Sin City’s Little Sister

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Take that Las Vegas!

Soggy tails tucked, the Meanderers bid a wet farewell to California, an ignominious ending to our sunny days in the land of beaches, swaying palms and wind farms. You may have put a damper on us this time San Francisco, with your unending deluge, but we are hardy Canadians and veteran Vancouverites and we will be back.

The rain put the kibosh on our intended route along the scenic Oregon coast and, in search of better weather, we head northeast to Reno, Nevada, over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Donner Pass, which at a daunting 7,252 feet, with snow forecast, may not have been the best choice for a leisurely RV trip. The amazing vistas required a rosary or a stiff drink for full appreciation as we wound our way ever upwards with snow piling up beside the road.

The Dude, who was calm throughout the drive (I’m starting to suspect pharmaceuticals), happily discussed the Donner tragedy, in which a large extended family and friends travelling west by wagon train starved in the snowbound pass and met a gruesome end detailed in a couple of made-for-TV movies that probably turned more than one TV viewer into a vegetarian.

Reno has always been the ugly step-sister to Vegas’ Cinderella, a little down at the heels, but friendly. The drinks are faster, the slots are looser, the food is cheaper and the people are friendlier. Its citizens take so much pride in their second class status they made it the city slogan and emblazoned it on a massive sign over the street that passes for their strip—The Biggest Little City in the World.


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The Truckee River trail in Reno, not a slot machine in sight

Reno’s strip in daylight has the look of a 50-year-old trying to pass for 25 (please note, nothing in this article in any way alludes to the Dame, who maintains her youthful glow naturally). To help gamblers walk off the stress of losing, city fathers built a lovely pathway along the Truckee River which meanders through the heart of downtown out past tree-lined streets with well-kept bungalows, townhouses and riverside mansions, a world away from the clanging of slot machines.

We booked a week at Sparks Marina RV Park, worth all of its five stars on Trip Advisor. A marina in Reno? Okay, it’s a man-made lake that anyone with a speedboat could cover in about a minute. But it’s surrounded by parkland with walking paths, picnic areas and has a great waterfront dog park. This being Reno, a half-block away a casino advertises itself as friendly (!) while laying claim to the best cheap food in town. At the other end of the road, an outlet mall and a brew pub beckon. The Meanderers have found paradise.

Nevada has more going for it than the clang of casinos, and the sirens who await your pleasure at the various outlying ranches of ill repute. Yes, sinners, there’s a lot of history in them thar hills. And beautiful hills they are, with their snow-caps shining against the brilliant blue sky. The gold rush of the 1800s spawned a lot of boom and bust towns in the west. Remnants of once-thriving communities remain, home to a few hardy souls who stay for the quiet lifestyle and others, who like their entrepreneurial ancestors, hope to turn turds into tourism treasure by calling the abandoned buildings ghost towns.

Virginia City is famous for the Comstock Lode (the first silver rush) that drew treasure seekers from around the world. And later, for being the hometown of the Cartwrights–Ben, Adam, Little Joe and Hoss–who frequently rode in from the Ponderosa for a beer and a barroom dust-up. At the height of the mining boom, Virginia City boasted more than 15,000 residents, but is now home to about 850 people who live to recreate the frontier mining town experience for your perusing pleasure. Tourists stroll its wooden sidewalks shopping for t-shirts and trinkets in saloons, restaurants and former brothels that date back to its heyday. Surprisingly, the town boasted an opera house and a number of live theatres.

Mark Twain, then known as Samuel Clemens, spent time in town working at the paper. His tenure is said to have ended when a disgruntled reader took exception to his reporting and challenged him to a duel. Twain, who may have accepted the challenge while under the influence of alcohol, took the first train out of town in the morning, ending up in San Francisco. His time in the Sierra Nevada mountains coloured many of his subsequent writings.

Virginia City is seriously hungover the Monday we arrive, with many of its shops shuttered in the wake of the weekend’s raucous Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry. A tattered flyer advertising the “Ball Breaker Saloon Crawl” offers a hint of the festivities. This oyster fry (readers claiming to have big cajones, please note) involved a whole lot of people cooking up a whole lot of bull’s bollocks for their dining pleasure. The names of competing teams say it all: “Cajones Caliente”, “Virginia City Testicle Chili”, “Nut Up or Shut Up”

So sorry we missed it.

