Kingston for a Day, or Three
November – December 2015
Tiny town serves as a perfect base for middle-of-Nevada roadtrip.
BY MEGG MUELLER & ERIC CACHINERO
There’s a funny conundrum travel writers often face. We’re tasked with discovering little-known gems and encouraging readers to feed their wanderlust and emulate our adventures. Except, we really don’t want any of you to go to Kingston.
OK, that’s not completely true, but the area is so special, so pristine, it elicits a protective vibe. Alas, it is our job to reveal the hidden splendor in this central Nevada region—Kingston is just one part, to be honest. Realizing it has been much too long since our last adventure, Eric and I head out for a slightly different roadtrip. This time, we swap our quest of major miles and myriad destinations for a slightly slower pace, a base of operations, and we savor a sliver of the Silver State.
Day 1 – The Road to Valhalla
The drive to Kingston—about 30 miles south of Austin—is much like the town itself; both wide open and intimate. The familiar Highway 50 route beckons, but we’re encouraged to take State Route 722 as a scenic alternative. The road connects to Hwy. 50 just past Middlegate, and we cruise toward Carroll Summit. A recent wildfire has occurred and we can detect the residue of the blaze in the air, but we still love to discover new roads.
As we bisect the Smith Creek Valley, we come upon a sight we seldom see: road construction. We laugh as we see signs warning us of delays—we haven’t seen a car in almost an hour—but suddenly, there is a flagger. We’re the first car she’s stopped today, and it’s almost 11 a.m. The day before, she stopped six cars total. That’s rural Nevada traffic, right there.
After a brief delay, we continue our drive and pop out just west of Austin, where we stop for our Highway 50 passport stamp and to chat with Dee Helming at the Austin Chamber of Commerce. We’ve barely begun our trip, but Dee’s stories of Austin events have us planning the next one. We ask about the drive through Kings- ton Canyon—the “back” way into Kingston—and she assures us it’s passable.
I had heard the word “treacherous” used about the canyon road; that, and the three switchbacks leading to the summit leave me and my infuriating fear of cliffs a little triggered. The person wielding that scary word also said to travel from north to south through the canyon, and that was the perfect advice. The road was sound, and the few drop-offs were on the driver’s side, which I gallantly let Eric take. Any tense moments are easily made up for by the breathtaking views. A couple of cows near the summit are more surprised at our approach than the mule deer we see later, and flocks of sheep along the canyon walls remind us of the Basque sheepherders who were here a hundred years before.
Campsites dot the creek—some official—and while we see almost no one, we know there are others enjoying the canyon’s isolated beauty. Houses start to appear, sporadically for sure but definitely the mark of a town. We have arrived in the fabled Kingston.
THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF ZEE
About 70 full-time residents live here; there’s no gas, one saloon, one store with odd hours, and one place to stay. We pull into the Miles End B&B parking lot, and are greeted by Zee—a sweet collie mix and resident dog—and John Miles, who defies such easy identification. After some small talk about our trip, I ask John how we check in for the night.
“You just did,” he says.
Life just got real simple, real quick. John and his wife, Ann, have owned Miles End since 2004, opening it as a B&B in 2009. It began life as Valhalla for Carl and Del Haas in the 1970s, but I’m comfortable saying it never reached that lofty description until Ann and John took over. To say we were gobsmacked as we tour the property is so inadequate. Not a detail is overlooked or skimped on. The rooms are thoughtfully appointed, ripe with rustic charm, and more comfortable than home. Miles End is all that, and so much more.
Eric and I decide to head to Zach’s Lucky Spur—the local watering hole. Owner Mike “Zach” Zacharius has visited us in our offices, and we want to return the favor, but on our way we spy the town’s fishing pond. Stocked with rainbow trout, it beckons us. A vending machine dispenses fish food for a quarter, so we stop and feed the town pets. The frenzy we witness as we toss in the pellets is more than we can stand and we bolt for our fishing rods.
Strictly catch-and-release, the pond is home to at least one beauty more than two-feet in length and Eric and I scramble to get our lines in the water. We are almost giddy with the action this small, simple pond provides and as ever, cannot believe our good fortune as we fish during our workday.
