Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Genoa Cowboy Poetry 2011

Big beer delivery to Nevada's oldest saloon in Genoa
When we arrive at our Virginia City B&B our innkeepers hand us a brochure for the Genoa Cowboy Poetry Festival. What? Another Cowboy Festival? Sheesh! Wasn't one enough? Should we go? Is this serendipity? Or redundancy?

Browsing the Genoa Cowboy Poetry Festival schedule, I see they have a stellar lineup of musicians, including my personal fave Dave Stamey. They also have re-enactors: Don Thompson as Snowshoe Thompson, Dick Clark as Kit Carson, Mike Curcio as Wyatt Earp, etc. They offer fun activities like a Carson River Bird Walk, a saddle making seminar and lots on poetry and writing. Then I see that Mark Twain will be there on the very morning we are due to head back to the San Francisco Bay Area. If we go via the old stagecoach route we will pass through Genoa. That settles it! We're going.

On Friday 6 May we take our leave of our wonderful innkeepers and bid farewell to Virginia City. On the way out of town we take the alternate Truck Road down to Carson City. It's beautiful and deserted. We've had superb weather for our sojourn and timed it just right. (Within days it will be snowing again.)

Genoa is a beautiful little town snuggled at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. We arrive to see lots of cowboy types, Civil War soldiers and women in hoop skirts. And MARK TWAIN! "Stop the Jeep! I have to get out!" I run up to him and tell him I've come all the way from England to see him. And I have.  One of the organizers snaps a picture of us. Then I run to buy the three of us a day pass. $50! Just to hear Mark Twain?

Mary & her derringer
It is totally worth it. McAvoy Layne is a re-enactor who channels Mark Twain. His talk is perfect for us, all about his stagecoach trip west and Mono Lake and Virginia City and all the places we've been visiting. I'm especially impressed that Layne doesn't just quote Roughing It, but has read Twain's letters, too. I will definitely be following him and make a note to visit his Mark Twain Center in Incline Village, Lake Tahoe.

But our $50 family day pass has bought us more than McAvoy Layne as Mark Twain. It gets us two free carriage rides with Buddy from Happy Hoofers in Washoe Valley, who tells me he knows exactly where Steamboat Springs is. It gets us an audience with Wrangler Rich who has a ranch near Carson and promises he'll take us on horseback up into the mountains. We make notes to see Steamboat Springs with Buddy and go riding with Wrangler Rich on our next trip. Maybe the Nevada Gunfighters, too!

The family day pass gets us into the delightful little Genoa museum with it's mock-up of a jail and also of a recorder's office.

Santa Clarita didn't allow guns
Best of all our day pass gets us into the COWBOY FAST DRAW where we meet the fast draw champions of Nevada and get to practice firing real six shooters! At the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, the only person allowed a proper pistol was Joey Dillon. Folk resorted to using their holsters for sunblock!

But here in Nevada everybody is packing heat, from Mary with her derringer to the Nevada Gunmen. Anyway, the fast draw guys let us shoot at targets with wax filled Colt Peacemaker .45 caliber cartridges. Yee-haw! It is so much fun. My best time is just over a second. I can do even better but it only counts if you hit the target. The real experts aim for half a second! My mentor is "Chisum" but there are some other fast-drawers there including one who is the spitting image of John Wayne. Imagine getting snapped with "Mark Twain" & "John Wayne" in one morning.

I will definitely be back for the Genoa Cowboy Poetry Festival next year. Hopefully with the first Western Mystery, The Case of the Deadly Desperados.

some great living history re-enactors at Genoa

Nevada gunmen enjoy a beverage

Wrangler Rich and his quarterhorse

Buddy gave us rides in his "vis-a-vis" buggy

"Goes the Wrong Way" & "Hawkeye"

Main Street Genoa Cowboy Poetry Festival May 2011

Buddy drops us at the fab Cowboy Fast Draw

My mentor is "Chisum"
At first "Hawkeye" is unsure...

