Nervous Night in Nevada by Leslie Groves Ogden
Returning home after a 1976 Idaho camping trip, my husband Barry and I were tired of driving the same monotonous roads in Nevada, or navigating the crowded Interstates in California. Ordinarily we drove through long stretches of unpopulated Nevada, or alternatively, we battled Bay Area traffic west of Reno. We couldn’t avoid all the aggravation, but perusing our map, we did discover a turnoff on our usual route that would take us onto a new stretch of highway and through some areas we had not seen before.
As we left the Sawtooth Wilderness, we entered Nevada and turned west. Near Reno we planned to turn south on Highway 395, enjoy the unexplored landscape, then join the scenic route along the eastern Sierra Nevadas. With suitcases, pillows, sleeping bags and our three children sharing the back seat and cargo area, with camping gear stashed in an overcrowded top carrier, our big Chevy station wagon lumbered along I-80 toward Reno. It was getting dark when the exit appeared, and rather than attempt to fight traffic and find a motel in the big city, we drove on through, thinking that Carson City would be a less confusing place to find suitable overnight accommodations.
The neon lights of Carson City however, flashed by on both sides of the highway, and by the time we spotted motel signs we had passed the corresponding exits. Twice we left the highway only to encounter only gas stations or dark residential streets instead of motels. Eventually we found our way back onto 395 while I pulled out the Nevada map and a flashlight. I assured the family that before too long we would be coming to a little town called Minden and soon after that, Gardnerville. It looked like 395 reverted to a two-lane road as it passed through the two small towns. Surely, we would find something convenient and adequate for just a single night’s stay. Although the cooler had been packed with snacks and drinks, and pillows and sleeping bags made for comfy and cozy travel, all of us felt restless, hungry, and tired. We had wasted almost an hour driving in circles in Carson City. Night had fallen. We really needed to stop and get some sleep. Tomorrow would be another long day of travel.
Fifteen miles later the highway became a rural road as we entered the outskirts of Minden. We slowly traversed the main drag, observing the dimly lit buildings and quiet sidewalks. Finding a motel there seemed unlikely. After eight or nine blocks, the buildings dwindled and the road widened. We sped up, hoping for better luck in Gardnerville.
Entering town, the road narrowed, the speed limit decreased, and buildings appeared. Occasionally a car cruised by in the opposite direction. Porch lights illuminated a few small houses. Gardnerville seemed even more quiet than Minden. Then, passing through the main business district, we noticed a neon glow ahead and country music appeared to be originating from an old two-story clapboard building. As we approached, the music grew louder, mingled with rowdy voices emanating from an open doorway. Driving slowly by, we saw a blinking neon sign that advertised, “Hotel and Bar”.
Should we stop? Barry and I discussed it as he drove around the block. A quick look at the map showed no towns ahead until Bridgeport, California, another 65 miles away. The thought of spending another exhausting hour or more in the car with complaining children was enough to persuade us to circle back and park in front of the brightly lit windows. Barry took a deep breath, got out of the car, and walked in.
A few minutes later, he returned with good news: a room was available above the bar. We gathered a few overnight essentials, collected our sleepy offspring, locked the car, and traipsed inside.
A long bar dominated the right-hand wall, the high stools occupied by seedy-looking characters right out of a Hollywood western. The music continued to blare, but as we entered, the cacophony of voices dropped to a low, interested murmur. Cigarette smoke formed a cloud overhead, and the stale smell of spilled beer permeated the room. All eyes followed us as we escorted our brood past the bar, across the wood floor, around battered tables, and along tired booths lining the far wall, where we reached a steep stairway ascending to second story rooms.
Pausing at the landing, we noted a short corridor interspersed with a half-dozen doorways. A threadbare carpet stretched the length of the hallway, ending at an open door to a shared bathroom. Barry wielded the old-fashioned room key to number 4, manipulating the worn lock. Gratefully, we entered our safe haven, eager to scarf down a few peanut butter crackers, locate pajamas and toothbrushes and get the children into bed. Our momentary relief, however, did not last. Room 4 was small, dark and smelled like burnt tobacco and stale sweat. Feeling our way inside, we discovered the only light came from a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling, which Barry illuminated by yanking a chain. As the light glowed dimly, we surveyed our hastily booked accommodation: peeling linoleum floor, dingy gray walls, two sagging double beds and a curtainless, screenless window overlooking the street below. The room was hot and stuffy, and when we opened the window, music and laughter from the bar drifted up and in.
Out of options, we made the best of it. While I checked the worn sheets for fleas or other unwelcome residents, Barry escorted the kids down the hall to the bathroom. Careful not to touch grimy surfaces, they took care of bedtime ablutions quickly and all three dropped gratefully onto the shabby mattresses. Despite the noise wafting from below, they slept soundly. Finally, Barry and I squeezed into the beds among their sprawling arms and legs and attempted to get some rest.
Sometime in the wee hours, the bar closed. We had been asleep a short time when the commotion of patrons leaving awakened us: drunken shouts, raucous laughter, a loud argument, car doors slamming, engines revving. We heard people stomping up the stairs and heavy footsteps passing our door. When the racket outside finally died down, a more sinister conversation became audible. Creeping over to the open window, we looked down to find a group of shady-looking characters peering in the windows of our car, while others poked and prodded at the top carrier on the roof. Clearly, they planned to break in. And it did not seem like there was much we could do to stop them.
We watched anxiously as they discussed what to do. We listened to an animated argument; grim voices accompanied by forceful gestures. Eventually, the disagreement gave way to reason. They must have decided the potential spoils were not worth the effort. After all, as they gazed into the back seat and cargo area, only the detritus of a camping trip was visible: pillows, blankets, an old cooler, a few scattered toys and books, tent poles and well-used lawn chairs. And how likely was a top carrier to contain anything valuable or expensive? With a sigh of relief, we watched them slowly disperse and fade into the dark night.
We didn’t get much sleep after that. Up and dressed at first light, we used the communal bathroom as quickly as possible, gathered our belongings, and escaped down the stairs and out the door. Our car was intact, although we found many fingerprints in the dusty paint.
Friends who travel tell me that Gardnerville is no longer that backwater redneck town we encountered in 1976. It has apparently grown into a respectable suburb of Carson City, and if you search Expedia or Kayak you will find at least three chain hotels in town. When I googled “hotel with bar in Gardnerville”, up popped a photo of a building that probably was the site of our unsettling experience. Over the years the place has improved, at least from what I can tell from the picture. If we ever take that route back to Idaho, maybe we will pay a visit.