Moving history

Jack Sutton

Photo By David Robert

Videographer Jack Sutton, 59, has been telling the stories of Nevada’s backroads for 26 years. The two-time Emmy-award winner is also a practicing optometrist in Reno. Nevada Backroads airs Saturday nights at 6:30 p.m. on Channel 2.

What’s Nevada Backroads about?

I’ve been … traveling all over the state, doing stories about people and what makes the state unique. Another activity I’m involved in is Trails West Productions, where we started doing the same things on a national level. What I love about telling the story of the state is I think it’s becoming more and more critical as the character of the state evolves. Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s not, but change is going to happen. We want not only to document but to preserve, so future folks can know what the character is like.

What’s the show’s format?

My job has always been to show that there may have been something wrong in the world today, but there’s a lot of good, too, and there always will be—the little girl and her horse, the cowboy on the range or the 100-year-old woman whose favorite summer activity is her flower garden. … The format is a two-minute news broadcast in which I introduce a three-act play. You set it up—here’s the setting, here’s the characters. In Act 2 you develop it. Act 3 you resolve or show why it doesn’t resolve … So every single story is a stand-alone story in which the viewer can come away thinking, “Gee, I know that person now.”

So when you talk about backroads, it’s more about the people along them.

Backroads can be found in downtown Reno or in the outback. … Everybody’s got a story. … The basic idea is to present the character of Nevada because it is such an extraordinary, unique place, and it always will be.

What’s the strangest story you’ve ever done?

[Laughs.] I don’t know about strange, but let me tell you some of my most favorite stories. One was Bertha Scott Cliff when Bertha was 102. Bertha was born … at the Cliff homesteaded ranch in Washoe Valley. She passed away about 10 years ago at 105. She went to UNR and became an English teacher, teaching for 60 years. Meeting someone like that—you can read about history, but when you go out and talk to folks that have lived it, it’s just so much more rewarding.

I’ve won two Emmys in the last 30 years; both of those were about sort of serious stuff. … One was a five-part series on wild horses of Nevada. I got the ranchers’ personalities in there and their hopes and dreams and wishes and the BLM people and their outlook of what it is to be in Nevada.

One story that was kind of cool: In Gold Hill, David Toll—he wrote The Compleat Nevada Traveler book—he lives up there. I was looking for a Halloween story, and I was talking to him just off the cuff. We did a story about this 40-foot nail pounded into the ground in Gold Hill, and legend has it that that’s what holds the world together. It’s really the old plumbing coming out of the earth from mining days, but we did a story about the giant nail that holds the world together.

Then in 1999, I was asked to join in a new documentary film company, Trails West productions. We’ve completed seven PBS and Discovery Channel documentaries, [stories about the history of Midwest farming, ranch-hand rodeos and open-range sheep herding as told through a Peruvian ranch herder].

Sounds like a lot of great stories.

You know what it is? It’s a license to snoop. You wouldn’t get to go on a cattle drive or roundup any other way. I’ve been around so long now, I guess I’ve earned some degree of trust. But decades ago, that trust wasn’t there until they saw the product. But now, they’ll call me up and say “Oh yeah! There’s going to be an ostrich race.” Telling those stories is what makes it fun.