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Jack Smith

Savoring the sights at Lake Tahoe before falling into the embrace of one-armed bandits

September 15, 1986|Jack Smith

My wife likes the mountains. I like the beach.

So we went to Lake Tahoe for three days.

The lake lies in the Sierra Nevada at an altitude of 6,228 feet. I found the air a little thin, but at least it was clear.

We flew up on Air Cal, landing first at San Jose. Evidently the pilot knew the way.

We banked over the lake before landing at South Tahoe Airport. My wife was sitting at the window, looking down on an enormous expanse of dark blue. "That's a helluva big lake," she said.

I was reminded of President Richard Nixon's remark at his first sight of the Great Wall of China: "It's a great wall."

It seems to me that Nixon's remark would have been less banal if he'd inserted helluva.

At the airport Hertz we rented a Toyota and drove into South Lake Tahoe, the busy settlement on the lake's south shore. It seemed to cater to every human need: Laundromat, liquor, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Rico's Pizza, Burger King, bowling, Midas shock absorbers, A Touch of Love wedding chapel, Yellow Sub Sandwiches, pet clinic, one-hour cleaners, Chateau D'Amour motel (with adult movies and water beds) and a Miller's Outpost. To name but a few of civilization's encrustations.

We had a room at the Inn-by-the-Lake with an unobstructed view of Tahoe. It was dark blue, with shallows of emerald. The sky was a pure and bright light blue. The lake was ringed by denim mountains. In the clean air everything sparkled.

Our friends Homer and Nancy Steiny, who rent a house on the east shore, picked us up to drive us around the lake. Neither of us had ever seen it before.

We started out along the west shore, stopping for brunch at the West Shore Cafe. The tables sat outdoors on a terrace under blue umbrellas among pines and redwoods. A large white cruiser stood at a small weathered pier. As we drank our pink champagne an orange and white seaplane splashed in. Puffy white clouds floated in the sky. The waitresses wore white polo shirts and khaki shorts. A violinist and a harpist sat on a dais above the lake. They played "September Song," "La Vie en Rose" and the theme from "Never on Sunday."

It was as pleasant and scenic an experience as any I had ever had at the beach. I wondered if it was settings like this that moved people to patronize the Touch of Love wedding chapel.

A friend of the Steinys joined us for brunch. She lived nearby in the Homewood area, on the west shore. We stopped by her house. It was enormous--two wings joined by an archway that looked through to the lake. She said there were 12 bedrooms. She was there alone with her dog, except when friends or her children visited, which I gathered was often. We walked out on her small pier into the shining lake. Her 22-foot sailboat bobbed at a buoy nearby.

If I could live that way, I thought, maybe I would love the mountains.

We drove on around the lake. At the north end we crossed the state line into Nevada. Do you remember how Nevada and California are joined in a long obtuse angle? The vertex of that angle is almost in dead center of the lake, somewhat to the south. So the lake belongs equally to the two states.

On the east shore we drove through a settlement of great Cape Cod homes known as Glenbrook. It looked exclusive, expensive and desolate. There were almost no signs of life.

We stopped briefly at the Steinys'. For three weeks every summer they rent a house on the lake from a Modesto doctor. It is right on the water, with a wall of windows and a porch facing the lake. Their daughter and her husband and their infant daughter were down in the water. In the living room a television set had been turned against the windows facing the porch. It was tuned in to an NFL football game, but nobody was watching. Strange priorities they have in the mountains.

When we checked into our hotel the desk man had told us, "We have complimentary shuttle-bus service to the casinos. Just come to the lobby and we'll call them."

It was too good an offer to pass. That evening we went down to the lobby and said we wanted to go to the casinos.

"Which one?" the desk man asked.

I remembered having passed Caesars. "Caesars," I said knowingly.

Within five minutes a Caesars shuttle bus showed up. There was only one other couple in it. We stopped at three hotels on the way and picked up six more people. It let us off at the front door of Caesars, across the state line in Nevada.

"There's a reason for that free ride," I told my wife. "They expect us to lose money."

Caesars was overwhelming. I was dazed by the hundreds of slot machines and tables for poker, blackjack, roulette, baccarat and craps. We thought of playing blackjack, which is simple enough, but we were intimidated by the ennuied expressions of the dealers. Many of them were young women. They seemed to have no vital interest in what they were doing.

We put our quarters in the slot machines. Nothing. We put our dimes in. Same result. We blew our nickels.

"Well," I said, "we've paid for the ride."

"Let's go across the street," my wife said, "and try the High Sierra."

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