Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Turkeys are Jerks and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
To be a member of the Historic Hotels of America, you have to meet a few criteria. You have to be at least 50 years old. You must “have been designated by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior as a National Historic Landmark or listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places; and you must be recognized as having historic significance.”
You don’t necessarily have to be haunted, but it doesn’t hurt, and will probably help.
Browsing the member catalog of this organization is like flipping through the Cliffs Notes of America’s past. I was doing just that when I came across a hotel in the middle of Nevada – which is to say, hours from just about anywhere – that possessed the first electric elevator west of the Mississippi, and it’s still in use.
So that’s how we came to visit Tonopah (TOE-nuh-pah), Nevada.
The drive from Bishop was a short 117 miles through a desolate land of black hills that took us just shy of two hours. This was nothin’. After the number of miles we’d registered it was like running an errand to the grocery store, which we found out later is exactly what people in Tonopah will do since there’s not much available in town.
If chains are a barometer of how populated a place is, then telling you there’s no Starbucks or McDonald’s should give you an indication. (There was, however, a Burger King.)
We entered the town and passed the Clown Motel and thought WHAT did we just see? I’ll take the ghost of a murdered prostitute over a creepy clown any day, so we continued to the Mizpah Hotel.
Stepping into this Grand Old Lady was like a jaunt back in time to the heyday of a mining town bathing in silver. I felt distinctly underdressed in my comfortable road trip attire as we entered the lush lobby, complete with individual cubby holes for each room behind the front desk and high-backed velvet couches.
The only anachronism was the string of slot machines, but those are so ubiquitous in Nevada as to be practically invisible. For those looking for a more involved gambling experience, there’s a casino next door.
The historic elevator took us to the 5th floor, the very top of a building that had been the tallest in the state until 1929. Our room was a couple of doors down from the spot where the Lady In Red, the aforementioned prostitute, was murdered by a jealous ex-lover, and I’m happy to say we didn’t get a chance to meet her.
Instead, we put on something more appropriate for an evening in the Mizpah (not red) and went back downstairs for a drink at the splendid lobby bar.
That lobby, and the hotel itself, owes its resurrection to a couple from Sonoma; without them, the Mizpah Hotel wouldn’t be what it is today. It had fallen on hard times and closed in 1999, but in 2011 Fred and Nancy Cline bought the hotel and renovated it in record time, reopening in August of the same year.
If you’re a wine aficionado you might recognize the Cline name. I didn’t…until we sat at the bar and I ordered a glass of zinfandel, took a sip, and promptly smacked myself on the forehead. “Oh, those Clines!” I exclaimed. (Jim did not look at me like I’m crazy. He expects these outbursts.)
Cline ownership of the Mizpah is definitely a benefit for their guests. That glass was just $6.50, so I ordered another.
We skipped prime rib night at the hotel and opted to walk the couple of blocks to Tonopah Brewing Company. This town of 2,500 people had a brewery that would be packed seven nights a week in Chicago or San Diego; the beer is that good. Pile on some of their house-smoked barbecue and, oh man.
We finished a plate of their pulled pork nachos, which we were told was a unique feat, but it was hard to stop. Turns out part of the reason it was so good is that they use staves from red wine barrels in the smoker, because guess who owns the brewery? Yep – the Clines.
The couple also owns the Wieland Brewery building, the first permanent structure in Tonopah. Built in 1901, it’s on the National Registry of Historic Places, and they’ve converted it into a youth hostel.
It might seem unusual that successful vintners would invest so much in this small town, but Nancy Cline’s great uncle owned the first saloon, a tarpaper shack the miners frequented, and her grandmother was nearby Goldfield’s postmaster.
With her husband Fred, whose grandfather invented the Jacuzzi, she’s used their considerable resources to transform Tonopah from what has been a way station between Reno and Las Vegas into a destination in its own right.
We slept through the night with no ghostly visitors. The next morning, we packed up Mae, and since Tonopah Historic Mining Park was right outside the hotel we walked up the hill to take a look. The mines in those hills were the town’s reason for being, and the story started with a man named Jim Butler.
He was camping by a spring when his burro ventured off. Tired of the chase, Butler picked up a rock to throw at it, only to find his missile was filled with silver ore. Eureka!
After he returned home, his wife Belle told him to turn right back around and lay claim to that find. The couple worked out leasing arrangements with fellow prospectors, and when all was said and done, Tonopah mines netted, in today’s pricing, $1.2 billion in ore.
Hope they gave that burro the rest of his life off, ‘cause he certainly earned it.
Because of time constraints (again, always, the time constraints) we skipped touring the museum and left town. Tip: do not go faster than 25mph in any small town in Nevada. That’s a gamble you don’t want to take. Trust me on this.
On the way out of Tonopah, we saw a warning sign: “Next Gas Station – 94 miles.” That in no uncertain terms meant it was going to be a long drive, but we had one more stop to make before shooting straight down US-95.
A local had told us the night before about an art installation of buried cars about half an hour south in Goldfield. More kitschy road art? Well, of course we’d check them out.
After a missed turn and a questionable dirt road, we came to The International Car Forest of the Last Church. This art installation looks at Cadillac Ranch and scoffs. “You’ve got ten measly cars,” it laughs. “We have way more than you do, and we’ve got a BUS.”
(These are the thoughts that go through my head when I’ve been traveling for 23 days. Suddenly I’m the personification of inanimate objects, and they are invariably snotty-pants.)
Anyway, this particular installation of car art is purportedly the largest in the country. At first it was just a car stuck in the ground by Goldfield resident Mark Rippie. Then an artist from Reno saw it and was so intrigued he packed up and moved.
Chad Sorg was his name, and before he and Rippie had a falling out (something to do with a party and a burned bus) they’d installed over forty vehicles on about half a mile of empty, dusty desert. Unlike Cadillac Ranch, which was open to anyone with a finger and a can of spray paint, the art on these cars was applied by artists.
Now, however, since Rippie was jailed on weapons charges, graffiti is prevalent at The International Car Forest of the Last Church.
What about that name, you ask? I’m going to guess there was probably some sort of illegal substance involved, but it’s supposedly a combination of the idea that people freely roam forests, which is what they wanted to happen with their project, and Rippie’s opposition to organized religion.
Our sense of the bizarre intact, we took our unburied, original-paint-only vehicle and got back on the road. By the end of the day we’d be in Utah, and we had a very long way to go.