Read Land, Write Walk: Northern Virginia Range, Nevada

This image from the Lagomarsino trailhead on Long Valley Creek well illustrates the role of perspective in evaluating landscapes, if facing the other direction, rather than this pretty scene, we would be looking at the entrance to the Washington Hill quarry.

Walking in the foothills east of Reno recently, I thought about what my first write-walk should be after the end of NaNoWriMo. Sometime last year I wrote a post about a day out that Renee and I shared in Reno on our bikes. It was, among other things, National Indie Bookstore Day, so our day started off with a stop at Sundance Bookstore. There I found a fascinating book called How to Read the American West: A Field Guide by William Wyckoff. Casting about for topics, and wanting to really focus on this blog, I remembered that post and thought what a better thing to write-walk than a landscape. And what a better place to read landscape than these tortured, volcanic, long and deeply used hills.

Hills are mountains that will be hills again.

I pulled up the list that Wyckoff had created giving tips for reading landscapes. While there are many more to focus on than these, the ones that I want to focus on today are, “Appreciate the role of time,” “Recognize the importance of scale,” and “Remember that what you see depends on the experiences you bring with you, the questions you pose, and the details you emphasize.”


These hills east of Reno are the remains of volcanic activity that predates the rise of the Sierra Nevada, and the landscape would have then resembled the Cascades more than the current Virginia Range (more in my post on The Old Mother Who Sleeps and Wants to Be Left Alone ). The dominant plant and animal species came in waves: some “real” pine trees, the juniper and sagebrush, wild horses, later invasive species: cheat grass and mustard weed most notably. While I am walking across their slopes many jet planes, some obviously commercial, others more likely military, use the airspace above me to approach the Reno airport. There is day-long activity at the quarry that is Washington Hill. And there is much evidence of past heavy use: the remains of a stone house I see in the canyon bottom, a wide old road now an OHV path. At places I can almost see over to the Tesla Gigafactory. I crest over a hill and see in the canyon of the Truckee below me a place that was an important life source for native people. Then transformed into a major thoroughfare for the West: gold-seeking emigrant parties, the first transcontinental railroad, the first interstate all have used this narrow funnel into the Golden Land of California.

Volcanic deposits and pine trees in the Virginia Range, or the Mountains that Built Modernity.


The scale of the landscape is dominated by the massive undertaking that scraped off the top of Washington Hill and that continues to haul it away for our purposes. A massive scale that is mirrored in the vistas of the river, of the sierra to the west, Clark Mountain to the east. Nearby rock formations, splashes of multicolored rock, pines spaced parklike in otherwise grassless volcanic parks all seem to be muted against the vastness of all else, and yet these are just little trackless mountains, blinks of the eyes on the interstates. Places to go through to get somewhere else. The juxtaposition is powerful.

Washington Hill dominates the local landscape.

Seeing Your Own Experience

I set out in the morning along a jeep trail that climbs along the side of the Washington Hill Quarry. There are numerous shooting sites here and the landscape, while still brilliantly volcanically colored, is tortured and adorned with litter and the trappings of modern gun culture: hundreds of shells, metal and plastic twisted by bullet holes, the remains of several destroyed pumpkins from recent Halloween. In the canyon bottom I notice a large piece of cardboard on which someone has scrawled cartoons of a man grasping his penis and a naked woman alongside. The crude drawings are labeled “DICK HEAD” and “SKANK” and are peppered with bullet holes. Something I hope was just the release of steam and not the prelude to tragedy. Beyond there someone has planted 2 trees, surrounded by stones as though they are meant to mark something. The place makes me nervous and I hurry past. Deeper in the canyon there is still evidence of people. I follow tracks, but the litter is less and I start to appreciate the presence of the volcanic parks dotted with not-juniper pines. Climbing out of the canyon I am struck by the vastness of the city basin from Mount Rose up to Peavine. The modest silhouette of Clark Mountain belying in the distance its grandness, the utility of Washington Hill. Walking back along the ridge line it is the Truckee and colorful volcanic outcroppings.

The remains of the gun range.

