Riding the Zephyr: #ThursdayDoors

Dirty back window of the Zephyr

From time to time I have to travel to Reno Nevada for family business, both pleasurable and otherwise. Reno is a four hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area that used to be a fairly pleasant.  You’d pass orchards, cow pastures and rice patties before hitting the always dramatic Sierra Nevadas.  However, over the years the orchards and cow pastures have been replaced with housing developments and industrial tracts leading to massive traffic headaches. So we opt for the train when possible.

The Zephyr departs from Oakland California and travels due east to Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha and finally ends its run in Chicago three days later. It is considered one of the most beautiful routes in the world. Below is Donner Lake as taken from the back of the train.

I’ve taken the Zephyr as far as Helper, a sooty outpost smack dab in the middle of Utah so named because it’s where “helper” engines are often added to give coal carrying trains the extra oomph they need to get through the Wasatch Mountains.

We generally catch the train in Martinez, the last point of departure in the Bay Area.  Martinez is an antique-shop town overlooking the Carquinez Strait.

From there the train crosses an old iron bridge and heads inland, passing low-lying swamps which provide homes for all sorts of species of birds and ducks.  It’s one of my favorite stretches, particularly in the Spring.

Another favorite stretch is just beyond Roseville as the train begins to climb up into the mountains.  The foothills are home to many ranches and on a Spring day, nothing beats the sight of horses romping through green pastures with their tails in the air.

In the mountains, the train passes through dozens of tunnels, many built to provide refuge during heavy snow storms.

For my husband, who is crazy about trains, we had an especially interesting trip through the mountains.  On Amtrak you’re assigned seating based on your destination.  Sometimes passengers for Reno are seated at the front of the train and sometimes they’re seated at the rear.  This trip we were seated in the very last car.

We’d just reached Colfax, a town in the high foothills, when the engineer ran past us on his way to the back door.  Then he opened the door and grabbed a hose.”Set to release?” he asked over the walkie talkie.  The next moment smoke erupted from the hose with a loud hissing sound that startled all the passengers.

It turns out there was a disabled freight train on the tracks ahead.  We would need to back down the track and switch over to the westbound track to get past the disabled train.  The engineer had been testing the brakes to prevent a runaway train.

Check out other exciting door adventures over at Norm’s Place.

 

The Beatles’ Slept Here (or not)

Last week I wrote about the legendary Mapes Hotel in downtown Reno Nevada. Well, if you cross the Truckee River and walk down a block you’ll run into another landmark hotel, the Riverside.

The Riverside. Today, low cost artist lofts and studios.

The Riverside. Today it contains low cost artist lofts and studios.

As you can see, it’s a good, solid structure, almost boring in design. However, at one time it was more notorious than the Mapes.  Not because it was a rocking, rioting fun place to stay but for a different, almost more scandalous, reason.

The current structure was built in 1927 reportedly on the spot where the city of Reno was founded in 1861.  During its heyday (1930 to approximately 1950) its select clientele stayed in two or three bedroom suites on the upper floors which were equipped with kitchenettes and had been designed specifically for them.  Generally they were women traveling alone or with children and servants in tow.  Many books and movies set during that time contain references to the Riverside including the “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand and the movie “The Women.”th-4

Another clue to the hotel’s notoriety (if you haven’t guessed yet), the old courthouse is virtually right next door. 

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Lobby of the Riverside from Historic Reno

After the women no longer needed to trek to Reno for its special services, the hotel went into a tailspin and by the time I knew of its existence it was a moldy though dignified and staid sort of place where one’s grandparents might stay.  Finally it closed in 1987.  But, unlike the Mapes, preservationists prevailed and the building now serves a community of artists and has an organic coffeeshop in the lobby. What an interesting life that old gal has had!

As to why the Riverside has a place in my heart, well, according to a popular urban myth the Beatles once stayed in one of those multi-room suites on the sixth floor. Only, I know it never happened. It was just the mind fart of a couple of silly girls that somehow got out of control, resulting in an assault on the sixth floor of the Riverside.  Unfortunately the word got out at school and for years after I was the butt of many jokes.

I left Reno shortly after high school and only returned for short visits with my family thus I rarely saw any of my old classmates. So when I found out at my 10 year reunion that the kids who’d made fun of me now firmly believed (and supposedly had evidence) that in October 1965 the Beatles hid out in the Riverside Hotel, I felt like I was on an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  Even when I told them it was hokum, they stuck by their stories. I, the instigator, was irrelevant.  The story had a life of its own and was now entrenched in the minds of people who wanted to believe. (I fictionalized the whole thing a few years back on Wattpad.)

