Reindeer on 'Old Rosie'
Some residents call it an eyesore, but owner Gary Schmidt says the Reindeer Lodge is more of a free museum.
By Michael Sion
Photo By David Robert
With the first good snowfall, the Reindeer Lodge will rouse from post-Labor Day dormancy and bound into the winter season, carrying on a tradition that resists the homogenization of the Mount Rose Highway corridor and the rapidly populating southwest Truckee Meadows, with its blandly named residential tracts (Saddlehorn, Pioneer Village), influx of retail and restaurant chains (Wal-Mart, Taco Bell) and SUV-driving transplants (with nice kids named Ashlee and Taylor or Kyle).
Once more, the low-ceilinged, funky cedar Reindeer Lodge--for decades one of only a handful of businesses on the winding, forested 24-mile state route connecting the valley with Lake Tahoe--will offer family fun: a 2.5-acre snowmobile course and rentals of snowmobiles, cross-country skis and snowshoes. Once more, its grill will dish up short-order breakfast, lunch and dinner items, including buffalo burgers, while its bar will offer "Reindeer's Breath," a spiced-up coffee-cocoa libation spiked with four liqueurs.
Once more, longtime locals and tourists will make the pilgrimage to this musty repository of owner Gary Schmidt's packrat feast of antiques and aberrations cluttering the attic-like ambiance of The Deer. Devotees will warm frozen noses and toes by the great stone fireplace or wood stove, while newcomers--drawn by curiosity or a sense of adventure--will plod across the mushy parking lot and peek inside the barracks-like doors to encounter a hallucinatory assemblage of dolls, antlers, collectable bottles, cameras, barbed wire, a couch from the Mustang Ranch, a 7-foot, black-powder scattergun used by camelback Kurds and myriad other items like a garage sale on an acid trip.
"We describe it as an indoor-outdoor free museum," says Schmidt, 58. He's a laid-back do-it-yourselfer in a Stetson and dirt-caked work boots, whose back-of-the-throat voice only occasionally rises in passion, such as during a speech before Washoe County commissioners during his 11-year campaign in defense of developing five acres he owns across the highway.
"We have a collection of memorabilia from local areas and sort of early Americana," Schmidt continues. "Outside, I've got a collection of antique tractors, some from local ranches, from a 1913 Fordson to some tractors into the late '40s and early '50s. Some of the other collectibles we have are a 1920s Maxum ladder fire truck and a 1923 Kissel fire truck, both from the [former] Harrah's auto collection. We have an outhouse from the Kent Ranch in Fallon."
A dummy dressed up in clothes, clutching a chainsaw and wearing a welding mask, sits in the outhouse. There also is a 19th-century cabin or two from Virginia City and the Winter's Ranch in Washoe Valley, a line of snowmobiles out back and, in the front lot, a row of pickup trucks fitted with snowplows. When that lot gets too crowded with trucks, tractors and the like, some neighbors or drivers-by have complained.
"Too much stuff, I guess," Schmidt says with a shrug. He intends to put a storage garage for the equipment across the road, if or when the county approves his development of that site. (More on this later.)
The combination of mountain-worn vehicles and the slope-roofed lodge with its wind-buffeted cedar, stones and mortar gives the Reindeer an appearance that one Incline Village resident summarized as "a dump." It's less than inviting to a person accustomed to, say, a Starbucks (one of which shares a plaza down the mountain with Hollywood Video, Port of Subs, McDonald's and Raley's).
"There are some people who will never come in because they've never been here," Schmidt says. The lodge is 11 miles up Nevada 431 (the Mount Rose Highway) from the junction with U.S. 395. "They don't know what to expect--if it's a bar or restaurant or somebody's house. Sometimes we'll snag somebody who breaks down or has to use the phone and is pleasantly surprised. They'll spend an hour looking at the 'junque.' No one's ever said, after being in the place, that they'll never come back."
Three-quarters of wintertime Reindeer diners and drinkers are locals, while three-quarters of snowmobilers and ski and snowshoe renters are tourists, Schmidt says.
