Northwestern Nevada's Juncture of Desert and Lake has Inspired many, Including a Cub Reporter Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens
The born-again ghost town of Virginia City clings to the slopes of a Nevada mountainside, 26 driving-miles southeast of Reno. Sage-infused desert stretches in every direction. Few streams flow near here, and those that do remain doomed never to meet the sea.
The western wedge of Nevada is about as environmentally distant as one can get from the river-hugging world of Hannibal, Missouri. Yet, it was here, not there, that the pseudonym Mark Twain was born, and from where the creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn began his cruise to fame.
The 1860s-boomtown of Virginia City is my first stop on a return visit to the Reno/Tahoe region. I hope to probe the area's history, sample its sites and relish its wet and dry beauty. Maybe I'll even discover my own literary inspiration, or at least come up with a Twain-like nom de plume.
Sauntering Virginia City's boardwalks, I pass historic brick and wooden storefronts that now house bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. In the middle of it all stands the former home of the Territorial Enterprise, Nevada's first newspaper. In 1862, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, age 26, took a job as a cub reporter covering the legislature and events of the day. A year later, for the first time ever, he signed a piece "Mark Twain."
"There are various renditions of how he got that name," relates Sandie Sweetwater at Virginia City's Mark Twain Museum. "One is that he got it on the riverboats. Another, and the one we believe, is that he was a very big drinker. He would ask for credit, and with twain meaning two, he would say 'mark a twain' meaning two dollars credit. After awhile people went, 'There goes Mark Twain.'"
Virginia City was home to the Comstock Lode, one of the nation's richest silver strikes. The output went down to the U.S. Mint in Carson City where bullion became coins. The Nevada State Museum, which occupies the original mint building, displays one of those old coin presses. It still tamps out medallions on the last Friday of each month.
The museum also holds an array of historic coins, guns and slot machines. There's a pseudo ghost town with eerie sound effects and an underground replica mine with noggin knocking ceilings.
Down the road, the Nevada State Railroad Museum displays classic steam locomotives. "This museum's major collection has to do with the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, which ran from Reno to Carson City and then up to Virginia City," relates host John Shilling.
With all that ore to haul, the "V&T" became one of America's richest short lines. Trains now run a reconstructed section of the route between Carson and Virginia Cities from late-May through October. In Twain's time, these two towns were the top spots in Western Nevada. Today, Reno holds this honor.
The community dates back to 1859 when Charles Fuller erected a bridge across the Truckee River. A decade later, transcontinental rail lines began transforming Reno into Nevada's commercial hub. In the 1920s, the city erected a steel and neon sign proclaiming Reno to be "The Biggest Little City in the World."
The little burg with big aspirations soon sought ways to spike its economy. At first, loose residency and divorce laws made it the marriage-splitting mecca of America. Legalized gambling arrived later with Nevada's first hotel casino opening downtown in 1947.
Hotel casinos still fill downtown Reno. Most offer pleasant lodging at comfortable prices and feature excellent restaurants, lounges and big-name entertainment on a manageable scale. While gambling is big, the town is not dominated by it.
Away from the slots and chips, Reno remains a cozy place with neighborhood parks, golf courses and a climate similar to Denver's. At one corner of downtown rises the respectable Nevada Museum of Art. At the other stands a new minor-league ballpark. A Riverwalk District pathway follows the Truckee with shade trees and picnic tables along the way. The community hosts festivals and events that include rodeos, balloon races, jazz fests, art exhibitions, motorcycle rallies, chili cook-offs, golf championships, air races, car races and my favorite, the Hot August Nights hotrod fest.
Automobiles have always been something of a Reno calling. The city's premier gambling mogul, Bill Harrah, was a collector of classic cars. When he died in 1978, the man owned over 1,400 vehicles stuffed into three warehouses.
