Lake Tahoe with the Crew (Part 2)

364 days have begun and ended in 2014. Today marks the 365th and final day of the year. I roll out of my queen size bed and descend the carpeted steps to the ground floor where Jared sits before the TV, wrapped up in a checkered black and red blanket.

“I’m sick,” Jared says upon seeing me try to make sense of the scene. “Everyone else went skiing.”

“What are you sick with?” I ask.

“Throat’s been hurting a bit. And my body is just weak and sore.”

“I’ve got just the trick,” I tell him before heading to the kitchen. I light the stove and place a pot atop it. 5 minutes later I produce a cup of Golden Milk for my ailing friend. Golden Milk is the modern name for an age-old beverage used to cure, well, everything. It’s an extremely easy concoction, using ingredients that you probably already have in your kitchen. Look it up.

Wanting to end the year on a productive note I grab Steven’s drone and camera and head to the lake. I shiver in my orange tennis shoes and flimsy gym pants as the 30mph winds combine with the 17 degree weather to make for a genuinely uncomfortable walk. I step onto brown sand, marking my arrival on the beach. The winds intensify making each step atop this mushy surface more challenging. By the time I reach the frozen portion of the lake the winds are so strong that I quickly dump the idea of flying the delicate piece of technology situated in the black case beside me. Instead, I admire the converging blues of the sky and the ocean, meeting at an indistinguishable point along the horizon. Stoic, snow-covered mountains sit like Zen monks in the distance. The sun has begun its fall and now illuminates the nature around me from the West. I turn my head to the right where tall pine trees with thick brown trunks line the coast of the lake. Among the trees a few prosperous residents reside in well-hidden cabins. Having gotten my fix of nature and no longer able to tolerate the cold I turn on my toe and head back to our cabin.

I enter through the big blue door and plop down beside the fireplace. Jared sits in the same spot I left him.

“I think your drink thing worked, man,” Jared says to me.

“Feeling better?” I ask.

“A lot.”

“Glad to hear it,” I tell Jared, before tuning my attention to the college football game on TV.

Shortly before 4pm Steven, Jesse and Jen arrive home from a day on the slopes. An hour and a half later the Brothers walk in.

The sound of extra virgin olive oil sizzling on the skillet is soon heard as Pierce and Hugh begin cooking a mouthwatering steak, kale and couscous meal. With the smell of the seasoned steak too overwhelming for Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen, the 2 couples leave for a fancy Italian dinner.

Dinner is prepared and the table is set. In between mouthfuls of meat and veggies, Pierce and Hugh retell their epic tale from earlier in the day when the two decided it would be a good idea to go backcountry skiing. After 30 minutes of blindly skiing in isolation, the Brothers found themselves in fearfully unfamiliar territory. Their plan of skiing down the back of the mountain seemed precarious, at best, so the decision was made to take off the skis and climb back up to civilization. 45 painful minutes later the brothers return to safety.

9pm rolls around marking the official Ball Drop. I receive calls and texts from those on the East Coast, including my parents. This is the first time I can remember not celebrating the New Year with them. In Russian culture, New Year is one of the largest and most important holidays, always celebrated with family and close friends. Historically, our family and their best friends begin the festivities around 10:30pm on the 31st and continue the merriments until 5 or 6 in the morning. A sense of sentiment encompasses me as I speak to my cheerful mom over the phone.

By 10pm the cabin is packed with all 8 of its tenants yet again. We congregate in the living room where we reminisce about the year that was. Before we know it, it’s 11:20pm. With 40 minutes left until us West Coast kids can officially say we’ve lived in 2015, the 8 of us rapidly throw on our jackets and drive towards the casinos. After circling the parking lot for 15 minutes while unsuccessfully looking for a parking spot, we finally fit the Acura between an oversized van and a bush. With our phones reading 11:58, Pierce, Hugh, Riley and I sprint to the stampede of excited individuals bundled up in winter clothing along the road. An unnecessarily large quantity of cops, dressed in riot gear, calmly take photos with animated youth. Unable to spot our 4 friends, the Smiths and I jump a barricade dividing the sidewalk from the street. We now stand amid the madness. Screams erupt and kisses flood my view marking the big hand and little hand meeting at the number 12. I turn to my right and kiss my girlfriend. Not wanting to make the Brothers feel awkward, we quickly pull apart.

