The door to the two upper floors of the Washoe Club in Virginia City in Northern Nevada, long abandoned, shuts behind us. We turn to contend with a set of rickety stairs, which lead to a dimly lit second floor, and the stairs above that, which move up to a thick, inky darkness. The woman at the bar on the ground level has armed us with a flashlight and instructed us to use our imagination.
The air is thick and untouched by natural light; unseen parts of the building clang in the wind. We step gingerly up the stairs.
"I don't think I can do this," my wife says. Her reluctance is all the encouragement I need to cut and run.
I hadn't considered that a haunted house could be anything but a kitsch overreach. But we would soon discover that this was par for the spooky course in Nevada. Spread through Nevada's ghost towns and UFO mythology is a fabric of well-spun yarns that can entertain, and scare, even hardened sceptics.
Virginia City is a town of around 1000 people. In 1873 it was the centre of a now long-past mining boom, with a population of 25,000. Residents lived bawdy and brutal lives; mining was hazardous and the place teemed with brothels and bars to sate the whims of lecherous labourers. The Washoe Club provided an upscale outlet for drinking, gambling and prostitution for the many millionaires created here during the good years.
Today it survives as a small saloon and supernatural mecca.
After our first displays of cowardice, a young man in the bar, a former guide, offers to show us around. He takes us through the ballroom where a documentary crew supposedly filmed a full apparition. He regales us with stories of long murdered prostitutes, recently suicidal squatters and people who come here from far away for a chance to provoke the spirits.
We slept uneasily that evening. But as we dissect the situation in the following days we wondered if a dark, unventilated, broken down, centuries-old building could ever not be disquieting.
Two days later we are headed down the Extra Terrestrial Highway to Area 51, perhaps the most avidly cultish of Nevada's unlikely supernatural attractions. The secrecy surrounding the massive, barely acknowledged military base has spawned a rich backstory of alien goings on.
We had stayed the previous evening in the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah, the alleged home of the ghost of the Lady in Red, who was murdered in the building almost a century ago by a jealous lover. We saw no sign of her and the hotel's refined Victorian-meets-Wild West finish quickly puts a visitor at ease. If the Lady in Red were indeed real, there would be worse places for a ghost to spend an eternity.
The ET highway was not proving so serene. We'd left Tonopah that morning, a mining town of not huge substance, and taken the highway east away from everything. We then turned on to a two-lane road that seemed to be leading us off the edge of the earth. We climbed in elevation. It started to snow. We saw about three dozen cows, but only two vehicles. It started to snow harder. The isolation played tricks on us. How could anything be out here? Were our directions incorrect? The mood darkened in the car. But just in time, we hit Rachel, Nevada, population 54, and the Little A'Le'Inn.
The Little A'Le'Inn is genuinely kitsch, but is so far removed from civilisation and remains open in weather so inclement that it is simply amazing that it exists. The painted figure of an alien greets us and, inside, the inn is decorated with UFO curios and signed photos from renowned extra-terrestrial experts. Thousands of dollar bills have been stuck on the ceiling above the counter, each signed by customers. I order a burger. I'm pretty sure
the alien sauce is actually Thousand Island dressing, but it still tastes good.
The girl working the bar wishes us well, "Thanks for coming all the way out here." It feels oddly poignant, given our morning.
Area 51 is testament to the power of the human imagination, with elaborate conspiracies projected on to as blank a canvas as nature provides. Past Rachel we take a dirt road for 15km through empty fields and just as we start to give up on seeing anything we come to a government checkpoint with serious-looking signs to indicate the end of the road.
Half an hour's drive from Rachel we come to the infamous black mailbox (replaced with a white one in 1996). It is believed by some to be used by Area 51, although it seems unlikely that a top-secret government base would use airmail. The box is a popular meeting spot for those who believe in life on other planets. Standing next to it is as much sky as you'll ever see in one place, which explains things.
The next afternoon, we pull into Goldfield. It has suitably Nevadan history: a glorious mining town, used up and left to molder by the cut and run nature of mining. From a peak of 20,000 people in the 1920s, 200 or so remain. The old school has boarded-up windows and looks like it could be levelled with a little push.
The once-regal Goldfield Hotel, now as popular a ghost hunting spot as the Washoe Club, sits empty. There are stores that went out of business decades ago and still have their old signage intact. The main street is lined with crumbling, deserted buildings. But unlike Virginia City, no cunning marketer has gotten hold of it and no summer influx of tourists is coming. It's just this, 365 days a year.
There's a single souvenir store open, and a man waves us over in the window. Looping back to our car after a walk through town, we pop in to say hello. His name is John and he says he came to Goldfield from San Francisco because it was a cheaper place to find a plot of land to be buried in. He can spot the ghost-hunting type a mile off. Documentary crews come through sporadically. Kids sometimes break in to the hotel and stay overnight, with Ouija boards for seances.
"I don't know if I believe in all of that," John says. "But I believe that some things are best left alone." We concur strongly and return to our car.
Where to stay:
• Silverland Inn and Suites, 100 North E St, Virginia City. The Silverland is high on modern comfort and light on spook, which is a plus in a haunted town where some hotels seem like they've been there forever.
• The Mizpah Hotel, 100 Main St, Tonopah: a friendly ghost, the Lady in Red, supposedly walks the halls, but it's much more of a marketing ploy than reality in this fine establishment. The Pittman Cafe onsite has pleasingly hearty fare.
Where to eat:
• Try The Mandarin Garden on the main street of Virginia City, stationed above a 19th century red light museum. If nothing else, it is guaranteed to be the strangest place you'll ever eat Chinese food.
James Robinson was a guest of the Nevada Commission on Tourism, for more information visit travelnevada.com