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The Pacific to the Peaks - A Journey into California's Hinterland

The promise of fresh powder runs at world-class resorts like Northstar-at-Tahoe and Heavenly Mountain are an allure I can’t resist.

  • sierra nevada

As the beeping of my alarm slowly awakens me and I rouse myself from the warmth of my bed in the dead of winter, I’m reminded that some of my friends think what I’m doing is strange.

Flying to California, a sunny destination synonymous with beaches, entertainment and nightlife, only to forego all that for a journey into the high-altitude interior of the state that has a wintery climate similar to the one I’m leaving behind in Toronto, confounds some.

But others understand.

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The promise of fresh powder runs at world-class resorts like Northstar-at-Tahoe and Heavenly Mountain are an allure I can’t resist.

So when I discovered that Lake Tahoe, a top skiing destination in the northern Sierra Nevada, which straddles the border of California and Nevada, was having a record-breaking winter after suffering from a drought of snow for the better part of a decade, I was intrigued.

And when I learned that I’ll ascend the windy, snowy roads and highways that begin in San Francisco and snake through the foothills and mountains towards the lake in a sleek black Dodge Durango, I’m hooked. This is a winter driving dream come true.

After arranging to stay in my aunt and uncle’s cabin and arranging to make the drive with two friends who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, the details fell into place and I booked my trip.

But for the moment, my hands are numb as I climb out of the Uber and lug my snowboard bag through the departures entrance at Pearson International Airport. It’s just after 5 am, and the sun is still hidden beyond the horizon, leaving the terminal’s fluorescent lighting to fend off the consuming darkness and biting cold. A frosty winter’s morning is just beginning in Toronto – but soon I’ll be on route to San Francisco, where later today I’ll trade a parka for a leather jacket and steaming airport coffee for cold beer.

toronto gardiner
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I board the flight, read and ultimately fall asleep on route. For hours nothing but desert appears below, sprawling out across an infinite stretch of land. Gradually, foothills appear – slight deviations in the golden-brown expanse below. Then the mountains appear, their peaks and valleys casting long shadows across the glimmering snow. As we scream through the sky above the Sierra Nevada range, the mountains again give way to foothills, then farmland. Finally, we begin our descent, preparing to glide over the San Francisco Bay and the cities and boroughs that surround it. First San Jose, then San Mateo, Daly City and finally San Francisco, with the Golden Gate Bridge appearing in the distance, stretching towards Marin County to the north. I glimpse the dazzling skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco briefly before the plane dips downwards and we begin our descent into San Francisco.

san fran aerial

I briefly shield my eyes as I step out of the airport at SFO. Having boarded the plane in subzero temperatures and near darkness, I’m greeted by balmy temperatures and bright sunshine, which have me quickly stowing my winter coat and pulling on a light leather jacket and shades.

After what seems like ages of undulating road that seems to sprawl arbitrarily across valleys and hills, we round a corner and the headlights catch a glimpse of the Sierra Nevada rising endlessly into the darkening sky.

I’m quickly greeted by my friend Tom, an Oakland local who’s joining me for the trek to Lake Tahoe. Our itinerary begins with a 24-hour debrief in the Bay Area along with another friend, Rasmus, who lives in San Francisco. With the help of two local guides, the plan is to first head into the city, consume cheap American beer and then relax in the sunshine at Mission Dolores Park, a grassy hill that covers several city blocks as it ascends alongside steep San Francisco streets. We arrive and unwind, taking in the sweeping vistas of the city as the sun dips into the Pacific and the thronging crowds of college kids and young adults sprawl across the lawn, sipping cans of beer and knocking back wine from bottles wrapped in paper bags. A permanent haze of pot smoke hangs above the park, constantly replenished by the frequent flick of lighters as more park-goers indulge, as if meant as a gesture to confirm that this is, indeed, San Francisco – the city that gave birth to the hippie movement and free love – and not a faceless American city.

As dusk fades into night and the crowd gradually disperses, I become acutely aware of my hunger. We climb to our feet, ditch some empties in the trash and walk down the hill towards the pulsing noise and lights of San Francisco’s vibrant Mission district. Tom directs us to La Taqueria, a local taco joint where patrons spill out of the crowded, neon-lit restaurant onto the street, engrossed in their meals as they stray from the glowing beacon of Mexican food. After shuffling through the clamouring line that winds its way around the perimeter of the bustling shop, we order burritos, chips and guacamole and push our way through the crowds to the small, open-air patio where we devour the food.

Our appetites satiated, we trek to a nearby bar and order a few beers – and begin talking excitedly about the trip that awaits us. A journey across California, and a chance to see the state’s landscape turn from coast to farmland to foothills to snowy mountains and azure lakes.

Ascent

We wake on Sunday morning to clear blue skies and warm, inviting weather. A gentle breezes blows the curtains from the open window and caresses me when I wake up on Tom’s couch in his Oakland apartment.

Over coffee, we discuss the journey ahead of us, marveling at the fact that we’re currently only miles from the ocean, but will soon be warming our hands by a fire in the cabin.

Excited, we grab our luggage and begin loading it into the gleaming Durango. It’s a hulking, full-size SUV – an aggressive, chrome-accented grill, sharp lines and plenty of technology inside make this an impressive and fitting vehicle for the journey across the state. There’s plenty of cutting-edge details inside, too. Push-to-start ignition. Foregoing shift levers for a futuristic, minimalist design, the Durango features a cylindrical wheel that rises from the centre console to select gears. Bluetooth connectivity, too, which might be the most important aspect of the SUV’s modern design for us, as we take turns playing DJ over the impressive audio system.

