The Lake Tahoe Rookie Experience

When you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, certain things are expected of you.

All hands on deck...With Daddy's hand on a beer, too.

All hands on deck…With Daddy’s hand on a beer, too.

Those include, but are not limited to, owning a Toyota Prius, most likely with some sort of self-serving vanity license plate, never admitting that you have visited Alcatraz with all the heathen tourists from out of town, and, in Oakland at least, constantly re-electing Democratic Congressional Representative, Barbara Lee just because that’s what you do even though she’s never done anything of note you can name except being the lone Congressman to vote against using military force in Afghanistan back in 2001 when we were all hot to turn Afghanistan into the world’s largest parking lot.

Another thing that’s practically required of you if you live here is to visit Lake Tahoe. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 14 years and until recently, whenever someone asked me if I had been to Lake Tahoe, the conversation usually went like this:

Tahoe Fan: So, have you been to Lake Tahoe?

Me: Nope.

Tahoe Fan: Never?

Me: No.

Tahoe Fan: [Catatonic Stare]…But it’s TAHOE!

Yeah, I knew it was TAHOE. But, two of the three things Lake Tahoe is best-known for—Skiing in the winter and Bro-ing it up with a boat full of Coors Light slamming Bros [and their attendant Coors Light slamming girlfriends]—are activities I don’t partake in. Also, for some reason, Lake Tahoe always seemed like it was so far away that driving there might as well have been the same as saying I was going to head out to visit the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D.

But as it turns out, Lake Tahoe is only about a four-hour drive from Oakland. We have a sometimes-weekend place in Mariposa, Calif, near Yosemite National Park, which isn’t as far from home as Tahoe, but takes us about five hours to get to, due to at least one bathroom break for my daughters, Maddo and Little Sis, and their iced coffee-chugging daddy, and we do that drive on auto-pilot. And for three years in a row, my wife and I have loaded up the girls for the two-day road trip up to visit my mom near Seattle and survived wanting to drop the kids off at a fire station. If we could do that, I had no more excuses for not visiting Tahoe.

We finally chose to go to Tahoe for one main reason: My wife is afraid of Mexico. Actually, she’s afraid of taking our girls to our timeshare in Cabo San Lucas not out of fear that the kids will be kidnapped and held for ransom by a drug cartel [or worse, end up on stage at Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina], but because of the Sea of Cortez. The way my wife describes it, the riptides of the Sea of Cortez are so strong that they can actually pull your plane into the water as it descends into Cabo’s airport. And on land, my wife imagines that our daughters would run straight into the Sea’s magnetic pull as soon as we entered our timeshare and be swept out into the Pacific Ocean’s shipping lanes.

The Stardust. You almost expect the Rat Pack to make an appearance. Almost.

The Stardust. You almost expect the Rat Pack to make an appearance. Almost.

So, we traded the week in Cabo, like we’ve done every year we’ve been together, for another place. This year, it was the Stardust Lodge in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. The Stardust’s sign looks like it was plucked out of circa 1960-era Las Vegas and for all I know, it was. Frank Sinatra himself would have approved of had he chosen to chill out a big alpine lake instead of making “Ocean’s Eleven” down on the Strip back in the day.  Much of the rest of “Tahoe” as everyone calls it, has shaken off such Rat Pack-era charms. There are at least four sushi restaurants on the main drag, a Starbucks across the street and a McDonald’s that must have been built to conform with local building-style codes to look like a ski lodge. Off the slopes and into a warm and waiting Big Mac.

Also, barely a football field down the street from the Stardust, was the Nevada state line and the town of Stateline, Nev. And anyone who has ever entered Nevada from any state border knows what else was there: casinos.

And I mean right on the border. On the California side of the, you could ride the Heavenly Ski Resort Gondola to the top of the slope, if it were open. Which it wasn’t. Step across the crosswalk, and you could go to the Montbleu Casino’s sportsbook and place a bet on the Seattle Seahawks to win the Super Bowl. Which I did.

But doing that was more symbolic for me than anything else. We had our daughters along and we weren’t about to pay a babysitter $13 an hour to watch our girls while we went over and lost at least $13 a minute at the $5 blackjack tables. No, we needed to find family entertainment that we could all do together.

