Dairy Queen drive
Halfway between Carson City and Reno looms the preponderant Sun Mountain, (also known as Mount Davidson) and smack dab in the middle of this towering mountainside sprawls Virginia City, with its streets carved into the mountain in layers, like a tiered garden. To get to Virginia City, Ruby and Harvey must scale Sun Mountain on a narrow road that rises heavenward as it gets smaller and smaller toward the top, like a Dairy Queen ice cream. Driving on the inside of the road, Ken is unconcerned by the impending danger; but my view on the passenger's side is one of sheer fright. Every curve reveals a new grave, 6,000 feet below. Scary enough when we have the road to ourselves, but when an oncoming vehicle approaches, terror ripples down my every vertebrae in my backbone. I foolishly hold my breath so both vehicles can squeeze by, as if holding my breath makes us smaller. It makes no sense, yet I do it automatically every time. After a tortuous, white-knuckle climb we finally arrive at the RV site. Ken parks the blessed unit and I release a sigh of relief, restrained somewhat by the dread of descending down those roads again when it's time to head out. Well, that's in the future. We're safe now and have a great site -- the only site with a tree. And -- sniff, sniff -- what is that smell? The smell from the tree reminds me of something. White flowers droop from its branches like a bunch of grapes from a vine. That's it. The tree smells like grape soda. The thick, sweet smell of artificially flavored grape soda. Yummy. This campground is utterly amazing. Beauty abounds in a mountainous, high-desert landscape of which we have an expansive, breathtaking view. I go to the office to pay our bill and as I return to the RV to help Ken, a man in a ball cap pops out from behind our trailer, "Hey! Do I know you?" He says just a bit too eagerly. (Ugh. I groan to myself. Why do strangers come to chat just when we're settling into a site?) I smile weakly at the approaching stranger. (Our only goal is to get the RV parked, wash up and relax. Inevitably, though, people always come "visit" just as we're trying to get adjusted.) But social custom in a civilized world dictates that I be pleasant to this intruding stranger. "Are you talking to me?" I ask ever-so-sweetly, hoping he says, "No the guy behind you." But as soon as the words escape from my mouth I realize, heck, I DO know him! It's Steve from back home. Born and bred in Massachusetts, now a devoted Nevadan. He lives in Vegas, the city of bright lights and promises. Gosh, haven't seen Steve since . . . hmm, I guess it's been five years. What a surprise. It's the last day of his honeymoon at Lake Tahoe and our first day here so it works out great that we get a visit from this former New Englander who can fill us in on the "Nevada way." Steve and his brand-new wife, Dee, take us to dinner at the Gold Hill Hotel. This is the same place where a young Mark Twain began one of his first of many travel lectures (and got robbed by bandits on his way home). The old hotel sits on a hill between Silver City and Virginia City overlooking snow-capped mountains in the distance. We have a leisurely meal, then take drinks outside on the patio and drink until the sun drops and casts a red glow over the snowy white mountains. Oops, now Steve and Dee must descend that Dairy-Queen road back to their lodgings. Feel bad for having kept them out so late. Say good-bye to familiar faces and are once again strangers in a strange land. Go to bed feeling lost again. It's really weird. When I'm with people who know me, I feel like myself. But as soon as they leave, I deflate into a nondescript tourist again. I wish I could explain this odd feeling of personality separation. When one is not immersed in familiar surroundings, with familiar people, there is a sense of personality dissipation. For the goal of the perpetual tourist is to blend in. Blend, blend, blend as quickly as possible, and therefore, "forget" yourself. It's a strange situation of trying to fit in while keeping your identity intact.
Turn to the East. Turn to the West. Turn to the very one that you like best.
Whaddya know. I'm not such a slug after all. Since we've been on this trip I've been admonishing myself for sleeping late, and puzzled as to why I linger in bed when I'm on such an exciting journey. Well, the puzzle is solved. In all the campgrounds we've been in for the past 23 states, our bedroom never faced East, so we've never had a sunshine wake-up call. Now we are facing East and can't sleep late because bright summer sunlight creeps into the room, curling around the window shades and streaming into our consciousness, igniting our imaginations of what today might bring. What a difference it is to wake to a sunny room! It's always been a kick to see how Harvey's personality changes with each new sun position in each new campsite. But until now, I never realized how deeply it affects me, too. Facing East is best.
