David’s First Trip to Lake Tahoe
“Does it always take this long to get home, Daddy?”
David Sharkansky, age 4 months, went to Lake Tahoe for the first time this week. He left San Francisco with his parents, Stefan and Irene, on the afternoon of Monday, March 4, 2002. David got to sit in the back seat of his Daddy’s BMW M-3, a.k.a “The Ultimate Driving Machine”. Along the way they picked up Grandma from her home in Vacaville. Big Sister Olivia was on an overnight school trip. Monday was an easy drive and they arrived at Caesar’s Lake Tahoe by 6:30.
On Tuesday David enjoyed hanging out in the casino and eating lunch at Planet Hollywood with Irene and Grandma while Stefan skied the slopes at Heavenly. The weather was sunny and warm, but with indications of a storm moving into the area overnight. The plan was to leave Wednesday morning and to get home in time for Stefan to tend to his business and for Irene to pick Olivia up from her field trip at 5:30pm. Over dinner Stefan told Irene and Grandma that he wanted to leave first thing in the morning, “no later than 9:30 or 10:00”.
The interesting part of the story begins on Wednesday, March 6.
7:29am. David stirs with squirms and squeals. Irene nudges Stefan awake and orders him to change David’s diaper. Stefan groggily complies. “At least we’re getting an early start,” he says to himself.
7:48am. Looking out the window, one sees the gathering of storm clouds. The only precipitation is still nothing more than a light drizzle. Stefan packs his suitcases, while Irene nurses the baby and goes back to sleep.
8:44am. Stefan, Irene, David and Grandma are seated at the Roman Feast buffet restaurant.
9:16am. Stefan is done with his breakfast. Irene and Grandma contemplate another helping of cantaloupe. Stefan taps his fingers impatiently on the table-top and Irene suggests that he “get the car from the valet and bring his suitcases down”.
9:32am. Stefan finishes loading his bags in the car and gives the valet a $5 tip for fetching the car too soon, then sits in the hotel lobby to read his book.
9:59am. Stefan, Irene, David and Grandma finally leave the hotel. Stefan concludes that if one wants to ask one’s spouse to leave “first thing in the morning” one should not say “no later than 9:30 or 10:00”. It’s still only lightly sprinkling.
10:08am. At the junction of U.S 50 and CA 89 there is a sign that says something about “Chains Required”, but for some reason Stefan convinces himself that it doesn’t apply to him.
10:17am. On U.S. 50 a few miles outside the town South Lake Tahoe, CA one can see a few hundred feet in the distance that there is a row of cars stopped on the shoulder. A team of men who look like astronauts in brilliant yellow suits are installing chains on the cars’ tires. Even though it’s only slightly raining it would seem that chains are required after all.
Stefan is concerned about the chain requirement as the Owner’s Manual of his BMW M-3 a.k.a. “The Ultimate Driving Machine” warns that the M3’s high performance tires will not work with snow chains.
10:22am. The nice man at the service station closest to the Yellow Astronaut Chain Installer People courteously tells Stefan that he does not sell chains, and politely suggests that he try the other service station down the block, the one that actually has a “Chains” sign in front.
10:24am. The blue-shirted man at the Shell station with the “Chains” sign in front asks Stefan for his tire size, and since Stefan doesn’t have a clue, the Shell man walks outside in the increasing rain to check Stefan’s tires. The tire size turns out to be 235/40/17, for which, confirming the warning in “The Ultimate Driving Machine’s” Owner’s Manual, there are no matching cables or chains in any catalog. Instead, the Shell man suggests that Stefan should get a “Spikes Spider”, which he unfortunately doesn’t carry, advising Stefan to go back into town to either the Kragen or Napa auto parts stores, conveniently located across the street from each other.
10:31am. At the Napa Auto Parts store, Stefan confidently tells the red-shirted man at the counter that he needs chains or cables for his tires, which are size 235/40/17. Equally confident, the red-shirted man looks in his catalog and promptly returns with a box of chains, which on closer inspection do not match Stefan’s tires. “Oh,” said the red-shirted man, “I thought you said 235/45/19.” Stefan presses him for “Spikes Spider” “I’ve never heard of those,” said the red-shirted man.
10:33am. At the Kragen Auto Parts store across the street from the Napa Auto Parts store, the blue-shirted man is all excited and tells Stefan “Today is your lucky day. We don’t normally carry the Spikes Spiders, but I ordered a set by mistake.” He brings out a large box covered with German writing and a label that says “Made in Switzerland”
“But they’re expensive. $200 for the Spiders and another $100 for the mounting brackets, which by the way, we don’t have in stock. But I’ll call around and find you some. We’ll have them within an hour. How big are your lug nuts? 17, 19 or 21mm?”
