Why an Alaskan’s love affair with Reno, perfumed streets and all, makes perfect sense

It typically happens in February. The sun has been so distant that it’s way too little and way too late by the time it finally starts to fill the days. I find myself over Alaska in a profound way, and sorely missing one place in particular: the desert.

I’m originally from Massachusetts. Shouldn’t I be missing the gentle rolling forests, lakes and creeks? Shouldn’t the Citgo sign be flashing in my mind’s eye like a siren’s song, calling me home? Fenway?

My best friend from back east has been nagging at me for years to get a chickadee tattoo in honor of the Massachusetts state bird. She feels it would only be fair to balance out the Big Dipper that stars my foot and ankle and the outline of Nevada inked on my leg. (She’s lobbying for the bird on my bum.)

But Massachusetts has never felt like home to me the way Nevada and Alaska do. I find myself emotionally split between these two places.

How it happened: When I was still young at everything, from my career to myself to love, I flew from Alaska to a work conference near Lake Tahoe. There I met my now-husband — a nice guy from Reno, I eventually deduced, in talking to him about his favorite wild places across the state whose name I should not pronounce as “Ne-vahhh-duh,” as my East Coast upbringing taught me.

Eventually he took me to some of those incredible landscapes in the high desert, and those experiences are what convinced me I could live there. As it turns out, the state is not — as I once assumed — all casinos, aliens and nuclear waste. In fact, some people call Nevada the poor man’s Alaska.

I chafe at that, but it’s good shorthand for describing what makes the state so spectacular.

Yes, I used the word spectacular. About Nevada. I realize its reputation precedes it and it’s not exactly known for its splendor (which is unfair — I will get to that in a minute).

My stepdaughter realized this the hard way around age 9. She went to see “The Muppets,” which has a scene where the Muppets go to Reno. My usually reserved, even shy, stepdaughter let out a delighted cheer seeing her hometown represented on the big screen, and then sank deep into her seat when she watched the characters realize they didn’t like it there and needed to leave.

Reno is easy to make the butt of a joke. Much of its downtown is a weak impression of the Las Vegas Strip; a rink-a-dink version of a casino town dumping perfume on the sidewalks (seriously).

Why would you ever go visit such a godforsaken place? Never mind live there, like I did for a few short and now sorely missed years?

Oh, where to begin. I’ll start with the perfumed sidewalks.

I know they smelled the way they did because I rode my bike through downtown multiple times a week on my way to work. Riding past the casinos in downtown Reno as part of an early workday routine made me feel like I was seeing something I shouldn’t.

The ’80s music combined with the perfume pumped on the sidewalk were left over from the night before — then they had been part of the ambience, but someone forgot to tell them it was now hangover o’clock. Tourists were still asleep within the hulking buildings, so the long sidewalks with bright desert sunlight were empty. All mine.

I cruised through in near-silence, laughing at Cyndi Lauper singing to just me.

Within minutes, I was riding along the bright blue Truckee River that threads downtown, fed by Lake Tahoe, which is a stone’s throw and uphill drive away. The trees lining the bike path shaded me. I passed a local coffee shop bustling with people, and then came the final stage, and my favorite of the ride — a slow, steady incline with a wide shoulder that pulled me closer and closer to a view of the nearby mountains. High desert sage and plant life filled my nose with amazing smells that changed day to day.

This was only my commute. How I got to and from work.

In the evening, I could choose another spot to go run or hike. Maybe in the nearby Mount Rose Wilderness, accessible right from town. If I’d been into mountain biking then, I could have hit the popular Peavine trail system.

On weekends, there were almost too many options. Nevada is 85% public lands.

Sometimes we would go car camping by primitive hot springs with an expansive mountain view. Or we’d backpack.

In the winter we skied or snowshoed in the mountains and then came back down to dry land in Reno, where any snow almost always melted away by midday.

I loved my sunny and sage-filled existence in the high desert. It contrasts perfectly to my experience of Alaska. Both places are complementary to one another, which means I can’t ever fully have the best of both worlds in one place.

After this long winter in Alaska, I crave everything about the desert. If you, like me, thought Nevada, or Reno in particular, was the butt of a joke, think again. Alaskans might find a lot to love in my other favorite corner of the world.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.