A hitchhiker’s life in North Lake Tahoe | SierraSun.com

A hitchhiker’s life in North Lake Tahoe

As soon as summer has officially packed its bags, they begin to flock into town from seemingly every direction. They arrive with wide eyes and high expectations, with dreams of snow-covered peaks and parties that flirt with dawn, and with just enough money to acquire apartments containing far fewer bedrooms than people. They know that their upcoming existence depends on a piece of plastic that will grant them access to rapidly ascending chairs of transportation, and when offered minimal wages for a job that ensures possession of this magical plastic card, they’re giddy with enthusiasm. This idealistic workforce of those obeying the urges of their youth provides the backbone of the ski-town industry, not only bumping chairs and fitting skis for the full paying weekend guests, but also buying the instant noodles, the 25-cent burritos, and the questionable meat products that comprise the diets of those making minimum wage.”Whoa, that looks delicious. What is it?” His friend looks up from the Tupperware in his lap and swallows his food before answering.”Rice.”Living without money is one of the accepted realities for many who trek thousands of miles to enjoy the natural spectacles of the Lake Tahoe area. With weather in which one is more appropriately attired in a slicker and galoshes than a winter coat and hat, a large percentage of the community is feeling the financial pressures that accompany a slow season. Grocery store meat, drastically reduced in price because of declining quality, is hungrily snatched off the shelves by those brave enough to take their chances with salmonella and e coli. Thrift stores have become bustling centers of commerce, as bargain hunters scour the inventory in search of an extra coffee mug, or perhaps for the luxury of a pillow to replace the wadded-up sweatshirt that, along with a soft carpet, makes up their sleeping quarters. Bars, with their outrageous multi-dollar prices, sound like libraries, while the libraries are overflowing with patrons drawn to the only public establishment where one can be sure not to have to pay for anything. Lake Tahoe’s inhabitants seem to be listlessly floating in life rafts, waiting for the rains to pass, while the snow-blessed residents of Colorado and Utah speed past in their motorboats without offering condolences. Dreams of powder-days and fresh lines have been replaced by dreams of regular employment and meals made by someone other than the assembly line workers at Kraft Foods. Conspiracy theorists have even pointed an accusing finger at the electric companies, calling the New Year’s Eve blackouts the work of frugal, cost-retentive executives instead of the result of icy electrical lines. The weather has brought rain to all aspects of life, and until that rain finds a phone booth in which to change into its fluffy alter ego, much of Lake Tahoe will continue to live on cheese-less macaroni and cans of kosher pork-and-beans.”Hey man, thanks for picking me up. I’ve been standing in the rain all morning.””No problem, it sucks not having a car.””Car? I’ve got a car, just can’t afford the gas.”For the Lake Tahoe pilgrim still intent on making the best of a tough early season, hope lies in the more reasonably priced entertainment of the region. If the two-dollar pickup basketball court fee is unaffordable, one can enjoy hours of complimentary comic relief by becoming a spectator of these games that are characterized by the staggering ineptitude of players attempting three-point hook shots and behind the back passes into the bleachers. If the NFL playoffs hold the interest of an individual for whom a television is far down on the list of affordables, many local establishments boast not only large screens with satellite feeds, but also large windows that allow for “unofficial” patio seating that, if accessed discreetly, provide the budgeted sports fan with the pleasure of following the road to the Super Bowl. For the movie enthusiast unable to pay the outrageous four-dollar rental fee, most rental establishments play movies at the actual store, granting the absurdly indecisive shopper the opportunity to at least catch the main plotline of the staff’s pick while feigning to peruse the isles. There may not be much snow, and even fewer financial prospects, but by thinking creatively, it is certainly possible to weather the rainstorm until the temperatures drop and the towns regain their usual vitality.”Sir, are you finished with that?” the busboy asked eagerly.”Why yes, thank you,” and he slid his half-eaten plate across the table.”Could I have the fork as well?” The patron looked at him, puzzled.”What do you need the fork for?””What do you think I need the fork for?”Fortunately for many of the disappointed members of the community, the snow will at some point start to fall, businesses will begin to pick up, and there might even be enough work for those currently struggling with such annoyances as rent and food costs to be able to purchase groceries without testing their own immune systems. Unfortunately, the snow will not erase the problems for all those strapped with financial difficulties, for there still remains a definitive line between having no money and being poor. Having no money is temporary, something that can be remedied by an opportunistic break or a change in the market. Being poor is something more permanent, and much more serious. Being poor doesn’t mean having no money while in college, or struggling to pay off loans afterwards; being poor is something to be borne by people without the benefit of education or lucrative connections, by people who will always be the purchasers of questionable meat products, no matter how much snow falls. These people work the jobs that most scoff at performing even in times of need, and often they work three or four of these jobs just to bring ends closer together. They hide in the kitchens and janitor closets of the most popular establishments, often foreign to both land and language, working for their own dreams that are a bit more involved than the typical visions of snowy slopes and endless parties. They are there, whether acknowledged or not, and they will attest to the fact that minimum wage translates into a minimum lifestyle that is much more real than the penny-pinching and bargain hunting to which the more privileged community occasionally subject itself.

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