Snowmobile renters must be at least 16 (age limit for a second passenger: 3). Rates on the motocross-like course are $15 for 15 minutes or $45 an hour. Weight limit is 425 pounds. Those who want to take snowmobiles off-site must rent a minimum of two, with half-day (four-hour) rentals at $200 and full-day at $300. A popular spot for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing is Sheepherder Flats, just over the highway summit. Cross-country skis, boots and poles are rented for $5 to $8 a day; snowshoes from $6 to $15. Deposits (a major credit card or $50) are required.
In the winter season, the Reindeer opens at 6 a.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. weekends and closes "when everybody goes home," Schmidt says. "When the customers go home, we go to bed."
Employees--some long-timers, others temporary and itinerant--live on site.
In summers, the Reindeer offers horseback trail rides and, when Schmidt can organize them, concerts by such acts as Greg Kihn, Norton Buffalo, Elvin Bishop, Country Joe McDonald and Lydia Pense, with whom Schmidt maintains contact from the days he promoted concerts and ran south San Francisco Bay area nightclubs.
Next spring, Schmidt plans on a one- or two-day concert/barbecue festival to raise money for the Mount Rose Historical Society he's recently founded and through which he's interviewing old-timers on the mountain for oral histories. The society will publish a pamphlet detailing the century-plus commercial history of the corridor plus facts on the Washoe Indians' summer campsites, Schmidt says.
With a keen sense of history, Schmidt calls the Reindeer "one of the oldest continually operating businesses in southern Washoe County." Mount Rose's commercial history began when lumber for Comstock mines was chopped on the mountain. In the late 1800s, ice was cut at Incline Lake near the summit and brought to the valley by wagon.
The original route to Incline Lake was Joy Lake Road, a dirt road that started by the present site of Cattlemen's restaurant in Washoe Valley. "Old Rosie"--as the highway is called by old-timers who remember when the vicinity had a few large ranches and fewer people and teemed with hares, deer and grouse--received its first pavement, on a seven-mile section near the bottom, in 1933. By 1958, the remaining 17 miles to present-day Incline Village were completed.
In 1951 or '52, a businessman carted surplus Army barracks from Herlong, Calif., up the mountain and cobbled together what he called the Rose Mount Lodge. Subsequent owners changed the name to Sundance Lodge. Schmidt bought it in 1972 and changed the name to Reindeer Lodge, to fit in with the Yule theme of the Christmas Tree restaurant a mile up the highway and the Tannenbaum Ski Area across the road. The other businesses on the highway were Sky Tavern a mile above the Christmas Tree, the Mount Rose and Slide Mountain ski resorts and The Flame, a bar near the bottom.
The rustic, unrestricted setting appealed to the 28-year-old Schmidt's entrepreneurial and independent instincts. His industrious family had quit their Dust Bowl-era Nebraska farm to raise potatoes in Alabama. They later sold gravestones in Iowa, wildcatted for oil in Wyoming and ran motels in California after moving to the San Francisco Bay area. Schmidt went to high school in Los Altos and worked for Lockheed Missile and Space Co. in Sunnyvale as a computer software designer while earning economics and computer science degrees from San Jose State.
The rise of high tech wasn't the only 1960s phenomenon Schmidt got into on the ground floor. He frequented Bay areas clubs to hear bands in the rock music scene that would generate such names as Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Warlocks (later, the Grateful Dead) and others. In 1968, Schmidt and two partners each anted up $10,000 and threw the giant outdoor Newport Pop Festival in Costa Mesa, Calif., drawing about 100,000 people to see Eric Burdon and the Animals, the Jefferson Airplane and others.
Schmidt opened nightclubs in the south Bay and continued to promote concerts, including the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers (opening acts at the time) at the then-Washoe County Fairgrounds and the Doobie Brothers at the Carson City speedway. During one foray, he set eyes on the ramshackle Sundance Lodge.
"This was a pretty sleepy mountain at that time," he remembers. He intended to make the lodge his retirement project, while bringing in acts such as Bo Diddley and Country Joe McDonald. In the 1980s, while still running his pistachio farm and processing plant in California and tending to real estate investments in Costa Rica and elsewhere, Schmidt bought five acres across the road where the Tannenbaum Ski Area had closed.
