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Strippers and Rippers

Features
posted: 01/22/2003

As the cab of the new gondola climbs above a parking lot near the strip mall, the panorama reveals itself in layers. First the motels-the Holiday Lodge, the Blue Jay, the Viking-with their neon signs from the '50s, as if Frankie or Dino or Joey Bishop were going to come staggering in, tie loosened, smelling of gin and someone else's perfume. And then, rising above the wedding chapels, are the temples of gambling-Caesars, Harveys, the Horizon-all taking full and brash advantage of Nevada's liberal gaming laws. One lift tower higher, and the lake comes into view, as colorful, in its own way, as the characters who live around it.

South Lake Tahoe, you see, is now a ski town, built around a great mountain that's been undeservedly overshadowed by neighbors like Squaw and Kirkwood. It's also a casino town, a place where the schoolchildren learn math by counting to 21, the lifts cross state lines, and morals change from block to block. There's no place else like it anywhere in skidom: High and pure sit right next to down and dirty. And that makes for some unusual-and usually fascinating-cultural contrasts. It's a place where G-strings and The North Face jackets hang in the same closet, where you can head straight from the slopes to the land of craps, blackjack, and the all-you-can-eat prime-rib buffet.

Moving between these two worlds has never been easier, with the completion of the gondola that runs from South Lake up to 9,100 feet and a new base village that will eventually sprout a skating rink, a multiplex, a convention center, and a two-acre replica of Lake Tahoe. And now that Vail Resorts owns Heavenly, the five-phase, $250-million expansion project-designed to connect the town and the resort, at least physically-could get even bigger.

But the cultural connection may require some time. It'll take more than a gondie to bring sacred and profane together.

Beyond the top of the tamarack express chair, a six-pack that rises above the gondola top station, the landscape keeps right on seducing. On the California side is the Sierra, so lovely and deep that you can understand why the Donner Party kept right on going. Then on the other side is Nevada, the tawny brown of the desert below providing an almost shocking contrast to the snow. The mountain itself, with three widely separated base areas split by an off-limits watershed, is so sprawling that one state can hardly contain it. It's littered with cruising runs, cat tracks, flats, and lifts that move as much across as up. But beyond the tame appearances and criss-crossing cables, you'll find serious terrain-chutes, steep glades, gullies, rock bands. Tucked between those blues and blue-blacks is a hidden world of classic tree skiing, where an adventuresome few sample the powder stashed between the evergreens. Most Heavenly tourists stick to groomers, leaving close to a thousand acres of perfectly spaced Jeffrey pine glades for the taking.

And most tourists steer clear of the infamous Mott and Killebrew canyons, the mountain's hairiest terrain: chutes steep as attic staircases, lined with trees, that were opened in 1991. My first stop is Milky Way, tipping northwest toward Nevada's Carson Valley, Heavenly's only true wide-open bowl. Today, its broad-shouldered upper reaches are bumped out-but after a storm, it's the best place to make big powder turns, and in the spring, it stays firm when the rest of the hill turns to mush. As the run funnels down into Mott and Killebrew, the cover thins, and I spy a rope, a closed sign, and more dirt than snow. A rare mid-March snow drought-a dump the week after I leave would blanket this terrain in fluff-has rendered the precipitous canyons totally unskiable.

Johnny Norman, a snowboarder who tears up the mountain by day and deals high-stakes blackjack at the Horizon by night, later describes what I'm missing. Kick-turn-wide couloirs. Tight trees. Shots like Widowmaker and The Fingers. Norman is South Lake psonified: At any other resort, he might hold down a bum job tending bar or tuning skis. Here, he keeps one foot in snow and one in sin.

He searches for his metaphors. "Let's put it this way," he explains, "dropping into Snake Pit (an S-curving natural halfpipe) is like hitting on 17 with $5,000 on the table. You're going to hit it big. Or crash and burn."

He tries another analogy. "Sometimes, at the casino, you get people who are winning like mad dogs. They're afraid their luck is going to run out. So they refuse to leave the game even to go to the bathroom," he says. "If you know what I'm saying." Translation: When it's dumping and the Mott and Killebrew gates are open, Norman heads straight from swing shift to first chair, stopping only for a double espresso. That's what he's saying.

Katrina's psyched. one of the stars of full-body rock (FBR), the exotic-dance revue at Harveys, she has gone through a box of receipts this afternoon, finally finishing her taxes. Judging by her voluble mood, she must be getting a refund. (What's she deducting? Only H&R Block knows for sure.) While her fellow dancers are sewing their fishnets, Katrina stretches. She is exceptionally limber. She's been dancing since she was four. Ditch the feather boas and the G-strings and, at least to Katrina, this could be the American Ballet Theatre.