The blue-shirted man walks out into the sleet (formerly the drizzle) and measures the Ultimate Driving Machine’s lug nuts, which turn out to be 17mm In the meantime, Irene and Grandma have exchanged seats so that Irene can nurse the baby.
The blue-shirted man telephones every Kragen Auto Parts store within 100 or so miles of Lake Tahoe and then Kragen’s competitors. Meanwhile, Stefan wanders the store’s aisles, studying the wares, learning everything there is to know about chrome fuel filters, Scott shop towels, carburetor gaskets and $2 CDs of Christmas music, the proceeds of which go to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Back in the car Grandma tells Irene “It’s taking so long. That must be a good sign”.
The blue-shirted man finally reports that he’ll be able to get the 17mm Spike Spider mounting brackets on the 22nd.
“Of March?” Stefan asks, with a tone in his voice gently reminding the blue-shirted man that today was the 6th of March.
“When is the storm supposed to clear?”
“Probably not until late tomorrow.”
“What about going North on 89 to I-80”
“If chains are required on 50, then it’s only going to be worse in the other direction”
“What are my options other than waiting until the storm clears?”
“I don’t think you have any”
11:10am Stefan, Irene, David and Grandma leave the Kragen Auto Parts Store and drive off into the snowstorm in search of a tourist information center? a restaurant? a hotel? a place to think?
11:18am. They pull into Café Espresso Tahoe, then sit at a table and drink warm beverages. One of the other customers aptly describes David’s contented gurgling as sounding like ‘two cats fighting’. Grandma complains that she couldn’t sleep at Caesar’s and wants to get home as soon as possible. She is also concerned that she will miss her doctor’s appointment in Vacaville at 11:30 the next morning. Irene calls Greyhound and after finally conquering the user-friendly voice-activated information system, learns that the next bus for Vacaville leaves at 7:30pm and has a 5 hour layover in Sacramento before arriving in Vacaville at 5:15am. Grandma wants badly to get home and is seriously contemplating this option. Irene talks her out of it. Irene starts calling the mothers of Olivia’s classmates until she finds one who can pick up Olivia upon her return from the field trip at 5:30pm. Stefan calls the Lake Tahoe Visitor’s Bureau, which gives him a toll-free number for road conditions. The toll-free number confirms that chains are required on Highway 50 but it says nothing about Highway 89 or I-80. The snow and rain has stopped, and the sun is almost shining again. Stefan and Irene decide to take this longer northern route home. Another customer at the café warns that with Highway 89 you have to go around Emerald Bay, which is “very winding”.
12:05pm. Stefan, Irene, David and Grandma get back into the car. Highway 89 runs along the western shore of Lake Tahoe and meets I-80, which is then a straight shot to Vacaville and San Francisco. A straight shot, that is, once you cross the Donner Summit. The Donner Summit is named after the Donner Party, a group of pioneers who tried to cross the Sierra Nevada but encountered serious difficulties after a snowstorm on this very day (March 6) in the year 1847. Half the Donner party died, the other half survived only by eating the remains of their perished comrades. As it turned out, one of the Donner survivors was a certain William McCutchen, whose son Edward went on to found the law firm of McCutchen, Doyle, Brown and Enersen, which is where Irene works.
It is an easy, storm-free drive headed north on Highway 89 out of South Lake Tahoe and everyone feels confident they will be home later that afternoon. It starts to snow again just as soon as they get to the diaper-pin curves of Emerald Bay, where the two-lane road dangles hundreds of feet above lake at the top of a sheer cliff, without so much as a tissue paper guardrail to prevent a chainless automobile from sliding off the slippery pavement like a hockey puck into the freezing lake below. “Wow,” Grandma says. “Look at how steep that is”
1:08pm David and his ancestors arrive in the town of Truckee, which is right near the junction of 89 and I-80. Stefan goes into the Ace Hardware store to see if they sell Spikes Spiders. They don’t, but the red-shirted man is gracious enough to call the road conditions toll-free number, which informs one about repair conditions on I-80 in Vallejo 150 miles to the west, but says nothing about the snow on I-80 near Truckee, even though the road conditions radio station says that chains are required. The red-shirted man advises to try to drive through, and “in the worst case, they’ll just send you back. But don’t come here again, because we can’t help you.”
