Editor’s Note: A Truckee resident of 43 years, Marianne Porter shares her take on what it’s like being a person who’s lived in the Sierra Nevada and near the Truckee River and Donner Lake for most of her adulthood. Her poetic renumeration does much to capture the immensity of any life.
A narrow trail on Donner Summit. Hot July afternoon, thick pines, cerulean sky; a crayon-colored world to my East Coast eyes. Pine needles baked beneath my feet released an aroma so potent they told me to stay. My nostrils ate it up. Do I go back East? “Thinking” I’ll stay.
Donner Lake: Winding down Old 40 to scope out a dock for the day. Beers and snacks in an Igloo cooler. Oversized towel spread out on a wooden pier. A dive into icy blue snowmelt that held memories of the previous winter. Breath on hold. Then a squeal of surprise. Happiness rose in goosebumps. Pulled myself up to the dock to dry. A perfect summer day, tanning at 6,000 feet. “I will definitely stay.”
First job in the first week: “Northstar’s hiring,” someone says. The drive seemed long — Donner Summit to Northstar ski resort, so a quick move to a studio in Truckee. Worked in banquets: a uniform, an apron, polite food service for large groups, then on to marketing, grounds maintenance, operations, and ski rental for the next six years. At Northstar I met people who would become lifetime friends. Ones I see around town, although many of us avoid today’s crowds. We hug or laugh about unsaid things from “the old days” when we were in our 20s and did silly things. No words needed. Just a quick twinkle and off we go. Many of us stayed.
Then a relocation to Donner Lake: a tiny studio with an adjoining door that opened to my new Northstar friend’s room. We kept it open, joked we had a two-bedroom place. Shared meals. Blared music. Huevos rancheros on a hangover Sunday at the old Donner Lake Kitchen. Huddled together in ’82’s blizzard that turned our abode into an igloo. Snow shed off a metal roof, met ground snow that reached higher and higher as each minute passed until no more light reached the walkway out our front doors. Buried in a tunnel. Silence pressed against us. “I’ll take this any day,” I thought. I felt snug, a hibernating bear. Then the Alpine Meadows avalanche. In no time, I learned danger, caution, awareness, hope. “Mother Nature’s in charge.”
Truckee with no streetlights, no roundabouts, no Safeway Center. Only dense pine forests. No Truckee Crossroads center. Only a small Safeway where Mountain Hardware now bustles. No traffic lines, no reservations to dine. Walk in, find a table among tables with everyone we knew. Like Thanksgiving in a way, the best holiday for sharing a meal with people you love.
First hike in the Sierra: To Marlette Lake, a hidden sapphire, one steep ridge above Lake Tahoe. I perched on a boulder, stared in awe: My new home dazzles.
First time I met my future husband Jim, a setup by his brother Paul, at the Truckee Rotary Crab Feed in ’82. I stepped out of the car in the icy driveway when he dropped me off at my apartment, fell face forward on an incline of hard-packed snow. He scrambled to lift me to my feet while headlights shone on my humiliation. We still laugh.
First time camping — ever — with Jim at Sagehen beside the creek. I wrote my first poem in the Sierra sitting on a log above the water. Head’s-a-swirling, Jim jokes, because that’s what I wrote.
First girls’ overnight to Mount Tallac. I wore tan leather work boots. Blisters grew like poppies; unable to walk at work on Monday.
First (and last) time I snow-camped with Jim. Martis Valley. My water bottle froze. I froze. Two family dogs helped to warm us; the full moon glowed.
First time I cycled the Flume Trail. Narrow, jagged, rocky, some stretches required walking. Sand Harbor’s crescent beach far below. Heat boiled up from dusty soil, granite. That scent again, warm pine needles. Cotton shorts and tees, pre-Lycra.
Lots of first adventures: A hike to Mount Rose summit; a sunburned day tubing the Truckee; cross-country skiing at Mount Rose meadow, feeling freedom in the trees like a foraging squirrel; the sensation of control on soft snow, not intimidating East Coast ice. A surprise lesson in how to eat an artichoke, taught by my roommate to spare me embarrassment at a future meal. I’d only known marinated artichokes in a jar.
First alpenglow on Mount Rose. I’d never heard the word, a perfect descriptor: The rosy light of the setting or rising sun seen on high mountains, said the dictionary. No wonder. I hadn’t lived near high mountains in the East.
Other firsts I never imagined: wrap bulky, cold snow chains on tires; shoot a .22 rifle at the firing range; eat wild duck roasted on the barbecue; camp beside the misty Pacific Ocean at Gualala State Park and dine on abalone mere hours old — pounded thin, sizzled in butter, more tender than I imagined; sip expensive cabernet purchased by someone with an employee discount; ice-skate on the Truckee River.
First real love; first “settled” feeling; one of belonging. First Truckee Follies in ’82 where the town came together for uproarious jokes about local politics, people, places. Everyone in the room knew everyone in the room. Gatherings at OB’s Board restaurant on St. Paddy’s Day, and any day, a gathering spot for everyone; a surprise 40th birthday party downstairs; our wedding rehearsal dinner with singing waiters upstairs.
We miss OB’s.
Volunteered on nonprofit boards; learned more in-depth needs of community, a doorway into things unseen, like hunger and poverty. Hard to grasp then and now. Volunteers always needed.
Marriage, delightful daughters; first dog, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, followed by three yellow labs. I still mix up their names: Teal, Oatmeal, Nilla, Willow. So far, it has been a four-dog life. Core friends to recreate with, travel with, catch a meal with, laugh with. A group with huddled memories.
First time I wrote for real. First time I took painting classes. (Didn’t help, but they were fun.) Pursued photography, in a place where every turn of the eye is a photo. Spent 20 years working for the Truckee Tahoe Unified School District as a Special Friends aide. Found happiness here, so much so that my brother Pat once said my smile didn’t look real. I said: that’s ’cause you’ve never seen it so full.
I’m so happy I decided to stay on that hot July afternoon, 43 years ago. I found freedom and adventure, lifelong friends and family, a sensibility about nature I may not have explored so thoroughly, including river rafting around the West.
I thank the pine needles for speaking up.
~ Marianne Porter earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University in 2014. Her travel memoir is underway with the working title All the Unsaid Things. She is a two-year alumna of the Community of Writers and is very grateful for the scent of sun-toasted pine needles.