Destination: Reno : The Vegas Alternative : Reno still has penny slots, a quirky Old-West personality and lots of great outdoor activities. Soon it will even have the National Bowling Stadium.

Uzelac is a free-lance writer who lives part of the year in Lake Tahoe

If Las Vegas is the place to check reality at the door, then Reno--earthy, unpretentious and friendly--is the place to find it.

Where else would you find a marquee announcing "Restroom Renovation Underway" at the performing arts center in the heart of downtown? Or spot a new Ford Bronco with "Uzi" vanity plates and a bumper sticker proclaiming "I Love Explosives!" One windy morning, while waiting for a taxi at dawn, I stood outside a neon-clad casino, lit up like Christmas, and watched as tumbleweed bounced across the railroad tracks that cut through town. Even that early, from a sidewalk bathed in strips of neon color, I caught the musical refrain of coins being tossed rapid-fire into slots: kerplunk! clunk! plink! Call me crazy, but there's poetry in a moment like that.

While glitzy Las Vegas operates at amphetamine speed, Reno is building the National Bowling Stadium, due to open this winter. In the past couple of years, Vegas has been working feverishly to reinvent itself as a family destination. Reno has been family-friendly all along. Cheap too. This is a town with penny slots, $1 blackjack tables, all-you-can-eat buffets and activities, many of them free for the diaper crowd.

There is still very much of a Wild West flavor to Reno. Last winter, a friend bought an AK-47 clone here for under $300 and, after shooting one, I fully understand why the semi-automatic "sporting rifle" is the gun of choice. I felt about eight feet tall while I plastered holes all over an abandoned car on a gravel road a half-day's drive outside Reno. Bullet holes are part of the scenery in these parts. Take a drive past the city limits and I defy you to find a Nevada historical marker that hasn't been shot up.

Yes, Reno, with its cowboys and coffeehouses, has its own je ne sais quoi . To the surprise of Renoites themselves, a recent survey commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts put the "Biggest Little City" on America's literary map. More folks read plays, poetry or novels in Reno than in any of 11 other cities surveyed, including Chicago, Philadelphia, San Jose, Seattle, Las Vegas, Winston-Salem, N.C., and Dade County, Fla. (Los Angeles was not among the cities polled.) Almost weekly, book signings, readings and lectures draw standing-room-only crowds, and the region has become a popular retreat for such writers as love guru Leo Buscaglia; longtime Nevada resident, writer Robert Laxalt, and Wallace Stegner fellow and novelist Joanne Meschery.

There are lots of ways to measure a town--culture, curb-appeal, cuisine, among them. But perhaps the truest test is how residents feel when they put their town in the rearview. "I get homesick," I heard, again and again, from folks who live in this high-desert playground that Rand McNally has dubbed a premier spot for "outdoor fun" in the nation. Indeed, Reno is a fine jumping-off point for day-trips to such luscious places as Lake Tahoe, Virginia City, Lake Pyramid and the Paiute reservation and the ghost town of Bodie.

Reno is the kind of town you can pinch--and know it's real. The streets are named after families that have lived here for generations. You can still drive across town in under 20 minutes, and some visitors find it unnecessary to drive at all: The six or so blocks that house the casino corridor also host the Truckee River Walk, hotels, restaurants and museums. The cab ride from the airport costs about $8.

Recently expanded air service has made it easier to get to Reno. More than 30 flights from the Los Angeles area land at Reno-Cannon International Airport a day. Reno Air and Southwest Airlines both offer deals, including a round-trip, 14-day advance purchase fare of $90-$95, at the moment.

Summer, with temperatures that average in the high 80s, is Reno's busiest season. Among this summer's offerings: Aug. 3-7, Hot August Nights, the city's most popular event, which celebrates America's love affair with cars and rock 'n' roll, features entertainers from the '50s and '60s, a classic car auction, swap meets and a vintage car show; Aug. 20, Reno Basque Festival; Aug. 20-21, Reno Renaissance Fair; Sept. 15-18, National Championship Air Races at Reno/Stead Airport.

