so the minimum bet was 20c and the highest $2. This seemed like the best place to dip a toe in. Mick had thrown a couple of dollars in and had soon doubled his original stake. An auspicious start indeed. Giddy from my comrades success I  shovelled 10 dollars into a similar machine a few spaces down from Mick’s. Within minutes my lucky Doyle heritage was shining through and  I was 6 dollars down. I cashed out, retreating with my 4 dollar ticket, down but not out (no surprises there).

After a good nights sleep and an extended lie in we went in search of brunch and found the Mica restaurant located in the complex, the food was a solid 8/10 all round which is quickly becoming the average score for the trip. Mick took the car for an explore and Mike and I returned to the suite and had a lazy afternoon, Mike tickling his iPad and programming the sat nav for the next leg of the journey while I edited the photos from the previous couple of days, then I headed down for dip in the outdoor pool and to catch the late afternoon sun for half an hour before it set behind the hotel.

When Mick returned he brought news of a couple of places he’d found in Santa Fe plaza which promised live music and food  so that evening we hit the town and settled on a bar & grill called ‘Cowgirls‘. We entered the venue through a small square courtyard full of diners at tables and a band setting up. To the right, a square building roughly the same size as the courtyard houses half a dozen pool tables. Straight ahead was the bar & restaurant building which runs the width of the courtyard and pool hall and is home to the bar, more seating, a crèche at the back and the kitchens.

As you might imagine the wait staff are all wearing stetsons, the girls in blue denim shorts and checked shirts and the guys in black jeans, black shirts and black stetsons. Upon being seated the first thing that struck us was the menu, it looked awesome! Really creative recipes, refreshingly original sides and a great beer and cocktail menu. Then the band kicked off. They sounded good and tight from our seats inside. Mike ordered barbecue brisket & potato salad. Mick had an Elk and Buffalo burger while I ordered seared tofu fajitas. 8/10 all round!

Live bands in the US seem to rely on tips from the audience as both bands we’ve seen so far have had tip jars.  As the band finished their 1st set i introduced myself and offered to buy the band a drink. 1 non-alcoholic beer and a shot of something potent over ice. On getting to the bar I placed my order and the girl behind the bar asked me for my ID!

“Excuse me but whats the drinking age here?” i asked, somewhat surprised.

“21” she replied “so, can i see your ID now?” she continued with a slightly more serious tone. Chuckling to myself  i handed over my driving license and upon reading my date of birth she proclaimed “no way!”

“Way” i replied as she handed me my ID back and prepared the drinks with a perplexed look and a shake of her head. I haven’t been asked for ID since I was 17 as I’ve looked like I’m in my 30s since I was 19 so I was buzzing for the rest of the evening.

The John Kurzweg band provided the tunes, a three piece lineup with Mr..Kurzweg (think Michael Bolton & Stevie Winwood’s love child…) singing and playing acoustic & electric guitars accompanied by a drummer and bass player who both were extremely competent. They played a selection of originals and covers. The standard of musician we’ve seen so far has been off the charts. These guys were no exception and were nothing short of on fire for the rest of the night. I was given a free CD for buying the band a drink and having an interesting accent. The band had to wrap it up at 11 as the venue clearly has an outdoor music curfew so we headed back to the hotel room, Mick venturing out for an hour to try his luck at the blackjack table. 

Day 2 at the Hilton was pretty much the same again. Brunch was great and afterwards i spent an hour walking around the hotel taking pictures before hitting the gym for an hour just in time to catch the last hour of sun by the pool, in the hot tub with a Budweiser.  I could really get used to this! It was decided the night before that we’d be heading back to Cowgirls as there was another band on and we’d all spotted something else on the menu we’d like to try.

We went straight for a table outside this time and reserved it under Mick’s alias for the trip, Mr. Frample Tromwibbler (you have to do these things you know!). While waiting for our table we sat on some benches around a tree in the courtyard watching the band set up. White Buffalo are a four piece band, drums, bass & 2 guitars and one of the guitarists soon noticed Mick, Mike & I staring at his custom double neck guitar. It was made for him and is finished in Koa wood in the shaped of a Buffalo with a 12 string neck on top and a 6 string neck beneath.