So if you haven’t guessed the Riverside’s claim to fame, here’s one last clue: For many years the phrase “I’m going to Reno” meant only one thing and it generally wasn’t something any man wanted to hear.

#ThursdayDoors: Marilyn Slept Here

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A warehouse door with obvious fire damage which a graffiti artist decided to cover up appropriately with a fire scene.  Downtown Reno Nevada

Paris has the Eiffel Tower and New York City, the Statue of Liberty. But poor old Reno Nevada’s iconic landmark is a sign spanning the main drag that reads “Biggest Little City in The World.”

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If you can’t figure out what the heck that means, don’t worry.  No one can. The slogan is the result of a contest won by “one G.A. Burns of Sacramento” who was awarded $100 for his brilliance by the “City Fathers.” That was back in 1927 when Reno was being run by railroad men, merchants and ranchers. They had officially approved gambling and the town needed some glitz. Thus, a sign was born.

As an aside, the town’s original name was “River Crossing” but it was changed to Reno in honor of a Civil War general who was killed by friendly fire and whose last words were “Sam, I’m dead.”

There is no downtown Reno any more. Not really. Unlike Vegas, the casinos and resorts are spread out all around town.

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Downtown Reno (seen from across the Truckee River) sometime in the 1960s

Once there was a downtown Reno, a stretch along the Truckee River where the casinos intermingled with banks, city offices and department stores.  Today some of the older casinos remain (Harrahs and the El Dorado), cramped in between pawn shops and check-cashing places. It’s four blocks square that hold all the joy of an abortion clinic unless the Hells Angels and their buddies are holding their yearly jamboree. Then it feels a bit like Armageddon.

The casinos try to woo potential gamblers by creating magical and surreal environments where no one could possibly lose all their money but to me they feel like neon-lit fish tanks where I am the fish.

But it wasn’t always that way.  Once upon time there was The Mapes.

The Maples Hotel had an old-fashioned coffee shop in its lobby. Red velvet booths and a counter where you could watch soda jerks create the greatest chocolate malts and floats.  And the french fries, oh my! Trust me, the chocolate malt you buy with hard-earned baby-sitting money at age thirteen will forever be the best one on earth.

But the hotel had another claim to fame.  For a stretch in the fifties and sixties it was a prime spot for catching a glimpse of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Cliff and the Rat Pack (Sinatra et al).  Monroe stayed there with her husband Arthur Miller during the months of filming “The Misfits” which meant the hotel was always surrounded by news crews.

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I always thought the Mapes’ marquee (above) represented the town far better that a sign no one understands. I can remember hitches outside the casinos for cowboys who would ride into town on the weekends from one of the many nearby ranches.  Of course I’m not quite old enough to remember actual horses being attached to them.  But I do remember stepping in cow dung on my way across the field between my house and the school.

Unfortunately, the so-called “city fathers” had no sacred memories of chocolate malts and no desire to preserve the room wherein Marilyn Monroe slept. Despite the all-out efforts of preservationists, this was the Mapes’ fate:th-1

So famous was this building that it’s destruction was broadcast on the evening news here in San Francisco. I felt like I was watching an execution.

I have veered (as usual) wildly off Norm Frampton’s prompt of ThursdayDoors.

#ThursdayDoors: Reflections

 

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Typical casino door, Reno Nevada. Many are designed to look classic, old world and decadent. Emphasis on ‘decadent’

The following is my submission to Norm Frampton’s Thursday Doors blog challenge.

For the past three days I’ve been in Reno, Nevada wrapping up my mother’s affairs so that she can transition to her next phase of life.  I’ve been doing this basically since June.  I have to admit, I’m no saint.  Things get tense.  I’m a planner; she’s a “free spirit.” (This hasn’t always been the case. She was an accountant. But at her age, planning a busy day is confusing, tiring and so she refuses to participate and becomes irritated with me when I insist we stick with a plan.)

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Reflections from the pool where the lifeguards are statues of Greek gods.

I was raised in Reno so you’d think I’ve spent a lot of time in the casinos. But the truth is, unless employed by one, most Nevadans steer clear of the clubs except to see a show or eat out.  However, because this trip was bound to be arduous, we decided to splurge and stay at the Peppermill Resort which is famous for its pools, spa, and restaurants. The casino is gaudy, bizarre and everything in between but the pools were heavenly and the rooms quiet, roomy and luxurious.

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It’s impossible to return to your childhood home without many reflections, some warped yet strangely beautiful.