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.
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.
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.
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."
Day 4: Elko to Reno
There's no getting around it: Northern Nevada contains some serious wide-open space. The Census Bureau says there are only 2.7 people per square mile in Elko County, making it one of the most sparsely populated places in the lower 48. Heading south to Eureka along Route 278, we see cattle grazing in the distance; they look like toy farm animals. Even before we reach Highway 50--also known as the Loneliest Road in America--we feel utterly isolated.
A representative from AAA once toldLifemagazine that tourists need "survival skills" to drive the highway. One of ours is the ability to repeatedly belt out Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," the rare treasure amid the punk-heavy selections on my boyfriend's iPod, which I packed instead of mine.
Our best plan, however, is to do all of Highway 50 in one shot. It means a full day of driving, but Dagny insists that there's so little to see in the towns along the way, you need to string them together to make the trip worthwhile. She's right, and in fact, I find the views between them far more interesting anyway. Nevada has 314 mountain ranges, more than any other state in the continental U.S.
We almost miss one of the few sights, when Dagny flies around a bend and mentions that we just passed the Shoe Tree. Over the years, drivers have flung shoes into the cottonwood. The area is so deserted we stand in the middle of the road and take pictures--just because we can.
The second spectacle is Sand Mountain, a 600-foot-tall dune. It's a natural anomaly that has become a favorite of off-road enthusiasts, and ATVs buzz around like bugs.
Fallon has what may be the strangest sight of all: the Oats Park Art Center, an oasis of culture in the desert. Kirk Robertson, the center's program director, tells us that the Chicago improv group Second City performed the night before. We settle for the current exhibit of Japanese embroidered silk. After our four-day immersion in the Old West, it's a refreshing change of pace--one made all the sweeter by the simple fact that Mark Twain never went there.
Finding your way
Most major airlines fly into Reno-Tahoe airport, where rental cars start at roughly $140 for four days. There's no reason not to switch the order of this loop, heading to Elko first and saving Genoa for the end. To get from Carson City to Genoa, head 13 miles south of the city on Route 395 to Route 206; it's about a 30-minute drive. You can stay in Genoa instead of Carson City. The Wild Rose Inn starts at $125 a night (877/819-4225, wildrose-inn.com). It's also possible to break up the long drive back across U.S. 50 by spending a night in Fallon or Austin, both of which have plenty of motels. But if you choose to do it in one haul, the three big stops we mention are ideally spaced out, about two hours apart.