Downtown sign, 2005 version
Our first visit to Reno was in 1965 when we drove cross-country with two toddlers. We treated ourselves to a baby-sitter, collected our free nickels from one of the casinos, and won $7.00 which paid for the motel room and the baby-sitter. Reno at that time ("the biggest little city in the West") was perhaps best known as the place where wealthy men and women established six-weeks residence in order to get divorced there. Since that time, our experiences with Reno have been mostly brief stop-overs on our way to somewhere else. And generally our 1965 impression stayed in our minds; Las Vegas was the glitzy and flashy Sin City, while Reno -- just north of the capital Carson City, and close to Virginia City, home of the Comstock Lode -- seemed like a small and historic Nevada town on the way to San Francisco. Here was Harold's Club, which had (or so it seemed) about as many roadside signs as Wall Drug, and here was the famous Harrah's, almost as well known for its auto collection as for its casino.
But suddenly Reno is changing. Readers familiar with the growth of Las Vegas will be startled to learn that Reno is growing faster than Las Vegas -- now. Las Vegas has apparently run out of land and water as millions of Southern Californians sold their expensive houses and bought less expensive ones in tax-free Nevada. But Reno is performing the same functions for those fleeing the Bay Area of California, allowing them to trade homes down in price but up in quality and then save by avoiding Modern art in Reno California's income tax. Of course that's not good news for financially stricken California, which would like the poor to move out and the rich to stay, if you please.
What have we seen driving around Washoe County? Housing developments spread out from the center of Reno in all directions, and lots of new non-gambling businesses are setting up in sleek industrial parks. The University of Nevada at Reno is large and apparently thriving. The community college is also the site of a weather research station and a center for desert biology and botany.
Reno boasts many musical groups and has just finished a two-day Jazz Festival with performances and workshops. There's a new ballet, a new opera company and several choral groups. The Nevada Museum of Art is housed in a strikingly modern building close to downtown. Its permanent collection is small but well-selected: one gallery is devoted to images of work (a skyscraper, bulldozer, various laborers), one concentrates on images of the Sierra Nevada region, and another has a collection called The Altered Landscape. They are about to open a traveling exhibit of Maxfield Parrish paintings and murals. This exhibit will travel to San Diego and other cities, but Reno has captured the first showing. There are dozens of art galleries representing local artists.
The county public library has a dozen or so branches spread about the metropolitan area. When we visited one branch, we noted that only A beautiful mountain setting about six chairs were unoccupied -- and this was during the school day when most patrons were adults. We were charmed by the library logo on one branch, which shows a cowboy reading!
The Truckee River flows through town, with Whitewater park near the city center. We watched kayakers practice turning and tumbling as we walked along the river walk, much of which is still under construction. Not far from the kayakers a fisherman sat patiently.
The geography of this area is spectacular. The city proper is in a basin surrounded on all sides by hills and mountains and the higher peaks to the West are still snow-covered. On one hillside, tucked into the grounds of the community college, we found the Countess Dandini Gardens. Count Dandini came from Italy several decades ago to become a major developer here, and his wife established a small desert garden in his honor. This, too, is still in its early stages but has been intensively planted with bushes and trees which are either native to the area or which are expected to thrive here. It's a curious mixture of plants and statues, with plenty of benches and picnic tables for visitors. Perhaps the plants are slow to bloom because of the local weather, which features rain, hail, light snow, gusty winds and warm sunshine, frequently all on the same day!
Reno, like the rest of Northern Nevada, is known for its Basque shepherds -- or sheepherders, in local usage -- who accompanied their flocks through the area many years ago. Occasionally we have spotted the Basque monument small trailer, the flocks of sheep and the shepherd's dog, but cattle and mining seem to have displaced sheepherding these days, and in present-day Reno little is said about shepherds. But in neighboring Sparks the big casino is John Ascuaga's Nugget. The Ascuaga family is Basque by heritage and they have placed a monument to the shepherds at a corner of their hotel. It's a likeable statue, the shepherd holding a tiny lamb. Curiously, Reno's Basque monument has been placed in the middle of a meadow at the edge of a large park. This monument takes some getting used to. It was designed by a local Basque sculptor, Nestor Basterretxea, and is an abstract portrayal. According to the park ranger who was clearing weeds when we visited, the bronze sculpture was covered in a protective green coating which was supposed to wear off in about six months. Fifteen years later, the only bronze visible are marks where the statue was tied down during transit. Sadly, it is covered with graffiti -- a predictable result for an object placed out in the middle of nowhere. Accompanying the statue is a relief map showing Basque settlements throughout the U.S., and a poem in the Basque language translated into English: A Figure / as if sculpted by the wind itself / A man solitary and strong, / Held straight by his own will / Patient laborer / Facing onto the uncertain horizon of adventure / Endless stretches of the silences of moon and stars, / Through mountain trails: / This monument is eternal homage and memorial to the Basque Sheepherder.