Thursday, September 29, 2011

Culture Share: USA - The Reno you didn't see

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures. Colin Fisk discusses Reno, Nevada in the wake of the 2011 WorldCon science fiction and fantasy convention.

After reading a lot of Twitter and blogs posts from WorldCon about Reno, I thought people might want to see a different side of the town than the absurdly tacky, smoke-filled casinos that were, for many people, their only images of Reno. Even those who left the convention for the morning “Walk with the Stars” didn’t see an area of town that would leave a favorable impression. I should clarify this was not the fault of the organizers, but given the walk was designed to get people out of the hotel/convention hall for a quick stroll and have them back in time for the first panels of the day, the options were limited and the route chosen was the only one which had any small amount of nature in it.

The sad truth is that the area between the Peppermill and the Atlantis/Convention Center is on the edge of the low income/gang territories. So for those convention goers, Reno definitely gave an impression that was less than favorable. And, should people have decided to venture downtown, they most likely did so down South Virginia which is a quirky combination of art stores, neat resale/antique shops, low rent hotels and a lot of smut: from sleazy lingerie shops to exotic dancer “gentleman’s” clubs complete with large LED signs which rival the Peppermill and Atlantis. And then there’s downtown. In the space of six blocks you can go through the beautiful Riverwalk with its art galleries and downtown water adventure park which is home to many events including an annual kayak race, stroll past one of the oldest churches in the west as well as another which still has a working pipe organ and come face to face with a lot of half-gutted casinos which were being refurbished into luxury condominiums when the economy went south as well as pawn shops and the flashing lights of gambling halls in “attract mode.”

Looking at Reno from these viewpoints it doesn’t seem to have a lot to offer.

I won’t go into the amazing laundry list of places to go and geological wonders the area has (for example, most people don’t know that the Truckee river, which flows through downtown, runs south to north, one of a few rivers in the world to do so), which were discussed at the aptly named Welcome to Reno panel which opened WorldCon on Wednesday. I’m not even going to discuss the artistic culture which ranges from the aforementioned Riverwalk, a plethora of pre-Burning Man events (the majority of the large temples are constructed in Reno), to the month-long celebration of art in July with the not so creative name of Artown ( as well as many Burning Man groups such as the Controlled Burn fire dancers who make their permanent residence here.

From my perspective, one of the attractions of Reno that many people who visit will most likely never experience is the melding of suburbia with nature.

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for the better part of twenty-five years. During that time, the majority of my time was spent in suburban areas. On any given day, the fauna you were exposed to was limited to small birds with perhaps the occasional raccoon or opossum at night.

The area we live in in Reno was swampy farmland some fifteen years ago. Today, the majority of the swamp has been drained and large suburban tracts exist. However, in order to maintain adequate drainage, throughout these suburban areas there are ponds and the natural channels which fed the wetlands less than two decades before.

As a result, there exists small ecosystems within the cookie cutter housing tracts, all lined with walking paths which allow nature to maintain an odd balance within the intrusion of human housing growth.

In the open space behind our house (less than 100 yards to a major road so not as wide as to encourage a complete reclaiming by nature), there are a pair of mated Northern Harriers that have lived there for the five years we have. It’s a daily occurrence for the female of the pair to cruise through our backyard at dusk and often the male hunts through our yard several times during the daylight. The same area this year has been home to a pair of mated Red-tailed hawks. Though we live several miles from the hills, it’s not uncommon during the summer to hear coyotes trying to bait the local dogs out into the field behind our house.

My wife and I walk most days or evenings along this path; a loop totaling two and a half miles which takes us past a pond some two hundred yards from our front door and down alongside the drainage canals. As an amateur photographer, I’ve now cataloged seventeen or more different types of ducks in the pond, not to mention the Great Blue Herons and Egrets (both Snowy and Great,) and, much to our delight, a mated pair of Night Herons which had three offspring a year ago, two of which have stayed in the area as well.

Several times a year, the pond also hosts white pelicans. As I understand it, many years ago Pyramid Lake (home to some amazing Paiute petroglyphs on the nearby reservation) was an inland sea. As such, there are still pelicans which are native to the area, and while there has been a group of three that have been weekending on our pond for several months, usually our view of the pelicans come in the form of a vanguard of consisting of a few one afternoon, a flotilla upwards of sixty the following day and the next morning they take flight again toward their ultimate destination.

The additional birds which inhabit the pond and drainage range from the American Avocet, to Sandpipers, Virginia Rail, Sora as well as Flickers, Tern and vibrantly colored Swallows. During the winter, the pond has plays host to the occasional Snow Goose as well as many Kestrels.

So, for every glowing slot machine that beckons you to leave your money behind, nature counters with the occasional black bear wandering down from the Lake Tahoe area. For each classic car that comes to town for Hot August Nights, many species of hawks fly above the town. During the ski season, four wheel drive SUV’s with California plates slip and slide through intersections as magpies look down contemptuously from lamp posts. And while the bald eagle balloon which makes its appearance every year at the Great Balloon Race is neat, it doesn’t compare to the actual Bald and Golden Eagles which float higher than their propane-heated counterparts.

Colin Fisk lives in Reno, Nevada.