Tuesday, November 24, 2009

cusp of winter

Few things feel as wickedly self-indulgent as blowing off work to ogle the autumnal Sierras. Why yes, I'm supposed to be writing up my reams of tropical Mexico research. I should be tackling a section of steamy jungle every day, chipping off enough guidebook destinations in Chiapas and Tabasco that this project will be tucked away in a drawer before food goes in the oven for Thanksgiving. But ever since my plane home hit the tarmac, I'd been pining to see big mountains the way that people without phone or internet access brood for long distance lovers.
Minimal cajoling produced a willing road trip partner, and we headed toward the north shore of Lake Tahoe, listening to books on tape so her daughter wouldn't implode from the transportation boredom endemic to 7-year-olds. Since visiting for a research trip last summer, I'd been angling for a cohort to overnight at the Sierra Club lodge near Donner Pass. And since the snow was still a few weeks away, we had the whole damn place to ourselves, and we padded around in our PJs like it was our private country home. Any stray nighttime thoughts I had about the sprawling hotel in The Shining I kept to myself, as we built up a fire and busied ourselves with alpine jigsaw puzzles and an addictive journal of shield-your-eyes before-they-fall mountaineering accidents.
I'd also been meaning to explore the abandoned train tunnels and snow sheds just next to Sugar Bowl. Built in the 1860s by Chinese laborers for the Central Pacific Railroad the tunnels were blasted out by hand, with work continuing in the avalanche-prone area even during winter blizzards that stacked snow 18-foot-high. Armed with a headlamp, we dodged long puddles and occasional drips inside two smaller tunnels (7 and 8), but turned back for hot chocolate when the frigid wind blasted us near the 1659-foot Summit Tunnel.