Nevada novelty

Nevada novelty

Nevada novelty
The road seemed to go on forever. The autumn sky was a bright blue, the afternoon sun shone brightly, and I was on Route 50 that stretches for more than 4,800 km, running right through the US. I was traversing it through the centre of Nevada, where it is known as the Loneliest Road in America. And I could see why. I went for miles without seeing another car or a town, or even an RV. At one point, a fleet of moustachioed bikers vroomed past our coach, but other than that it was just the desert valley and the dusty brown mountains of Sierra Nevada for company. After a couple of nights in the hubbub of Las Vegas with its massive casinos, pulsating energy, and beautiful people, this part of Nevada felt like a surreal contrast. But I quickly found out that Vegas (and to a lesser extent, Reno) were the anomalies in this vast state.

Nature calling

Flying into Las Vegas, I looked down from the plane at the vast expanse of the aquamarine Lake Mead, the largest man-made lake in the US, created by the construction of the Hoover Dam. I got a closer look at the iconic concrete curve of the dam while on a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon in neighbouring Arizona. Lake Mead brings a much-needed respite in the hot and dry Mojave Desert, and its northern section is a popular recreational spot where you can go swimming, boating, and kayaking, or even camping on its shore. Further north, close to the state capital of Carson City is Lake Tahoe, which straddles both Nevada and California. The eastern shore of the lake lies in Nevada. It was another sunny day when I made my way to the lake, which glistened cobalt blue. From the Edgewood Tahoe golf resort, I walked down to the lake’s sandy shore, so soft and clean that it could rival most beaches. In summer it’s dotted with beach umbrellas and you can go boating, rafting, or jet skiing on the lake. During winter, the entire area transforms into a stunning ski resort. Apart from skiing, you can also go snowboarding, ice-skating, and sleigh riding on the slopes. Nevada is home to several national and state parks. Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, Valley of Fire, with its petrified red sandstone formations and an almost Martian landscape, is perfect for camping and hiking. The spectacular red-hued Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area has several hiking trails as well as adventurous rock-climbing opportunities.

The American Wild West of swashbuckling cowboys, raucous saloons, and quick- draw guns seems to be alive and kicking in Nevada (a state that permits open-carry). Nowhere is this more apparent than in Virginia City, a small town 40 km south of Reno. With the discovery of Comstock Lode (a massive silver deposit in the area) in 1859, Virginia City sprang up as a major mining boomtown and became a magnet for miners and prospectors. One such prospector was Samuel Clemens. Though he didn’t find much success in mining, he took up a job as a correspondent (and later as an editor) with a local newspaper. In 1863, Clemens took up a pen name and ‘Mark Twain’ was born. The Mark Twain Museum retains the original furnishings, including his desk, chair, books, and even his wooden toilet seat.

Virginia City itself looks straight out of a Hollywood movie set with its brightly painted buildings, wooden boardwalks, and old-world saloons. I wandered into the quaint Delta Saloon, which is infamous for its Suicide Table, so named because three owners committed suicide after losing big bucks at the gambling table. Nearby, the Red Dog Saloon is known for its inventive Bloody Marys. Further south, 50 km from Virginia City is Genoa, the very first settlement in Nevada, colonised by the Mormons in 1851. This one-street town is home to Nevada's oldest saloon, Genoa Bar, which has been patronised by everyone from Mark Twain to Clark Gable. I walked in and felt as if I had travelled back in time. The walls were crammed with memorabilia — posters with pithy sayings, hats left behind by patrons, dusty bottles, assorted clocks, stuffed animal heads and more. Hanging on the antlers of one of the stuffed bucks was a visibly old black bra, purportedly of the actor Raquel Welch.

Culture vulture

In the stark landscape of Black Rock Desert, a temporary community is erected every year for the week-long Burning Man event held towards the end of August. Experimental art and sculpture installations, music performances, 'mutant vehicles' whizzing about, zany costumes, and, of course, the symbolic ritual burning of 'the Man' — it's a one-of-a-kind summer camp for radical artists and adventurous revellers. If you can’t make it to Burning Man, there are other desert art installations to stumble upon as you drive around Nevada. Guru Road near Gerlach (180 km north of Reno) is a mile-long dirt road lined with stone installations and folk art. Many of the large stones are etched with peculiar aphorisms, from the pessimistic 'life is nothing but a big joke' to the nearly prescient 'the woman’s place is in the house, the White House that is'. Midway between Reno and Las Vegas, a dirt road detour from the ghost town of Goldfield will bring you to The International Car Forest of the Last Church. Despite its name, there's nothing religious about this quirky art installation. About 40 broken-down cars covered with colourful graffiti, arty murals and elaborate designs stand in the desert valley – some upright, some buried nose-down, and some piled atop each other.

Bottoms up

It's not exactly Napa Valley, but Nevada does have a small wine-growing region, concentrated around Pahrump (100 km from Las Vegas). It may seem a strange place to set up vineyards considering the miles of arid desert, but a group of winemakers have seen moderate success. At both the Pahrump Valley Winery (the state’s largest winery) and the Sanders Family Winery, I sample several wines. I find the Merlots to be a standout, though there’s definitely room for improvement in terms of overall wine quality. Beer fared much better when I visited neighbouring Tonopah where the Tonopah Brewing Company makes a range of craft beers, from a hoppy IPA to an unfiltered, German-style Hefeweizen.

It was here that I was introduced to the glorious bar food that is pickle chips — sliced and batter-fried dill pickles — an addictive accompaniment to the beer. In nearby Fallon, I visited the family-run Frey Ranch Estate Distillery, which makes spirits from grain grown in its own farms. Frey Ranch produces vodka, bourbon, and absinthe, but my vote goes to their stellar gin — a smooth drink flavoured with local botanicals such as juniper, sagebrush, orange peel etc, which is perfect on its own or with a splash of tonic.

So venture beyond Las Vegas, hit the road and discover the rugged beauty and the unexpected eccentricities of Nevada.
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