...but then she finds the fun in Cowboy Fast Draw. Yee-haw!
Nevada champ "Short Keg" Gentry shows "Goes" the ropes

I meet "John Wayne".  My joy is complete.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Ghost Fort Churchill

In 1860 a series of events at a place called Williams Station in Nevada sparked off a battle near Pyramid Lake between Paiute Indians and whites from the area in and around Virginia City. The first battle resulted in the deaths of 76 whites. (see the explanation right) Until Custer's defeat at Little Bighorn sixteen years later this was the largest casualty of whites at the hands of Native Americans. A second retaliatory battle resulted in the deaths of about 160 Paiutes. As a result of these troubles and also to protect the Pony Express, a fort was established on the Carson River along the Emigrant Trail. It was called Fort Churchill after Brigadier General Sylvester Churchill, the Inspector General of the US Army at that time.

During the years my books are set, the presence of soldiers at Fort Churchill was an important aspect of Virginia City life. The fort was abandoned in 1870, only ten years after it was established, and is now a ghost town. Or perhaps we should call it a "Ghost Fort". I wanted to see it because I like to stand in the places my books are set to get a feel for the terrain and atmosphere.

So on Thursday 5 May 2011, my sister "Hawkeye" and my husband "Goes the Wrong Way" and I set off from Virginia City just after 9.00am. Our silver Jeep takes us down Six Mile Canyon. Instead of turning north on highway 50 we carry straight on over, as our innkeepers have advised us, staying on Fort Churchill Road. At first it's paved but soon turns to gravelly dirt. As our innkeepers promised, the road is deserted and beautiful, following the course of the Carson River. Large cottonwoods line the banks and grouse run among the sage brush. We can see the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains away to the west. 

At one point we stop and get out to look around. The sun is warm, the breeze is soft, the world is silent. We see grouse and squirrels, ducks and geese. There aren't many bugs up in Virginia City but there are plenty down here by the river. I have to shake them out of my hair before I get back in our Jeep. 

Fort Churchill National Park is marked by a flagpole and a gem of a visitors' center. The adobe ruins of barracks, storehouses and other fort buildings blend perfectly into the landscape. We are surrounded by mountains on every side and I understand why they offer star gazing evenings here on special occasions. There would be virtually no light pollution. A small but clear exhibit in the museum shows the layout of the camp and even tells us something about the plants of the region. After the fort was decommissioned, a local resident called Buckland bought it for only $750. He used timber, staircases, etc to build Buckland's Station. He and his wife had five children, all of whom died in infancy or childhood. Their gravestones can still be seen at the cemetery at Fort Churchill. 

After a good look around I convince "Hawkeye" to drive us to Pyramid Lake. My iPhone promises the journey will take less than an hour. (My iPhone turns out to be right) The road north through Silver Springs takes us through barren brown hills with virtually no trees. It is hauntingly beautiful. My great, great, great grandparents came from Battle Mountain. I've never been there but the landscape looks similar from pictures I've seen. About 45 minutes later we pass into the Indian reservation and shortly after that crest a rise to see a turquoise lake with a brown pyramid shaped island in the center. This is Pyramid Lake, bigger than Tahoe, almost more barren than Mono. A thousand pelicans flock at its southern end. It reminds me of scenes from sci-fi films of alien planets. 

A strange building that looks like steps rises up from the sagebrush horizon. This is a new visitors' center for the lake, designed to look like the pyramid at the center. Unfortunately it's closed, but a sign outside gives us lots of information. We drive up to a village called Sutcliffe but "Hawkeye" and "Goes" are not as enchanted with the lake as I am, so soon we are on the road back to Reno. 

Pictures below of Fort Churchill etc. 

plan of Fort Churchill

view of the ruins with sign identifying what's what
Visitor's center at Fort Churchill
portrait of Gen. Sylvester Churchill
Captain Stewart's quarters. See the spittoon?
Pyramid Lake visitor center sign
Mountains on the road from Pyramid Lake to Reno
Back to Virginia City
[The Case of the Deadly Desperados is an exciting adventure mystery set in and around Virginia City in the year 1862. This Western Mystery for kids aged 9 - 90 is available in hardbackKindle and audio download. It will be published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in the USA in February.]

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Old Carson City

Caroline at the B St B&B
Carolyn Eichin of the B Street B&B is an extraordinary woman. Not only is she a superb cook, preparing the best breakfasts Richard and I have ever eaten, but she's an expert on Nevada history. She and her charming husband Chris told us about a lecture at the Nevada Textiles Archive in Carson City on the morning of Wednesday 3 May. After our exhausting adventure at Bodie it's nice to drive a couple of miles and hear about women's bonnets and men's top hats. I'm not allowed to post any pictures but I get some good ideas for hats to plonk on my characters' heads.

