A memoir is no good without a mission-driven narrator the reader cares about. In Tahoe/Truckee, we usually see a good memoir every decade or so. But in 2022 and 2023, no fewer than six residents have published or are soon to publish books about how they navigated important moments in their lives. Six!
Do we care? Yes! The stories say a lot about what makes a person who’s drawn to the Tahoe surroundings tick.
In the recent spate of memoirs we get to enjoy stories from, chronologically: Suzanne Roberts, acclaimed literary writer and teacher; Tim Hauserman, accomplished humor writer and backpacking expert born in North Tahoe; Eddy Ancinas, a multi-decade resident and nonfiction writer connected with the downhill skiing culture; Jeremy Jones, snowboard superhero and environmentalist; Hans Burkhart, a big personality associated with Palisades Tahoe and tramway history; and Alenka Vrecek, one-time big mountain ski coach and owner/founder of Tahoe Teas. Books are available at Word After Word, Alpenglow Sports, other book venues, or from the authors.
Moonshine Ink set out to bring these gritty locals together on one page.
Suzanne Roberts taught writing for many years at Lake Tahoe Community College on the South Shore. As a current instructor at the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe’s low-residency MFA writing program and as a local coach giving independent workshops, Roberts has helped many a Tahoe-ite birth his or her own tales. While she also has published several books of poetry, her nonfiction works primarily are memoir, the most celebrated of which is being released by the University of Nebraska Press this summer in a 10th anniversary edition: Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail. Her 2020 book Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press) has won numerous awards.
But her new book is a whole different beast. Meshing the intimacy of poetry with the yarn-spinning drama of storytelling, Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties (2022, University of Nebraska Press) she gathers searing essays that are mostly lyrical in style, which explore very difficult emotions, namely her recent responses to aging and death. Even more than her other books, these stories cut deep. All of the books reviewed here clearly required extraordinary effort to write, but in Animal Bodies, in which Roberts revealed what it means to live through and with the traumatic losses of her parents, friends, and dog, she plumbed an emotional well that few dare to test.
For Roberts, writing is not worth the effort if it doesn’t reveal new insights. “My friend Kim Wyatt says, ‘If it isn’t honest, it’s just noise,’ and that has always resonated with me,” she told Moonshine. “I want to make more with my words than just noise … We all have to live with difficulties, but the writer can transform the most difficult things into art.”
For those who want to tap their own memory wells, Roberts is teaching a four-part memoir course in South Lake Tahoe in February. Learn more on her website, suzanneroberts.net.
Tim Hauserman. In Going It Alone: Ramblings and Reflections from the Trail (2022, University of Nevada Press), Hauserman — a frequent Moonshine Ink contributor — also goes introspective, revealing what it’s like to feel both lonely and exhilarated while hiking solo on some of the Sierra’s iconic trails. His stories convey the magic not only of the Tahoe Rim Trail, for which he separately has written a guidebook, but also of the paths and lakes in Desolation Wilderness. He then shares a troubling experience he had on a multi-day Minnesota hike that both surprised and liberated him. Completing the book was yet another challenge, he said.
“In many ways, writing the memoir was a form of therapy, helping me to delve into the challenges I’ve faced,” Hauserman told Moonshine. “My favorite form of writing therapy is using humor at my own expense to delve into the pitfalls of life. To finish a memoir, you need to have a passion for telling your story, and to allow yourself to be vulnerable.” His local writing group helped immensely with feedback and goal setting, he said.
Eddy Ancinas. Anyone who’s known Ancinas for a while may have heard about an adventure she had in 1986 traveling to Peru and over the Andes by horseback for seven days with two local friends. Quirky, surprising, and sometimes scary things happened on that trip, including an injury, an unplanned eight-hour trek along the Urubamba River, and a frightening brake-impaired truck ride over a 14,000-foot pass. The experiences yielded Tracing Inca Trails: An Adventure in the Andes (2022, She Writes Press). In her writing, Ancinas responded closely to the landscape, its people, and their social situations, and conveyed her observations with sensitivity.
“I am desperate to get as close as I can to this grand spectacle,” she reflected in the book when recalling the impressive Salcantay, the 12th highest mountain in Peru, reaching 20,574 feet at its summit. “… but it is rough going over the giant rocks the glacier has piled up over the centuries. Just as I find the perfect rock to sit on and peer over the edge, I hear a low rumble and then a thunderous crash … I have never seen anything so big, so powerful or so magnificent.”
Ancinas told Moonshine, “Although a memoir is about a personal experience, I think, like all good literature, it must have a universal message. It can’t be just about your amazing feats (chest thumping). It needs the usual story arc (beginning, middle, end) and characters the reader relates to.”
