All counties should be celebrated on sesquicentennial

I love Nevada. There, I said it.

Despite its rapacious political history and myriad present-day maladies, as it celebrates its sesquicentennial the Silver State is still my favorite place.

A few thoughts from each of our 17 counties:

Clark County is home to the nation’s largest manmade lake, which provides water for the world’s most dazzling city oasis.

But it’s also the place you’ll find Searchlight, the boyhood home of powerhouse Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — not to mention the world’s best 10-cent cup of coffee at the Searchlight Nugget.

Established in 1866, Lincoln County is far older than Clark and these days is the place you’ll find — but never see — the mysterious Area 51 and the well-marketed Extraterrestrial Highway.

But it’s a greater thrill to stand near the banks of the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge just after sunrise and watch a flock of Canada geese pick up as one remarkable unit and continue its journey south for the season.

Nye County is so big it could be its own state — make that two states.

At more than 18,000 square miles it is the third-largest county in the lower 48 and almost the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

If that isn’t enough, it’s also been the home planet for otherworldly late-night radio host Art Bell.

Some perfectly reasonable historians argue that Esmeralda County is so titled because of its fleeting spring greenery, but I prefer to believe it is named for the gypsy girl in Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The place would feel downright expansive if not located next to behemoth Nye. Esmeralda is the second-least populated county in the United States.

But on Labor Day 1906, its Goldfield was the center of the sports universe as the site of the 42-round Gans-Nelson lightweight championship. Some say the ghosts of Esmeralda have been fighting ever since.

When copper was king, White Pine County’s McGill was a veritable beehive of prosperity. Nearby Ely appeared on its way to becoming a roaring metropolis.

There’s something about mining’s boom-and-bust cycles that toughen a community. Ely has known its share of hard times. But the rugged beauty of White Pine’s Great Basin National Park with 13,065-foot-high Wheeler Peak will always be recession-proof.

When Eureka’s lead-silver smelters filled the sky with smoke for miles around back in the 1870s, the handsome little boomtown was known by some as “the Pittsburgh of the West.” Today, U.S. Route 50, “the Loneliest Road in America,” runs through the heart of Eureka County.

With the fully restored Eureka Opera House hosting a regular slate of entertainment, the town on the solitary highway is nothing short of lively on the weekends.

Elko County is enormous with an almost muscular geography highlighted by the breathtaking Ruby Mountains and Ruby Dome. It’s the fourth largest county in America but only the second largest in Nevada.

This Arnold Schwarzenegger of counties is home to much of Nevada’s current gold rush, the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, the unforgettable Star Basque restaurant and a pair of taxidermy bears in the lobby of the Commercial Hotel.

Some wisecrackers might call Lander the Rodney Dangerfield of Nevada counties. It’s home to Battle Mountain, a town once maligned as the ugliest in the nation. Battle Mountain kept its sense of humor and cashed in on the distinction in typical Nevada fashion.

No trip through Lander is complete without visiting Austin, with its dueling cemeteries, Stokes Castle and Toiyabe Cafe.

Winnemucca, in Humboldt County, is memorialized in the classic country song “I’ve Been Everywhere” and at one time had a thriving “Chinatown” section.

But you haven’t been anywhere, man, until you’ve traveled through the Santa Rosa Range in the Humboldt National Forest.

Named for an Army general nicknamed “Blackjack,” Pershing County is the place you’ll find Lovelock and the Marzen House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and is also named for a military man.

But you’ll really want to salute the food at the Cowpoke Cafe.

Churchill County is named after yet another war hero and is located in the heart of Pony Express country.

The farms of Fallon give Churchill its agricultural identity, but the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge gives the county its spirit.

Lyon County is named for the first Union Army general killed in the Civil War, and no visit to the area is complete without dropping by historic Fort Churchill. Then move on to Yerington and swap war stories at Dini’s Casino, which is named for a lovable old legislative warhorse.

In Mineral County you’ll find Mina and Luning and seemingly endless miles of trails to ride your ATVs. When you’re finished, have breakfast at the Lobster Cafe or one of the best burgers in Nevada at Socorro’s Burger Hut. And the milkshakes are aces, too.

Winds from the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada help make Minden in Douglas County one of the country’s best places for glider flying.

If you prefer your fun closer to the ground, try the JT Basque Bar and Dining Room in Gardnerville, and bring an appetite.

Next to Las Vegas, Virginia City in Storey County is the Nevada town that most needs no introduction. It continues to draw throngs of tourists drawn to it by the historic Comstock Lode, Mark Twain of the Territorial Enterprise, and I suspect its proximity to legalized brothels.

Washoe County is home to Reno, which continues to work to broaden its economy and brighten its downtown. A fall stroll along the Truckee River — water levels permitting — will remind you why the great Nevada writer Walter Van Tilburg Clark wrote a novel called “The City of Trembling Leaves.”

Carson is a consolidated municipality and the state capital. It’s a place every Nevada school student should experience to learn about the seat of government. (Notice I didn’t say Carson is the place to see who runs government.)

Experience Carson City while the Legislature is in session. Try not to be very afraid. Say a prayer for the Silver State.

And raise a toast to a better future for all of us who call Nevada home.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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