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. Just watch where you put your purse
Unionville, 180 miles east, feels more authentic. In a lush canyon down a dusty two-lane road 15 miles off the interstate, the town is the proverbial middle of nowhere. Unionville was the site of a smaller silver strike in the 1860s, and it hasn't been gussied up in any major way since.
Lew and Mitzi Jones, an adorable couple, own and run the Old Pioneer Garden Country Inn, composed of five houses. They live in the first, and keep sheep, goats, and chickens in pens. A pair of border collies is guarding their porch when we drive up. Lew opens the door, and we catch a delicious whiff of roasting meat. He walks us to our room in the six-bedroom Hadley House cabin. A brook, sparkling in the sun, rushes beyond our window. We've died and gone toLittle House on the Prairie.
At dinner, Dagny and I meet the B&B's other guests: four Jeans, three Marys, a Penny, and a Paulette, all members of the Sierra Watercolor Society. The club's purpose, as I understand it, is to travel to beautiful places and, time permitting, paint. After a dinner of vegetable lasagna, roast chicken, and coconut crème brûlée--all prepared by Mitzi--the watercolor women invite us for cocktails in their house. Tired from the previous night's escapades, we gracefully decline and borrow some old issues ofThe New Yorkerfrom the library. By 10 p.m., I'm out cold.
- Old Pioneer Garden Country Inn2805 Unionville Rd., Unionville, 775/538-7585, from $85, dinner $11.50
- Genoa Country Store2299 Main St., Genoa, 775/782-5974
- Red's Old Fashioned Candies68 South C St., Virginia City, 775/847-0404
- David Walley's Resort, Hot Springs & Spa2001 Foothill Rd., Genoa, 800/385-0126, day pass $20
- Ponderosa Saloon Mine Tour106 South C St., Virginia City, 775/847-7210, $4.50
Day 3: Unionville to Elko
Dagny is so content sleeping in, she can't even rouse herself for Mitzi's hearty breakfast: scrambled eggs, oatmeal, sliced pears, and a cake with lemon curd. Afterward, I set off on my own to explore the former mining camp of Unionville's most famous resident--our man Twain. Though he originally came to Nevada to assist his brother Orion, then Secretary of the Nevada Territory, Twain quickly acquired silver fever. Fortunately, he failed at mining and focused on writing.
In these run-down boomtowns, it's easy to forget that Nevada is still the country's largest producer of gold and silver. But once we get back onto I-80, reminders of the state's underground wealth dot our drive to Elko: a crane here, some Caterpillars there. A whole lot of people are still digging for riches.
Halfway to Elko, a billboard for the town of Battle Mountain interrupts the view: VOTED ARMPIT OF AMERICA BY THE WASHINGTON POST. WE DIDN'T KNOW YOU WERE LOOKING! It may be the armpit of the world, but it does have cheap gas.
Elko, on the other hand, is like a Technicolor Western with a twist--saloons, casinos, and four Basque restaurants. Though only a sliver of the population now, Basques began immigrating here in the 1870s to herd sheep, and today their heritage lives on at restaurants like the Star Hotel.
Dagny, to whom I defer on all things Nevada, predicted a wait, so we arrive at 4 p.m. on the nose. Sure enough, within a half hour, locals fill the bar, jockeying for position when the dining room opens at 5 p.m. We snag two bar stools, and I set my purse in a small "canal" beneath the bar. Dagny yanks it out. "Men used to pee in that trough!" she says. Apparently, cowboys were too lazy to leave the bar stools to relieve themselves. The Star Hotel's signature cocktail, the Pecan Punch--a lethal combination of brandy, grenadine, and pecan liqueur--allows me to laugh it off.
Every entrée comes with a dizzying number of sides--iceberg salad topped with a garlicky dressing, vegetable soup, fresh French fries, and baked beans I hold back from touching to leave room for my main course. The juicy rib eye is seared so perfectly, I swear it's better than any I've tasted in a New York City steak house.
After dinner, we check out the Tiki Hut, a retro dive with a trashy-looking velveteen mural of an oceanscape. At the bar, men in cowboy hats are poring over song lists. Karaoke! We scan the book for our favorite song by one-hit wonder Night Ranger, "Sister Christian." When a mustached man asks Dagny her name, she lies. I follow her lead, and for the rest of the night, we have to suppress the giggles when the DJ calls for "Katie and Joni."
- Thunderbird Motel345 Idaho St., Elko, 775/738-7115, from $70
- Star Hotel246 Silver St., Elko, 775/738-9925, rib eye $24