I’m walking through the lobby of a major casino hotel in Reno, Nev. The cacophony of bells, coins, buzzers, and “oldies” tunes competes for my attention with the flashing neon, mirrors, glass, and polished brass. My nostrils are raw from the smoke of the nearby Lake Tahoe forest fires outside and the cigar and cigarette smoke inside. I’ve never seen so many people using bottled oxygen.
This is my third night in this hotel. I’m starting to get used to it.
Bright Lights, Big Mountains
I wasn’t asked if I wanted to attend the four-day convention in Reno. I was told.
Mind you, I have nothing against the self-proclaimed “Biggest Little City in the World.” (Truth be told, I was married there once, but that’s another story.) But I’ve never been big on gambling and my idea of nightlife is soaking in my own backyard hot tub with my husband. So a solo half-week in northern Nevada’s gaming and entertainment capital wasn’t my idea of a good time. Then my co-worker and fellow conventioneer, Jane, reminded me that the foothills of the Sierra Nevada were just a stone’s throw away.
Wilderness Where You Find It
After spending all day in meetings, I was thrilled to leave the din of the casino and convention center behind. Jane and I pointed our rental car south on Highway 395 and drove into the light afternoon light with a map in hand, our hiking boots on, and bottled water in our daypacks.
Spooner Lake, near Lake Tahoe and 45 minutes south of Reno, Nev.
Amazingly, we arrived at Davis Creek Regional Park in less than half an hour. It was too late in the day to tackle all six miles and 4,000 feet, but we struck out on the steep, sandy slope nonetheless, eager for a good stretch and some high desert vistas.
The silence (after the din of the hotel) was palpable. We climbed under a canopy of sturdy Ponderosa pine on a trail flanked with sage and bitterbrush. Though the road was clearly visible after a brief climb, the loudest sound was the sandy scuffling of spotted lizards. We rose into a sunset made pink by the drift of the nearby Tahoe fires. The climb was steep, made more difficult by the soft sand. We stopped at switchback elbows to admire the view over Lake Washoe and exclaim over how high we had climbed.
Twenty miles to the north, pale tourists sat staring at the neon glow of spinning slot machines.
Spooner Lake Junket
The next afternoon, emboldened by our success at squeezing in the Davis Creek hike, we fairly dashed from our meeting immediately upon adjournment. Within 15 minutes, we had traded our business garb for shorts, T-shirts, and hiking shoes, and we were pulling out of the casino parking lot.
This day’s destination was a bit more ambitious. Spooner Lake sits at 7,000 feet elevation east of Lake Tahoe near the junction of highways 50 and 28, about 45 minutes from Reno. Our plans were complicated by a shift in the prevailing air currents, which had drawn the smoke from the fires west of Tahoe clear up to Reno. The whole city was blanketed with a dingy haze. At first, it became denser as we drove south, but we broke through the other side at Carson City: blue skies! The fates were smiling upon us.
Spooner Lake is a tame little 2.1-mile shoreline loop, but it was sufficient antidote to the day’s meetings. Chipmunks scampered everywhere, finches and jays darted from tree to tree, and the early evening sunlight was golden and glorious.
I don’t understand the fascination with casino gaming, but I try not to stand in judgment of other people’s hobbies. After all, not everyone would appreciate driving an hour and a half round trip to hike a flat, easy hour around a little lake, but it made sense to Jane and me.
So tonight, as I padded through the casino lobby in my ripstop shorts, my Teva sandals, and my “Hiking Legend: Yellowstone” T-shirt, I felt a certain kinship with the white shoe and polyester crowd. I slipped a dollar into a video poker machine and managed to lose it without even sitting down. Smiling, I bought a cup of tea and shuffled back to my room to look at my maps and consider trail options for my final afternoon.
I think I like this town.
Sally O’Neal Coates is a travel and outdoor writer who makes her home in southeastern Washington State. Her column appears weekly in Guide Outdoors, the content portion of Sportsman’s Guide, and her books include “Hot Showers, Soft Beds, and Dayhikes in the Central Cascades.”