LAKE TAHOE & VIRGINIA CITY, NEVADA
Updated: Aug 16
Mark Twain needs to be listened to. Anyone who writes such pithy aphorisms as these deserves to have your ear:
'Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until it passes'
'I never let schooling get in the way of my education'
'I've known a great many troubles - most of them never happened'
...and our particular favorite
'Against the assault of laughter, nothing may stand'
Twain, real name Samuel L. Clemens, lived in Virginia City, Nevada from 1861 to 1864 where his brother Orion worked as secretary to the territorial governor. He had come from Missouri, happily leaving his unfulfilling job as an apprentice on a Mississippi River boat, to seek his fortune in the West. He spent the first year of his Western adventure joining the legions of dusty prospectors searching for the allusive gold in 'them tha hills' but that big bonanza alluded him... so he joined a newspaper. It reminds of what I was told by my boss at the Daily Mail who used to say - "the quickest way to become a millionaire is to start off as a billionaire and buy a newspaper".
So the now 27 year old Clemens found a job with the Nevada Territorial Enterprise (sic), a newspaper based in Virginia City, and the first thing he did was conjure up his famous nom-de-plume. At a stroke of his quill, his exceptional talent for writing was revealed and the path to his future success was immediately illuminated like a beacon (he wrote Tom Sawyer in 1876 and Huckleberry Finn in 1884).
He had always had an unquenchable zest for travel and, exploring into the mountains, he was completely absorbed by the staggering beauty of Lake Tahoe, some 45 miles to the west. You can sense in his words his excitement at seeing it for the first time, having crossed the challenging Carson Range: "As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface I thought it must be the fairest picture the whole world affords", he wrote.
Even today everyone can share that euphoric moment when driving from Reno, over the peak of Mt Rose, itself a monument to nature's magnificence scarred only by the veins of ski runs that cut through the snow-laden Ponderosa Pines. It is so striking it is almost an awakening.
Perhaps these photos are similar to the images etched forever into Mark Twain's head as the lake revealed itself after his arduous trek through the mountains.
This is a place of truly spectacular beauty. Twain was to write later '...the air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine. Bracing and delicious. And why shouldn't it be. It is the same the angels breathe'.
Good old Twain. He captured it brilliantly. For this shining, reflective jewel straddling the Nevada/California border, clear and motionless under the rich blue Nevada skies, with the chilled mountain air warmed throughout the morning by the heat of the radiant southern sun, all encircled by white-capped Sierra Nevada mountains, must make Lake Tahoe one of the top candidates for the title 'God's Country".
Virginia City meanwhile had a very different evolution. It hangs precociously onto the side of a steep hill, looking down over deep canyons far below. This was the definitive boomtown, even though the first strikes happened here some 10 years after the famous Californian Gold Rush. Silver was discovered in 1859, and in no time the town’s population had ballooned to over 25,000 opportunistic residents. At this time, silver had the same value as gold, which was also found here in lesser quantities. By 1876 Nevada was producing over half the precious metals in the United States.
Today, it is just a great place to visit, a veritable film set of old bars with evocative names like A Bucket of Blood and the Delta Saloon with its Suicide Table. Bizarre shops draw you in, cluttered to their eaves with fascinating old bric-à-brac. Walking along the covered boardwalks on either side of the main street, you feel like you should have spurs on your heels and a Colt 45 in your holster. It is a brilliant escape from the present and an immersion into a unique, colorful moment in time when cowboys were cowboys and girls flashed their garters in the raucous saloons.
Other places well worth a visit include the old logging town of Truckee, a small hamlet of wooden homes high up near Tahoe.. The eponymous river pushes through its centre, almost volcanic in rage as it carries the roaring melting waters from the distant mountain tops down into the Washoe Valley. Alongside the raging flume, the railroad more sedately keeps it company as it winds down towards Reno
Truckee is delightfully small and sits in the middle of ski country with many aspirational resorts nearly - Mt Rose, Alpine Meadows, Heavenly Valley, Northstar and Squaw Valley (host of the 1960 Winter Olympics), all attracting the upwardly mobile downhill skiers from all over the world. At its heart is the Truckee Hotel which has more than a few tales to tell since its opening in 1873 as the American House. One Stewart McKay bought it for a princely $2,364.71 and developed it as "the best stopover place between San Francisco and Salt Lake". More recently, Paul McCartney, the locals tell, walked in for lunch and proceeded to knock out a few hits on a honky-tonk piano.
The Genoa Bar, in a small Western town of the same name 20 miles outside Carson City, is also somewhere you should seek out and sink a pint. It is the oldest bar in Nevada (dates back to 1853). Its walls are laden with memorabilia. The heads of trophy animals look down on you disapprovingly, prompting a re-use of that great line by Dudley Moore in the movie 'Arthur' when the sex-thimble nervously started the conversation with his protective prospective father-in-law with the hesitant question 'What happened to the rest of your moose?'.