The Shoe Trees, Forbidden Caves and Ghost Towns of Nevada's Highway 50
Have laptop, will travel
Think about Nevada for a minute: bright lights, big city. Frank Sinatra and fat Elvis. Bottle service at Mandalay Bay and figuring out how to afford a room at the Cosmopolitan. Indulgent breakfasts at the Peppermill. The Pinball Hall of Fame, Neon Graveyard, the Double Down and its fabled Ass Juice, the best land-locked tiki bar in the country, and gun ranges that would have Charlton Heston weep with joy.
Nevada has it all, doesn't it? And since Las Vegas is just a quick four hours from here, it's easy to not let your imagination stray far from Sin City.
But if you're willing to step back—or a bit north, rather—you'll find Las Vegas is a hellhole and you've been missing out on the real adult playground this whole time.
The rest of the Silver State, while significantly less populated and alight, holds the spirit of Las Vegas, but without the pretension and the $19 drinks. There's a reason Las Vegas thrived in Nevada—the state's a haven for individuals, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, outlaws and folk who don't like the government or you in their business. Let me smoke inside, drink outside, sex with whomever I please (pay for it, if I want) and bet my hard-earned money as I see fit, and we won't have a problem.
You can see a bit of this Nevada-tude on Fremont Street (Old Strip, as they call it), but to really experience it, you're going to have to drive several hours north and get on U.S. Route 50, the so-called "Loneliest Road in America." You can go up the 395 as I like to do, 'cuz there's a lot of nothing 'sides a lot of natural California beauty, but you can also go up 95—a whole lotta nothin', too, 'cept you can stop in Tonopah at the world-famous Clown Motel and the cemetery next door to keep with that whole horror-movie road-trip theme.
Whichever way you decide to get in the state's northern area, know you're a long way from the Aria, and even though the Trump International Hotel is hours away, you're never too far from a Nevada constituent looking to Make America Great Again™.
Hopefully, you're now properly acquainted with Northern Nevada and ready to dive in (did you know it takes just as long to drive from Reno to LA as it does to drive from Reno to Las Vegas?). And since Coker spent a bit on Reno in this issue, let's start with the lonely.
Twenty five miles east of Fallon stands Sand Mountain Recreational Area (5665 Morgan Mill Rd., Carson City, 775-885-6000), a formidable fortress of sand formed by the great Washoe Winds. The mighty gusts brought sand from the 9,000-year-defunct Lake Lahontan across the desert delta and formed a 600-foot mountain of sand at a basin of the Stillwater Mountain range. It was historically a sacred space for Native Americans (and looks like a perfect place for hiding a mothership, honestly), but it now mostly draws the ATV set. Natives would come here to pray and listen to the "singing sands," but you can play a game of "Obsidian or Broken Beer Bottle?" instead.
The horse with no name
Whether through a petroglyph or Facebook check-in, humans have a need to make their presence known. This phenomenon appears all along Highway 50, but in between Sand Mountain and Austin, there are a few colorful examples. Folks stop along the roadside and collect rocks to create messages for passersby. In the good ol' days, couples would arrange rock hearts around their initials; nowadays, you'll see advice such as "EAT PUSSY" and even just "PENIS".
In a little town called Middlegate, just off the highway, you can see a tree with strange fruit. Tied-up tennis shoes, horse shoes and hooker heels adorn this cottonwood on which you can record your passing through. Story goes it started in the 1980s when a couple got in a fight near the tree. The woman threatened to leave him, and he said, snatching her shoes, if she was going to walk away, she was gonna do it barefoot. He then slung her tennies in the tree and left her. Lonely.
Another version has the man coming back, apologizing and tossing his own shoes in the tree. Some say they came back with their son and threw his shoes up there, too. Less lonely.
It was chainsawed down by vandals in 2010, and its loss was deeply felt by fellow desert dwellers and other passers-through. A replacement tree took its spot, and the tradition lives on. So it goes.
Pear brandy within
Austin was founded like many towns in Nevada: after the discovery of silver ore in its hills. The quiet mountain became a boomtown, then a bust town, and after a few cycles of that, it's currently a ghost town with a population of approximately 340. Perhaps Austin's most-known landmark is Stokes Castle: built in 1897 by eccentric railroad magnate Anson Phelps Stokes as a summer home for his family in the then-bustling town. It's supposedly a replica of a tower outside Rome that here, would, overlook a large and lush scenery with a visibility of up to 60 miles south. The Stokes lived in it for just two months before deciding to build a third story. But the family never returned, and it has remained unoccupied ever since; nowadays, it's registered as a National Historic Place and kept in a state of decay with no plans of restoration.
Around the corner from "the Tower" is Austin's main drag, with dusty shops whose doors haven't opened in years but still hold inventory scattered inside. There are a few motels and a couple of restaurants, and of course, the most active spots in town are the three saloons within stumbling distance. If you want to stay overnight, go to the Union Street Lodging (69 Union St., Austin, 775-964-2364; www.unionstreetlodging.com) bed and breakfast. It's in a two-story Victorian house and run by Dee, her husband and their three-legged dog, Lacey. Stop in at the International (59 Main St., Austin, 775-964-1225) for a $4 beer and to meet Victor, the 74-year-old Serbian bartender. If he takes a fancy to you, he may even pour you shots of pear brandy to imbibe with him. If you're just passing through Highway 50, it's a bit of a glorified pit stop, but if you take the time to explore, the town does have a life of its own—even if it is an afterlife.
