Saturday, October 07, 2006

A Nevada Geography Lesson

Yesterday, Jill Roberts from Tachyon sent me Paul Di Filippo's introduction to my story collection. It's a lovely introduction, full of graceful compliments and flattering comparisons to writers people have actually heard of (Sturgeon! Bradbury! Emshwiller! Chiang!), and I'm very happy with it.

But Paul did make one big mistake. Describing my story "Going After Bobo," which takes place in Reno, he said that the story was set in Las Vegas.

This error makes Renoites see red. (It's red neon, of course, but it's still red.)

Reno is not Las Vegas. It's not a suburb of Las Vegas. It's not anywhere near Las Vegas. It's three-hundred-plus miles north and four thousand feet higher. Look at the map above. Starting at the top left corner, go down the western border of Nevada until it bends. Right above that bend, you'll find Reno.

Now continue following the western border until you're almost at the bottom of the state. Vegas is way down there, see? Confusing Reno with Vegas is very much like confusing San Francisco with Los Angeles: the cities are about the same distance apart, and have some other rough similarities, too. Compared with their southern counterparts, Reno and San Francisco are both much smaller and prettier. Vegas and Los Angeles specialize in bewildering size and sprawl.

Because Vegas and Reno are the main urban centers in Nevada, there's always been competition between them for money, resources, and respect. Las Vegas residents think bigger is better. Reno residents disagree.

Las Vegas is hotter than blazes all year round. Reno has seasons, including snow. This is ski country. We're in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, an hour from Tahoe. After the first Reno snowfall of the season, I can always spot the UNR freshfolk from Vegas. They're the ones wearing shorts, flip-flops, and stunned expressions.

Note: Nevada is the driest state in the country, with an average annual precipitation of seven inches. I don't think Vegas sees any of that.

Las Vegas, of course, has the Strip. I happen to be very fond of the Strip, which can't be matched for sheer audacity, tackiness and ostentation. You have to love a place so willing to wear its bad taste on its sleeve. At least for short periods, I find the Strip exhilarating, like some surreal theme park for grown-ups. Although I don't gamble, my sister and I once went on a thoroughly satisfying shopping trip in the Venetian Grand Canal, an indoor mall with very classy shops, not to mention an actual canal complete with gondolas -- which you have to pay to ride, of course -- and gondoliers singing arias from Italian opera.

Reno doesn't have the Strip, but that's okay, because if there were more than one Strip on the planet, the entire universe would go into overload and self-destruct, exterminating all life as we know it. Reno has a much smaller collection of much grubbier casinos, which are prettiest at night. For my Reno-native take on casinos and gambling, see this post. The second half of this post covers health tips for casino visits, based on cases I've seen in the ER. I'm sure these points hold true for Vegas casinos, too.

So we don't have the Strip, but we do have the Truckee River, Tahoe, and Pyramid Lake. Rand McNally's Vacation Places rated us the #1 place in the country for outdoor sports. There are also outdoor sports in Vegas, but they need to be approached very cautiously, because if you go outside in Vegas during daylight, you'll get heatstroke and die. Vegas specializes in outdoor sports for vampires.

Are you now convinced that we're talking about two different cities here? I hope so, because then maybe you won't make these blunders:

1. The tactless comment of a visiting Famous Writer who asked me the difference between Vegas and Reno and then, after I'd answered, said, "Oh, so Reno's the podunk version of Vegas?" Response: No, Reno's the smaller, more civilized version of Vegas. My husband Gary calls Reno "the Paris of northwest Nevada."

2. The destination-goof made by some visiting friends of friends, who called their hosts and said, "We decided to fly into Vegas instead of Reno, because it was cheaper; can you come pick us up?" Reponse: Sure. We'll be there in eight hours.

And while I'm on the subject of misunderstandings about Nevada, here are some others: Yes, we have legal prostitution, but only in rural counties, not in Reno or Vegas (where I'm sure there's still plenty of illegal prostitution). No, the word Nevada is not pronounced "Nevahda." The "a" sounds like the "a" in Dad. (For that matter, the "a" in Palwick is pronounced the same way, although people keep pronouncing it Pahlwick.) Nevadans get grumpy when people say the name of our state wrong. And no, Nevada isn't a vast stretch of flat sand punctuated by cacti. We happen to be the most mountainous state in the country. Peruse the topographic map below; then go read John McPhee's Basin and Range.

Class dismissed.


  1. Interesting vent. Since I've often thought about visiting Nevada and seeing other parts of it the descriptions of the differences between Reno and Las Vegas are much appreciated. Thanks also for giving the correct pronunciation for Nevada. It wasn't something taught in school which is a shame.

