The guy in the lift asked where I was from. He’d heard my accent.
“New Zealand? Oh, that’s a dream of mine,” he said. “I want to shoot one them red stags you’ve got there.”
I was on my way to the 33rd floor of the Silver Legacy, one of the three massive casino resorts that make up The Row in the centre of Reno. I dropped my bags then went downstairs to the casino, walking past restaurants and bars with live bands and karaoke – all interior, windowless, a town inside a town.
Outside, Reno was almost deserted. Seemed everyone was in the casinos. I meandered past pawn shops, browsed second hand book stalls then found a sunny spot on a terrace overlooking the river for a lunch of bean soup.
Reno is full of public sculptures, murals, original creations bought into town from the site of Burning Man, an alternative cultural festival held in nearby Black Rock Desert each year.
Early one morning I walked to a park full of Burning Man sculptures and fell into conversation with a super polite homeless couple, fallen on hard times, in need of money. It’s an interesting, real sort of town, Reno. It has swagger.
But I was happy to leave it behind, to see beyond. On the road to Carlson Valley the dry brown hills lay still, waiting for snow. A clear blue sky was zig-zagged with vapour trails. The state of Nevada is big wide country, with few trees. In the purple distance the Sierras ranged between the plains and Lake Tahoe. It’s easy to imagine wagons, horses and caravans moving across the landscape, dusty cowboys looking for a drink.
At Bentley we found one: a distillery based in an elegant old creamery, where they use locally grown grains and very pure water from a granite-based source to make vodka and whisky.
We stopped for a while at a fascinating little museum in Minden’s former school where stories of Carlson Valley ranchers, pioneer towns and the Washo tribe were told with colour and energy.
While there, we met a wildlife photographer John Humphrey and heard about close encounters with bobcats, brown bears, mountain lions, snakes, owls, eagles and wild horses. He told us there are lots of hiking and cycling trails in the area and many opportunities to see wildlife.
Dangberg is a home ranch open to visitors who will hear the story of the owners’ rise and fall. The family built the town of Minden and owned thousands of acres of land at the foothills of the ranges.
Today, all that is left is a rambling homestead, now in public ownership, stuffed full of antique, old and modern things, evidence of several generations including the most recent inhabitants – elderly sisters who saw their lives out here.
With the day coming to a close, we booked into Walley’s Hot Springs for a luxurious soak in the cool evening air before venturing out again to JTs Basque restaurant for a family-style feast of hearty soups, stews, chunky fresh bread and chilled red wine. Early last century hundreds of Basque sheepherders were employed on the state’s ranches. They’d spend summers in the mountains and winters in the town, staying in local hostels and socialising in style. The tradition has been honoured in this warm, authentic restaurant.
Tahoe is the world’s largest alpine lake. It’s very pretty, impressively clear and clean. At its northern end is a small town with a low-key vibe and an emphasis on hiking, kayaking, health and yoga. The southern end has casinos and a bit more thrill. We went north.
If you come here in winter, you can snow-shoe around the lake’s edge. Visitors stay, like we did, at the lakeside Hyatt Regency and shuttle up to the Diamond Resort ski slopes for the day. There was
no snow while we were there; we were content to experience the beauty of the lake, walking along calm pebbly beaches and out to the end of jetties, then relaxing over a long lunch at Lone Eagle which boasts massive stone fireplaces and expansive views of the glassy, shining lake.
At a local boutique brewery, Alibi Ale Works, we sampled ales and chatted with the owner who told us that the business worked because outdoors folk liked the Alibi vibe. The laidback culture of North Lake Tahoe went with craft beer, he said.
Out of curiosity we called in to the spectacularly flash Ritz Carlton where guests can ski in and out, have their boots warmed for them, toast marshmallows over an open pit fire and keep an eye out for famous people.
Not being of that ilk, we headed downhill to dine at friendly, colourful Caliente which served delicious and memorable Mexican cuisine.
It was a short stay at Lake Tahoe; I’d liked to have lingered. It’s a quiet, calm place and its dry air and bright blue, crisp days felt healthy and therapeutic.
One morning, I found a local yoga class. Another day, we went for a hike up a trail fringed with pines with views across the lake. Being unfamiliar with the territory, we hooked up with a local guide who specialised in mindful, intentional awareness. Now and then, we’d stop to check in with nature, or with each other, or with ourselves.
At one point he gave us each a notebook and invited us to sit a while to record how to 'better connect'. It was the perfect place to do it.
Reported by Kathryn Webster for our AA Directions Spring 2020 issue