Monday, October 31, 2011

Mammoth Lakes, Halloween, Etc.

Our sweet Erika made these adorable little jack-o-lantern cakes in her Easy Bake oven. She seriously did them all by herself, including coloring the frosting. I realized later the mouth on each was the initial of the family member she had made it for
…E, M, V. The split mouth had an M and a D, so Mommy and Daddy could share. :)

Jill's Journal: We had been in Carson City far longer than we intended, four weeks when we originally expected just one. We’d been there so long we knew the cashiers at the grocery store and no longer relied on our GPS to get around. We knew where to get the cheapest gas prices in town. We even had people to say goodbye to, including our new scooter-riding dog friends and Alicia, the girls’ favorite Tahoe friend (we rooted her on at a swim meet as a final farewell). A few days ago, I even got hugs from both my doctor and nurse, whom I finally got medical clearance from after four visits. They told me they’ll miss me and joked that we should consider keeping Carson City as our base so we could all spend more time together. I’m pretty fond of them too.

But it was nice to move on.

We headed south yesterday, crossing the California border once again. We’d hoped to stay in Lee Vining, a tiny little hamlet of about 200 near the eastern entrance to Yosemite. (We can’t stay in Yosemite because national parks don’t have cell towers. No cell towers, no internet connection. No internet connection, no work for Rob. No work for Rob, no traveling for us.) But the one Lee Vining campground that was still open wouldn’t accommodate us since they’re about to close for the season, so it was on to Plan B.

A little less than 30 miles farther down the road we found our home for the next week – Mammoth Lakes. We’re up high in the sky: 7,800 feet. The ski season hasn’t started yet, although we may get the first good snow later this week. Growing up in Southern California, I remember Mammoth as the place everyone came to ski. I am probably the only former kid in my hometown who hadn’t been to Mammoth. Even my husband, who grew up with some of the world’s best skiing in Tahoe, has been to Mammoth multiple times. It’s fun to finally make it here.

Our first order of business in Mammoth, other than school today, was to let the girls enjoy Halloween. Last year, we were in a good-sized town in New York and had no problem finding a nice neighborhood to adopt for trick-or-treating. We knew we’d be in a small resort town this year – whether Lee Vinning or Mammoth – so trick-or-treating was out. And that was fine; I know a lot of people absolutely love Halloween, but it’s not a huge deal for us. We happily skipped out on the expensive costumes and instead bought some face paint for the girls to have carte blanche. Their gaudily-painted faces resulted in an Indian princess (Erika), an Ancient Egyptian warrior princess (Madelyn), and a rainbow witch (Victoria). We did some Halloween crafts and had plenty of candy to boot. It was such a nice afternoon and evening. The best thing is that we spent it together with no distractions. And isn’t that how special days should be spent – with those you love?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Carson City Mint, aka Nevada State Museum

Jill's Journal: Congress opened a U.S. Mint in Carson City in 1870. The extreme output of the Comstock Lode made it impractical to regularly transport the resulting bullions to the nearest mint in San Francisco.

The Carson City Mint was closed by 1893, but processed over $49 million in coins during its 23 years of operation. After ceasing coining operations, the Mint was turned into an U.S. Assay office until closing in 1933. A few years later, the federal government sold the building to the state. The Nevada State Museum opened in the original Mint building in 1941.

The Mint has since been built onto and expanded, not in the original sandstone style but with a funky glass extension. Although there’s several different areas and exhibits, the highlight is definitely the original Mint.

Original keys to the treasury.

The window shutters at the Mint are solid steel plate. I suspect they didn’t suffer from too many successful break-ins.

A giant 1870s bullion scale, used by the U.S. Treasury to weigh large shipments of gold and silver (up to 10,000 ounces at a time).

A bullion wagon, used to move ingots around the building.

Coin Press No. 1, the lone press in Carson City’s Mint from 1870 to 1875. Weighing 12,000 pounds, it was capable of producing 1,500 coins per hour in 1879. After the Carson City Mint closed in 1893, it was sent to the Philadelphia Mint (it was originally built in Philadelphia as well). In 1945, it traveled west again to San Francisco. It came to the Carson City Mint for museum display in 1958 before heading to Denver in 1964. It finally came back to reside in Carson City permanently in 1967. This well-traveled piece of machinery is still in working order and operates for the public on the last Friday of every month.

A cancelled coin die. After a production run was completed, an X was stamped across the face of a die to render it unusable.