It’s the wee hours of the morning and everyone’s ready for bed. That is, until Pierce realizes he can’t find his wallet. The 8 of us search every nook and cranny, flipping over half-packed suitcases and comfy couch cushions in search of this square piece of brown leather. No luck. Despite his afternoon flight the following day, Pierce seems least worried about the disappearance of the only form of identification which can successfully get him onto the plane. Within minutes of giving up on the search, Pierce is snoring loud enough for the neighbors to hear. The next morning, Riley and I are awoken by a frantic Hugh who, ironically, also lost his wallet.

“I’ve been searching for 2 hours,” he tells us.

While Riley, appalled by the fact that both her brothers wallets have gone missing within 24 hours of their flight home, goes down stairs to help the search, I call the casino from last night. They have Hugh’s wallet. ½ of the problem is solved. Pierce’s half of the problem is later resolved when the airline informs Pierce that they could search for his identity through their computer system.

While Riley crankily drives her brothers half way to Sacramento to meet with her uncle, the rest of the crew and I cook some mouthwatering pork brats, deliciously seasoned beef burgers and perfectly prepared spinach dip in anticipation of the first ever College Football Playoff game. Kickoff between the Oregon Ducks and the Florida State Seminoles (where Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen attended college) is at 2pm PT. As a Florida Gator fan I find it tough to root for the ‘noles. However, I choose to side with the arch-nemesis today as a victory by the team in garnet and gold would make for quite a joyous evening with my friends. Unfortunately, the outcome of the game is not as hoped, with the team out of Eugene, Oregon coming out triumphant.

Despite their semi-depressed state, the 4 Florida State alum agree to spend the night playing board games with Riley and me. We begin with Trivial Pursuit, 20th Anniversary edition. As the 20th anniversary happened to be over 20 years ago, none of us fare well. We give up on this game and transition to Pictionary. An hour or two of below average drawings later, Jen and Jared are declared winners. Prior to going to bed the 6 remaining cabin-mates agree on hiking Emerald Bay the following morning.

And we do exactly that. A mile long hike along a clearly marked out snow-covered trail ends at a castle. This 38 bedroom Scandinavian-style fortress, dubbed Vikingsholm, was built in 1929 for Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight as a summer home. I think back to what life must have been like here 85 years ago. With the home likely not having a telephone at the time, let alone a cell phone or a computer, Mrs. Knight must have experienced an unimaginable type of serenity at this home. About 50 meters from the castle is the bay. Transparent water, laying still as a fallen tree, glistens beneath the powerful sun. Smack in the center of this bay rests a small stone structure, representing the Tea House, which could only be reached by boat. Beyond this minuscule mass of land, known as Fannette Island, the bay continues until it empties into the grand lake herself – Tahoe. Evergreen pine trees and unforgotten mountains trap us in this tranquil space. Unable to contain her excitement, Riley attempts to run on the snow in her not-made-for-running Uggs. She elegantly falls backwards, right onto her ass.

After learning how to use the slow-motion feature on her phone, Jesse videotapes the boys perform a perfectly choreographed cartwheel/jump combination. The girls proceed to attempt an even better performance consisting of hand stands and jumps. Riley, once again, ends up flat on her back in the snow.

Our appetites enlarged and our thirst not nearly quenched, Riley and I coordinate a night at the Brewery with our 4 friends. The Brewery is [as you probably imagined] a brewery. They are also famous for having mediocre pizzas, which the 6 of us gluttonously order 3 of. The rest of the night is spent at the cabin playing the highly anticipated game of One Night Ultimate Warewolf. This is Riley and my first time playing this game of animated quarreling and lying, but we are quick to pick up on it. I’ll be honest – Riley is much better than me. I proceed to lose 6 of the 9 rounds I play.