Got some great neighbors at this campground: Mike and Jean from Wisconsin who are here for a mini-family reunion with relatives staying in a hotel in nearby Carson City. We're invited to join their picnic lunch of bratwurst and hot dogs on the grill and lots of other tasty carcinogens we love. Even though the invitation was probably extended just to be polite, as we're so close to their picnic table, we accept the offer anyway, and hoard in on their family reunion, without guilt or shame. Have a rollicking good time, too. There's nothing like being with family . . . even if it's a borrowed family. The humor among families is unique. People who've known you all your life, know your foibles, and love ya anyway. Only family can make fun of your nose, for example, because it's the "family nose." A friend would never venture into such a personal realm. It's soooo much fun to hear family tales. When I get home, I solemnly swear to have more family get-togethers, no matter how often I must endure someone retelling the "Paper Bag" story. (Geez, I was only 8 years old at the time, you'd think they'd have forgotten. But families, God love 'em, never forget an embarrassing situation. It's cataloged for eternity, passed on from generation to generation. The only thing in this world guaranteed to outlive you.)
Note to self: Explore the reason why eating meals is such a social thing. Why do people feel they have to eat with others? When you think about it, it's hard to talk while eating, and really not the best way to get to know one another. And it's messy, too. Things cling to your teeth unattractively. Spills dribble down your chin. Someone always points a question at you just as you fill your mouth. Yet all social events include some form of food-sharing. (Do all cultures do this, Ms. Mead?) When I lived alone, I loved everything about living alone, EXCEPT eating alone. Always felt pathetic at mealtimes, sitting alone at my table-setting for one, eating Take-Out food. So I do think there's some anthropological reason for sharing meals, but what is it?
Enjoy the ride
Today we learn that our neighbors, Mike and Jean, have been married 30 years and instantly I shoot off the question I always ask people who have been married a long time, "What's your secret to a good marriage?" Without skipping a beat, Mike responds, "Just enjoy the ride. Marriage is a roller coaster. Once you get on you can't get off, so sit back and enjoy the ride." I love this advice. It's not just about marriage, though, it's about life. The ups and downs, the terror mixed with boredom and fun. Sometimes you're tugging a load uphill, sometimes you're whizzing out of control. When it looks like the tracks end and you're going to be hurled off into space, Life whips you a left turn and you miss disaster, but only to climb another hill. Enjoy the ride.
The Zephyr, the neighbor & the awning
Our hosts at the RV Park warn us of Virginia City's "zephyrs," westerly winds that, like the Big Bad Wolf, can blow a house down. Actual documented cases exist of houses flattened by these zephyrs. Luckily the notorious zephyr visits us while we are in the RV today and can roll up our awning and batten down the hatches. But Mike and Jean, in the campsite beside us, are gone for the day. We know they are in Carson City all day and we watch as their awning is tormented by the wind. Whipped side to side, up and down the canvas, in the clutches of a demonic wind, wrenches from it's skinny metal poles, twists and writhes in agony. Ken decides to prevent our neighbors from experiencing the lesson we learned in Madison, Wisconsin, which is, NEVER LEAVE YOUR AWNING UNATTENDED. Our awning was ripped to shreds by wind, and it took forever to get a new one. So good old Ken marches over in this ferocious wind to roll up their awning for them. I peer out the window and watch him walk into the jaws of the zephyr. Ken's hair, and I believe even the skin on his face, is blown clear behind his ears. His shirt is blowing so far behind him that the buttons will no longer keep their posts. And yet, he marches forward. He looks up into the neighbor's awning. Looks to the side. Inspects the makeshift collection of bolts and cranks. Can't figure which bolt to unfasten first, without turning the whole contraption into a giant mouse trap, with Ken being the mouse.The wind blows him back to our trailer. He reports that the neighbor's RV is old and the awning frame is quite