Friday, April 2, 2010

Day 159: Boots in Squaw Valley, Part One

Day 159's thing I've never done before was to go to Lake Tahoe and ski Squaw Valley.

Getting up and moving was a challenge, despite sleeping very well on Elizabeth's very comfortable pull-out couch. I woke up to the fabulous view from she and Kristof's apartment and spent the morning in bed blogging, occasionally glancing up at the Golden Gate Bridge and resisting the urge to email my co-workers and tell them, "You're at work and I'm not, suckers!"
Elizabeth's friend Cynthia, along with her French Bulldog, Chloe, picked us up early and we headed east to North Lake Tahoe, where her parents have a cabin. Had Cynthia not extended her very generous offer to let us stay for free at her parents’ place, Elizabeth and I had planned on going skiing in Tahoe anyway. But I had to applaud Elizabeth on choosing friends with vacation homes and allowing me to tag along. Well done, Elizabeth.

Along the way, we stopped in Auburn, California at Ikeda's, a grocery store/restaurant that Elizabeth told me is a staple for those traveling between San Francisco and Tahoe. There are aisles of healthy groceries, as well as an eat-in Burger Bar. Ikeda's pies are baked fresh daily and are well-known for being delicious, so Cynthia bought one for the weekend. I passed on getting a burger, only because it was still 10am and instead bought one of the best cups of coffee I've ever had.

Elizabeth said my northern California street cred would rise tremendously if I mentioned Ikeda's, so there it is. I hope you're impressed.

The drive to Tahoe was, as expected, beautifully scenic. My pictures won't do the mountains and lake justice, just like my pictures of Yosemite didn't do it justice either. Leaving the mild temperatures of San Francisco to arrive in the snowy mountains of Lake Tahoe a mere three hours later was fascinating, and riding through the vastly different landscapes of California made me, as it always does, consider moving out west.

When we arrived in Tahoe, the first place we went was Tahoe Daves to rent our ski gear. Elizabeth and Cynthia spoke to the guys working there as if they had all known each other for years, which confused me at first. I knew they had rented equipment from there before, but jokes were flying between them like they fly between Elizabeth and me, and we've known each other for years. I soon learned that engaging in this kind of banter is just what these guys do. I was upfront with them from the start about my skiing inexperience and they were helpful in getting us what we needed. They could not, despite my request, ensure that the skis they rented me would keep me from falling, but they were laid back and friendly, just as I expected dudes working in a ski shop in Lake Tahoe to be. Plus, they waived some of our rental fees, which was much appreciated. With a free place to stay and discounted ski rentals, this weekend was off to a great (and cheap) start.

We walked across the street to check out the view of the lake, and to pick up a sandwich for lunch at the Java Hut, a local coffee joint. While Tahoe Daves was dominated by male employees, there were three girls running the Java Hut. Immediately I noticed that they weren't as friendly as the guys, but whatever. I get it.

Cynthia ordered first so she could head back to the ski shop and load the equipment into the car. She started to order a sandwich, and then, after a brief conversation with the woman at the counter, changed her order to a toasted bagel. Knowing that she has been coming to Tahoe, and likely the Java Hut, for many years, I probably should've followed her lead and done the same. But for whatever reason (maybe because I'm an idiot still hungry for a sandwich), I did not.

Elizabeth and I ordered two sandwiches, a Roasted Ruby (a grilled vegetable sandwich with goat cheese) for me, and a SDTBLT (I have no idea what this is, other than it had bacon on it) for her.

After I paid for the sandwiches, I stepped back from the counter, assuming that at least one of the three ladies would've started working on preparing them. Instead, they all sort of stood around looking at me, and then looking at each other, laughing. The self-conscious person that I am, I assumed they were laughing at my tight ski pants, which were funny, so I smiled and laughed a little bit too.

Elizabeth had already gone back outside to take care of Chloe. Cynthia was across the street with their friend Chris, who was helping load the ski equipment into his SUV. I grabbed a brochure on the counter and started reading it, so that I wouldn't stare at them to make the food I had just ordered. I didn't want to seem impatient, plus it's Tahoe and I'm on vacation. No stress!

