Photo: MQ Teng

Between Fires¹

You shoulda seen Tahoe back then, he said wistfully, showing us his phone. It was paradise. On the screen, a young man is photographed on the beach with his surfboard, slaphappy and shivering in a wetsuit. Pristine turquoise waters surge and crash haphazardly behind him. In the distance, the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains are covered by ancient pine forests and curve around the water, while a blazingly blue sky towers overhead. Like many, our Uber driver was drawn to Lake Tahoe for its legendary sports scene and stayed after tasting its secluded lifestyle and easy access to nature. When sustained injuries became chronic pain, he started a ski gear company, later driving Uber during peak seasons when second homeowners and tourists from around the world increased local populations hundredfold. My best friend and I were part of this summer’s migration. I admitted to the driver that it was my first time visiting Tahoe, and he bemoaned the recent droughts that were disrupting the fragile ecosystem. We’ve seen some black bears around camps lately, he grinned. Just don’t play dead or run.

We were dropped off outside a rowdy 24-hour diner called the Lucky Beaver, where a life-sized photo of a woman opening her mouth for a burger greeted us from the window. The main road was a dark four-lane highway, quietly crossing from Nevada into California just further ahead. The diner shared a roadside strip mall with a pharmacy, sports bar, jewelry store, and a modest casino named Dotty’s that displayed their cigarette prices like lottery winnings. Rising around us, spread a few blocks apart like slumbering giants were four resort casinos. Each bore a distinctive red neon logo, marking the sky for Harrah’s, Bally’s, Hard Rock, and Harvey’s.

Casinos evolved with outdoor sports around Tahoe, both offering risk and games to preoccupy the men who came seeking wealth. Nineteenth-century silver miners and loggers, who made fortunes in the Sierra Nevada, became twentieth-century landowners along the Nevada shorelines. The state pitched itself as a conservative haven from the Great Depression and New Deal taxes, targeting millionaires from California. When World War II ended and American consumers shifted to pleasure spending, the first resort casino, Harvey’s opened to accommodate the new tourists and their demand for adventures, day and night. Feeling their primitive lifestyles threatened but citing public health concerns, wealthy landowners voted unanimously to limit “undesirable” commercial developments to a one-mile district in Nevada, just over the state border.

It was 2AM when we arrived at Harvey’s, where V and her family had booked a suite for the summer. We gently knocked on the bedroom door and her mom sat up to greet us with her characteristic charm and bite. I gave her a long hug, then stepped back to watch V carefully tend to her, setting a new bottle of Ocean Spray juice and 6-pack of Parliaments on her nightstand within reach. They shared a soft conversation by the blue light of Law & Order on TV. Back in the living room, V pulled out her own pack of Parliaments and offered me one. I asked how she was and she paused. Her mom had gotten the suite for everyone, but the cousins weren’t coming out to see her as much as she’d hoped. We cracked our window open until its safeguard kicked in and took turns exhaling smoke out, wondering if Harvey’s was afraid of guests jumping.

In the daylight, the main road buzzed with souvenir shops, outdoor restaurants, and a mini golf bar. Horse-drawn carriages took over one of the highway lanes, carrying families of reunited cousins, curious children, and nonplussed grandparents. Around us, couples wearing performance gear and daypacks marched confidently to trailheads. V and I were content to leisurely sip coffee and browse the clothing stores, meeting local swimsuit dealers and craft gallerists. We spent the afternoon at a lakeside beach, where a sullen teenager watched her father shoo geese away and a woman with a weathered face sat peacefully, watching the sun cross the sky. I swam as far out as I could, letting the shoreline grow small, and welcomed the quiet. After I dried off, V passed me a drink and asked about my brother. We talked until hunger set in, the geese swam out, and shadows stretched over the mountains.

The next day, V’s mom ran through her OxyContin and went into excruciating withdrawal. We found a pharmacy that could fill her large prescription and rushed an Uber to a small town north of the lake, tipping our driver to wait outside. V made a beeline for the pharmacy counter and I gave her space. She had told me about these runs she’d make for her mom on the phone, but I hadn’t realized how consuming the stress could be during a crisis. When I found V later, she was bitterly texting her mom. They have them, she told me. But we’re in California. Mom’s from Nevada, so we need a pharmacy there. For controlled substances like Oxy, the pharmacist had also expected her mom’s doctor to call. V knew the doctor was on vacation and would be reluctant to refill the prescription early again, already cautious from the federal crackdown on “pill mills” and overprescribing opioids. V spent days calling the doctor, other pharmacies, and her cousins, begging them to drive over with their pills and weed. Tahoe’s isolation as a resort destination was an expensive barrier to healthcare. Except for the radio, our Ubers to pharmacies around the shimmering lake were mostly silent.

One night, I remember holding V around 3AM and crying together because her mom was threatening suicide again.

We tried finding escape downstairs in the casinos, making fast friends with birthday girls and nouveaux riches bachelors from San Francisco and Seattle. Crowds cheering for dueling pianos blurred with those taking shots off skis. It felt cruel to be served alcohol so liberally when the drug we needed was so tightly guarded. On the windowless and labyrinthine casino floors, players sat hunched over rows of blinking, ringing machines. Sometimes, between venues or waiting for a bathroom, I would notice a slight and surreal fraying: a woman in the corner holding her sister, or a grandfather alone at the machine with a haunted look. It seemed every person who self-medicated had an unspoken need to be held steady if the pain or high was too much. Thinking of V, I wondered who braces the caregiver?

Soon after, our clear skies were swallowed by a soft but menacing orange that I had only seen in photos. Winds had blown a nearby wildfire unexpectedly towards town and it was feeding on the Sierra Nevada’s dense vegetation and fallen trees, already drier from a longer warm season and lower rainfall. It started to snow ash and a dense blue haze settled over us. Even as it became harder to breathe, it was quite beautiful. Hikers were urged to avoid strenuous trails and few sailors took their boats out. Many tourists and residents began leaving, reducing the main road to an eerie shell of an economy. But people continued to gather at the Lucky Beaver, worried about other wounds. Two brothers held out for adventure, needing a break from their routines. Two cousins had recently lost love and continued swiping for company. A young bartender saving for a boat picked up new shifts. This period of escalating crisis laid bare the longing and loneliness underpinning the city. Eventually, the wildfire would be named the Caldor Fire and force around 50,000 people to evacuate the area.

Tahoe is a mispronunciation of the Wá∙šiw name, dáɁaw (dah-ow), which simply means the lake. For countless generations, Tahoe and its surrounding environments have been the center of Wá∙šiw people’s geographic and spiritual world. This changed irrevocably when thousands of miners and immigrants flooded the lands in the 19th century and stayed, invading mountains and denuding forests to set up towns and industry. With development guided by wealthy landowners and the commodification of paradise, today’s regional planning agency fights for environmental improvements and investments using the tools of re-development and economic growth. Instead, Wá∙šiw people understand the land and plants to be sovereign beings that, like humans, must face worsening stress from droughts, chemicals, fires, and other destructive forces. Despite their resilience, many often become damaged or twisted, and damage is always shared.

  1. Published in Thresholds (2023) (51): 26–29.