Nevada State Museum
After the lecture we're shown the archives and delight in other period pieces of clothing. Then it's off to the Nevada State Museum, a modern black glass building next to the Carson City Mint. It's a great exhibition with lots of the types of artefacts I love. Some sarsaparilla bottles, a stereoscopic viewer with an 1860s photo of Devil's Gate (on the road to Virginia City) and lots of buttons. I'm especially excited about the hundreds of buttons because in the second Western Mystery we discover that P.K. Pinkerton, my hero, is obsessed with collecting things. Like bugs, bullets and buttons. There is also a Smith & Wesson 7-shooter, P.K.'s gun. (see bottom of this blog for pix)

Orion Clemens house in Carson City
After the museum we take the walking tour of Old Carson City. Chris mentioned it as something worthwhile and is it ever! Especially on a beautiful spring day like today. They give us a map at the museum, but even if you didn't have the walking map you can follow the handy blue line painted onto the sidewalk. I especially wanted to see the house Orion Clemens lived in. He was Mark Twain's older brother, and secretary to Governor Nye in the early 1860s.

horsehead hitching post 
We also see the house from John Wayne's final film, The Shootist, along with houses belonging to characters who might appear in future Western Mysteries. After the challenge of high-altitude Bodie it is a joy to stroll through the leafy Victorian neighborhood of Old Carson City.

Back to Virginia City in time for tea at the B Street B&B. Carolyn gives me an 1974 dissertation on Police, Water and Fire Departments in early Virginia City so I can get to grips with the structure of the town in the early 1860s. There aren't many places in the world where you can eat homemade tropical fruit macaroons and peruse a scholarly article both provided by the same talented lady. The B Street B&B is simply superb.

P.K. is partial to sarsaparilla
Badges weren't known in Virginia City until 1874
P.K. is obsessed with collecting things... like buttons
Stereoscopic viewer with picture of Devil's Gate
A Smith & Wesson 7-shooter just like P.K.'s

Friday, May 06, 2011


Bodie, ghost town of the gold fever era
Ghost town experts will tell you that Bodie is one of the best if not THE best ghost town in the world. Located near Mono Lake on the California Nevada border, it was one of those old mining towns that sparked up like a flame, burnt brightly with gold fever, then flickered and died.

Bodie is off the beaten track. On Tuesday 3 May 2011, it was particularly off the beaten track. Melting snow and mud meant visitors had to walk the last mile and a half of the dirt road just to reach the town. Parts of the road were dry, parts muddy quagmires, parts covered with snow that threatened to slip you up or swallow your foot up to mid shin as it broke through the icy crust. The high altitude makes your heart pump and has you gasping for air. It took us nearly an hour to walk that mile and a half.

Once there we found the town only accessible in parts. Icy streams gushed on either side of the path and parts were marshy with water. Snow drifts huddled up against the northern exposures of crooked houses and buildings. The best footwear would have been Wellington boots as it was slippery, wet, treacherous. Of about a dozen other explorers, only a few wore adequate footwear. A German couple wore waxed hiking boots but I saw one girl in sandals and a young man had decided to go barefoot rather than ruin his shoes.

But it was worth it. This is what Virginia City would have looked like in about 1860, when the tents had given way to wood buildings but brick or stone edifices were still rare. Certain vistas reminded me of Grafton T. Brown's 1861 lithograph of Virginia City, where you can see outhouses and mine equipment behind frame houses on a steep hill. The boardwalk at Bodie was welcome and when we arrived in Virginia City later that day I realized how deadly her steep streets would have been with icy snow and mud on them.

The firehouse at Bodie was especially gratifying because it still had some hose carriages and jumpers inside, plus a row of hanging coal oil lamps. Here are a few more pictures of this amazing ghost town of the gold-fevered West.

Bodie's Firehouse on a snowy spring day
Coal oil lamps in Bodie's firehouse

Bodie's firehouse with Mine Buildings behind

On Bodie's boardwalk 3 May 2011
Richard & Jennifer enjoying a breather

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Eastern Sierra Adventure

Robber's Roost on the 395
The Cowboy Poetry Festival is over and it's Monday morning. Time for our road trip up the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains to Virginia City, where I want to do some more research on my Western Mysteries series of books for kids.

