As seen in Wit and Repartee at Woodlawn: A Secular Pilgrimage to Mark Twain’s Gravesite in Elmira, NY., George Cassidy Payne journeyed to Elmira in search of Mark Twain. Today, George goes even further afield, searching for Mark Twain in Nevada.
Photography by George Cassidy Payne
Virginia City was not part of the original plan. I was only supposed to meet up with my friend Adam from Seattle and Chris from Reno, to spend a weekend basking in the impossibly beautiful blue skies of Lake Tahoe. Maybe another night in the Tahoe National Forest or downtown Reno, but not Virginia City. Who wants to go there?
Like usual, when I stop thinking I know everything and just go with the flow, I actually learn something useful. So when my friend Chris invited me to go with him through Virginia City, even though I was ambivalent at first, I said sure. It didn’t hurt his pitch after he told me that Mark Twain lived and worked there, and that the place, in his words, “is right out of the 1800s.” Good enough for me. Let’s do it.
Virginia City feels like a movie set. When I heard that the TV show Bonanza was shot here, I wasn’t surprised. Everything feels painted with thick coats of nostalgia for a time when the only necessities in a town were saloons, bordellos, hardware shops, a barber, church, grocery store, and post office. Maybe not in that order but these were the staples of mining life in 1859.
As with every tourist destination, Virginia City has been commercialized to a large extent. But even in this department, it does things its own way. Some of the saloons have been turned into piazza joints, and the street corners have ATM machines, but who can resist a parking lot that doubles for the stomping grounds of a toothless mountaineer with a donkey and tip jar? Despite the intrusions of modern life, Virginia City still possesses a rustic charm that manages to avoid camp.
I should add that getting there from Tahoe is half the appeal. Moving away from the breathtaking views of North America’s largest alpine lake-and astronomical wealth-there is a lonely air of romance that seeps in when one drives through the abandoned mining towns leading into Virginia City (once proudly hailed by locals as “the richest place on earth.”)
The towns that once teemed with prospectors attempting to get rich from gold and silver, now feel desolate and forgotten; yet that is exactly how they are supposed to look. Ghost towns with lots of people and businesses sort of miss the point. Here, the wild horses can roam wildly, and the mountains can be climbed without trespassing. It feels like it should feel. It feels like the wild west.
In a nutshell, that’s the kind of place Virginia City is. You go there and you remember why it is we travel. We travel to go back to a time when we can move forward, hopefully knowing what it means to exist a little more fully. Virginia City, in its own unique manner, is one of those places. It is also a place that reminds us what it was like when the rules had not been made yet, at least not for miners and sinners.
With that as my advertisement, I say go to Virginia City. Go where your travel companions recommend. Go where your itinerary runs out of ideas. Go someplace wild. You deserve it. You owe it to yourself.