The day ends with a visit to Zach’s, and then John’s incredible chicken piccata for dinner. Our fellow guests—a mother and daughter driving cross-country—found Miles End by accident, and are blown away by their experience. As I head back to my room, I get lost in the gorgeous sky above me. The Milky Way is fully visible in this remote setting, and I don’t know how long I stare upward before going inside.
Megg’s Day 2 – COMING FULL CIRCLE
To say I slept well is akin to saying I sort of like my job. I found my version of heaven; my door was left open without fear, the gentle winds cooled my room and tinkled with the sounds of rustling leaves, and the bed was a cloud wrapped in epically soft sheets. I wake and immediately think “I’m so glad we’re staying here again tonight.”
We join John and the other guests for breakfast—Ann’s already at work at her newly opened medical clinic—and are greeted with blueberry pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage, and fresh fruit. Heaven exists outside my room, too.
I’d love to linger, but there are places to explore. Our plan is to basically loop the Toquima Range and end back up in Kingston that evening, so we head south through the Big Smoky Valley. Sadly, California wildfires make it seem more like Big Hazy Valley, and our first stop is Round Mountain to collect pictures for a coworker. As we drive up and down the town’s streets, we’re thinking maybe it got lost in that haze. Very few habitable structures exist here, despite the massive open-pit gold mine that butts up against the town. More than 750 people work at the mining operation, but you’d be hard-pressed to see where they live. Until you look across the highway, that is. The town of Hadley—where Round Mountain golf course sits—is clearly the domestic hub.
DON’T CALL THEM GHOST TOWNS
Manhattan is home to maybe 125 people and a ton of abandoned buildings that just scream photo op. We wander around the abandoned church that once lived in Belmont, and try to capture the breathtaking desertion represented by the Nye & Ormsby County Bank building that is bizarrely intact, complete with original vault. The color and pulse is what you’d expect of a place so sparsely populated, but the Manhattan Bar and Motel is still open for visitors who want to take in the sublime feel of very rural Nevada. Next trip. Belmont is next, and this is another bucket-list town for me. Rick and Donna Motis keep us up to date on the Belmont Courthouse preservation efforts, so we decide to surprise them. We stop at Dirty Dick’s Saloon—one of a handful of businesses in town—for directions. The Motis’ live nearby so we head over and surprise! But wait, they surprise us with an offer of a personal courthouse tour! Rick needs to finish some chores, so we beeline back to Dirty Dick’s where we chat up some hunters and wait for our tour.
The real surprise comes when Rick tells us we have a flat tire. Lucky for me, Eric makes short work of it, and we’re ready to tour the historic building. The only courthouse in the world registered to a department of motor vehicles (the commemorative license plate is proudly on display), the Belmont Courthouse is a spectacular example of Italianate architecture and the fortitude of its supporters. Built in 1876, the courthouse was once home to Nevada Governor and U.S. Senator Tasker Oddie, Tonopah’s Jim Butler, and much later and very briefly, Charles Manson and his followers. Luckily, the Friends of the Belmont Courthouse are protecting the wild and important history of the building. Rick’s tour covers the architecture, the rebuilding, the people who worked at the courthouse, and everything in between. He is the consummate tour guide, and what he and Donna do deserves a story of its own; stay tuned.
We could spend so much more time in Bel-mont, but John and Ann have a Dutch-oven lamb dinner and about 30 people awaiting our return, so we bid farewell and turn our car north in search of a natural wonder.
PUNCHBOWLS AND PICTOGRAPHS
Diana’s Punchbowl is a hot springs set deep in the center of Monitor Valley. When I say deep, it’s not a euphemism. Most people likely drive past the mound of travertine that juts up on the east side of secondary State Route 82, but it’s well worth the diversion. As we approach the top, the crater appears and we stop. I get out and cautiously walk to the edge and peer down about 30 feet to a pool of deep blue and green steaming water. The wind is blowing mercilessly, and as I lean in for a closer view, the wind changes directions and I keep finding myself jerking forward and back. So I let Eric take most the pictures and all of the video. The walls of the “punchbowl” are pretty much straight down, and the temperature of the water exceeds 140 degrees; this is not the place to lose your footing. A brave and ignorant soul has tagged the rock wall and only for a moment do I hope they got at least a little scalded. I don’t know who Diana is or why this spectacular sight is named after a serving dish, but I do know it’s something that should be treated with more respect so everyone can enjoy it.
