“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert. This post originally appeared on High Country News and is reposted with permission.
Reno is a desert town with a river heart. The Sierra Nevada snow-fed Truckee River, which is the only outlet from nearby alpine Lake Tahoe, passes through the city on its 121-mile-long slide out to Pyramid Lake, which is among the most spectacular desert terminal lakes on the planet. Although the Truckee is the lifeline between these two gorgeous lakes, which are separated by 2,500 vertical feet, it has not generally received good treatment as it passes through the center of this western Great Basin city. Once an old cow town attempting to shift to a new resort economy, Reno turned its back on its river corridor, choosing instead to focus visitors’ attention on the impoverishing entertainments offered just around the corner, where casinos sprouted up along Virginia Street. The river, so nearby, was relegated to a concrete trough with few access points. Its riparian zone became home to hobo camps, while the Truckee itself was regarded primarily as something to be crossed on one of the city’s old bridges. For a long time our river gave sacred water but received profane treatment.
Signage discouraging use of the Truckee River. Photo Courtesy of Michael Branch
This denigrating view of the Truckee has mostly changed these days, with a series of ambitious and largely successful river core urban renewal projects. We now have a whitewater park, pedestrian bridges, improved access, and more greenspace along the floodplain. And while all this exists in the shadow of towering casinos, it offers a helpful reminder that we desert rats had better pay tribute to the Truckee, without which our survival in this arid place would be tenuous. Even in the desert, a city without a home river seems to me a lonely proposition. I’m grateful that we’ve begun to appreciate ours.
Twenty years ago, before the Truckee corridor through Reno had been revitalized, I used to hang out down by the river a lot. At that time I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, and had not yet begun to build our home out on the Ranting Hill, far north of the city and up in the remote, high-elevation canyons and ridges along the California line. Back then I was a new arrival in the Great Basin. My desert rat whiskers had only just begun to sprout, and I still felt more comfortable keeping water in view.
It is with the bittersweet sensation of a lost place and time that I return two decades later to revisit well-worn memories of those old days and nights along the Truckee. One of my closest friends at that time was Brad, a guy whose aplomb and cool had earned him the nickname “Smoo B” (as in “Smooth Brad”). I had plenty in common with Smoo B, but perhaps most important was our love of playing music together, something we did at every opportunity. He picked guitar and I blew blues harp, and we bonded over the fact that neither of us had ever met a note we didn’t want to bend. As a little, two-man jam band we played out at cheap bars now and then—the kinds of dives that were adjacent to tattoo parlors, and once we even played in an acrid-smelling saloon that slung both rye and, in the back room, skin ink. One-shop stopping for Harley dudes. We never used the same band name twice, and I’ve forgotten all of them now, save “Jeebies and Stankeye.” I no longer recall how we came up with that name, or which one of us was which, or if we even stopped to ask such questions at the time.
Mural of Truckee River on old riverside cafe in the shadow of a casino hotel. Photo Courtesy of Michael Branch
Mostly, though, we played on our own, whenever we could and wherever we felt like it. One unexceptional summer day, we agreed to meet down by the river in the late afternoon, just to pick and bend a few tunes before dark. We sidled along the Truckee for a while before sitting down on an old concrete landing near the south buttress of the Virginia Street Bridge, in the heart of downtown Reno. A double-arch gem built back in 1905, this bridge became famous in legend as the place from which newly liberated women tossed their wedding rings after finalizing a divorce in the nearby courthouse. In The Misfits (1961), John Huston’s immortal cinematic tribute to the loss of the Old West, a fragile Marilyn Monroe contemplates doing just that.
Smoo B led, and I followed, as he unfolded a spontaneous set of river music: a relaxed take on Neil Young’s “Down By the River,” followed by a meander through Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow,” which segued magically into B’s crazy, mellow cover of the Talking Heads’ cover of the Reverend Al Green’s classic “Take Me to the River”—a tune he strummed with a staccato rhythm that made it sound like it was being played by Bob Marley rather than David Byrne.
“Dip me in the river / Drop me in the water / Washing me down / Washing me down.” As Smoo B finished those lines and looked up, and I lowered my harp from my mouth and opened my eyes, we both noticed something curious. While we were jamming, three people had planted themselves on the landing not far from us. There was an older man, a middle-aged woman, and a very young man. They looked as if they knew each other, and yet they did not quite seem to be together. They appeared to have been attracted by the music, but despite a few furtive glances our way, they made no eye contact with us as they sat staring toward the afternoon light rippling on the river. All were shabbily dressed. The young man had a grimy backpack and bedroll, the woman a bulging, oversized canvas sack, the older man a plastic garbage bag half full of crumpled aluminum cans. It was clear enough that they were homeless. Here, in the shadow of the casinos, lived the river people whose luck had run dry.
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