Sometimes, friends back East ask why we live here. Usually I mention the beauty of the mountains or the amazing food culture that has developed in the past decade. Recently my research into Nevada’s history has led to a greater appreciation of my adopted state. I thought I’d put all that reading to work to produce a series of occasional posts about the place I now call home.
My first trip to Reno was 1993 and I was on my honeymoon. The irony did not escape my notice. My romantic honeymoon was spent in a city famed for divorces. We were in Reno because my brand-new husband had a job interview and the prospective employer had agreed to pay for me to accompany him.
I’d never been to Nevada, not even glitzy Las Vegas. I didn’t know what to expect. I was geographically naïve. Remember the famous New Yorker cover by Saul Steinberg from the 1970’s? I mean the one that shows everything west of the Hudson River as one beige rectangle with a few landmarks: Chicago, Utah, Los Angeles. That pretty much summed up my knowledge of the country. Oh, I’d been to southern California to visit relatives, but let’s face it-that’s not representative of the West.
On a warm May evening, I had my first look at the place I would later call home. Reno is in the high desert, sited in the Truckee Meadows about 4500 feet above sea level. To the west are the pine-covered Sierras, to the east lies the Great Basin, an arid landscape dotted with sagebrush and bristlecone pines. Reno is farther west than Los Angeles, a fact that surprises people. It takes four hours to drive to San Francisco but eight hours to drive to Las Vegas, another fact that surprises many people back East. They assume that Reno is a suburb of Las Vegas. They don’t understand the vastness of Nevada.
Reno started as a railroad town back in the 1860’s. There is a richness of history here. The Truckee River runs straight through the center of the city, flowing from Lake Tahoe up to Pyramid Lake. Tall cottonwoods line the riverbanks. The scent of sagebrush hangs in the air. Hiking trails traverse the hills and mountains nearby.
Of course on that May evening, I didn’t know all this. I didn’t see the beauty of the surrounding landscape, I only saw tan dirt. Reno was in the midst of a five-year long drought so the Truckee River was a dry riverbed. I didn’t see historic buildings, I only saw an aging downtown of dated casinos, gritty pawnshops and dank taverns.
I didn’t see Reno’s potential. In my defense, many people didn’t see a future for Reno back then. Jobs were scarce, the tourists non-existent, the businesses and growth were all to the south in Las Vegas. Reno was the unloved step-child. Over time, some of this would change.
Over the past twenty years, Reno has revealed its beauty and secrets. It is growing into its potential. I have come to love this place even when it shows its unlovable side.
On that May evening, my Nevada odyssey had only begun.