Parts West

A travelogue from parts out West.

“The view was always fascinating, bewitching, entrancing. The eye was never tired of gazing, night or day, in calm or storm …” —Mark Twain

All sorts of things stand out on my 2012 Nevada summer vacation (more spider webs and dragon flies at the desolate and shimmering Walker Lake than I’ve ever seen in one place) from Las Vegas to Carson City and back again by way of Convict Lake and U.S. Route 395 in California.

Vintage miner's shack, Tonopah. Credit: Macon Street Books
Vintage miner’s shack, Tonopah (Macon Street Books)

These are the towns you pass from the neon city at the southern end of Nevada (when aliens land, they will recognize their kin in Las Vegas) to the capital of the Battle Born State some 440 miles to the north.

On U.S. Route 95: Weed Heights, Indian Springs, Beatty, Scotty’s Junction, Goldfield, Tonopah, Coaldale, Luning – the metropolis of Hawthorne, population 3,269 – through the Walker River Indian Reservation and Fallon before breaking west on U.S. 50 through Silver Springs and the city named for the Indian fighter Kit Carson [1809-to-1868].

After two nights at the Resort on Mount Charleston high above downtown Vegas, the true road trip began for me and Phoebe: eating instant oatmeal with hot water from gas stations (in an especially hungry pinch I have slopped it up with cold water); stopping at the oasis of parking lot espresso shacks only to discover no one was home and stopping to pee.

Stopping to pee, stopping to pee, stopping to pee and not always in a bathroom.

In Goldfield, 175 miles into the journey, we strolled through a miner’s cemetery where folks who’d been born during the War of 1812 were buried during the Civil War. Part of it was cordoned off for the Catholics. Many of all faiths had fought in the Indian Wars.

Civil War veteran Joseph Bown [1839-to-1906] was one of them. In an essay by his great-grandson George Kuhn, we learn that Bown ran a boarding house for miners near Goldfield in a place called Jumbo Town.

Goldfield Cemetery (Macon Street Books)
Goldfield Cemetery (Macon Street Books)

Back in 2009, George traveled to Goldfield from Pittsburgh with a headstone to replace the weathered wooden markers of his great-father Joseph Bown and wife Mary. While there, volunteer groundskeepers worked with snow on the ground to keep undergrowth off the walkways. We walked those paths in early July when a snowball wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance.

And then, 30 miles north, THE QUEEN OF THE SILVER CAMPS.


When silver made Tonopah in 1900 – to the tune of more than $30 million mined daily in the years leading to World War I – Tonopah helped make Nevada. It was the second largest silver strike in state history, launched when prospector and town founder Jim Butler went to throw a rock at an errant burro and found the stone heavier than it should have been.

The town has preserved many of the original mining shacks in an open-air museum, complete with saloon, tool repair shop and general store. We didn’t see a hoosegow. Perhaps bad guys and claim jumpers never made it that far.

At the Mizpah Hotel, built in 1905, its lobby right out of the great late ‘60s CBS show “The Wild, Wild West,” we had lunch beneath old mining stock certificates. Rooms go for about $95 a night. Down the street, not far from a metal sculpture of the mining fire hero Big Bill Murphy, the shrimp with rice and beans platters at the El Marques restaurant were fresh and affordable.

But across the street is the spot we should have stayed had we just held out a block or two past the Best Western, the place where all of us have passed at least one night whether we knew it or not: the Clown Motel, 521 North Main Street alongside of the Tonopah Cemetery.

It’s for real: clean rooms, circus décor featuring hundreds of clowns and bikers welcome.

As one honeymooner said: “This place freaked my peaches …”

We were beat when we fell into the clean sheets of the Hampton Inn off on Hospitality Way in Carson City. Downtown was three miles south and after a little bit of rest it was off to the Firkin & Fox across from the State Capitol.

"Your room is ready..." (Macon Street Books)
“Your room is ready…” (Macon Street Books)

We chose the F&F because it was on the ground floor of an old brick hotel, the St. Charles. It was okay for a couple not interested in pints and almost too tired to eat. But our young waitress enhanced the meal with stories of living in an Italian village before a spoiled marriage to a paisano returned her stateside with bambino.

After dinner we crossed Carson Street to the wide and illuminated lawn of the State Capitol [1870 cornerstone], which were far less grand when Mark Twain described them in “Roughing It,” his 1872 memoir of the Sierra Nevada and the barely settled American west.

It was in Nevada that the author first began using the immortal by-line “Mark Twain” in place of his given Samuel Clemens. “Roughing It” [published 1872] describes the capitol grounds as a vacant lot having more in common with the North Point Road flea market than the seat of government.

That would change with amenities like floors and wainscoting carved from 20-ton blocks of Alaskan marble shipped to San Francisco.

After inspecting the statues by moonlight – memorials to miners and frontiersman, Kit Carson on horseback – we climbed the steps and peeked in the front door at a long hallway of portraits. Somewhere inside is a chair made of elk horns upon which Teddy Roosevelt rested his fearless haunches.

As we peered inside, cupping our eyes against the glare, an armed, middle-aged woman in uniform strolled down the long hallway, opened the door and started talking. And talking and talking and talking. Carson City’s own Marge Gunderson pointing out the treasures of her beloved Nevada.

U.S. Route 95 Nevada: always a welcome sign on the road... (Macon Street Books)
U.S. Route 95 Nevada: always a welcome sign on the road… (Macon Street Books)

An ambulance peeled off from the main drag near the downtown casinos and Officer Friendly predicted which neighborhood they were headed to before confirmation came over the radio. If we were only staying longer, she said, we could skip over to Tahoe, go horseback riding or walk along the Carson River.

No better ambassador could a town have, a knowledgeable local taking time to gives the ins and outs to a couple of strangers.

Marge went back to the marble hallway of long gone elders and Phoebe and I called it a night.

And that was our point A to point B tour of the Silver State over the long, 2012 Fourth of July weekend.

The next morning – saddled up with boiled eggs, instant oatmeal and fresh fruit from the Hampton Inn breakfast bar – we crossed over into California for a long ride south through the green beauty of central California.

One of our stops was Convict Lake, which got its name in 1871 when a bunch of convicts escaped from a Carson City jail holed up here and killed a couple of men in the sheriff’s posse.

But that’s a Golden State story.

Editor's note: Click here to read Part One. This story originally published at and is republished here with author's permission. Photo Credit: Macon Street Books
Rafael Alvarez

Rafael Alvarez

A lifelong Baltimorean, born on Bob Dylan's 17th birthday, Rafael Alvarez has spent the last 35 years writing about his hometown -- and when he can get away with it -- nothing else. The author of the epic "Orlo and Leini" stories, he is about to finish a history of The Tuerk House, a pioneering drug and alcohol rehab in Baltimore that was one of the first facilities for the poor when alcoholism was decriminalized in 1968.

Alvarez wrote for each of the first three seasons of the HBO drama, " The Wire," and was especially involved in season two, which focuses on the Baltimore waterfront. His book about the show -- the encyclopedic "The Wire: Truth Be Told" -- was published by Grove/Atlantic and was nominated for a 2011 Edgar Award. 

His influences include the great Johnny Winter, Isaac Bashevis Singer and the art of Henry Ossawa Tanner.