Many examples of the coins minted here are on display.

The silver set from the U.S.S. Nevada is also on display. It was made from 225 pounds of silver.

There’s also an extensive exhibit of original slot machines at the Nevada State Museum. Apparently, before gambling was outlawed in most states, it was common to find slot machines all over the country in bars. These two date from 1897 and 1901, respectively.

A taxidermy display focuses on animals native to the state. I’m only sharing this one – not a great picture through glass – because of one of my amazing daughters. On the morning we visited the Mint/Museum, we spotted a bird just like this out of our window during breakfast. One of the littler girls asked me what the “pretty black and white bird” was and I had no idea. Erika glanced up and said, “Oh, that must be a magpie. It has the right coloring and, look, it just turned up its tail.” She shared part of a poem, “Turn up thy tail and good luck fall me.” Shame on me, but I’m not up on birds, had no idea what she was talking about, and didn’t truly believe her. I about fell over when I saw this magpie later that same day – how in the world did she know what that bird was? I pointed it out to her. She just shrugged and said, “Yep, I told you that’s what it was.” Kids are something else.

In the same vein as the interesting Nevada facts from a few days ago, we learned “more cool Nevada stuff to know” at the Nevada State Museum. This is as good a spot as any to share them!

Here's one: Carson City was one of the major stops on the Pony Express. In the 18+ months the Pony Express was in operation in 1860-61, the 120 riders rode over 650,000 miles. During all that time, only one rider killed by Indians, only one schedule not completed, and only one mail run lost.

Here's another: more than 600 towns were born in Nevada’s history, many due to mining. Three-quarters of them were abandoned and are now ghost towns (if they still exist at all) or are just shallow remnants of their past.

And finally: gold and silver miners worked long, hard hours and voraciously imbibed during any other waking hours. Records from the Virginia & Truckee Railroad in 1879 show 55 tons of pianos, organs, stoves, sewing machines, and the like were shipped to Virginia City that year. Ten times that weight in beer was shipped, which doesn’t account for the output of several breweries in town! Not only that, but that same year, the railroad delivered 385 tons of whisky and 429 combined tons of wine, gin, rum etc. It’s safe to say miners enjoyed their drink.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Stormin’ Norman

Jill's Journal: One of the best things about traveling is the interesting people you meet. Just as our time here in Carson City is winding down, we’ve met Norman. Now, Norman isn’t actually a person, but a dog. However, he’s definitely not your average dog. In fact, the first day our neighbors arrived Rob said, “The new people next to us must belong to a carnival or something. Their dog rides a bike.”

Yes, he rides a bike. And a scooter. After we’d seen this oddity, we actually met the new neighbors and were delighted to learn they’re a full-timing, homeschooling family just like us. We’ve had such fun comparing notes on our not-totally-conventional lifestyles. We’ve loved many of the same places (like Maine). We’ve had rough RV-driving experiences in many of the same places (like New Jersey and Brooklyn). They gave us tips on places we have to see but haven’t yet (like Yellowstone) and vice versa (like Crater Lake). They’ve had a rough time homeschooling and can’t wait to go back to a regular school district; we’ve been lucky there and may never go back to regular school. They saved up their money and quit their jobs to do this trip; we couldn’t be on this journey if Rob didn’t work. It’s amazing how many hours can pass talking with people who are complete strangers and yet feel like old friends since we have so much in common.

Back to bike-riding Norman. It turns out he’s quite the celebrity for his bike/scooter-riding capabilities. He’s appeared on David Letterman, Good Morning America, Inside Edition, and apparently dozens of other t.v. shows this year alone. He’s headed to L.A. soon to learn how to ride a surfboard for a float in the Rose Parade. He’s the spokesdog for a major dog food company. He may even have a movie deal soon.

Yes, one of the best things about traveling is the interesting people – and animals – you meet.

Friday, October 28, 2011

National Automobile Museum/The Harrah Collection

Jill's Journal: From left to right, Elvis Presley’s 1973 Cadillac Eldorado Coupe, Frank Sinatra’s 1961 Ghia (one of 26 ever built), and President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Lincoln Continental.

Erika absolutely loved that this was Elvis’ car. She borrowed her Daddy’s phone to take pictures of every little detail of it.

1953 Chevrolet Corvette, just the 51st Corvette ever built. It was purchased new by John Wayne.

The 1949 Mercury driven by James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.”

The girls in the only car visitors are allowed to touch in the National Automobile Museum, a 1926 Ford Model T.

