A vacation brings Nevada home

Travel is an opportunity to reflect on one’s home, and my current trip to the East Coast (where I write this) has me drawing comparisons to Reno. Of course, it is green here, and damp, and there aren’t any mountains—well, none to speak of, really. The bones of the land sit very differently in their skin than they do in the eastern Sierra. And the sky, she is cloudy all day.

But as an historian, I am mostly drawn to comparing the different sense of the passing of time between here and there. Here, it is not uncommon to wander through whole neighborhoods of houses built and maintained for centuries. Visiting our old family homestead, I fall asleep at night to the sound of water falling over a mill-dam across the street that has done so for more than three centuries. Every city, town, and rural area has at least one historic house that has been carefully reconstructed so visitors can see, touch, and sometimes even taste the way people lived their daily lives in the 19th, 18th, 17th centuries.

I used to think that the omnipresence of so much old stuff gave New Englanders a better sense of their own history than we Westerners experience. Now I am starting to think that it is merely a different sense. “Old stuff” only becomes “history” through ongoing sifting, interpretation and valuation of what appears important in a given context.

Take, for example, the “classic” New England architectural aesthetic—white clapboard house with black window shutters. Turns out, careful analysis of 17th-century homes reveals they were painted a rainbow of pink, yellow, even turquoise. Visitors to historic Deerfield, Mass., will experience a jarring interruption of the region’s dominant aesthetic, for those houses are restored according to their original color schemes. Just like houses, New Englanders’ sense of history is an infinite layering of the past and present, so that it becomes a challenge to tease apart what is myth and what is an authentic story of the past.

Nevada, with its neon lights, often seems a place without history at all. But a trip to the Pyramid Lake Paiute museum in Nixon would challenge that myth altogether. Our state is home to some of the oldest human remains on the continent. Ralph Burns or Ben Alleck can tell you stories that generations of Paiute have told for thousands of years, not mere centuries. And we live in the daily consequences of decisions made only a century or so ago. Our laws governing mining taxation, for example, were forged in an era when the primary goal was to draw as many people to the West as possible—policies facilitating the rapid development (some would say “exploitation”) of Western resources were seen as the most expeditious way to fill up land perceived to be “empty.”

Our Paiute (and Washo and Shoshone) neighbors will remind us that our land was never empty in the first place, and all of us can recognize that our priorities have shifted from those of the 19th century. Policy decisions certainly have a way of cutting grooves in the economy that get increasingly difficult to change as time and practice wears them deeper. Some sectors of our economy have, indeed, become quite entrenched around those old laws—just as the old mill dam across the street from me has created a whole pond ecosystem behind it. But we Nevadans do not have to dig through as many centuries of practice and mythology to uncover our roots as do my relatives in New England. We can choose our course.