That’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.
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.
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.
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.
Hi Lisa, what fabulous trips you plan and write about. I remember doing a similar trip when I lived out there. It always amazed me that towns and cities of the gold rush in CA and NV remained in tact reflecting the lawlessness of that era and the cemeteries showing gravestones of so many young people. As for the Cornwall, England ones they must have emigrated following the demise of the Cornish tin mines in the mid-1800s.. Looking forward to the next update.
Were the burros really dressed as prospectors? Sorry, couldn’t resist. Great opening to your sage. Can’t wait for the next installment (something else you and Twain have in common). May the road rise up to meet you!
I had the same impression of Hannibal, Missouri. Touristy, tea shoppee, and full of retirees, but it was still Twain’s childhood home.
At some point I want to visit Lake Tahoe to see the Corleone compound.
I think you should tell people about the Clampers! Such a California thing. Out here on the East Coast no one has ANY idea.
Also – I once was a nanny over the summer in Tahoe … and a day in Virginia City was my “treat” to myself. (also – this was a long time ago – and it wasn’t nearly as touristy). A day with the past, the dead, and no kids! Woo-hoo 🙂
I’ve written about the Clampers here: https://leftcoastcowboys.com/2009/03/08/the-club-thats-made-for-you-and-me/
And I always make it a point to look for Clamper activity. We have a very active chapter in Sonoma and they are always around during the big events.
And Virginia City may have a tourist-based economy, but it also seemed like a very vital, active and close-knit community. The churches were having “meeting” on the Wednesday night I was there and as I walked around, I saw a lot of locals chatting and visiting.
Sad, but accurate description of the road to Tahoe; much changed since I made numerous trips there in my college days. Still it’s nice to know that the history is still visible with a little digging and under its touristy veneer, Virginia City is still a “real” town. I think even Twain would recognize the lovely vista of Tahoe from 7800 feet. As for modern Carson City and Reno, the best that can be said is it’s where we rescued our Django; it was the first of what we hope are many fun road trips.