Stefan catches a brainwave and calls the BMW dealership in Reno, only 35 miles away, and asks if they carry Spikes Spiders. They don’t, but the man gives him numbers for two different stores that probably do. The first number turns out to be a fax machine. The lady at the second number promises that she will have all the parts, including both the Spikes Spiders and the mounting brackets (for 17mm lug nuts) “within one hour”, which is the same time estimate that the blue-shirted man at Kragen initially gave.
1:31pm Leave the Ace Hardware parking lot, optimistically getting on I-80 West towards home. Even before reaching the next exit see the enormous “Chains Required” light board. Turn around toward Reno.
1:56pm The weather in the direction of Reno is perfectly clear. David’s diaper hasn’t been changed since he left Caesar’s and he has now been crying inconsolably for 24 minutes. Everyone wants lunch. The mandate is to get of the highway at the first sign of restaurant, which turns out to be the Taco Bell in Verdi, Nevada. “I know it’s disgusting,” Irene says, “but at least I’ll be able to change and nurse him”. Fortunately, the Gold Rush Casino at the same exit also has a restaurant, obviating the need for a Taco Bell.
2:20pm The waitress at the Gold Rush Casino restaurant finally shows up to take the order.
2:58pm Before leaving the restaurant, Stefan carries David over to look at the large mirror, which has an adjacent mirror on the adjoining wall. The two mirrors reflect off each other, creating dozens if not thousands of images of Stefan and David of varying sizes. David appears terribly confused as he tries to figure out which of the images is actually himself.
3:15pm. Arrive at the CarQuest auto parts store on Mills St. in Reno. The lady at the counter has hilariously tasteless circus-like designs on her two-inch fingernails, but she also has Spikes Spiders and the mounting brackets (for 17mm lug nuts), enough of everything for both rear tires, size 235/40/17. Only $330, including sales tax. The fingernail lady explains that the mounting brackets have to be installed on the wheel hubs only once, and then the Spider, which is like a giant claw, is simply placed against the tire and attaches to the mounting bracket. Stefan opens the box and is crestfallen to see the dozens if not thousands of little screws, bolts, nuts, washers, barbells, boomerangs, halos, anvils, horseshoes, curlicues and other assorted pieces of metal for which he has neither the tools nor the patience to assemble. “How long is this supposed to take to install?” he asks the fingernail lady “Oh, you’re going to want to go over to Mills Tire and they can put them on for you. It’s only two blocks down the road on the right” The fingernail lady calls ahead to confirm that Mills Tire is actually available to do the job the same afternoon.
3:58pm Stefan pays the man at Mills Tire $33 for the labor and asks for a quick demonstration in installing the Spikes Spiders. The green-suited mechanic with a two-day old beard shows how easy it is. Just grip the Spider around the tire, attach the coverplate to the hub and turn the handle. Stefan notices that the spikes grab all parts of the tire, except for the part nearest the ground. “How do you get the spikes to grab the part of the tire nearest the ground?” The green suited man looks blankly at Stefan for a moment and says: “[Idiot] you probably want to jack up the wheel a bit first [you clueless elite BMW driving snob who doesn’t have the wherewithal to come to Lake Tahoe in the winter time without arranging chains first. Ha ha ha.]”
There isn’t enough room in the lunchbox sized trunk for the Spiders and the luggage and the baby stroller, so Stefan takes out enough luggage to fit the Spiders in the trunk and puts the luggage in the back seat, increasing the risk that some of the luggage will shift and crush the baby.
4:02pm Stefan, Irene, David and Grandma get back on the highway just in time for Reno’s rush hour, which fortunately isn’t very heavy. The weather in Reno is still clear. The road sign says “San Francisco 199 miles”. Which means that everybody can be home by 9 or 10 o’clock that evening if all goes well. Grandma is still concerned about the chance that she won’t make it to her 11:30am doctor’s appointment the next morning, so Irene calls the doctor’s office using the cell phone that doesn’t have the free roaming and spends dozens of dollars to tell the doctor’s receptionist that Grandma may or may not be able to make it to the appointment. Irene also calls Olivia’s classmate’s mother. “You’re not going to believe this, but we’re just leaving Reno now” and thanks the woman for picking up Olivia from school at 5:30. In the mountains immediately outside the city it starts to rain.
4:51pm The rain turns increasingly to sleet and snow with the ascent toward Truckee. It’s starting to get dark and the visibility is poor. The wiper blades swish back and forth. Stefan scrunches down to see out of the clearest part of the windshield. Irene suggests that it might be better to spend the night in Truckee and to resume the journey in the light of day. Stefan agrees. Grandma says nothing. David continues to suck on the soft bunny toy that Grandma gave him on Monday.