perplexing. He's afraid to tamper with it for fear of breaking something the wind may not break. We sit and discuss the situation. If Ken breaks the thing while trying to roll it up, the neighbor will come home tonight when the wind dies down (it always dies when the sun goes down we're told), and we'll have to tell him what Ken did. Mike won't know how bad the wind was, he'll only know that he has a broken awning, and Ken broke it. Our second course of action is to just leave it alone and hope the wind is generous today. We further support this nonaction by reasoning, that Mike's awning has a middle safety bar, which we didn't have, so maybe his awning won't suffer the same fate as ours did in Wisconsin. Decide to leave it alone.The wind shakes our trailer violently undermining our decision. It rattles our dishes. It shimmies our windows. We hear a distinct C-R-A-C-K! and investigate. Well, the middle "safety bar" of our neighbor's awning just broke off and is whipping in the wind like a mad sorcerer's wand. Ken ventures out again. Comes back. It's no good. The framing is totally weird. Ken enlists the help of another RVer. He advises Ken to leave it alone. Ken goes to the RV Office. They second the course of no action. Poor Ken returns to the trailer to report his findings again. Meanwhile, the wind picks up even more. As we watch the awning contort under the stress of the zephyr, we realize another horrible possibility. . . the canvas may not rip at all, but rather the whole house-sized awning, metal poles and all, may be torn from the hinges and come bolting into our trailer with the force of a freight train. Now the stakes are higher and the risk is once again evaluated: should we try again to roll up the awning? Ken buttons up and braves the wind again. Comes back. "It's no use," he frets. "That thing is like none I've ever seen. It's so old, and doesn't look factory installed. It looks like it's been rigged with a makeshift arrangement of screws and ties that I can't figure out." So we wait out the wind, hoping we don't get rammed. Sunset comes. Wind departs. Looks like a beautiful, calm evening. Like the zephyr was never here. Our neighbors return. They find the middle bar of the awning on the ground, but the canvas is intact. Ken goes out to explain to them what happened. I can see from the trailer window, Ken is moving his arms, imitating the wind to them. They eye him suspiciously, doubtful, and proceed to roll up their awning. We're glad we didn't touch it. If we had broken their awning, they would never have believed how bad the wind had been. They would have blamed us for their loss, and our good relationship would have soured. All because of zephyr.
A "first" on the Fourth
It's a warm, dry, "not-a-cloud-in-the-sky" Fourth of July, and at high noon Virginia City launches into its fantastic old-fashioned parade down the main street of this town that looks like a movie set from some Wyatt Earp film. After the parade the owners of the RV Park host a "Pot Luck" BBQ for the campers.They provide all the barbecued meat and drinks, and ask us to merely bring a "dish of something." Well, the fellow RVers bring potato salad, green salad, cole slaw, and cookies bigger than donuts! The table is loaded to the top with Peach cobblers, Apple pies, puddings, and a tri-level, red, white and blue cake -- all homemade! Our neighbors, Mike and Jean are not attending. Instead they are driving 16 miles down the mountain to see the fireworks in Carson City. Seems the capital city is going all out. They invite us to join them again, but no thanks. Tonight is something very special. Very special indeed. Tonight, for the first time in my life, I can see fireworks without having to drive anywhere. Without having to circle grassy, temporary parking lots trying to find a lop-sided parking space. And without having to sit in traffic afterwards. Tonight, oh blessed day, I can see the fireworks without moving from this picnic table, because Virginia City sets off their fireworks from the city park right next to the RV Park. The fireworks shoot into the sky and explode over the mountain range. Sounds really thrilling, but truly, the real thrill for me is that I view the spectacle from my bedroom window in the comfort of my RV. Why, I can even watch in my PJ's if I so desire. Can't wait. So we watch the parade. Yes sir. Well done. Then we walk back to the RV Park and have a wonderful, fantastic BBQ. And ... ha! No cleanup! Stuffed full of Fourth of July food, we roll to our trailer to prepare for the works. Ken insists that we go outside to see 'em. Says it's "not right" to view them from our trailer window. We must mix with other revelers. We join the crowd and wait for the fireworks. Carillons from the gorgeous Catholic Church down the hill ring out patriotic tunes, like "Mine eyes have seen the glory" and "God Bless America." The crowd is tickled pink. Happy festive faces beam in the night shadows. Boom! The first colored sparkles come down in a rain of glittering glory. "Oooh," a 50-year old woman shrieks with glee. Boom! Now an orange ball explodes in the air. "Ahhh," the woman gasps. Abruptly her male companion says, "Hey. Save your oohs and ahhs, will ya, we got a lot of fireworks to go through." (There's always a killjoy.) But here's the funny part. No sooner did the guy say this when. Blackness. No more fireworks. (So his wife was right, after all to enjoy the moment.) Whispers ripple through the darkened crowd. Can't see anyone's faces. Just silhouettes of heads and shoulders in lawn chairs. "What's happened?" A kid asks. "I think . . . I think there's a fire," the parent responds unsurely. (Fires are very common in this arid, high desert covered in dry sagebrush like a box of kindling waiting for a match.) Then a Know-It-All pops out from his trailer (there's one in every crowd) and says in an official voice that dares challenging. "It's a fire arright. Just heard it on my police scanner." The crowd slumps in their lawn chairs. A moment of collective indecision creeps in. "Do we go back to our trailers?" All wonder silently. "Or do we wait it out?" A third of the people fold up their chairs and go. The rest wait in total darkness. Awkward jokes emerge from disembodied voices. No one knows who's cracking the wornout jokes, but the silhouetted crowd responds with a courteous, paternalistic laugh. Like when a kid says a stupid joke you've heard a thousand times. You laugh, not because it's funny. It lost its full blossom of humor after the third time, but you laugh for the kid. He's taking a chance, trying to win approval, so you don't want to squelch the effort. This is the crowd's response to the unseen jokesters. Boom! Fireworks begin again and save us from enduring more bad jokes. The crowd's mood lifts happily. We're off! The people who had returned to their trailers come out again, lawn chairs in hand. Three more explosives. Applause. Silence again. This time we don't need a police scanner telling us there's a brush fire. We can SEE it. Oh so sad. Crowd disperses again. This time three-fourths of the people leave. Just a handful of us stay staring at the sky or at the fire down below. I feel so sad for the Virginia City Fire Department. They not only have the fire to deal with but the zephyr. The wind is bad tonight. Not as bad as it has been the past couple of days, but enough to make the fire more dangerous. Seems like the fire is out now, for we no longer see the red glow. It's cold here on this mountainside in darkness. Real cold. Ken and I retreat inside the RV to put on a jacket and wool socks, and to whip up a cup of hot cocoa. This is really a first. Bundled up like I'm going tobogganing instead of going to the Fourth of July fireworks. We return to our post outside, sip our cocoa and look up at the stars in the sky. They sparkle, but don't make noise. But actually they are more appropriate for the occasion, we all agree, as we celebrate the glory of the Stars and the Stripes. The crowd has diminished to about seven people. Seven Independence-Day Diehards. We watch the sky silently. We listen to the church bells still chiming out patriotic tunes, unaware that the Fireworks display has fallen silent. The songs bear a tinge of embarrassment to it now, without the accompaniment of fireworks. But wait . . . Swoosh! Bang. Boom. Sprinkle. They're at it again. One colorful explosion, then no more. That's it. It's eleven o'clock, and we seven diehards reluctantly go back to our trailers. No more fireworks tonight. Poor Virginia City Fire Department. I feel so sad for them. The town has a resident population of only 750 people, and I believe the Fire Department is all volunteer. I go to bed wondering what these rubber-coated firefighters are doing now. What kind of flaming disaster are they battling while I'm allowed to sleep, the wonderful sleep of the irresponsible.
