“A noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still… As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords…The air up there in the clouds is very pure, fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be? – It is the same the angels breathe.” Mark Twain wrote in his engaging recount of his first visit to the great American West, Roughing It.
I had seen Trevor and Sherri off at the Reno airport, rented a car, and drove into the mountains to Lake Tahoe. Words cannot truly do justice to the beauty and magnificence of this wonderful place. While it is true that there is virtually a steady stream of automobiles traversing the seventy-two miles of shoreline around this spectacular phenomenon, and much of that is beleaguered by casinos, motels, restaurants, fast food joints, condos, shopping centers, service stations, and any other gluttonous lures for the tourist dollar of which one might conceive, the main attraction powerfully endures in its majesty. Lake Tahoe, and the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains, gallantly defies man’s hedonistic, destructive rape of our great mother Earth, and clings to her pristine stature on our garden planet.
I chose a small, inexpensive motel for two nights, and reviewed the travel brochures that reveal the preferred choices for fun in the area. I did not see anything on these brochures about disappearing into the mountains to reclaim spiritual inheritance, but I did notice that the sternwheeler M.S. Dixie would shortly be leaving for a two hour cruise across the southern end of the lake to Emerald Bay, and back. I have a fondness for paddle wheelers – I would set up house on one if I were to find a money tree someday – and a partiality to spectacular scenery, as well as affection for boats. Sounded like a fitting introduction to this grand lake to me.
I pretended not to notice the boisterous wedding party that was dominating a large area of one deck of the M.S. Dixie, and climbed the ladder to the upper deck – the Texas deck, to my approval. Lake Tahoe is twelve miles wide, and twenty-two miles long, and averages as least one thousand feet deep, with its greatest depth of 1645 feet. Rather more than a “mark twain”, I mused as I looked down into the clear, blue water from the deck of the onetime Mississippi river boat. The water here is incredibly transparent. One might clearly see a small Mountain Whitefish swimming seventy feet beneath the surface. The whistle blew, the water rippled, and we left shore.
After a while, I became chilled by the wind blowing out of the mountains and across the alpine lake. I withdrew to the next lower deck, in the vicinity of the wedding party, and turned my back to the commotion as I stared out at the beauty beyond.
“Do you come here often?”
I was startled at the remark made from behind me. I turned and saw Rachael smiling tenderly.
“Well, no. However, there is a first time for everything, don’t you agree?” I tried to flirtatiously express my surprise at seeing her. “You look nice, any particular occasion?”
“Wedding.” She motioned to the group gathered nearby. “They will tie the knot at Emerald Bay.”
“I see. Not you?”
“No, not me.” Rachael grinned.
We had a glass of wine and chatted for most of the ride across, spontaneously remarking at the spectacular scenery, and revealing bits of data about each other. Becca was an office manager of hers that was getting married, and Rachael regarded the trip as much a vacation as an obligation to the ceremony. When we neared the bay she informed me,
“I will need to return to the group, would you like to join me?”
“Oh, no. I always cry at weddings.” I chortled. “I’ll stand back and observe.”
Emerald Bay cuts into the southwest corner of Lake Tahoe on the California side, and is considered the most photographed spot of the lake. Here sits Vikingsholm, a summer home constructed in the late nineteen hundreds for Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight, and a wonderful example of Scandinavian architecture. With its hand-hewn timbers and hand-smithed hinges and latches, exquisitely carved dragon beams, six Scandinavian style fireplaces, and furnished with items representative of homes of its period, it is rather like stepping back into the Middle Ages.
Fannette Island, the only island in Lake Tahoe, rises one hundred and fifty feet above water level, and sits the midst of the bay. It is believed to be an extension of a gigantic rock that resisted the glacial ice. Over the last hundred years Fannette has also been known as Hermit’s, Coquette, Baranoff, and Dead Man’s Island. Fannette is the name that seems to have stuck. At the top of the thinly timbered extrusion sits the stone remains of what was at one time a miniature, castle-like teahouse. Mrs. Knight would escort her guests to the small island by boat and climb the crag to the top for teatime.
This setting, with the great Tahoe panorama in the background, seemed an appropriate location for a tall, blond lady named Becca to wed the sandy bearded gentleman, Gerald.
“I presume that the festivity will take place on board?” I inquired.
“Yes.” Rachael replied. “A short ceremony. The big party is this evening at the Horizon.”
