The one beautiful thing in Reno

The bus diesels out of the McDonald’s parking lot in Lone Pine, CA at six am, minutes after I creep out of the room of sleeping women in the Whitney Portal Hostel. The first driver wears a cowboy hat and listens to classical guitar. The second driver growls at pit stop requests. “I think he has a case of the Mondays,” another rider whispers. Oh yeah. It is Monday. We are reentering the world where the day of the week can foretell mood, and heart attack likelihood. Because we are going home: a passel of assorted hikers, plus a few locals headed north a stop or two.

The bus dumps its passengers in Reno, Nevada, which is the ugliest city I have ever seen. Still, looking at a six-hour layover, I am not just going to hang out in the airport. Here’s the mission: find one Beautiful Thing here in Reno. Surely there is a redeeming sculpture, tree, mosaic… something beautiful both inside and out. Three weeks of natural beauty have spoiled me, and my tolerance for the products of profit-driven construction is low. With a $2 city bus pass in my pocket, the quest begins.

The riverwalk is concrete, decorated with trash. The river itself flows strangled and brown. Down-and-out people lie on the curb or push along on canes. Bad junctions, hard living. The neighborhoods struggle. I pace the streets with a few tourists, the ones who can’t afford Vegas, shuffling between tacky casinos. The synthetic facades have not been renovated since the seventies, which looks awful, but I may actually support this neglect: isn’t it preferable to the endless facelifts of swankier towns, unneeded, superficial? You know what you are getting here. You can see all the way to the core.

NOT the One Beautiful Thing.
This goofball is not the One Beautiful Thing in Reno

I think about my trail trust that the right paths will unfold. They always have, if not immediately. But why? Reno is a reminder that this is not the case for everyone. I am not sure why I have been so fortunate. Having money helps, as well as other kinds of privilege, but some people still find themselves in bind after bind. There is no guarantee. How do the people of Reno see their town? Do they find beauty here? They must. You must find it where you are. Where is it? Can I see with Reno eyes?

The bus driver is kind, advising me on the best place to get off, but it’s not beauty. The begging man is kind, but it’s not quite beauty. In line at the post office to mail home my sharp objects, which cannot be checked through airport security, two people burst in singing happy birthday, carrying helium balloons and neon cupcakes to a postal clerk’s counter. She reddens and won’t meet their eyes. Her manager bounces on tiptoe as she belts the refrain over-enthusiastically, and some of us in line faintly join in.

None of it is beauty, but all of it is human. Maybe human will have to do. So after my wanderings and a couple of street tacos, I surrender beauty and retreat to the airport sidewalk. I lean my pack on a bench near the taxi lot, and pull out a book to kill time.

But then: with minutes to spare, in peripheral vision, brightly colored cloth. A man’s voice, chanting. On the grass by the road, three cabbies are praying toward Mecca. Their voices rise and fall over the traffic. They sing for fifteen minutes, then rise and walk back to work, the older man with his arm around a younger man’s shoulder.

Okay, Reno, there is your One Beautiful Thing. The color, the song, the reverence, the brotherly love, the willingness to pause profit for spirit. It goes all the way through. Well done. You win.

And god knows, if Reno wins, we all do.


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