Jeremy Jones. Annotated drawings, detailed charts, alluring paintings, impressive storytelling — all appear in the book the elite snowboarder and environmentalist released this year, The Art of Shralpinism: Lessons from the Mountains (2022, Mountaineers Books). The work is a smorgasbord you can dip into and out of on any page to enjoy Jones’ anecdotes, honor codes, snow wisdom, and more. It is a delight to read, and since there will be a review in our February issue (with a fun twist), there is less analysis here. Suffice it to say, the book compiles the thoughts and memories of a person who has a lot to share.
Hans Burkhart, a well-known — and at times feared because of his powerful presence and exacting style — manager at Squaw Valley U.S.A. (now Palisades Tahoe) was even more significant as the go-to architect of many of the first ski area tramways in the western U.S. In December, he unveiled a finely printed and far-reaching memoir, Above and Beyond: My Life Giving the World a Lift (2022, Hans Burkhart and Peter Bansen), written over the past few years with the help of his friend Pete Bansen, a longtime local who was for many years the fire chief in Olympic Valley.
Born in 1935 in Oberammergau, Germany, in the same town where the Passion Play is produced every decade, Burkhart became devoted to skiing early, according to the book. “Often, I’d ride my bike for two days into Austria just to ski,” he wrote. “I’d carry a backpack with some clothes, a sleeping bag, and light provisions like teabags. Then I skinned up to a mountain hut operated by Munich Mountain Club and spent the better part of a week skiing the various peaks of the area before riding the bike home. The trip home had much more downhill and I could sometimes ride the whole distance in a single day.”
The book explains how Burkhart arrived in Olympic Valley in 1960, became a right-hand-man for then-owner Alex Cushing, and was hired by various entities to chart and build what was then a new and exciting conveyance system transporting groups of people to the mountaintops quickly.
Burkhart told Moonshine that the book helped him to record the many stories he has been long telling his kids about his life. “It is a lot of work,” he admitted in his typical truncated style. For 2.5 years he and Bansen met weekly to flesh out the memories. Punctuating the details are captivating tales of near-death experiences, of which Burkhart lists 12. All of them pitted his human body and vigorous strength of character against the brawny forces of nature and the powerful mechanical equipment with which we humans attempt to control it. The last chapter, titled Now What?, implies that in Burkhart’s world of defying both death and gravity, there is clearly room for a 13th.
Alenka Vrecek. The Slovenian-born big mountain skier is esteemed among Tahoe’s extreme athletes, having taught many of them when they were youngsters in the big mountain ski program at Palisades Tahoe. At the height of her calling, however, a leg injury ended her career. That was just the start of a cascade of life-altering incidents including her breast cancer, helping her wheelchair-bound daughter recover from a car accident on California Highway 89 North, and discovering her husband’s Parkinson’s disease.
Rather than shrinking inward, a few years ago Vrecek decided that, despite being in her 50s, it was time to pursue an athletic dream she’d held for some time — to ride a mountain bike on a 2,500-mile journey from Tahoe City to near the tip of Baja — alone. Her 57-day trip yielded endless stories, connections with local vaqueros and ranchers, and personal struggles. It also led to plenty of steep uphill climbs, moments in the dark in which she tucked behind shrubs hide from strange passing cars, and long hot days of pedaling during which her drinking water ebbed perilously low.
Vrecek’s book, She Rides (2023 She Writes Press), describes all of this against the backdrop of her Slovenian childhood and her first years living in California as a young woman. It shares her love of family and of place, and her embrace of the kinds of achievements we can make with our human bodies, if only we try — hard.
“I looked to my left, checking out a mass of granite boulders just as a giant orange full moon rose from behind the mountain, welcoming my arrival to the land of magic,” she wrote about a section of dirt road she traveled south of Tecate, Mexico. “I was soon bouncing mercilessly along a washboard road by the light of the full moon. My son, Tilen, texted me: ‘Mom, are you still riding? Isn’t it dark already?’ I texted back: ‘Yes, I am riding by the light of the moon, and an owl is keeping me company.’”
Hours later, things turned scary. “Sleeping on the side of the road by myself in the tent was definitely unnerving,” she wrote. “I was pushing negative thoughts and fear out of my mind. I repeated my mantra: ‘I am not afraid! I am not afraid!’ I was hoping no one could see me but the invisible spirits of the ancestors who were watching over me. I closed my eyes. I was done. Listening to an owl hooting nearby was comforting, and I drifted off. They heard me! I was safe!”
These memoirs urge readers to leave their comfort zones. What’s out there? What’s inside? For each of us, the journey will have distinct challenges and beauty. As these writers attest in their undeniably Tahoe stories, we can only find our own successes if we reach high.
Disclosure: Because Tahoe is a close-knit community, this writer is friends with most of the memoirists named here. She was the copy editor for the Hans Burkhart book.