By Meghan Robins
Unless I’m talking about honey, produce, or fishing regulations, I don’t use the word local anymore. For people, I’ve abandoned the phrase completely. It’s too problematic. Its definition is arbitrary — a word used to label some but not others. You but not me. What makes a person local? Not what you think. Not what I think either.
In March 2018, I moved out of Tahoe City after living there for 32 years, partly for my partner’s job, partly because we couldn’t afford to buy a house here, and partly to enjoy a less car-reliant lifestyle. When we left, I was hit with a deep remorse, a loss, and longing I honestly have not recovered from. Tahoe is like an old friend. Her company is like medicine. Now if I am able, I return as a visitor, a strange concept because I still consider Tahoe my home. And I am not the only one.
The Wá-šiw People have lived in the greater Tahoe region since the beginning of time. They have developed relationships with the animals, plants, mountains, and waters of the area. In the 1850s, when Euro-Americans trespassed and illegally preempted land for ranching, mining, logging, and fishing, their abuse was quick and devastating. Since then, thousands of individuals and organizations have purchased land, sold land, rented land, tried to make a living, worked, failed, succeeded, left and came back, tried to stay, worked, failed again.
What do all these people have in common? Eventually, most of them leave. Either by choice, obligation, or displacement. Tahoe is not a place of permanence. Most people I grew up with have left. Others are doing everything they can to stay. Finances, family obligations, age, jobs, and weather force hard changes. And newcomers are quick to infill, bringing enthusiastic pride for actually making it work. They are now living the dream. They are finally living in Tahoe.
There’s an ancient grove of aspen trees behind my parents’ old house in Tahoe Pines. Whenever my mom and I walked there, she’d stop at one in particular. She’d press her hands to its mighty girth and close her eyes. As a child, I knew to wait until she was finished. Something was happening I didn’t fully understand. My mom was having a moment. She was talking to an old friend. Today, when I return to the home my parents built and lived in for 45 years, a house where strangers now live, I go back to that aspen and say hello. I keep my hands to myself and offer with reverence warm regards. I say, “Mom says hi,” the way I might greet a neighbor, relative, or friend.
Hundreds of thousands of people have considered Tahoe home, have special memories here, and incredibly deep feelings that others have no right to judge. Whether you worked there for one summer, vacation every year, or are the luckiest, like me, and grew up in Tahoe, we all feel deeply connected to this place.
There’s a bumper sticker floating around Tahoe that reads, “My life is better than your vacation.” Maybe you’ve seen it. Maybe it’s on your car. Maybe you remember the guy who coined it. In Bend, Oregon, where I now live, the bumper sticker says, “Bend sucks. Don’t move here.” This us-versus-them culture thrives in snide comments, in judging others for wanting to enjoy the area you currently occupy. Perhaps a better bumper sticker might say, “What is gained and lost by my living here?” or “Who has the right to occupy a space?”
I stopped using the word local a long time ago because I did not understand its fluid definition, the unfounded judgment attached to it, the odd sense of bitterness, of better-ness. Loathing others for being where you are does not generate kindness or hope. It has never served the community.
Now that I live somewhere else, I am the stranger. And I want desperately to connect to this place. I prefer the term “long-time resident” or, better yet, “community member,” which more clearly defines people living in, and contributing to, a community. I know more active board members who moved to a place two years ago than long-time residents who’ve lived there their entire lives.
Thinking like a community member has less to do with how long you’ve occupied a space and more to do with how you contribute. In my opinion, becoming a good community member starts with:
Learning about the Indigenous peoples, their relationship to land, and the history of the place you now occupy. Read about sovereignty and governance. Learn how to pronounce their nation’s preferred name (native-land.ca is a good resource).
Support nonprofits and projects that align with your values. If you have money, donate to projects you believe in. If you don’t, offer your time. This is how communities are built.
Attend public meetings. Contribute to the conversations and decisions being made by governing bodies. There are people and organizations spending thousands of hours (often volunteer) trying to evoke change; be part of the conversation.
Whatever your relationship is to a place, don’t let others dissuade you. Your relationships are yours. If you’re the one judging, don’t presume you know what it took, or what it is taking, for someone to be where they are. To those of you living in Tahoe right now, take care of my old friend. Be generous. Take that bumper sticker off your car. Engage in community discussions and contribute to making the area you now occupy a better place for everyone. Do what you can to think like a community member.
~ Meghan Robins was born and raised in Tahoe City and now resides in Bend, Oregon. She is currently writing a historical novel set in 1859 at a Lake Tahoe logging camp.