A President's Reflections

Exploring the West

Posted on July 25, 2011

Pat’s brother is the GM of the Hyatt Lake Tahoe and he just hosted all of his siblings and their kids for a weekend, so I flew out Friday for my first visit to the area.  That meant flying into Vegas, catching a connection for the short hop to Reno, and then driving the hour up the pass and into the Sierra Nevada to arrive in Incline Village (on the Nevada side of the lake).

Traveling over the American southwest and its vast, open landscape is one of my favorite flying experiences, especially when it includes the Grand Canyon below.  There is something about the scale and feel of that landscape that captivates me, as if the hand of God scooped out the valleys, pushed together the mountains, and carved out the craggy canyon walls.  Some day I’d like to drive the old Route 66 and see that landscape from the ground, preferably in an old convertible.

The drive I did do on this trip took me over the 9,000′ top of the pass on a twisting road flanked by avalanche fields littered with car size boulders, soaring Ponderosa pines, and pockets of snow still on the tops of the peaks.  The 12′ high plow sticks that line the road are a testament to the dramatic snowfalls this area gets and there are times when the single road is in fact impassable.  It really does feel like everything is bigger in the west, whether the big sky vistas (when you dare let your gaze drift from the road) or the soaring pines with cones the size of pineapples or the idle snowplows we saw parked at the side of the highway.

Tahoe itself sits at about 6,200′ and it is hard to imagine a more beautiful lake, deep blue under a perfect cloudless sky and surrounded  by snow capped peaks.  While it was 95 degrees on the valley floor, it was a perfect 75 degrees at this higher elevation  and when the sun went down it was sweatshirt temperatures.  The air fresh and crisp and dry, perfumed by the pines.

The lake is a watery playground, with cabana equipped beaches and power boats and kayakers and jet skis.  In fact, within an hour of arriving I was on a jet ski with one of the kids tucked behind me.  While they are an assault on nature (though these had 4-stroke engines that run quieter and pollute less), the family didn’t have enough drivers of legal age and I was pressed into service.  Jet skiis are just so much fun.  We had the throttle wide open and were flying over the chop, whooping and hollering. When I tried turning in a tight radius without letting up on the throttle we were thrown from the jet ski and sent flying some 25 feet endingwith a rude plunge into the lake’s frigid waters.  Welcome to Tahoe.

We had a more sedate experience on the water later that evening with a sunset cruise on the hotel catamaran, a folk singer serenading us, cold beer and wine in the cooler, and a softening light changing the colors of the mountains and water.  As the sun dipped behind the ridge, the temperaures dropped a good ten or fifteen degrees and we made our way to the dock.  

An early morning walk along Shoreline Drive the next day revealed one stunning home after another, all stone and glass and heavy timber.   This is where the top 1% of the wealthy play and the houses, many of them compounds really, were almost always terrific.  They are also testimony to excess — Oracle’s Larry Ellison is said to be building a 46,000′ home — and more so when you consider that they sit empty many months of the year, evoking the summer “cottages” of Newport.  One “shack,” a modest ranch that could sit happily in many Manchester neighborhoods, just sold to a professional golfer for $6m.  It will be torn down and replaced with another estate.

Some of our gang inadvertantly wandered onto a nude beach and one quite elderly woman, apparently experiencing the cruel ravages of age and gravity, was enjoying the sun in all its and her glory.  Our niece Tori, all of 13, muttered the best line of the weekend: “Well, that was something I didn’t need to see.”  That episode aside, Incline Village was named Nevada’s “Fittest Town,” and while that’s not such a high honor in a state housing both Vegas and Reno, everyone seemed to be hiking or biking or walking or coming from the fitness center.  As we drove up to the 9,000′ top of the pass on our way out today we marveled at a bicyclist laboring his way up.  He caught up to us when we pulled over to take in the wiew and we marveled again when we realized he was not a day under age 70.  Amazing.

When I think of those hardy souls who settled this area, the open harsh landscape, and the tough self-reliance required to survive, I wonder if the libertarian bent, the resistance to government and outside authority that seems to inform politics out west, isn’t in the DNA .  That mythology, whether or not it makes sense any more or even if is only half accurate (my guess is that early settlers relied a whole lot on others), is very powerful and I think it still informs the culture.     

However, it may not be well suited for the modern ills that inflict large cities — where most of the citizens actually live now — and the needs of those with little to no resources.  We drove around downtown Reno, a sad place of ill-kept honly-tonk casinos, quickie wedding chapels (reception facilities included!), tattoo parlors, and down and out souls loitering even in the near 100 degree heat.  We saw one old woman, pushing a walker, with two cigarettes in her mouth.  The friendly old guy who offered directions to us had a weather beaten face and two, maybe three, teeth in his mouth.  The recession has hit Nevada hard and it was everywhere apparent in Reno.  We were happy to make our way to the airport.

Pat headed home to NH and I’m in Salt Lake City, bringing a team to visit Western Governor’s University.  Today is Pioneer Day, celebrating the founding of the state, when another group of intrepid pioneers found this valley, brackish water and all, and decided to stay and make a life here.  I wonder if there is an essential difference between those who settled in the east, whether to create a religious community (Massachusetts) or a commerical venture (Virginia), and those who settled these parts, looking for individual freedom.   It may be a difference that persists today in our severe national disagreement over the role and size of government, the extent that we provide a safety net for the needy, and notions of personal responsibility and will.

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