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This issue of Desert Companion includes a travel guide to mountain towns — where to stay, eat, and play, and what to see in five high-elevation, low-stress destinations within a day’s drive (or less!) of Las Vegas. Bonus: an adapted excerpt from the forthcoming book Chasing Giants: In Search of the World’s Largest Freshwater Fish.

Home Means …

An illustration of a Desert Bighorn Sheep's head and some playing cards overlayed over the state of Nevada
Ryan Vellinga

How I set aside my insecurity and learned to (honestly) compare Nevada to California

My high school chemistry teacher was a boisterous man with a thick Boston accent. Even at 7 a.m., he was always ready to begin class with some anecdote about how his home state of Massachusetts was much better than little old Nevada, especially when it came to education. I didn’t think much of it. Not a fair comparison, right? Massachusetts had schools such as Harvard and MIT and was really far away. Who cared what they were up to?

One day, he asked, “So what are you guys, the Golden State?”

“The Silver State,” I corrected him with gusto. Even then I was a zealous Nevada patriot. “The Golden State is California.”

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He laughed. “Well that makes sense, doesn’t it? They put you in second place!”


The American myth is built on the idea of westward exploration and settlement, leaving behind the claustrophobic network of East Coast cities for wide-open spaces and blue skies. But that narrative seems to be reversing. In the past few years, Californians have been moving as far east as Florida. For the first time in history, California lost a congressional seat after the 2020 Census revealed that the state’s population growth had significantly stalled from 2010 and was outright flat from 2017 on, according to the Associated Press.

It’s easy to dunk on California. To the rest of the country, the whole state is populated by vain, sunbleached influencers who spend all day sipping lattes, getting high, and lounging at the beach. Who doesn’t remember the California tourism ads featuring the Governator, with a painful pun about “board meetings” superimposed over videos of surfers and skaters?

Wherever you go, making a joke at the expense of California is sure to get you some street cred, but it’s especially valuable currency in its immediate neighbor to the east. Californians have long been moving to Nevada for a lower cost of living, but that trend has accelerated in recent years with the expansion of remote work options during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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There’s a T-shirt out there that says, “Don’t California My Nevada.” It sums up the fear that some have that Nevada will become more like our neighbor to the west if enough Californians move here.

Now, why would we not want to be like California? Put down that pitchfork! Bear with me for a moment. From the 30,000-foot perspective, California is a prosperous state. In John Steinbeck’s era, it was the mecca of plentiful work, particularly in agriculture. In Steve Jobs’ era, it was the nucleus of technological progress and innovation.

The more provocative image, and the one from which critics draw, is that of a state overburdened by myriad socioeconomic issues. High rates of unhoused people, a skyrocketing cost of living, and worst of all, the traffic.

A slew of political hopefuls running for office in Nevada have made vilifying “Californication” their campaign platform. A recent notable example is Adam Laxalt, who, during his 2018 bid for governor, promised to “keep our state from going the way of California,” according to the Nevada Independent. Echoing Donald Trump’s campaign promise of building a wall along the southern border, some Nevadans, on both sides of the political aisle, suggested extending that wall around California. This idea also caused infighting here at home. Much of rural Nevada figuratively cast Las Vegas out, considering it too California-adjacent. A friend of mine, who moved from Vegas to Reno for school and now lives in Carson City, showed me a graphic T-shirt that extended “The Wall” around Clark County as well.

Laxalt’s strategy proved unsuccessful, as he lost by almost 40,000 votes to his Democratic opponent, Steve Sisolak. But consider this, too: The current speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, is a Republican from California’s 20th district. Two 20th-century Republican presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, held office in California. Yes, there are Republicans in California, and plenty of them are coming to Nevada. And while 2018 was a pretty blue election, Republican Joe Lombardo’s win in 2022 gave it a purple hue.

As far back as 2013, Alan Greenblatt reported on this phenomenon for NPR. In his article “How California Is Turning the Rest of the West Blue,” Greenblatt acknowledged that the migration of Californians all over the Mountain West was a contributing factor to some states becoming more progressive, but the “growth of Hispanic populations has been more important, in terms of shaking things up politically.” He also pointed out that those who are leaving California would likely consider themselves conservative by their home state’s standards, but they’re considered liberal when they arrive in Utah, Arizona, Idaho …

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There is definitely a partisan explanation for California hate. But the sentiment can be felt on both sides of the aisle, particularly when it comes to housing prices. I spoke with a California transplant who arrived in Vegas in 2017, and she openly admitted that real estate investing was her motive for the move. “The Golden Knights were just getting started, and the Raiders were going to be here not long after. It just made sense,” she says. My previous landlords were investors from California. And when I was applying for a mortgage, my loan officer explained, “These Californians, they sell a lean-to for $700,000 and make cash offers here.” You don’t have to be a Republican to be rubbed wrong by that.

But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s not unique to Nevada. For one, supply chain issues have caused the pace of new building to slow nationwide. Planet Money reported that the Biden administration increased the duties on lumber imported from Canada, which has kept lumber prices, and subsequently the cost to build new houses, high. Second, corporations have been buying up tracts of single-family homes all over the country and converting them to rentals. That, combined with short-term rental companies such as Airbnb taking up space, means slim pickings for first-time homebuyers.

And let’s not forget that our sprawl, at least in Southern Nevada, is reaching its limits. Where building isn’t impeded by the physical edges of our valley’s mountain ranges, there is tension between developers, government agencies, and conservationists about where city limits should end. Are Californians exacerbating this tension? Maybe. But think about who’s most vocally pro-growth. See any overlap with the anti-Californication crowd?


When my chemistry teacher made that comment about us being “second place” to California, I wanted to take a beaker full of whatever chemical we were working with that day and throw it in his face. But I was a bad student, so I probably would have just splashed him with 100 milliliters of distilled water. As an adult, I understand that visceral feeling as one of shame, jealousy, and inferiority.

Let’s be honest. California has the fifth-highest median household income ranking in the nation. Nevada is down at No. 24. Nevada’s minimum wage was recently raised to $10.50 per hour. California’s is $15.50. California ranks 20th overall in education, per the US News & World Report rankings — not the best, but still better than Nevada at 40th.

It’s hard to wrap your brain around every single issue that plagues our state. After the financial crisis of 2008, it was easier to believe that immigrants had taken all the jobs than to face a complex meltdown of worldwide banking systems mixed with incompetence and greed. There’s no emotion in analysis; there is an abundance of it in scapegoating.

We might have more in common with our western neighbors than we think. Desert Companion Writer in Residence, Meg Bernhard, who’s from California, says, “It’s upsetting to know that I won’t be able to afford property in the place where I grew up.”

The fact is, Nevada is growing in ways not seen before. Las Vegas is steadily becoming an American metropolis with its own sports teams. Reno has become a burgeoning center for tech. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, as the saying goes.

So, let’s not define ourselves by what we’re not. It’s not that Nevada is Not-California or Not-Arizona or Not-Utah or Not-Massachusetts. We’re simply Nevada, and people come here from all over the country for what we, uniquely, offer. We’ll grow, change, and adapt because we’re a community, not a museum piece. And Home Means Nevada, no matter where you’re from.