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Destination: Reno : The Vegas Alternative : Reno still has penny slots, a quirky Old-West personality and lots of great outdoor activities. Soon it will even have the National Bowling Stadium.

July 10, 1994|ELLEN UZELAC | Uzelac is a free-lance writer who lives part of the year in Lake Tahoe

RENO — If Las Vegas is the place to check reality at the door, then Reno--earthy, unpretentious and friendly--is the place to find it.

Where else would you find a marquee announcing "Restroom Renovation Underway" at the performing arts center in the heart of downtown? Or spot a new Ford Bronco with "Uzi" vanity plates and a bumper sticker proclaiming "I Love Explosives!" One windy morning, while waiting for a taxi at dawn, I stood outside a neon-clad casino, lit up like Christmas, and watched as tumbleweed bounced across the railroad tracks that cut through town. Even that early, from a sidewalk bathed in strips of neon color, I caught the musical refrain of coins being tossed rapid-fire into slots: kerplunk! clunk! plink! Call me crazy, but there's poetry in a moment like that.

While glitzy Las Vegas operates at amphetamine speed, Reno is building the National Bowling Stadium, due to open this winter. In the past couple of years, Vegas has been working feverishly to reinvent itself as a family destination. Reno has been family-friendly all along. Cheap too. This is a town with penny slots, $1 blackjack tables, all-you-can-eat buffets and activities, many of them free for the diaper crowd.

There is still very much of a Wild West flavor to Reno. Last winter, a friend bought an AK-47 clone here for under $300 and, after shooting one, I fully understand why the semi-automatic "sporting rifle" is the gun of choice. I felt about eight feet tall while I plastered holes all over an abandoned car on a gravel road a half-day's drive outside Reno. Bullet holes are part of the scenery in these parts. Take a drive past the city limits and I defy you to find a Nevada historical marker that hasn't been shot up.

Yes, Reno, with its cowboys and coffeehouses, has its own je ne sais quoi . To the surprise of Renoites themselves, a recent survey commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts put the "Biggest Little City" on America's literary map. More folks read plays, poetry or novels in Reno than in any of 11 other cities surveyed, including Chicago, Philadelphia, San Jose, Seattle, Las Vegas, Winston-Salem, N.C., and Dade County, Fla. (Los Angeles was not among the cities polled.) Almost weekly, book signings, readings and lectures draw standing-room-only crowds, and the region has become a popular retreat for such writers as love guru Leo Buscaglia; longtime Nevada resident, writer Robert Laxalt, and Wallace Stegner fellow and novelist Joanne Meschery.

There are lots of ways to measure a town--culture, curb-appeal, cuisine, among them. But perhaps the truest test is how residents feel when they put their town in the rearview. "I get homesick," I heard, again and again, from folks who live in this high-desert playground that Rand McNally has dubbed a premier spot for "outdoor fun" in the nation. Indeed, Reno is a fine jumping-off point for day-trips to such luscious places as Lake Tahoe, Virginia City, Lake Pyramid and the Paiute reservation and the ghost town of Bodie.

Reno is the kind of town you can pinch--and know it's real. The streets are named after families that have lived here for generations. You can still drive across town in under 20 minutes, and some visitors find it unnecessary to drive at all: The six or so blocks that house the casino corridor also host the Truckee River Walk, hotels, restaurants and museums. The cab ride from the airport costs about $8.

Recently expanded air service has made it easier to get to Reno. More than 30 flights from the Los Angeles area land at Reno-Cannon International Airport a day. Reno Air and Southwest Airlines both offer deals, including a round-trip, 14-day advance purchase fare of $90-$95, at the moment.

Summer, with temperatures that average in the high 80s, is Reno's busiest season. Among this summer's offerings: Aug. 3-7, Hot August Nights, the city's most popular event, which celebrates America's love affair with cars and rock 'n' roll, features entertainers from the '50s and '60s, a classic car auction, swap meets and a vintage car show; Aug. 20, Reno Basque Festival; Aug. 20-21, Reno Renaissance Fair; Sept. 15-18, National Championship Air Races at Reno/Stead Airport.

Recently, I flew from Reno to Las Vegas in a tiny Cessna. It's hard to judge a place from 3,000 feet, but Reno seems to be a solid sort of place that offers up as much soul as slots, as much nature as neon. I know some folks who think of Reno as a has-been, but I think of it more as a never-was. It never was a Las Vegas. More importantly, it doesn't want to be.

"Here's the difference between Vegas and Reno," explains Larry Henry, associate publisher for Nevada Weekly. "People up here wear penny loafers, khakis and red-striped ties. In Vegas, you see glittery sweat suits, and they seem to have an attitude there about hairdos: the taller the hair, the closer to God."

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