A little background of this tremendous place:
If the name Harrah sounds familiar to you, chances are you’ve been to Las Vegas, Reno, South Lake Tahoe, Atlantic City, Tunica, Biloxi, or Laughlin. All gambling towns. All home to a Harrah’s. Add in riverboat casinos and other major casinos under the Harrah’s umbrella like Caesars Palace, Bally’s, Horseshoe properties, and so many more and one starts to comprehend what a tremendous casino empire a man named Bill Harrah built.

However, Harrah had a passion besides casino hotels and women (he married seven times). He loved cars and collected them with a driven passion (and had a staff of dozens who bought and restored them for him). At the time of his death in 1978, he was recognized as having the largest, most historic, and most significant automobile collection in the world. He showcased them for Reno residents and visitors in what was apparently a feast for admirers akin to the Smithsonian. His amassment at “Harrah’s Automobile Collection” numbered about 1,400 vehicles, although fewer than one-third were on display.

Upon Harrah’s death, Holiday Corporation purchased his hotels. The automobile collection was included in the price. When Holiday Corp. announced their intention to sell the cars (valued then at over $100 million), tremendous public outcry ensued. The Nevada Governor stepped in and formed a 501(c)3 organization, to which Holiday Corporation donated 175 of the most significant cars in addition to Harrah’s automobile research library. At the time, it was the largest philanthropic corporate gift in the history of America. It formed the base of the today’s National Automobile Museum, which opened in downtown Reno in 1989 and (even without the full collection) is still considered one of the top car museums of the world.

“Few material things have been as important to America as the automobile. The manufacture of the automobile was the root of our industrial growth… We are all tied to the automobile by history, by business, by emotion. The automobile deserves to be preserved and remembered.”
--Bill Harrah, 1911-1978

Below is just a glimpse of our history of the last century or so through automobiles.

1911 Maxwell Runabout, the very first car Bill Harrah started his collection with in 1948. It was sold to him as a 1907 Maxwell. Learning it was actually a 1911 model inspired his extensive automobile research library and his painstaking attention to authentic restoration.

The 1907 Thomas Flyer, winner of the 1908 New York to Paris Automobile Race and one of the cars that gave Harrah the most pride to have in his collection. The New York to Paris race was contested over 169 grueling days and wasn’t New York to Paris via the Atlantic, but New York to Paris via the entire U.S., Alaska, Japan, Siberia, etc. In all, the race covered 22,000 miles, much of it in places where there were no roads at all. When Harrah found and purchased this car in 1964, he invited the driver and winner of the race, 91-year-old George Schuster, to Reno to authenticate the vehicle and witness the restoration. Schuster was able to point out cracks in the frame and the repairs he made during the race. The car was restored to the condition it was in at the finish of the truly amazing race.

1892 Philion, only one of its kind ever produced.

Can you spot the swastika on the 1913 K-R-I-T radiator badge? The white swastika with a blue border symbolized good luck and was in the Greek and American Indian style. The Nazi swastika was red with a white border.

1910 Rolls Royce, which one could have bought the year it was produced for an incredibly-expensive $7,500! For comparison, the average price for a nice home in the U.S. that year was around $2,000.

1912 Baker, once owned by Andy Griffith.

1912 Rambler. This particular car was loaned to the production of the 1997 movie “Titanic” and was used in the dock scenes early in the film.

1913 Stutz Bearcat.

1921 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost made out of full sheets of solid copper.

1921 Ford with a fascinating Lamsteed Kampkar body. The Kampkar predated the RV by offering sleeping room for four, a fold-out table, two-burner stove, eight gallon water supply, lockers for blankets/clothing/food, and complete cooking and eating utensils.

1923 Maxwell, owned by Jack Benny and used in his stage shows in the 1960s.

1928 Ford Model A, bought by silent movie star Douglas Fairbanks for his wife, silent movie star Mary Pickford.

1929 Ford “A” Mail Truck. The U.S. Postal Service still carried the majority of the nation’s mail in these as recently as 1952.

1936 Mercedes-Benz 500 K Special Roadster. Such a beautiful car.

1938 Phantom Corsair.

1942 Packard.

1947 DeSoto Surburban. This particular car was used by Clark Gable and Van Johnson on a visit to Reno.

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible Coupe.

