I took an arbitrary trip to Reno – I should not have gone

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Back in the ’80s and ’90s Reno was a popular destination for British Columbian tourists – especially senior citizens – however, nobody goes there anymore and I wanted to find out why so I took a short trip there.

The iconic Reno Arch still welcomes visitors to the “biggest little city in the world.”

I started a new career in 2018 and officially became part of Canada’s middle class but I’m still learning how to be Middle Class. What do I have to do to fit in? How much do I have to do and do I even want to do it? These are questions I routinely ask myself.

One of the most notable things I’ve learned is that Middle Class Canadians are obsessed with travelling. I am not a huge fan of travelling. Unless I am going somewhere to see someone or do something specific I don’t see the point. It seems like an expensive and stressful ordeal that disrupts my routines.

Some of my middle class friends have gently encouraged me to “get away for a few days.” They seem to enjoy it and believe it would be good for me as well. They favour sunny destinations like Hawaii, Florida or Mexico where they partake in all the attractions that those places offer such as beaches, theme parks and all-inclusive resorts. None of that appeals to me in the least.

That being said, I accepted their advice because I thought an inexpensive trip to a quiet destination in the United States would be an interesting diversion. From 2001 until 2016 I made regular trips to the States. I miss going down there and thought I could somehow recapture some of those positive experiences in my new life.

I had enough airline points to cover the flight and most of the hotel fees for either Las Vegas or Reno, Nevada. I went with Reno because I thought it would be kind of neat to experience Vegas’ smaller and cheaper cousin.

When I was a child a lot of older people, including my grandmother, went to Reno for their vacation. They often returned with pens and other souvenirs from area casinos such as Fitzgerald’s, Harrah’s and Harold’s. It looked like a rather exiting alternative to Las Vegas with its opulent neon light displays and stately casino hotels that lined Virginia Street.

A vintage keychain flashlight rom Harlold’s Club in Reno.

When I told people I was going to Reno they had to rack their brain to recall the last time an elderly relative went there. Everyone it seems had an aunt or grandparent who stopped going there sometime in the ’90s. I asked a few older people why Reno was so popular and they explained that it was cheaper and closer than Las Vegas. Most people flew down there but some budget conscious travellers travelled by bus.

I think the final nail in the coffin came when Reno Air terminated non-stop service to Vancouver in April 1999.

I first visited Reno in June 2001. I travelled from the Bay area for an impromptu visit with a friend in Incline Village, Nevada. He picked me up at the train station in Reno and when we drove to the city I was shocked at how dead the place looked. The main streets were devoid of foot traffic or human scale buildings. It really felt like a place to drive through as opposed to a destination.

We stopped at the Atlantis Casino for lunch. Here are some photos from that trip:

In 2022 I thought I would give Reno a second chance. If Canadians have stopped going there en-masse perhaps I could do my part to bring it back.

Getting there was a hellish slog. The only flight I could get included a six hour layover in Seattle so I decided to make the best of a bad situation and enjoy lunch at Pike Place Market. The lunch was okay but the train to Downtown Seattle smelled like ass. I was glad to get the hell out of Seattle.

I took the 1 Line light rail train from Seatac Airport to Downtown Seattle. It’s a marvellous service, however, my train smelled like ass.

The second leg of my flight took about an hour. However, it was very unpleasant as the gentlemen seated on the aisle seat insisted on putting his feet up on the centre seat so I spent the that hour smelling the stench of his feet and nasty body odour.

The Reno Airport was clean, bright and uncrowded. I knew there was a casino shuttle but after a very long day of travelling I just wanted to get to my hotel as soon as possible so I took a taxi which cost US$30. I settled on Circus Circus Reno because it is the only hotel in Reno with a tram. Many of on the autism spectrum love trains so it was an obvious choice. Unfortunately the tram was out of service which meant that I had to walk down a series of hallways to reach the second tower where I was staying.

My hotel room was immaculate but the hotel itself is a bit tired and dated. For most of my stay it was quite empty. It was a bit surreal to spend that amount of time in such a large and empty building. It felt like I was in a dream or some stage of the afterlife.

Circus Circus is connected via overhead walkways to Eldorado Resort and Silver Legacy Resort. This area, which is comprised of six contiguous city blocks, is called the Row. According to various sources it contains 25 restaurants, 23 bars and lounges, 11 nightspots, 2,500 slot machines and 84 table games. It seems designed to keep people indoors… spending money.

Everything about the casino floors seemed designed to keep people in there. The restaurants and entertainment areas had normal business hours, however, the casino floors seemed to be open all night. I was shocked to see that smoking was allowed on casino floors. This lent the area a rather unpleasant smell reminiscent of a 1980s donut shop. I don’t care for gambling but my brother Gino, who is a big poker fan, encouraged me to give it a go.

