My father and I touch down at Reno-Tahoe International Airport in the cool desert night after a sunny layover in Los Angeles. It is February 2011, and the balmy western temperatures are a welcome change from Minneapolis, where we started the day, leaving behind the second-snowiest winter on record in Minnesota.
“Did you see the city on the descent?” he asks me after we land.
“No,” I say.
There’s not much in Nevada; most people know it as the apostrophe-shaped wedge between Utah and California, a geo-cultural buffer zone between the Mormons to the east and everything but Mormons to the west. Some go there to get married, and some go there to get divorced, and Reno, for a time, and for the right crowd, must have been swell—in the Depression years, a handful of casinos blossomed to life, as if the fever dreams of a job-starved country simply manifested an inexplicable torrent of cool, refreshing commerce, seeding the desert flush in cash-laden Arcadian gardens of red, blue, and gold—on every corner a casino, in every casino a man, every man thumbing the penny, dime, or dollar where all his future wishes lay.
Today, Reno seems an awkward, avuncular go-between of two opposing families; shimmering Lake Tahoe is about forty miles southwest of the city, while the bright lights and wild nights of Las Vegas are hundreds miles more to the southeast. We had both been to Vegas before. In Vegas, many gamblers move with purpose, and often with style, dressing up to hit the floor. Women flit about in little-black-dress flocks of perfume and heels, throwing their hair and striding with drinks. Guys strut in dark slacks or jeans, polos or long-sleeves, cutting each other up about the bar, the girls, the booze, everything. In Vegas, there’s a whole unwritten code for How to Gamble Well with Friends, and you can see it around every felted table, hear it as others pass by.
The gambling experience in Reno—in particular at the Sands Regency Hotel & Casino, where we are staying—is quite different. The average Reno gambler is alone, sucking away on a cigarette or rolling by in a Rascal, oxygen tank clutched like a talisman to their chests. Many are overweight, and their faces, after years or even decades of exposure to the desert sun and the miasma of dank casino funk, resemble unoiled baseball gloves, leathery and wrinkled, lined and tough as stale jerky. They wander the hotel and casino floor the same way cattle put out to pasture wander the ranch, and by 9:00 am, most don’t so much arrive as appear to never have left. The lobbies of the Reno hotels and casinos recall the earthy palette of 1970s’ leisure-suit chic, reflected poorly from tarnished bronze or gold columns and trimwork of many of the parlors and anterooms. Many of the gambling tables—so full and loud in Vegas—struggle to fill their seats. A permanent scrim of cigarette smoke lingers above everything, brushing the hunched shoulders of men and women alike with wispy, blue-cloud fingers.
The truth is I could be in any casino connected to any hotel, anywhere. The repeating geometric pattern of the carpet is eye-numbing, Kubrickian in its crimson, relentless mediocrity. I grab some $1 vanilla soft-serve from the CASINO CORNER MARKET, its all-caps stylized sign lit up in pink and purple neon, and walk in no particular direction, licking.
Many come to Reno—the poor man’s Vegas—to gamble. We are not in Reno to gamble. We are here to play cribbage.
Reno is the annual host of the world’s largest cribbage tournament, drawing over 1,200 players from all over the country. The majority of the tournament is conducted in one massive hall, where dozens of tables seat hundreds of cribbage players facing off against one another in row after row of navy-draped tables and brown metal folding chairs. Two or three other adjacent anterooms—normally bingo halls and dinner parlors, separated by impermanent sliding walls—round out the arenas of crib.
The field is composed of bluehairs, mostly, but there are a couple of young guys like me, twenty-somethings starting their careers when almost everyone else here has finished theirs. This dichotomy, sharp as the hairspray fumes from a passing pegger (that’s cribbage parlance for competitor), is evident to not just the person sitting across from the board and me, but to everyone in the room. Everywhere I go and everywhere I look this weekend, I am met with equal amounts of curiosity and scorn. Cribbage, as this no-trump conference hallway in Reno where we lay our cards suggests, is a game for old people. Whenever I lose a game—and with twenty-two games in the main draw, there are plenty of opportunities to lose—my opponents admonish me as if the loss were preordained. And when I win, it’s because I’m lucky.
I take ten of twenty-two games during the round-robin blitz. It’s not good enough to advance to the best-of-three showdowns in the traditional bracket draws of the next rounds. It’s not even close.
Later, Dad and I walk to a local store for crackers and fruit to bring back to our hotel room. As we wait for a stoplight to turn from red to green, and for its faceless LED figure to usher us across the street, I think of Virgil. Midway on our Reno journey…
Not even midway. It is the middle of the afternoon after a long morning of mostly losing to people I feel I should be beating, we’re out of the main tournament (there are several small satellite tournaments available for first-round losers), and we have two more full days left before our afternoon flight home. Didn’t we come out here with a purpose, after all? Isn’t this the Wiklund family game?