5:06pm Refuge from the snow by checking in at the Truckee Hotel, whose exterior looks a saloon on the set of spaghetti western. It is an authentically quaint inn dating back to the 1870s. Irene, Stefan and David are given the key to Room 216, which is the only room in the hotel that has a king-sized bed and its own bathroom and its own TV. Stefan notices that Room 216 contains another guest’s belongings, and his reward for bringing this to the attention of the hotel staff is to be transferred to Room 205, which has a smaller bed for the same price. On the night table lie a couple of pairs of earplugs with a card that says:
Since we’re in the heart of the historic railroad town of Truckee, you might hear the rumble and whistle of one of our trains. These disposable earplugs can soften those sounds when you go down for a nap or the night. Sweet dreams.
Grandma gets Room 215, which is on the street side of the hotel and therefore relatively noisy and cold. She is immediately offered the chance to move to a quieter, warmer interior room, but doesn’t want to cause any trouble.
5:47pm Irene calls Olivia’s classmate’s mother to thank her for letting Olivia have a schoolnight sleepover and also talks to Olivia. She hadn’t given Olivia all of the details about the trip ex-ante because Olivia doesn’t like the idea of Irene and Stefan leaving the house and having fun when she’s out of town.
“I’m so mad at you that you went to Lake Tahoe without me,” she said. “I’m glad you’re stuck. That’s your punishment.”
6:30pm Irene and Stefan go across the street and have a nice dinner at the Pacific Crest Restaurant. Grandma prefers to stay in her room with David.
8:09pm Irene and Stefan trudge through the snow back to the hotel. David has been crying and fussing non-stop for his Grandma from the moment that his parents left. Grandma tried to soothe him by feeding him warm tea from a glass, but it didn’t help.
11:30pm Grandma is awakened by the noise and flashing red lights of the town snowplow.
Thursday, March 7
6:15am The alarm clock in Room 205 goes off, Irene having pulled the pin out the night before, without knowing for certain what time the alarm was set for.
Meanwhile in Room 215 Grandma continues to lie awake in her bed, not having fallen back to sleep since 11:30pm. Even though she wore the earplugs and also wrapped pillows and blankets around her head, she still heard the trains and the snowplow all night long. Furthermore, not only did her room not get enough heat to begin with, but the bathroom window was also accidentally left open.
6:49am Stefan gets out of bed to get the car ready, and discovers that The Ultimate Driving Machine is encrusted with four inches of snow and that the snowplow has constructed a two-foot-high wall of snow and ice that blocks the car’s exit. He brushes the thick fluffy snow off all of the car’s windows. Then he goes across the street to the 76 station to ask for help (a) digging his car out of the wall of ice that the snowplow left and (b) jacking up the car in order to attach the Spikes Spiders. The station manager, Gregg, says that the mechanic can help attach the Spiders when he gets in at 8:00, but there was nobody there who can dig the car out of the snow. He was kind enough, however, to lend Stefan a shovel. The only shovel he had was not a wide pan snow shovel, but a round-point dirt shovel. “For some reason,” Gregg says apologetically, “all of our snow shovels seem to disappear”. Stefan promises to bring it right back.
7:30am The Truckee Hotel starts serving breakfast. Irene looks out the window of the breakfast room, holding David, and points to Daddy digging the family car out of the snow.
7:40am Stefan finishes clearing a path for the car, and successfully drives across the snowy street to the 76 station, without any type of chains on his tires. He then gets stuck in the snow of the entrance to the gas station. He spins the wheels, and rocks back and forth for a while, without success. Gregg comes over and tries to push but that doesn’t work either, so he gives up and advises Stefan to just back up into the street during a break in traffic and get a running start.
7:48am Stefan backs up into the street during a break in traffic, gets a running start and nearly crashes into one of Gregg’s gas pumps. He fills his tank and instead of waiting for the mechanic he takes the baby stroller and other luggage out of the trunk and removes the jack. He then jacks up the right side of the car, fits the Spikes Spider to the right rear tire, applies the Spider’s hubcap and turns it tight. Once the car is jacked up, the actual fitting of the Spider takes only a few seconds and really is much easier than monkeying with chains. He repeats the procedure on the left side.
8:05am Proud of his accomplishment installing the Spikes Spiders, and with the car ready to take on any kind of snow, Stefan proceeds to drive out of the station to go back across the street to the Hotel Truckee, only to get stuck in the snow of the gas station’s other driveway. This time not only Gregg, but also the mechanic and another customer try to push him out. The mechanic looks contemptuously at the Ultimate Driving Machine and says “I want you to promise me that as soon as you get home you’re going to sell this piece of shit and get a real car.”
8:21am Stefan, having finally been pushed out of the gas station parking lot, makes his way across the street to the Truckee Hotel and has breakfast.