When the girls take the stage, I discover that FBR is every 12-year-old boy's fantasy. It's a Britney Spears concert in which, after a particularly chaotic costume change, all the female performers reenter without their shirts.

On the one hand, FBR exhibits the kind of professionalism to which every Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band aspires-a live P.A., smoke machines, riveted audience. But the music and the lights and the platinum-blond wigs are all really just foreplay until Katrina and the rest of these well-toned young ladies strip. It's a little scary, a little sad, and a lot too much like the movie Showgirls. And then I spy Grandma and Grandpa, at a booth next to me, sipping White Russians, their eyes glued to the stage as if it were a Matlock marathon. That's my cue to step outside for some fresh mountain air.

Whooosh. I don't have a radar gun, but that sound tells me I've never skied quite this fast on anything without gates. It's not quite 8 a.m. and I'm in paradise. Carver's Paradise. This early-morning program is one of Heavenly's secrets, combining instruction with an excuse to turn the mountain into a super G course before the lifts open officially. I'm skiing with Mihai Filimon, a 27-year-old reformed racehead from Transylvania.

"Follow me," he says, laying big, fast slots on the fresh corduroy. I follow his tracks like they're the yellow line on Highway 50. The rest of the skiing public is still in the lodge-or in bed, or throwing dice-so we turn only to avoid trees and lift towers. It makes me wonder how to say "No brakes" in Romanian.

As we're heading down, Filimon asks if I want to ski The Face, a 45-degree, 1,700-foot-long slope right underneath the tram and the Gunbarrel Express, which overlooks the California Lodge. As I nod, he asks if I know how to self-arrest. You can see more of Tahoe than trail.

"Do I have to?"

The first drop over the lip is the answer: Affirmative. But after a turn or two, it settles down to the kind of perfect pitch that gets a speed junkie's blood up. Whether The Face is smooth, like today, or pockmarked with moguls, many tourists download instead of risking a slide for life. Some locals do nothing but ski it from first chair to last, keeping score. The record is 71. I decide against trying to beat it.

Then I remember. Like playing craps in ski boots or convertible Mustangs with chains, some things about South Lake simply cannot be explained.

"There's a party going on right here...." i am here to testify that there may be no combination deadlier than a microphone and a margarita. Saturday is karaoke night at El Vaquero, a Mexican restaurant inside Harveys. It's not clear what's more frightening-the guy who stumbles through "Feelings" like Sid Vicious without the stage presence, or the two girls who belt out "Voulez-vouz couchez avec moi?" in perfect harmony. My companions prod, dare, and ultimately shame me into joining them on stage. Mike in hand, we belt out the two and a half minutes of "Celebration" (Come on!). Our performance bears no relation to key, and from the anguished reaction of the audience-Come on-no quantity of tequila can conceal that. I discover the hard way that singing karaoke is like skiing in shorts. It's something you must do once. And only once.

Then it's off to the Hard Rock, where tourists dance to a band that sounds just like the first one that got voted off on VH1's Bands on the Run, and then to Cleo's Lounge in Caesars where Artie the One Man Party holds court-imagine the bastard love child of Bob Marley and Dionne Warwick raised at Sammy Davis Jr.'s house. The casinos hum the same way at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m., full of people simultaneously bleary-eyed and hopeful. Someone leans over to tell me of the time she saw a freshly minted bride sitting at a slot machine, still in her gown, the cigarette dangling from her lips threatening to set her veil on fire, alone, feeding quarters to the one-armed bandit.

Jackpot. after days of hunting, i find it. earlier in my trip, I had tried to sample Heavenly's underappreciated tree skiing-glades like North Bowl, Dipper Knob, and Powderbowl-but all I found was a little glimpse of local culture: the tiny hut on the Nevada side where locals usually crank Steel Pulse and try to alleviate the symptoms of their glaucoma. The Rastas had stayed home. The hut was empty, the snow grabby, the cover thin.

Today, though, I luck upon a series of unmarked tree stashes off Ellie's. The high-speed cruising has been nice, but this is what I've been waiting for. Viewed from the Skyline catwalk, the trees seem tight, but I discover that the evergreen sentries are my willing co-conspirators, there to hold snow in and keep riffraff out. After two turns, the run opens up beautifully, and the pines are now spaced like slalom gates: far enough apart that you don't have to worry about doing a Sonny Bono. (Some locals claim they've found the "Bono Tree," where the congressman met his maker, off Orion's Run.) I slice through the sorbet, on a steep, consistent pitch. When I pop off the lip onto a corduroy boulevard, the cruisers give me funny looks. They don't know what they're missing.