We were also doing this during the first week of October. Or, what the ce cream jockey from Manchester, U.K, and running the Coldstone Creamery called “retirement season.” These are the weeks between when the summertime partiers leave and the wintertime skiers arrive. It’s just cool enough to scare off the first group, yet nowhere near snowing for the latter gang.

And it’s spectacular, too. It would be hard not to be at an elevation of 6,225 feet.

Lake Tahoe viewed from our boat.

Lake Tahoe viewed from our boat.

Lake Tahoe is 22 miles long, 12 miles wide, and has an average depth of about 1,000 feet. The water there is some of the purest on the planet, and there is about 40 trillion gallons of it. The water is so clear that you can drop a dinner plate off of one the paddle boats that tour the lake and it will remain visible to a depth of 75 feet.

We didn’t get a chance to do any lake littering like that during our trip on the paddle boat M.S. Dixie II, which everyone including me called the “Miss Dixie”. A hotel contact got us deal on the ride, and we hauled our girls off to Zephyr Cove, a few miles up on the lake’s southeastern Nevada side, looking forward to taking in the scenery for a couple of hours. It was one of those glorious alpine days where clouds were non-existent, the sky was as blue as the lake and there was that crispness in the air that only comes in the early fall. The only thing that could rend the made-for-a-postcard scene would be the insane caterwauling of a small child. Like Little Sis.

We had just posed near the M.S. Dixie for the obligatory tourist photo that is now offered at the start of nearly every major tourist activity in America these days, and proceeded onto the boat when Little Sis decided that she didn’t want to…well, I don’t know exactly what she didn’t want to do because when she wasn’t screaming into my ears, she was thrashing in my arms like a wet cat caught in a potato sack.

Somehow, we made it on board and to the upper deck, with, as my North Carolina-born mom would say, Little Sis “showing herself” all the way. Of course, relaxation was not to be had, as almost as soon as we found some seats, Maddo decided she needed to go to the bathroom. Looking at my wife and Little Sis, whose cries were keeping couple next to us from enjoying a romantic lake ride, I quickly added up the score, grabbed Maddo’s hand, and headed downstairs to the bathroom. Which conveniently, was on the same level as the ship’s bar.

Few things are better than daytime drinking. And being on a lake-cruising paddle boat with a cold Stella Artois in hand only made that experience, well, if not better, at least more bearable as Little Sis hadn’t settled down one whit while Maddo and I were gone. I brought my wife a glass of pinot noir, which she barely kept from knocking over during Little Sis’ fit.

We only remained topside for a few minutes before the need for something to eat really kicked in, so we dragged the girls back to the dining room/bar area. It looked like most of the other passengers had decided to do the same, choosing to order burgers, nachos and fries and get about a third of the view of the lake as we all would have gotten from the upper deck. But those nachos and fries managed to calm the girls down just enough, and one of the boats signature drinks, the Rum Runner, did the same for me.

Your basic Rum Runner

Your basic Rum Runner

We cruised across the lake, slipped into the finger known as Emerald Bay, made a lap around Fannette Island, the only island in Lake Tahoe, saw part of the semi-famous Vikingsholm house, and then headed back to Zephyr Cove. By this time, we had gone back topside, where our now-well-behaved daughters entertained a couple visiting from Columbus, Ohio, who had their plans to next visit Yosemite squelched by the federal government shutdown.

I had another Stella Artois and talked Ohio State football with the guy when Maddo wasn’t trying to jump on his lap. Little Sis got invited to come into the wheelhouse and “steer” the M.S. Dixie for a bit. I put “steer” in quotes because while she did turn the classic wooden ship’s wheel, the captain seemed to maintain course with some non-19th-century controls. There was no need for a three-year-old to cause Gilligan’s Island II to occur.

The captain soon brought us in to the dock. We began to disembark. And as we did, it was of course, the perfect time for Little Sis to lose her mind again. I guess she needed to announce her arrival back on land just in case everyone they had forgotten arrival on the M.S. Dixie two hours earlier.

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