Tailoring a plan to the highway market he'd come to know, he foresaw a 40-room alpine lodge, a convenience store, campsites and a single-bay automobile repair shop. At the time, the county's comprehensive plan had designated the property "general commercial."
But with population growth along the corridor and surrounding foothills came two rather predictable phenomena that inhibited Schmidt's plans: opposition from newcomers who wanted no commercial development near their new woodsy homes; and resistance or simple bureaucratic inertia from county officials.
One development, Sunridge Estates, was built just behind and above Schmidt's property. Many retirees moved in. A handful had, perhaps, too much free time. One in particular (who since has moved) crusaded to thwart Schmidt's commercial plans, appearing at county commission and citizens' advisory board meetings to voice criticisms.
Some of the upwardly mobile professionals who moved into new subdivisions in the foothills below turned their noses up at the sight of the Reindeer, although many others "got to know the place or stopped in and spent an evening at the fireplace," Schmidt says. Still, some anti-Reindeer sentiment lingers among yuppies who joined the area citizens' advisory board or county planning commission, he concedes.
"I would say that in years past my enemies have been those who suffer what I call the 'move-in-next-to-the-airport-and-expect-the-airport-to-shut-down syndrome.' "
The core of his conflict with county government arose when Schmidt sought approval in 1990 for his plans for his Tannenbaum development. He was told he couldn't build there because the county was going to change its zoning to "medium-density suburban" and "general rural."
"Ultimately I had to go through exhaustive administration remedies and eventually sued them for that," Schmidt says. "You can't deny using an existing zoning because you're going to change the zoning."
He has spent, he estimates, between $75,000 and $100,000 in legal fees and countless hours jumping through the various hoops: Mount Rose/Geiger Grade Citizens Advisory Board meetings; Washoe County Planning Commission meetings; Washoe County Board of Commissioners meetings; filing applications and zoning-change requests.
In 1999, the commissioners agreed to permit Schmidt's Tannenbaum development--with 51 conditions. One was to limit his on-site sewage disposal system to 25 fixture units, with any development above that number to connect to the community sewer. Schmidt argued that this meant he could build only one small store and two motel rooms until the community sewer system was ready some four years later, by which time his building application would have expired. He has sued, claiming that the condition wasn't supported by substantial evidence and that it resulted in the destruction of the viable use of his property.
Then there was the matter of access to public records. Schmidt visited various county departments seeking copies of documents about area developments that had been allowed to use septic systems; hearings that had been held to deny his use of commercial zoning; and scientific studies by the Department of Water Resources.
"They would say the records didn't exist, or they didn't know how to retrieve them, or they'd ask for a different name of a development," Schmidt says. He won legal access to the records. Washoe District Judge Connie Steinheimer also awarded Schmidt attorney's fees of about $7,000 from the county. Both parties have appealed the ruling to the Nevada Supreme Court--Schmidt to gain a larger sum for attorney's fees, the county on the decision about denial of access.
The Board of Commissioners since has granted a comprehensive plan amendment (zoning change) so Schmidt can commercially develop his Tannenbaum property. However, the Regional Planning Commission--composed of political appointees from Reno, Sparks and the county--must approve the amendment. Should its staff hold that the project doesn't conform to the regional plan, Schmidt likely will sue again.
He says he is waging his campaign in defense of freedom.
"I am really protecting property rights for everyone not to be over-regulated, overruled and dominated by bureaucratic governments. Also, it's simply the right thing to happen to that property. The alternative is houses being built on it. The problem is that's a trailhead, a historic piece of property. I've used as a slogan from time to time that I don't want to see personal palaces built on that property for pompous flatlander yuppie California transplants. I want to preserve it as open and accessible to the public.
"The Mount Rose corridor is an open-space treasure for Washoe County, and a limited amount of commercial activities is appropriate--such as a place to buy sunblock or a pair of mittens, or get directions, or spend an evening on the mountain so you can rise early in the morning to three or four feet of fresh snowfall.
"It's breathtaking. Keeping the mountain open gives people--the public--the capacity to enjoy that recreational treasure.
"A few private residences are not going to aid the mass of the public's enjoyment of that recreational treasure."
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