Offbeat — Life is a trip | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Offbeat — Life is a trip

Many of the people who currently reside at South Lake Tahoe have probably migrated here, as I have, from another location.

Of late, recollections of my longtime residence in the Bay Area have surfaced as sensory impressions, complete with sight, sound and smell — the kaleidoscopic, after-dark skyline of San Francisco from the upper span of the Bay Bridge, the scent of eucalyptus leaves on a drizzly day while listening to Puccini at Stern Grove, children flying box kites on the beach below the Cliff House, kamikaze pelicans dive bombing the waves, the sharp smell of scrub manzanita when motoring across the coastal mountain range to Half Moon Bay, the salty tang of the Pacific Ocean with sun and surfers riding its swells, the glittery scales of a rock cod pulled from the ocean at Pilar Point using only a length of fishing line with hook and sinker attached, a Sunday afternoon of hip company and mellow jazz at Pete Douglas’ beach house at Miramar Beach.

But my remembrances aren’t contained by just this one location; like a fortuneteller’s crystal ball shifted into reverse, they extend back to other times and places.



For a time after our mother died and before our father had remarried, my sister and I lived at my aunt and uncle’s red brick house in the Detroit suburbs with a World War II “victory garden” out back. I remember my aunt using rationing coupons for such hard-to-get staples as sugar and coffee — no silk stockings, since that luxurious material was being used to loft American paratroopers over enemy territory somewhere in Europe.

As a child captivated by a smaller universe, war bulletins on the radio or communicated in bold headlines in the Detroit News were subordinated by the hot, humid days of summer, the earthy smell of impending rain, lightning rods on the roof, the crash of thunder and an eerie blue light that invaded the house and made my skin tingle; or, with the onset of winter, frosted windowpanes, sidewalks made to run and slide on after a sudden freeze, snowball fights with the runny-nosed kid who lived down the block, wet snow rolled into a lopsided snowman.




During the month of August, my sister and I vacationed in upstate Michigan at our grandparents’ boating and fishing resort on Woodland Lake where we dug for earthworms in the dense, black earth, caught sunfish from our dugout canoe, captured fireflies in Mason jars, inhaled the combined aromas of our grandmother’s fresh-baked bread and the smoke from our grandfather’s cigar, and, after climbing the narrow stairway from the kitchen leading to the upper reaches of the house, gazed up at a constellation of stars, like Heidi of the Swiss Alps, from our miniature attic window.

When my father eventually remarried, he situated our family in a modest brick house about 20 miles from Detroit, bordering on cow pastures, flower farms and new construction sites of our ever-expanding subdivision onto undeveloped forest land. Here, I went to elementary school in Livonia Township, recklessly climbed rafters of new houses going up — the smell of raw wood lingering yet, memorized the Beatitudes and the 23rd Psalm for Sunday School, baked potatoes underground in the dazzling autumn woods, was never without a goose egg on my forehead from attempting Sonja Henie jumps on a shoveled-off ice rink in the meadow, and discovered violets in the spring under blankets of old leaves.

When I was 12, my family moved to California in a two-door Pontiac coupe with house trailer attached, getting our kicks on Route 66 — “Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino.” For whatever reason, my dad had decided to sell everything off and, by degrees, go west until we reached the Pacific Ocean.

As fate would have it, I completed school in the Bay Area, married, spent a year in northern Italy as an Army wife, had children, divorced, built a career in aerospace and traveled on business throughout the United States.