Dad didn’t fare any better than I did, and we are both quietly despondent. Outside the casino, the city is quiet, and though the air isn’t clean, it’s an improvement from the Sands, and I take slow lungfuls of it through my nose. My clothes reek, and the steady erosion of my senses from the casino and hotel coupled with the lower back pain from leaning over a cribbage board all day have sapped my energy away. As we pay for bananas, peanut butter, and crackers, we ask a clerk named Krissy or Kristy or Kelly or Kate which road to take west out of the city for a day trip through the mountains and into Tahoe. She champs a stick of gum and flicks inky, mascara’d eyes to the window. “I don’t know,” she says.
“You don’t know? Don’t you live here?”
“Yeah,” she says, twirling a lock of dyed blond hair extension around her fingers. “One of the roads,” she adds.
That night, we walk the streets. Looking around, I see the streets are mostly empty, the hotels and high-rises above them mostly vacant, the city mostly dark. A few plastic cups tumbleweed past. Nonetheless, we are diligent Midwest tourists, and we will have our picture beneath the Reno Arch, the famous marquee proclaiming Reno “The Biggest Little City in the World.”
We arrive outside Fitzgerald’s Casino and Hotel at the corner of Commercial Row and Virginia Street / Old US Highway 395, just a few blocks from the Sands. This is it—the epicenter of Reno proper, the Biggest Little City. Supported by a pair of reflective golden arches, the marquee looms over us, staking its claim, a twinkling simulacra of glitzy riches. The marquee is capped by a spiky, sparkling star, as if the world’s greatest party has just reached critical mass, exploding outward in scintillating, megaton payloads of prosperity.
Here, at least, is a little of the flashy, dazzling weekend dream I have imagined, or maybe desired, of Reno. It is the first vacation I can remember taking alone with my father, a tireless general contractor of over thirty years. The struggling economy and dismal housing market had forced my dad into early retirement, and early retirement was not something he had sketched in the grand blueprints of his life. In a flurry of scotch-induced post-Christmas cheer, we had decided we would do this thing, that we would book expensive tickets for a brief flight in February, and that we would come to Reno, together. My father enjoyed his time in Vegas, and though Vegas this is not, we thought it’d be a fun, oddball trip to take together, over the plains and into the desert, reconciling my burgeoning fear of flying with his golf-and-cabin-riddled restlessness, the result of simply having too much time on his hands before he had decided, like many retirees, precisely what to do with it. In the past, there had always been a nail to pull, a roof to raise, a door to open for someone else. Now those doors had closed, but in turn, the great burden of an unplanned afternoon—of many of them—had opened before him like an old window upon a humid summer’s day, smothering him with the prospect of muted, daytime television, spontaneous napping, and the great battered toolbox of mind and memory, and all the forgotten wonders and unrealized dreams inside. He’d never admit to being bored—he’s too proud and ambitious for that—but he’d been a business owner since George H. W. Bush was President, his own boss since before I was born, a conservative vote-the-line kind of man for as long as anyone could remember. But as my mother worked and my brother worked and I worked, the only ground remaining for him to break, for the first time in a long time, was his own. Read my lips, he seemed to be saying, I’m still figuring this whole retirement thing out.
We had come to Reno to play cribbage, yes, but 1,500 miles is a long way to go to lay the same cards and count the same points we had done all our lives with the rest of our family. For me, and for my father, I think we had not only come to Reno in pursuit of a recreational, laminate dream, one built with the lumber of the cribbage boards, and secured, hand by hand, fifty-two cards at a time. We had come to talk, I think—to speak of weight loss for him and of marriage for me—to speak as we had not spoken in a long time, to puzzle over the sketches of his retiree-blueprint days, and to figure out in which direction, if any, the vehicle of my life was really heading.
Neither of us knew that, though, as we stood under the Arch. Despite the casinos and hotels, the city is darker at night than I expected, and from beneath the blinking incandescence of the marquee, I narrow my eyes south, where the scarlet-domed entrance to Harrah’s shimmers, mirage-like, in this arid place. I can’t tell if the locals look like tourists or the tourists look like locals, but just about everybody stops by the Arch to gaze at the sign for a moment before moving on to or from the events of their late Reno night. From the other side of the Arch, looking north toward Palace Jewelry and Loan (Diamonds Gold Antiques Videos Watches Tools Guns Musical), the marquee reads, “The Bigge y in the World,” as if the nameless promise of Reno is overheating, fizzling out. “Well, at least one side works,” Dad says.
He trots in front of the Arch, puts one foot in front of the other, and spreads his arms wide, the international vacationer’s symbol of Here I am, there I was, what now? I raise my phone, snap a photo of him, and he takes one of me. Outside the tournament, this was our only verbalized goal, as we’re not really interested in gambling, and there’s nothing else for us to do in Reno. It is t-shirt weather, cloudless, the stars amok above a desert that swallows everything else. Below, the city air feels slick and smeary.
