[published by the Hindustan Times, 24 January 2008]
A journalist gets a taste of the high life thanks to her corporate friends, writes Kate Hodal…
We had those dull day jobs typical of corporate Americans, the kind that pay well but distinguish you as an inherent tool, despite your own best efforts not to appear as one. Everyone, bar me, worked with slicked-back hair in the bowels of Silicon Valley in some sort of supply-chain job for a big US conglomerate, using their hard-earned money to buy iPods and flat-screen TVs, tailoring their khaki trousers just right, mumbling along to radio-played gangsta rap, absolutely insisting on using air conditioning when an open window would work just fine.
But if there was one thing they knew how to do, it was ski.
And so we trucked off from San Francisco, a shuffle of Eminem and Jack Johnson blasting through the hired car’s speakers, through the dusty hinterlands of inland California and into the cool, snowy Sierra Nevada mountains to Lake Tahoe, a sprawling expanse of turquoise water that yawns from California into Nevada, backdropped by thickly-forested mountains, all tall and white with snow. Someone had rented a corporate house with their corporate card, a giant A-framed alpine job that could sleep an army, on a street of A-framed alpine jobs, most of them standing empty, snow piled six-feet high in their driveway, icicles as sharp as daggers hanging precipitously from the awnings.
A BIT OF SWITZERLAND
In two states known for their extreme heat and year-round sunshine, Lake Tahoe stands as a sort of anomaly, a bit of lushness and beauty reminiscent of Switzerland. The highway through California’s capital of Sacramento chugs through passes of granite rock, iced over with glistening snow, across mountain valleys of pure white, past exits for sledding and tubing, high up into the Sierra Nevadas, until the only view is up, the sun sharper and brighter at the altitude of eagles.
Since the late 19th century, Tahoe has been a popular destination for wealthy (read corporate) Californians, most of them arriving in hordes from the San Francisco Bay in their 4×4′s in winter and their convertibles in summer. They’re the type who own their own skis (the snow kind and the water kind), grudgingly pay their taxes, and have that sort of dazed, shaggy, stoner-look reminiscent of people entirely content with their lot in life. They roam Lake Tahoe with complacent smiles, their fit, Californian bodies snuggled into tight ski pants, their locks coiffed cutely into beanies, sliding beautifully down the white slopes of mountains they happily call their own.
ON THE WAY TO THE GOLD RUSH
But this smugness is relatively new. For a long time, Tahoe – from the Native American Washo word dá’aw, or “lake” – was but a thoroughfare, a stopping-off point for Eastern travellers hurrying their way over to the Gold Rush that put California firmly on the map. Many of them, like the Donner Party (whose mountain pass is still accessible today), died of starvation before they were able to reach the lake’s gentle curves, formed by the scouring glaciers of the Ice Ages, which melted into the giant, organism-rich puddle of bright blue water that sits peacefully there today. Its basin was formed nearly two million years ago, when the tectonic plates of California shifted to create the Sierra Nevada (to the west) and the Carson Range (to the east), and the high level of seismic activity that still buzzes below the lake’s surface means that earthquakes – and a lake-based tsunami – are not only possible, but probable, lending the area an extra sense of adventure fitting for a people known for their frontier spirits.
Tahoe’s activities are divided by location, as the majority of ski resorts, like Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Olympics, are nestled on the northern side of the lake, while much of the summer activities (and some of the best views of the lake) can be found from the southern shores. Mountain biking and hiking can be had all over the mountains, but one of the prettiest to visit is the Tahoe Rim Trail, which curves 270km around the entire lake, Emerald Bay (the Caribbean-looking waters of Lake Tahoe) emerging in the distance.
With snowy slopes on our minds, we headed straight past the Donner Pass and over the hills to Northstar-at-Tahoe, a posh ski resort with a mess of lifts, gondolas, cable cars and runs. After a morning of heavy snowfall, the sun broke clear into a bright blue sky, and we hurtled ourselves down the powdery slopes, snowboarders flying past us, Lycra-wearing San Franciscans spewing fresh snow into our panting faces.
Having nearly scraped down the mountain face-first (I ended up, somehow, taking a black run from the peak of Mount Pluto, an extinct volcano that overlooks Lake Tahoe), I thought I’d try my hand at having a lesson, so I waited shyly by the instructors’ area until Kelly, a 66-year-old cowboy on skis, proffered his expertise.
Kelly was calm and patient, but I felt a fool coming down the bunny run – a slope reserved for four-year-olds – when I had just managed to plunge myself down the highest slope in the resort. Within minutes of his help, however, muscles I didn’t know I owned began aching, and the more I learned how to ski properly, the more I felt myself gel into a professional.
RUSHING DOWN THE MOUNTAIN
As my fourteen fellow travellers sprung themselves over moguls (little jumps) and through black runs (the slopes for experienced skiers), I hummed down the beginners’ and intermediate slopes (having graduated from the bunny run), avoiding the snowboarders, who seemed to vehemently want to kill themselves and others, by rushing down the mountains as fast as they could, many of them ending up on ski stretchers and being removed from the slopes by medics. I was enjoying my slow pace, my ability to reconstruct Kelly’s lessons in my V-shaped turns down the hills, the gorgeous valley of snow and shining waters of Lake Tahoe spread before me, sparkling like a winking jewel, when a snowboarder pounded into me, sending me flying halfway down the run, my legs spread eagle and my skis planted firmly behind me like corn stalks into the snow.
I ached, I ached, I ached, and was left to pick myself up after the guilty snowboarder ran off without a word. I gave up for the day and sat in our corporate hot tub at our corporate house, pleased to be enjoying the fruits of others’ success and money, and thanked my corporate friends for inviting me along. Corporate America, I realised, definitely has its benefits.