Recently, I flew from Reno to Las Vegas in a tiny Cessna. It's hard to judge a place from 3,000 feet, but Reno seems to be a solid sort of place that offers up as much soul as slots, as much nature as neon. I know some folks who think of Reno as a has-been, but I think of it more as a never-was. It never was a Las Vegas. More importantly, it doesn't want to be.

"Here's the difference between Vegas and Reno," explains Larry Henry, associate publisher for Nevada Weekly. "People up here wear penny loafers, khakis and red-striped ties. In Vegas, you see glittery sweat suits, and they seem to have an attitude there about hairdos: the taller the hair, the closer to God."

Not long ago, I threw back a couple of Picon punches at Louis' Basque Corner with the regulars huddled at the bar, and learned a new word: ossagaria-- a Basque toast meaning "To your health."

"On Fridays," one of the guys told me, "it's so crowded you can't get in here with a whip."

This isn't a place that yields its charms easily; you have to look for them.

Built in 1868 at the crossroads of the statuesque Sierra Nevada and the high desert of the scrappy Peavine mountains, Reno grew up as a city of second chances, a destination for dreamers, miners, divorcees, gamblers, immigrants--all found their way to Reno.

In "Not in Our Stars," a novel written in 1957, author Jill Stern's heroine Sara Winston muses: "In America, everybody had a chance--and if they muffed it there was always the second chance. Reno would give a second chance."

In the book, the protagonist, Sara, engages in her musings at Harold's Club, one of the first casinos built on Virginia Street, Reno's "Strip." The Art Deco-inspired Reno Arch, one of the most recognized city symbols in America, spans the downtown casino row and welcomes visitors to what has been nicknamed "The Biggest Little City in the World." Reno and neighboring Sparks house 40 casinos, and it is "the clubs," as the locals call them, that continue to draw most folks to the city.

Blackjack limits tend to be low across Reno: $1 tables can be found at the Nevada Club, $2 tables at Circus Circus and the Clarion and $3 tables at the Reno Hilton. For penny slots, try the Old Reno Casino and the Nevada Club.

Nearly 5 million people, almost half of them Californians, visited Reno last year. A typical visitor is a 52-year-old empty nester with an annual income of $42,000. Visitors generally spend an average of $400 on gaming while they are here, according to the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority. People who gamble spend approximately $248 a day, including lodging, on their visits to Reno. People who don't gamble spend roughly $95 a day.

The Biggest Little City is about to become bigger: $700 million in new construction has been slated for Reno in 1994, its biggest building boom in years. Almost half of that will be funneled into the city's first themed resort, which has yet to be named. A creation of Circus Circus and the Eldorado Casino/Hotel, promoters say the resort, scheduled to open in 1995, will re-create "The Legend of Old Silver" and will be highlighted by water flumes, a water wheel, a 120-foot-high automated mining machine and platforms for musical and stunt performances.

The Reno renaissance--in part triggered by competitive considerations spurred by the national proliferation of gaming--includes the renovation of the Reno Hilton into a casino themed to focus on the western half of the United States; the doubling in size of the Clarion; a $25-million addition to the Reno Riverfront, a new retail center, and continuing improvements to Victorian Square, an ongoing redevelopment program in Sparks that will feature a six-block entertainment area.

Many of the city's best-known restaurants and hotels are associated with casinos--Harrah's, the Eldorado, Circus Circus and John Ascuaga's Nugget and the Hilton, among them. Off-season, I have stayed in perfectly fine rooms (Fitzgeralds Hotel/Casino in downtown Reno) that cost as little as $18 per person a night. For accommodations and visitor information, call 800-FOR-RENO.

For a look at the real Reno, population 141,000, wander through its neighborhoods. This is a university town organized by wide tree-lined streets, funky houses and small lakes and parks not far from the city center.

