Monday, March 17, 2014

Enjoying a Visit to a Nevada Desert

Everyone living on Peru’s Pacific coast lives in a desert. Some live in coastal cities like Lima, Trujillo and Chiclayo that serve to ‘hide’ the desert, but these municipalities are really only urbanized islands surrounded on three sides by desert. Non-city coastal dwellers are confronted every minute of every day with desert realities: windblown sand, hardpan soil and sparse patches of lomas brush and huarango trees as the only vegetation. What we’re going to talk about (among other things) is exploring opportunities for enjoyment in a desert, but not a Peruvian desert. We recently visited a desert in the United States…more specifically the Carson Valley in northwestern Nevada, located in what is known as The Great Basin Desert – the largest desert in the United States, encompassing almost all of Nevada and half of Utah. The reason I mentioned Peru was that I was struck with how similar the geography is between the desert surrounding Chiclayo, and the desert surrounding Reno. In fact to a casual observer I’d bet it would be difficult to determine if he/she were in Peru or Nevada. Except that it snowed in the Nevada desert the day after our arrival. Anyway….

….it is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Acknowledging that beauty is a personal preference, I’d still bet that not too many beholders would judge the geography of the Carson Valley and most of Nevada for that matter to be beautiful. In 1861 Mark Twain, the author of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ visited Carson Valley and had this to say:

“Visibly our new home was a desert, walled in by barren mountains. There was not a tree in sight. There was no vegetation but the endless sage-brush and greasewood. All nature was gray with it.”

And somewhat surprisingly, a Nevada tourist guide book echoes Twain’s comments 125 years later:

“The mountains of Nevada are like sleeping women, sprawled languorously across every horizon. They are not pretty mountains. They have been scuffed and worn too long by desert winds, and their skirts are stained with the dried mud of long-vanished seas.” 

The bleak images created by both sources are still evident, though like the previously mentioned cities of Peru, modern Nevada cities such as Reno, Carson City, Minden and Gardnerville have sprung up to challenge the desert for supremacy.  

So, lacking beautiful scenery, how does one enjoy a visit to northwestern Nevada? History…primarily wagon train trails and mining history are huge tourist draws, and there is no better place to start than the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Virginia City. Here you can belly up to an original 1860s bar and enjoy a beer or sarsaparilla while tapping your toe to the music of the Comstock Cowboys. Purchase a 10-gallon hat, leather vest and western boots at one of the many stores in town and you’ll fit right in with the rest of the patrons. A pistol strapped to your waist is optional…about half the men in the bar including the musicians were wearing them. Virginia City is a fascinating town if you’re into the old west. Sure, it’s touristy but there’s enough of the old buildings standing (much of the town was rebuilt in 1875 following a fire) and enough characters on the street in period dress that with a little imagination you can transport yourself back to the heydays of that Comstock mining town.  

If you’re not into history there are the towns of Reno and Carson City that offer all the dining, shopping, gambling and night life you could ask for, with a few museums and other attraction to boot. Hotel rates in both towns are very affordable and nearly every casino has a first-rate restaurant with quality food at modest prices.

Another historic town…in fact the oldest permanent settlement in Nevada is Genoa located just 10 minutes west of Minden. Genoa was originally settled by Mormons in about 1850 who farmed and established a trading post to serve immigrant wagon trains on their way to California. Genoa boasts of several historic sites including houses dating to the mid 1850s and a replica of the trading post. It also features the Genoa Bar (photo), the oldest saloon in Nevada. Just 200 yards behind the saloon the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains begin. Many immigrant parties stopped at Genoa to provision and regain their strength and rest their animals before attempting the difficult and dangerous pass over the mountains, a journey that could take from one to four months depending on where in California they were going. Deciding to put the desert behind us for awhile, it took us just four hours to drive from Genoa to San Francisco.

This was our first visit to San Francisco and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf (a delicious lunch at Scoma’s Restaurant), Pier 39, the view of the city from Twin Peaks, Alcatraz and of course the Golden Gate Bridge were mandatory stops and well worth the time.

The drive from San Francisco to Monterey on California Highway 1 is gorgeous. I don’t know how many times we stopped to take photos and enjoy the scenery. Unfortunately our schedule didn’t allow us to see as much of Monterey as we would have liked , but we agreed to return some day and continued on via the 17 Mile Drive to Pebble Beach were we did some gawking at what may be the world’s most famous golf course and picked up a few souvenirs at the gift shop.

After leaving Pebble Beach we arrived at Carmel where we walked the white sand beach and then explored the shops on both sides of Ocean Ave. I like Carmel. I like the look and feel of it. It’s a wealthy community, but it’s not obnoxious or pretentious. About an hour’s drive south on Highway 1 is the Nepenthe Restaurant. It’s a somewhat unique restaurant with a great ocean view from up high. We had lunch there before continuing to our ultimate destination, the town of San Simeon and the Hearst Castle.

The Hearst Castle is impressive. Opulence is everywhere…in the castle itself and on the grounds of the estate, including the dining room shown in this photo. Every time I put my camera away thinking I’d taken enough photos, I’d turn a corner and be blown away by another scene that demanded its picture be taken. I do have one tiny complaint though. For $25 you don’t see much of the interior. There are two more tours available, also at $25 each that cover additional rooms, but I’ll bet that all three tours don’t come close to showing the 165 rooms in that castle. On the other hand, you’re free to explore every nook and cranny of the exterior, and we spent several hours doing just that, all the while imagining the lavish parties attended by guests such as Bob Hope, Charlie Chaplin and hundreds of other celebrities.

Our time was running short so we decided to drive directly back from the castle to Minden in Nevada, which Miss Garmin (that’s what I call the female voice emanating from the dash-mounted GPS unit) said would take 6 hours. She would have been correct if we hadn’t stopped at the Harris Ranch in Coalinga California for lunch. Here we had some of the finest beef I’ve eaten in years. Just north of the Harris Ranch off Highway 5 was the largest collection of cattle that I’ve ever seen. There were literally thousands of cows. I would love to know what it takes in terms manpower, machinery and material just to feed these animals for one day. The remainder of the drive was uneventful, even though it was at night on winding roads over and through the mountains with huge snow banks on both sides and signs warning of avalanches.

And that’s how we enjoyed our visit to a Nevada desert, with a side trip to California thrown in. Oh…one more thing. We did not and could not have discovered all of these attractions by ourselves. We're grateful to our good friends and guides Jeff and Angie, who made this visit so memorable. Rumor has it that in this photo of Carmel beach they're standing not too far from the spot where Jeff proposed marriage and Angie accepted. We're glad that happened!