"The hotels he owned here in Reno and South Lake Tahoe were sold to Holiday Corporation along with his car collection," explains National Automobile Museum spokeswoman Esther Isaac. "They donated 175 of those cars to start this museum."
Its exhibit halls show restored classics, celebrity masterpieces and the Thomas Flyer, winner of a 1908 race from New York to Paris via Siberia. One of the museum's more interesting vehicles began as a four-wheel-drive Jeep Wagoneer. Under its hood, craftsmen squeezed in a V-12 Ferrari engine. Capable of 140 mph, Harrah's "Jerrari" allowed him to peel rubber between his Reno and Lake Tahoe properties. In my rented Chevy, the drive takes a bit longer but the destination proves just as grand.
Located 6,225 feet above sea level, America's largest alpine lake stretches 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, covering an area larger than Denver and Broomfield combined. If Colorado's two tallest skyscrapers, Republic Plaza and the Qwest Tower, were stacked at Tahoe's deep end, they would still be a pair of Brown Palaces short of the surface. So clear is its water, subsurface visibility averages 70 feet. Skinny-dippers gain no privacy by diving in.
"I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords," Twain wrote of this cobalt-blue, mountain-hemmed gem.
A two-state, 72-mile highway circles Tahoe. My clockwise circumnavigation begins at the south end where the twin towns of Stateline and South Lake Tahoe sprawl between the shore and the slopes of Vail-owned Heavenly Mountain Resort. Nevada's stretch offers casinos. California's features miles of motels, restaurants, gas stations, fast food emporiums, strip malls and souvenir shops.
Finally escaping town, the highway turns northwest into forest where the vanilla scent of Jeffrey pines perfumes the air. I soon reach the '20s-vintage cabin resort of Camp Richardson. Next door sits the Forest Service's Tallac Historic Site where wealthy families once maintained summer mansions.
The road slices up the cliffs around Emerald Bay, a teardrop-shaped inlet with Tahoe's only island centered in its mirror-still surface. A tea house built by an eccentric heiress crowns the tiny isle. The woman's Viking-inspired home, now California State Park property, stands at the shoreline.
Returning to lake level, the highway passes through a series of villages, each offering its own shake-shingled version of rustic Americana. Gated drives and "No Trespassing" signs become as prevalent as squirrels along the roadway. While Tahoe's south side appears citified, its northern communities exude a low-key, waterfront aura reminiscent of small-town, Great Lakes resorts.
I watch kids splash at roadside beaches, seemingly oblivious to water temperature. With 40 trillion gallons chilling in this mountain ice bucket, Tahoe's temperatures never reach tepid.
"Most of the time the water's so cold you can't get in above your ankles," relates Reno resident Carol Infranca. "In August it warms just enough that you can wade up to your knees."
Passing back into Nevada, the lake's northern quadrant ends at Incline Village, locally known as "Income Village." Country-club greens stud hillsides, and mini-mansions clasp the lake's edge.
Although much of Tahoe's shoreline is privately owned, the east side remains predominantly public. It begins with Sand Harbor's popular state park shoreline. Beyond, the land appears visibly vacant. Undeveloped it may be, but unvisited it's not. Parked cars reveal where trails lead down to lonesome coves and hidden beaches.
Twain spent only a few years in this corner of Nevada, departing in 1864 for San Francisco and beyond. His experiences here influenced a major part of his book, Roughing It.
As a final tribute to the writer, I book a cruise on the M.S. Dixie II, a modernized version of the paddle wheelers Twain once rode on the Mississippi. Frequently appearing onboard is McAvoy Layne, a man who calls himself the ghost of Mark Twain. Like the writer, this in-the-flesh apparition offers a thought-provoking dose of wit-wrapped wisdom.
Paying for a brew with my MasterCard, I'm suddenly hit with inspiration. If the Virginia City folks are right, and Twain's name came from a request for bar credit, perhaps I could adopt a similar pseudonym. My Clemens-style pen name would be Paywith Plastic.