Everyone goes to bed except Jared and I, who converse about our good friend, Garrett, back home. As I bring my magenta tea cup to my thirsty lips, a loud thud echoes throughout the house. A female squeal is heard from the living room. Jared and I scurry over to the sound of the commotion. Jen lies on the ground, holding her head and laughing in attempt to mask her desire to cry.

“What happened?” Jared and I ask in unison.

“I fell down the stairs,” Jen says.

“What? How?” Jared inquires.

“I dunno. I just slipped.”

“Did you try to jump down or something?”

“No, I was just standing on the top step and then I slipped,” Jen explains. “Damn, that hurt. I fell down the entire flight of stairs.”

Finding the situation scary, yet inappropriately humorous, I rush to the kitchen to grab a bag of ice for Jen’s throbbing skull.

We wake up the following morning to our last full day in Tahoe. With Heavenly finally opening the majority of their lifts and runs, Riley and I pack our ski and snowboard gear and head to this tourist-sucking mountain. The sun shines brightly among the few clouds and the terrain is manageable. Double digit runs and a handful of 3 inch high jumps later, the clock hits 4pm, marking the last run. Riley and I descend the 2 mile-high mountain via the gondola. We sit beside a young Mexican couple coddling a precious, sleeping child the size of my forearm. Out the back window, upon which the family rests their tired heads, we view the entirety of Lake Tahoe, darkening in the sunset.

For dinner, Riley and I cook while the rest of the gang heads to a restaurant. We reconvene for one more night in the hot tub. Superlatives are handed out. I am fortunate enough to win Best Cook, while Riley (averaging 16 hours of sleep per day) wins Best Napper. Jesse wins Best Planner (which is a fitting award for someone who managed to successfully plan out 95% of the steps taken and foods eaten by the group). Steven wins Best Attitude (which he accepts with a hearty smile and a thumbs up); Jen wins most down to party/most afraid of everything (as she sips her bottle of Sutter House wine while whipping her head back and forth in search of man-eating bears) and Jared wins most indulgent (as he salivates over the last pieces of pizza he guzzled down the night before.

Knowing that my old friends are leaving bright and early the next morning and that I won’t see them for an extended period of time, we all share heartfelt hugs before shutting our eyes for the night.

By 5am Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen are enroute to San Francisco airport. Riley and I wake up 4 hours later and tidy up the house in preparation for check out. By half past 11, we’ve emptied every garbage can, started a load of towels in the washer machine, pressed Start on the dishwasher and locked the cabin. Good bye, Lake Tahoe.

3 hours later Riley and I pull into her Aunt and Uncle’s house in Sacramento. I leave Riley to recover for the next 3 days while I head to San Francisco to meet up with my college roommate, David. We spend the night conversing, reminiscing and discussing the future. The next morning David catches a bus back to Los Angeles while I head to UC Berkeley to explore the campus. Shortly after the onset of rush hour, I drive to Stockton for dinner with a family friend. Irena and her 3 children sit at the dinner table with me, eating grass-fed organic steak, a healthy conglomeration of vegetables and fresh baked brownies. We enjoy good conversation until a quarter past 9. By 10pm, I’m back in Sacramento, resting peacefully in bed. An action-packed 10 days filled with numerous walks down memory lane has ended. Now it’s time to catch up on some sleep.

Advertisements

Lake Tahoe with the Crew (Part 1)

My ears have been popping for 30 consecutive minutes. The temperature continues to drop and the wind intensifies. Misha gingerly drives along the edge of steep cliffs while I admire the snowcapped mountains filling up the horizon. Staring down is discerning, as a fall would be deadly. We turn a corner and are slapped in the face by the most mesmerizing body of water I’ve ever seen. Lake Tahoe glistens with countless crystals beneath the setting sun. The water is a deep blue like that of a newly polished azurite pendant. Misha and my brothers fall silent as we soak in the beauty of nature before us.

