Nevada City / Virginia City, MT

August 5, 2008

Searching for a dose of the old gold rush days, I headed up through Yellowstone National Park and out the west gate, where I picked up Hwy 191 North towards Bozeman, MT. I turned west onto Hwy 287 and aimed my car towards Ennis, a well-known hot spot for fly-fishermen. Beyond Ennis, I continued another fourteen miles, arriving finally at my destination: Virginia City and Nevada City, MT, two richly preserved towns that stand in honor of the old mining days of the west. It was here, along the edge of Alder Gulch, that early prospectors mined nearly thirty million dollars worth of gold during the 1860’s.

I had planned an overnight trip and had several options for lodging, but had not made a reservation in advance. The Fairweather Inn, nestled into the main street of Virginia City, had nicely restored rooms and several vacancies. I made a mental note of approval and then headed just over a mile down the road to Nevada City to check out my other possibility, the Nevada City Hotel. There I found another batch of restored rooms, furnished in period Victorian pieces and ready for overnight guests.

Either of these lodging establishments would have made a fine choice, but I had one more option that intrigued me. The Nevada City Hotel is also home to a set of pioneer cabins, restored to nostalgic perfection and equipped with comfortable furnishings, old-fashioned quilts and modern plumbing. I couldn’t resist. I picked up a key to an authentic, sod-roofed cabin and settled in.

My cabin was one of several behind the hotel, off the main road. It was spacious, with two double beds, a dresser, desk and chair. I was disappointed to find the walls whitewashed, rather than showing the natural logs underneath. But it was immaculately clean, peacefully quiet and the quilts gave it a homey feel. No phone, cell phone coverage, or wireless access. It would be a night of quiet reading and writing.

Across the street from the hotel, I found a cluster of old boxcars, soaking up the last of the afternoon sun. I wandered between the cars, balancing on train tracks and peering in windows. I crept up the stairs of several trains to peek inside at tattered seats and rusty metalwork.

Just beyond the railyard, a mining museum offered additional rusty photographic subjects. It was a bonanza for a camera buff and I took enough shots to fill the evening with some trusty Photoshop companionship. First, however, was the prospect of finding something for dinner. I left the boxcars and mining equipment behind and looked up and down the empty street, contemplating my rumbling stomach.

It was a good thing I hadn’t planned on gourmet dining, not that I would have on this type of excursion. As I stepped out of the cabin, darkness was quickly falling and Nevada City greeted me as the ghost town it had been many years before. I drove into Virginia City, only to find I’d just missed the last hours at the two restaurants in town. Directed from one of them to the Bale of Hay Saloon, I found only frozen pizza and nachos on the menu. I took a suggestion from the bartender and drove over to Alder, where I was told I could find a decent dinner.

Nine miles down a dusty, bumpy road, I finally arrived at the Alder Steak House, one of very few buildings in town with lights on. It was still open, as the bartender had promised, but the scene was less than encouraging. I found my way through the deserted dining room to a small corner table, after calling out to the kitchen to let them know they had a customer.

Over a checkered, vinyl tablecloth, I glanced around and took note of the red carpeted walls and eclectic room decor, A full-sized American flag covered most of one wall, but left enough room for some assorted farm tools. Plastic flowers adorned the tables, Christmas lights surrounded the windows and a “Karaoke Every Night” sign hung near an empty stage. It was 9PM, but there were no drinkers at the bar. Apparently I was the entire clientele, at least for that portion of the evening.

Now, I’m the first to admit that a steak house is not a perfect dining choice for a vegetarian. But I thought surely I could find something. I called again to the kitchen to see if they had a menu. Bypassing steaks and seafood dishes, I decided on a plate of assorted fried veggies. No luck, not in stock that evening, so I settled on a grilled cheese sandwich, which soon landed on the table with a thud – white bread with a sliver of American cheese, slathered in grease. I took a bite or two to be polite and left the rest with enough money to cover the bill and tip. It was hardly a fine dining experience, but it was still an episode of life on the road, which in itself is rewarding, in an odd way.

I drove back to the cabin in the pitch dark. Nine miles is an interminable distance on a bumpy back road, alone, late at night, without a single light other than headlights and nothing but the sound of gravel under the car tires. Once I was settled in for the night, I pulled out my emergency stash of honey-roasted nuts and set up my travel coffee maker for the morning, finally drifting off to sleep with a little late night reading.

Morning arrived with crisp, cool air and ethereal, early light filtering through the windows. I clicked on the coffee maker, showered, slurped down a little French Roast and headed over to the Star Bakery, an easy walk from the cabin. Here I found enough ambiance and culinary delight to more than make up for my previous evening’s Twilight Zone dining episode.

The Star Bakery was bustling with activity, clearly a favorite with both locals and visitors, but I managed to find a table near the back of an enclosed patio. No red carpeted walls here, only flour, salt and sugar sacks intermixed with dried flower arrangements – a huge improvement. Placemats offered historical information about Hwy 287, the Vigilante Trail. The sole road through town, it was formerly a primitive dirt road which served as the route between Glacier National Park to the north and Yellowstone National Park to the south.

A delicious veggie omelette, home fries and sourdough toast erased my memories of the night before. I left the Star Bakery with the satisfying feeling that comes from good old home cooking. I checked out of my pioneer cabin and spent a little more time exploring the area.

Nevada City is now a Historical Museum, filled with authentic log buildings and historical exhibits varying from antique calliopes to old boxcars. There’s no need to search for the entrance to the museum; it encompasses the entire town, all within easy walking distance. And between Memorial Day and Labor Day, visitors can hop a restored 1910 Baldwin steam locomotive to travel between the two towns.

Virginia City is larger than Nevada City and offers visitors a full assortment of town fare. A National Historic Landmark since 1961, it was originally founded by gold rush fortune seekers in 1863. During its heyday, it served as the capitol of the Montana Territory, until dwindling gold resources resulted in nearby Helena acquiring that status. It followed the frequently seen rise and fall of mining towns before being rescued in the 1940’s by Charles and Sue Bovey, who saw the valuable heritage both towns could offer to future visitors. Through their restoration efforts, the area is now a lively center of activity, offering living history presentations, as well as all the usual western tourist experiences: gold panning, stage coach rides, ghost tours and old west theatre productions.

I was fortunate to slide in late enough in the season to avoid the crunch of out-of-town visitors. But there were still shops and restaurants open for browsing. Rank’s Mercantile offered western and Victorian clothing, just as it did when it first opened in 1964. Candy shops, ice creameries, and gift emporiums occupied other historical structures along the main street. Up the street from the Bale of Hay Saloon I found the Metropolitan Market, which offered old-fashioned atmosphere, a cozy, antique couch, and a mouth-watering assortment of baked goods. I was able to enjoy a vanilla latte there and pick up wireless Internet access, something I was not able to do back in Nevada City.

I couldn’t leave without taking a little jaunt up to Boot Hill, which looks out over the town. Here I found the graves of five lawless “road agents,” sent to their final resting places by the Montana Vigilantes. Surrounded by plain, wooden grave markers, I took a few minutes to admire the view of Virginia City and the rolling hills of the Alder Gulch area. Wind whipped through my hair and the distant sounds of town activity mixed with the soft rustling of nearby grasses. Alone on that hill, in the ghostly company of the road agents, I knew once again I had found a truly unique road experience.