Rants from the Hill: Reno is a desert city with a river heart

The Ranter recalls playing an unexpected concert on the banks of the Truckee River.

 

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.
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.

Mural of Truckee River on old riverside cafe in the shadow of a casino hotel.
Michael Branch

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.

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.

The new Virginia Street Bridge in downtown Reno will replace the historic bridge where Marilyn Monroe nearly cast off her wedding ring in The Misfits.
U.S. Library of Congress

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.

Late afternoon, Truckee River in Reno, looking east.
Michael Branch

I slapped the harp on my thigh and wiped the face of its comb across my jeans to give myself a moment to think. Then I looked at Smoo B and tipped my head in the direction of our audience. B smiled and nodded. 

“We’re worried y’all can’t hear very well from over there,” Smoo B called over to the strangers. “We’ve got some more river music coming up. You want to join us?” The three looked over with surprise and then, with only a slight hesitation, stood up and made their way over to us. With no further words, Smoo B built on the earlier reggae vibe with a sweet, lilting strum through Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” which he nodded for me to sing. I couldn’t remember the first verse, so I began with the second: “Many rivers to cross / And it’s only my will that keeps me alive / I’ve been licked, washed up for years / And I merely survive because of my pride.” By the time we finished the song, three or four other homeless folks had joined the audience; word had somehow spread among the poor people residing in the willow thickets and beneath the bridge overpasses of the Truckee River corridor.

Smoo B launched into a short, reckless version of Johnny Cash’s “Five Feet High and Rising,” though neither of us remembered many of the words. B recalled, “The chickens are sleepin’ in the willow trees / The cow’s in water up past her knees,” and I came up with, “The rails done washed out north of town / We gotta head for higher ground,” but mostly we just threaded out a lonesome jam, the end of which was met by an audience that had once again doubled in size. Although we had fumbled the tune badly, we still received applause, and there were smiles everywhere when B, while retuning, said with a grin, “Could be that one needs a little work. Well, any requests?” 

After a pause, a homeless man who appeared to be in his thirties spoke up. “How about Springsteen’s ‘The River’?” 

“Can you help us out with those lyrics?” I asked.

“Sure can try,” the guy smiled back. B launched into the tune, and the man sang the sad ballad with genuine feeling, never missing a word. I choked up a little as I tried to nail the harp solo coming out of the final verse, which, given both the singer and the situation, was heartbreaking and poignant: “Now those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse / Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”

When we three finished the tune, congratulations were offered all around, and the crowd of more than a dozen people now seemed to have grown more comfortable with an experience that was as unusual for them as it was for us. An older woman, who referred to us kindly as “boys,” offered us a heel of bread that she had wrapped in a tattered, green bandana; a man, grasping a brown paper bag, explained that he’d traded a little work for vodka and that we were welcome to pull from it if we liked. Thanking them for their generosity we asked again if there were any requests. A white-bearded older man, perhaps in his seventies, laughed a loud, raspy laugh that revealed how few teeth he had remaining. “Let’s have some hobo songs!” 

The request was so ironic and well-timed, and was delivered with such enthusiasm and good humor, that everyone laughed together in a bonding moment that slung a bridge across a broad river of class, opportunity, and life experience. “Well, sir, we can handle that one,” I replied, returning the man’s smile with one of my own. 

Woody Guthrie
Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun/U.S. Library of Congress
“How about a Woody Guthrie set?” Smoo B offered. There was general agreement on the plan, and we began the most memorable string of songs I’ve ever had the pleasure to play. I no longer recall all the tunes that set contained, but we hit “Hard Travelin’” and “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” “Vigilante Man” and “Pretty Boy Floyd the Outlaw,” “Do Re Mi” and “I Ain’t Got No Home in this World Anymore.” The folks in the audience thanked us after each song, asked if we were sure we didn’t mind playing just one more, offered us bites and swigs of what meager food and drink they possessed. They tapped their feet, clapped their hands, sang along when they knew the words, and greeted the last note of each tune with appreciative applause. 

We played on and on until dusk began to settle. Smoo B’s fingertips were turning to hamburger from playing so hard for so long, and my lower lip had begun to bleed from ripping and bending notes on the harp. Now dark was falling in earnest, and B proposed that he and I each choose one song to conclude the spontaneous musical event that our audience had already begun to refer to as a “concert.” I chose the melancholy “Hobo’s Lullaby,” on which I laid down the sweetest, most languid harp notes I think I’ve ever produced. 

Darkness falls on the Truckee River, Reno, looking west to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Michael Branch

Then, for our finale, Smoo B chose the upbeat “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” the ultimate celebration of a hobo’s imagined paradise:

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I’m bound to go
Where there ain’t no snow
Where the rain don’t fall
The winds don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

When the last notes of this final song had tumbled downstream, and we had all returned from the pastoral fantasyland of the Big Rock Candy Mountain to the stark reality of the darkened Truckee riverside, our audience not only applauded but now gave us a standing ovation. There were more offerings of the food and drink that were so precious to them. One lady said it was the best afternoon she’d had in years. A younger woman invited us to come back any time, adding with a sweet smile that “We don’t get too many concerts down here.” And then, in what was the most touching moment of this strange and wonderful experience, a man in tattered, greasy clothes offered us what I suspect was the greatest gift he had to give. He asked, with a note of genuine concern in his voice, if we had a safe place to sleep, adding that he knew a secret spot where we could be sheltered from both weather and harm. “I don’t tell anybody about it,” he whispered, “but after what you did for us here it seems right to offer.”