My sidekick is my husband Richard. His Indian name is "Goes the Wrong Way". My Indian name is "Stands in Confusion". So it's just as well that my sister Jennifer is with us. Her Indian name is "Hawkeye". If we were on a wagon train west, "Goes" and I would be the ones travelling in circles and just missing all the waterholes. Hawkeye would be our driver, scout and hunter. She's the one who sees all the little critters on the ground even though she's busy driving.

Which brings us to our transport. It's a cramped rental with a parsimonious front window. Front window size is important for me, because I have to be in the back seat. But Hawkeye rings the car rental agency in Valencia and asks if she can change it. They say yes. She and I drive there to find our proper transport waiting happily. An adventurous little silver Jeep. And nobody else has reserved it. We can have it if we want it. We do.

Every long journey must begin with farewell to family and a fortifying meal. So Hawkeye, Goes and I meet my Santa Clarita family for brunch at the Egg Plantation. What a great place! The English manager gives us our own private area out back and we have a real pioneer meal of three egg omellettes, pancakes and coffee and EVERYBODY IS HAPPY. Bittersweet farewells to those we have to leave behind then off to Adventure in our silver Jeep.

An hour or two later we are heading east on Highway 14. Our first Adventure is spotting Vasquez Rocks off to the north of the highway. Hawkeye is a relaxed sort of person and has never been there before, so we nip off the highway and find it. Vasquez Rocks are famous for being the location of many, many films, especially Star Trek films. Especially the episode Arena, where Kirk battles a Gorn. (left) When "Goes" and I went on the Santa Clarita Valley film tour, our guide was telling us about some funky cafes in the area and I thought he mentioned one called the "Gorn Cafe". When I found out I misheard I was so disappointed. "Gorn Cafe" denied!

After Acton, Highway 14 turns north and takes you past the towns of Palmdale and Acton. Edwards Airforce base is on your right and Reefer City a blur on the left. After Mojave you start seeing Joshua trees and now you are in the desert proper. At Indian Wells near Inyokern we join up with the 395, which will take us virtually the rest of the way.

Red Rock Canyon takes us all by surprise, even Hawkeye. There is nobody else there, just a pair of fishermen packing up their tackle. Like Vasquez Rocks, it's another favorite with Hollywood. Films like Jurassic Park, Westworld and The Mummy were all shot here. One of the fishermen tells us not to miss Lone Pine further up the road. It's the site of a movie museum. We look at Red Rock Canyon, then pile back in our silver Jeep.

Then one of those straight highways right out of the American Myth. An empty ribbon of road stretching to the horizon with desert, mountains, a blue sky... and a Free Ghost town? Whiskey Flats is owned by Roscoe and his bitch Precious. You have to stop and visit his Antique Shop. The sign outside says: Buy Something. Buy Anything! I love the way he labels everything with signs: Hanging Tree, Cowboy Tower, Jail, House, Wagon. He came to say hi even though he's closed on Mondays. An historic plaque tells us this used to be known as Mojave Station.

Lone Pine is a gem of a town on a flat ribbon of highway with the Sierra Nevadas rearing up on one side and farms and ranches on the other. It is another popular spot for movie makers and every September is host to the Lone Pine Film Festival. You will also find the Beverley & Jim Rogers Museum of Film History. Full of posters, props and other memorabilia of B, C and D Westerns and other films made here. It shouldn't have come as a surprise that part of Iron Man was filmed here. Those mountains aren't Afghanistan. They're the Eastern Sierra Nevadas.  Jagged, blue, snow-capped, breathtaking.

Iron Man was filmed near Lone Pine, not Afghanistan

After Lone Pine, the 395 chases the exciting West Walker River which jumps and froths and leaps, full of all that icy snowmelt. This is the place to put on your waist high rubber boots and go fishing for trout. We take a quick detour to Mammoth Lakes, which is a big disappointment. It's bristling with hotels and ski lodges... but nary a lake. Quickly back on the 395 to Lee Vining, the town on the shores of America's Dead Sea, Mono Lake. We arrive around 8.00 at dusk. It is cold and crisp up here with snow on the mountains and the scent of pine resin.

There are a handful of motels there but only one place to eat, Nicely's. This will be our stopping place before we press on to Virginia City.