"We can't ski," katrina explains. "it's in our contract." I'm on the VIP couch at Nero's. Full-Body Rock is dark on Monday nights, and as promised, Katrina and her dancer friend Kelly show up. Since it's their day off, it probably had something to do with the free drinks. We talk about the ridiculously high rents in Tahoe and the trip to Mexico they've got planned for the show's Easter break.

Although I don't say it, perhaps it's better if the FBR girls stick to fishnet, not Gore-Tex. These late Tahoe nights have left me with an expanded sense of what lies between last run and first chair. They've convinced me the mountain and the casinos are best thought of as yin and yang, separate, yet together, yet separate.

The conversation turns to skiing, and the girls tell me they'd like to try it sometime-after the show closes and their contracts expire.

The word "contract" piques my attention. It never occurred to me that women who undress for a living would have to sign on the dotted line. But the producers "Look!! Vintage Skiing Sneakers! No Reserve!!!"

Then I remember. Like playing craps in ski boots or convertible Mustangs with chains, some things about South Lake simply cannot be explained.

"There's a party going on right here...." i am here to testify that there may be no combination deadlier than a microphone and a margarita. Saturday is karaoke night at El Vaquero, a Mexican restaurant inside Harveys. It's not clear what's more frightening-the guy who stumbles through "Feelings" like Sid Vicious without the stage presence, or the two girls who belt out "Voulez-vouz couchez avec moi?" in perfect harmony. My companions prod, dare, and ultimately shame me into joining them on stage. Mike in hand, we belt out the two and a half minutes of "Celebration" (Come on!). Our performance bears no relation to key, and from the anguished reaction of the audience-Come on-no quantity of tequila can conceal that. I discover the hard way that singing karaoke is like skiing in shorts. It's something you must do once. And only once.

Then it's off to the Hard Rock, where tourists dance to a band that sounds just like the first one that got voted off on VH1's Bands on the Run, and then to Cleo's Lounge in Caesars where Artie the One Man Party holds court-imagine the bastard love child of Bob Marley and Dionne Warwick raised at Sammy Davis Jr.'s house. The casinos hum the same way at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m., full of people simultaneously bleary-eyed and hopeful. Someone leans over to tell me of the time she saw a freshly minted bride sitting at a slot machine, still in her gown, the cigarette dangling from her lips threatening to set her veil on fire, alone, feeding quarters to the one-armed bandit.

Jackpot. after days of hunting, i find it. earlier in my trip, I had tried to sample Heavenly's underappreciated tree skiing-glades like North Bowl, Dipper Knob, and Powderbowl-but all I found was a little glimpse of local culture: the tiny hut on the Nevada side where locals usually crank Steel Pulse and try to alleviate the symptoms of their glaucoma. The Rastas had stayed home. The hut was empty, the snow grabby, the cover thin.

Today, though, I luck upon a series of unmarked tree stashes off Ellie's. The high-speed cruising has been nice, but this is what I've been waiting for. Viewed from the Skyline catwalk, the trees seem tight, but I discover that the evergreen sentries are my willing co-conspirators, there to hold snow in and keep riffraff out. After two turns, the run opens up beautifully, and the pines are now spaced like slalom gates: far enough apart that you don't have to worry about doing a Sonny Bono. (Some locals claim they've found the "Bono Tree," where the congressman met his maker, off Orion's Run.) I slice through the sorbet, on a steep, consistent pitch. When I pop off the lip onto a corduroy boulevard, the cruisers give me funny looks. They don't know what they're missing.

"We can't ski," katrina explains. "it's in our contract." I'm on the VIP couch at Nero's. Full-Body Rock is dark on Monday nights, and as promised, Katrina and her dancer friend Kelly show up. Since it's their day off, it probably had something to do with the free drinks. We talk about the ridiculously high rents in Tahoe and the trip to Mexico they've got planned for the show's Easter break.

Although I don't say it, perhaps it's better if the FBR girls stick to fishnet, not Gore-Tex. These late Tahoe nights have left me with an expanded sense of what lies between last run and first chair. They've convinced me the mountain and the casinos are best thought of as yin and yang, separate, yet together, yet separate.

The conversation turns to skiing, and the girls tell me they'd like to try it sometime-after the show closes and their contracts expire.

