TAHOE, CALIFORNIA – The last time he’d been down these slopes very well may have been three decades ago.
During that time, much of the Squaw Valley Ski Resort has changed. The lifts are faster. The rich are richer. The crowds are bigger.
But one thing hasn’t changed. And it’s the one thing that keeps drawing people to Tahoe and the Squaw Valley Ski Resort.
“We had this perfect day,” said Chris Francovich, my father. “The snow was excellent, no ice. And the efficiency of the lifts was way greater than when I was a kid. Everything was faster.”
My father grew up skiing in the Tahoe area. Born in 1952, he learned on a pair of wooden jumping skis. They were taller than he was. He’d hike up the hill behind his parents’ home and ski down. For a year, he could only turn right.
I grew up far from Tahoe, in Boise. Yet Tahoe always figured heavily in my father’s stories. Stories of tromping through the woods and swimming in the ice-cold mountain lake. As a teenager he’d work in the evenings and ski during the day.
In February, we visited Tahoe, skiing and seeing the places my father grew up in.
I didn’t visit Tahoe much as a kid. So the myths and mystique of the stories my father told survived, mostly untouched by reality.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve known about the terror and triumph of riding up KT-22, a chairlift accessing such steep terrain that it had to be vertically winched up and over a cliff. It’s said the first people to ski that aspect of the mountain had to kick-turn 22 times just to get down.
My father’s first overnight camping trip with the Boy Scouts started with a ride up KT-22. He was woefully underprepared. His sleeping bag was from before World War II. His skis were taller than him. After two days spent in a hut in the woods behind the resort he was frozen, miserable and not at all certain he wanted to go outside again. And jealous. Jealous of the newer, warmer gear of his wealthier peers.
My father grew up in a working-class family. His father was a night watchman at a local marina, then a restaurateur and bar owner.
Living in Tahoe, he was surrounded by the upper crust.
As a kid, he said, his awareness of class differences was limited and superficial.
“I was just more envious of people who had more (stuff) than me,” he said.
But that’s how he learned to ski in the first place, through friends with the resources to get them up the mountain.
Tahoe itself is a testament to the rapid changes the ski industry has undergone in the last 50 years. Old piled upon new. Squaw Valley’s village area, much of which was constructed in the early 2000s, sits in sharp visible contrast to the 1960 Winter Olympic-era buildings that still remain.
“There really an interesting combination of tired, old Tahoe and new Tahoe,” he said.
Tired Tahoe is the Tahoe he knew. The old restaurants, like Bacchi’s Inn and the Pfeifer House Restaurant, are two places he worked at as a teenager.
New Tahoe. Modern restaurants. Gleaming chrome. Automated check-in and check-out services at the ski resort. High-speed lifts. Short, easy-to-use skis.
“It was kind of like seeing history,” he said. “Like archeological sediments, almost like archeological layers.”
Perhaps the clearest example of that was Le Chamois. The après-ski destination for decades at Squaw Valley, the old bar lies in the center of a newer resort village built in the early 2000s. The old bar’s walls are plastered with photos of famous area skiers, ski patrollers and locals, many of whom my dad knew growing up.
Returning to Tahoe, decades later, my father is now a tenured professor at Gonzaga University. He is established. He has the money to afford a day pass, a plane ticket and rentals – a level of financial security he never knew growing up.
We spend a day skiing. The sun is brilliant, the sky clear. Fresh snow. We re-explored the areas where his stories were set. Went up KT-22 in the new (to my dad) chair, one that’s smooth and fast. Skied down on short skis that are easy to use. Went to the Chamois.
And then had dinner in town at one of the old restaurants where my dad used to wash dishes.