After about a minute, I glanced up to check the progress of the food. One of the girls had grabbed a broom and was making her way towards me, aggressively. She seemed determined to sweep the very spot of floor that I was standing on. The restaurant isn't a big place, but I thought maybe she might've sweeping elsewhere while waiting for me to leave. In an effort to be thorough, however, she left no spot un-swept. So I ended up doing an awkward dance around her and her broom.

The girl that had taken my money was still wandering around behind the counter. I considered it a good sign that the third girl had started taking food ingredients out of the refrigerator one at a time and placing them on the counter. She glanced back at me and said in a tone of voice I recognized, "you had the Roasted Ruby, right?" She was stoned. I freaking love it.

"Yep," I said, smiling, "And a SDTBLT too." All of these girls were baked. At work. In Tahoe. I wanted to congratulate them for living up to the stereotype.

She nodded and pushed through the swinging door behind her, almost in slow motion.
The second girl, still wandering around behind the counter, pointed lethargically at her friend and said to me, through squinty eyes, "She's getting the bacon."

"Oh, ok, sure," I said.

Sweeper girl was the only one moving very quickly. If she was, indeed, stoned like I had suspected, marijuana seemingly had an opposite effect on her than it has on most people.

Girl with the bacon returned and I thought surely now she's going to start assembling our sandwiches.

"That was the SDTBLT . . .," her voice trailed off.

"And the Roasted Ruby," I added.

Didn't she just go to the back to get the ingredients? Again, she nodded and went back to work. I went back to dodging the girl with the broom.

The first girl, who since taking my money for the sandwiches seemed to be the most worthless of the group, was mindlessly rambling about someone she ran into at a concert the night before. Her pointless story was slowing down the sandwich making considerably.

Five minutes later (honestly it was that long), Elizabeth looked at me through the window where she was standing outside with Chloe. Some random little girl had suckered her in to playing hopscotch and she was desperate, as I was, to get out of there. She held her arms up in the "What the hell is taking so long?" position. All I could do was shrug and give her the "I don't f-ing know. All of these girls are stoned and slow," look back.

I thought if I stood closer to the counter to observe what was happening with the sandwich assembly that the operation might move a little more quickly. Put a little non-verbal pressure on the situation. Sandwich-maker girl had put the bacon in the mini toaster-oven thing, and I could smell it, so I knew we were making progress. Then she turned to me, as if very proud of herself that she had successfully started cooking the bacon and asked, for a third time, "You're also getting the...?"

"Roasted Ruby."

Is this girl serious? How stoned is she? I no longer found the living stereotype amusing.

Here's the thing: if you want to live in Tahoe and get stoned and make sandwiches everyday, that's awesome. You should. Just don't get so stoned that you're unable to make the sandwiches.
All of the dudes in Tahoe Daves were likely baked too, but they were able to successfully, in an appropriate amount of time, without too many questions, fit Elizabeth and me for boots and skis.
And they gave us a discount!

By the time I ran from the Java Hut with the finished sandwiches, Cynthia had already loaded up Chris' car with the ski gear and finished her bagel. We headed to her parents' cabin, dropped our bags and then loaded into Chris' car to head to Squaw.

Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Olympics and it's one of the most popular resorts on the north side of Lake Tahoe. The Olympic torch still burns at the base of the resort and the drive to get there is gorgeous. I should know, because I spent a lot of time staring out the window.

Despite having booked my trip weeks prior and telling people as often as possible that I was going skiing in Lake Tahoe, I don't think the fact that I was going skiing in Lake Tahoe hit me until I was in the car headed to Squaw.

In the days before I left for San Francisco, I had started to get a little nervous about skiing. I hadn't skied since college, so I thought maybe I'd bitten off a little more than I could chew, just thinking I was just going to show up to one of the most popular destinations for skiers and fit right in. I remember doing well the last time I had skied in Utah, but is skiing like riding a bike? Can you take a ten year hiatus and still know how to do it?

My skier friends said, "yes."

"I just don't want to fall," I texted my friend Mike. "Oh you're going to fall," he responded. Thanks a lot, Mike.

He went on, "But then you'll get back up. It's gonna be awesome. I'm jealous."

My colleague Brad said the same thing, "Stop worrying! You’re going to have a great time."

Knowing they had confidence in me made me feel better.

