Loving Nevada's Loneliest Road: Day One

When you write about travel, and produce a television series about travel, vacations often serve multiple purposes. So it was with this July's road trip to, across, and back from, America's loneliest highway - Highway 50, through Nevada. Sure, it was our vacation for the summer, but it was also somewhat of a scouting trip for our travel show, Southwest Stories with the Two Steves (www.southweststories.us). I had wanted to include Nevada in the show for the past two seasons, and this trip was partially to determine whether there was good story material in this part of central Nevada.

I definitely was not disappointed.

We departed the hi-desert early in the morning, bound for Reno. It's a drive I've done numerous times before, and one I always enjoy. We drove up Highway 247 to Highway 18, going through Apple Valley, Victorville, Adelanto, joining Highway 395, and on up to Kramer Junction. From Kramer Junction, we continued north on Highway 395, past Randsburg (where I would have loved to stop off for a phosphate at the Randsburg General Store and stopped over to visit historian Lorraine Blair), then Ridgecrest (where I would have loved to stop off for a visit with Doug Lueck at the Ridgecrest Area Convention & Visitors Bureau), and on past Fossil Falls (absolutely worth a stop - especially in wildflower season), and past a scattered convoy of stunningly beautiful classic cars.

Lunch was planned for the beloved Alabama Hills Cafe & Bakery, a favorite of many road-trippers heading through Lone Pine. Both the service and food there was superb, and our timing was perfect - that convoy of classic cars? They were all stopping for lunch at the Alabama Hills Cafe. One tip for first-time diners at the Alabama Hills Cafe - don't ignore that "bakery" part of their name. Save room for pie. Honest. The Triple Berry Pie was delectable.

It's hard to not want to break this one-day drive into three or four days. I would have loved to have time to return to Manzanar National Historic Site, where my grandfather had once driven Japanese-Americans to internment during World War II, to see what was new at the excellent Eastern California Museum, to hike among the ancient Bristlecone pines of the White Mountains, to explore again Hot Creek Geological Site, or spend some quiet time along the shores of June or Convict lakes. I'd written a travel feature for The Sun Runner magazine on Highway 395, and found it hard to fit all the experiences and destinations I love into one story. The eastern Sierra is one of California's premier road trip destinations.

We did allow for a brief stop at Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, though we didn't have time to go down and explore the tufa formations along the water's edge as we had before. I reminded myself I need to plant myself for a few days in Lee Vining, bring a kayak, and really start to get to know this fascinating lake. A small storm began to near the lake from the southeast while we were watching, but it was time to get back on the road. My heart nearly broke when we sped past the turnoff for Bodie. This ghost town, high in the mountains, is kept in a state of arrested decay in Bodie State Historic Park. It's a stop that needs more time than we had to give it, with so much to explore it really deserves a full day or more to explore the town and mines.

At Topaz Lake, we crossed into Nevada, and headed up through Carson City to Reno. We'd be back in Carson City the next day. But we were trying to make it to a favorite Reno restaurant of ours, Thali, in time for dinner, and we weren't sure what Friday evening traffic would be like in the Carson Valley. Thali specializes in organic northern Indian cuisine, and their dinners offer a selection of vegetarian dishes that vary each week. We had dined there before and found their variety of veggie curries and other dishes exquisitely delicious. The combination of Serj Singh's recipes and organic, locally-sourced produce, was something to look forward to after a long day on the road.

Few diners were there on that Friday evening, with an electronic music duo performing in the commons area shared with two other restaurants. Thali charged for the dinners - and tip - up front. The food was good, but not as exceptional as it had been on our previous visit. The employees took turns chatting with friends, talking on their phones, and doing pretty much everything but waiting on us. The way dinner at Thali works is that you get a platter with small bowls of each dish and then, when you want more of a particular dish, they refill your bowl. But we sat for quite a long time with empty bowls, pondering if we should just give up waiting or hold out for a little more of that cauliflower dish.

Eventually, a waitress arrived at our table to refill our bowls. My wife wanted more of a tofu and potato curry and the waitress began spooning it into her bowl. My wife noted that she just wanted more tofu, and had a lot of potatoes left in her bowl. The waitress stuck the serving spoon into my wife's bowl and dished out potatoes - both those she had just put in it, and potatoes that had been left in my wife's bowl - and put them back into the serving bowl that would be used to feed other diners.

You never take food from a customer's plate and put it in with food being served to other people. That's a huge problem and should get your restaurant immediately shut down for serious health code violations. And, of course, if she did it with us, then whose food were we being served?

We looked at each other in shock. We couldn't believe that staff at Thali was that untrained (I can't even say "poorly trained" because this was inexcusable even at that level), that they would do something like this. We'll never return.

Having already paid at the beginning of dinner, we headed out to explore the Riverwalk District. We weren't going to let our disappointing experience at Thali stop us from enjoying our evening in Reno. The Truckee River flows through the center of town, and makes for a beautiful natural setting for community festivals and live music, which was happening on this Friday evening in summer. Wingfield Park, on an island in the river, was the perfect setting for an evening concert, while families splashed in the river (I'd recommend caution, it's clear there's quite a current running through this stretch of the river). We took in some music and the ambience, and then headed off to our hotel. All in all, it had been a good start to our road trip, but by the next morning, it would take a turn into the Twilight Zone...

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Just an old sea cook seeking an outward bound voyage.

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