We arrive in the small town of South Lake Tahoe shortly after the sun sets. Our first stop is Misha’s family friend’s house, where Misha will be picking up his snowboard. Misha turns onto an unlit road, not noticing the black ice covering the pavement. The wheels spin wildly as they grasp for traction. Misha does his best to guide the struggling vehicle into a soft patch of snow. Pierce and Hugh exit the car and give it a shove, ejecting it from the ditch. Undeterred, Misha finds an alternate, safer route to the house. After loading his gear into the car and resting his snowboard atop Pierce and Hugh’s laps, Misha gets back into the driver’s seat and steers us to our home for the next week.

Parked along the snowy street, I open my car door to piercing cold air. The 4 of us rush through the cabin door and immediately turn on the fireplace. Relieved to be out of the below-freezing temperatures outside, we let warmth overcome us. A large, brown leather wrap-around couch, homey wooden furniture, and fluffy blankets and pillows make me feel comfy and relaxed. I envision a winter slumber approaching. But first, we must wait for the others guests to arrive.

In the meanwhile, we decide to rent ski equipment and purchase food. A car full of skis, ski poles, boots and $300 worth of groceries later we come home to a lively environment. Misha’s friends from Florida have arrived. Introductions are made. There is Steven – tall, dark and handsome. He sits roasting by the fire beside his girlfriend of 4 years, Jesse – a beautiful girl with long dirty-blonde hair and big green eyes. She appears filled with excitement. The couch is occupied by Jared, proudly wearing a full beard and beanie; evidently adjusting to the drastic change of climate. His girlfriend of 8 years, Jen, sits near him. She is a small girl with short black hair and a face full of Italian features. Jen struggles hiding her enthusiasm after seeing snow for her first time. Hugh and Pierce (who are referred to as “the Brothers” throughout the trip) introduce themselves to the crew and plop down on the couch, opposite of Jen and Jared. Feeling restless, they soon head to the kitchen where they pop open a few beers before immersing themselves in the backyard hot tub. They return 30 minutes later. Having not seen his friends in a good while, Misha stays awake catching up, while Pierce, Hugh and I all hop into a king size bed upstairs, like we used to as kids on Christmas Eve.

I wake up to an even colder day. Bundled up in unfamiliar winter clothes, we squeeze into my car filled with skiing and snowboarding equipment. A 40 minute commute later we arrive at Sierra Mountain for our first day of skiing. Pierce and Hugh jump out of the car and head straight for the blue and black runs. After changing into our gear, Misha and I meet up with Steven, Jesse, Jared and Jen. Although Steven and Jesse have a year of experience and exhibit skill on the slopes, Jared and Jen are first-timers and don’t fare as well. While Misha and I wait in line to head up the bunny slope we see an out-of-control Jen unintentionally ski into the trees. For the next 10 minutes, Steven attempts to push a fear-stricken Jen back onto the slope. Agony occupies Jen’s face while confusion and determination fills Steven’s. Unwilling to wait any longer, Jared skies down the bunny slope for his first time. He exhibits impressive control and successfully pizza and French fries himself down the hill without falling.

After a short stay on the bunny hill, Steven, Misha, Jesse and I head for the more difficult, blue runs. Jesse and I anxiously hover at the top of the mountain, as Misha and Steven speed down. Slow and steady, but with some screams and falls, we make it to the bottom in one piece. Jesse and I agree that some easier, green runs are in order for the time being. The hours quickly pass and the weather becomes progressively colder. With frozen fingers and toes, we call it a day at 4pm.

