NEVADA — It’s an odd place, Nevada. You can feel the spirits of suicidal saloon girls, bump into grizzled gamblers hoping for a pay day, or join the Burning Man throngs heading into the desert in search of meaning. There are still cowboys and rodeos here. Shootouts and steers. And damn good food.
My boyfriend and photographer Mike and I landed in Reno, Nevada, to drive the Tahoe Loop, a 145-mile trip that hugs the central western part of the state. For four days we drove, starting and ending in Reno, with a string of odd adventures connecting the days and nights.
No doubt about it: This western edge of Nevada is still very much wild.
Day 1: Reno
Reno is a city whose reputation precedes it. Self-proclaimed as "The Biggest Little City in the World," it is better known as a last stop in the desert for second-rate gamblers who can't quite reach (or handle) Las Vegas. Or for sex workers past their prime, working the many adult clubs around town. The town — and its locals — have an air of just getting by. Unlike the lusty lure of its big brother Vegas, which vibrates with neon-lit capitalism, Reno is quiet. No: Reno is sullen.
We picked up our decidedly un-Western Nissan Altima and headed to Circus Circus. Its older cousin opened in Vegas in 1968 and is the better-known of the pair, but Reno’s version of the carnival-esque hotel holds its own. The colorful lights of The Midway arcade and its family-friendly games had us spending money, hand over whack-a-mole mallet, for what could have easily been two hours.
Or four? Was it eight? I don’t know. That’s how Reno works.
In spite of the hustle, it remained a thrill to win a tiny stuffed football for the hard work of successfully throwing a softball onto a milk jug. Our sleeping room was serviceable, but the colorful Midway is reason enough for anyone in Reno to stop by Circus Circus.
Day 2: More Reno
There was nothing worth eating at the hotel, so we headed to Two Chicks, whose punny tagline "Eggceptional Breakfast" is no joke. We ordered three meals, since everything looked so good: biscuits and gravy, a breakfast burrito, and egg and chorizo on freshly-rolled corn tortillas. The two women owners — the two chicks, as it were — started in town with a grilled-cheese truck and upgraded their success to the brick-and-mortar restaurant. Impressed with this culinary achievement, we went in search of a different kind of creativity.
Though it started in San Francisco in 1986, Burning Man has been Nevada's avant-garde art festival for nearly three decades. In Reno, the small but inspirational Reno Playa Art Project, organized by the local group Artech, offered a teeny taste of the massive sculptural art that lures 70,000 people to the arid desert every August.
Roll back in time about 150 years, and something else was luring people to these parts in the tens of thousands. It was the promise of gold and silver.
Prominent among them were the Basque from Spain, who arrived in the mid-19th century to seek their fortunes. Hotels popped up to accommodate them, along with restaurants serving "boardinghouse" family-style meals of lamb, beef, and pasta. Traditional chilled red table wine, the famed Picon Punch, would guarantee a good night’s sleep for a determined miner. It did the same for us, after a delicious meal at Louis’ Basque Corner, where the family-style Basque dining tradition is alive and well.
Our hearty meal wouldn’t have been complete without that Picon Punch, sometimes just known as the Basque cocktail. The main ingredient is the hard-to-find Amer Picon spirit, made of bitter oranges, gentian, and cinchona. Created by Frenchman Gaëtan Picon in 1837, the drink evolved from a digestive aid into a boardinghouse party punch. It’s singular and strong and definitely made us feel like we could strike gold tomorrow on our way to the Jewel of the Sierra Nevada.
Day 3: Lake Tahoe
Still stuffed from a dinner of lamb, beans, bread, and wine, we were ready to get to Lake Tahoe. We took the steep and winding Mt. Rose Highway, easily one of the most beautiful drives in the United States, climbing 8,900 feet above sea level. The skyward transition is swift and stark from Reno’s brown desert valley to the bracing cool air and teal-toned landscape at the mountain’s peak.
Lake Tahoe is an absolute stunner. The largest Alpine lake in North America, its cold water is ringed by pine trees and snow-capped mountains. The air is fresh with Christmassy fir and clean soil.
We grabbed kayaks at Sand Harbor State Park and floated into the lake. After paddling around enough on our own, we left Incline Village for Zephyr Cove to catch the M.S. Dixie II paddle-wheeler for a two-hour tour of the stunning south side of the crystalline lake.
In Stateline, Nevada – located literally on the line between California and Nevada — we checked into MontBleu Resort, whose website photos and French name betrayed what it really was. Our visions of an evening nestled in Adirondack chairs, glasses of Burgundy in hand, surveying the majestic blue water, fell from our eyes as we entered the lobby, which was also the casino floor of a smoky old hotel. After checking into our room with a parking-lot-view, we "upgraded" to one where we could kind of, sort of see Lake Tahoe if we tilted our heads just enough.
We high-tailed it out of Nevada proper and into South Lake Tahoe on the California side to the adorable beer garden at Basecamp. A wedding reception was in full force when we arrived, and we half-crashed it by grabbing drinks upstairs on the deck. Overlooking their converted Airstream in the courtyard and the lake in the distance, this felt right. Had we known better, Mike and I would have stayed in their hipster-approved refurbished motel rooms for the night. Instead, after some excellent beers from the South of North Brewing Co., we bowed our heads and turned back towards the smoky, slot-machine-riddled MontBleu.
