The Winnemucca Hotel

About once every decade we find ourselves in Winnemucca, Nevada, a small cowboy-and-casino town in northern Nevada. Not much happens in Winnemucca -- the local tourist information office recommends visiting Unionville (a ghost town about 30 miles away) or Paradise (another ghost town, about thirty miles in the opposite direction). Or visitors can drive around, and maybe into, the immense sand dunes on the north edge of town. But Winnemucca itself has its own charm, at least for folks who will be visiting for just a couple of days. The waitresses at breakfast are friendly and spritely and the food is very good and inexpensive. We pulled in at the beginning of a mid-April cold snap which deposited a frosting of snow and let the winds howl. It was just too cold and windy to walk around much outside but we did make the Historic Auto-tour which covers about six blocks, in which a half-dozen homes dating from about 1901 were identified with plaques.

One of the historic buildings is the Winnemucca Hotel, which dates from 1863 and is supposedly the oldest Nevada hotel still in business -- well, it is still in business as a restaurant-bar if not as a hotel, these days. Winnemucca, like Elko, Nevada, is sheepherder country, and traditionally shepherds are Basques, who follow their flocks with their little trailers and their dogs. On Prospectors' excavations this trip we saw no shepherds, and no sheep, but we did sample Basque lunch at the hotel, which is something else we've done about once a decade for thirty or forty years. There are other Basque restaurants in town -- swankier looking on the outside, but open just for dinners, and since we've given up dinners for lunches we decided to return to the place where we first sampled Basque food in the 1970s.

It was Saturday and the Hotel's dining room was open from noon till 1 p.m., so we were punctual. The dining room contains perhaps a dozen tables, each seating 10. A silent young man proceeded to serve us. First he brought a plate of freshly baked sliced bread and a mound of butter, an open bottle of chilled red wine and a pitcher of ice water, and a large bowl of delicious meat and barley soup. Next came green salad with a light vinaigrette dressing. These were followed by plates of spaghetti, a rice and onion mixture, garlicky green beans, and a platter of beef stew. Just a little something to hold body and soul together!

Right up through the salad, we were the only diners, but then we were joined by two young men, who are working on road construction nearby and exploring on their day off. They had been told not to miss their chance for a Basque lunch and seemed to like it, although they were startled to find food simply appearing before them. They were made nervous by the lack of menus or any Nevada highway and gold mine information about what it might cost. We agreed that this is one of the last outposts of Basque customs -- we suspect our server speaks mostly the Basque language. We enjoyed educating our table mates about Basque life and traditions, but as modern Americans, they had to buy a couple of bottles of beer from the bar instead of the traditional table wine.

Moving west from Winnemucca we opted for a dirt road past some ghost towns which were marked on the map but hard to spot, along Winnemucca Lake (mostly dry) and Pyramid Lake. The desert was cold, typical Nevada "Basin-and-Range" country, with patches of snow on the higher peaks.

One of the ghost towns, Sulphur, was reinvigorated. Or rather, there was a gigantic gold mine located in the hills above where Sulphur used to be. No evidence that anybody lived there, and this was a Sunday, so we couldn't see any evidence of work, either, but the mine, using the modern cyanide leaching technique, had moved a lot of low grade ore and was remaking the mountains as it extracted enough gold to be profitable. As far as Sulphur itself, we noticed a few stone foundations, a few fallen timbers, but no erect buildings at all. The desert quickly claims back its own. (We understood this well since we lived 18 years near the ghost town of Brown, California, which once had several hotels and businesses, and all that was left when we moved in was the shell of the stone schoolhouse, since turned into some farmer's utility shed.)

Evidently there is still some prospecting activity going on, because coming into Sulphur we noted a large number of small piles of dirt, marking places where prospectors had "worked" the land to keep their claims active. In fact the only other vehicles we saw were two pickup trucks with people and metal detectors. We saw numerous stakes and pipes in the ground to mark the claims. This Pyramid Lake particular activity hasn't changed much in 150 years -- stake a claim, dig a little, assay the results, and then move to another place and dig some more. Very few of these claims ever turn into a productive mine, and when they do, like the plant near Sulphur, they require enormous amounts of start-up capital, something not available to the ever-hopeful prospectors. They must interest some capitalist in their claim, and the capitalists in turn are (rightly) dubious of prospectors' claims (pun intended.) You can make the point that prospecting is healthy exercise -- keeps you out of doors, and away from the towns!

The Truckee River pours east out of the snowy Sierra Nevada to water western Nevada near Reno, and then makes a 90-degree turn North where it ends in Pyramid Lake. Next to Lake Tahoe (which is shared by two states), Pyramid Lake is Nevada's largest lake, nearly 30 miles long. It's on the Indian Reservation, and the Paiutes make a few dollars catering to Reno fishermen looking for cutthroat trout, which, due to a restocking plan, now reach 5 to 10 pounds. Before the 1940s, old trout weighing up to 40 pounds were caught, but the lake was fished out before restocking began.