Mountain retreat

Sara Flagg and her mother, owner Michele Haley, tend bar at Virginia City Cigar and Bar.

Sara Flagg and her mother, owner Michele Haley, tend bar at Virginia City Cigar and Bar.

Photo/Matt Bieker

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I turned 26 last week. My birthday coinciding with the end of winter often leaves me feeling restless. Plans for the summer suddenly materialize, obligations mount, and tax season provides an unwelcome reminder of certain financial realities. I jumped at the chance to visit a new bar in Virginia City as a welcome change of pace.

I still consider myself a tourist in Virginia City, for the most part. I hadn’t driven Geiger Grade in many years, but as I climbed around the dizzying turns, I caught the occasional glimpse of my home valley from an unfamiliar angle. It was a clear day, and the drive proved oddly fun.

Virginia City Cigar and Bar is easily spotted by the old-fashioned lettering on its sign and windows. The bar remains technically unfinished until its official opening later this spring, which explains the seemingly random hours listed on its Facebook page. Inside are several heavy pine tables and chairs surrounding a glossy bar and a towering liquor cabinet. Not seeing any tap handles, I ordered a Coors from the bartender—a woman named Michele Haley, who introduced herself as the owner.

“Ever since I was 19, I wanted to have a place up here,” she said.

Haley helped her parents move to Virginia City from Southern California when she was a teenager, and she fell in love with the town’s heritage. She spent most of her life in Gardnerville, but when a property—replete with a historical, macabre pedigree—became available in Virginia City in 2016, it wasn’t long before she was signing her seven-year lease.

“I love the history—I love that era,” Haley said. “This place used to be, in the late 1870s, it was a funeral director up here, and then downstairs was the morgue.”

As we talked, I admired the craftsmanship of her bar: railroad spikes serve as iron shelf brackets, antique ceiling fans circulate the cool air, and a large, ornate humidor stands in the corner. Haley said that she consulted with longtime Virignia City residents in order to come up with an interior that makes them feel at home. Everything, she said, was built by her fiancé Mike Cullen, including the large metal “M” for “Michele” above the bar.

“He said, ’Well, if you want it, I’ll build it for you,’” Haley said.

Cullen is running for Storey County Sheriff, it turns out. The possibility of being a saloon owner with a sheriff for a husband struck me as pretty authentically Old West.

I thanked Haley and left her to her work, taking my beer into the brightly lit backroom, where comfortable leather couches sit near large windows overlooking the slopes of the town’s eastern neighborhood. Haley said she intends to build a deck in the spring, and I imagined myself reclined outside on a warm night, drinking my beer and smoking a stogey.

Even though I was half an hour from Reno, the relaxed setting felt farther away. Deadlines and existential woes seemed less pressing in Haley’s quiet back room. Maybe that’s what drew her to town when she was younger.

Later, as I waved goodbye, I didn’t pick any concrete dates to return. I figured I’d find my way back eventually in the warmer months, and I looked forward to not having a plan.