1966 Ford Bronco, overall winner of the 1969 Baja 1000 (then known as the Mexican 1000).

1981 De Lorean, one of two 24-karat gold-plated De Loreans built. It was offered to American Express Gold Cardmembers in a December, 1979, catalogue for a purchase price of $85,000. Insurance rates for the car at that time amounted to $1,000 monthly. That’s nothing compared to the repair bill to fix a door ding -- $24,000!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Crazy Nevada Facts

Jill's Journal: I snapped this picture from the Geiger Grade, a twisty mountain road originally built to haul silver from the Comstock Lode. The drive gives a great view of Reno’s southern side and if you look closely to the far right of the middle of the photo, you can spot downtown and the majority of the high-rise casinos.

Nevada is home to several crazy and/or fascinating facts which are just begging to be shared here:

*More than 84 percent of the land in Nevada is owned by the federal government.

*Doesn’t Nevada conjure up images of desert, desert, and more desert? But Nevada means “snow-capped” in Spanish. Five mountain peaks in Nevada are higher than 12,000 feet and the entire state has an average elevation of 5,000 feet.

* Reno with its population of over 220,000 is actually located farther west than Los Angeles. Who knew?

*The state motto is “Battle Born” because Nevada was admitted to the Union in 1864 during the Civil War.

*Nevada is known for its silver, but it also produces a high quantity of gold and about 25 other precious metals and minerals. Only the countries of South Africa, Australia, and China rank above the state of Nevada in gold production. There are approximately 140 active mining and drilling operations in Nevada today.

*In 1859 a rancher named W.P. Morrison visited the placer gold mines of the area and, out of curiosity, carted away some of the black rock which the miners were tossing away as worthless. Not so. An assay showed it contained $4,791 in silver per ton (plus an additional $1,595 in gold per ton).

*In the early 1870s, the amount of silver coming out of Nevada bordered on the ridiculous, so much so that France and Germany withdrew silver from circulation. The United States was on the verge of doing the same. Senator Casserly of California testified to Congress, “…We have more silver than we want. Nevada appears to be getting ready to deluge the world in silver.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Virginia City, Nevada

Jill's Journal: After enjoying the hilarious Outhouse Races in Virginia City earlier this month, I very much wanted to spend a little more time exploring this historic town in the heart of the Comstock Lode. And historic it is – it’s actually the nation’s largest historic district. The entire town was designated a National Historic Landmark 50 years ago. There’s a disproportionate number of little museums all over the town, but we didn’t go in any and instead just enjoyed the ambiance of such a quaint place.

When silver was discovered in 1859 in the surrounding area known as the Comstock Lode, Virginia City was born almost overnight. The mining boomtown flourished in the sudden wealth of the area (which, by the way, yielded about $400 million over the next 30 years). Virginia City was actually credited with being the richest city in America during its heyday. There were about 30,000 residents then; today there are fewer than 1,000.

Visiting Virginia City is a whole lot like stepping back in time. There may be cars on the streets these days instead of horses and mules, but the sidewalks are still wooden and a tremendous majority of the buildings are from the town’s boom 150 years ago. Establishments still have names like “Bucket of Blood Saloon” and one can still spot town landmarks like a “Suicide Table.” (Apparently more than one gambler lost his fortune at the table and gave his life to the grief of the situation).

Why was it named Virginia City? Legend has it one of the men involved in discovering the Comstock Lode, James Fennimore, was nicknamed “Old Virginy” after his home state of Virginia. It wasn’t meant to be a compliment, however, as it was widely known Fennimore had fled Virginia after committing murder.

Mark Twain was born in this building. Not literally, but he came to town as Samuel Clemens and left as Mark Twain. He first began using the pen name while here on the editorial staff at the Territorial Enterprise (the town newspaper).

The lovely St. Mary’s in the Mountains, billed as Nevada’s first Catholic church.

This is the Fourth Ward School, built in 1876 to house over 1,000 students.

The Silver Terrace Cemetery is a fascinating glimpse into Virginia City’s past. Once 11 distinct cemeteries, the group of burial grounds was merged in 1867. Since Virginia City was a great melting pot for fortune-seekers from all over the world, most of those buried had their hometown along with their name and date of death on their tombstones.

On the stones which can still be deciphered, most fascinating are the epitaphs. A great example:

In perfect health I left my home,
Not thinking that my race was run.
But as flowers grow, so they decay
And sudden death snatched me away.

And another:

Stop and read as you pass by,
As you are now, Once was I.
As I am now, you will be,
Prepare for death and follow me.

Who comes up with this stuff?? What fun.