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Published: September 12th 2013
In this world many are in pursuit of the pinnacle of spectator sporting events. Some flock to Wimbledon or Churchill Downs, while others crave the World Cup or perhaps the Super Bowl. Our quest takes us to the charming old west town of Virginia City, Nevada, where the annual camel races take place. Heady stuff this, but throw in some ostrich racing and it becomes jam-packed wall-to-wall excitement that makes the heart pound while the laughs flow freely.
If you are unaware of the charming little town of Virginia City, Nevada we hope to tell you a couple of stories about this small western town that will peak your interest and prompt you to schedule a look-see. Proud of its place on the National Register of Historical Places, this is a small town of 855 people in Storey County Nevada, which only has a total of 4,000 residents. At 6,500 feet in altitude you’ll find some stunning views, colorful sunrises and amazing sunsets. Nevada is one of those great western American states that offer wide-open spaces, a glimpse of small town America and can prove it has a bit of a sense of humor..….more about that in a moment. Storey
County is also a harbor for the legal purveying of the world’s oldest profession, but Virginia City has none of that….as far as we know.
For you to understand this town it will help for you to have a bit of historical perspective. In 1859, Virginia City was a bit of a boomtown when silver was discovered and of course there was a rush and the town’s population grew to about 30,000 residents. The mining industry has its share of break or bust stories through the decades and this town is chock full of them. The great discovery in this area was known as the Comstock Lode and this part of the country was hopping until 1874 when the silver mines dried up. Like many hard luck mining town stories, this one ended sadly. No mining, no economy and then of course, no people.
One of the most famous people to have inhabited this fine town was none other than Samuel Clemens. In November 1863, over a decade before he became a celebrated author, he was a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper. As the story goes, one day he was mugged as he was walking over a
hill in southern Virginia City. Later he discovered the mugging was a practical joke set up by his friends to give him additional writing material. He didn’t find it funny as he was relieved of all his money and a gold watch that had great sentimental and financial value ($300). Fortunately his possessions were returned to him and he did write about the incident in his book “Roughing It.” While Mr. Clemens was in Virginia City he began using his pen name of Mark Twain—so this was his birthplace!
Being fans of Mark Twain, one of the world’s greatest writers and a fellow world explorer we decided to stop in the museum and have a look. A few hours before the race, we paid our four dollars, descended down a flight of stairs at one of the many gift emporiums and nosed around and looked at various printing devices and type settings used back then and got a feel for the time period. We even saw where Mr. Clemens once sat (please refer to the picture below).
As with most towns, what truly makes it special are the locals who inhabit the area. The people who have chosen
a particular town to grow roots and become part of the family. Those are the people that give Virginia City its fun personality.
Over 50 years ago, the local editor of the paper, a Mr. Bob Richards literally made up a story about the camel races in Virginia City. This information was in turn reprinted in the San Francisco Chronicle. When the editor of this fine rag discovered it was, shall we say, made up, he was less than pleased. The following year when Mr. Richards published the story again, the editor of the Chronicle informed him that he was sending a reporter to cover the story. The rest as they say, is the lore of a fine joke becoming a reality as the annual camels races at Virginia City commenced and have continued for many years.
All we can really tell you is that it was a hoot to people sitting on these animals in the starting gate suddenly thrust down the straightaway in an all-out meander trying to maneuver left one time and down the track a few paces to capture a win. Now this may seem simple enough except for one thing, the camels don’t
always cooperate regarding simple navigation of the racetrack. It wasn’t uncommon for one or more of them to literally just wander in any direction at a moments notice. A rider could find themselves leading the race one moment, then in the next instant wondering why in the world the camel turned right instead of left or simply decided to just slow to a stroll, allowing someone else to win the race.
As if that wasn’t enough of a spectacle, there were also ostrich races….with actual riders. For a moment you have to question why someone would actually consent to race on either a camel or an ostrich, but then the joke is one you, because you’ve almost missed the real reason……it’s hilarious. Couple this with continuous banjo-playing and an announcer who really hams it up and you’ve got quite the afternoon’s entertainment.
Now watching the races can build up a thirst, especially in the warm sun, so we had to repair to the Red Dog Saloon, a local pub and eatery, which is well known in these parts due to the fact that they have provided live entertainment for many decades. Some of the acts to have graced
the stage here include Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead among others. We can also attest that the pizza is quite good as well.
There are souvenir shops, silver jewelry establishments and many other trappings to take advantage of the tourist dollar as you amble down the somewhat-authentic wooden sidewalks, which are the furthest thing from level. You’ve literally got to watch your step for fear of stumbling. It’s a good people-watching town as the main drag contains almost all of the attractions. You can watch Old West gunfights and see people dressed in traditional garb of days gone by. They even parade the camels down the main street after the races…just because they can.
A visit to this unique town is one of the reasons that make the United States the beautiful quirky place that it is. A chance for a community to take stock of itself and boldly declare that just because it doesn’t make sense to race camels isn’t a reason not to set out to do just that, and also have some serious fun in the meantime.
If you spend the night in this town we’d highly recommend staying
at Edith Palmer’s Country Inn. We found this Inn warm and comfortable and the breakfast was delightful. Please don’t leave this town until you’ve dined at the Cider Factory. The Cider Factory Restaurant was such a pleasant surprise that we ate there two nights. The chef creates foods that will make your taste buds dance!
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