The campround brochure has coupons for local establishments. One coupon is a Buy-One-Get-One-Free-Drink at the "Bucket of Blood Saloon." We hate the name, but hey, a free beer is a free beer so we go. What a magnificent saloon/casino! It's so old, yet so elegant, with a 100-mile panoramic view of the mountains ablaze in a red setting sun. We have a wonderful time looking at the antique furniture and old pictures of Virginia City from long, long ago. Next stop is the Delta Saloon across the street to redeem our coupon for FREE MONEY. This sounds way too suspicious to me, but we take the little slip of paper and march up to the cashier. Man, this guy looks like he's right out of Bugsy's backroom. An old guy is behind the Teller-like barred window, a green visor over his head with a bald white light shining unmercifully on his tired face. I'm afraid to approach him with my silly coupon. Afraid he'll yell at me and say, "What! We don't honor those old things anymore!" Or something equally belittling, where I'll have to turn around and face a smug crowd of onlookers. But I work up the gumption to take any embarrassment he may dish out. I walk up to his cage and hand over the coupon. "I want my free money." I demand. His old face breaks into a charming smile, "Oh you do, do you? Okay, let's see that coupon." He examines the coupon and is unimpressed with my snipping job. Takes out a pair of scissors from his drawer and begins cutting the coupon so that it's trimmed perfectly within the cutting lines. Then turns over three dollars in nickels for us to play the slot machines. The deal is you get three dollars of nickels for the price of two dollars. Basically one dollar of free money. I split the loot with Ken and we claim our slot machine, sitting side by side. When one hears the clink-clank of the other winning some nickels we root and cheer. Our goal is to spend all the money. When the money runs out we go home. But the damn money won't run out. We keep winning just enough to keep on playing. It's getting boring, to the point that when I win and see all those nickels coming out, I frown at how much longer I'll have to play. Winning becomes a disappointment. I'm really tired of this game. How do people sit at these slot machines so long just dropping the coin and pulling the lever. It actually reminds me of all the boring jobs I had during high school. Those brainless, boring jobs for minimum wage. At last, just two nickels remain in my cup. I better not win anymore. I don't. Whew. It's over. But now I have to wait for Ken to finish his nickels. He keeps upping his bets to get rid of them quicker, but keeps winning. At last he runs out too. So much for our night of gambling. What a drag.
Return of the Twinkie
We ride past a billboard advertising "Got Milk?" The billboard shows two great big Hostess Cupcakes, those little chocolate cakes with the white swirls on top. Oh, I do miss those little cakes. I must have one and relive all the joy they once gave me. At the grocery store I'm in luck. The store is celebrating it's 60th anniversary and having a Buy-One-Get-One-Free on the 8-pack box of Hostess cupcakes and Twinkies. Limit: four boxes. I go for the limit. I've fallen off the wagon and am a Twinkie-junkie once more. Poor Ken. He's tried to rehabilitate me all these years, but to no avail. Nevada is the land where sins are forgotten and excesses are encouraged. I don't gamble. I don't hire prostitutes. I don't drink more than one beer, and can barely finish that. No, my sin takes the form of twinkies and cupcakes, and I'm indulging in the blissful ecstasy of a sugar high. This is Nevada, it's allowed.
Mike and Jean, our neighbors are gone now and a gaping hole exists where their trailer once stood, shielding us, somewhat, from the merciless sun and the constant wind. We now have an unobstructed view of the trailer on the other side. Tonight I hear laughter and partying from that area. I peek out and see a bunch of men sitting at the picnic table. They are a uniform mass, all dressed in engineer uniforms of blue-and-white pin-stripe overalls and matching caps. They work for the old Virginia & Truckee Railroad, running the 100-year old steam engine train that is now relegated to doing tourist runs down the mountain and back. It's the cutest thing to see these guys with their blackened faces and blackened pin-striped uniforms from the soot of the train as they sit at this picnic table and share a beer and some laughter over the day's events. The run is over. The day is done. They look like a commercial for "Miller Time." I spy from my bedroom window and watch their manly interactions, their hearty laughter, their camaraderie. I vow that tomorrow I will do the train.
