It’s snowing in Tahoe as I write this. Which is great if you live in Tahoe. Unfortunately, I no longer do. I’m about as far from the crown jewel of the Sierras as possible while still living within the borders of the continental United States.
I know it’s snowing there because from November through April, I check the weather at Lake Tahoe at least once a week. I go to my favorite weather website and punch in the zip code for California’s Olympic Valley. It has been nearly a decade since I lived there, but I haven’t forgotten it: 96146. When a blizzard is brewing, I check the site once a day. After it hits, I bookmark the page that tracks the snowfall totals at Squaw Valley.
There are plenty of things about Tahoe I didn’t like. I swear. When I left in the late ’90s and moved to Rhode Island for a job with a desk, a computer, health benefits, free coffee and a regular paycheck, I had a long list of complaints. When a storm is moving through the Northern Sierras, I have a hard time remembering even one.
It snows in Rhode Island. But the storms tend to be brief and mixed with rain. What snow does stick is often gone in a few hours. Here, a snow shovel gets as much use as an appendix. In many respects, it’s quite nice. We get an occasional taste of winter, but not the rutted-roads, four-foot-high-snowbanks, wipers-frozen-to-the-windshield winters. My car and my back love it.
You would think the worst days would be the ones after a storm barrels in from the Pacific and buries the Tahoe resorts with 4 feet of snow in 36 hours. Those days when the sun shines down from bluebird skies on miles of untracked powder. But in fact, it’s the days before a big storm when I miss Tahoe the most. I miss stopping by a favorite pub on my way home from my table-waiting job, slopping through the slush in the parking lot, then finding the bar packed with people buzzing about the big storm that’s about to hit.
I’ve never seen another act of nature put so many people in such a good mood. All of my friends were ski bums, and we’d sit in the bar, buy rounds for each other and tell ski tales. The more time we spent at the bar, the less snow we had to shovel off our cars in the morning. It didn’t matter whether I knew anyone at the bar: Watching the Doppler loop together made everyone fast friends.
I took these occasions for granted during the five years I lived in Tahoe. When my first significant snowstorm hit in Rhode Island, I felt a familiar tingling. I put on my parka, my gloves and a hat and walked around the corner to a bar. It was empty; the bartender hoped to close up early. I tried another bar, same story. The next storm I tried a third. Empty. Then it dawned on me.
In Rhode Island, the first hint of a major snowstorm sends people scurrying to the supermarket for milk, canned soup, bottled water and D-cell batteries. Then they rush home, bolt the door and turn on the TV, which broadcasts endless dire storm warnings. Newscasters talk in grave tones about the traffic jams on I-95 and advise people against going outside.
It’s been nearly a decade. I’ve long since recognized that snowstorms just don’t mean the same thing in the Ocean State as they do in Tahoe. But that doesn’t mean I’ve accepted it.
When it snows, I still go for a walk. I trudge down to the park and make fresh tracks across the soccer field. I kick my feet aggressively so that three inches feel like 13, and I stare upward, trying not to blink as the snowflakes land on my face. Sometimes I’ll almost convince myself that around the next corner is a bar crowded with goggle-tanned faces, Patagonia jackets and a golden retriever lapping snowmelt off the floor.
Of course, that’s never the case. Eventually I find my way home. On these nights, however, it doesn’t feel like home.
- SKI MAGAZINE, DECEMBER 2008