A small-town guy who moved to the big city reconciles his rural past and urban present
I’ve lived in Las Vegas for a few years, but I didn’t grow up here. I was raised in a place you might have heard of but probably know little about: “the rest of Nevada.” Specifically, a town called Eureka.
Barely off-center on a Nevada map, Eureka can be summed up in a single word: small. But how do you convey the reality of a place so unfathomably tiny to the many Las Vegans who can’t quite comprehend somewhere that doesn’t need a traffic light? Where venturing beyond town is a necessity — there’s no movie theater, bowling alley, or McDonald’s. Usually I just mention the size of my high-school graduating class. Twenty-three. Then they get it, and the look on people’s faces is priceless.
But there it is, the dilemma of this state. Las Vegas is urban. Most of Nevada isn’t. What’s created is a giant disconnect between different worlds forced to coexist.
Most of the tension, unsurprisingly, involves politics. It’s no secret that Nevada is mostly red, with blue dots marking Las Vegas and Reno. This changes for the Electoral College, of course, when the state has recently been depicted as all blue. But the red parts are still there. And they’re not happy.
Nothing illustrates this more than the New Nevada State Movement, a secessionist committee that, according to the Pahrump Valley Times, wants to “sever rural Nevada, which is primarily Republican, from the major metropolitan areas of the state that are predominantly Democratic, to form ‘New Nevada’ and therefore, according to group founders, free rural areas from the oppression of ‘mob rule.’” In my experience, that sums up the tension pretty well. “Oppression of mob rule” is also much nicer than the way I usually hear it.
More recently, several rural sheriffs have taken a stand not to enforce the new background-check law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Steve Sisolak. Some, including Eureka and Nye county sheriffs, wrote open letters to the governor. Having read them, I’m again amazed at how toned-down their words were.
(You might assume that the rest of Nevada has the same problem with Reno. But it never seemed that way. Reno always seemed part of “our world,” with more of a hard-working, agricultural quality.)
When I tell people in Eureka I attend UNLV, there are those who respond with some form of “I’m sorry.” Almost everyone I know there finds the “Vegas lifestyle” abhorrent. Just as many Las Vegans scoff at the thought of being miles from everything, ruralites feel the same about being in a human cluster. In Vegas, you can bump into the strangest person on a street corner, and that’s life. In the Great Basin, you can drive for hours and the only people you’ll find are just like you. There’s a certain comfort in that. What they imagine Las Vegas stands for is not what many Eurekans want to be associated with. So if being a hipster vegan sounds more appealing than drinking whiskey and hunting, Eureka probably isn’t your scene.
But this goes both ways. I receive the same “I’m sorry” when I tell urbanites where I grew up, and for the same reasons. Eurekans are saying, I’m sorry you’re in the middle of a liberal melting pot. Las Vegans are saying, I’m sorry you grew up in middle-of-nowhere redneck country.
But I love that small town and the people I’ve known. Nevertheless, I needed to leave. Plenty of people I grew up with find themselves reflected in Northern Nevada and stay there. When I looked around, I didn’t see anything like me.
I’ve been asked plenty of questions by parents who moved to Eureka. What was it like growing up there? Is my kid going to be okay? I tell them all the same thing, which is yes. But it depends on the kid.
When I reminisce about my childhood, what my mind gravitates to is being bullied. I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t into sports like everyone I knew. I didn’t ride dirt bikes. I wasn’t a country music aficionado. I wasn’t a cowboy, and I didn’t wear Nike gear. Instead, I read books, played video games, and listened to The Beatles; I was a fat band-geek who wore Batman T-shirts. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand why they made fun of me. I look at a photo of myself from seventh grade and think, “Oh yeah, that’s why.”
Still, being made fun of in a place like Eureka might be rougher than in someplace bigger. It’s basic math: Being the target of three cliques at school leaves roughly zero cliques left to join. (I did eventually find a few people I liked and who tolerated me, but I still felt too alone to have a high self-esteem.)
While I’ve more or less moved past Batman shirts, I still don’t fit in up there. The same parents who ask me about raising kids in Eureka look at me and can’t believe I grew up there.
I don’t mean to say that my youth in Eureka was nothing but lonely terror. I had the best summers and loved having so much space around me. At school, educators were able to get personal because of the small class sizes. To a degree, I was able to be the outlandish kid I wanted to be — there wasn’t much competition. I was surrounded by humble people, and some could see I had larger things in store. If nothing else, small-town life instilled in me the urge to find something bigger, to go after what seemed unobtainable.
From my vantage point, Las Vegas appeared to be a portal to the rest of the world. Nothing I saw in Eureka matched what I was seeing on TV. And then, simply by entering this valley, I felt like I was finally there. In the place I’d been watching for years, or at least close to it. I may never get to Los Angeles or New York like the kids on the Disney Channel, but I could at least fake it here. And when I looked around, everyone was … odd. I liked being able to be myself with little judgment because everyone was already weirder than me. The feeling of not being out of place is a good one, and Las Vegas has given me that — to a certain extent. After all, you can take the kid out of the small town, but you can’t … well, you know.
So here I am. A Northern Nevada kid living in Las Vegas. I’ll never turn my back on where I came from, but I’ve had three great years here. And now I view the state through a larger lens. A lens that sees past the divisions and stereotypes. I see Nevada as a whole, and can call it, in its entirety, home.