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About 24 miles east of Austin lies the Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area. A very light hike leads you to a large rock formation with carvings left by prehistoric people. They're subtle and look not unlike the lines nature has left in neighboring rocks, so it's easy to walk right by them if you don't know what to look for. Reading the official pamphlet, it's apparent historians don't agree on what the petroglyphs depict or mean, and at that point, it's fun to giggle about what historians tens of thousands of years from now are going to debate while postulating upon "CALL XXX-XXX-XXXX FOR A GOOD TIME!" If you look closely enough, you'll see a carving of a flying saucer in an adjacent rock formation; I wonder what future historians and Giorgio A. Tsoukalos will have to say about that.
Ely is one of the largest towns along Highway 50. Though that isn't saying much, it has several larger streets and multiple stop lights, which is more than what you encounter in many towns along this road. Stephen King fans may be familiar with Ely (pronounced eel-y), as his novel Desperation was based here. Take a visit to East Ely Depot Museum (1100 Ave. A, Ely; www.nnry.com) and meet with director Sean Pitts for a chance to speak with the man who told King about the town's sordid past and the only Northern Nevada historian around for miles. To hear Pitts tell it, he received a call one day from a local friend who, with a bribe of a free lunch, lured him down to a local restaurant to tell a friend the tale of the abandoned miners who died in Ely in the late 1800s. Pitts, ever the historian, agreed and met his friend and his friend's friend for lunch. The stranger was wearing a shirt that read, "Yes, I am Stephen King," and like a true truth seeker, Pitts asked him if he really was Stephen King.
Pitts went on to retell the tale of the lost Chinamen (yes, we're talking about the guys who built the railroad here) of Ely. In the late 1800s, a mineshaft collapsed, and 10 Asian workers were trapped in the disaster. The railroad foreman decided it would be cheaper to get 10 new Asian workers than to dig the trapped men out and left them stranded until they died. Pitts attests this isn't Nevada folklore; indeed, a miner friend of his found their corpses some 100 years later and thought they were modern mine workers taking a nap, so well-preserved were they. He even picked some mining tools from them that he needed before going on his way. King ran with this tale and wrote two mirror novels in 1996 about Ely, Highway 50 and the curses that surround it.
Worthy of Stephen King
You can stay in the historic Hotel Nevada (501 Aultman St., Ely, 775-289-6665; www.hotelnevada.com), with its modest star walk of fame at the entrance memorializing all the famous folks who have stayed and played there. Ghost hunters are encouraged to stay on the rather-active fifth floor. And if you're really lucky, you'll be personally greeted at the door by Elvis: a Native American man with a long, beautiful ponytail and one visible tooth who enjoys saying, "Welcome to the Hotel Nevada. You can check in, but you can never check out!" followed by maniacal laughter.
WARD CHARCOAL OVENS STATE HISTORIC PARK
Seventeen miles outside Ely is the Ward Charcoal Ovens. In the late 1800s, charcoal was a necessary but not readily available component for mining, so these three-stories-high, beehive-shaped stone ovens were built to create charcoal. Now they are a historic monument and resemble something straight outta Tatooine. Rumor has it from Ely's town historian that the Heaven's Gate cult held a ritual here in the Year of Our Comet 1997 and scared the crap out of a local boy when they went into one of the stone ovens and lit a bonfire. Jokes on them, though, 'cuz none of them survived the winter.
GREAT BASIN NATIONAL PARK
Tucked away in the northeast corner of Nevada is the Great Basin National Park. While this part of the country has its fair share of heartbreak, perhaps the saddest tale is that of the Prometheus Tree. Great Basin is home to many bristlecone pines, the cockroaches of the dendron world in that they are often the oldest non-clonal beings alive and can survive anything nature throws at them, except humans. And the oldest such tree once lived in the Great Basin National Park—until a well-meaning scientist killed the damn thing.
A graduate student was studying the ancient trees of the region (stories vary on this) when he either cored or cut down a very old tree at random. It wasn't until he began counting the rings of the stump that he realized this tree was near 5,000 years old, the oldest known non-clonal organism. Now dead. You can see the stump of the tree in the Wheeler Bristlecone Pine Grove.
And while we're on the subject of human stupidity, you can also visit the Lehman Cave (5500 W. Hwy. 488, Baker, 775-234-7331), a wondrous cave that took millions of years to form but, after its discovery, only a couple of years to destroy: Up until the 1920s, tourists were encouraged to break off stalactites and stalagmites as souvenirs. You can see where fresh stalactites are starting to form from the molested ones. The forest service at the time also closed off the natural entrance, so bats no longer nest within the caves. An entrance has since been created for bats, but they haven't really returned. One pretty cool factoid: Folks would travel for several hours via horseback from the closest town, Ely, to drink and dance deep within the cave during Prohibition.
The 2,000 words allotted for this article could easily have been dedicated to Virginia City (and Mark Twain has already done that, so I'll spare you). Virginia City is this humble author's favorite spot in the world, but honestly, it really stems from the fact that this was a place I shared with people now 13 years passed. Most Nevadans I speak to about the town say the same thing: It's a place stuck in time. And it is for me, too. Those summers in the 1990s spent with my aunt and uncle when they were alive are there each time I return to Virginia City.
Whenever I sing the praises of this little ghost town to people, they often say the same thing: "I remember going there as a kid with my family." Simpler times, when we went to the candy shop on C Street and picked root beer candy and toffee out of wooden barrels. I think there's a reason they say the town is haunted—it's the memories of a bygone era, before we worried about traffic and how we're going to pay the rent and make it through heartbreak. Because in Virginia City and this part of the country, there's no wifi and little talk of politics. There's good people and good pizza, plenty of history, enough saloons to keep you cheerful amongst the bluest skies you've seen in ages, the darkest nights that show all the stars in the sky, and snow that is the slowest to melt.
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