Road Trip to Old Nevada by Mark Sedenquist
State Route 488 heads west into the Great Basin National Park. "Post art," sculptures placed by local artists along the barbed wire fences on both sides of the road, offer great photo opportunities, especially the horse skeleton driving a vintage rusty pickup truck. Although there is no entrance fee to the national park, there's a nominal charge for ranger-guided tours of Lehman Caves. The caves, known for their unusual "shield" formations and beautiful cave drapery, stalagmites, and chambers, are well worth a visit. Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive offers stunning mountain vistas featuring snow-capped peaks all summer long.
Ward Charcoal Ovens State Park is another nearby attraction. In use from 1876 to 1879, these large, beehive-shaped kilns transformed cords of wood into charcoal used in silver processing. Reminiscent of Mycenaean tombs, the Ward kilns are the tallest and best preserved in Nevada.
The town of Ely almost looks as though it was frozen in time about 80 years ago. Wall murals depicting scenes and events adorn over twenty buildings along Highway 50. One of the most lovingly preserved structures is the six-story Hotel Nevada, which was built in 1929. The current owners acquired the property in 1994 and continue to restore and decorate the hotel and casino in old Nevada style. Of particular note is the elegant table games room downstairs where you get the feeling that Brett Maverick might walk in at any moment. Every available inch of wall space in the main casino is packed with historic artifacts, photographs, taxidermy, paintings, sculpture, models, and an impressive collection of western guns.
Each floor of the hotel is similarly decorated with murals, historic photographs, and artifacts from local ranches. A number of the rooms have been named after celebrities, recalling the movie stars and dignitaries who have been guests over the years. I had the pleasure of occupying the Mickey Rooney mini-suite, a spacious room bedecked with Mickey Rooney memorabilia and-although the significance eludes me-a huge pink plush stuffed bear. Of even more interest was the guestbook which revealed that Lieutenant Governor Lorraine Hunt once stayed in the room and a ghost hangs out behind the bed. If a spirit does reside there, I never detected it.
Directly across the street from the Hotel Nevada is the Jailhouse Café. As the name suggests, diners sit inside wild West-style jail cells complete with locking doors, interrogation-style lighting, and old "wanted" posters and photos of desperadoes on the walls. Although the décor is cute, it's the food that will draw me back-I enjoyed perhaps the finest filet mignon I have ever had in Nevada, and the service and side dishes were excellent, too.
Down the road in East Ely is a real Nevada treasure, the Northern Nevada Railroad Museum. Here, history roars back to life all summer long as vintage steam locomotives take visitors on memorable joyrides. The engineers, most of whom are old-timers with marvelous stories to tell, are nearly as fascinating as the trains.
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September 3, 2006