I failed to mention in my previous posts that by the time we left Napa, I was starting to feel the inklings of a cold or allergies or some other vacation-curtailing ailment, and when I woke up on our last morning in Big Sur, my nose was completely stuffed and my head was pounding—just the sort of thing that would make the five-hour drive to Lake Tahoe exceedingly unpleasant. But I was bound and determined to conquer this brazen virus, so I pumped myself full of Starbucks and Dayquil and we hit the road, speeding down the highway toward one of my favorite places in the world.
Once we drifted inland away from the PCH, the drive to Lake Tahoe was fairly nondescript, just an expanse of suburban sprawl marked by fast food chains and strip malls, not unlike our stomping grounds in Texas, until we reached the base of the Sierra Nevadas. And then the landscape metamorphosed and stunning mountains and soaring redwoods greeted us at every turn. As the elevation rose, we left behind the 70-degree temperatures we’d enjoyed on the first leg of our trip and entered snowy woods illuminated by a postcard-perfect blue sky.
We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon and were immensely pleased with the accommodations. The Cottage Inn is a collection of cozy cottages situated just a stone’s throw from the lake. Each cottage has a theme, and I had reserved the “Romantic Hideaway.” Prosaic? Perhaps, but that did not detract from its loveliness. (Funny side note: Shortly after we checked in there was a knock on our door. It was a teenaged pizza delivery boy who asked us if we’d ordered a pizza. We said no and he asked in his adorable California surfer/skier accent, “Uh, do you know which one is ‘Cowboy Romance’?” I couldn’t stop laughing.
Once we’d checked in to our comfy little room, I curled up on the couch with a blankey and let Michael venture out on his own to get a few sunset shots of the lake. Despite the fact that I’d been popping Dayquil like Skittles, I’d failed to reach an armistice with my cold and we ended up spending a pleasant but uneventful evening in our room while my private war raged on.
One bright spot in and amongst my now protracted illness was the Inn’s “cocktail hour.” At 6pm we walked over to the lobby and enjoyed some gratis spirits and homemade soup. Michael had a glass of chardonnay and my foggy head and I welcomed a steaming mug of mulled wine. This being the night before President’s Day, the small dining room was teeming with guests, and I enjoyed eavesdropping on a pair of older gentlemen who were fondly reminiscing about the bygone 1960s ski trips of their youth.
We passed the rest of the evening watching movies in our room. I took advantage of the Japanese soaking tub and snuggled up in the rustic but plush bed, crossing my fingers that I would feel better the next morning…
…and I didn’t, but I wasn’t going to let a stupid old cold stop me from enjoying Lake Tahoe, a place which, in my estimation, is heaven on Earth. I did my best to shake myself out of a cold-induced stupor, got dressed, and headed over to the breakfast room, where the Inn’s proprietress had prepared cappuccino muffins and stuffed French toast.
Thus fortified, we went back to our room and made some tentative plans for the day. Michael skis like a champ, but me…not so much. So if he skied, he’d either be skiing on the bunny slope (you know, the one with the conveyor belt instead of a lift) or skiing alone. So that, combined with the fact that a mere half-day lift ticket costs upwards of $90, led to his decision to skip the slopes.
We instead started our day with a drive along the lake, heading a little farther south than we’d been on our previous trip. We stopped at a few turnoffs to take in the breathtaking views, which are so much different in the winter than in the summer. But as we closed in on the Reno side of the lake we promptly turned around. If crowds and casinos and chain restaurants aren’t your cup of tea, I would recommend sticking to North Lake Tahoe.
To be honest, if you go to Lake Tahoe in the winter and for some reason don’t ski (for example, if your wife skis about as well as Caitlin Upton can argue in favor of improved social studies curricula), there isn’t a whole lot to do. But the views alone make it a worthy destination. We passed the rest of our afternoon sipping loud mouth soup at the Auld Dubliner in the Squaw Valley ski area and then took a long walk near the Inn, trying in vain to squelch a devastating case of real estate envy.
In the evening, we partook in more soup and wine in the lobby, the crowd having thinned out by now, and then made a trip to the grocery store for wine and cheese. I figured if I couldn’t kill my cold, I might as well get it drunk. Michael selected this delectable sandwich, and the leftovers came in handy the next day:
After a long, sleepless night (I guess the Dayquil backfired?), I somehow managed to put myself together the next morning and we walked over to the breakfast room. The weather had changed overnight. The previous day’s 40-degree sunshine had been replaced by a windy, mid-20s chill with heavy clouds that had already surrendered a few inches of snow. The cottages and trees were covered in a blanket of white, and on any other day I would have relished the scene, but on this particular day we need to make the three-ish hour drive to San Francisco and get on a Dallas-bound plane.
We ate our breakfast quickly (made-to-order omelets), packed up, and as luck would have it, as soon as we got in our car, the snow began in earnest. We started on our way but hadn’t gotten very far along the highway when we came to a checkpoint where men clad in bright orange vests were inspecting each car to ensure every driver had either a.) four-wheel-drive or b.) snow chains. Being in a rental car, we had neither and were forced to turn back toward Tahoe City to rectify our predicament.
It didn’t take us long to learn how such situations generally play out. Ill-equipped motorists such as ourselves have but two options. You can either enlist the help of one of the many roadside chain vendors (I think they may be contracted by the state?) for the handsome sum of about $90 ($60 to buy the chains, $30 to have them put on), or you can find a gas station that sells chains (still $60) and figure out how to put the damn things on yourself. My jack-of-all-trades husband of course settled on the latter option, and the detour only cost us about 30 minutes.
The snow, however, combined with the ineptitude of the average driver, cost us an extra three hours. The traffic kept coming to a standstill and the snow kept piling up. At one point, we’d been stopped for so long that a gentleman in a car ahead of us got out and let his dog run around in the snow on the highway. Michael had come prepared and eluded starvation with the remnants of the aforementioned sandwich.
Once the traffic let up and we had escaped the winter weather, the race was on to get to the airport on time, and through our combined efforts of hunger-staving, GPS-maneuvering, and speed-limit-breaking, we made it.
Only to discover that our flight was delayed by an hour. But we made it.
To reprise a comment I made previously, saying goodbye to California is like saying goodbye to a loved one. It pains the heart, almost unbearably so, even if you know you’ll see each other again. Once a girl who was obsessed with New England, I now give California, the place where I was born 30 years ago, top billing on my wish list of places to live, though it’s impossible to decide on one specific locale. Maybe Napa, with its gently rolling hills and vineyards as far as the eye can see, each producing that sweet elixir that loosens the tongue, inspires the mind, stirs the soul, and maybe, if we’re lucky, causes us to fall in love more deeply, with people and with life. Or the coastline with those tiny pockets of wooded silence, like Big Sur, where a writer’s imagination is roused by the great minds who once took up residence in its halcyon shade. Or perhaps that pristine mountain lake where troubles drift away like snowflakes in the wind, and peace, that esoteric ghost we’re all forever chasing, at last materializes, elevated off of the landscape with bas-relief clarity, if only for a moment.
I drank the wine. I listened to the wind in the trees. I watched the sun set on those clarion waters. And I made a silent promise to myself to spend the next 30 years working toward the goal of one day never having to leave. Hopefully it won’t take that long. À bientot, dear Golden State. I’ll see you soon.