It wasn’t until my sons were grown that I explored other locations around the globe, the most remarkable being St. Petersburg — then known as Leningrad. This was in February after traveling by train from Helsinki, when the pessimist would expect subzero cold, dull light and, in general, a bone-chilling, winter malaise. Try, instead –shades of Dr. Zhivago — brilliant blue skies, crystallized snow, parades of people muffled in dark clothes and fur hats, old women chipping ice from the walkways, older men wearing suit jackets heavy with war medals, the Pribaltiskaya Hotel, built by Swedes and looking like the MGM Grand, the sailing ship Aurora which fired the first shot of the 1917 revolution frozen in ice on the Neva River, an endless array of priceless artifacts under gilded ceilings in the Heritage Museum, Faberge, Monet, an alabaster child in a mother-of-pearl basin, the sight of a steaming atomic reactor on the way to the Summer Palace in Pushkin, Peter the Great’s writing desk, Catherine’s French-silk wall coverings, a ghostly hint of Nicholas and Alexandra, their murdered children and assassinated nemesis, Rasputin, in the dimly lit corridors — and, back in Leningrad, the Kirov Ballet from a box above the main floor, glorious music, a company of angels, though passionately Russian, performing the story of the hunchback and his beautiful obsession on a padded stage to muffle the dancers’ footfalls; on a grimmer note, vehicle headlights disallowed after dark, a holdover from times of war, cars and buses dodging the throng of dark-clothed apparitions and vice versa, fenced-in yards filled with bombed-out rubble, the ubiquitous hammer and sickle, symbol of the “evil empire” during the Cold War, the KGB’s practice of using icebreakers to keep a channel open on an otherwise crossable Neva to keep the city’s inhabitants in, and Army Day, celebrating the endurance and prevailing spirit of Leningrad’s survivors of the Nazi onslaught.

Later in life came a trip to Costa Rica, a natural land bridge where a rare combination of species found something they liked and stayed on — sweet-tempered people, potholed roads, threadbare tires, a religious icon hanging from the tour bus’ rearview mirror kissed by the driver each time he headed into the mountains, sluggish, vaporous nights, the red-orange, spewing cone of the Arenal volcano, bushmasters slithering somewhere in the heart-of-darkness jungle — or “ox killers” as they are ominously called in-country, alligators laid out like logs on muddy riverbanks, a sloth imperceptibly making its way from a topmost branch earthward for its weekly constitutional, iguanas scuttling under pieces of driftwood on the beach, an imposing “Love Boat” moored pretentiously offshore, dripping banana leaves, mildewed T-shirts, salsa music ripping from open-air discos, conga lines and rum-with-everything to drink, the Costa Rican National Orchestra with soloists flown in from Miami performing a Christmas concert of the Messiah at the Coribici Hotel in the capital city of San JosZ.

Most recently, I embarked on a one-week, L’Italia Airlines blue-light special to Rome — jet lag, a “four-star hotel” with a bathroom just big enough to turn around in, the discomfort of a wet shower curtain plastered to the behind while applying makeup in front of an opposing mirror, Italian discord late at night in the room next door, rising up in the short-sheeted, pygmy-sized bed to protest “Per favore!” (If you please!), an expatriate waiter from Bulgaria who wants to “show me a Rome I won’t believe,” latter-day graffiti that has become an integral part of Roman antiquity, rain, rain and more rain, no umbrella and leather-soled shoes on wet marble, the Colosseum surrounded by vendors hawking plastic GI Joes, the Vatican, Pope Paul’s Easter sermon piped into St. Peter’s Square, chocolate gelato, the Sistine Chapel and Michaelangelo’s restored masterpiece — uh-uh-uh, no flash photography, please, Florence, the statue of David, a Ferrari flag (instead of the car), Milan, arrivederci, and then home.

And for the time being, South Lake Tahoe is home. A woman visitor to the lake once said, with great derision, “If you take away the mountains, the lake and the trees, what have you got?” — obviously, the sentiments of a confirmed city dweller. After a lifetime of travel and change, uprooted but not without the need to call a spot on our planet “home,” I like to believe that the American Indian spirit prevails in this beautiful place, that in keeping with their founding philosophy, the Earth is our keeper rather than the other way around, that all living matter is interconnected, that we are the mountains, the lake and the trees and that, finally, we travel among the stars shedding our own circle of light.

Joan Walthall is a copy editor at the Tahoe Daily Tribune. Off-beat is a column written by staff members when they feel like it.


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