Regressive to the Point of Failure
Reflections on a wasted window to have done something in the Sierra
When I moved to Lake Tahoe in my early 30s, it felt regressive. And I wasn’t the only one who thought that I’m sure. But I went ahead and did it anyway.
Where I grew up, you were supposed to do something like Tahoe in a gap year after high school or college. Be a liftee or grab a hostessing or barbacking job at Sunnyside or Jake’s.
Make friends with the other kids who were doing the same, party at someone’s grandparents’ modest fourteen-bedroom estate on the West Shore, hook up in the walk-in next to the bin of lemon wedges covered in plastic wrap. Get a Squaw pass or an Alpine pass if you weren't quite as confident in your abilities. Burn out after a season and go get someone’s Dad to put you in a real job in finance or tech back down in the City.
So I missed my window on all that. But I was there anyway. Me 2.0: divorced, having already lived in the Sunset and gone out in the Marina and Cow Hollow and among the annoying who “discovered” the Mission and the Tenderloin. I’d survived a couple of Bay to Breakers, danced on the tables at Johnny Love’s, ran screaming through the Broadway Tunnel well past 2 am, and was now ready to do my worst in the Sierra.
I dumped my business casual at Goodwill, threw on a Patagonia fleece in a place where a Patagonia fleece was built to be worn, and made a decision that Tahoe wasn't just going to be a winter fling.
Like all places where you stand out for a long time (longer than you think) before you find any sense of belonging, I discovered quickly my Tahoe bona fides were nil—as in less than zero. I was then, as I am now, this kind of surrogate from a privileged class that treated most people like shit and was there for my own amusement, my own sense of belonging.
The real deal men and women called me a Gaper, a derogatory term for the guy or girl who walks around the ski lodge with a big gap between their helmet and their goggles, often leaving a tan line (a big headband-sized red stripe) for them to take home with them along with their GoPro footie of cruising down a groomer and forcing out a yip or two.
In Tahoe especially, it's mostly a reference to tech bros and #girlbosses now, trade show trolls crushing triple IPAs and Rosé after clogging up the lift lines and the toilets, all dumb chatter and credit card receipts. I never recognized myself as one of them, but I was definitely one of them adjacent.
...Or at least I certainly walked around with the same type of uncertainty: the unconfident office-inspired curvature to a young back and dexterous texting fingers that’s telltale in those who bring up an impossible amount of groceries for one to consume (enough eggs to feed a small regiment) and then go out to breakfast to the Fire Sign instead, and then burn a hole in the chairlift with their farts the rest of the morning trying to flirt with whoever's in a 20-foot radius. "Hey brother, can you take this selfie for me? Sick bro."
After a coworker told me that a “Gaper IS you” when I asked about it, I spent a few fitful nights packing and unpacking my studio; outed and quitting before I'd even begun.
Eventually, I decided in order to stay I had to shed the image of who I was—realizing I hadn't left the most important item behind in the discard pile: an overwhelming sense of entitlement.
I suppose, when you talk to enough people who’ve done the same bit, it’s always a version of the same thing. They didn’t like the way things were going, or—more directly—who they were, and had no other choice but to go hide in the woods and strip it down and reinvent.
Of course, that whole narrative is easier to adopt than it is true. It’s because we all HAD A CHOICE. It's the great fake conundrum of privilege-meets-options under the guise of disappearing—what a neat trick.
It took a minute, but I latched on to a crew who were mostly five or six years younger. Back then, it felt like a bigger margin than it does today. Again, I’d seen some shit, lost some friends, had a marriage turn upside down, and never really got it together professionally or personally enough to e know better. I’d worked bigger jobs and had more scars, but somehow, I was bereft—or at least behind.
I guess my breakthrough came when I was invited to a Ski Porn premier. (And yes, I thought it was going to be actual skiing and actual porn.) If you're like me and don't know, ski porn is basically a low-budget movie showing skiers do impossible things on mountains you’ll never ski in real life.
The movie was called “Seven Sunny Days.” Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was the apotheosis of the genre, equal parts inspiring and clever with a narrative thread and—especially when it came to Shane McConkey’s James Bond segment, complete with blue screen and (purposefully) wooden acting with his wife Sherry as the turncoat Bond Girl—delightful and giddy and just...fun.
And then, after the lights went up in the packed dining room where all the shredding proles whooped and sipped contraband PBR tallboys on chairs usually reserved for gross weddings or dumb meetings at the base of Squaw Valley, the best of us stepped literally out from the screen!
It was Shane himself—a demigod in a Red Bull beanie and a half-cocked grin, waving to the throng of the thirsty dirtbags who gave him a sustained standing O. At the time, it felt like a defining moment for me. The connection was made. I wasn’t in the tribe, but I was among them, and better yet, I didn’t stand out. I finally ...fit in.
There’s a postscript to all this, of course. Many of those Peter Pans stayed in Tahoe, and some (including me) eventually left hoping one day to return but knowing full well once you leave the nursery, it’s nearly impossible to sneak back in.
Right now, it’s on fire; two close friends evacuated with their elementary school-aged daughters yesterday as the Caldor fire encroaches upon their house as one of 17,000 structures threatened. The air quality index on Sunday in Tahoe Vista exceeded the air quality index’s total range of 0 to 500 when the area reached a score of 596. So basically, it’s worse than the worst can be.
“We vacated and unloaded our lives in Berkeley at midnight,” my friend wrote. “I surprise rented an Airbnb for my folks and gave them my children at 9 am. Now working in lovely coastal fog at the kitchen table of their downstairs flat on the corner of San Pablo.”
It's strange how casual and calm some of us are right in the face of imminent danger and life as we know it ending. I guess it's hard to react other than with casual distance to something we can't fathom.
I wrote another friend who’d also decamped for the Bay Area, saying I didn’t know what to make of Tahoe at this point. It’s such a million-different-problems-at-once cluster right now, starting with it may burn down sooner than later—eventually, it will all be gone, that’s inevitable.
The roads are built for about a third of the traffic they get; the infrastructure and public transit are dismal and about a half-century behind. The snow itself will be gone within the next decade, or down to February to early April, and High Camp at Squaw will be around where the snow line BEGINS.
It’ll likely be barren more than anything in a decade, and whatever grows back won’t look or feel or be the same. Basically, I’ve let it go and am kind of just thankful for my time there and sad that my child doesn’t get the same, but he won't get the same of a lot of things.
What a horrible and selfish statement to make.
As it turns out, I was there for the best of the last of what Tahoe had to offer someone like me. A person who, ultimately, was a bored user, a parasite—no better or more permanent than the tech bros or the #girlbosses or all the other Gapers. Now that we’ve used it up and there are real problems in those woods. Now that Shane is gone and the fun has stopped, I ...turn my back?
It's bullshit. But it’s also typical. I had a chance to make a difference. I wasted it on trying to fit in.