But I was still in Atlanta when these conversations were happening, so even when I would get nervous about skiing, I could easily immerse myself in my regular life to quell the anxiety. Driving up to the mountain, alongside two experienced skiers and Elizabeth, wearing my gear, without any of my real-life commitments to focus on, I couldn't do anything but be nervous. Instead of laughing like I normally do when I'm nervous, I simply fell silent. My participation in jokes and friendly banter with my new friends all stopped and I stared out the window.

I felt the need for full disclosure, so finally, I spoke.

"I'm freaking out, I just wanted you all to know."

"Me too," Elizabeth said.

I looked at Elizabeth, who spent a portion of the holidays in Whistler (that's right, where the Olympic Games were held) skiing with Kristof's family.

"Didn't you just ski in Vancouver for New Year's?," I said, accusingly. For some reason, I wanted to be the least experienced skier in the group. If we were going to be bad, and all signs were pointing that we were, then I wanted to be the absolute worst.

"I skied one day, Stephanie," Elizabeth said, "And I'm not good."

Even though I wanted to be the worst, Elizabeth telling me she wasn't good actually did make me feel better. Even if I sucked, and I was sure I would, at least I would have someone to suck with. But Chris and Cynthia were so nice, so encouraging, they refused to entertain any of our reservations.

"It's gonna be fun! You'll be fine!" they said, smiling.

Kind words, but I still wasn't convinced. I was sure I'd spend most of the afternoon either on my ass or face-planting in the snow.

We parked the car, put our boots on and unloaded our gear. I remembered why I prefer warm weather activities to cold ones. There's not a lot of questioning about what to bring and what to wear at the beach. A bathing suit and a beach towel pretty much covers it. Huddled around Chris' car, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not we needed to bring a hat or an extra layer. By the time the decision was made, I felt like Randy from A Christmas Story trying to walk in ski boots with my skis and poles resting on my shoulder.

As we walked to buy lift tickets, I noticed the other skiers milling around the resort. I came to the conclusion, after a few minutes of people-watching, that skiers are really cool. Or maybe they're not cool, but they look like people that I would want to be friends with. Maybe Psychic Rose was right, and I was going to meet water boy by the waters of Lake Tahoe. And then I remembered I was wearing tight ski pants circa 1980 and a rental helmet, and that it likely wouldn’t happen today. We purchased our lift tickets and headed up the gondola to get onto another lift to take us to the top of the mountain.
Despite our insistence that they ski the more difficult mountains and let us navigate the bunny slopes by ourselves, Cynthia and Chris insisted that they take a few runs with us.

We got to the top of the first run, received some last minute instructions from Chris and Cynthia and then there was nothing left to do but go. So I did, following Cynthia and her graceful moves down the mountain. I relied heavily on the pizza/French fries technique taught at children's ski schools: keeping the skis parallel to one another on the way down (French fries) and putting the tips of the skis together to slow down (pizza).

And just like that, I was doing it. I was skiing.

I was shocked, stoked that what everyone had told me was true and skiing is like riding a bike, and though it had been ten years, I did remember what to do. Halfway down the mountain, with the cold air pounding my face, I thought to myself, "I should do this more often!" Actually, I was thinking, "Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee! This is fun!!!!!!" After making it to the bottom, I felt so happy, and so relieved that I could do it. Maybe I lack the finesse and grace of more experienced skiers, but I can ski.

I was eager to go again, so the four of us got back on the lift to head back up to the top. Perhaps I was a little over-confident in my abilities or distracted by how much fun I was having, but when Chris and I got to the top of the mountain on the lift, I forgot to stand up to get off. Chris had already skied away from the chair and I was still sitting in it, unsure of what to do next. So I jumped off the chair, falling about six feet. Chris burst out laughing, shocked that I would attempt such an aggressive move on my second time on a ski lift in 10 years. But all I was thinking was, "I have to get off this lift to be with my friends!" He explained later that had I stayed on, the chair would've turned the corner and eventually stopped so I could get off. I was so glad that I jumped, because I don't think I could've handled the embarrassment of stopping the lift because I forgot to get off.

I decided, after this incident and a couple more, that I love skiing, but I HATE ski lifts.

