Last stop: South Lake Tahoe, CA

I’ve been living on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe for over four months and my life has changed in certain ways.  Yes, I’ve become a Subaru Forester-driving, Patagonia hoody-wearing, mountain and forest-loving Californian.  No apologies.  The choice to move here easily makes it onto the shortlist of the best decisions that I’ve made in my life to date.  This is where I’d like to stay for the rest of my career.  Every day I get to spend time with students and colleagues I really like and I’m able to gaze up at the Sierras that surround me wherever I go in town.  Four states in six years.   Undoubtedly, there’s a lot to process on multiple levels.  That said, I finally feel like I’m home.

When I moved to Arizona in July of 2012, I lived in a serene desert with incredible wildlife (e.g. chuckwallas, scorpions, rattlesnakes), but didn’t enjoy teaching for the college in Lake Havasu City.  Then, some folks in the Houston area offered me a better position that afforded me the ability to grow, but I could not adjust to eastern Texas or a flat, suburban wasteland of strip malls.  After all, I originally left Illinois for something more than what the Midwest could ever offer, and I’m not one to forgo my plans because I act with purpose.  Major life decisions are intentional.  Rationalizations will never satisfy.  Last winter when I saw the job posting for my current teaching position, I didn’t have to think twice about applying for it.  Somehow I always figured that I would end up in Arizona again or maybe Nevada or New Mexico, but no one can predict what opportunities they’ll be presented with.  So, I took another chance and fate brought me to California instead.  No regrets.

The week before last I wrapped up my first quarter teaching at the college.  The final exam and symposium paper scores have been entered and quarter grades have been submitted.  Honestly, I couldn’t ask for a better place to work.  My mentor is a true intellectual with lots of insights to share.  My office mate is honest and direct and likes to ask tough questions of everyone, including administrators.  These are people I appreciate because they embody qualities I respect.  We have a unique mixture of faculty and staff who have gravitated here for different reasons.  In some ways, it feels like a family (my boss hugged me when I arrived).  Our institution is small, so there’s nowhere for anyone to hide.  The students are much like those I’ve taught at other schools.  Most show up and do the work as expected.  This fall, my exceptional class turned out to be U.S. History.  We had numerous thought-provoking seminar style discussions about a variety of topics – from the causes of the Salem Witch Trials to the politics of the Constitutional Convention.

“So we’re leaving here on a less traveled road…”

Without question, South Lake Tahoe is a subculture of outdoor enthusiasts.  People hike, camp, backpack, rock climb, kayak, ski, snowboard, snowshoe, and anything else you can imagine that gets them outside.  I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve been asked about how I’ll spend the winter months.  Even my doctor told me where I could take ski lessons.  While skiing doesn’t interest me, I may attempt snowboarding sometime in the years to come.

So far, I’ve been able to go on a couple of good hikes near Kirkwood, California, which is about a forty-five minute drive from where I live.  In early September, I ventured alone up to Lake Margaret (5 miles round trip).  I found it to be a great trail to get reacquainted with nature.  Crossing a stream on a long, fallen tree tested my sense of balance.  Then, a gust of wind up on a high cliff reminded me of my own mortality – that a small mistake like getting too close to the edge could be fatal.  In late September, my former colleague from Arizona and I hiked up to Emigrant Lake (8 miles round trip).  Joelle is always great company and I’m happy that we took in the amazing views together.  This trail winds through forest with some rocky terrain before reaching the unadulterated lake, where I saw remnants of last winter’s snowfall high up on a ridge.  Short afternoon hikes like these pushed me because I haven’t done any serious training and I can feel a difference in my breathing at higher elevations where the air is thinner.

One of the issues that has perplexed me about California is the cost of living in comparison to many other parts of the country.  How do people afford to live here?  I asked that question long before I became a resident.  Yes, California is more expensive than Texas, Arizona, and Illinois.  You quickly notice it when you look at the cost of rent, gas, and food.  My rent is about the same as I paid in Houston, but I have a bit less square footage.  Fuel is much higher “on the hill” than anywhere else I’ve seen in the area: $4.20 per gallon this summer and into the fall.  Groceries cost as much as $30 more per week.  Part of this is because we’re in California and part of it is that South Lake Tahoe is a tourist destination.  Now, there is a good way to save yourself some money when you live in the basin: periodically shop in the Carson Valley, i.e. Nevada, for certain items (e.g. teaching supplies, over-the-counter medicine) and fill up your tank when you’re down there because the prices are much closer to what I’ve paid in other states.  Most Californians don’t have this advantage available to them, but fortunately we do given our close proximity to the state line.  Since I live rather simply, I don’t have any problems.  I just bought a new a new car and will pay off my student loans early.