We walk across the street toward a souvenir shop in the ground floor of a parking ramp, where a massive faded sign over the entrance of the shop reads RENO SOUVENIR STATION. The STATION is packed with almost anything the proprietors can cram into it: racks of Biggest Little City in the World pewter keychain arches; cases of desert rocks, bouncy balls, pens and pencils, magnets, toy cars, rubber snakes, and plastic dinosaurs; shelves of ceramic souvenir mugs (I STRUCK IT RICH IN RENO!); license plate covers; bulbous glass paperweights; other five-dollar knickknacks. A wall devoted to Betty Boop. A lingerie section, inexplicably. I wrap an arm around a fraying cardboard cutout of Marilyn Monroe, place a hand on one of her cardboard thighs—her crimson lips are scuffed and peeling, white, and someone has poked a hole through her mole. We leave with two t-shirts and a deck of cards.
Back inside our room, a pamphlet from the desk tells us that citizens of Reno are known as Renoites. Sharon Stone lives in Reno, and Dawn Wells—better known as Mary Anne, the blue-eyed, buxom bombshell from Gilligan’s Island—was born there. I grab some crackers and peanut butter and head to the window, munching. Our room on the 12th floor overlooks the western side of the city. I can’t see it, but from under the marquee, upon the streets where the refuse of the hotels and casinos drifts in the desert breeze, in that lonely, once-prosperous city of chance, above Carson City and Virginia City and Los Angeles and Tahoe and Vegas, its ersatz promise carried by the trade winds and beyond to the salted, blue shores of the Pacific, Hollywood must have seemed an impossible jackpot for people like Wells, fake as a cardboard celebrity, as illusory and false as the queen of hearts promised by the three-card-monte dealers on Virginia Street, an emerald city of Rat Pack wannabes and Cagney cagers. It’s amazing anyone gets out of Reno alive.
From the glare of the window, my reflection towers over the desert. The mountains rise in the distance, their crooked silhouettes visible only from the waning light of the Reno/Sparks metropolitan area. I crunch another cracker and consider the tired landscape, consider my tired self. Exactly what, I ask myself, am I doing here?
On June 6, 2013, two years after our trip to Reno, my father suffered a massive heart attack from within the relative safety of our family cabin in Gordon, Wisconsin. The day had already taken on an unreal, ultra-bright patina for my family, because it was the same date, and my father the same age, when his dad had died of a heart attack in the early seventies. At sixty-two years old, it was D-Day once more, a day of invasion and ruin.
Later, at the hospital, the doctor explained in as simple terms as possible what was about to happen an hour or two before the surgery. He had already successfully conducted a quadruple bypass earlier that day. My brother cried. I remained stoic. “Glad you’re warmed up, Doc,” Dad said. And then we played cribbage.
I’m not going to say it was Reno nor the Sands Regency Hotel and Casino that eventually saved my father’s life, when he would commit to losing weight immediately afterward despite the forthcoming infarction. To put it in Renoite terms, life is a gamble, sure, but the house always wins. We knew that then. We know it now. But if Reno and the Sands could make us forget that rule, if only for a second, then it was Reno and the Sands—with its shitty carpets, dumpy people, and apathetic effort to conceal it all—that threw that notion into stark relief, bright as the marquee, dark and cold as the midnight desert. In the handheld oxygen tanks of the mobile-no-more, the major-chord sirens of the casino’s one-armed robot army—a phalanx of soul-leaching dream machines, forever standing at attention in their ranks and files—and in the weary faces of the desert hungry, I experienced the first glimmers of a fatherless future. I saw the lines of his face in theirs, and they were the same. In the innocent way he ordered an ice cream cone at the CASINO CORNER MARKET, asking “One dollar?” when he already knew the price, I felt a surreal herald of a similar meaningless question when my brother and I would initial for his casket, for when the simple task of signing on a dotted line—when asking “Here?” about the same dotted lines we’ve been signing all our lives—would become an unthinkable directive, an unfathomable act, a final commitment to and admission of a terrible, terrible loss. This wormhole of Nevada, swooping through the East and West towers of the Sands, from the blue-sheeted tables to the vermilion, chainlinky, dizzying carpet, from the mute, silver elevators to the kaleidoscoping roulette carousels, through the bars on the floors of the casino and their watered-down drinks, through its tables of whimsy and chance, and even through the dealers, the servers, the Keystone casino cops, through the cribbage players—through the collected neon dreams of everyone under its roof—all served to reveal their black alien portents to me, a glimpse of the void on the other side of those ruddy, sawblade mountains, slicing the tarpaper sky and all the hammered stars above. Much later, visions of Reno robbed me of breath, and stole me from sleep, as its eroded buildings and neon signage tumbled to dust under the constant red-flame sun, that great glitzy star smashed to crystal pieces upon the scorched desert earth, and some siren, sinister blue-smoke wind carried clear across the plains and through my open window, stirring me awake.
After a sleepless night waiting for his blood pressure to stabilize, I browse the photos from that trip in the morning and do a little research. Though the Arch was erected in 1926 to promote the Transcontinental Highways Exposition of 1927, it wasn’t until 1929 that a man named G. A. Burns, of Sacramento, California, christened Reno “The Biggest Little City in the World.” Burns was awarded $100 for his efforts.
Looking back, the marquee was smaller than I expected. But so was almost everything at the Sands Regency Hotel and Casino, out there at the end of the western desert.