The present day tourist centre is housed in the former Crystal Bar, established in 1867. A gorgeous multi-coloured chandelier dangles dangerously in the centre of the room above the stained and dented long wooden bar where Twain and other swells bellied up. The original mirror, shipped over from France with the chandelier, reflects pictures of the town’s colourful past on the opposite wall. Squint your eyes and imagine yourself, cigar-in-hand, downing a shot of whiskey in preparation for a trip to the bordello upstairs. (Okay, that’s the Dude’s fantasy, not mine.)

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Booze is still for sale at the Tourist Bureau/former saloon

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The striking chandelier is original as is the bar

The Crystal Bar is manned by a friendly gentleman with mutton chops dressed in collarless shirt and vest. He tells us that at its high point the city boasted 115 bars and saloons. Only five remain, luring tourists with unappetizing names like “Bucket of Blood”, Red Dog Inn and even the Ponderosa, a nod to the TV show.

No ghost town is worth its bones without a graveyard and Virginia city has taken a casual approach to skeleton storage; some might even call it chaotic. The graves, in varying states of disrepair, extend over scrubby desert hills at the town’s edge, marked by vandalized weathered stones and buckling slabs surrounded by wrought iron fences.  Reading the faded inscriptions brings back to life the pioneers who defied hardship in pursuit of the earth’s shiny treasure. The entire township is riddled with tunnels, caverns and cairns where miners staked their claims and toiled with an optimism that was seldom rewarded.

After a thirsty night downing shots at the saloon and a quick spurt (sorry) up the stairs to the brothel, many a miner shamefully headed to church to atone. We‘d been tipped off to visit the Presbyterian Church, built entirely of wood in 1867, one of the few buildings to survive the great fire of 1865. Perhaps the gods of fire thought things will be hot enough for Presbyterians in the afterlife.

The church is looking very ‘ghost townish’ when we pull up, its large but rickety front doors locked to the world. But wait, as the Dame captures the loneliness vibe of Presbyterian life in a former boom-town with her 8,283rd photo of the trip, a small car pulls in. Could it be the church police with a warning to be out of town by sunset? Or maybe a strapped Presbyterian minister with a prepared sermon about invading the privacy of the religious right. Not so much, non-believer breath.

It turns out that Dave, who lives in Reno but keeps a small place in Virginia City, is here to check out the church’s antique organ, which he’ll be playing at an upcoming special service. No cranky Presbyterian, he invites us inside for a tour of the church and an impromptu pipe organ serenade. The gloomy, but beautiful wooden building comes to life as he works the pedals and keyboard, its arched ceiling filling with the sounds of the great beyond.

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Dave puts on a private recital for the Meanderers

Next up, a summing up.

I Left My Soggy Heart in San Francisco


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Even in the pouring rain the infamous bridge is pretty amazing and brings flashbacks to life in Vancouver, cue the Taiga jackets and rubber boots

The Bay Area, home to seven million people spread over hill and valley in 101 cities and nine counties, anchored by the metropolises of San Francisco and Oakland on opposing shores and San Jose on the southwest flank, has drawn adventurers and counter culture wanderers, alternative lifestyle seekers and brilliant intellectuals, beat writers and music titans, religious charlatans, psychics and self-help gurus, since the California gold rush of 1848 established it as the sea-going gateway to America’s West.

Song writers have rhapsodized about its allure ever since. In more recent times Tony Bennett built a career crooning about leaving his heart there while Scott McKenzie invited the world’s hippies to join the party in Haight Ashbury, but only if they “were sure to wear a flower in their hair.” Even the Animals got in on the act with Eric Burden’s biker inspired travelogue about San Francisco Nights–“Angels sing, leather wings / Jeans of blue, Harley Davidson’s too / On a warm San Franciscan night.”

Arriving from the Monterey Peninsula is not the stuff of songs, unless they’re about the ass-clenching fear of negotiating frequent lane changes on ribbons of concrete occupied by speeding vehicles of all sizes and descriptions, their drivers bent on getting to the off ramp at a place that will connect them to a safe landing in the shortest possible time. Most of them heavily armed.

