“You’re about to make the biggest little mistake of your life.”
A friend — I thought — locked eyes with me from across the circle of us congregated together at the party as he delivered this message. I was so stunned I didn’t know what to say. I appreciated that it was clever — he was referencing Reno, Nevada, aka “the biggest little city” — but it was also an ominous warning. It was 2010 and I was about to move from Alaska to Reno to be with my then-boyfriend.
I found out later that he was referencing a line from the TV show “Arrested Development,” and I felt sheepish for spending weeks telling anyone that would listen that he was a jerk. But that question still lingered. Was I making a giant mistake? Who moves from Alaska to Reno?
I arrived open-minded but still a little skeptical. Me being me, I made rules to support me in forging my own relationship with Reno. I didn’t move in with my boyfriend in the first six months of living there. And, I saw him a maximum of three times a week in the first few months.
I biked, hiked, ran, farmed and floated my way across Reno. I quickly made friends through work, and loved spending time with my boyfriend and his daughter. On weekends, we might drive to hike up nearby Mount Rose, in the wilderness that shares the same name and is visible from downtown. Maybe we’d go hang out on the beach at iconic Lake Tahoe. Weeknights, we could run on any number of dirt trails, some winding in canyons through sagebrush under the powerful desert sun, or some trailing up creeks and into forests.
Of course, Reno had its hulking, jangling casinos. At that time it was hard to find a hotel that was non-gaming and non-smoking. It had abandoned strip malls, houses and apartment buildings that looked like they were close to reuniting with nature.
But when I biked to work, careening through downtown in the early mornings past the bright pink lights, Cyndi Lauper and perfume pumped into the empty and seemingly dazed streets, I felt like I was in on a secret. Not two minutes away from that scene was my calming view of the ever-rushing Truckee River, lined with a green corridor of trees providing shade and fresh air as I cycled quietly on by. The route took me up a gentle and consistent incline with a view of nearby Mount Rose wilderness and all of the sunlit foothills, eventually leading me to the — then — Patagonia outlet on the western edge of town. Reno was beautiful and affordable. Housing was reasonable; food was cheap.
I used to say at whatever cool and relatively unknown bar or eatery with my — eventual — fiance and friends that Reno was the next Portland, Oregon. Surely this place would be discovered, in all of its proximity to amazing outdoor opportunities; its dry, sunny, and relatively warm high desert climate, bikeability, and culture.
Eventually we ended up in Alaska, because that’s a hard opportunity to refuse. But Nevada felt like home, too.
In Alaska, I would talk up Reno to anyone that would listen. We’d visit at least once a year, and even as we saw the city slowly changing — the arrival of the Tesla gigafactory, new hotels and restaurants, housing prices steadily increasing, more homelessness, crowded highways — it was by and large the same Reno.
By the time we arrived in May 2021, all the change that had been slowly afoot was suddenly overwhelming. It had been accelerated by the pandemic’s work-from-home Silicon Valley exodus to, in part, Reno. Some of the things that made me feel like an outsider were anecdotal, such as getting hollered at and veered toward by someone with out-of-state plates speeding aggressively past me when I was biking. Others were blatant, like the exponential increase in home costs.
I felt like a stranger in a place I’d once lived. I missed it, even while I was there. I spent some time trying to reckon my wonderful memories of a place with its reality, and to find a place for my love for Reno to live in my memory, versus in the present. I tried, but never quite got there.
Now I’m back, visiting for an extended period while my husband and I hang out with his family here. This is my first real trip with “new” Reno front of my mind, versus hanging on to my memories.
What I’ve realized is, it’s changed, but what I loved is still here. It takes going a little further and spending a little more time. We walk longer on the trail than most other people at the crowded parking lot are willing to. We spend more time at the campsite on a weekday, before the weekend rush arrives. I get up for an early morning run and take in the sage smell, the sun before it’s too hot, and the wide blue sky framed by buildings that have an amazing array of original murals across the city.
I basically avoid Lake Tahoe.
Is Reno the same? No. Am I the same? Also, no. I have given myself the talking to that part of life is forging relationships and memories with a place, and then having that bittersweet feeling of having to see it change. But I still love so many facets of what brought me here, including my husband. Reexperiencing this place together, with the good and bad change that’s occurred since we moved away, has helped us make new connections and new memories.
The biggest little mistake is to never try; to not make the bold move. I’m happy I did make that choice way back when to take a chance on Reno. It’s expanded my sense of place and home. On the one hand, this frequently makes me homesick — talk to me in February in Alaska about my life choices — but also makes my life richer. I’m grateful I’m still able to love it even with all that is now different.