Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Biggest Little City in the World

This weekend, we headed north to Reno and a little dose of history. Our destination: the Cal-Neva Resort in Lake Tahoe, a casino/hotel that was built in the 1920s and was owned by Frank Sinatra from 1960 to 1963. The Cal-Neva straddles the border between Nevada and California: in the ballroom, a painted line down the middle of the floor marks the state boundary; in the swimming pool, you can swim from Nevada to California.

We’d come to the Cal-Neva to cross Reno off of our weekend trips list; and though we love, love, love Lake Tahoe, we need not return to Reno. Reno is a strange city. It’s nestled in the mountains with little around it, and the city’s sudden explosion of huge casinos, all-you-can-eat buffets, neon signs, and trashy entertainment is jarring and unsettling. Renoians, whether they’re wandering through the annual Italian festival (surprisingly large, we discovered) or dealing cards in a casino, have a distinctive look about them: weathered, jaded, cynical, eyes that have “seen too much.” Some cities have their seedy areas. Reno’s distinction is that it’s all seed.

We were content to leave after a quick lunch at the Italian festival and head to quieter, more beautiful quarters at the Cal-Neva and our room’s spectacular view of Lake Tahoe—and a good helping of ghost stories. When Sinatra owned the Cal-Neva, he was in the habit of shuttling in members of the Mafia, and we took a tour of the Cal-Neva’s secret tunnel system, which the gangsters used to make quick escapes when the police showed up. The tunnels, however, were not used only for swift exits. Outside the main Cal-Neva complex are cabins—lovely cabins with porches looking out over the lake—where celebrities including JFK and Marilyn Monroe regularly stayed. In Marilyn’s cabin—number 3—our guide pointed out her extra-large closet: it once held a trap door, leading to a tunnel, leading to JFK’s favorite cabin. Scandalous—and spooky, as Marilyn’s ghost, along with others, has been known to skulk the tunnels and cabins of the Cal-Neva to this day.

Andrew and I both tend to appreciate these sorts of ghost stories, and if we don’t exactly believe them per se, it’s difficult to discount them entirely. We both had a very palpable sense of history and creepiness at the Cal-Neva that persisted even as Andrew won a few hands of Texas Hold ‘Em at the poker table, even as we had drinks at the Circle Bar. Some places really do seem haunted. And the Cal-Neva, despite its copious slot machines, despite the white-dress-adorned brides standing with their families at the Blackjack tables, despite the end-of-the-road Renoians boredly dealing cards and serving drinks, is one of them.

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