Midway through his 1940 Western classic “The Ox-Bow Incident,” author Walter Van Tilburg Clark paints the barren Nevada landscape that is the backdrop to a lynch-mob killing.
He writes plaintively of snowy peaks, even in the summer months, of dried creekbeds, meadows bedecked in purple and golden wildflowers, violets “as big as the ball of a man’s thumb,” and timber “to the tops of the hills.” In late summer, “you’d see a sheepherder small out in the middle, with his burro and dogs and flock ...”
“It was,” he concludes, “a lovely, chill, pine-smelling valley, as lonely as you could want.”
“Ox-Bow” is set in the waning years of Nevada’s Silver Rush, a decade after gold was discovered in California but during a time when cattle rustling could still lead to vigilante justice. Oddly, though I’d grown up in Northern California, I’d never heard of the book nor much even about the Comstock Lode discovered near Virginia City, just south of Reno, in 1859.
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I begrudgingly agreed to read the novel several years ago while living in Europe. Some German friends had eagerly asked me about it, assuming I was familiar with all things American West. Soon enough, not only was I sucked into Clark’s tale of murder, but also his vivid descriptions of a landscape I’d always dismissed as forgettable hinterlands despite never having set foot in Nevada.
When I moved back to California, I found that friends were swooning about the “Reno-ssance” that began around 2011. The city attracted companies such as Apple, Amazon, Panasonic and Tesla to move to Nevada with tax breaks. To satisfy its growing population of younger residents and families (and more retirees from California seeking cheaper living), new art galleries, a revamped river promenade, brasseries, microbreweries and quirky areas such as the Midtown and Riverwalk districts have taken root and replaced some of the seedier landscape for which Reno is typically known.
Last spring, I drove over the still snowy Sierra Nevada range in search of that urban renewal – and to see the rural vistas Clark had described so well.
I figured that it might take some digging to mine modern Reno’s figurative silver. But in this gaming town, I was more than game.
I drove in and arrived at the stylish Whitney Peak Hotel. The city’s first nongaming, nonsmoking hotel, open since 2011, overlooks the prominent “Biggest Little City in the World” sign. After a scone and tea and some people-watching at the cozy Hub Coffee Roasters, I strolled through the Riverwalk District that skirts the Truckee River, which was running wild after a banner year of rain that ended nearby California’s epic five-year drought. Farther on, I passed Bryan Tedrick’s sculpture “Portal of Evolution.” First displayed at the Burning Man festival in 2009, it now seems to be a Reno landmark, and features a butterfly atop droopy blooms – but, by other accounts I heard here and there, it more resembles fallopian tubes.
I frankly preferred a temporary exhibition of wistful Maynard Dixon landscapes at the Nevada Museum of Art, an impressive and imposing four-level structure inspired by Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Another fine exhibition featured modern and contemporary – and political – Mexican art and photography, including pieces by Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Yet another detailed the making of Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s “Seven Magic Mountains.” Placed in the desert near Jean, the sculpture is an unmissable landmark of stacked limestone boulders painted in Day-Glo hues. I later wandered to the museum’s Sky Plaza, where from a balcony I had a dreamy view of the snowy Sierras. Afterward, I found myself meandering southward from their base, more or less in search of Dixon’s and Clark’s landscapes.
I think I found those in the vast and searing Carson Valley, where I languished a bit in tiny Genoa, the state’s oldest settlement and, perhaps not surprisingly, home to its oldest bar. There, weary explorers, trappers and pioneers – if they were lucky to have survived crossing a desert that stretches to Utah – gathered supplies and courage to then scale the looming Sierras, mostly in search of gold.
Another day, I drove northward to Pyramid Lake, taking note along the way of a sign heralding a “Wild Horse Adoption Center.” The rocky, barren terrain enforced an unmistakable loneliness and uncertainty, but eventually both gave way around a bend to the anemic – yet striking – lake and signature pyramidlike rock, Anaho Island, at its eastern shore. Aside from a handful of anglers at Warrior Point, the place was empty and the water like glass. I stopped by the marina to buy a sandwich and chips before parking alongside the fishermen’s campers. Sitting near the shore, I watched them slowly wade in and patiently cast their lines.
Later, while sipping Picon Punch – or orange bitters – at the J.T. Basque Bar & Dining Room in Gardnerville, an hour south of Reno, I asked Marie Louise Lekumberry about Carson Valley back in the day. Her father, a Basque sheepherder, had settled in the area in 1947 along with many of his countrymen. He eventually opened a boardinghouse, which now houses the restaurant and bar. Marie Louise and her brother run the place.
Marie Louise’s recounting of those long-gone days, her inadvertent evocation of Clark’s “sheepherder small out in the middle, with his burro and dogs and flock” drew me back to “Ox-Bow.”
Clark, I later read, was considered a Westerner because all of his tales are set in Nevada. In fact, he was born in Maine, and only ended up in Reno because his father accepted a position as president of the University of Nevada in 1915. Clark settled on the East Coast as an adult, and started his writing career there – but the Silver State’s searing landscape, with its wild yet tranquil terrain, would inspire his imagination. In the brief days I traversed the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, it inspired mine, too.
Reno, Nevada – what to do
▪ Nevada Museum of Art, 160 W. Liberty St., 775-329-3333, nevadaart.org
The museum, founded in 1931 and run early on by outdoor landscape painters, explores and exhibits work reflecting the intersection between art and environment. The striking, four-level building, which was designed by Will Bruder and opened in 2003, is reminiscent of northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays; closed Mondays, Tuesdays and national holidays. Admission: $10; $8 students and seniors; $1 ages 6 to 12; younger free.
▪ The Basement, 50 S. Virginia St., 775-771-0334, thebasementreno.com
The underground of this former post office, built in 1933, is now a multiuse incubator for alternative and collaborative vendors, selling everything from organic fruit juices to leatherwear. Open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends. Free.
▪ Raymond I. Smith Truckee River Walk, follow the signs in downtown Reno, 775-682-3800, renoriver.org
The 121-mile river flows from Lake Tahoe northward to Pyramid Lake, but first makes a cameo in Reno and provides a nice backdrop for a pleasant stroll away from the casinos and nightlife.
▪ Carson Valley, about 57 miles south of Reno via Interstate 580, 775-782-8145, visitcarsonvalley.org
An hour south and a world away, with the gaping desert to the east and the formidable Sierra Nevada to the west. In the beautiful Carson Valley, you can hike, golf, fish, ride horseback or in the back of an ATV, or even levitate by hot-air balloon for a grand view. Stop midway, in Virginia City, for a glimpse of the Old West – where Mark Twain got his start – or head for quiet and pretty Genoa, Nevada’s oldest settlement and home to its first bar.
▪ Pyramid Lake, about 40 miles northeast of Reno, 775-574-1000, pyramidlake.us
The barren landscape, located 25 miles north of Reno, eventually opens up to the Paiute Indian Reservation and Pyramid Lake. You can fish ($9 per person, check in at the ranger station in Sutcliffe) and camp ($9 per vehicle per night) here, or just have a picnic lunch while taking in the view of Anaho Island, a sanctuary for the ubiquitous American white pelicans.
More information: visitrenotahoe.com