Several museums are worth a stop and most are in the so-called "89501 Zip Code," the arts district that's within walking distance of the downtown casinos and hotels. The area is something of a mind-bend: Quarters for the Nevada Opera share the same street as the Academy of Casino Careers, and the well-known Park Wedding Chapel is within shouting distance of offices that promise "Divorce Made Easy." (For information about city walking tours and complete listings of cultural events, call the Sierra Arts Foundation at 702-329-1324.)

A popular stop for tourists, the National Automobile Museum, 10 Lake St., demonstrates how the automobile shaped American history. Two hundred vintage cars are on display in cleverly designed quarters. The late casino mogul Bill Harrah started the collection, which includes Elvis Presley's 1973 Cadillac Eldorado and the 1949 Mercury that James Dean drove in "Rebel Without a Cause."

The state's oldest museum, the Nevada Historical Society Museum, traces the region's history. The Nevada Museum of Art hosts a small collection focusing on art of the Great Basin Region and 19th- and 20th-Century American art. Works by Maynard Dixon, Stuart Davis and Wayne Thiebaud are featured, among others.

There is more to the landscape here than green felt stretched across a blackjack table. Up in the Peavine, among fall's golden aspen groves, the slender trunks of the quaking aspen are embedded with carvings made by Basque sheepherders, and in canyons outside of town, petroglyphs tell the story of Nevada's ancient inhabitants. The alpine beauty of Lake Tahoe is just over the mountain and shouldn't be missed if you haven't already witnessed what Mark Twain once called "the fairest picture the whole earth affords."

For a completely different sensory stimulant, point your car north toward Pyramid Lake, the haunting desert lake held sacred by the Paiutes. There are views here to steal a heart and nourish the soul. Located on the Paiute reservation, the lake--a remnant of the inland sea that once covered 8,000 square miles--is the only habitat for the cui-ui, a prehistoric fish protected as an endangered species. It is also home to Anaho Island, a rocky peak that serves as one of eight white pelican nesting grounds in North America.

The brown, barren terrain that starts at the Paiute reservation sweeps clear up to the Oregon line. In January, I slept on the desolate desert floor for the first time and counted stars till I fell asleep. I watched a pair of deer saunter down a hillside and heard the soulful lament of the coyote. One afternoon, I turned my head toward a shadow and saw an eagle fly by with a rabbit in its beak. It is this large land that Wallace Stegner once called "Hope's native home."

In Reno, the day after my first visit to the azure-colored waters of Pyramid, I met retired schoolteacher Mayvonne Wilkens, a third-generation Nevada resident. "Maybe, to look at, Reno is not love at first sight, but once you're here a little bit, you begin to recognize the beauty of the place and the people. Folks are friendly here, welcoming."

Now, perhaps, you understand why.

GUIDEBOOK: Retreating to Reno

Getting there: From LAX fly nonstop to Reno on Reno Air and Delta and with one stop but no change of planes on Southwest; lowest round-trip fares start at $90.

Where to stay: Reno Hilton, 2500 E. 2nd St.; about $50 and up per room, per night; (800) RENO-FUN.

Eldorado Hotel/Casino, 345 N. Virginia St.; about $50 and up per room, per night; (800) 648-5966.

Virginian Hotel and Casino, 140 N. Virginia St.; about $40 per room, per night; (800) 874-5558.

Where to eat: La Strada, at the Eldorado Hotel/Casino, 345 N. Virginia St.; Italian cuisine with entrees priced from $10.95 to $17.95; (702) 348-9297.

Louis' Basque Corner, 301 E. 4th St.; for cheap eats, daily specials include tongue, paella, oxtail stew, rabbit and calamari; prices start at about $5; (702) 323-7203.

Micasa Too, moderately priced Mexican restaurant, 2205 W. 4th St.; prices start at about $5; (702) 323-6466.

The Pneumatic Diner, 501 W. 1st St., a funky coffeehouse and diner near the Truckee River; entrees start at about $4.50; (702) 786-8888.

For more information: Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority, 4590 S. Virginia St., Reno 89509; (800) FOR-RENO.

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