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Tahoe Holdout

Tahoe Holdout

posted: 01/31/2000

Truckee, Calif.
Truckee is a crossroads town, with all that the phrase implies. Fourteen miles north of Lake Tahoe and halfway between Reno, Nev., and the California goldfields, it is a place where, historically, fortunes and directions changed. Today Truckee is a service-oriented hub populated mainly by hardworking, outdoorsy families, and the toughest choice in town is where and how to play: Within a 20-mile radius of Truckee's historic heart sit eight alpine ski areas and more than 500 km of cross-country ski trails. In warmer months, the region boasts abundant rock climbing, trout fishing, mountain biking and hiking, as well as summertime boating on Donner Lake. Without any major upscale hotels, however, Truckee is not in itself a vacation destination as much as it is an intersection on the way to somewhere else.

In spite of its slightly scruffy style-or perhaps because of it-Truckee fosters a vibrant and close-knit community and has become a place the Tahoe Basin's least pretentious call home. Roberta "Bird" Lew, 39, is an acupuncturist and X Games climbing champion who moved to Truckee from the San Francisco Bay area in 1988. She was drawn to the High Sierra hamlet after a day of climbing on the monumental reliefs of granite near Truckee's forgotten Highway 40, alongside old-growth trees twisted by wind and snow. What appealed to her was the combination of natural beauty and harsh elements. "I felt inspired just walking around town," remembers Lew. Fresh from acupuncture school, she opened a practice in Truckee, thinking she'd stay just a few years. A decade later, her acupuncture clients still receive their healing treatments well mixed with vistas of the Truckee Basin's spacious meadows and Technicolor sky. "It's pretty special to have this in your backyard," Lew says. "And in such a short time, even 10 minutes, you can be off someplace wild."

When I first passed through Truckee in December 1979, I stepped off a Greyhound bus into a snowstorm that dumped 83.5 inches and still stands on the record books as one of Truckee's 20 heftiest since 1946. En route to Squaw Valley for race training, all I saw of Truckee was a snowblown glimpse of battered pickup trucks and false-fronted buildings right out of the Wild West. A few weeks later I got a ride back to town. The day was cold and sunny, high-altitude crisp. Something about Truckee touched me deeply-maybe the heaps of snow standing 15 feet high or the town's historic Victorian charm, maybe the cry of a passing train or the basin's vivid, golden light-and I was hooked.Other transplants end up here for more pragmatic reasons. "Truckee's key thing is location," says Marcy Dolan, 34, who commutes to Reno (45 miles) to work as a children's ER nurse, to Tahoe City (15 miles) to run her sunglass shop, to the Bay Area (Sacramento 104 miles, San Francisco 180) for a dose of city life and to Squaw Valley (10 miles) to ski. Originally from New England, Marcy and her husband, Ted, landed in Truckee because of the skiing (Marcy is a former racing coach and both hold season passes at Squaw), but they also appreciate Truckee's variety. "Everything is here if you want it-convenient shopping, college classes, a swimming pool, great music in the summer-but you can get away from it all," says Marcy.

It also has a lot of skiing. The eight local areas together draw nearly 2.5 million skier visits per year. Most local passholders prefer either Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows. Upper-end terrain at the two resorts is equally challenging. Squaw offers far more acreage (4,000 acres) and extensive resort amenities, but the result is big resort crowds. Alpine Meadows is an excellent choice both for skiers who like to explore off-piste and for families who ski at different levels but want to be able to ride the same chairlifts. Alpine can't be beat for well-maintained corn in springtime. If it's storming, locals head to Northstar-at-Tahoe, which is the most protected and has abunda glades that make for good visibility in bad weather. Northstar also offers free ski lessons for mid-range skiers and above. On a powder day, Sugar Bowl is a good choice. Its location draws drier and more voluminous snow than the resorts closer to the lake, and because it has fewer locals living nearby it doesn't get skied off as quickly, though proximity to San Francisco also brings hefty weekend crowds. Beginners and families with young children enjoy low-cost, low-key Boreal, Donner Ski Ranch, Soda Springs and Tahoe Donner. Whatever the choice, all roads lead back to Truckee at day's end.

Truckee's historic Commercial Row features several Victorian-era blocks as quaintly charming-if also a bit rougher edged-as those in Park City or Crested Butte; visitors staying elsewhere in the Tahoe Basin come to this slice of the Old West to shop, dine and stroll. Though local fashion tends toward small-town practical and style is all about Eighties retro, the Bay Area's modernizing influence is clearly evident in the top-notch California cuisine at Pianeta, Pacific Crest, Cottonwood and Café Meridian, all in the heart of Truckee's old town.

Outside the downtown core the charm quickly dissipates in an unsightly but functional sprawl of business blocks and mini-malls, which hold everything from hardware to health food, even a factory outlet mall. "The town's limitation is that it is spread out," says Lew. And somewhat of a mish-mash. The best sushi (Java Sushi) sits squashed between a video store and the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The movie theater hides next to the 7-11 across from the small craft airport on the outskirts of town. But Truckee's advantages are clear: In a region oriented more toward tourists than residents, this is an actual town (though not incorporated until 1993), offering relative affordability. While the local population includes a smattering of the new mountain breed-realtors, mortgage lenders and telecommuters-Truckee is, more than anything, the place where Tahoe's mechanics, carpenters, banktellers, nurses, ski patrollers and snow groomers live. The average household income is about $45,000 per year, and the average single-family home costs $189,000. It's a place where high-school sports are front-page news, the old-style hobby shop is a happening place, and the most popular sporting goods store is the one selling second-hand gear. And with dozens of community organizations, ranging from the American Association of University Women to the Truckee Optimist Club, it's clear that locals are an educated and civic-minded bunch. "We've always been the country cousin to Tahoe," says 20-year local Jim Porter, who chairs the Tahoe Community Foundation, "but we're big on community here."

As in most mountain towns, the greatest issue facing Truckee is how to manage growth. The town's eight zoned residential neighborhoods are largely built out, and new developments are on the table, the most controversial of which involves the fate of 700 acres of forested meadows and wetlands earmarked for a timeshare community called Tahoe Boca Estates. A recent bond issue promises to help ease overcrowding in local public schools, but the town is still updating its infrastructure. Behind it all lurks the pressure of California's growing population-expected to reach 40 million by 2005-and the deep, snowy reality of Truckee's infamous winter storms.

"Our reputation as being the coldest spot in the nation is greatly exaggerated," quips Porter, 53, who adds that the really huge storms provide Truckee's best natural regulator of population growth. It's one thing to have to dig out your driveway, he explains, but another thing entirely to be trapped in your house. "I used to move around like a caged cat," says Porter, remembering the days before he had two daughters. But the family perspective puts even monster storms into a different light. "When you finally realize you can't get anywhere, it's very comforting," Porter says. "You just relax. It is very good family time."

When the sun comes out, as it always does in this radiant corner of the Sierra, things get even better: The snow is deep, the skiing is good and the people are, in Porter's words "as friendly as you get." If that isn't enough, just wait for the wail of the train or the basin's wild magic to touch you: You just might find yourself hooked. "> Check out Ski Towns: Tahoe Holdout, Photo Essay "> Check out the Truckee Almanac " Porter says. "You just relax. It is very good family time."

When the sun comes out, as it always does in this radiant corner of the Sierra, things get even better: The snow is deep, the skiing is good and the people are, in Porter's words "as friendly as you get." If that isn't enough, just wait for the wail of the train or the basin's wild magic to touch you: You just might find yourself hooked. "> Check out Ski Towns: Tahoe Holdout, Photo Essay "> Check out the Truckee Almanac

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