    Since I just gave a lesson on Texas climate to the 4th graders, I was surprised to hear that Reno has so little rain. Texas's lowest rain level is El Paso which gets on the average about 19 inches per year. That impressed me.

  2. Places can be an awful lot closer than Reno and Las Vegas for their inhabitants to resent confusion (which is, let's face it, rude) I live about as far north of Newcastle as Sunderland is to the south and, notwithstanding that there is no actual green divide between the two cities, anyone who confuses Geordies with Mackems is likely to have their error pointed out to them physically. Manchester and Liverpool are only a little further apart, and confusing Manc with Scouse is a declaration of war, wherever you come from. Then you have Glasgow and Edinburgh . . . say no more.

    I live about as far from London as you do from Las Vegas, and it really isn't far enough. I've been there. I've lived there. My eldest son is seeking fame and fortune there as either bass player or stand up comic (doing okay on both counts, too) and my eldest brother has lived there a lot longer than I did. Whenever I go I can't wait to escape. There is much I want to do there, people I want to see, but I count each and every second spent there as wasted. Maybe I ought to go there for longer and give it another chance, but thatv would mean putting ingrained prejudices to one side, and I can't do that, can I. Can I?

  3. Hi, Lee and Martyn!

    Lee, if you ever come here, you'll have to stay with us -- especially since I know you aren't allergic to cats! Also, I think the prettiest part of the state is the middle part; driving across Highway 50 is a glorious trip, at least if you like high-desert scenery.

    Martyn, I don't think the confusion displays rudeness as much as ignorance. It's only rude if people persist in it after being corrected.

    I've been to London twice, and I like it, but then, I was on vacation when I was there. That always makes a difference!

  4. Geographical imagination really loses traction for folks far from home, especially for people who don't travel much.

    My parents live in Gardnerville, NV, outside Carson City, having moved from Las Vegas a couple of months ago. (I'm here, now, visiting. It's beautiful right now, clear, cool, quiet, and headed right for fall.)

    I lived in Portland, OR, for the ten years from 1995-2005, and now I live in Seattle. In Fresno, CA, where another section of family and friends live, Seattle and Portland may as well be the same place, as far as many acquaintences can tell; and in Portland, nobody seemed to know anything about the Central Valley of California, or how it might relate to more coastal cities like San Diego or Los Angeles, whose "coasts" really are different cities.

    I lived in San Francisco this summer and in Pleasantville, NY (with Kathryn Cramer and David Hartwell) in winter 2005.

    I don't know why I'm writing this.

    Wait, I remember.

    My sister's boyfriend in Fresno is going to Macau on an assignment from work, and he mentioned its strange, Las Vegas–like quality. Your comment about our universe overloading and self-destructing reminded me about Macau, and I hope you're overstating things, because the place looks set to outStrip the Strip Real Soon Now.

  5. Hi, Carl! I'm an old member of the Hartwell/Cramer crowd, as you may be aware, and I've spent plenty of NYRSF work weekends in the Pleasantville house!

    You're right, of course, about lack of geographical imagination. As someone originally from New Jersey, I know that most people associate the state only with the horrors of the Turnpike, although it contains some lovely places.

    I spent six weeks in Seattle in 1985, at Clarion West, so I understand the difference between Seattle and Portland. And I'm at least a little familiar with inland California, since we have to drive across it to get to San Francisco (although I'm sure that miserable stretch of I-80 is no more characteristic of the Central Valley than the NJ Turnpike is of the Garden State).

    The Macau story is fascinating, and, yes, just a little scary. I hope I'm overstating the case, too!

  6. Dan Goodman11:10 PM

    I grew up in a rural area of New York State. Every now and again, I have to explain to someone that no, I did not say I grew up in New York City. Or that no, I did not say I grew up in a small town.

  7. Thanks Susan! I promise to take you up on that invitation some day.

    Never having seen much desert I can't say whether I like high desert or not. I do like the descriptions I have read in some of Windling's work. Is your desert the red rock stuff I've heard of when I was vacationing in Nevada one May? Or is that over near 'Vegas which is where I was at the time?

  8. Hi, Lee! The Red Rock stuff is down in Vegas, and Windling's in Tucson AZ. Here's a nice explanation of the Great Basin, with a fairly characteristic photo.

  9. I am relieved that Paul DiFilipo made the same mistake about Reno/Las Vegas in his contribution to The Fate of Mice. I have corrected my review and apologize. You know how us New Yorkers can be!


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