23 May Eight Days in Nevada

I just spent eight days in Nevada, doing research for a novel I’m writing, which deals, in part, with the Nevada casino scene. In the 1970s-80s, I was a club musician, gigging on the Nevada casino circuit. Back then, you’d find live entertainment six nights a week in the casinos. Now, there’s live music on weekends in the bigger casinos, none in the smaller. Reno hasn’t been hit hard like Atlantic City but they’re both victims of the same phenomenon: the national spread of casinos, mostly on tribal Indian lands (to circumvent federal and state laws). In its heyday, Reno’s main drag, Virginia street, was bustling with tourists and vibrant gambling. Now there are only a handful of casinos and the street is home mostly to tawdry souvenir shops and other low-end businesses. If you want the big and glitzy casinos you’ll find a few out near the interstate. Or you can go to Vegas, which, as you probably know, has turned itself into a kind of theme park that also, almost incidentally, has casinos.

Reno’s advantage is that it’s the gateway to the Sierra Nevadas, California’s most majestic mountain range, which contains Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. There’s also fabulous skiing nearby in Lake Tahoe. The snow-capped Sierras rise impressively on the west side of Reno. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see those mountains because it was still snowing and raining. Snowing above 9,000 feet, raining everywhere off and on. Never mind that Nevada is the driest of our 50 states. “Nevada,” by the way, means “covered in snow.”

I’d forgotten how high the state is: I was never below 3,000 feet. The highest campsite I had was 7,500. And it was cold, lows in the thirties. All those mountains. There’s the East Humboldt range, the Ruby Mountains, the Cortez with their vertiginous peaks, pine studded forests, and high meadows, where cattle graze among the pinon pine and juniper. The valleys are long, narrow stretches of spring-fed grass. Wheat grows here. In the distance, across the fields, you can see modest ranches. The variety of ecosystems is impressive—from the sand and scrub-covered Mojave Desert, which contains Las Vegas, to the forests of ponderosa pines in the upper reaches of the northern ranges.

A view from my RV door.

Everywhere I went, I smelled the pungent sweetness of sage, the state flower. Thanks to the late-spring rains, the hills were green, like moss-covered rocks. The upper reaches were shadowed with pines. And then, higher, there were fissures streaked with snow and mounded at the very top, a kind of ice-cream sundae heap.

When I used to traverse Nevada for my casino gigs, I thought of it as ugly and desolate. Granted, it’s not as sexy as New Mexico, nor as well-advertised as Arizona. But it can hold its own as a mountainous Western state. It’s an especially good destination if you want solitude. I drove the back roads at every opportunity. I was going try long routes on some dirt roads but the weather wouldn’t cooperate. The one route I tried was too muddy and, just a half a mile in, I spun out—it was like sliding on ice: there was nothing I could do, I just had to sit there, hands gripping the useless wheel, my mind repeating, “Oh sh*t oh sh*t oh sh*t,” until the truck drifted onto the shoulder and stopped at last.

I ended up driving 1,600 miles. To get around on my own terms, I rented an RV—a Ford F150 pickup truck with a camper fitted into the bed. It wasn’t a great camper but it did the job, offering a kitchenette and bathroom. I parked overnight just off of one-lane dirt roads that wended through the high desert; these are easily found and some lead to spectacular views. Eating my lunch or supper with this view for company—a valley stretching below, abutted by a mountain range that, at a glance, might look like a slumbering giant, fingers of hazy light breaking through the clouds—I experienced a rare, settling quiet.

Those big skies, those wild, wide valleys, those dark looming mountains, range after range, they never got old: again and again, I’d drive over a rise to behold yet another breath-stealing vista, which would make me utter an expletive of amazement or, simply, “Whoa!” Driving Nevada’s lonely highways gave me too much time to ponder all I yearn to do—that grand isolation seems to magnify my desires–and yet time enough to appreciate how fragile I am, how thoroughly mortal, and, yes, inconsequential—which is to say that I felt integral to greater things, no more and no less important than the fox, the antelope, the jack rabbit, the hawk, and the mustangs I saw. More than once I thought, if this were the last I’d see of the wide world, well, I’d have been a lucky man.