Jefferson Monthly Feature
9:49 am
Tue July 1, 2014

Reno? No, Really!

When my brother was getting a Master’s degree at U.C. Berkeley in the early 1990s he’d take road trips to Reno, Nevada every once in a while. After all, it was cheaper than Las Vegas, and a quicker drive. Zach would find himself a motel for 20 bucks a night and hit the casinos, playing low stakes Blackjack as an antidote to the pressure cooker of his graduate studies.

That’s long been my image of Reno: a mostly seedy, rather rundown adult playground where prostitution is legal, everybody smokes, and steak is the meat on every menu.

So it’s no surprise that in the decade we’ve lived in southern Oregon it’s never even occurred me to take my family to Reno. Reno? If you aren’t going to gamble, hit the Mustang Ranch, or go on a drinking binge, the “biggest little city in the world” has little to offer. Right?

It turns out there is plenty to keep a family busy and happy for three days in Neon Babylon.

Not so fast.

There’s no denying that Reno is a city of contradictions. Two high school seniors smoking cigarettes and betting at John Ascuaga’s Nugget insisted you have to gamble (and said all their friends do) because there’s nothing else to do if you grow up in Reno. And a larger-than-life pole dancing advertisement on an all-weather outdoor TV screens on Virginia Street in Midtown led my 14-year-old to squeal disapprovingly, “That’s not appropriate, Mom! There’s porn in this town! We need to go home!” And, yes, John Ascuaga’s, where we stayed because it had a great indoor atrium pool with a waterfall, also had so much smoking in the casino downstairs that our putatively non-smoking floor reeked of cigarettes. But when we drove past the pole dancing we were on our way to Süp, a family-friendly order-at-the-counter restaurant that serves wholesome sumptuous soups (try the coconut chicken curry, broccoli cheddar, or the spicy crayfish jumbo) and melt-in-your-mouth steak sandwiches drizzled with roasted red pepper horseradish cream. We also visited Andy Warhol and Toulouse Lautrec’s exhibits at the state’s only accredited art museum that boasts world-class traveling exhibits as good as those that you’ll see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Ben McDonald, Communications Manager for the Reno-Sparks Convention Visitors Authority, tells me that most of the city’s tourism industry thrives off skiing at Lake Tahoe and the city’s well publicized annual festivals and special events—from balloon racing to the Reno Rodeo. But it turns out there’s plenty to keep a family busy and happy for three days in Neon Babylon.

In a high desert valley surrounded by the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Reno is the most populated city in Nevada after Vegas and its surrounding metropolitan area. It’s a sprawling metropolis with over a quarter of a million inhabitants located less than 15 miles from the California border and an easy drive to the state’s best skiing in the winter and lakeside recreation in the summer at Lake Tahoe.

Since the early 1930s when Nevada legalized both gambling and no fault divorce, Reno’s been known as a place to get unhitched in a hurry. When wealthy women looking to leave their marriages would come to Reno for a no-contest divorce, they needed some place to stay while they waited. Dude ranches, where there were cowboys to keep these ladies company for the six weeks it took to become a Nevada resident, were popular back then. When the divorce went through, the divorcee would stand on the banks of the Truckee River, throw her wedding ring into the water, and wish for a new life, according to Roger Solie, a Nevada history buff.

The fashionable ladies who stayed at the luxury Silver Saddle Ranch were provided with transportation to and from the city in a 1947 Desoto, a beige-colored 4-door automobile now on display, along with over 200 other cars, at the National Automobile right in downtown Reno.

Our own car, a Geo Prizm with peeling green paint and upholstery sagging from the ceiling, will never be featured in a museum. But even if you’re as allergic to cars as I am, it’s impossible not to enjoy this museum, which welcomes some two million visitors annually and was named one of the top five automobile museums in America by AutoWeek Magazine. Its collection includes a 1936 Mercedes Benz bought by Sherlock Holmes writer Sir Conan Doyle’s son to enjoy on his honeymoon, a 1902 Capitol car powered by steam (the seat installed over the engine became so hot to the touch that the phrase, “hot seat” was coined), as well as the oldest automobile in the United States, built in 1892, with candles for headlights that had to be manually oiled every few blocks while it was being driven. When you walk through the over 100,000 square foot museum you literally walk back in time. My 10-year-old was riveted by the free hour and a half guided tour (offered daily at 1:30 p.m.). My four-year-old preferred dressing up in period clothing and hats.

All that history made us hungry but it was too early for dinner. Instead, we headed over to the Chocolate Bar, a high-ceilinged glittery place with six enormous chandeliers and hundreds of twinkling light strands. Abstract brown and white swirls, loosely resembling cocoa pods, decorate the walls. We ordered chocolate fondue for four, served with a tea candle lit beneath it and accompanied by bananas, strawberries, brownies, and pound cake and white chocolate hot chocolate. Since there were seven of us (my husband, our four kids, my mother-in-law, and me), we also ordered custard filled doughnuts served with berry sauce. The hot chocolate was too sweet, and the doughnuts a bit over-fried (like the fritters you get at the Oregon Country Fair) but the fondue was smooth, chocolaty, and delicious. And even if the brownies did crumble and I had to elbow my husband out of the way to get to the fondue (note to self: order two next time), what’s not to love about eating gooey chocolate with an elongated two-pronged fork?

