Reno: What’s a Non-Gambler to Do?

My mother-in-law lives to gamble. She comes over from Taiwan once a year to visit for a few months, and the inevitable trip to Reno makes her eyes light up more than if I’d ever make her a grandma. Maybe if I was as lucky as her I’d like to gamble, too.  The woman is a winner. Hours on hours spent in front of slot machines and she always comes out ahead. Maybe it’s persistence, or intuition, or just plain luck, but whatever it is, I don’t have it.  I blow through the twenty bucks I’m willing to part with in five minutes and then I’m twiddling my thumbs for two days while she pushes magic money buttons to her heart’s content.
This year, I decided it was going to be different. I wasn’t going to sit in the smoky casinos soaking in the sadness of “The Biggest Little City in the World”, aghast at the haggard leathery regulars clocking in at their favorite machines with a highball at 10 am. No, this year, I was going to see the sights.
True to form, Mama Money Buttons got the first one-cent slot machine she sat down at to sing. Five thousand pennies within five minutes of setting foot in Reno.  Once I rapidly established that my luck hadn’t changed since last year, I got down to the business of being a tourist. Lucky for me, Artown was going on. Every July, a month long festival is held all over town showcasing local visual and performing artists.
I picked up a listing of the events and followed the map. It led me to Lavender Ridge, a surprising patch of beauty surrounded by the barren desert landscape right outside Reno proper.  Rows of bee-covered lavender in many varieties filled the air with its comforting scent. It wasn’t a huge venue for Art with a capital A – a few photographers, potters, jewelers, and clothing designers had booths set up with their wares, but the real draw was the purple stuff – everything lavender on sale from plants to cookies to crafts. A nice stop to smell the flowers.
My next stop was the McKinley Arts and Culture Center, and the big surprise there was the view. It sits across the street from the Truckee River and the gorgeous Reno Riverwalk District, a lush tree-lined oasis for people to jog and walk their dogs and just stroll along looking at the many historic buildings alongside the river’s banks.
Inside, the Friends of McKinley artists proudly displayed their work, giving a percentage of the profits to maintenance the Center.  Janis Ni’s paintings stood out from the rest of the amateurish work, her vibrant landscapes making surrounding Nevada look like a wilderness wonderland. She moved to Reno from Vegas. “It’s smaller and more community-oriented here, much easier to organize artists for an event like this.”
Before I make it sound too much like a country fair, though, there were some high-end highlights, like the ultra-modern Nevada Museum of Art. The stark black curvy building housed some quality exhibitions in four levels of well-designed spaces – from the rooftop sculpture garden to the discovery center where you can sit and draw and play, from experimental galleries and an extensive art library to the airy café at the bottom level. The Stremmel Gallery down the road was also a haven for contemporary art. Gallery Director Turkey Stremmel is on the Board of Directors for Artown. “We’ve been doing this now for thirteen years. It’s one of the neatest things we do all year, and people come from all over to see it.” Coming from San Francisco, the provincial art scene in Reno seemed mediocre at best with no visible throngs of visitors lining up to see the Art in Artown, but it was well worth getting off the smoky strip to see what else the old boomtown had to offer.
My husband took a break from the casino, and we sat in the warm sun back at the Riverwalk dipping our toes in the cool water.  We watched kids jump off rocks into the mild rapids, families float lazily by on rafts, and one man even catching crawfish. There was so much more to do there than gamble, and enjoying a true summer day in the water is one very good reason for a San Franciscan to go.
I couldn’t avoid the casinos completely, having to return to remind our Lady Luck that she couldn’t live on pennies alone. After the ding-ding-ding daze wore off, she wanted a buffet, another all-American pastime she can’t get enough of when she’s here. Being a culinarily spoiled San Franciscan, I just had to grin and bear the quantity-over-quality mentality and load up on lackluster lettuce, then disappointing desserts.
One casino staple did not disappoint, however. Rum Bullions the Island Bar at Silvery Legacy has a dueling pianos show every Friday and Saturday night. We bellied up to the bar and got a giant flaming Kava Kava rum drink with straws to go around, then watched the fun as two eccentric and thoroughly entertaining pianists took song requests and sang them with not-so-subtle innuendo, embellishments and hand gestures, occasionally bringing birthday boys and brides-to-be up on stage for hilarious all-in-good-fun humiliation.  We laughed. A lot. Even our non-English speaking gambling machine clapped along, until she heard the call of the fake coins and rushed off to resume her post.
On our way out on Sunday, I was thinking how happy I was to be going home to our metropolitan mecca, when my mother-in-law looked longingly out the window at the surrounding suburbs and sighed. My husband translated her sentiment, “How lucky these people are to live so close to the casinos that they could go there everyday.” To each her own, I guess.