Lake Tahoe: Left Coast Outpost in the Far West

The Left Coast influence makes Tahoe people more socially liberal and tolerant than in the surrounding areas of the Far West.

In the video above, you get some nice tips for a weekend getaway in Tahoe (especially if you’re willing to spend your entire weekend driving from one end of the lake to the other, rather than staying on a particular shore, as we locals tend to do).

I spent some of my formative years in Tahoe and lived there again for a few years as an adult. I know the place intimately.

Lake Tahoe is an outpost of the Left Coast in the middle of the Far West. If you drive a short distance away from the lake in any direction (to Carson City or Placerville, for example), you quickly find yourself in a very different culture—the Far West, with its love of federal lands, needless aggression, libertarianism, and meth.

People who live in Tahoe are a unique hybrid of Left Coast and Far West types. You only encounter this kind of person in a few other Left Coast inland outposts like Bend, Oregon, and Kelowna, British Columbia.

Some of the locals interviewed in the 36 Hours video above give you a glimpse of the Tahoe persona: relaxed, soulful, friendly, active (optionally competitive), and on some level checked out from mainstream society (even the business owners). You’ll see a lot of “Bark Less, Wag More” bumperstickers, because Tahoe people are essentially dogs accidentally incarnated as humans. And Tahoe is a dog’s paradise.

In Tahoe, the Left Coast influence makes people more socially liberal and tolerant than in the Far West. It also gives them an enduring love of yacht rock. The Far West influence makes them more libertarian and uneducated than people on the Left Coast (good luck finding a decent bookstore in Tahoe, or anything resembling an intellectual conversation).

As with other places in the Far West, Tahoe remains hugely dependent on income and resources from federal and state governments, not to mention the public land used by ski resorts, and of course the public lake—so the libertarianism is, well, let’s just say it’s ironic.

Tahoe is a place of extreme class disparities:

  • People with high wealth and high income. If they work for a living, it’s usually someplace else, and their giant houses sit unoccupied for most of the year, unless being used by young scions for beach and ski weekends. For people in this class to earn their income from the Tahoe economy alone is rare (the wealthy resort and casino owners of the past have been replaced by distant corporate owners).
  • People with high wealth and low income. These folks inherited houses that are worth millions. They themselves don’t make that much money. They might live elsewhere and use the house once in a while, or live in Tahoe full time.
  • Business owners who do well, but are dependent on weather and seasonal tourism. Think: ski rentals, raft rentals, bike rentals, restaurants, clothing stores, pawn shops (casinos, remember?), bars, etc.
  • Professionals (knee surgeons, architects, lawyers, etc) who often make less than they would in a metro area, but in return get all the benefits of living in a year-round playground.
  • Managers at corporate-owned resorts and casinos. Think: staff managers, ski resort managers, resort chefs, operations overseers, etc. This is perhaps the least happy group, in part because there’s a real tension between wanting to live like Jeremiah Johnson and working for a faceless corporation. These folks can feel stuck in their jobs because there are so few places to make a decent salary.
  • Decently paid public employees. The cost of living in Tahoe is low enough that some public employees can live fairly well (better than they would in a metro area). Think: forest service managers, police, fire, school administrators, etc. Although the cost of living has risen of late.
  • Service employees who do the all the work serving the classes listed above, and make next to nothing. Think: waiters, spa attendants, cashiers, bartenders, ski lift operators, casino workers, housekeepers, public workers who earn low salaries, etc. This, of course, is the vast majority of full time residents—although this group is increasingly being driven out of Tahoe to places like Carson City, commuting daily to serve wealthier part time residents and tourists. (A similar trend is seen in many resorts towns of the Far West today, Aspen for example.)
  • People who reject this whole class analysis, man! You’ll find them at the hemp shop.

The majority of people living in Tahoe also share a common experience with the majority of people living in other tourist towns. There’s a strange kind of alienation that happens when you’re part of a minority underclass serving people who want to get away from it all. It creates an odd tension between your reality, and their escape from reality. This dynamic is something to be aware of when you visit Tahoe—or any tourist destination, for that matter.

When is the best time to visit?

  • Late May and early September: Best shoulder months. No crowds. In May, there’s still snow on the mountaintops (sometimes you can still ski), but it’s warm below, and the aspen trees have often leafed out. In early September, it’s still warm enough to get out on the lake, the aspens have turned gold, and the nights are still light and warm.
  • March: Best ski month. You can count on “unexpected” snowfall in March. That said, climate change is making the prospect of snowfall and skiing in Tahoe—in any month—look less and less likely over time.

When you visit, don’t do like the New York Times suggests and visit places all around the lake. Instead, choose one shore (north, south, east, or west) and see it well.

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