A happy find between Basecamp and the MontBlue was Lucky Beaver Bar & Burger, renowned for their 50-day dry-aged steak burger – a half-pound patty made of chuck roast and short rib. (New York City’s own famed butcher Pat LaFrieda created the recipe.) Mike added aged cheddar and caramelized onions on top and Cajun-style tater tots on the side. The Reno Rodeo was playing on nearly every TV in the bar. The exotic dancers (yep) from MontBlue rolled in after their shifts.
Day 4: Cowboy Country
We left the limp pillows and thin sheets of the dive (moral of this story: even seasoned travelers can slip, and don’t trust every hotel websites) and set our sights on the historic boomtown of Virginia City, stopping along the way in Genoa, a little town along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
By noon we arrived at 1862 David Walley's Resort and Hot Springs, which soothed our spirits. Naturally heated groundwater is pumped into five hot tubs where visitors restore themselves to health — mental and otherwise. Mark Twain often bathed here and — if the spa’s signage is to be believed — once proclaimed, "These springs, without a doubt, have no equal on this coast. I now leave without crutch or cane, entirely well, not only relieved from pain but gained in spirit."
Feeling a bit more spirited ourselves, we walked a mile into the center of Genoa for lunch at The Pink House. The Gothic Revival-style home was built in 1855, is indeed a bright pink, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. No longer a home, it’s now a lovely spot to grab a plate of charcuterie and cheese. (Their Epoisses Berthaut was possibly the best cheese I’ve ever tried.) The façade’s bright pinkness, the wide porch, the simple gentility — it all felt like a scene out of The Music Man. I was expecting someone with a parasol or ascot to break into song at any moment.
Since no one did, we left the formality of floral tapestried settees and floral rugs and walked to The Genoa Bar, nicknamed "Nevada's oldest thirst parlor." In operation since 1853, its patrons have ranged from Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt to Mike and me. A biker gang was hanging around outside when we arrived, along with cowboy poet Tony Argento, whose two-foot-long beard set the scene perfectly. I downed a sour mash strawberry lemonade, a soothing concoction made from Nevada's own The Depot Silver Corn Whisky, strawberries, and lemonade.
Then we were off to Virginia City, a true American boomtown. In 1859 Henry Comstock struck what's now known as the Comstock Lode of gold and silver — and 25,000 other fortune-seekers followed suit. The millionaires' mountain town burst with nearly one hundred saloons, hotels, brothels, and, improbably, an opera house.
Although it looks like a Disney park, everything here is real: from Bucket of Blood Saloon, slinging suds since 1876, to the original wooden planks of the main street’s boardwalk (where you hear the clomping of boots and spurs), to the miners who still toil 3,000 feet underground. Of course, mining in the 19th century was even harder than it is today, and those men played just as hard. Countless people died in shoot-outs, and prostitutes often took their own lives to end what was surely violent and miserable lives. The Bonanza Saloon has the town’s infamous suicide table, a Faro card table where three men, years apart, shot themselves dead.
So it may not be terribly surprising that Virginia City has been ranked among one of the most haunted places in the United States. Even a skeptic such as myself felt ill at ease here.
It didn't sink in until we reached Edith Palmer’s Country Inn, a bit away from the hustle of the boardwalk. Hitchcock couldn’t have imagined a more eerie scene. The Victorian-style house sagged on a hill that kept watch over a purple-pink sunset. An old woman with white hair parted in the middle stared out of a window as we approached. (You can't make this up.)
According to a piece of paper taped to the door, the office was only open until 6 p.m. It was nearly 7. We knocked. We waited. We knew someone was inside. The door opened, and the white-haired woman peered out of the jamb. Slowly, she let us in. It was as if time crawled to a snail’s pace. She was the owner, but she didn’t have much of our information and had us separated in two rooms. She penciled my credit card number on the back of a sheet of paper and slipped it into the drawer of a round-edged wooden desk.
Then she shuffled over to a mahogany armoire and pulled out two keys. We followed her out of the main building to another one next door that practically sunk into the ground with dread. We entered. Old green wall-to-wall carpeting met with faded floral wallpaper. Tiny TVs with antenna sat on rickety dressers. But more than any of the outdated furnishing was a very real feeling of fear. I’ve never before or since felt that in a place. One TripAdvisor review said, it has an "atmosphere like someone died here." That was about right. I felt spirits pacing at the top of the staircase that divided our rooms.
The owner said if we may need anything during the night, to go back to the main house. "There’s a phone in there. Call the number next to it." She or her son would answer. (What?!)
Shaken but still hungry, we walked down the steep hill to Café del Rio, which was as hospitable as the inn, if far less chilling. The restaurant’s Sunday special of gospel fried chicken and nachos with refried beans, white cheddar cheese, shredded cabbage, and jalapeños were to die for. Except, well, not literally. After dinner we hiked back up the mountain to the Palmer House, quickly conferred and agreed that this would not be our final resting place, and drove back to Reno.
Finally, we settled down into the bright, recognizable comfort of a mid-tier Hampton Inn. There we spent our last night in Nevada, finally free of carnival games and ghosts, dazed at what we’d experienced of America’s still Wild West.