Territorial Enterprise, Virginia City, NevadaThat’s what Mark Twain had Huck do at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s what a young Sam Clemens did when he talked his brother into taking him along to his new job as Secretary to the Governor of the Nevada Territory. It’s what Lucy and I planned to do. But I can tell you, it’s a lot harder to get to “the Territory” than it was in Mark Twain’s day. It’s actually a lot harder than it was the last time I passed this way. I can remember when we first arrived in California more than twenty years ago. We’d head out for Tahoe ski resorts nearly every winter weekend. It used to be, you’d plow through East Bay sprawl for about an hour, then hit farmland with nothing but a short strip of fast food joints between Travis Air Force Base and UC Davis. Then a bit of sprawl through Sacramento and once you hit Roseville, you were heading into pine forests and pristine air. Granted that was the northern route heading toward Tahoe City. This trip, I’m going the southern route and hooking up with old Route 50 which was built just about exactly on the Pony Express route. Now it seems the sprawl of the East Bay and the sprawl of Sacramento have almost met in the middle with only a small oasis of fruit trees somewhere around Dixon. Where there used to be nothing but foothills and Folsom Prison, there are now housing developments and malls nearly up to Placerville. But thank goodness for Placerville. It seems to have fallen on some slightly hard times but it’s still working that old West ambiance. And there wasn’t a chain restaurant or a strip mall in sight.

pony express marker, placerville, ca

We picked up the Western terminus of the Pony Express route in Placerville. Route 50, the old Lincoln Highway, is paved right over the original trail.

For those of you who know your Gold Country history, Placerville is near where gold was first discovered at Sutter’s Mill. The place became so lawless, it was originally called Hangtown for the frequency of rope parties there. Placerville/Hangtown is also famous for The Hangtown Fry. There are many legends about its creation, but the one I’ve heard most often tells of a miner who struck gold and rushed into Hangtown demanding that the nearest saloon make him breakfast with the most expensive ingredients available. At the time that happened to be eggs, bacon and oysters, so a Hangtown Fry — which you can get in San Francisco and, apparently, in every restaurant in Placerville — is a sort of an oyster and bacon omelet. Lucy and I contemplated sharing a Hangtown Fry, but I usually don’t eat seafood this far from the ocean. I don’t even want to think of the state of the oysters back in Twain’s time when they would have been brought in from San Francisco by stagecoach.

lake tahoe from Route 50 past Placerville, Ca

We really felt Twainish when we hit 7800 feet, turned a corner and saw Lake Tahoe down below us.

At this point, we thought we were home free — out of the suburbs and into the Territory. As we headed up more than 7000 feet into the Sierras, we felt we were finally in Mark Twain territory. We saw nothing but boulders and pine trees and, every ten miles or so, another marker for a Pony Express stop. I didn’t even mind South Lake Tahoe too much. I’d been warned that it was the North Shore’s poor cousin. But, the low ramshackle wooden motels and burger stands had sort of the flavor of the gimcrack overnight boomtowns that would have gone up in Mark Twain’s day. And with that spectacular lake, who’s looking at the architecture anyway? Then we hit the state line and bam! Twenty story casinos everywhere. That’s when Lucy and I decided to keep driving — fast — and find us some Twainness.

And all of a sudden, as we wound our way down out of the Sierras, it seemed we were getting there. The pine forests turned to sagebrush and, what Twain described as Jackass Rabbits and Cayotes. That is until we hit Carson City, Nevada’s capital and the modern day embodiment of the dark side of Gold Rush boomtowns. Think HBO’s Deadwood. There was a bar, a sleezy casino and an “adult entertainment complex” nearly every mile. When I saw signs to The Moonlite Bunny Ranch, I couldn’t resist pulling into the long driveway to take a quick look — even though I knew the “bunnies” weren’t Twain’s Jackass Rabbits. And don’t think rustic, the Ranch is a collection of double-wides surrounded by a chainlink and barbed wire topped fence. There looked to be scary types patrolling it, so I took off without taking a picture. But for miles afterwards, anytime I caught sight of a cluster of trailers or a large house painted pink, I imagined the worst.

Virginia City from the cemetary

To get the best view of Virginia City, head up to the old cemetery. You’ll see how the city is perched below the ore-riddled hills and you’ll learn from how far away miners came to dig it. A surprising number were from Cornwall, England.

virginia city, nevada

Who cares it there is tourist tat and burros led by guys dressed as prospectors, Virginia City is all original and steeped in Twainness.

Thank goodness we turned off into Gold Canyon, headed for Virginia City and the Comstock Lode. Virginia City does not disappoint. Sure it’s got fudge places and gift shops and more museums than a five street town should have, but they are all in the original buildings and fronted by a wildly warped wooden boardwalk. Plus, every original saloon seems to still be in operation. While Virginia City should, by size, be walkable, it’s built in terraces up the side of a huge hill. Lucy and I drove up to the old cemetary to get the best view of the town and the hills that still bear the scars of the massive amount of ore that was pulled out of them. Then we spent the evening strolling along the boardwalk, peering into saloons and tripping over landmarks and buildings and streets all mentioned by Twain in Roughing It.

At last, we are properly immersed in Twainness!


There was a generous prostitute who was gruesomely murdered in Virginia City. If you count the plaques, Virginia City is prouder of Julia Bulette than they are of Mark Twain.

Apparently tough Nevada guys love terriers. At least a dozen times a bearded biker type stopped me and said, “Is that a Rat Terrier? My old lady has a Rat Terrier, but yours is bigger.” I started educating them, then thought better of it. Maybe it will be good for Lucy’s confidence to be thought to be a Rat Terrier on steroids.

No matter how many dog-friendly restaurants you preplan for, plan for twice as many. Placerville, Virginia City and South Lake Tahoe were supposed to be full of them and every one was closed.

Nevadans laugh when you scoop poop and ask them where the designated disposal area is. But they still won’t let a well-behaved terrier into a saloon. Mark Twain would not approve. Actually, he might. He was a big cat lover.

See more pictures of today’s trip here.