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L.A. or Tahoe? Both can feel like home

Ron Roth and his wife, native Angelenos, left the city for the alpine quiet of Tahoe City. Paradise? Perhaps it's simply a case of different dreams and degrees of compromise.

October 18, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

Do you ever think about other places you might move to if you could, or if you had to?

A few years ago, my wife and I drove up to the beautiful Central California coast thinking the area might be a great place to live in 10 years or so, when our daughter goes to college and we have to decide between downsizing and robbing banks.

In the end, though, we came to the conclusion we always do when we think about living someplace else:

Sure, we'd enjoy the slower pace, the natural beauty and the slightly less insane real estate market. But the grass is greener here, even when it's brown.

Yes, Mr. Newman, we love L.A.

So I was eager to pick the brain of a guy named Ron Roth, who e-mailed me this past summer to tell me about his bold break from Los Angeles. Roth, 62, is an L.A. native and so is his wife, Nancy. It's not as if they had a bad life here. Roth is a surgeon and his wife an interior designer, and they had a lovely ranch-style house in Encino.

But they packed up in February and moved to Tahoe City, population 1,700, near the shores of the pristine Sierra lake. Roth, who was part-owner of a small medical group in Santa Monica, traded in his prestigious practice with more than a few high-profile patients for what he describes as "rural medicine."

The Roths weren't moving out of necessity; it was a lifestyle change. And the move was made simpler by the fact that they already had a place: the vacation home they had bought 30 years ago for next to nothing.

But would they be just as happy up in the mountains when they were no longer a getaway but a permanent address? They weren't sure, so they decided on a six-month trial before selling their home in Encino.

"After four months," Roth wrote, "my first impression is, what took me so long? . . ."

In September I flew to Sacramento, rented a car and headed northeast on Interstate 80. Could an L.A. native like Roth really be happy without the culture, commerce and chaos of a great international city?

Time will tell, but I'd forgotten how drop-dead stunning it is in the High Sierra, which I visited on occasion while growing up in the Bay Area. Most countries don't have the natural wonder we have in just one state, with 10,000-foot peaks just a few hours from the Pacific.

I followed the Truckee River down to Tahoe City, another gorgeous drive past Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Roth was just getting off work midday at the hospital in South Lake Tahoe (he works full shifts Mondays and Tuesdays and a half day on Wednesdays), and told me to meet him for lunch at the Sunnyside Resort.

We ate under a sun that hung over the lake as if it didn't care to be anywhere else, mountains rimming deep blue water that lapped at the shore and shifted the pebbles, a sound like a pocketful of marbles.

Roth was tanned and well rested. In Santa Monica, he had to deal with the daily headaches of insurance hassles and business management. Up here, he's a mere employee, which gives him more doctoring time.

The traffic in L.A. had gotten so bad over the years, Roth said, that he had stopped going to downtown concerts or to Dodgers and Lakers games.

If "we had to go east of Sepulveda for a dinner, we'd say we couldn't make it."

In the morning, crawling up over the 405, he'd listen to the radio and bristle at stories about politicians who'd lost control of the city to donors and special interests, or county officials who fiddled while King-Drew Medical Center festered.

Weekend or summer trips to Tahoe for skiing, boating or hiking became greater escapes than ever, and leaving to go back home got harder and harder.

Then a seemingly healthy younger friend of Roth, a guy he cycled with, dropped dead of a heart attack.

"I don't want to die with time on the books for vacation," Roth said.

Nancy Roth loves the skiing, hiking, cycling and water sports as much as her husband does. But so much of their life was tied up in the Encino house -- where they raised their daughter, who now lives in San Francisco, and where their families gathered on holidays -- that it was tough to let go.

In September, at the six-month mark, she was ready. While I was in Tahoe talking to her husband, she was back in Encino, getting the house ready to sell.

"In each stage of life, you have to let go of something and move in a different direction," she told me by phone.

"I do miss the diversity of L.A.," her husband said. "I miss the culture and the sports, the choice of restaurants. But I don't miss waking up and hearing the helicopters doing doughnuts over the 405 and knowing the traffic is going to be even worse. I wake up now and look out at pine trees, blue sky, big puffy clouds. I think this feels right."

After lunch, Roth took me out on his little motorboat and we puttered around taking in spectacular scenery. Roth and his wife sometimes travel across the lake to an isolated beach for a picnic while their Labrador retrievers, Murphy and Dexter, goof around in the water.

We went for a bike ride along the shore after our boat ride, past people enjoying sunset cocktails overlooking the lake.


Well, narrow mountain roads do get clogged with tourists, transplants, gamblers and skiers, all of them bringing the problems they were trying to escape. At lunch, our conversation had been interrupted by the annoying roar of a motorboat.

There's always politics at play in Tahoe and, as Roth admitted, some annoying shenanigans. A preposterously big development by someone with connections will get rubber-stamped, he said, while an average guy can't get permits to remodel his bathroom.

Maybe there is no paradise. Just different dreams and degrees of compromise.

The week after I left, Roth took the dogs for a walk in the first snow of the season, and I went to Santa Monica to catch a few waves before heading to the office.

And we were both home.


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