Misha, Pierce, Hugh and I arrive home and eagerly cook a salmon, potatoes and asparagus dinner and eat it by the blaring fire. The others arrive from a dinner out and are ready for the casinos. Our cabin is conveniently located one mile away from the state-line of California and Nevada, which is an area surrounded by restaurants, bars, tourist shops and casinos. Jared and Steven, experienced gamblers, head straight to the Craps table with Misha tagging along to learn. The girls aren’t thrilled with this excursion as they are too familiar with their boyfriend’s obsessions with casinos. Not interested in watching a bunch of rowdy persons throw a dice against an enclosed felt rink, I walk with Pierce to the slot machines. Free drinks in hand, we crack up as Pierce proudly turns his $3.00 into $7.00. Exhausted from skiing and bored of gambling, Pierce, Jesse, Jen and I head out leaving the boys behind to gamble. Upon exiting the casino doors we stand face to face with a thick sheet of white. I look up at the falling sky, thinking there is no way the snow will stop anytime soon.

My prediction is right. I wake up the next morning to a winter wonderland. Gusts of wind swirl symmetrical snowflakes, covering everything in fresh powder. The forecast of a half-inch of snow was grossly wrong, as it snowed nearly a foot and a half during the night. Excited for the seemingly perfect day for skiing, everyone quickly gets dressed and heads outside for their cars. To my utter despair I find a $205 ticket atop my windshield for blocking the path of the snowplow. How is a group of kids from Georgia and South Florida (currently experiencing lows of 75 degrees) supposed to even know what a snowplow is? Let alone the fact that we can’t park on the streets on days it snows. We call the owner and ask her this exact question. She kindly offers to pay half the ticket.

Our spirits elevated, we begin our drive to the mountain. However, due to havocking winds and hazardous road conditions we are soon forced back into our cabins. While deliberating Plan B, Misha and his friends decide the perfect event would be an old tradition of theirs – Beerlympics (short for Beer Olympics). Beerlympics is a series of drinking games (some of which I’ve never heard of) between two teams. First team to 6 victories is crowned champion. We pick names out of a hat to split teams. Jesse, Pierce, Misha and I face off against Steven, Jared, Hugh and Jen. Jesse and Jared’s rivalry is by far the most entertaining part of the night. It all begins with a not-so-kind-hearted squid. What is a squid, you may ask. A squid is when an individual (person A) offers a high five or a knuckle pound to [Person B] by extending their open hand or closed fist. When Person B attempts to high five or pound knuckles with Person A, Person A pulls back his hands and waves wiggly fingers towards the face of Person B. This is exactly what Jared does to Jesse to begin the night. And Jesse does not live this down. The next 6 hours are filled with shotgunning (chugging a can of beer from a hand-made hole in the aluminum), flipping cups, throwing ping pong balls and carefree bickering. One, particularly enjoyable and intense game is called Downs. 8 beers are placed on the table (4 on each side) and a ping pong ball is thrown from one side of the table towards the opponents cans on the other side of the table. The opponent then races to retrieve the ball and place it atop the table while the shooting team chugs their beer. While playing this marvelous game, Jesse slides across the carpet causing rug burn and a bloody knee, Jen slams her head against the table, and Misha nearly castrates Steven by reaching between his legs to retrieve a scurrying ping pong ball.

With the competition nearing an end, and our team clawing towards a comeback, Jesse becomes even more ferocious towards her arch-nemesis, Jared. Screams and curses are commonly heard among the group’s laughter. Jesse is particularly thrilled when she sinks the last cup in beer pong, after Jared calls her out for holding on to the ball for too long. Jared, however, gets the last laugh as his team prevails 6 to 4, after an entertaining, neck-and-neck battle.

The tournament concludes at 11pm, at which time we stumble over to the casino for some late night gambling. A hangover setting in, and the day not having even ended, we decide to head home to our warm beds.

Waking up from a deep slumber, I realize its New Year’s Eve. My pounding head argues that I should remain in bed rather than celebrate the New Year, but I’m on vacation and it’s the holidays. Let the festivities begin.

