Tahoe 30 years on

May 16, 2010

Today I sat on a rock high over Lake Tahoe where I perched thirty summers ago.  I’m pretty sure it’s the same one.  That same view, the same curve under my butt still comes to me in dreams.

In the summer of 1980 I gave my tears to the ancient granite around the lake—in this case overlooking Emerald Bay—me, a 22-year-old away from home for the first time, missing my boyfriend and hating my first newspaper job because of the city editor who yelled at me daily. I’d spent a year as the editor of the college newspaper where one of my greatest accomplishments was learning how not to cry in public. And the boyfriend, who was also the paper’s managing editor, the one who was the best student reporter I’d ever seen, was at home in Sacramento looking for work. He was told by editor after editor that he needed to pay his dues at a small paper somewhere, and the small papers insisted that he be able to drive. Since he was legally blind, that was impossible.

So it was that he lived vicariously through me that summer at a distance, urging me on over the phone, propping me up time and again. I knew he could do a better job than I ever would.

What I learned stunned me: that I was not a very good reporter, after all. I could write feature stories, sure, but no one hired feature writers out of college. I had to pay my dues in news. And I was terrible as a news reporter. The boyfriend was made for my job; I was not.

That I didn’t get fired from that job at the Tahoe Daily Tribune was a small miracle. That my next job (as a feature writer!) came before the snows did and pulled me out of Tahoe to a small town two hours away in the flatland was another one.  Then I spent the next decade proving to myself more than anyone else that I could be a reporter—either in news or features—that I could become a good editor, too, eventually becoming editor-in-chief of a magazine. That I could become a good teacher to journalism students, too.

But it took me years to heal the wounds Tahoe inflicted on me.

Truly, it was not fair to blame gorgeous Lake Tahoe. (The city editor deserved most of that.) That summer I found boulders all over the California and Nevada sides where my tears spilled into the lake, half hoping the legend of the Lady of the Lake was true. I wished that the lady would make things go smoothly, help me find my way. Those tears were my form of prayer in those confusing, difficult days. And within five months, she did.

Now when I drive up to the lake a few times a year, I come with my students’ papers in tow, a writing professor with grading to do. If I’m lucky, I come alone and stay in the comfortable house of friends on the west shore in Tahoma. It is no exaggeration to say that the kindness of my friend Timi and her husband Rick has helped me heal my relationship with this place.

I am a mile from Sugar Pine Point State Park, where the magnificent Ehrman Mansion sits on a small hill, looking out on the largest alpine lake in the world, as it has done for 107 years. To give myself something to do besides cover meetings that first summer in Tahoe, I made it a point to work my way around the lake doing feature stories about the grand old homes that graced it. In my memory, the Ehrman Mansion was the first.

I remember it as a grand old lady of the lake, built in 1903, with a lovely curving staircase up to a long second floor. It was unfurnished in 1980, and the person giving me the tour allowed me to wander at will through all the rooms. I peered in old closets, imagining the people who’d hung their clothes there, wondering how the mansion’s owner, Florence Hellman Ehrman, had furnished her bedroom. I remember spending the better part of an hour in the house, wandering and wondering.

A few summers ago, I made my way back to the Ehrman Mansion and took the last tour of the season. The rooms were beautifully furnished in period pieces—some antique, some reproductions—and the docent pretended that his charges had just boated in from across the lake to stay with the Ehrmans. It was a lovely notion—charming to “choose your bedroom upstairs” and lay out your fancy dress clothes for dinner promptly at 6 because “Mrs. Ehrman likes to see the last light of the day on the lake.”

Today, on a mild mid-May day, I drove alone into Sugar Pine Point State Park, knowing it was not yet open for the season, but seeking the solitude of that great piece of property with its front lawn cascading down to the lake, its dock reaching out like a wooden tongue into the water. Only a few other people wandered the grounds. I walked the beach from the north boathouse where a stream feeds into the lake all the way past the south boathouse. I stood on the point and looked at Meeks Bay where Ole Kehlet in Sacramento who fixes my old typewriters spent his summers. His family owned the resort there for 40 years.

I soaked up the peace of the place under cloudy skies, stepping carefully over the rocky shore, stopping to linger over the sight of the still-snowy mountains to the south and east, to pick up small rocks for my pockets that I fingered like good luck charms. I did that in 1980, too.

I marveled over how far life has brought me in 30 years and yet how I find myself on this shore again—in much better shape than I was that first lonely, desperate summer.  I certainly have loved and lost—a husband, several jobs in journalism, lovers, family members and friends who’ve gone on without me—but it’s also true that I have good work, good friends and loved ones.

I sat on a large chunk of granite where the lake water gently lapped and listened. Water sounds. Birds. No boats anywhere—except for a distant white triangle of a sail moving slowly again the far shore. I have come for years now to sit and spill my concerns into the lake, hoping the lady is still there and listening. I asked for help, for new miracles—healing for a sick friend, caretaking for another friend in difficult straits, continued good health for me and loved ones.

Then I stood on that ancient piece of granite and realized something: It is 30 years almost to the day that I began my relationship with Lake Tahoe. It is a drop of time in this great geological bucket of the Sierra Nevada. I am a tiny speck in its grand expanse, yet this place still looms large for me.

I spread my arms wide. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I called to the Lady of the Lake.

I heard her answer in the soft plashings of water on rock, in the call of a crow, saw it in a male and female mallard paddling by, felt it in the solidity beneath my feet.

— Jan Haag

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