Sunday, July 17, 2011

Virginia City, Bodie and the Sonora Pass

In which we drive East to get out West

The story of how Virginia City, Nevada, got its name is one eccentrically typical of the American West and the mining camps and towns that sprung up after the Gold Rush of 1849. Legend has it the original discoverer of the Comstock Lode, a one James Finney (a.k.a. James Fenimore; a.k.a. James “Old Virginy” Finney) was walking along drunk one night with some friends when he slipped and fell, breaking the bottle of rot-gut whiskey he held on a rock. Without missing a beat, Old Virginy exclaimed, “I hereby christen this ground Virginia!”

Once home to 15,000 souls, 42 saloons, and a gold haul reputed to be worth $400 million at the time (about $6.9 trillion in 2011 currency), Virginia City today is a kind of living ghost town, a tourist destination with all that that implies. In its heyday as an up-jumped mining camp, Virginia City was a place of legend and character. Samuel Longhorne Clemens first took the pen name Mark Twain as a “reporter” for the Territorial Enterprise here---though what he reported was mostly fiction. Twain got the idea for his pen name from his experience on riverboats on the Mississippi, where the bar pilots would call the sounding of the depth, “mark twain,” meaning that the water was two fathoms deep. Later, at the infamous Bucket of Blood Saloon on C-Street (Virginia City’s main drag), Clemens, who like most regular customers at the time ran a tab, would say “mark twain” to the barkeep, meaning “mark me down for two drinks.” He must have liked the sound of it.

An abandoned mine near the Gold Hill Hotel

We lit out for Virginia City and other points East Saturday morning for the long Independence Day weekend. It was to be our first stop on a lengthy road trip through the Old West that would take us more than 700 miles all tolled. (And, frankly, it turned out to be a bit much.)

After struggling up Highway 50 in heavy holiday traffic, we finally arrived at the Gold Hill Hotel in Gold Hill, a mile outside of Virginia City, at about 4 p.m. Adjacent to the Yellow Jacket Mine, where 37 miners perished in 1873, the Gold Hill Hotel is the oldest hotel in Nevada and boasts at least two known ghosts, William and Rosie.

Our view from the balcony at the Gold Hill Hotel

Sadly, we did not experience any ghostly visitations during our one night stay. I did wake up in the middle of the night to see an eerie light shining in the mirrored closet door that seemed to resolve itself into a grinning face, but this turned out to be a trick of the light. Probably. It is a delightful little hotel, and we highly recommend it.

The land around Gold Hill and Virginia City is pocked and scared from all the mining. Still, it has a kind of beauty that is at once natural and industrial. There is romance in these ruins. You can feel history living here, even without the actors who stage mock shoot-outs for the delectation of us tourists.

Old No. 6 at the Gold Hill Depot

C Street, Virginia City

Virginia City mansion

Amy with Mark Twain

Lucius Beebe's house, Virginia City

From Virginia City, we ambled down I-395 toward Bodie and Mono Lake. Of all the highways that I have travelled in the U.S., I think I-395 is my favorite. You can see the land and how it formed and the landscape itself is ever changing: pine forest, lake, river-bottom, mountains, gulch, high desert, alluvial plain. The Sierras, which rise gradually from the Western side, on the Eastern side jut skyward like the edge of a gigantic saw blade. Geology laid bare.

After lunching at---naturally---the oldest inn in Bridgeport, we took a left on the road to the ghost town of Bodie. After 19 miles of bad road, the last five miles gravel and dirt, we arrived at the Bodie State Historic Park gates, paid our fee and got out to amble around.

"Downtown" Bodie

Gold was discovered here in 1859 by a man named Waterman S. Bodie (a.k.a. William S. Bodey), for whom the place was named. (The difference in spelling apparently had to do with a less-than-literate sign painter.) By 1879, Bodie, at an elevation of nearly 8,500 feet, was home to 10,000 people (and 65 saloons, a China Town, a baseball league and a red light district) who routinely suffered summer temperatures above 100 and winter temps well below freezing. (The day we were there a sign announced that the day’s high was 80F and the night-time low, 20F.) The State of California has held Bodie in what it calls a “state arrested decay” since 1962. The 170-odd structures that still stand are a sight to behold and well worth the bumpy trip up the mountain. You can peer into the windows of the buildings and see how the people lived. Many dwellings appear to have been simply abandoned smack in the middle of a meal, or while the occupants were getting dressed in the morning. It’s eerie. And very, very cool. In one building, a former saloon---the Sam Leon Bar & Barbershop---a roulette table sits as if waiting for the miners to return and take a chance.

The leaning shack of Bodie

I want that flag

A sherpherd on the road from Bodie

Back down the dirt track and Southward along 395 again, we passed through Lee Vining, which is unremarkable other than the fact that I like the name, and took a short hiatus at Mono Lake. Mono is the caldera of an ancient volcano that exploded, if geologists are to be believed, with many times the force of the Mt. St. Helens eruption in Washington in 1980.

Mono Lake

We spent Saturday night in Bishop, which was a good deal farther South than I remembered. On the way we were pulled over for doing 85 in a 65 zone, but the Highway Patrol officer gave us a break because, the Gopher thought, he liked the red, white and blue ribbon I had pinned to my shirt for the holiday. I find a pinch of patriotism now and then to be quite efficacious.

Leavitt Falls

Next day we decided to change our plans. Originally we had reckoned on returning over the Sierras through Yosemite. But, this being the 4th of July, we realized that John Muir’s magnificent valley would more likely resemble a parking lot with pine trees than a National Park. So we opted for the Sonora Pass. We motored back up the 395 to the 108 and hung a left. We were not disappointed.

Our first stop was the Leavitt Falls Vista Point. We took our time picking our way over the sometimes white-knuckle pass, stopping here and there when the mood struck us to take in the view or stroll around among the trees and peaks.

Once on the Western slope it was decidedly time for lunch. We stopped in at Twain Harte, a small town I had never heard of, this being my first time over the Sonora pass. The hamlet’s Independence Day festivities were in full swing, however, and there was nowhere to stop. Curious about the town’s name, I later looked up Twain Harte in the spider tubes. Of course, it’s well known that these were the stomping grounds of the afore-mentioned Mark Twain, and Bret Harte wrote about the Gold Country often. (The Mark Twain – Bret Harte trail meanders the Sierra foothills in a roughly North-South attitude near here.) I thought maybe the person who had named the town was making a pun on the two great writers’ names, “twain heart,” perhaps having once suffered a broken heart. Maybe the name owed its genesis to a story as colorful as that of Virginia City. But I wax too poetic for my own good. Turns out that real estate developer Keturah C. Wood bought the tract that would later become the town in 1924 and named it Twain Harte because he knew the famous names would draw attention---and help promote sales. A fine example of early marketing and “SEO.”

Sonora and Angels camp both seemed deserted with most of the shops and restaurants closed for the holiday (which surprised us). So we doubled back to Murphy’s, enjoying a delightful lunch, doing a little shopping and some wine tasting.

In all, far too much driving and too little relaxing. But we saw and learned.


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