Reno: The Dark Horse

Most people think of Nevada’s Reno as a desert city filled with flashy neon lights, where vices are an easy lifestyle choice.

Well, everyone except entrants in the Miss Reno Rodeo. For them it’s no drinking, inking, smoking, swearing, posing nude, getting pregnant or pierced, nor frequenting places of questionable moral repute. These hopefuls must be honest and reliable with high standards and integrity and, for a serious shot at queen, conduct themselves in a proper ladylike manner. Them’s the rules. But how realistic is it to expect that the old-fashioned ideals and expectations of the century-old Reno Rodeo be upheld in a town that has been considered a smaller, shoddier version of Las Vegas for years?

Reno began life as a log toll bridge across the Truckee River after gold and silver were discovered in the area in the 1850s. When the railroad arrived, the burgeoning desert settlement at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains was officially declared a town.

The city began to prosper in business as well as agriculture and the population further increased as a result. However, in 1919, right around the time that a group of innovative community figureheads initiated an annual rodeo, the mining boom waned. It’s a story typical of the American west during this period of time.

It was Reno’s next moves that rescued it from oblivion and established the city’s 20th-century identity. It created a tagline — ‘The Biggest Little City in the World’ — and put it up in lights across Virginia Street. And when Nevada legalised gambling in 1931 — permitting black-market parlours to apply for gaming licenses — and further loosened its already liberal divorce laws, Reno boomed, then becoming the ‘Divorce Capital of the World’.

In this newfound easy-come-easy-go atmosphere, gambling flourished. With every flashy new casino that went up — Harrah’s, Eldorado, Peppermill, Atlantis, Fitzgeralds, Club Cal Neva — Reno’s image sank lower. In his song Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash described Reno as a place one might shoot a man “Just to watch him die”. Hollywood has continued to focus on Reno’s reputation for low-class prostitution, shady dealings and mob-related violence in films such as Pink Cadillac, Sister Act and Kingpin.

Meanwhile, in the city’s sunny sagebrush outskirts, Reno Rodeo never strayed from its commitment to promote and preserve the western way of life. Competitors often represented Nevadan family ranches, which had been owned for generations. Nicely spoken young women with big hair, serious riding talent and names such as Laverne Kirkeby, Cherry Ferretto and Bobby Adams made queen.

As the new millennium ticked over, Reno’s gaming industry started to suffer from legislation changes in neighbouring states, particularly the advent of Californian Native American casinos.

“If you’re in Sacramento, you’re not going to come to Reno for slots when you can do that two hours away,” says Steve Wolstenholme, chief operating officer of Reno’s sky-high Grand Sierra Resort.

The next blow was the GFC. Reno’s real estate market was one of the nation’s hardest hit in 2007–2008 and its single-industry gaming economy began to buckle.

Yet once again, in the face of ruin, Reno took the bull by the horns and diversified, proving it’s no one-trick pony.

Eat, drink and be merry

During June this year, the 10-day Reno Rodeo was forced to share the spotlight. Competing for the city’s attention was Food Truck Friday, Rastro Reno open-air market, a monthly Wine Walk and the start of Adventure Sports Week. The Stewart Indian School Powwow, Octane Fest motorsports and Country Crossroads music festival were also on the calendar.

Tourism representative and Reno local Christina Erny meets me at the Virginia Street Arch. The warm evening breeze smells sweet and a little smoky.

Downtown Reno has the look of a cheerful survivor. The genuine vintage facades of the big old 1970s casinos create a glittery hallway for the eclectic pedestrian parade at the BBQ, Blues and Brews Festival, hosted by Eldorado Casino.

“There used to be a real casino-only mentality in Reno,” Erny explains, “but now casinos realise they can’t keep people in their properties.”

We also catch the tail-end of the Wine Walk. For US$20, we get a handpainted glass and a map of more than 20 tasting locations in the Riverwalk District.

“Reno’s going through a transition,” says business owner Scott Dunseath as he synchronises squirts from two boxes into a caravan-decorated mug. “Gaming is still critical to us, but we have everything else, too.”

Along with developing the retro-style Reno Envy, which is all about expressing local pride (on cloth and cups), pioneering spirit and reverence for the past, as well as being an irreverent celebration of individuality, Dunseath is actively involved in the BiggestLittleCity.org campaign. This grassroots movement embraces the classic tagline that he and others feel deeply resonates with their community and its history. “We just got tired of outsiders telling us what Reno is and who we are,” he says.

Mike Draper, co-owner of a local PR company agrees that Reno has started to come into its own in the past few years. Draper’s grandfather was a dealer in Las Vegas and his father moved to Reno to study medicine (the University of Nevada has had a campus in Reno since 1874).

“Eight or nine years ago, locals wouldn’t really have come downtown. What it took was for businesses to understand we needed to make it a place people wanted to go to,” he says. By businesses he means casinos and non-casinos, and by people he means locals and tourists.

“We’re a big farm that works together — we need each other,” is how Steve Schroeder visualises it. As promoter of Food Truck Fridays, Schroeder is a significant figure in Reno’s street food revolution. “We were a fries, ketchup and burger town,” he admits.

Now the longest line at the weekly Idlewild Park event surprisingly snakes out from the vegan truck.

Farm-to-table is also on the lips of Reno’s diners with Mark Estee, owner of several restaurants including Campo, developing his menus based on local seasonal availability, and practising nose-to-tail and root-to-stalk sustainability.

Similar thinkers include chef Natalie Sellers at 4th Street Bistro, Gino ‘The Soup Man’ at Great Full Gardens and Charlie Abowd of Adele’s in Carson City.

Out and about

Like a freshly unshackled divorcee, Reno appears to finally be pursuing its own interests. Local pride is on the rise, as is an enthusiastic migration from congested Californian cities as people look for a better standard of living.

Reno is a 45-minute drive from Lake Tahoe, North America’s largest alpine lake, ideal for stand-up paddleboarding, boating, mountain-biking and outdoor Shakespeare. There are also 18 ski resorts within 90 minutes of Reno, the highest concentration in the country.

Meanwhile, at R&D Ranch, you can canter a mustang across a river. The Burning Man festival, which takes place in the Black Rock Desert just three hours’ drive north of Reno, also offers a rather unique experience.

Downtown now has the world’s highest climbing wall up the face of Whitney Peak Hotel, open mic nights for writers, bake sales and all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants. Around Wingfield Park over summer, people swim the Truckee River. Public running and cycling events also start from there.

Craft cocktail bars have appeared in midtown, such as Chapel Tavern and Death and Taxes, where owner Ivan Fontana offers mixology classes. Cocktails aren’t the only thing brewing — the once-seedy 4th Street is now home to local beer houses such as Under the Rose.

And then there’s the rodeo, of course. The Reno Rodeo Association has 8000 outdoor arena seats to fill every night. It’s a slick 10-day production that promotes a western way of life through inspirational music, a longstanding (and long-suffering) clown, an American hero, feats of strength and skill on horses and bulls, historic stagecoaches and the young, angelic rodeo queens.

“If I look around,” Erny says, “I’ll see 10 people I know. Everyone comes to this.” That might be so, but the actual rodeo and cattle drive also attract an enormous number of tourists to northern Nevada.

For that evening’s finale, a 10-year-old cowgirl on horseback barrel races a stuntman on a whining dirt bike. They rip it up, side by side all the way.

Words by Elspeth Callenderr - Published in Voyeur November 2014
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 600,000
Area 352 km²
Time Zone GMT -7
Languages English (official), Spanish, Native American
Currency American Dollar ($USD)
Electricity 110v - 60Hz
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