Lake Tahoe | Into the Darkest Woods

I was worried about driving with tire chains.  This would be the first time that J and I drove into Tahoe on our own, and snow season was right on the cusp in mid-November. We were not an outdoorsy couple, although we enjoy a good ski and boarding trip now and then.

The idea of driving into Tahoe on snowy, icy roads and struggling to attach chains to the tires of my little car gave me a thrill of both excitement and dread.  Our friends and family weren’t so concerned.

“We go all the time to Tahoe.  The chains aren’t a big deal –I’ll show you how to use ours,” my good friend assured me.  During a family gathering, my uncle said that we could pay a worker at a snow stop to put chains on for about $40.

I monitored the road conditions and weather forecast nearly every day for 2 weeks.  I researched the past weather predictions for Tahoe in November.  I read articles with tips on driving into Tahoe.  Nothing gave me answers.  Finally, I succumbed to the fact that I couldn’t prepare for this one; we would have no idea until right before our trip.  J consoled me and said, “We’ll be fine.  Let’s just see what happens.”

I agreed.  Driving into the unknown and trekking into Tahoe on our own would be a fun adventure and the perfect way to celebrate our 10th year anniversary weekend.

We were lucky.

Lake Tahoe

The roads were clear, and we sailed right into Tahoe in less than 4 hours.  The weather in North Lake Tahoe was a sunny 60 degrees in the daytime and a chilly, but bearable 40 degrees in the evening.  Some patches on the side of the road had bits of snow, but most of the snow blanketed the mountains in the distance.

The Hyatt Regency hotel was located directly across from the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, where we walked across the bridge to catch the beautiful sunset behind the Sierra Mountain Range. Sunsets always remind me of a scene from the romantic comedy “The Truth About Cats and Dogs” when the lead actor tells Janeane Garofalo that if she listens carefully, she can hear the moment when the sun hits the horizon.

Lake Tahoe

My favorite amenity in our room was the large corner window that offered panoramic views of the trees, mountains, and the lake far in the distance.  I would wake up and feel the thrill of opening the thick curtains to reveal the sun slowly peeking through the thick forest of trees.  Beneath the corner window was a comfortable lounge chair to sit, where I did my morning writing and reading.  I took frequent breaks just so I could indulge in the blue sky and green landscape.  Next to the lounge was a working desk, where J sat next to me to also work on a personal writing project.  It was like a dream –spending a peaceful morning side by side and writing with a view of the woods.  No wonder writers long for a retreat place and a room of one’s own.

I felt far away from home, and I felt like I was at home at the same time.

Every time we walked outside, J and I deeply inhaled the cold, mountain air, wishing we could bottle up and capture the feeling in our lungs.  We swam in the outdoor pool and sauna, reveling in the fact that we were swimming amidst the backdrop of the forest.  Our last morning was out by the lake, stretched out on the wooden chairs talking and laughing beside the shining, blue body of water.  We could hardly see the edge where the snow-capped mountains stood in the distance.

What is about being immersed in nature that feels so restorative?  Feeling the stillness of the trees, the sun rays, and the lake was calming –almost like an open meditation room.  One of my favorite podcasts, On Being, featured an interview with researcher Esther Sternberg who talked about the science behind the healing power of places and our environment.  We inhabit both external and internal landscapes: one influences the other. When we see beautiful scenery, our bodies and our brains create healing properties that bring us peace.

I use that outdoor space to quiet the noise, the worries, the fears, and the stress.  It pulls me into the present moment.  I learn how to pay attention to the small details of my life that I forget about on a daily basis–breathing deeply, walking slowly, listening to the stillness, and seeing the scenery.  Being present in a vast, beautiful place and celebrating an occasion as big as a 10th year anniversary made every stressful part of my life pale and reduce in comparison.  I felt humbled by the presence of the earth’s grandness.

Lake Tahoe

“This whole earth in which we inhabit is but a point is space.” 

― Henry David Thoreau

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We drove a lot during this trip.

We crossed state borders of California and Nevada every time we ventured into the nearby city of Truckee to eat or explore.  We drove to the western part of the lake, parked at a small, dusty road for brunch at the popular Fire Sign Cafe.  Sitting beneath an old wooden sled perched precariously on the ceiling, we split a large serving of the gouda cheese omelette and a side of veggie potatoes.  We braved the dark, winding roads to have dinner at Cottonwood Restaurant and Bar, one of the country’s oldest ski lodges that served hearty portions of French onion soup, a butternut squash enchilada with mole sauce, and seared steak.  Switching gears, we calmed our appetites during the last leg of the trip with sushi at the Drunken Monkey and corn chowder and a roasted beet salad dressed with apple creme fraiche at Nine41 Eatery.

I both loved and feared the night-time drives.  There were long periods on the road with no other cars on the winding stretches.  As the last bits of light faded away, I could see the silhouettes of the trees outline the silent, still lake.  Our car was enveloped in the darkness, only able to see just a bit beyond where our headlights could take us.  We had a faint idea of where we were headed, but having never been there.  Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird quotes E.L. Doctorow who had compared writing to driving at night: “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

He might have been talking about writing, but the message reflects my relationship with J.

I don’t think either one of us realized where the relationship, wrought with its twists and detours, would take us.  One decade ago when we met in the school coffee house, I was an optimistic, aspiring educator and he was a confident, pharmacy-school-bound student.  We had our lives planned out, first as independent individuals and then as a couple who was curious to see if our lives could intersect.  The journey took us in unexpected directions.  We endured a long-distance relationship twice, we moved to Los Angeles then back to the Bay Area, we encountered disillusionment in our careers, we saw our relationships with our friends and families change, and we discovered that our approaches to life, success, and happiness had fundamentally shifted since our first coffee house encounter.  We changed as individuals, which ultimately affected our relationship.  With every new challenge, we had to ask ourselves “Do we still want to keep going?”  Often, it was a unanimous yes.  Other times, there was someone who wasn’t so sure.  It was a painful process, but we faithfully kept our eyes forward on the road –the pale, yellow headlights that could lead us somewhere better.

Some friends think that getting married represents the end of the journey.  I used to think so, too.  Dating is already a complicated and stressful process.  I thought that the purpose of dating and relationships was to find someone to commit to.  For those lucky enough to do so, getting married symbolizes crossing the great, romantic finish line.  I was dismayed to realize that being married was merely completing one leg of a very long marathon.  Like climbing to the top of a hill, and looking up to see that it belongs to the base of another towering mountain.  The obstacles are new, and the stakes are much higher.

As incredible as 10 years sounds, I know it’s still a young relationship.  We still have a lot to learn as we head towards 15, 20, and 30 years of commitment.  I don’t believe that the journey ends and the work stops when a couple gets married.  It is the beginning of a different type of journey.  I am humbled when I think of my grandparents whose love endured for decades and had survived a war and beginning new lives in this country.  I am humbled when I realize that as much as J and I love each other now, nothing is ever guaranteed nor should be taken for granted.  I hope that when we do face those unknown and inevitable detours, that these past 10 years gave us the foundation that we’ll need to sustain us.

Lake Tahoe

Dear Sugar advises us to “walk without a stick into the darkest woods.”  Even if we don’t know where we will ultimately end up, what matters is that we were brave enough to take the journey.  We keep on driving.

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