Places you couldn't make up

Last updated 09:40 14/12/2012

London. Paris. Tokyo... Hawthorne, Nevada.

We entered into Hawthorne, population 3000 or so, about 2pm today, hungry. We saw the McDonald's first, but decided to take a spin through town to explore our options.

st1"If there's 100 churches, there's got to be more than one fast-food place," LP said after viewing some sort of street signage outlining the town's religious offerings. We didn't find much else in Hawthorne. The Holiday Lodge in town still had signs out front boasting about the colour TVs and telephones in its rooms.

We ate cheeseburgers in silence in the McDonald's car park, contentedly, looking up at an epic, jagged mountain range, its outline against the sky alluding to the great power of time, earth and the pressure of the elements.

McDonald's was positively humming; so was Safeway. It is funny that in 2012 just two retail outlets can nearly cater to the needs of an entire town.

The Hawthorne Army Depot surrounds the town of Hawthorne and consists of 2427 separate bunkers. It marked our arrival and we passed the rest of it on our way out of town.

It was a weird scene, but it was kind of memorable.

I'm not telling you to drop all of your plans to tour the world's seven wonders and head for Hawthorne. I don't think I'll be back, or realistically that you'll go yourself.

There's just something to be said for small towns.

st2There's so much America between Los Angeles and New York and when you get out there, really out there like we are right now in rural Nevada, when the towns get fewer and farther between and the cars get fewer and fewer, there are weird surprises and beauty in store for you. It becomes absorbing in a way you don't see coming.

We've heard more than one comparison in our travels between rural Nevada and the surface of the Moon.

I've been thinking these past few days about an epic three-month road trip I took in 2007, routeing between Montana through to Seattle and then down to San Diego, with LP and my friend Jon.

It was a superb, carefree time. But as Jon and I discussed occasionally on our travels, the mythologised idea of the great American road trip - strange little towns, odd shops, varied and beautiful country - is crushed under the respective American freeway systems. Today, most road trips in America will get you from major point A to major point B with as little of the in-between as possible.

These past few days have been a little like how I expected an American road trip might be, before I took one. 

Small towns are less mad. They're a little more lo-fi and low-tech. They are easier to digest whole and generally more unfiltered and gritty than a major centre.

st3We spent most of yesterday in Virginia City, a town of just 855 people. The mining boom there effectively created the state of Nevada in 1859 and many of the buildings date back as far as 1875, when most of the town was destroyed in a fire.

Virginia City is old, but not in a keep-the-building-exterior-but-gut-the-interior kind of way. It's a frontier town that feels a bit as though it might have when the actual frontiers were there.

Mark Twain lived in Virginia City for a year in 1863. He wrote for the Territorial-Enterprise newspaper and actually adopted the moniker Mark Twain while he was a resident. (Twain's real name was Samuel Clemens.) There's a Mark Twain museum in the old press office that stands in memorial to his journalistic service, which is really a single room with a collection of old printing machinery, the desk he wrote at, a few photos of Mark Twain (and a cool figurine) and the actual toilet and bath from the old newspaper offices, preserved because Twain must have used them at some point.

I've stood in front of a toilet that Mark Twain did his business in.

It was a charming spot, somehow.

st4We walked the entirety of Virginia City, visited an old mining museum, walked around a haunted building, had a beer in a saloon called the Bucket of Blood and saw a gaming table in another saloon whose first three owners had committed suicide.

We frequented the Mandarin Garden, a Chinese restaurant that has a museum of antiquated sex toys and pornography underneath. It was the best place I've ever eaten Chinese food. (It was not the best Chinese food I've ever eaten, but it was still good.)

I couldn't invent a quirky little town like this. It was a touch creepy, an abandoned house or two on the hill reminded me of the Bates' house in Psycho, but the residents made up for it by being so crazily friendly.

I'm writing this from Tonopah, population 2478, in a century-old Victorian-style hotel, the Mizpah, which was formerly the tallest building in the state and is reputedly haunted by a prostitute who was murdered on the fifth floor.

Between Virginia City and Tonopah, we wound through empty, lonely Nevada countryside; jagged cliffs sitting at the end of the long horizons, filled with open expanses marked by spiky configurations of rocks and shrub.  

We came through all manner of surprising small towns stacked with curios, strange shops, bars and the like. We stopped in on Fort Churchill, an abandoned 1870s military fort. We giggled a lot. 

Right here, we're three hours out of Las Vegas. Which makes me think about how three hours from anywhere major, you might trade out the landmarks, but I bet you'll get something quirky, gritty and generally unexpected in its place.

To each their own, maybe.

Do you ever dedicate time on holiday, just to head out and see whatever you might see?

What's the best, weirdest spot you've ever come across?

NB: The respective competition winners will be announced on my Facebook page this afternoon and I will repeat the winners here on Monday to make sure they find out!

This week I am travelling through Nevada as a guest of the Nevada Commission on Tourism     

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