What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas…Unless You’re Writing a Blog

For 4 hours Misha and I drive through blankets of darkness. We’re anxious to arrive to civilization. In the distance I make out flashing lights. As we near the colors become clearer. A neon yellow and green sign flashes the word “casino.” We’ve made it to Las Vegas.

As we pull into the valet at The Palms Hotel and Casino, sparkling chandeliers hang from the ceiling canopy, bounteous palm trees surround the entrance and doormen in freshly pressed suits greet us. “Wow, we’re really stepping it up,” I say to Misha.

Our renovated room is even more extravagant. A modern king-size bed, stylish lamp shades, granite counter tops and tile bathroom floors await us. Perched 20 stories high, we stare out the window at the illuminated city below. Although the city isn’t nearly  ready for sleep, Misha and I are. A strenuous hike and another long drive has defeated us.

We wake up to a pleasantly warm morning.  An hour later we’re munching down Animal Style hamburgers and fries from In and Out Burger’s secret menu. Despite needing a healthy meal, we can’t resist this West Coast fast food chain. We enjoy a fattening brunch for less than 10 dollars. Ready to begin our only full day in Sin City we eagerly make our way to the Strip.

Its barely past noon and I already feel overstimulated. The Strip is a different world. Blinking billboards, expensive cars, street magicians and a plethora of hotel casinos distract me from reality. Our first stop is Planet Hollywood. Upon entering this building we are immediately entrenched by colorful carpets and ceilings, endless ringing of slot machines and tireless card dealers. While watching Misha get lucky playing Roulette, I reminisce about my most recent visit to Vegas – an incredible week spent with two of my best friends, Erin and Beatrice. Feeling content with his $25 winnings, Misha arises from the table. It’s my turn. I love the anticipation of gambling. Although losing a few bucks at the table, I make up for it in free drinks and entertainment value.

So as not to spend our entire $100 (self-determined) limit in one spot, Misha and I leave Planet Hollywood and gamble a bit more in other hotels. My favorite is the Bellagio. I step foot into this grandiose hotel and am immediately mesmerized by the 30 foot tall lavish Christmas tree before me. Incredibly decorated holiday ornaments line the interior of this hotel-mansion. Golden reindeer-led sleds, constructed Santa Clauses 8 times the size of me, and countless green, red and blue lights encompass our field of vision. Impressed tourist snap pictures in every imaginable nook of this spacious room. I feel as if I’m in the upper class ballroom of the Titanic.

A trip to Vegas isn’t complete without seeing a show. As such, Misha and I purchase discounted tickets to “Vegas! The Show.” Prior to heading over to the theatre, Misha and I find an isolated corner on the 3rd floor of Planet Hollywood to munch down some tasty Thai food. We then descend to the theatre located on the second floor. We watch with glee as talented singers, dancers and showgirls expose the audience to what Las Vegas was like in the 1950’s. A tiny bird trainer comes on stage and has his cockatoo fly through hula hoops held by the audience. The scandalous and puffy costumes worn by the actors and actresses and the vintage props used by the ensemble appear fitting. That is, until Misha points out the old man playing a Grand Piano on stage. Atop his varnished instrument rests a MacBook Pro, from which the pianist reads sheet music I’m tempted to inform the producer how inappropriate this prop is.

After a full day of constant commotion, and each of our wallets $50 lighter, Misha and I head back to our hotel. One day in Vegas is enough for me. I can’t imagine what it’s like living and working here. It’s past midnight, yet the Planet Hollywood mall is packed with commotion and fluorescent lights. The ceiling, painted a bright blue, gives off the impression of a clear-sky morning, undoubtedly disrupting employee’s circadian rhythms. We exit the mall and walk along the way-too-crowded-for-a-weekday streets and wonder how long it takes someone to unwind from a day working in this city. “This city really never sleeps, does it?” I ask Misha.

“Sure doesn’t,” Misha says.

As much as I love visiting Las Vegas, I could never live in this city.