Man In A Suitcase

A long lonely drive along US 95

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.

Goldfield, Nevada

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 place to 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 another lifetime.

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

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.

Ponderosa Ranch

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 the Galactica and spoke only in the most ponderous of tones), Adam (before he became a series of Latin American dictators and the second coming of Trapper John), Little Joe (before becoming Melissa Gilbert's paw and a less cloying angel than Roma Downey) and Hoss (before... well, for him there was no after). The show was set in the mountains between Lake Tahoe to the west and Virginia City to the east, although the famous burning map of the opening credits confused the geography by rotating everything by 80 degrees. Many of the outdoor scenes were shot around the lake, although the ranch house itself was a studio creation back in L.A. That changed in 1967, when an enterprising couple built this replica near the ski resort community of Incline Village and the Ponderosa as theme park was born. In fact, the replication was good enough, both inside and out, that the producers used the property to film several later episodes of the series, as well as various attempts at sequels.

I enjoyed my wander through the mock Cartwright homestead and its mock town, with Sheriff Roy Coffee's office, the undertaker, hotel and all the other 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 our household.

Virginia City, Nevada

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.

Reno, Nevada

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 Las Vegas. 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.

Home / US Index / Back: Southern Nevada / Next: Eastern Nevada / Last: Texas

Google Web
 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California