After all that sugar, we headed to the Reno Riverwalk, a miles-long path along the Truckee River where you can rent bicycles and Segways, as well as inner tubes and rafts in the summer months, so the kids could get their yayas out and the grownups walk off the extra calories. My four-year-old played Princess on the rocks along the river in the brilliant sunshine, and my older daughters sighed over the one merganser and dozens of common mallards that bobbled past. We spied a river otter that was teasingly poking its head in and out of a drainpipe. It seemed incongruous to see such a playful mustelid just blocks from the smoke-filled downtown casinos.

According to Patti Bakker, Truckee River Project Manager for The Nature Conservancy, it turns out it is. “That’s exciting,” Bakker tells me when I interview her by phone after we get back. “River otter have only been sighted a few times in the downtown Reno reach, she says. “It’s very lucky.”

Once a wild thriving waterway that boasted 40-pound Lahontan cutthroat trout and hundreds of species of birds, the Truckee had been highly degraded over the past century (and not just from the wedding bands). In a misguided albeit well-intentioned project to reduce flood damages in Reno and Sparks, the Army Corp of Engineers started straightening the river in the early 1960s, Bakker explains. The river straightening, combined with decades of diverting water out to irrigate pasture lands and use for drinking, resulted in the die-off of as much as 90 percent of the native plants and most of the animals that depended on them. Much of the wildlife, including deer, frogs, turtles, mice, voles, otter, fish, raptors, and songbirds disappeared from the area. But Bakker, who has been working for the last seven years in Truckee River restoration, says that the efforts of The Nature Conservancy and local, state, and federal agencies that began in 1999 to restore the bends in the river and rebuild the banks has really paid off. Young cottonwood and willow trees are growing again on the banks of the Truckee, small mammals like mice and voles are returning, and we are even starting to see predators, including coyote, bobcats, and osprey, come back.

“It’s very good to have people reconnecting with their river again,” says Bakker, who encourages rafting and inner tubing down the Truckee, and who also urges visitors to walk, hike, and bird watch at McCarran Ranch Preserve, which is now owned by The Nature Conservancy, free to visit, and just a short drive from Reno. You may be lucky enough to sight kestrels, yellow rumped warblers, and osprey. “Sadly in the past not enough people were fully aware of the importance of the Truckee River to their life,” Bakker continues. In addition to providing an important ecosystem for animals and plants and recreational opportunities for humans, the Truckee River is the primary source of drinking water for Reno and Sparks.

The Riverwalk District is also at the heart of a thriving local foodie scene that Reno has developed in the past few years. I compiled a long list of places to try before we left but the restaurant most often recommended was Campo which is just across the street from the Truckee. Most of their food is locally grown and they list the names of the farms that supply them with produce on a chalkboard by the door. This unpretentious, almost rustic Italian restaurant has a wood fire blazing in the kitchen and larger-than-life photographs on the walls. My mother-in-law, whose family is from Sicily, ordered the tagliatelle with wild boar Bolognese (which she said was the best she’d ever had), and my vegetarian daughters had Tuscan bean and vegetable soup. The warm kale salad with crispy grana cheese and a poached egg was a big hit, as were the fire-roasted pizzas. Reno may not be the first place you’d expect to find an authentic locally sourced Italian restaurant that is so good and reasonably priced that before you’ve left you’re already thinking about coming back, but there it was.

Another surprise was the art scene. The next morning, a Sunday, we visit the Nevada Museum of Art and stay for brunch. Though I’d been told it was an impressive museum I couldn’t help expecting to find a tiny, orphaned nod to art. But the museum is big—60,000 square feet—and the building itself is a work of art by Arizona-based architect Will Bruder. The atrium is open to the top of the fourth floor, and the stairs wind around a central steel column.

“I like the building,” says Nancy Moore, a Reno mom visiting with her 21-month-old. “They do a good job with local artists.”

“Because we’re accredited, our exhibits rival those you’ll see at the Met in New York City and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,” Amanda Horn, the museum’s publicity director, tells us as we admire paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec and other artists from turn-of-the-century Paris; marvel at Andy Warhol’s series of famous athletes that I’ve never seen before, and walk on top of an installation by Reno-born New York-based Franklin Evans. The museum’s permanent collection is rich in contemporary art: we saw an eye-burningly colorful painting of Buddhist saints by Takako Yamaguchi that held the whole family riveted and large colorful photographs of stuffed polar bears by Icelandic photographer Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir.

