The next day we stopped at Hope Valley Outdoors to visit Joyce Coker, aka the Cookie Lady, famous for her one-pound chocolate-chip cookies and her black-and-blue pies, and for getting just about anything with two legs up on skis. "This area lives literally and figuratively in the shadow of Lake Tahoe, and that's just the way we like it," she said, stirring cookie dough with one hand and black-bean chili with the other, then dropping everything to run across the café to fit a 4-year-old into skis.
We packed a chocolate-studded one-pounder into our knapsack before heading down the road to Markleeville, the county seat. Within minutes the snowy peaks gave way to dusky desert sagebrush.
Markleeville's saloon, earthy coffeehouse, rustic resorts, and handful of restaurants call to mind the Truckee that might have been had the railroad never come through. Jacob Marklee, who built a toll bridge across what became known as Markleeville Creek in 1862, hoped to cash in on miners heading to Silver Mountain City, but instead met an untimely death in a gunfight. Eventually, Markleeville settled for status as a ranching and lumber supply town and a tourist hub.
Cutthroat Saloon & Restaurant is a down-home eatery and cowboy watering hole, and a staple of Markleeville's main strip along California Highway 89. Nearby Stonefly is a white-tableclothed establishment with an extensive menu of fresh salads, classic meat-centered entrees and creative pizzas that fluctuate seasonally. Stonefly is open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights only.
The sight of steaming, soothing waters spurred us on to the first of two wonderful hot springs in the area. At Grover Hot Springs State Park, a few miles from Markleeville, skiers, cyclists, and snowbirds alike converge to take the curative mineral waters that bubble out of the ground at 150 degrees before being channeled into a 104-degree pool. Open year-round, Grover is low on luxuries but big on natural scenery and, as we soon discovered, is a magical spot in the middle of a snow flurry.
After a long soak and a quick dip in the cold plunge, we crossed the state line, passing through the twin cities of Minden and Gardnerville on our way to Genoa (juh-NO-uh). Sitting on a plateau at the base of a grade that is only 17 miles from Heavenly Mountain Resort, Genoa is as rich in Victorian architecture and historical landmarks as it is short on square footage.
This tiny Western relic, in fact, claims both the oldest "thirst parlor" (the still-operating Genoa Bar) and the oldest permanent settlement in Nevada; a replica of Mormon Station, the original trading post established by emigrant John Reese in 1851, can be visited year-round, even if the museum is only open to the public from May to mid-October.
A statue in Mormon Station State Historic Park commemorates Genoa's other claim to fame: It is the final resting place of legendary mailman and mountain rescuer Snowshoe Thompson. From 1856 to 1876, John A. Thompson (formerly Jon Torsteinson-Rue) traversed the rugged mountains between Placerville and Genoa on homemade skis, lugging 50- to 100-pound mailbags on his back. A native of Norway, Thompson spent his last years near here and is buried in the cemetery at the edge of town.
Thompson is not the only celebrity to have found his way to this Nevada outpost. Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, and Mark Twain all sought the curative waters at David Walley's Hot Springs Resort up the road. Built in 1862 by David and Harriet Walley at a cost of more than $100,000, the resort catered then, as now, to a more well-heeled clientele, many of whom had made their fortunes in the nearby silver mines. Though not much is left of the original hotel and spa (which included a ballroom, restaurant, stables, and bathhouses), the resort's modern luxuries—a spa with all the amenities, an upscale steak-and-seafood restaurant, Jacuzzi tubs, and suites with full kitchens—seem in keeping with Walley's vision.
As we lounged in one of six hot pools under a high-desert moon, with nothing to block our view but miles of sagebrush and juniper, we contemplated the fact that a bean's length can put you both a few miles and an entire world away.