It’s as though someone has stuffed cotton wool in my ears. The classic rock blasting from the car radio (our only choice, due to patchy reception but a welcome one) becomes dulled and bass heavy. My friend and I have been winding around the same road on a gradual incline for the past hour, and the sudden blocking of our ears signals a change in altitude. Clusters of pine trees become instantly denser but still maintain uniformity, as if someone has raked a comb through them. The road soon meets the rocky banks of a creek, and the two meander alongside each other for several kilometres before bidding each other farewell. We pass through several towns that end as soon as they begin, consisting of a mere smattering of houses, a petrol station and, occasionally, a bar.
As we round out of one bend and into another, the landscape changes dramatically. The car is now navigating a high cliff face that opens out to an enormous valley of pines below. It’s almost a shock, the sudden change from being ensconced by forest on all sides to such dramatic exposure. Out on the horizon, the jewel we have been seeking sparkles to our attention, even grander than I ever imagined. Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America, is equally as busy during the summer as it is in the winter, when people flock to glide down its glamorous slopes. We have chose the height of summer for our sojourn, but—quietly envying the people who own the quaint alpine houses that punctuate the scenery—we are already plotting our return to experience it while the landscape is blanketed white.
South Lake Tahoe is our destination, or, more specifically, Basecamp Hotel. Toeing the state line between California and Nevada (conspicuous by the presence of commercial casinos on the Nevada side), Basecamp serves as a happy medium the between dingy motels and hostels, and frequently gaudy hotels that populate the area. It would be easy to drive past the locale and barely notice its presence, as it looks much like a well-cared for roadside motel, with many of the room entrances opening out onto a communal open-air walkway. But the minute you push open the rather modest door to the hotel’s reception, it’s clear that this is much more than a motel.
Two elegant leather chesterfield sofas, topped with tartan cushions, face each other in front of a fireplace, as if settling in for an evening of conversation. Nature-themed and outdoorsy tchotchkes line the shelves either side of the fireplace—a Pendleton blanket in its leather carrier, a Polaroid Land Camera, a military-style water canteen, and plenty of tomes for the journey. Undoubtedly many a story has been shared in this cosy space by travellers passing through, each on their own adventure but happy to cross paths with fellow explorers. When we wearily drop our bags in our room, the explorer-chic theme continues, with camp-blanket throws, a cherry red lantern, and a weathered copy of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook placed neatly on the side table.
We plan to spend the next few days flitting between California and Nevada, immersing ourselves in nature’s miscellany in and around the lake. Since our trip is short, the task of narrowing down our itinerary to allow us to revel in our surroundings, rather than rushing between points, is agonising. We get up early the next day to make the most of our time. After mingling with our fellow explorers at Basecamp’s hearty breakfast bar, our first stop is the beach. Having grown up with beaches characterised by crashing waves, I’m unsure if I’m comfortable with the idea of their absence. But as we pad across the sand and settle down onto stretched-out towels, I’m pleasantly greeted with the sound of waves lapping ashore. While they’re virtually out of breath by the time they reach the sand, the gentle ripples from passing boats are enough to satisfy me.
The water is perfectly temperate – enough to be refreshing from the stark heat of the impending afternoon, yet not so cold to be a rude shock. Even when it’s too deep for me to touch the bottom in one breath, the water is still as clear as a freshly run bath, revealing nothing below but ripples of sand and the occasional rock. I swim out past the jetty into the open water, where paddle boarders slice along languidly. Floating on my back, all I can see is the zig-zag formed by the tips of pine trees and the orb of the sun casting its rays across the water.
Later that afternoon we find ourselves aboard a boat, navigating the lake’s eastern coastline on our way to the aptly named Emerald Bay, which is also home to a castle-like structure that was among the lake’s first summer houses. I dangle my legs over the side of the boat, shifting my gaze between the jewel-toned water below and the alpine landscape that glides past. It takes all my resolve not to simply leap off for another lazy session of swimming.
When the boat finally nudges against the dock, we rush to the car in pursuit of the sunset. We’ve been told the best vantage point is from the beach at Sand Harbor, on the Nevada side of Tahoe, meaning we’ll need to drive about halfway around the lake. We make it just as the blush of the sun is spreading across the horizon. With no one else around except for some particularly bossy local birdlife, we settle in for the spectacular show.
This story was originally published on The Weekend Edition and you can see more photography from the shoot here.