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Trips, Town & Tradition
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Trips, Town & Tradition
  Reno Travel Tale

Lorry Patton

If you like to gamble, why not go to a casino close to home, our friends ask us, every time we plan a quicky trip to Reno, about 800 miles away. We tell them, it's because gambling is not the main attraction.

The Trip
Our trips to Reno have always been an adventure. Usually we leave right after the winter holidays, when unbelievably, the snow is rarely a nuisance, except for a bit of slush through Willamette Pass on Highway 58 in Oregon. Christmas season isn't quite over. Decorations still brighten homes and businesses and places least expected, like the multitude of nativity scenes at Canby, California. I remember our first encounter.
We had been driving for a while, with nothing but a black highway, shadowed trees and the odd scurrying varmint, eyes caught in our headlights, to disrupt the night. Not a passing car or a lit farmhouse window ... Suddenly, there they were, reverend and awesome: Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, big as life under a softly illuminated makeshift alcove. Then another setting and another the wise men, the shepherds! Then just as quickly, the biblical figures were behind us.
Since then, we've approached the quiet community with anticipation. Eager to see if the town's folks yet again, don the streets with the spirit of Christmas. We do appreciate their effort.
By now the road we travel is as familiar as our reflections. We know where the speed bumps are, where to stop for a bite to eat (at the family-owned Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Alturas, California, the tasty helpings are as big as their welcome and service ) and where the fuel prices drop. ( The Chevron on the north entrance to Klamath Falls, Oregon, is around 10 cents more than the Chevron in town. And prices on Highway 58 are not much different from the prices on I-5. )
Our route for years was down I-5 to Weed, California. At Weed we would take 89 to 44 and pick up 395 to Reno from Susanville, California. But after getting delayed in snowstorms at the Siskiyou Summit at Ashland, Oregon more than once, we decided to take the route the buses take and head east at Willamette 58 out of Eugene. Willamette 58 has never held us back, no matter what the weather. This highway takes us to 97 which takes us to Klamath Falls. Here we pick up 39/139 to 299 into Alturas and then we pick up 395. There's a short detour off 395 at Standish A3. This detour bypasses Susanville, saving us about 20 miles.
Overnight stops vary, nevertheless, I can tell you, we've stopped at every KOA between Seattle and Reno. A word of caution: When we travel major interstate highways, we don't mind overnighting at populated rest areas, but we never stop at an isolated rest stop, like the one at Honey Lake, California on 395. It's too barren and spooky.
The length of time it takes us to get to Reno depends on our schedule. Logistically, we can make it in less than 24 hours with the two of us driving. However, that's no fun. I like taking two or three days. Then we can stop and shop at tax-free Oregon (I always manage to find a useful gadget that I can't be without).
More often than not, we explore interesting sights serendipitously, like the summer we redirected to Crater Lake, Oregon, the deepest and bluest lake in the United States. (Take 138 off 97, admire the lake's splendor and exit on 62). Sometimes we venture farther south from Reno. One summer we tested the crooked road to Virginia City and moseyed about authentic bars, banks and bawdy houses turned gift shops and cafes on the main street of a once booming silver mining town circa 1860's and 70's.
One winter we decided to head home by going east on I- 80 and north on I-5 at Sacramento. Our fan belt broke just when a blizzard hit Donner's Pass. This mini crisis forced us to spend a couple of extra days in picturesque and very snowy Truckee while waiting for the roads to clear and a new belt to arrive.
Like I said, and I bet other travelers agree, every trip is an adventure.
The Town
We've never stayed more than two or three days in Reno, happy to see a stage show such as Hello Hollywood at the MGM Grand, happy to play poker at Harrah's when Bill Cosby was a player, happy to splurge at the Circus Circus Steakhouse when prime rib, baked potato and salad was $6.95 and happy to scan cheap booze at dusty overstocked liquor stores.
Some of our visits coincided with floods, cold spells and booming weekends and some when it looked like we were the only strangers in town.
We came to the conclusion that although busy times are more exciting and noisy and slot machines looser (my personal deductions - the more players, the more often the casinos reach their quota), visiting during off-season has its advantages. Parking, for example, a headache when the town is full, is stress-free, particularly when driving a 40-foot RV. (Midweek in March this year allowed us to park our rig in the free parking lot a couple blocks from Circus Circus and sample the hotel's rooms for $34.99. )
The buffet lines are also nonexistent off season and food stations clear of jostling shoulders vying for the same bin of edibles. (One note to remember when you stand before the meat carver: don't be intimidated if he gives you a stern look when you ask for a second slice. Yes, it is reasonable to expect a healthy slab of Prime Rib cut just the way they show it on the picture in the elevator!)
Have tribal casinos had an effect on Reno? Doomsayers say yes. However, hopefuls predict a good future in conventions, big star draws like Michael Bolton and special events like the Rodeo in June, the Balloon races in September and the Fair in August. And they are counting on the growing weekend visitor.
"Reno has become a weekend destination", said a dealer. " Motorists from nearby cities such as San Francisco, Sacramento, Klamath Falls and even as far as Salt Lake City, Utah start arriving Thursday. On Sunday night, the casinos are deserted."
Our first trip to Reno was in the seventies, when slot machines never took more than three coins and the only way the reels would spin was to pull a handle. Back then, Black Jack dealers had one deck, all bathrooms had attendants, and casino entrances, heated through underground grates, were wide-open to the elements. Oh, what fun it was, trying to line up three cherries, or better yet, three bars, even if my arm did get sore from yanking the lever and my hands did get black from the dirty money.
Despite the familiar Circus Circus marquis, the Truckee river ( which now boasts a river walk ) and the train tracks cutting across the town, Reno has changed considerably since our first visit. Furthermore, I'm expecting the future to continue in this tradition. We've seen many of the changes. We've seen Mapes and other casino legends demolished, we've seen the MGM Grand become the Reno Hilton and we've seen the posh Neiman Marcus department store leave town. We've seen Circus Circus; Eldorado and the Silver Legacy become connected with overhead walkways. We've seen construction projects sprout giant Walmarts and Home Depots and dozens of new housing subdivisions, and we've attended the opening of a space-age bowling alley where my howling performance played out for all to see on a giant screen.
Today, my hands don't have to get dirty. In fact, I don't even have to pull a handle to play the (used to be called) one-armed bandits. All I need do is insert a $20 bill in a slot and if I choose nickels, I am credited with 400 coins. To begin the game, I push a button to show how many coins I wish to risk and another button to show how many combinations I wish to cover. My winnings, (I say with a smile), are either coins dropped noisily into the lower bin or a credit note I can cash in. More often than not, I play until my money is gone.
Despite these visual changes, gambling, the heart of Reno, has not changed at all. The blackjack tables, craps, roulette wheels, live card rooms and sporting venue's still fill every nook and cranny of elaborate casinos. Cocktail waitresses still come around with free drinks, buffets are still the best deal meals, major stars still headline the stage, and slot machines still whistle, ring and light up; in fact, today they sing, talk and call you by name. And although no longer the original, the welcoming sign still reads: Reno: The Biggest Little City in the World.
So I say to my friends, when we have a week or less to spare, it doesn't take long to decide between a couple of hours at the local casino and a quicky trip to Reno.

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