ZEPHYR COVE, Nev. — I’ve been truly lucky to have visited some wonderful beaches so far this year. The standouts have been Kailua on Oahu’s Windward coast and a private stretch of sand I had mostly to myself near Mahogany Bay on Barbados this past winter.
While my ultimate destination for my Lincoln Highway trip has been San Francisco, I feel like this beautiful view has been my reward for my long journey across the United States. This beautiful spot is Nevada Beach on Lake Tahoe. I’m in the middle of the Sierra Nevadas. Across the lake is the great state of California.
After crossing the great expanses of the Great Basin and the Great Plains, it’s nice to see a sizable body of water that’s not salty. Earlier on this trip, I listened to this National Public Radio report featuring a group of crazy swimmers who battle brine flies and endure pickled tongues while swimming in the Great Salt Lake.
A lake that’s saltier than the ocean with water that’s corrosive to bare skin is not appealing to swim in. I breezed right by the Great Salt Lake a few days earlier.
Lake Tahoe is a different matter. I happily went for a swim here.
Nevada Beach is located near the southern end of the lake near the Nevada-California stateline. This is undeniably a beautiful lake and a peaceful beach. I’m glad I chose to travel the Lincoln Highway’s southern alignment between Nevada and California. (I’ll be paralleling the alternative northern route of the highway through the Sierra Nevadas, via Donner Pass, while taking Amtrak’s California Zephyr back east to Denver, Chicago, and eventually Washington, D.C.)
During his famous 1859 transcontinental journey, the great New York Tribune publisher, Horace Greeley traveled by Lake Bigler (as Lake Tahoe was often called in the second half of the 19th century) along part of what would become the Lincoln Highway. In one dispatch, Greeley looked back on his uncomfortable trek across the Great Basin, like the one I had just completed.
“I cannot conscientiously recommend the route I have traveled to summer tourists in quest of pleasure, but it is a balm for many bruises to know that I am at last in CALIFORNIA.”
This summer tourist survived the trek and is nearly to the Golden State, too.
The night before, I stayed in Carson City, Nev., a place I wanted to tick off my list of unvisited state capitals. So far on my westward trip, the Lincoln Highway skipped Harrisburg, Pa., and Lincoln, Neb., two state capitals that remain on my unvisited list.
I was, however, able to cross off Cheyenne, Wyo., and Salt Lake City. Now I can claim — barely — that I have visited Carson City. I was in a rush to get to my hotel. (Another quick detour through Virginia City on the way to my destination the night before put me back another half hour.) But I did get a decent glance of Nevada’s seat of government while passing through downtown on U.S. 50.
Carson City seemed pleasant enough — nicer than Lansing, which I use as a middle-of-the-road benchmark to measure the quality of any state capital city. (If Lansing had nearby mountains and was located closer to one of the Great Lakes, my opinion of Michigan’s capital would be drastically different.)
I wasn’t particularly fatigued from my drive across the desert to Carson City, but I was anxious for the welcome change of scenery the Sierra Nevadas would bring me after hundreds of miles of Great Basin vastness.
I was yearning to break away from my recent cycle of diner and fast food. I was hoping Casino Fandango, located on the south side of town and across the parking lot from my hotel, would have something interesting to satisfy my stomach.
Thus far during my life, I’ve spent little time in casinos. I’m not much of a gambler. When I was working in downtown Detroit during the sluggish summer of 2001, however, I would sometimes play slots at the Greektown Casino over my lunchhour en route to U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. There, in a records room, I would spend an hour or two every week rifling through recent commercial bankruptcy filings with more than $1 million in liabilities. I’d take notes on the filings for weekly publication in Crain’s Detroit Business, where I was a reporting intern that summer.
I wondered how many of the numerous personal bankruptcy filings I paged through in the process to find the commercial ones may have been impacted by Detroit’s new casinos, which promised to help give the Motor City a needed injection of economic vibrancy but also promised to undermine the personal finances of plenty of local residents who didn’t need to be tempted by gambling.
The Greektown Casino was a new environment for me. But it was a confusing, unpleasant place, just like bankruptcy court. Those downbeat bankruptcy research days may have made me even more hesitant to avoid the risks that go with gambling.