I wait for Eric to stop getting so close to the edge of the hot springs, and we head for our final stop of the day: Toquima Cave. I’m beat, and ready for a shower before dinner. I’m thinking about the fish, Zee, and another night of stargazing, but I want to see the cave. The Native American pictographs that cover the walls are incredible, and the area around Pete’s Summit is so lush it makes sense they would have chosen the cave as a dwelling. It’s well worth the short hike, and delaying my shower for. Time for some Kingston hospitality.
Eric’s Day 2 – BLUEBERRY PANCAKES
I wake with chicken piccata on my mind. Not the kind that’s served on a tray table during a cheap flight, but the kind that is cooked with Nevada love. Love that we got a small dose of the day before, and are about to fall head-over-heels with. I take a couple extra minutes to lie in bed and think about the supper John created and was consequently inhaled the night before, while taking pleasure in the fluffiness of the pillows that rest my head. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the pillows wouldn’t be our fluffiest encounter of the day.
As I swing open the burly lumber door that greets guests of Miles End, Megg, John, and trusty canine, Zee, are preparing for the day by drinking coffee, whipping up breakfast, and sniffing around for scraps, respectively. We reunite with our guests from the previous evening and are seated for our next fluffy encounter of the day: John’s delectable blueberry pancakes and scrambled eggs, accompanied by sausage links, fresh fruit, and a glass of orange juice. As we eat, we chat about the usual topics: ghost towns, geological features, the ability of the state vehicle to survive the perilous routes we’re sometimes “forced” to take. And, before long, the tires meet highway, aimed for fresh adventures in fresh territory.
THE LITTLE APPLE
Arc Dome Wilderness is kind on the eyes as we drive south on State Route 376 with Carvers in our crosshairs. Haphazardly pull- ing off at various times to snap photos of Arc Dome, and after fueling up in Carvers, we arrive in Round Mountain—home to the impressively colossal Round Mountain Gold Mine. After tooling around a bit, we’re back on the road again, en route to Manhattan. I’ve been to Manhattan in New York City a time or two, and when compared to Manhattan, Nevada, I can unequivocally, indisputably, indubitably contend that they do have a similarity: their name.
Though certainly not a ghost town, Manhattan still lives and breathes the old West. As far as services, Manhattan provides the vitals: alcohol and a place to sleep. The Manhattan Bar & Motel is the town’s only functioning business, and has been a part of the town’s history since the early 1900s.
Megg and I decide to explore for a bit, beginning with one of the most impressive historic ruins in town: The Nye & Ormsby County Bank. According to a plaque outside, the bank was constructed in 1906 and is the “oldest and only stone commercial building to be erected in Manhattan.” As we explore, I am excited to see that the safe is still intact and slightly open. I peek behind the door expect- ing to find a whiskey keg half filled with golden nuggets, but to no avail. With pockets empty we depart Manhattan no richer than we arrived, save the memories of this historic town.
TESTIMONY OF THE TIRE
Megg and I act no different than two tourists seeing the Las Vegas Strip for the first time, oohing and ahhing as we drive into Bel- mont. We head straight to one of the town’s most extraordinary and renowned structures: The Belmont Courthouse. I’ve seen dozens if not hundreds of photos of this historic building, none of which give justice to the impression it leaves as it towers over me.
We rendezvous with Rick and Donna Motis—presidents of Friends of the Belmont Courthouse and downright wonderful people—who agree to give us a tour of the courthouse. Seeing as they have a couple of tasks to finish before we begin, Megg and I head over to the local watering hole: Dirty Dick’s.
Dirty Dick’s is the quintessential Nevada saloon. Equally intriguing as the relics that adorn the walls of this historical joint are the conversations being had by the bartender, thirsty hunters, and a living Nevada relic or two perched upon the barstools. Megg and I join in the conversation before a familiar voice can be heard outside.
“Errrrriiiicccc,” Rick says with a sliver of humor and concern as I spin around on my bar stool. I expect my summoning to be followed by confirmation he is ready for the tour. That is what I expect, but not what I receive.
“You’ve got a flat tire,” he says.
There are far, far worse places in Nevada to be caught with a flat tire than in a historic town surrounded by friendly people. Nonetheless, our first flat tire while on assignment for the magazine sets us behind schedule. After rolling around in the dirt for a couple minutes, the tire is swapped with the spare and we’re ready to go again. The tour of the courthouse is enlightening, to say the least. As a Nevada-history nerd, I listen attentively as Rick and Donna show us the ins and outs of the incredible structure.
