Virginia City

We're back! Back from our annual sojourn to familiar haunts in the sagebrush desert of northern Nevada and southeast Oregon. We filled our 1gb memory card with lots of pics from Lake Tahoe and Reno and numerous places you've probably never heard of: Denio, Burns, Fields, Rye Patch, and so forth. Perhaps therein is the draw: in these trips we combine the action of Reno and Tahoe with the wanderlust fun of being in the buttcrack of nowhere, where desert mountain ranges heave endless horizons and the few signs of mankind are rusting away in lost towns with storied pasts and long-faded dreams.

So we'll start off with a posting about one of the most famous towns of the American west: Virginia City, just south of Reno (by the way, we arrived in Reno as the annual Burning Man festival was winding down. We didn't go- we're too old to go camping in the Black Rock desert with 40,000 hippy freaks with their glow sticks and bad sanitation and weird rituals. Additional reasons can be found in this humorous piece by Brad Bynum of the Reno News & Review. Driving on Interstate 80, it was easy to tell who attended Burning Man 2007: cars/vans/micro-buses either had a red stick figure painted on a window or were covered in layers of tan dirt from playa dust storms).

Back to Virginia City: gold was first found in the area in 1850 by panners on their way to California. Nine years later, miners tapped the Comstock Lode, the largest known concentration of silver ore ever found on earth. By 1876, 40,000 people lived in Virginia City- including a cub reporter for the local newspaper named Samuel Clemens. The vein produced a total of 1.2 billion dollars of silver and gold, equaling $500 billion dollars in current value. Mining ended before the start of the twentieth century when hot water from underground geothermic wells burst into hundreds of miles of mine tunnels and, overnight, the town was virtually abandoned.

Now, less than 1,000 people live in Virginia City. While a small operation extracts gold flake (also known as "invisible gold") from old placer mounds, most people eke out a living catering to tourists. On our visit, the streets were filled with noisy Harley riders from California and British tourists in town to see the annual camel races. We ducked into the Ponderosa Saloon and watched U of M get trounced by Oregon on national TV before a most agreeable PAC 10 crowd. During halftime, we paid Buckskin Bax (seen here) four bucks for a tour of the 500' deep Belcher Mine, one of the many portals into the byzantine system of tunnels that run under Virginia City.

Buckskin regaled the history of the mine: how investors pumped 1.2 million dollars into money pit that only produced $450 in silver, where the dynamite was kept, how the average miner lived no longer than 40 years, how the best way to leave the mine at the end of a shift was make sure you were still friends with the guy running the cable elevator, etc. Listening to Buckskin was at times difficult, as many of his sentences went like this: Back in 1860, when the yarschkadarsh lijadarsch keppadarsh was in full operation, the heppadarsh skippidarsh skilladaggaway went deeper and deeper. Well allrighty then!

We listened intently and thought maybe he's been breathing too much bad mine air. Carbon monoxide must cause a man to slur and ramble. Then we caught a whiff of 80 proof burpage in the close quarters. Er boy. There might not be any gold in that thar mine, but we suspect there's some Goldschlager down there.

So stay tuned. We'll be serving up plenty more from our western trip. Next up: the southeast corner of Oregon, where the sheep and cattle outnumber people by 200 to 1.

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