Mark Ellis takes his children on a trip to the past.
August 28, 2001, and I was determined to get my kids a last minute summer vacation. It had been a busy three months in the construction business, and only as the start of the school year loomed was I able to carve out a week off. But where to go? In the years when my hearth and home were intact, and through the difficult years with shared custody of my children, I had arranged trips to pretty much all of the national parks and natural wonders within a few days striking distance of Portland.
After my divorce became personal history, taking summer trips with the children was one way of keeping some vestige of familial life alive. But we’d been to Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. We’d rented our share of beach cottages and yurts along the west coast from Santa Barbara to Victoria, British Columbia.
As I searched online for new ideas for a quick getaway, I remembered a trip my family had taken in the unfathomably distant year of 1961. I was 10 years old at the time. After a long, hot drive we had pulled up and parked near a tourist-thronged Old West Main Street. People stood at the one-armed-bandit slots, pulling handles burnished by repeated gambles. From a bar came loud male voices and the harmonious din of a honky-tonk piano.
It was the same year John Huston’s film The Misfits forever branded desolate Nevada desert towns as emblematic of the death of the West. But I remembered Virginia City as being anything but desolate.
It was settled then; I-5 south, cross over at Mount Lassen, and the first night in Reno. Thereafter, for the better part of a week, reservations for a bed-and-breakfast ranch outside the city limits were secure. While other parental units flocked to back-to-school sales and wrangled immunization appointments, I was tuning up the Chevy Blazer.
It wasn’t necessary to tell the kids much. They were still young enough in 2001 to be thankful for any kind of vacation before the slog of school began. Finally, on the road, when they did ask, Virginia City’s story proved different in the telling, unlike the stories of the naturally created worlds we’d visited. Crater Lake provided evidence of a singular terrestrial event, Yosemite a glacial, inexorable unfolding. Virginia City promised a human story.
“Well, it’s an authentic western town,” I offered when they finally asked, then, to sweeten the pot, “where lots of gold and silver were discovered.” As soon as I said that, I realized that again nature was at the bottom of it, the minerals in the ground, the only reason the town existed. We got a cheap room in Reno, ate from a bottomless buffet table. Out on the veranda I relished the dry heat, so different from the Willamette Valley’s moist summer lushness.
On cable news: Gary Condit’s missing intern and shark attacks off the Florida Keys. In local news: mega-fires burning across the region. On the climb into Virginia City next morning the temperature hit 100 at 10 am.
We were the only guests at the dude ranch, with most tourists having high-tailed it home. The wind-wrinkled wife of the couple who owned the place showed us to our lodging. I’d booked the Bunk House, a leather-scented condo with clean beds and a view up the bone-dry valley which led to town. Her husband, she explained, was a Nevada State Trooper, on duty. Some desperado had killed a cop during a traffic stop outside Vegas.
A yellow haze hung over the rugged country, smoke tinged, and when the glowering sun fell, the full moon rose bloody red.
Over the next days we woke to sumptuous breakfasts served by the Misses, her hair tied back, the serving sizes unmanageable even to my 15-year-old son. Then we’d head to town. Nothing much had changed in 40 years. I ensconced the kids in a diner booth with root beer floats and bellied-up to a bar with a smattering of late season travelers and locals right out of the cast of Maverick. The ferocious glare of a long-taken cougar glared down from a pedestal on a wall hung with pioneer portraits and the guns which won the West. On one of our forays, I forked over a considerable sum for seats to a Hollywood-style dusty, deadly gunfight.
At dusk we’d return to the Bunk House, and before nightfall would hike up the valley, admonished by the solitary ranch hand to watch out for rattlers. We saw coyotes, squirrels, chipmunks, crusty toads, and some ominous buzzards, but it was the wild Mustang horses—Indian paints, charcoal blacks, brown-and-white pintos—which resonated most in the unforgiving landscape. They’d stopped aggressively hunting them after The Misfits. Herds of them, 20 or more at a time, passed along the surrounding bluffs each evening and morning on the way to water.
On one of our evening hikes down valley a crimson quarter moon rose, and we hurried back down the canyon floor, hearing rustles, and sighs behind every bush, as if the Mustangs were walking there, and would suddenly appear, their eyes probing out of the dark western past. After midnight, it would finally cool down enough to sleep.
By our last night, I was out of ideas. We got Chinese take-out to take back to the ranch. As we sat eating on the Bunk House deck our State Trooper host ambled by and stopped. “I think we’ve just about seen everything,” I told him. “Have you been to the cemetery?” he asked, in a lawman-friendly tone that spoke of unimaginably lonesome stretches and squawking police radios.
The low collection of hills undulated in the heat under a charnel sky. We parked and walked through the black wrought iron gate. I’d read in one of the tourist-season papers that there are more residents in Virginia City’s cemetery than there are living in the town.
On the way out, a certain marker caught my eye. It was down a row of aged and twisted graves, and the kids balked when I doubled back and down. On the wooden headstone, a perfect fireman’s hat had been carved. A simple name, G.W.S. Hanbridge, 1841-1884.
I knew from my visit as a child and from my reading in the Bunk House that catastrophic fires had plagued this historic mining town. She had very nearly burnt to the ground in the Great Fire of 1875. Hanbridge would have been 34. But something else carved into the marker suggested the grave’s occupant fought fires far from the desert hills of central Nevada.
“Native of New York” was carved in the old wood, and, under that, “Member of Knickerbocker Engine Company 6.”
I crouched down next to the grave, and pointed my camera upwards, but didn’t like the angle. I wanted to catch the headstone at just that moment when the jaundiced sun sunk below hills which had not changed in my lifetime. The kids were interested now, now that I was laying flat on my back. Click.
There comes a time on every vacation when everybody knows it’s time to head home. Once my son and daughter realized it was all over but the driving, it didn’t take them long to fall asleep. September 6, 2001. Despite evocations of the precious metals and wild horses in the hills around us, Virginia City had delivered its human story.
I descended under the burning sky, thinking about her past, that time before.