I think part of the reason I am so attracted by this landscape, by exploring in this area, is just this. It is a place in complete transit, unconsidered by many and used hard by others. It doesn’t reveal itself easily. And yet when it comes into focus its story is incredibly rich and is a microcosm for how Nevada has always been seen by people. While there is a growing sense of pride in place in Nevada, it still remains for many a place to use and go through. Real understanding of the landscape goes much deeper than that.

How to Read the American West: Indie Bookstores and a Day Out in Reno


Reno bike day fun day. Headed from the museums up into the Carson Range foothills for a baby shower/bbq.


Our Independent Bookstore Day goodies and purchases, including How to Read the American West in the foreground.


A dose of Reno pride on Holcomb Street as we ride by. Much food for thought after beginning my reading.

This past Saturday, Renee organized a full Reno day for us, we left the house at 8:15 headed first stop for Sundance Bookstore, which was celebrating National Independent Bookstore Day with a free goodie bag giveaway to the first 25 customers. We were officially first, arriving about 10 minutes before the store opened (although not by much). I love browsing in Sundance and indie bookstores in general. In contrast to a chain store, where I feel drowned and need to just get what I’m looking for and get out, a friendly bookstore like Sundance invites browsing and reflection. Browsing, one book caught my eye, How to Read the American West: A Field Guide by William Wyckoff. I’d never heard of the author before, but I’m very interested in interpretations of landscape and so I snapped the book up (and a signed copy to boot!).

From Sundance (after a detour for tea and coffee in the neighborhood), we rode up to UNR and took part in Free Museum Day. We visited the Natural History Museum, the Keck Geology Museum, the Anthropology Museum, the Library Special Collections display and the Nevada Historical Society. The collection (and the live animals!) at the Natural History Museum were great, but my imagination was more caught by the geology museum, set in an old building and filled with dazzling (literally in many cases) specimens from Nevada and around the world, and the Nevada Historical Society, especially its Reno exhibit.


A Reno divorce era newspaper article, with an oddly worded caption and a divorcee riding a cow into a bar, six guns blazing.


The Phone Booth, great neon sign at the Nevada Historical Society.

From there, onward up through subdivisions built into the slopes of the Carson Range to a baby shower, then back down the hill to Craft Wine & Beer‘s Txakoli Festival. Afterward we were pretty beat and had a leisurely afternoon ride home. Even though we’d been on our bikes since early morning, we weren’t quite ready to call it a day and so we rode out our neighborhood dog walking site/elementary school and sat along the old farmland beyond the school and watched the moonrise over Hidden Valley and the Virginia Range.

I’ve been reading in How to Read the American West and it is a really interesting and a bit more rigourous, less metaphysical take on landscape that my earlier explorations, but an interesting read and what I think will be eye-opening in many ways. Here are a few of the lessons from the first chapter that have been giving me food for thought. I hope to develop and apply these principles to later posts, but for now I’ll just list what the author gives as his “Tips for Navigating Western Landscapes”:

  • Appreciate the role of time.
  • Recognize that landscapes are expressions of the interplay between nature and culture.
  • Follow the path of water.
  • Recognize the importance of scale.
  • Pay attention to the edges in the landscape.
  • Develop an eye for measuring landscape density.
  • Ask who controls the landscape.
  • Make connections between western places and the cultures that shaped them.
  • Understand how the modern latinization of the West is the region’s most extreme recent cultural transformation.
  • Visit vernacular landscapes.
  • Inventory symbolic landscapes and representations of places.
  • Remember that what you see depends on the experiences you bring with you, the questions you pose, and the details you emphasize.

Note: These are quotes, but this is not a bulleted list in the book. This is the order in which they are given. See pages 5–15. Full citation: Wyckoff, William. How to Read the American West: A Field Guide (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014).


Night sky as we unwinded from the day. I’m really looking forward to applying lessons and insights from my new book into my “reading” of landscapte.

I find landscape to be fascinating and have been exploring it in my mind (and physically) for a long time. It will be a good exercise I think to have a more systematic approach to what I think about when I think about it.