Rain Shadow

     We were in the rain shadow of the Sierra, driving along the 395 from Susanville to Reno.
     The air was clear and brisk. The terrain was stunning, small farms with herds of black cattle in the flatland. Rising steeply above them are the Sierra.
     Trees at the bottom of the range sported fall colors, light yellow, burnt orange, gathered in the gulleys coming down off the dry side of the mountains. At the top were the evergreens, that came over the peak and stopped, forming a jagged line that looked like the line fog might form as it crept over the mountains.
     The rain shadow is a common term around here, meaning the area on the eastern side of the Sierra where rain does not fall, having been released on the gradually ascending western slope.
     The effect is a vista that in one long sweep of the eyes goes from green forest at the top of the range, down the slope to fall-colored trees and open grasslands, and continues eastward to rolling, bald, brown desert hills devoid of vegetation.
     In Susanville, the new courthouse is an impressive monument to spending by California’s court administration, with an enormous parking lot, studded with flagpoles, and a building filled with glass, brass and wood paneling. The beautiful courtrooms reminded me of federal courts, with massive wood frame around the doorway and, within, open, clean lines and a spacious bench.
     Our western bureau chief and I had traveled there to check out the access to the new cases, which was good, aided by a competent and friendly court staff. While we were at it, we checked out the old Susanville courthouse built in the early 1900s.
     A woman working there volunteered to open up one of the locked courtrooms on the second floor. It stood as though frozen on the day the judges and lawyers had last walked out. The counsel tables and lecterns were in place, behind the bench were the black and white photos of judges in the long coats and garb of a century ago, and the ceilings were crisscrossed with ornate moldings.
     The courtroom reminded me of the old courthouse and legislature that I had visited a couple years ago in Rennes in Brittany, with the difference that those ornate rooms had not been abandoned. They had been kept up and refurbished and continued as active courts.
     South along the 395 and across the state line into Nevada, we arrived in Reno. We checked our bags at the Whitney Peak, a refurbished hotel. The rooms featured full-wall tinted photos of local scenes, and the bar and restaurant looked open and modern.
     A wander up the Reno strip on a chilly Thursday night was a desultory experience, with almost no one on the sidewalk. Inside one block-long casino, there was just a smattering of souls bent over slot machines, a vast area of empty blackjack tables, and one young waitress briskly running drinks. A tired hostess advised us that the sushi bar is all-you-can-eat, and a look inside showed a dark pit with a few inebriated diners and a worn out chef in a white T-shirt.
     We opted for the hotel’s Heritage Restaurant, which turned out to be amazing.
     A small, green salad included a very light sprinkling of sunflower seeds, bits of subtly flavored goat cheese, and just the right amount of vinaigrette. Carvings from a rack of lamb were the perfect color of pink, on a bed of scalloped potatoes and braised turnips, all excellent. An Alexander Valley wine went along smoothly, perhaps too much so.
     The restaurant is part of Reno’s effort at a non-gambling renaissance. Along the nearby Truckee River are a few new restaurants and interspersed in the surrounding blocks, a few small bars.
     As we wandered, we heard a band starting up on the front steps of a building a block away from the river, with a bass, banjo, violin and guitar. A spindly singer uses a small bullhorn to give his voice a tinny quality, singing about leaving New York to go back to Nevada.
     It’s getting cold and the band invites the few listeners into a small, dark bar that has low, black couches, a Grateful Dead poster on the wall, a pool table, and a bar top made of old tape cassettes marked in felt pen, like “Surfer Rosa” and “Unknown Pleasures.”
     The crowd is friendly, mostly drunk, young and many wear knit caps. The bartender has short dark hair, black stockings, tiny ripped-jean short shorts, white blouse, turquoise-suede platform heels and a huge mouth which she deploys regularly as she serves the locals.
     The next day, a visit to the courts here — the purpose of the trip, after all — showed an old courthouse with an open, spare but modern clerk’s office. Identifying ourselves as journalists, we asked the intake clerk how to operate the public record terminals. And within a few minutes, a delegation made up of the deputy clerk, the head of the IT department and the head of the fiscal section walked up to us, wanting to know if we had questions.
     Cautious but friendly, they showed us a system of access where we saw cases that had been e-filed a few minutes earlier. The new, paper-filed cases are scanned every hour and show up promptly on the terminals. First rate access, a good reception from the officials, and we didn’t even have to fight for it.

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