The High Sierras Lowdown, From Volcano to Virginia City [Summer Travel 2019]

Photo by Danuta Tomzynski

It’s our first morning in town, and we’re hanging outside the Bucket of Blood Saloon. A friendly old-timer wearing suspenders and a Yosemite Sam-like hat drooping from his head introduces himself and his mule (which is actually a donkey), says he’s been married eight times, but not to the mule—yet—and asks if we’d like a picture with his four-legged associate for 3 bucks.

“His sign says a buck,” my friend, Mike, informs the man.

Suddenly, another salty local, whom we’d talked to just a few minutes earlier, materializes and tells Sam to get off his corner. “Ain’t your corner,” Sam says. Guy pops him in the face and runs as Sam hits the ground. Awesome! Old-timey street theater re-enactment in an Old West town—isn’t this fun? Except then, a real 21st-century black-and-white pulls up, a cop jumps out and asks for the intel, while the other speeds off in pursuit of the assailant.

Welcome to Virginia City, Nevada, 26 miles southeast of Reno, established 1859, population 855, drunks EVERYWHERE, easily the screwiest town I’ve ever hung my hat in. How screwy is this boom town turned bust born in the wake of the Comstock Lode silver strike of 1859, where the 7 million tons of gold and silver from that lode and others—worth $600 million in today’s money—helped the Union win a war and whose population swelled to a reported 25,000 in 1875, but by 1900, fewer than 3,000 were left? So screwy that it has hit the lottery twice. (Bonanza was set in Virginia City, and in its second century, the real town caught a second life.)

Photo by Danuta Tomzynski

Today, it feels as if the edges of its brick buildings are crumbling, but it’s also remarkably well-preserved, both geriatric and authentic, equal parts calculating hucksterism (you can take any number of pieces of the real Old West home for a price) and swaggering edge, even a sort of rough-hewn pride in being a bit of a bastard. It’s the kind of place where not one, not two, but THREE joints claim to be the newspaper office that Samuel Clemens worked at from 1862 to ’64 and where Mark Twain was born; where the Red Dog Saloon (76 North St., Virginia City; hosted bands such as Big Brother and the Holding Company as well as Owsley-acid dropping freaks; where an opera house dating to 1863 has a bar next door, and it’s fine to carry a revolver inside (but if it’s loaded, could you at least tell the bartender?); where a series of Victorian-era cemeteries carved into windswept, desolate terraces convey a calming sense of disquieting beauty; and where, of course, you randomly enter a candy shop and realize it’s run by the daughter of your journalism mentor at Fullerton College, Larry Taylor, who’d died the year before.

And then there’s the 1876 Silver City Hotel (28 N. C St., Virginia City;, which is the epitome of opulence. A hard climb up three flights of rickety stairs leads to a room with a window that’s always open because there is no ventilation. The room is big enough to fit you and maybe the mule with a pretty mouth you’re fixing to marry in the morning.

It’s possible Virginia City has a slew of family-friendly attractions and charming features that aren’t reminiscent of a simpler time of saloon brawls, horse theft and brothels, but I didn’t see any—mostly because I was having too much fun to look.

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Photo by Danuta Tomzynski

Virginia City was the highpoint of a never-dull jaunt through a slice of the High Sierras cobbled together after numerous trips to the region by Mike Brainard and Danuta Tomzynski, my traveling companions, whose combined talents and interests range from writing and acting to painting, collecting Old West memorabilia and road-tripping. They’ve pieced a perfect, if not quite linear, route combining the natural splendor of camping at Lake Tahoe and Calaveras Big Trees State Park ( in the center; the refreshingly undeveloped and un-roadside-attracted ghost town of Bodie ( on the east side; and a string of historic California Gold Rush towns along the west side, including the absolute standout, Volcano. It’s another boom-and-bust mining town, population 110, but with two hotels, including the historic St. George (16104 Main St., Volcano;; the oldest continuously operating store in the state (a general store since 1852); a plaque commemorating the state’s first observatory, where the Great Comet of 1861 was first discovered (I am not making this shit up); a cannon fired only once, during the Civil War, to intimidate any Reb sympathizers; and both an outdoor and indoor theater.

Illustration by Jouvon Michael Kingsby. Design by Federico Medina

But it’s got nothing on Virginia City, which is less a walk through some contrived, mocked-up Westworld than stepping in the middle of a big steaming pile of horse shit; sure, it’s a bit jarring, but man, it’s just so real. Hell, it wouldn’t be surprising if a couple of crusty gamblers—it is in Nevada, so there’s gambling, and maybe that explains the edge—faced off in the middle of the main drag, counted to 10, then started shooting.

Most likely all on account of some mule with a pretty mouth.

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