The wedding party started gathering. Rachael smiled at me and moved closer to the ceremony, though I noticed that she remained toward the back of the group. Not too far from me I surmised. As the ceremony began, and the bride and groom approached their providence, I leaned against the bulkhead and looked at Rachael from behind. Her hair was long, to her mid back, and was the color of the sun, muted and browned by forest shadows. She was tall, and big boned. I noticed that she had thick ankles, and reckoned that she could carry weight if required. Rachael was straight, well postured, and not particularly curvaceous, but there was a down-to-earth sensuality about her. I envisioned her in water, and fantasized that her skin was the texture of silk. But there was something about her that forewarned me to look away; return my wandering eyes to the panorama of the mountains and the clear, unequivocal waters of the lake.
“Oh, my God!” I heard her proclaim.
People in the wedding party scrambled. The groom had passed out at the altar. Someone ran for water. Another went for a wet towel. One lady held his head and patted his face, as if to awaken him from his dormant anxiety. An elderly woman close to the activity fainted into a seat, breathing heavily, and wiped the copious worry from her neck with her hanky. Eventually, he regained consciousness and sat up. I’m sure that if it had been me, and had seen the myriad of befuddled expressions staring down at me, that I would have eagerly returned to oblivious stupor. Gerald was assisted into a chair and comforted by several overly obliging ladies.
“What happened to him?” Rachael situated herself beside me and took my hand, assuming that I, a man, would understand, or perhaps she simply wanted my emotional extrication.
“He is uncertain.” I ventured.
“Yes.” I continued. “I don’t think that he is ready to get married. Do you know these people well?”
“I’ve known Becca for many years, from work. I don’t know Gerald very well, however. They have been together for maybe a year now.”
I overheard the groom saying that he could not do this at the moment; that he needed to return to his room and lie down for a while. He felt sick and needed to be alone for a while. The situation calmed somewhat, but everyone in the wedding party was quite unnerved during the ride back to shore. I talked to Rachael briefly, but she felt obligated to return to the confusion and resume her role as a good friend to the distressed Becca.
“Would you like to join us at the Horizon, for the festivities later tonight?” She inquired rather meekly of me.
“Oh, no. I think not.” was my rather adamant reply. “I am not sure that it will be particularly festive, and I am sure that a stranger may well be out of place at that point.”
Rachael returned to be with the confused group of folks. After docking, as they all departed the MS Dixie still in muted shock, she glanced back at me once, reflectively. I allowed them to get well ahead before I debarked. I empathized with the many folks that had gathered for the Tahoe wedding, especially with the groom, who was now on the chopping block. I rather doubted that he would make the critical commitment now. Off with his dubious head, the scoundrel! I ruminated the night wherein I drunkenly juggled lust with love and had asked for Kristin’s hand in matrimony. Then I was hurt by her rejection. I had wanted to cling to irrational thin air, a concoction of methyl alcohol and detonating brain cells, don the armor of Sir Uck Uck, the Golden Knight, and claim her as my Danish princess. Sober up, she had directed. I would like to have bought Gerald a cocktail that night. It is a sobering picture, indeed, to imagine the two of us toasting with one fine cognac following another.
“To freedom!” He would declare.
“To common sense!” I would contend.
“To bachelorhood!” He would add.
“To lonely, old curmudgeons!” I would assert.
“To a lonely man without a son.” He would tear up.
“To Pappy, Donn Quixote with three sons!” I would announce.
“To Pappy, Donn Quixote,”… … he would turn to me with an amusing, perplexed look… “ to Gerald!” he would slur.
That night I took a room in Crystal Bay, on the North shore of Lake Tahoe. I sat alone in the Cal-Neva, by the large stone hearth that is divided by California and Nevada, and sipped brandy by the warm fireside. The Cal-Neva is a casino-lodge with a long history of celebrity guests, and was at one time owned by the “Chairman of the Board.” I thought about Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner as they engaged in heated disagreement. I imagined Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy in clandestine encounters. I thought about marriage, and Gerald and Becca. I thought about Pappy, and Mother; and Mother and Everett. I wondered if I would ever get married. I mused matters of family, the past, and the future. And, the present – I would be leaving late the next afternoon to return to Texas, and to the King Street Pub, and back to work.
“I’ll have an Armagnac. Please, make it double.” I ordered.