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The City and the Writer: In South Lake Tahoe with Suzanne Roberts

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series/Nature Writers 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                          —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities



An Introduction to this Special Series of "The City and the Writer"

According to Louis Owens, the division of nature and culture, the very idea of wilderness as somehow separate from human beings, is “a figment of the European imagination.” Most American nature writers would agree with this, and the five writers featured this June discuss nature within their cities big and small, including extraordinary details such as night herons in the trees along the Charles; schooner captains and dilapidated wharves; the bullocky Loess Hills lining the western edge of Iowa along the Missouri River; the fungus and mildew covering furniture in a hurricane-stripped house in New Orleans.

Some of these writers are looking at their cities with fairly new eyes, whereas others have been lifelong residents with roots stretching back more than six generations. These writers all note the blurred distinctions between nature and culture, wilderness and the city, including the wild rivers that run through them and even secret skiing spots in the center of town. Next week, I pass the baton to John T. Price, who notes the ways our human-made landscapes have become ecosystems for other creatures, legitimizing the idea that “environmental” means all environments, cities included. 

—Guest Editor Suzanne Roberts


Can you describe the mood of South Lake Tahoe as you feel/see it?

South Lake Tahoe is a place of two moods—one is the seediness of the casinos, dive bars with names like the Lucky Beaver, where scantily clad cocktail waitresses weave around on stilettos serving drinks, and groups of young women celebrate the upcoming nuptials of a friend by shopping at the Teaz and Pleaz by day and sucking down free drinks at the Opal Ultra Lounge by night. The other mood is that of the wilderness surrounding the city—the songs of the creeks and rivers, the alpenglow glimmering pink on the mountains, the long shadows from the towering lodgepole pines. Because of this, Lake Tahoe is a place of contrasts, of juxtapositions, which makes it the perfect place for the writer.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

My friend’s sixteen-year-old son was in a car with a group of teenagers. A girl was driving, and she began fooling around, swerving in and out of the double yellow line even though the kids in the car protested, scared by her antics. But she thought it was funny. She flipped the vehicle, and my friend’s young son was thrown from the car and killed. I remember getting the phone call, being in disbelief, and then later sitting with my friend and his wife, who both seemed as though they were shells of themselves; they had entered the room of grief, leaving their hollow bodies behind. In winter, we ski Greg’s favorite run at Sierra-at-Tahoe, and when his father touches the commemorative plaque affixed to a boulder among the trees, it breaks my heart every time.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The glint of snowflakes on the surface of the snow—tiny stars of light—after a storm. And the muffled quiet of the forest after a snowstorm.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

John Muir, Isabella Byrd, and Mark Twain all mention Lake Tahoe in their writing, but not from the point of denizens but as travelers. Sarah Winnemucca, known for publishing the first autobiography written by a Native American woman, discusses the surrounding area in Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims.

We have quite a lively literary scene, and contemporary writers from around the lake include June Sylvester Saraceno, Krista Lukas, Gayle Brandeis, Jeremy Evans, and Ann Marie Brown. We also have a number of interesting writers not far from here in Reno, such as Laura Wetherington, Gailmarie Pahmeier, Ann Ronald, and Michael Branch.

Is there a place here you return to often?

There is a network of trails behind my house that I walk every day. Last summer, I hiked home from Yosemite, finally ending on the trails behind my house, so that I finished my hike at my front door. Even though I know the landscape well, it changes with each season, and there is always something new—Lupine blooming in July, a grove of Aspens fluttering yellow in October, Jeffrey pine boughs heavy and white with snow in December, black bears rousing from their dens in May.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The lake itself is an iconic literary place. Muir thought the whole region should be a national park and Twain called the lake “the fairest picture the whole earth affords” in his memoir Roughing It.

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The small town of Meyers, with its gas stations and alpaca rug stands, seems like a place you should quickly pass through on your way to South Lake Tahoe. But if you look closer, you will see a thriving arts scene. Meyers is home to the small press Bona Fide Books, which includes the imprint Cherry Bomb Books. The founding editor, Kim Wyatt, has created a cultural center, hosting workshops and classes, art openings, and author events, as well as a meet-up place for wayward writers and artists and a fully functioning print shop. Among the books Bona Fide has recently published is Tahoe Blues, an anthology that features sixty stories about life at the lake. Meyers is also home to funky little bars like the Divided Sky, restaurants such as the Getaway Cafe, and coffee shops, and special community events, including a holiday celebration where Santa Claus arrives in a helicopter!

Where does passion live here?

Passion lives in the song of the mountain chickadee, the creak of the pines in a windstorm, the night sky braided with stars.

What is the title of one of your works about South Lake Tahoe and what inspired it exactly?

A poem I wrote about skiing on Mount Tallac called “Cliff’s Edge” was inspired by that feeling of letting go of all the everyday frets and worries when you’re skiing, especially in the backcountry, where “the life of rhetorical gravity falls away, leaving only fractured light, a dog’s excited yelps, two vultures soaring in the vaulted sky.” I also wrote a memoir about backpacking in the Sierra called Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside South Lake Tahoe does an outside exist?”

Yes. Even talking about South Lake Tahoe as a city feels wrong to me; those of us who live around the 100-mile circumference of Lake Tahoe feel more like we live in a region. The lines of the cities mean very little. I don’t even live within the city limits of South Lake Tahoe, so in some ways I am without a city. The lake itself, the surrounding mountains and the forests, the wildflowers and the wildlife—that’s what inspires me to write, that makes me feel at home.

Where does the nature exist within the city?

In South Lake Tahoe there is no useful separation between city and nature (maybe that’s true of anyplace). When you hike any of the surrounding hills, all the houses and buildings become hidden among the trees. The only signs of human dwellings are the casinos, the airport, and a housing development right on the water called the Tahoe Keys, which should have never been built.

Is writing from a city somehow different than writing from a natural landscape?

While I don’t feel like there’s much difference between writing about cities versus natural landscapes, I do think that there’s a huge difference between writing from a city versus from nature. Though I can do both, I feel like when I am surrounded by natural beauty, I am less anxious about what I’m doing. I can take a break and walk forest trails, or wander along a beach, or even just look out the window into a wilderness and think about my writing and somehow all that natural beauty makes me feel like what I’m doing has a certain smallness to it, which decreases my insecurities. Whereas if I’m in a city and take a walk, I am distracted by all the interesting people; the goings-on of the city clashes against my senses, distracting me from not only my project but from myself. With all those people, I think, “What about my voice?” And then I am immediately struck by the fear that my voice will never be enough. In the city, it’s easier to abandon my project, psychically at least, and find something else I would rather write about. So maybe in that sense, the city is better for gathering new ideas, and nature is better for keeping me in the moment of the project at hand.

Suzanne Roberts is the author of Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award, and four collections of poetry. Her work has been included in the anthologies The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader, Tahoe Blues, Southern Sin, and Best Women’s Travel Writing. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-residency MFA programs in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College and Chatham. 

Published Jun 2, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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