After a suitable amount of guitar geekery our table was ready so we sat down and ordered. We shared roasted garlic with cheese crostini to start, Mike ordered Shrimp tacos with refried beans, Mick ordered Chilli dusted seared scallops on a bed of garlic mash with a tangerine salad and I had Bourbon glazed salmon with thinly sliced potatoes under a cheese sauce and grilled asparagus.  8/10 all around again. 

The band were excellent, driving rhythms, nice 3 part vocal harmonies and some truly lovely guitar playing. I bought the band a round of drinks again which more accurately meant I bought Ben the bass player a stout as the other guys don’t drink anymore. After introducing Ben to Mike & Mick he asked if I’d like to sit in on bass with the band for a tune in the second set. I of course accepted as a) I’m an attention whore and b) I love jamming so it was decided that I’d play bass on ‘all over now’. So a few songs in Ben announced they had a “guest musician from Manchester – England ” who’d be joining the band for a song. I was handed Ben’s bass, Mike the guitarist (love child of Eric Clapton and Christopher Walken) counted the song in and BOOM, I was jamming in New Mexico!

I’m fortunate that I can play to a reasonable standard whilst inebriated, a skill I’ve refined on my many trips to Ireland and one that got tested this evening as I was a good 5 beers in by the time I was called up, not a lot by all accounts but most people haven’t ever seen me drink more than a shandy, I’m not a drinker! The song went down great, the band were really easy to play with and as usual I was in my own little zone, bouncing lines off the guitarist and drummer who were both enjoying themselves. As we finished the song and the applause started the guitarist spun around and shouted “12 bar in A starting on the 5…. 1,2,3,4)” and so I was up for another tune, a nice, chunky blues.

There’s something about playing music which crosses all cultural and language barriers, you’re not a Brit or Yank or Mexican, you’re a cog in the machine, a part of a unit working in complete musical symbiosis with your band mates. There is no audience, there is nothing but the moment and being present, focused and aware as the sonic thread weaves its way through the performance and the tendrils of confidence and trust pull the unit together, ever tighter, into a strong, single heartbeat.

After an evening of great food, great beer, top tunes, more beer, Mike’s DIY milkshake (milk, 2 scoops of ice-cream and a spoon) and jamming with the band, we bid our new found musician friends farewell and headed homeward, stopping, upon Mick’s request at Camel Rock ( big rock, looks like a camel, yes it’s that simple) to gaze skyward and enjoy a view of our galaxy and beyond without the light pollution we are accustomed to in the UK. 

Back at the hotel it was my last chance to redeem myself in the casino so while Mike hit the sack, Mick and I headed for the casino floor dressed more casually then on the previous evening (less like Cruise & Hoffman from Rainman, more like a couple of archaeologists from a timeteam dig) and headed for the slots. 

The particular bandit Mick had done well on earlier tells you how many bets have been placed since the last payout. One had 20 bets placed since the last win so in went my ticket, I figured $4 gave me another 20 plays before my bankroll depleted and there was a modest chance of a win in 40 plays. In fairness this is not a bad level of deductive reasoning for the state I was in after an evening of beers! After 7 or 8 spins I was treading water and then my fortune took an upward turn. In honesty, had I bailed directly after this rush of good luck I would have been 5 or 6 dollars up, but high on victory and  lured by the hypnotic rhythm of the reels I played on.. After a few more minutes I cashed out with $10.01 I was a penny up!

After watching Mick playing blackjack for a bit we both watched some poker and bid the casino farewell.  Cresting the top of the escalator I felt victorious, we had escaped the belly of the beast and I had managed to do something i believe to be a first in the Doyle bloodline, I quit while I was ahead!

They say the  house always wins.. but not this time! 

Next stop… Chinle Arizona 

J ‘Snake Eyes’ W Doyle x

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