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The Rocky Road to Excess

May 01, 2013


Louise Goldsbury takes a road trip across the US desert, driving through the heart of the Wild West.

I never thought I would want to leave behind the bedazzlement of Las Vegas to drive across the desert, alone, for a week. But the echoing emptiness of mountain ranges and long, lonely roads seems the perfect antidote to Sin City. A thought occurs as I set off from the airport in a rental car: should I be worried about why they call it "the Wild West"?

Few and far between, the landmarks along Nevada's highways provide a peepshow of the state's claims to fame. Each town appears to be defined by its first building, either a casino, church or brothel. Pahrump, about an hour into my journey, has plenty of all three.

To be fair, there are more than 20 places of worship and fewer than five of ill repute, but people travel much further for the latter. Contrary to popular belief, prostitution is illegal in the city of Vegas (and the 49 US states outside Nevada), so law-abiding The cheapest brothel, apparently, is the Chicken Ranch, located a long way from Pahrump's residential area. Next door is the fancier Sheri's Ranch, where moonlighting adult-film actresses charge four figures.

Sheri's offers free tours, and women are welcome, the sign says. Tempting, if I was with a friend, perhaps. A slow-down drive-by is enough for most travellers. I can only muster the courage to go as far as the car park.

Three other establishments are found closer to Beatty and a couple more near Crystal and Reno. Along Highway 95, it's hard to miss the bright yellow billboard for Angel's Ladies.

Back in town, I book in to the Saddle West, one of many basic Nevada hotels connected to a casino. For road-trippers, this type of accommodation is a steal. Room rates and campervan sites are rock bottom, presumably to encourage gamblers to stay. Saddle West has a package including dinner at Pahrump Vallery Winery and a personalised bottle of wine.

Not knowing what to make of a vineyard in the desert, I end up blown away. Seven free tastings at the cellar door are followed by a feast of crab cakes, steak and a chocolate platter.

 Louise Goldsbury at Cobb Mansion, Virginia City.

The winery took a decade to become successful - its original vines were raided by wild horses. Eventually, the first harvest resulted in a 2005 zinfandel that won gold at the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition.

Pahrump didn't have electricity until the 1960s, but as it developed, a few famous characters moved in, including former madam Heidi Fleiss. It may look sleepy but the residents know how to have fun.

A local newspaper quotes the town manager Bill Kohbarger: "Pahrump is probably the only municipality in the country where you can drive a Corvette at 180 miles per hour, then learn how to shoot a gun, then play a round of golf at a famous golf course and then go to one of the casinos and gamble, all in one or two days." He doesn't mention the brothels.

The next morning I head two hours north before taking a detour to Rhyolite ghost town. Founded at the turn of the 20th century, near the aptly named Death Valley, this mining settlement rapidly grew. But after the richest ore ran out and the US was hit by the 1907 "financial panic", the mine shut down and the gold-seekers left.

What remains is a crumbly collection of half-collapsed buildings and a ghoulish outdoor art gallery. One installation is a spooky recreation of Jesus' Last Supper; another is a lone ghost riding a bicycle - the exhibit is known as the Goldwell Open Air Museum, created by a Belgian artist.

Returning to the highway, via Beatty, there are two options for a driver-reviver: Death Valley Nut & Candy Company or Bailey's Hot Springs, where private bath-houses are hired by the hour.

Two hours further is Tonopah, known as the Queen of the Silver Camps. Halfway between Vegas and Reno, the small town is a popular rest stop. Tonopah also declares itself home to the darkest skies in the US, making it awesome for stargazing. More than 7000 stars are visible on a moonless night.

On first impressions, I assume it will be an uneventful stopover, with the old mining park and Central Nevada Museum its main attractions. The Mitzpah Hotel piques my curiosity, perhaps because it combines the themes of Pahrump and Rhyolite. The historic hotel is notorious for being haunted by a local call girl, murdered by a jealous boyfriend in the 1920s. Old miners are also common apparitions in the basement. The large space is creepy and cobwebby; alas, no ghosts.

Later that night, however, white shapes float outside my window and I wake up with a chill down my spine. The entire valley is covered in snow. Roads are inaccessible. I have to dig out my car with a broom.

By 11am, the melt is sufficient to get going safely, and I set off towards Virginia City. Another former mining town, where Bonanza was filmed, this one has kept the buzz alive with authentic saloons and stagecoaches. By far the most fun location along my trip, "VC" is my pick if you only have time for an overnight stop.

The gold- and silver-mining booms turned this community into one of the world's richest and most important industrial cities of the 19th century. Its millionaire residents helped fund the American Civil War, and they went on to build empires such as San Francisco.

It was the kind of place where anything could happen.

A well-known former writer for the Reno Gazette, Ty Cobb, bought a three-storey house on a hilltop, which has since been converted into a B&B. Cobb Mansion, built in 1876, does its part to preserve the local history.

The present owners, Paul and Jeff, have painstakingly restored the home into a flawless Victorian-era delight.

When I pull up outside, the Southern Cross is billowing over the front door to welcome me. Paul and Jeff like to fly the national flag of each day's new guest.

They proudly show me the kitchen's wood-fired stove, Aga oven and the 19th-century porcelain sinks.

On South C Street, lined with authentic timber board sidewalks, I check out Delta Saloon and after a banquet at the Chinese restaurant, I have a few beers at the Red Dog and Ponderosa saloons.

Virginia City is known for its nightlife, especially the live music, which draws in revellers from far afield. One of the best regular gigs is at the Bucket of Blood, where the Comstock Cowboys perform most summer weekend afternoons.

The next morning, before departing for my final destination, I regret those last couple of drinks when I try the stagecoach (10 minutes for $US12 ($11.50)). The operators have kept the horse-drawn vehicle as it was in its heyday, with wooden wheels and no suspension, so it's a noisy, body-rattling ride.

Arriving in Reno, known as "the biggest little city in the world", I am distracted by the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I wonder if this magnificent setting is the reason such a casino-riddled district has never grown to challenge Vegas. How could you stay glued to a poker machine when so much beauty exists outside?

I check in to the luxury Atlantis Casino Resort Spa for some post-road-trip pampering.

Its labyrinth-like day-spa becomes my sanctuary for several hours as I move around various jacuzzis and plunge pools.

These facilities cost only $US45 to use for the day. The signature Pantai Luar treatment costs an extra hundred or so. But after days of driving, drinking, gambling, ghost towns and brothels, I reason that it's a much better bet on a massage table than a roulette table.

The writer travelled with assistance from Travel Nevada and United Airlines.

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