2016 dodge durango

With seating for seven, the full-size SUV is easily capable of stowing our board bags, suitcases and groceries without much trouble. Folding down the third row seats, along with one seat in the second row, proves to be sufficient room for our luggage – and leaves plenty of space for a third (and fourth, if necessary) person to sprawl out in the remaining second-row seating.

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But the drive through San Francisco proves daunting – rush hour seems a redundant term here, replaced by endless gridlock that doesn’t adhere to any timed schedules. After sitting in traffic for an hour as we creep towards the toll booth of the Bay Bridge, we put the windows down and inhale the salty sea breeze rolling off the Pacific. It’s a dose of therapy during this grueling leg of our trip. Finally, after depositing a $5 bill in the hands of the toll operator (yes, the Bay Area still employs workers to collect tolls) we glide across the bridge as the sun begins its descent over the Pacific.

san francisco traffic

We arrive in the city to collect Rasmus from his apartment and then to join I-80 as it passes Lake Tahoe on its long trek across the country. Once Rasmus climbs into the back seat, the trip begins in earnest: we connect my iPhone to the car’s audio via Bluetooth and the reaffirming bass from the stereo systems lulls us into a state of relaxation as we glide out of the city and across the farmland of central California.

As the sun continues to dip downwards, we race across the flat landscape of farmland, vineyards and towns that straddle the interstate highway. The Durango feels confident underfoot as I flip through the paddle shifter’s impressive 8 gears, which offer a smooth, heavy thump each time I gear up. Sitting high above the sedans and station wagons, the driver’s seat of the Durango feels like more of a command centre: an array of audio options appear on-screen, letting you switch from radio to a convenient USB connection and Bluetooth. Our model isn’t equipped with satellite navigation, which is hardly an issue in this day and age of the ubiquitous cellphone outfitted with Google Maps. Still, an in-car navigation system is a comfortable insurance policy if your phone dies, or malfunctions, or loses signal.

But since the majority of this journey lies directly in front of us, navigation is not a concern at this point. We follow I-80 as it ascends through the farmland and foothills until we begin a more dramatic climb up the alpine roads, and orchards and vineyards are replaced with redwood trees. The landscape quickly gains rugged, alpine features and the air begins to thin as the Durango thunders up the mountain roads. For the first time, we begin to see snow blanketing the landscape, interspersed with boulders and trees that dot the valleys and hill faces that get larger the further we go.

alpine roads california

By this time, night begins to fall and we switch the SUV’s powerful headlights on. A ray of sharp, white light guides our way as dusk falls over the valley. I dial up the seat heaters and recline slightly in my seat, watching the landscape whir as the sun disappears behind us.

After what seems like ages of undulating road that seems to sprawl arbitrarily across valleys and hills, we round a corner and the headlights catch a glimpse of the Sierra Nevada rising endlessly into the darkening sky. It’s an inspiring sight, and one that gives us pause as we roll through the night. The mountains stand silently as we barrel through the land, holding the promise of fresh snow and challenging terrain. The mood in the car gets pensive for a moment, as we all consider the week ahead of us with tempered excitement.

sierra nevada

As we pass Truckee I send a text message to my uncle to let him know we’re near, and soon we pull off the highway onto a road that will take us towards the lake. As we signal and exit, cars fly by into the darkness – likely heading towards Reno, which lies east of the Lake Tahoe in the neighbouring valley.

I ease the large SUV off the Interstate and begin the gradual descent towards the lake. We head towards Lakeshore Boulevard and make a left, pointing the Durango in the direction of the Nevada border, beyond which our final destination lies. As the headlights sweep across the road I catch a first glimpse of the black, shimmering waters in the darkness beyond a cluster of cabins. My heart beats a little faster – equally likely to be the thought of finally arriving, or the thin mountain air.

lake tahoe

We roll along Lakeshore Boulevard before reaching Incline Village, Nevada, at which point I turn us onto a narrow access road and ascend again – this time steeply, and slowly, up the mountainside. We traverse the side of the mountain face – on one side is a steep hill dotted with trees and backyards; on the other, driveways with sleek SUVs and foreign cars and sprawling cabins that seem more akin to villas and mansions than mere cottages.

Finally we reach the dead-end road that takes us to my aunt and uncle’s cabin. We pull the Durango into the driveway and shut it off. The LED lights that seem to line every contour of the center console finally disappears and the interior lights brighten. We smile drowsily at each other and speak for the first time in hours, hauling our bags from the spacious trunk and greeting my uncle, who ushers us indoors from the biting mountain air and towards a crackling fire and the promise of soft beds.

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We’ve arrived.

I quickly fall into a deep sleep, tuckered out after a weekend of traveling and partying.

But I wake early the next day and race to the window to catch a glimpse of the sun rising over the mountains; the pristine snow glows with a reddish hue from the rising sun, and the lake shimmers. Another beautiful morning in the Sierra Nevada Mountains begins.

lake tahoe

I’m content to sip a coffee and admire it from the window, waiting expectantly for the others to arrive. Soon, we’ll cruise back down the road we climbed last night, pointing the Durango to a nearby mountain and grabbing our boards from the trunk before racing to the lift lines to catch a glimpse of the sparkling lake as we’re carried up mountain faces blanketed in snow.

To be continued…

READ PART 2

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