The word "contract" piques my attention. It never occurred to me that women who undress for a living would have to sign on the dotted line. But the producers of FBR evidently had one too many blown ACLs: There's a no-skiing clause in the boilerplate.

"Can they do that?" Kelly wonders. "Legally, you know?"

I search my memory banks for the last time I discussed contract law with a woman who voluntarily showed me her breasts. I come up empty, smile as though I'm listening, and take another sip of free beer.

INSIDE HEAVENLY, CA
Vitals:
Top elevation: 10,040 feet
Vertical: 3,500 feet
Acreage: 4,800
Snowfall: 360 inches
Lifts: 29 (1 high-speed gondola, 1 tram, 1 high-speed six-pack, 5 high-speed quads, 8 triples, 5 doubles, 8 surface lifts)
Info: 775-586-7000, skiheavenly.com
Getting There: Heavenly is just off Highway 50 on Ski Run Boulevard, eight hours from Los Angeles, three and a half hours from San Francisco, and just over an hour from Reno.
Thirst: There's no shortage of nightlife in South Lake Tahoe. The best casino scene is on the vast dance floor of Club Nero-go-go cages, lasers, and a happy hour from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.-in Caesars Tahoe (800-648-3353). For a ski-town fix, Irish-style Pub Tahoe (530-544-1998) features local bands every night.
Hunger: The Driftwood Café (530-544-6545) dishes up classic skiers' breakfasts-egg-and-bacon burritos, homemade quiches-one block down from the gondola. Stop by the Mott Canyon Tavern & Grill (775-588-8989) for pizza, burgers, and soups, a big fireplace, and trivia all the time. It serves grub until 3 a.m. Every time the mountain gets a foot of snow, the bread bowls at the Hawaii-themed Freshies (530-542-3630) are half price. Pick up no-nonsense Mexican in huge portions at The Cantina (530-544-1233).
Slumber: South Lake Tahoe's casinos are relatively cheap-so you can have some funds left over for craps. Try Harrah's Lake Tahoe ($99-$139; 800-427-7247, harrahstahoe.com) or Caesars Tahoe ($120-$250; 800-648-3353, caesars.com). For lake views and fireplaces, stay at the rustic Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge and Spa ($129-$199; 800-448-4577; tahoelakeshorelodge.com).

ers of FBR evidently had one too many blown ACLs: There's a no-skiing clause in the boilerplate.

"Can they do that?" Kelly wonders. "Legally, you know?"

I search my memory banks for the last time I discussed contract law with a woman who voluntarily showed me her breasts. I come up empty, smile as though I'm listening, and take another sip of free beer.

INSIDE HEAVENLY, CA
Vitals:
Top elevation: 10,040 feet
Vertical: 3,500 feet
Acreage: 4,800
Snowfall: 360 inches
Lifts: 29 (1 high-speed gondola, 1 tram, 1 high-speed six-pack, 5 high-speed quads, 8 triples, 5 doubles, 8 surface lifts)
Info: 775-586-7000, skiheavenly.com
Getting There: Heavenly is just off Highway 50 on Ski Run Boulevard, eight hours from Los Angeles, three and a half hours from San Francisco, and just over an hour from Reno.
Thirst: There's no shortage of nightlife in South Lake Tahoe. The best casino scene is on the vast dance floor of Club Nero-go-go cages, lasers, and a happy hour from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.-in Caesars Tahoe (800-648-3353). For a ski-town fix, Irish-style Pub Tahoe (530-544-1998) features local bands every night.
Hunger: The Driftwood Café (530-544-6545) dishes up classic skiers' breakfasts-egg-and-bacon burritos, homemade quiches-one block down from the gondola. Stop by the Mott Canyon Tavern & Grill (775-588-8989) for pizza, burgers, and soups, a big fireplace, and trivia all the time. It serves grub until 3 a.m. Every time the mountain gets a foot of snow, the bread bowls at the Hawaii-themed Freshies (530-542-3630) are half price. Pick up no-nonsense Mexican in huge portions at The Cantina (530-544-1233).
Slumber: South Lake Tahoe's casinnos are relatively cheap-so you can have some funds left over for craps. Try Harrah's Lake Tahoe ($99-$139; 800-427-7247, harrahstahoe.com) or Caesars Tahoe ($120-$250; 800-648-3353, caesars.com). For lake views and fireplaces, stay at the rustic Tahoe Lakeshore Lodge and Spa ($129-$199; 800-448-4577; tahoelakeshorelodge.com).

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