We decided an RV park in Marin County would be our safe place, notwithstanding its less then idyllic location in the middle of a waterfront industrial area backed by a fetid, low tide mud flat that smelled strongly of sewage. Across the muck and water loomed the foreboding guard towers of San Quentin Penitentiary, where Johnny Cash famously recorded an album in front of its cheering inmates in 1969.

We didn’t choose it for the heavy industry or view of San Quentin, which were not mentioned on its website, but instead because it’s a 15 minute-walk from the Larkspur Ferry, which deposits commuters, suburban shoppers and tourists at the San Francisco Ferry Building on the downtown waterfront at regular intervals throughout the day.

Once landed after a mid-morning sailing, we made haste among the strollers, joggers, skateboarders and freaky people of the Embarcadero to Pier 33, where multitudes from the world’s four corners gather daily to do their tourist time on the Rock.

Alcatraz. The last stop. Place of no escape.

The Man in Black may have “walked the line’ in San Quentin but Alcatraz was “the end of the line” for many of America’s hard men. Al Capone played in the prison band and drooled in his cell until being released in a demented state to die of syphilis. Machine Gun Kelly saw the error of his ways within its walls, earning the derisive nickname ‘Pop Gun Kelly’ for his good behavior. The psychotic murderer Robert Stroud became American’s most famous jail birder.

What strikes temporary guests is its proximity to downtown San Francisco, the city’s skyline shining in the sunshine, aglow at night, so close but so unattainable, as if to further torment the prisoners with a visual taste of the world they’ve left behind. Sightseers are encouraged to wander the grounds, even to bring picnic lunches and make a day of it with the kids.

We began with our stint in the pen with a short film, outlining the history of the American Gangster era’s most famous crowbar hotel, which closed in 1963 after 29 years of hosting bad guys. In that time, 36 inmates tried to escape. Twenty-three were captured, six were shot to death and two drowned. The other five went missing and were presumed drowned.

The cell block audio tour leaves no doubt that the Rock was a desolate place occupied by men desperate to leave it behind. The hard men’s high-flying lives of crime were reduced to five feet by 9 feet, with a cold-water sink, a toilet and a cot. Bad behavior, which constituted any violation from a long list of rules, earned a spot in solitary, where the slightly larger cells did not make up for the constant darkness and isolation. Prisoners showered infrequently under steel shower heads in an open concrete room while guards watched to insure potential weapons weren’t concealed in body cavities. No bum raps, so to speak.

A couple of hours on The Rock is enough to convince budding young criminals on the tour that the thug life is no good life.  Even in a cold spring rain, the ferry ride back to San Francisco seems upbeat in contrast.

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Pier 23 is one of the many piers used for either industry or providing a thirsty traveller with a cold beverage on a gray San Francisco day

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The view from Alcatraz, so close and yet so far, except if you’re Clint Eastwood of course

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Also, don’t even think about not buying something from the gift shop on your way out

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The infamous rogue’s gallery of Alcatraz including Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and The Birdman Robert Stroud


Al Capone went mad in Alcatraz from syphilis, not quite as glamorous as dying in a blaze of machine gun fire like some of his counterparts in the biz


Cell Block B is open for tourist business


Please note, board games not included with incarceration package


The “Indian’s Welcome” is graffiti left after the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz by Native American Indians who lived on the rock from Nov. 20th 1969 to June 11th, 1971 willingly. Prisoner 2671 is shaking his head in disbelief

After a couple months in the sunshine and arid climes of Arizona and Southern California, the Wet Coast’s grey drizzle hits former Vancouverites like a rain-forest flashback. We decide to wait out the storm with a side trip to nearby Sausalito for breakfast on our second day. By afternoon, the now-constant downpour, a certifiable-el Niño-inspired-heaven-sent-non-stop-torrent, drowned our plans to continue up the Oregon Coast. A short but soggy doggie outing to the rank mud flat left Dude, Dame and Dog with a hankering to leave our hearts in San Francisco and take our water-logged bodies east, across the Sierra Nevada mountains, braving sleet slanting down in Donner Pass, with its history of cold death and cannibalism, in pursuit of sunshine in the Biggest Little City in the World.

Next up, Reno surprises.


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Donner Pass is now a ski area, cannibalism optional at the various eateries on the hill. Also at 7000 feet, the summit is a formidable trip and and down, the Dame was a tad white-knuckled