As for buying property in town, well, that might be difficult.  I’ve done some preliminary research on the local housing market and it’s rough up here because homes are really scarce while at the same time highly desirable (65% are owned by people who live outside the basin).  This drives up the cost.  It’s common to see small (i.e. 700 square foot) renovated cabins with backyards that go for more than $300,000.  I have seen listings for two bedroom, one bathroom condos around $200,000, but they would need new floors as well as kitchen counters and cabinets.  Personally, I don’t have a problem with hiring a contractor to do that kind of work for me if I really like a place.  We’ll see what happens.  I’m also looking at partially wooded, empty lots where I could put a tiny house on a concrete foundation and then have a deck built.  This is a real possibility.  Whichever option I choose, I want to put 20% (or more) down and think I can save this over the next four years.

How else have I been keeping busy?  In the evenings, I’ve been reading to unwind before I fall asleep.  Somehow I missed the publication of Keith Morris’ My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor in 2016, so I needed to catch up.  He’s long been one of my favorite vocalists.  Two of the bands he sang for, more specifically Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, shaped the punk-hardcore genre.  Moreover, Off! is so intense.  I really enjoyed learning about the early days of L.A. punk (i.e. the people, bands, shows, clubs) as well as his ability to overcome alcohol and cocaine addiction and the A&R work he did outside of performing.  I’ve also revisited some other great titles that I originally read in my 20s: The Stranger by Albert Camus and Three Lives for Mississippi by William Bradford Huie.  If possible, I’d like to find ways to incorporate them into my classes.

“Rising up from the ash, he’s a phoenix…”

I’ve planned a short road trip to the L.A. area to drop by Amoeba Music in Hollywood (click here for a video) and visit a friend from graduate school in Costa Mesa.  We’re guaranteed to have a great conversation.  Yes, I will probably tune in KROQ (106.7 FM) for a bit while I’m there.  Then, I’m headed to Lake Havasu City, Arizona to have dinner with some former colleagues and hike in SARA Park.  Chuckwallas here I come!  Now, I just have to think about the soundtrack for the drive because it will set the tone for me.  Hmmm.  For some odd reason, both Champion and Broadway Calls immediately come to mind because I know my mood will vacillate between hardcore and pop punk.  Plus, I can’t forget a new favorite that I’ve recently discovered: The Interrupters.  That’s what I’m going to listen to when I roll into Santa Monica or cruise over to Venice Beach.  Don’t ask me why…

Lastly, I have an important life development to share: I have a new girlfriend who I really care about.  Yes, it happened unexpectedly.  Her name is Clarissa.  She’s intelligent, educated, hilarious, thoughtful, genuine, vegan, mature, empathetic, and beautiful.  I’ve had a handful of serious relationships over the years, but this is something very different for me.  We connect, and I knew it the moment we met last September.  This is partly about who we are as individuals, but it’s also about where we’re at in our respective lives.  I feel comfortable with her and I’m cautiously optimistic, so let’s just leave it at that.

The day I drove up Highway 50 from the Carson Valley and reached South Lake Tahoe, all of the inner conflict about my living situation just dispersed.  I felt elated and calm.  You have no idea how much it hurt when I departed Arizona in late 2013 (I still miss the Mohave Desert) or how many times I cursed Texas for a variety of different reasons (Houston, it’s not totally your fault).  The path that I’ve taken has presented multiple challenges, but I’ve overcome the disappointments to continue building a life that I find meaningful.  You have to be relentless if you want to achieve your goals.  I’m 45, so my show is more than half over.  Settling is never the answer when you know in your heart that you want something else – that you belong somewhere else.  Venue matters.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  I feel content that I’m now living somewhere that I’m meant to be.

Photographs: Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe (November 2018); Walking on campus at Lake Tahoe Community College (November 2018); fallen tree on the way to Lake Margaret (September 2018); Emigrant Lake (September 2018); cliff near Lake Margaret (September 2018).

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