I take the trainride at two o'clock, in the blazing heat of the day and the peak of tourist crowds. The train is overfilled with tourists and their children. I'm elbowed and shoved, kids scream in my ear and a discarded lollipop finds its way to the bottom of my shoe. It's so crowded that I can't hear the conductor give his spiel on the loudspeaker. Totally unenjoyable. Ken didn't want to come with me and I envy his sagacity. On the way home I stop in at another saloon to check out the view to see if it's worthy for me and Ken to come back here tonight. I see our Engineer neighbor at the bar. I tell him I just took the trainride, and fib a bit. Tell him I loved it. He says, "I wish I had known, you could've ridden with me in the engine. I don't work today, but I'll be there tomorrow and Thursday." Without letting the invitation evaporate, I seize the offer. "Well, Ken hasn't been on yet, we'll take you up on that." I quickly reply. Thursday comes and we board the last run for the day, 5:30PM. So much better than when I traveled midday. The sun is not so brutal, the air is a bit cooler, and the crowds have gone home. (Side note: This is interesting. Most people come to Virginia City for the day. From 10AM till 5PM the streets are full of day-trippers. When the sun goes down, the streets are empty. Completely. By far, the best time of day here is when the town empties out. We've got the whole place to ourselves . . . and the few locals. The saloons and casinos take on a entirely different feel.) But anyway, back to the train. Bob, the Engineer/RV neighbor advises us to ride in the passenger car on the way down the mountain and hear the conductor's spiel, then ride the engine on the way back when the engine is has a full head of steam and we can experience its awesome power. Wow. What fun! So much better than my first experience on the train. Windows open, breeze flowing in, sun going down as we chug down the mountain. Just great. On the way back, we climb up to the engine room and Bob invites me to come up and blow the whistle. Ha! This is great! Whoo-Whoo. Every kid's dream. And since this is the last run, we offer to buy Bob a drink. He scratches his head, says, "Well, the boys and I are gonna head over to the Washoe Club, after we put 'er to bed. I guess you can meet us there in about a half hour." It's agreed. Washoe Club in half an hour.
Spirits at the Washoe Club
Ken and I had passed the Washoe Club many times before but never ventured in. It seemed so forbidden. It's dark wood, dim lighting, and the confident postures of locals at the bar and billiard table said to us, "This is our bar. Stay out, you tourist. Go on to the saloons that want your business." We'd give a quick glance in as we passed by, but never stared and never lingered at the door, just walked on by to a saloon that seemed to cater to tourists. There's certainly enough of 'em in Virginia City. At least a dozen. So, now we are committed. We gotta go into the Washoe Club. As we enter, everyone stares silently at the two tourists who dared to enter this local sanctuary. We scan the room for the blue, pin-striped engineers to validate our being here. Only Bob is here with his wife, Barb. We're relieved. We all grab a table and get the rounds going. Ed, the other engineer comes in later and joins us. Ed has kind eyes. Clear blue eyes that match his uniform. He's one of those warm-hearted people you occasionally meet who is easy to be around and laughs easily at tread bare jokes. That's the extent of our "party." Bob, his wife, Barb, and Ed tell us all about the saloon, which, now in the company of new friends, takes on a whole new look, and we give an appreciative scan about room as they describe each detail and introduce us to some of the patrons with names like "Red Dog" and "Shorty." What once seemed dark and forbidding to us is now rich with history. It's the oldest saloon in town, once a private men's club with famous patrons such as Mark Twain, U.S. Grant, and other biggies. The locals insist the place is haunted by a woman whose visage appears in the transom window over the dark door leading to the dark hallway leading to the Men's Room. The stories are endless. The laughter is genuine. Good people. A local man joins our table and starts complaining to Ed that none of the tourists in Virginia City appreciate his workmanship of rustic, hand-carved tables and chairs. "It's a Tee-shirt, coffee-mug, kinda tourist that comes here," he grumbles, "as he sneaks a glance at me and Ken, obvious offenders." I need to take my business where tourists appreciate this stuff," he continues his lament. Barb suggests Santa Fe. "Yea, that's where I should go," the man affirms. "Why, I can get big money for this stuff up there. Big money." Ed laughs. The man (whose name we never get) bristles at Ed's response. "Really. In Santa Fe, where they appreciate this stuff, I can make lots of money." Ed eyes him dubiously, "Yeah. Yeah, sure. Hey, I got my pants rolled up . . . keep it comin." The conversation moves back to more general topics as Bob tells us that a couple of years ago IMAX filmed out here doing a series of train shots with Bob as the engineer. The name of the film is "Mark Twain's America." We make a note that if we ever see it playing somewhere, we'll definitely go see it. "Oh, you gotta see it," Bob urges, "They crash the train and everything." It's on our list.