Construction of the courthouse was completed in time for July 4, 1876—the centennial of the U.S. It served the community until 1905, when the Nye County seat was moved to Tonopah and the courthouse was emptied, becoming completely abandoned in the 1920s. Over the decades, the building fell victim to vandals and disrepair, before windows were boarded and doors locked in the 1970s.
Rick and Donna are the courthouse experts. Thanks to their leadership and the contributions from countless organizations and individuals, Friends of the Belmont Courthouse—the organization in charge of protecting the structure—has painstakingly replaced all the windows in the historic building, among many other preservation projects.
The inner walls of the courthouse bleed history, due in part to the graffiti that has collected on the walls dating back to the 1920s. Rick and Donna take us room to room, telling us of the men and women the walls used to see more than a century ago. Eventually, we happen upon a more recent tattoo of notoriety: a cryptic note scratched into the wall that reads “Charlie Manson + Family 1969.”
Even without a spare, we decide to press on, now a bit behind schedule. Our next destination, some 36 miles north of Bel-mont, is Diana’s Punchbowl. The punch- bowl looks like a miniature white volcano, located in the geothermic Monitor Valley. Visitors can peer down into the giant cauldron hot spring, but not much else. The water is scalding and the shear cliffs spell certain demise for anyone unlucky enough to fall in. Please be aware the punchbowl is on private property and can be very dangerous. As with many things in Nevada, use your head and you’ll be fine.
Next stop is Toquima Cave—a must see if you’re in the area. A half-mile walk from a primitive campground leads to the cave, which was used by American Indians, as evidenced by the myriad pictographs that cover its walls. Megg and I spend time examining the tan, red, and yellow symbols before hiking back to the campground and making our way back to Kingston for dinner. At this point, I’m so hungry I swear I can already smell dinner cooking.
MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB
There is no combination of words that can adequately articulate my love for Dutch-oven cooking, which is why when we arrive back in Kingston to a Dutch oven lamb cookout at Miles End, I need not one more reason to convince me I’m in heaven. As luck would have it, Ann and John are hosting a shindig and invited Megg and me to join. We waste no time loading our plates with lamb, scalloped potatoes, biscuits, salad, and other dishes before stuffing our faces and chatting with the Kingston locals in between bites. Campfires and conversations occupy the rest of our night before it’s time once again for me to rest my head on the fluffiest pillow I’ve ever encountered.
Day 3 – STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU
The next morning begins much like the last, substituting pancakes for some scrumptious biscuits and gravy. After breakfast, John shows Megg and I some Nevada hospitality and patches our spare tire for us, knowing we might need it for the day ahead. Soon, we say goodbye to John and Ann and head out in search of the geographic center of Nevada.
The geographic center is located about 14.5 miles south of High- way 50 via decent dirt roads. However, as we approach the area where we expect it to be, we see nothing more than an anomaly: a metal spike sticking out of the ground in the middle of the desert. The spike is supposed to be accompanied by a sign—provided by Zach of Zach’s Lucky Spur Saloon—marking the location, but is unfortunately missing. We do, however, find a geocache in the area, filled with marks of Nevadans and visitors from near and far. We make our mark and get back on the road.
ALL GOOD THINGS
Though we’re cruising back to Reno on the “Loneliest Road in America,” it sure doesn’t feel lonely. Bertha Raffetto got it right when she included the line “it’s the place of a thousand thrills” in Nevada’s state song. How can we be lonely when there are literally thousands of thrills right outside our windows?
Nevada road trips are special. Miles and miles of what some unfortunate people describe as “nothing” contain more beauty than imaginable. Seemingly infinite vistas of rolling sagebrush entwined with the low drone of tires on pavement can be a meditative practice. Towns dotted across the landscape give refuge during long drives, each with its own elements that create its character. Nevada gives us room to think, room to breathe, and room to find ourselves. Dirt roads take us further from human interaction and deeper into this majestic terrain, till occasionally the only things left is our connection with the sun, sky, clouds, and earth. It can make a person feel infinitesimal. It can also make a person feel omnipotent.
Nevada is a cauldron bubbling with thousands of thrills. All you have to do is pick a road and see where it takes you.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Miles End B&B
107 del Dr.
Austin, NV 89310