Most of us know Tahoe like the back of our hand. Or do we? Jump down the rabbit hole into Tahoe’s past and a complicated, rich history — part myth, part fact —awaits.

Author Scott Lankford dove head first into Tahoe’s history in his new book, ‘Tahoe Beneath the Surface,’ which was published last October by Heyday Books and Sierra College and was nominated for the Nature Book of the Year Award. In less than 300 pages, Lankford takes readers through 10,000 years of history and confronts some of Tahoe’s most intriguing and scandalous histories head on.

Are dead bodies suspended underwater, halfway down to the deepest parts of the lake? Lankford says no; but scientists did find ancient forests that are 6,000 years old under Tahoe’s blue waters.

Who in their right mind decided to draw a state border in the middle of Lake Tahoe? That would be John Fremont, who, as Lankford notes, is more known for his mistakes than his accomplishments.

Did the Donner Party cannibalize people who had already frozen to death? Or, did they murder Indian slaves for food? After reading Lankford’s book, I have a whole new perspective on the snow-trapped wagon party. But wait a second, there were slaves in California?

While full of factual information, ‘Tahoe Beneath the Surface’ is no boring history textbook. It’s an entertaining read full of intriguing accounts. But don’t take my word for it; read on to hear Lankford’s own insights on his book. And then go to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of ‘Tahoe Beneath the Surface’ to get the full scoop on Tahoe’s past.


Moonshine Ink: So, how did you end up in Tahoe?

Scott Lankford: My joke is that I got lost on my way to Stanford. I was driving from Williams College (Mass.,), where I got my undergraduate degree, out to Stanford. And somebody said, ‘Do you want a job at Stanford Sierra Camp on the way out? You can make some money.’ I thought ‘OK, I’ll spend a couple weeks and make a little pocket change for grad school.’

And like so many of us, I completely fell head over heels for Tahoe — which I had never really seen before. After that, I kept cooking up different ways to stay up here, which included being a garbage man, maintenance man, toilet cleaner, waiting tables, washing dishes, teaching rock climbing, playing the guitar. I mean anything and everything so I didn’t have to stay in Palo Alto for very long.

I had a joke back then. I called it ‘low-altitude sickness.’ You went down (to the Bay) you got nauseous, your lungs filled with fluid, your brain would swell, eventually you might die within 24 hours. So you had to stay up here to stay safe. It was my version of being a ski bum.


MI: How did you make the jump from ski bum to historian?

SL: In terms of the genesis of the book itself, one of my many ways to make money up here was trying to give little lectures. Once I became a professor, I said, ‘Well, I can give a lecture on Tahoe’s literary history.’ That’s when I started researching Steinbeck’s career here. I already knew about John Muir, and I started finding out about Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher. The book, and my interest in Tahoe’s history, grew from that seed.

I thought naively, ‘Oh, well this would be an easy book and I could write it quickly.’ And then with every single chapter — I call it Alice in Wonderland Syndrome — I would fall into this pit of research that no one had uncovered. And that’s where the title for the book comes from. Because I thought I knew Tahoe like the back of my hand; I knew where to ski, where to hike, where to swim, where to fish, where to climb, but I didn’t know the other side of my hand. I knew nothing about Tahoe’s history, at all.


MI: Tahoe’s history is so complex. How did you narrow down your material to less than 300 pages and choose the people you profile in your book?

SL: The first draft of this book was literally 1,000 pages long and the second draft was 500 pages long. This is the fourth, fifth, times nine, draft of the book. And I’m really happy with the way it came out. But it took me forever to figure out how to tell Tahoe’s story because it’s so vast. Ten thousand years of history, more authors than I could possibly have imagined when I started— and it’s not just like Mark Twain slept here. No, Mark Twain becomes Mark Twain here. Same with Steinbeck, same with Muir. Same with all of these writers.

The real key was to use one personality to talk about each era. I originally had a really long, exhausting chapter about the Washoe tribe, and people just couldn’t get through it. The story of the Washoe tribe is so enormous and so harrowing and so heartening in terms of their survival, but I couldn’t find a narrative line that people could follow. It was too massive. So the key was to focus on one personality, which was Datsolalee, the famous Washoe basket weaver. She lived from pre-contact with white civilization all the way until the 1920s, so her life span exactly mirrors the arc of the Washoe tribe from their very first contact with whites to really the low point of the tribe in terms of its survival.


MI: You’ve written about some intriguing histories. How and why did you decide to write about Tahoe’s history?

SL: I was just like you; I really didn’t know any of this either. Even the Muir (history in Tahoe). You read the Muir biographies out there, I have great respect for these scholars and they’re fantastic books. But they completely miss (Muir’s) Tahoe story. The reason why I got it, it’s not that I’m so smart, it’s that I am obsessed with Lake Tahoe.

I kept asking ‘What does John Muir have to do with Lake Tahoe?’ And it turns out, there’s a huge answer there.

What about Tahoe? It turns out that in each case, when you ask that question, you get the most extraordinary answer. I call it ‘Tahoe-ology,’ and when you put on your Tahoe-ology glasses, you can learn things about major American writers and American history that you miss completely otherwise. It’s a little bit like the 3D-glasses at the IMAX. (Tahoe) puts things in a different perspective. Really in every era, Tahoe plays this pivotal role.


MI: What about Tahoe makes this place so significant?

SL: That’s not a question I ever address directly. I can give you a spectrum of answers.

On the spiritual side, I really believe the lake has this healing and transformative power. I think it’s a magical place. My heart wants to say that Tahoe has some kind of special healing power, and so many writers have come here at literally the low point of their careers and turned themselves and the world around. But they got to Tahoe at a low point, and somehow Tahoe revives them.

My head likes to say that if you look at Tahoe’s location, that for the same reason we have these enormous snow depths, for 10,000 years there has been a funnel effect. You have this wall of the Sierra, this massive ecological shift between the deserts and the rich cornucopia of the California Central Valley and the coastal range. That for 10,000 years this has been a gateway, the eye of the needle that everything has to flow through, whether it’s the transcontinental railroad, the Donner Party, or whether its gamblers, most recently. This funneling effect has intensified the importance of Lake Tahoe throughout all of its history. It’s a bottleneck, it’s a geographical, ecological, political, economic bottleneck and it all comes together right here.


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