Escalator to the casino at Circus Circus Reno

Here’s a video of me winning big at the slot machines:

I wandered around the Row for hours just randomly looking at things. Most of the shops and restaurants were closed and deserted and a large area was a dead zone for wireless internet and cell service.

The dining options were less than ideal. There are a lot of restaurants but most of them were closed and the restaurants that were open served low quality food. Much of what ate tasted like industrial food at best. The steak at Café Central was okay but the sandwich at Port of Subs was absolutely disgusting.

Gambling was out and food was a bust so I decided to check out the entertainment options.

The only major show during my time in Reno was Christmas Wonderland, a Broadway style show produced by Spirit Shows.

The poster for the Christmas Wonderland show. I couldn’t find any news outlet called, “USA Press.”

In a 2018 interview Spirit Shows producer David King said the following of his work:

“When I look at a show title or a concept I think to myself, ‘Is this going to put a smile one somebody’s face?’, ‘Will they buy a ticket?’, ‘Will they come and see it?’ and ‘Will they walk out there saying, We’ve seen another David King show and it was great.”‘”

Neil Sean Meets David King

The show, which cost US$39, proved to be the highlight of my trip. The cast consisted of four singers, about a dozen dancers, a pair of skaters and singing Santa. The show consisted of a bunch of Christmas carols and fantastic choreography, costume changes and skating. While all the performers were in top-form, I was absolutely delighted with the singers, particularly the stunning performance of, “All I want for Christmas is you.” I left the show with a smile on my face.

The dancers at the Christmas Wonderland show at the Eldorado Showroom in Reno, Nevada.

Soon after I arrived I decided to venture outside to explore Virginia Street. Unfortunately there was not much to see or do. At one time it had been a walkable commercial district with a bunch of casinos and shops. However, there isn’t much left outside of some liquor stores and a palm shop. There was no foot traffic and the few people I did see looked incredibly downcast and sad.

As I wandered further down Virginia Street to the Truckee River the area seemed to improve. There is a greater assortment of businesses and other human activity. That area feels more like a respectable downtown as opposed to the tired husk of a once vibrant casino district.

The Riverwalk is a beautiful neighbourhood built alongside the Truckee River with a lovely blend of old and newer buildings that seemed far-removed from the gaming industry. I enjoyed this blissful reprieve from the dank air in the Row.

On my last night in Reno I was determined to have a decent meal. I did a bit of research and discovered the Liberty Food and Wine Exchange on North Sierra Street which is a local restaurant that sources its food from within the region. I came in during the dinner rush to a bustling restaurant with a contemporary and down-to-earth ambience reminiscent of many restaurants here in Vancouver.

It was a welcome contrast to the depressing and empty vibe of the Row. There were a lot of upwardly mobile diners laughing and chatting with their friends over wine and good food.

The servers were very friendly and familiar with all the menu items. I ordered rigatoni arrabbiata with a side of focaccia bread. It was an incredibly delicious and appetizing meal.

Overall, I would say that Reno is a very nice city in a beautiful region of the United States. I am sure that a lot of people go there and have a wonderful time, however, that was not my experience. I had a crappy trip, but that’s not Reno’s fault – it’s mine. I had no business going there and throughout the trip I had this nagging feeling that I did not belong there. I guess I’m just not that into travelling anymore.

I tried bringing Reno back but it ain’t coming.

I am a resident of Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada who has blogged here for 20 years. I like to share my thoughts and feelings on my own online space. From 1998 until 2017 I worked as a journalist and I hope to use this website as an archive for all of my stories.

4 Comments

  1. Perhaps you may need to pick better travel destinations more in keeping with your personal taste and things that are of interest to you ? At least you know why most people do not go to Reno , Nevada anymore . Many places in the USA are in decline unfortunately . Years ago I went on train trip through Canada and it was breathtakingly beautiful . We got on a train in Sault St. Marie and headed into beautiful mountains and lakes . I like travel to see beautiful classical/traditional architecture , beautiful well planned towns and cities , classical garden design , and museums and even house museums . I like travel to see beautiful nature areas , state parks and the like . What I don’t like about travel is dealing with the people , the nastiness and litter of some places , and the stress of getting to and from my destinations . I’m basically an introvert and a homebody . I’ve gotten to the point I would rather watch others travel on YouTube or read about and see photos of travel in a book . You’re a very handsome man and I miss seeing your videos on YouTube . I live on the southeastern coast of Georgia USA 🇺🇸 .

    1. Hi Christopher, you’re absolutely right – I do need to make better travel decisions! I only went to Reno because that’s where my points took me…I do share your reservations about travelling. The older I get the less I want to break out of my routine. What videos of mine did you watch? I am thinking of making one more about my genealogical search… but I’m slow to the punch. Thank you for your kind words! 🙂

  2. Very interesting well written and absolutely astonishing. Hope you managed your earnings playing slot we don’t all have to go big.

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