As I strolled through Casino Fandango, I was bombarded by all the spectacular distractions that I’d expect any average Nevada casino to have. I’ve never been in a Las Vegas casino but the ones I’ve seen on television or in movies always seemed much more lively than what I was experiencing in Carson City. The one time I was in Las Vegas, in August 2001, I was just passing through on Interstate 15, en route from San Diego to Ann Arbor, Mich.
I should probably go to Vegas. The retreat from reality into an entertainment fantasy land seems like an American rite of passage, just like a trip to Orlando or Anaheim.
I walked somewhat slowly through Casino Fandango, slower than I would be going, for example, on a busy sidewalk in New York or D.C. Nobody in the casino seemed to be in a hurry to go anywhere. There’s too much that’s disorienting. There are few direct paths across the gambling floor. I had to snake my way through. Flashing lights, reflective surfaces and the electronic sounds of winning (and losing) confronted me at every turn.
In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson wrote:
Who are these people? These faces! They look like caricatures of used-car dealers from Dallas. But they’re real …
There were clusters of gaming activity here and there — perhaps with used-car dealers from Dallas but certainly with plenty of senior citizens — but it all seemed somewhat sleepy for what I would expect for a casino on a Thursday night. I bet Casino Fandango would have bored Hunter S. Thompson.
I was tired and needed food. I also needed an adult beverage, something I hadn’t had for hundreds of miles.
Making my way around the casino, I ruled out Duke’s Steak House and Ti Amo Italian Grille, which advertises “authentic Italian cuisine better than mamma’s!”). But the sushi bar caught my eye. Sushi bars are usually good bets for solo travelers.
Casino Fandango’s sushi bar, which curiously doubled as a place to order take-away pizza, offered an all-you-can-eat deal, albeit a stuff-your-face deal with a one-hour time limit.
I might have been crazy to have all-you-can-eat sushi in Carson City, Nev., but it didn’t kill me. The casino didn’t have the best sushi I’ve ever had, but it was exactly what I wanted at the moment. It was something different.
Back at Nevada Beach, I was quite happy to be sitting under some pine trees with warm sand beneath my toes. The sky was cloudless and bright blue with a gentle, cool breeze coming off the lake. This spot reminded me of Northern Michigan, just without the snowcapped peaks in the distance. I hadn’t planned on stopping here, but it was just one of those fortunate turns off the road.
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Sitting at a picnic bench reviewing some of my Lincoln Highway research, I mostly resisted checking my smartphone, which I’ve been known to do when I’m in a stationary position. I did quickly post a photo of Nevada Beach to Facebook, which garnered a handful of likes from people in New York, D.C., Florida and Hong Kong. But I put my phone back in my pocket. I really didn’t care what was happening back in Washington, D.C. The thought of trying to piece together fragments of Twitter conversation to figure out what was driving that day’s social media narrative wasn’t appealing that moment. I was in the Pacific time zone, not the Eastern time zone.
I also didn’t want to check the time. I had gotten a late start that morning. I knew that I was already behind schedule. I paged through part of Brian Butko’s Lincoln Highway guide to study the different Lincoln Highway alignments into the Bay Area. I was supposed to check into my hotel in Berkeley that evening but also wanted to follow the original Lincoln Highway alignment into the East Bay area via Altamont Pass. I would have to play my route by ear. Maybe I could grab an In N Out burger en route? (That’s a priority for when my travels bring me to California.)
I knew the longer I enjoyed Lake Tahoe, the less time I’d have to enjoy Sacramento and Stockton.
Sacramento … Stockton …
Sacramento … Stockton … With those options, it was easy to linger on the shores of this great lake for another hour. At the picnic bench, I pondered all the amazing places I’ve been fortunate to visit so far this year. Over the course of five weeks, I swam in three oceans — the Atlantic (when visiting Barbados), the Pacific (on a stopover in Honolulu on my way to Thailand) and the Indian (on Malaysia’s Langkawi Islands, near the Thai border).
Lake Tahoe is not an ocean, but it is a great body of water. Nevada Beach was perfectly pleasant place to pause and reflect on where my travels have brought me. I used to not like beach vacations. My travels this year, thankfully, have broadened my horizons.