ROAD TRIP

Nevada: Sometimes You Want to Go Where You Can Drive and Drive and Drive

The state is famous for its emptiness (well, that and Vegas). But as good as the driving is, the stops are pretty interesting, too.

Genoa, Nevada

Genoa, Nevada

(Debra Reschoff-ahearn / Dreamstime.com)

A cowboy in Virginia City

(Dave Lauridsen)

Day 1: Reno to Carson City

I'm willing to give almost any place a second chance. Nevada, for instance. I'd visited my best friend Dagny in Reno before, but the one road trip we'd taken was to the Black Rock Desert--a place so dull, flat, and brown, I couldn't help but agree with the sign outside: WELCOME TO NOWHERE. It didn't exactly inspire further exploration. But Dagny swore her state gets a face-lift every spring, when the sagebrush blooms and the desert turns a bright shade of green. That was enough to pique my interest, and we set off to cover 815 miles in four days.

Leaving Reno, I already start to see what she's talking about: A thick carpet of grasses covers the hills. We head south down Highway 395, and soon find blossoming cherry trees. Dagny and I planned on making Carson City our first stop, but the drive takes only 40 minutes, so we push on. There are two picturesque, history-filled towns on either side of Carson City: Genoa and Virginia City. Genoa's claim to fame is that it's the birthplace of Nevada, but the real reason we go is Genoa Bar, "Nevada's oldest thirst parlor."

When we roll in, it's respectably late enough to have a drink. The saloon looks like part of a Western movie set that never got torn down. (In fact, it is: John Wayne and Clint Eastwood both shot films here.) Inside, pool balls click and Lynyrd Skynyrd howls on the jukebox. The oil lamps that hang from the ceiling seem like they haven't been dusted since the bar was built in 1853. The bar's brochure tries to put a positive spin on things: "We grow our own cobwebs here." Former patrons include Mark Twain, who traveled through Nevada during its silver rush in the 1860s, as well as Teddy Roosevelt and Johnny Cash. Over a Genoa Bar pale ale, Dagny and I survey some deer heads on the wall, strewn with Mardi Gras beads and a lone bra. It's not quite the direction we want our night to head, so we finish our pints and loop our way back to Carson City for dinner.

When we walk into Adele's, a cheesy lounge act is doing its thing in the bar--a bad sign. Neither the music nor the Victorian decor is to my taste, but a series of satisfying hors d'oeuvres certainly is. Our triple-cream cheese comes with grilled ciabatta doused in olive oil. It's a simple but delicious pairing, as is the house-cured salmon with dill-flavored crème fraîche.

Nevada can dress itself up nicely, but it's still a bastion of brothels. The owner of NV50 Ultralounge, on the edge of Carson City, also runs a couple of houses of worse repute. This is his upscale lounge, and though it's largely devoid of sleaze, there's still the occasional pole on-site for would-be "dancers." We merengue with Mexican men in full cowboy regalia, then grab a nightcap at the divey Old Globe Saloon. A barbershop quartet is performing in the front. A few serenades later, we're ready for bed.

Food

  • Adele's1112 N. Carson St., Carson City, 775/882-3353, smoked salmon platter $14

Nightlife

  • Genoa Bar2282 Main St., Genoa, 775/782-3870
  • NV50 Ultralounge10051 Hwy. 50 East, Carson City, 775/246-4477
  • Old Globe Saloon407 N. Curry St., Carson City, 775/882-1816

Day 2: Carson City to Unionville

Craving R&R, we backtrack 15 miles to Genoa for a dip in the steamy mineral pools at David Walley's Resort, Hot Springs & Spa. When they opened 144 years ago, the hot springs were a few baths carved into rock; today, Walley's springs feed eight hot tubs, all with an unobstructed view of the snowy Sierras. We try the 99-degree tub and the unbearable 104-degree one before hopping out to grab coffee in the adjacent café. On the wall, there's a picture of McAvoy Layne, a Twain impersonator almost as famous as Samuel Clemens himself.

At the Genoa Country Store, a boardinghouse/bar turned soda fountain, we pick up turkey sandwiches for lunch. The town used to be a pit stop on the most popular wagon route to California during the 1849 gold rush. Mormon settlers created a trading post here for 49ers to rest and get new pack animals.

Genoa's demise can be attributed, in part, to Virginia City's success. Between 1859 and 1879, the Comstock Lode beneath Virginia City, 30 miles north of Genoa, produced $400 million in gold and silver. As we wind our way up Mount Davidson toward the hilltop town, we pass tons of abandoned mines. In Virginia City, wood-plank sidewalks are about the only real thing that remains from the mining days. Meanwhile, the "Ye Olde" saloons, shops, and quaint museums all scream modern-day tourist trap.

In pursuit of some real history, we take a mine tour at the Ponderosa Saloon.

A passageway in the back of the bar leads to part of the 300-mile honeycomb of tunnels beneath Virginia City. Our guide, who looks like Santa Claus, explains how the miners worked 15-minute shifts in 140-degree heat, using canaries to tell when oxygen ran low. We last just a bit longer than 15 minutes before resurfacing and refueling with mint chocolate chip ice cream from Red's Old Fashioned Candies.

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