For most of my time on the West Coast, my knowledge of Nevada was limited
to Las Vegas and the bit of Interstate 15 that got me there. And then one
day I found myself with too much time and an urge to see someplace new.
So I started driving, with only the loosest idea of a destination. And
along the way I discovered Highway 95, the primary road along the western
edge of Nevada. It's not a particularly challenging drive: put the cruise
control on, pass -- or be passed by -- the occasional other vehicle, slow
down every hour or two to pass through some almost-hamlet. And enjoy the
blue sky and the incredible colors of the hills, which start to get
interesting about an hour north of Vegas and stay interesting for hundreds
of miles. A drive like that is good for what ails you,
so long as what ails you isn't loneliness.
Nevada is an interesting object lesson in nonrenewable economies.
Little of the state is suitable for agriculture or manufacturing or
transportation. So a lot of towns sprang up in response to mineral
finds and began to die as the mines played themselves out. The
isolated ones died quickly; those on major travel routes found a
second chance as oases for those of us passing through, offering
fuel, food, water and... um... entertainment.
Goldfield tries, or at least tried, to position itself as such a
bright spot on lonely highway 95. The sign at left promises a
combination of interesting sights and practical benefits. But the
pieces that have fallen off the sign give a hint that things aren't as
they seem, that there is less to Goldfield than one would hope. And
just beyond the Goldfield sign is life of a different sort. The
Cottontail Ranch is one of Nevada's legal brothels, restricted by
state law to counties with fewer than 200,000 residents. Which, to
be fair, is everywhere in the state that isn't Vegas or Reno. My
apologies to Bobby Troup, but I guess
Route 66 isn't the only
get your kicks.
The town itself looks tired, exhausted, ready to fall apart in the
next strong wind. The century-old castle of a county courthouse
has an aura of abandonment, at least if you miss a string of
official cars parked behind. The hotel looks more promising, a
big and solid looking structure that looks like it belongs in
a more prosperous town. But a second glance
makes it obvious that the Goldfield Hotel saw its last guest in
What little activity I saw centered around the town's watering
holes, like the Mozart Club at right. I didn't investigate further;
I half expected that if I did, the patrons would fade out on me like
some dimly remembered episode of The Twilight Zone. But I can't
help wondering why a town like this survives and how long it will hold
on. Will a driver heading down 95 in fifty years even notice that
anything was once here?
Lake Tahoe is a very high and very deep lake in the Sierra Nevada
Mountains that straddles the line between California and Nevada. It's
a place of spectacular beauty both in summer and winter, although rather
easier to get to in the warmer season. (And yes, it does get cold in
California. Just not in the parts where I've ever lived.) There are
little towns spread out all around the lake, offering visitors all the
pleasures the lake and the surrounding mountains can offer.
At right is a study in contrast: the adjacent towns of
South Lake Tahoe, California and Stateline, Nevada.
Locating the state line is easy: if
you're surrounded by cheesy shops and lowrise motels, you're in
California. If it's highrises and casinos, it's Nevada. And
as with most places where a major road crosses into Nevada, the slot
machines begin long before you can have a thought of spending your
money any other way.
If you're of a certain age, the ranch house at left and the surrounding
terrain will be almost as familiar as your own neighborhood. From 1959
to 1973 this was the home of the Cartwrights: Ben (before he commanded
and spoke only in the most ponderous of tones), Adam (before he became
a series of
Latin American dictators
and the second coming of
Little Joe (before becoming
Melissa Gilbert's paw
a less cloying angel
I enjoyed my wander through the mock Cartwright homestead and its mock town,
with Sheriff Roy Coffee's office, the undertaker, hotel and all
accouterments of late 19th century western life. It's a low key tourist
attraction, in keeping with a slower and more rugged lifestyle. And
it feels like it belongs here on a northeast corner of Lake Tahoe,
surrounded by mountains and tall trees. Well worth a visit, especially
if you too have fond memories of an earlier age of television. Now if
only they could make it all black and white. That's the way it was in
When the Cartwrights went into town, Virginia City was the town they
went into. (The town into which they went?) Or
at least a backlot version of Virginia City. The real city didn't
(and doesn't) look much like the Bonanza version. On television it
was nice and level, with a broad street for stagecoaches and posses to pass.
In real life the main street runs along a ridge and divides
the well-to-do uptown residents from their low rent neighbors down the hill.
And it's pretty narrow; just enough room for two lanes of traffic,
plus some parked cars from tourists like me. Because these days,
Virginia City trades on its history: first as a mining town and
second as a career stop for Sam Clemens, for a time the city editor of the
Territorial Enterprise. Only a few establishments here bear his nom
de plume, which turns up about as often out here as George Washington
Slept Here plaques do back east.
If you have only one image of Reno, it's of an archway advertising it
as The Biggest Little City In The World. What exactly does
that mean? Is it a P.T. Barnum con like world's tallest midget?
Or a simple oxymoron like jumbo shrimp or corporate
ethics? To me, Reno most resembles a smaller, lowrise version of
But not the Strip, with all its megahotels and bright lights; Reno is more
like a Mini Me
version of downtown Vegas, a place that most tourists never experience.
Which is nice in some ways; the casinos are built to a more human scale
than their counterparts down south.
Downtown Reno is a set of abrupt transitions. Cross the street from
the bright lights of the casinos and you're in the midst of an older,
less prosperous and less optimistic city. You don't have to walk too
far to go from upmarket to downmarket to
downmarket-hoping-to-become-upmarket to gaps where downmarket is
history but upmarket has yet to arrive. In a funny way it reminds me
of Manhattan. Like most places, it
has good neighborhoods and bad ones. The difference is that here
they're in the same block.
Downtown improves again when you reach the Truckee River, just south
of the casino part of downtown and that silly Biggest Little
City arch. Don't look to your
left, where the pink bulk of the
Cal-Neva Casino's massive parking garage and an AT&T office
building utterly fail to improve the view. Turn west instead and
enjoy the Riverwalk, a place where
people relax and appreciate the views, where old and newer architecture
create a pastoral scene, or at least as much of one as you can find in
the middle of a city, even one as big little as this.
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California