For the longest time, I wasn’t really sure how to write about Reno, Nevada. How do I condense a city that I both love and hate into a few paragraphs? A city I ran 4,868 miles away from the first chance I got, but a city that I long to go back home to every summer? There is so much to Reno, so much more than ‘Reno 911!’ and Johnny Cash and gambling and brothels. There’s an arch downtown that I drive under every time I go see a movie; it’s lit up in red and gold and names Reno the “The Biggest Little City in the World”. It seems a contradiction, but it’s true. Reno is right on the brink of ‘big’, while constantly pushing the limits of ‘little’. It’s a town full of contradiction – a town of polarity and paradox.
As you drive from the foothills of the surrounding mountains to the valley floor, Reno is a welcome sight. It is a kind of oasis, a break from the harsh terrain of the desert to the east and the snowy Sierra Nevada to the west. Casinos downtown reflect the sunshine by day and show off their lights by night – flashy in every sense of the word. The town sprawls itself out in typical western fashion because there is nothing for hundreds of miles that could act to limit growth. Houses go and go until they don’t – until the latest suburb, still under construction, hits the desert; then just like that, all there is is sagebrush.
Reno was once caught up in the rush for gold and silver and the roar of the Wild West, and in some ways it still holds that mentality. It’s a rowdy city, grainy and dark, but somehow it still manages to retain a family-friendly quality. Downtown Reno pairs riverside parks, AAA baseball fields, and art museums with strip clubs, druggies, and ‘mature’ stores. We’ve got our fair share of good restaurants and coffee shops, but Reno is not the place for a midnight stroll, or really any stroll for that matter. I guess we’ve got the mountains for that, though.
Location-wise, Reno is absolutely perfect. Desert, peaks, rivers, alpine lakes – it is one place that really has it all. You can drive five hours in any direction and be on a beach in San Francisco, or in Yosemite National Park, or in the middle of the desert hundreds of miles away from civilisation. The landscape is bipolar and so is the climate. Summers rarely see rain and have a kind of burnt, clean quality – they’re hot and dry and every thundershower is a miraculous, much prayed for event; but half an hour away is Lake Tahoe where the air is always cooler and the people more relaxed. The hiking is great, the swimming is amazing, the views are stunning – Mark Twain wasn’t lying when he proclaimed Lake Tahoe the ‘jewel of the Sierras’. In winter, the mountains are covered in feet of snow. Tahoe comes alive with skiers and boarders and hot chocolate is consumed by the bucket-load. The Reno that you see depends on the season, and how adventurous you are.
This is not a town where you visit for a few days and wander aimlessly through the streets to discover some little café filled with books and scholars – do that and you will sooner find prostitutes and pawn shops. Reno is a town like no other, and to fully appreciate it you have to see both sides of the coin. To know Reno, you have to walk to the gorgeous Aces ballpark, past the homeless shelter and the strip club. You have to wander through the smoky casino floor to find that amazing gelato place. You have to go 100mph into the desert, because there’s no one there to care that you’re breaking the speed limit except the brothel down the road. You have to go bake in Burning Man, the famous art festival in the Black Rock Desert that for one week every summer becomes the third largest city in Nevada, and then jump in an ice cold lake to wash off all the dirt. Reno is a place that calls for action and exploration. Come visit and you’ll understand for yourself why the city contains such glorious contradiction.