“We’re very eclectic,” Amanda Horn says. She’s talking about Reno though she could also be talking about the museum itself. “If you want to have vices you can do them legally,” Horn continues. “I don’t drink, smoke, or gamble but I find that it’s liberating that you can if you choose to. That’s the Nevada spirit. We’re very libertarian here.” She tells me she lives in the artsy residential neighborhood within walking distance of the museum and that there’s a booming music and art scene, as well as lots of family owned businesses. “A lot of people who come to Reno are shocked by that,” agrees Cori Thompson, who moved to the city ten years ago from Burbank, California and also works at the museum.

After all that culture the littler kids are ready for something more their speed and my mother-in-law and 14-year-old want … to go shopping (what is it about malls and teens?), so we split up and I head to the Nevada Discovery Museum with the little ones. We stop at a rundown city park with graffiti scrawled on the play structures and then walk in the wrong direction, finding ourselves in a seedy part of downtown asking directions from a homeless man selling newspapers. A few blocks further on a middle-aged man calls after us with a free bag of doughnuts and some gamblers who have not yet gone to bed stumble drunkenly down the street. I’m relieved when we finally arrive at the museum, which could have occupied the kids all day. We make bamboo books, play with marble tracks, and then head to the inventors’ room to work on the day’s project of making a functioning parachute to keep a raw egg from breaking when dropped from the second story balcony down to the ground floor. The kids climb, explore and touch everything to their heart’s content. I rest. All the exhibits are well staffed and maintained and inviting. 

I thought we’d scoop the shoppers up at Legends an open-air mall in Sparks, and find some dinner. But we had to check out Scheel’s, the country’s largest sporting-goods store, which a Reno dad told me was his kids’ favorite indoor pastime. Scheel’s has a full-scale working 1921 Ferris Wheel inside its atrium, which costs a dollar to ride, as well as fish tanks so large they could be called an aquarium. This is weird. This is Reno. You have to see it to believe it. (There’s also a display case about the history of the Ferris Wheel, which they cheekily call a museum.)

This is weird. This is Reno. You have to see it to believe it.

At the top of the Ferris wheel you can look out of the peaked glass roof and see the sun set over the Sierra Nevada as well as a display of stuffed predators, including a grizzly bear and bobcat. It gets even stranger and more intriguing: around the balcony of the second floor is an array of animatronic U.S. Presidents that move. Thomas Jefferson recites the Declaration of Independence; Lincoln declaims the Emancipation Proclamation; and there’s even a Ronald Reagan. Teachers bring their school kids here to learn about American history. Who knew you could do so much at the mall? (“See, Mom!?” My daughter says.) There’s also a small, coin-operated bowling alley in the bowling goods section; an archery range in the archery section; and a putting green in the golf section.

A Side Trip to Virginia City

During the late 1840s when prospectors were flooding California looking to strike gold, some pioneers panned the Carson River on their way. They found gold and decided to stay. Soon after Virginia City, twenty miles away, became a bustling town of prospectors. The first gold mine to open in Virginia City, made over $10 million. During its heyday the city was a busy, noisy place with some 25,000 inhabitants, 110 saloons, and over 100 operating mines. Now it has only 1,000 year-round inhabitants but welcomes over 30,000 visitors annually who want to take a walk through the past. I expect to find a quaint, sleepy former mining town; it’s anything but. The houses are all crammed together, there are souvenir shops, jewelry stores, casinos, candy shops, and hole-in-the-wall museums. Mark Twain used to live in Virginia City but its most famous inhabitant might be a popular madam named Julia Bulette, who was strangled and bludgeoned to death in 1867. A 40-minute drive from Reno, Virginia City has trolley tours, mine tours, train rides, and more stores and museums than you can count. A fun side trip, especially for the kids, though I find it a little crowded and kitschy. “It’ll be deader than dry leaves next week,” says the clerk at the tourist office whose name is Diamond Jim as he hands my kids free popcorn and serves my husband a cold sarsaparilla.

I have to be honest. Though we enjoyed our trip, we all had mixed feelings about Reno. It’s not very pleasant to walk through a smoky hotel lobby with children and I’m still wondering what was in that doughnut bag. But we left with a long list of things to do next time. The Whitney Peak hotel has a 164’-tall climbing wall along the outside of the building, among the tallest in the world. There’s a full-size outdoor ice skating rink on Virginia Street’s main drag right at the Truckee River that’s open all winter, and people skate late into the night under lights. And the outdoor activities around Reno include hiking in the Sierras, visiting the Animal Ark, a non-profit wildlife sanctuary and education center, hang-gliding and, of course, skiing 30 minutes up the road in Tahoe.

But it was time to go. “Don’t want to leave Reno,” my four-year-old pouts as we packed up the rented minivan and buckle her into the car seat.

“What was your favorite part of the trip?” I ask.

“Everything!”

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Jennifer Margulis is a travel, culture, and parenting writer and the author/editor of five books. Her articles have been published in Smithsonian, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. She lives in Ashland, Oregon with her husband and four children. Find out more at JenniferMargulis.net.