For our second run we went left instead of right, taking another fairly simple mountain for Elizabeth and me to get started on. Cynthia and Chris seemed impressed with our first run, and said we hadn't given ourselves enough credit. I was moving along behind Cynthia and Chris when they stopped and motioned for us to break from the run and go to the left, a cleared area that literally just dropped off it was so steep. From where I was standing I couldn't see the bottom.

"They have to be kidding," I reasoned.

There began a 15 minute conversation between the four of us about whether or not taking two beginner skiers down this blue run was a smart move. Elizabeth and I, aware of our limits and hyper aware of our fear, insisted that they take the run. We'd stay right and meet them at the bottom. I don't know why they were so determined to get us down this side of the mountain, but before I knew it, with my heart in my throat and my stomach somewhere else, I was, slowly working my way down the hardest ski run I've ever done.

I skied slowly, back and forth, across the mountain. Chris skied ahead, but would stop periodically to make sure we were still coming and hadn't opted to fall to the ground and slide down on our butts (which I considered several times). He was standing to one side as I skied past him when I noticed he was looking behind me at Elizabeth and Cynthia, and laughing.

I'm not exactly sure what happened, but when I turned around I saw both of them on the ground, laughing hysterically, their ski gear strewn about them. This, I learned, is a yard sale. Apparently in an effort to help her get up after a fall and continue coaxing her down the mountain, Cynthia and Elizabeth both ended up on the ground. And as they moved to get up and collect their gear, they found themselves in several compromising and hilarious positions. There would be several more yard sales that weekend (all involving Elizabeth and me), but none quite as dramatic and awesome as this one.

I stopped to laugh with them for a little bit and then kept going ahead on my own. Again, finding myself shocked that I was skiing down a run I was sure I couldn't.

Skiing, like a lot of things, is more of a mental challenge for me than it is a physical one. I know what to do and how to move my legs, but when I am on the lift, or at the bottom of the mountain looking up, I psych myself out, thinking, "There's no way I'm skiing down that."

All weekend, I watched little kids on skis zipping down black diamond runs at speeds so fast. I was amazed. I'd find myself jealous of their fearlessness. They're brave, yes, but they're also not old enough to understand the risks of attempting such difficult runs. They don't understand that they could fail, so they just go for it and let whatever happens, happen. I wished that I could be like that on skis, and in life. I wondered how different situations might be (and what a better skier I could become) if I thought I couldn't fail, and that I wouldn't ever fall.
Is it possible to have the intellectual capacity of a 29-year old and the fearlessness of an 8-year old? Imagine the possibilities!

I did fall on the blue run, one time, and had a little yard sale of my own, losing one of my skis. But I found it, I got back on it, and eventually, Elizabeth and I made it to the bottom. According to our extremely patient teachers, the blue run we tackled at Squaw is like a black diamond everywhere else. I'm not sure if that's really true, and I don't really care. The fact that I made it down a blue on the second run of the day (or at all) is just fine by me.

Maybe there's a reason Nike capitalized on the slogan, "Just do it." When I finally stopped thinking and went for it, my physical abilities won out over the part of my brain telling me I shouldn't. And when I got to the bottom and looked back at what I had accomplished, I knew that I would've fallen five more times and had 10 more yard sales if it meant I could feel that good.

I think operating under the motto, "Stop thinking!" would be a mistake, but maybe I could try to stop over-thinking everything. Trust in my abilities, take a chance, and let the chips fall where they may.
Is there a good chance I might fall? Absolutely. But anything that I've ever done that ever mattered usually involved taking a big risk.

Cynthia and Chris (best teachers and friends ever) skied with us for the rest of the day and we had a great time. We ended the days with apres ski at the bar at the bottom of the mountain. No surprise, the fellowship and microbrews following a day of skiing day were as much fun to me as the actual skiing. We headed back to the car, picked up Kristof (who arrived in Tahoe later that afternoon), and went back to Cynthia's house to get ready for dinner.

A great day on the slopes, and more unexpected fun came later that night at dinner (stay tuned for "Boots in Squaw Valley, Part Deux). This is the first time I couldn’t fit one day’s firsts into one blog.


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  2. For the record I did not fall, I was just refusing to turn my skis and continue down the face of the mountain...Cynthia got in my way and fell on my skies.

  3. you're right the view in SF is epic. very jealous. i love the stoner sandwhich part - so freaking funny and exactly spot on!