9:03am Stefan, Irene, Grandma and David get back in the car for the drive home. The car can go no more than 30mph on account of the Spikes Spiders, which also cause unpleasant vibrations on everybody’s spines. It is snowing mildly as they get on the Interstate. Fortunately, all of the other cars are also going 30mph. Along the shoulder is a row of big rig trailer trucks, the drivers of which are installing chains on their tires.
9:07am Approach the California Agricultural Inspection Station, which is kind of like the roadside border customs stations when you drive into a foreign country. The traffic is backed up in a long line. A 4-wheel drive vehicle belonging to the California Highway Patrol comes out of nowhere, turns on its flashing red roof-top light and drives along the left shoulder. Everyone else drives at a crawl toward the inspector’s booth.
9:12am Reach the inspector’s booth. The line of cars is still backed up ahead of the inspection station. The inspector asks Stefan if there’s any produce in the car. He says there isn’t, because there isn’t. But is there anybody who actually says “yes, officer, we have some medfly-infested apples and a diseased chicken”? Stefan asks the inspector why the cars are backed up. The inspector says it’s because two big rig trucks are jackknifed up ahead. Stefan turns off the ignition.
“You know,” Grandma says optimistically, “this is an experience.”
Stefan agrees, adding philosophically that “Getting kicked in the face is also an experience.”
Grandma and Irene get out of the car to go to the bathroom. They come back all excited about how clean, warm and comfortable the facilities are.
10:00am Still at the Agricultural Inspection Station, Stefan observes that it’s been 24 hours since they left Caesar’s Tahoe, 40 miles to the southeast. He expresses concern about Chompers the cat back at home, who hasn’t been fed since Monday.
10:12am Traffic starts moving again. The chain-required zone has been extended to Baxter, 38 miles away.
10:24am It’s snowing as they drive up Donner Pass. There is a definite layer of snow on the Interstate. Most of the cars are driving 30mph or so. The mountain vistas are spectacular, but nobody’s in the mood to stop at the lookout point.
10:41am The snow has increased to the point of total whiteout. Stefan slows to 5mph. Fortunately the white out clears up after only a couple of minutes.
11:12am Stefan is tense. The driving is miserable. The car hits a bump and starts to fishtail, nearly sliding into the cars in the left lane. Although Stefan grew up and learned to drive in Wisconsin, he never actually drove in the serious snow there. Fortunately, he remembers the rule that one must always “steer in the direction of the skid”. Now that he has to apply this wisdom, he isn’t sure whether this means the direction that the front wheels or the rear wheels are skidding. So he tries steering in both directions, but it doesn’t seem to matter which way he steers, the car insists on whipping from side to side and then straightening itself out on its own schedule.
11:45am Stop at a gas station at Cisco Grove, 22 miles from Truckee, to get snack, use restroom and just plain take a rest from the horrible driving conditions. Stefan goes to restroom. The man standing at the adjacent urinal complains that “It took me forever to get here.”
Stefan agrees that “this is the worst driving of my entire my life”.
“I can’t believe they made me use chains today,” the man continues. “where I come from, they only require chains when there’s real snow.”
12:35pm Stop at the chain service parking lot in Baxter where men in yellow astronaut suits are working in the freezing rain, putting on and taking off other people’s tire chains. Stefan, wearing his ski outfit, works quickly to jack up the car and remove the Spikes Spiders, which he then stuffs into the trunk, where they drip their filthy greasy melting snow all over the suitcases and baby supplies.
The drive out of the mountains into the Sacramento valley is through a heavy rain, with poor visibility and the constant danger of hydroplaning.
2:48pm Leave Grandma’s house in Vacaville. David starts to cry.
3:22pm Pull off the highway near Hercules. David finally stops crying.
3:41pm Cross the Bay Bridge. By virtue of having three people in the car and crossing during the 3pm-7pm rush hour, they get to use the commuter lane and avoid the toll. If Irene and Stefan had been traveling without David, or if the three of them happened to cross the Bridge before 3pm, they would have had to line up and pay the $2 toll.
4:02pm Arrive home. Chompers the cat is alive and still has food in his bowl. He did however leave a long turd on the porch, which Stefan gets to clean up.
Grandma was reportedly going around telling her other children that she had had a “horrible trip”. Irene has no particular desire to go back to Lake Tahoe any time soon. Stefan enjoyed his only ski-day of the year and is eager to get back to Tahoe, but either with a 4-Wheel Drive SUV, or better yet by flying into Reno. David is still quite attached to the stuffed bunny he made friends with on the trip.