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We hadn’t intended to ski this year.

And we didn’t.

But between those two statements lay a four month long gallimaufry of resolution, indecision, confusion, excitement, frustration, relief, misery, hope and resignation.

Following last year’s trip, our seventh, to Heavenly ski resort on the southern shore of Lake Tahoe, we decided to give skiing, at least in the USA, a miss this year, and perhaps even next.

But as the British summer shrugged its way into autumn, and our equal determination not to visit San Francisco this year,  dissipated, the prospect of not skiing at all became increasingly unpalatable.

With a major holiday planned for later in the year, we could not afford – in both senses of the word – more than two weeks away. We arranged, therefore, to spend a week in an apartment in San Francisco, drive up to Tahoe for four nights, skiing for three days, before returning to the city for the final weekend prior to flying home. Flights and accommodation were duly booked in the New Year, the lateness of which illustrated how we had prevaricated about going at all.

I have written elsewhere that my wife and I are “fair weather” skiers, liking nothing better than cruising perfectly manicured trails in warm spring sunshine. With that in mind, we booked to ski Heavenly between Wednesday 18th and Friday 20th April inclusive, providing us, we hoped, with a felicitous combination of good weather and a healthy accumulation of snow (2011 had been a record year).

So we were “sorted”, looking forward to what was fast becoming our annual American skiing fix.

Or so we thought, for that’s when it all started to unravel.

In deciding to ski late in the season, we’d given no thought to when the resort might be closing. After all, last year it had remained open until early May and only a few days prior to that the previous year. We were not only going to enjoy wonderful weather and spring conditions but would also get some great end of season bargains in the shops. 

I suppose we should have seen the warning signs earlier in the season as snowfall had been uncommonly sparse, weeks passing with barely a single natural flake bedding down with the undeniably impressive but limited layer of artificial snow provided by the resort’s convoy of groomers. Much of the skiing terrain remained closed.

But even at the end of February there appeared to be no cause for concern. Major storms were surely lining up out in the Pacific, ready to deposit the white stuff soon enough. And Heavenly would be prepared to stay open as long as possible to compensate for the relatively poor conditions of December through to March. Wouldn’t it?

How wrong we were.

Firstly, we discovered that Heavenly had planned all along to close on Sunday 15th April – nearly three weeks earlier than last year and, more alarmingly, THREE DAYS BEFORE we were due to arrive! A succession of frantic e-mails, Facebook and Twitter messages over the next 24 hours confirmed this to be the case.

At least we had not incurred great expense at this stage – just the first night’s accommodation, which could be cancelled up to 72 hours before arrival anyway. Unusually (we must have known), we had not booked our lift tickets and we would not obviously have hired equipment until we were in the resort.

But what were we going to do?

I devised eight alternative options for the middle leg of the vacation. These included remaining in San Francisco, driving down the coast and spending nights in San Luis Obispo, Carmel and Monterey, or in the opposite direction via Mendocino and Bodega Bay, even still travelling to South Lake Tahoe but amusing ourselves in other ways.

But the thought of not skiing at all, when the conditions were likely to be the best they had been all season, was too painful to contemplate. And, of course, you guessed it – by this time, those slothful storm systems had swung into town with a vengeance, depositing seven feet of snow in a week!

Having decided that we had, if we could, to ski somewhere, we found ourselves forced into doing what we had often spoken about but never got around to doing before – slide down some other slopes than Heavenly’s.

So perhaps it was all a blessing after all – provided we could find other resorts that were open whilst we were in the area.

The next few weeks were spent anxiously trawling the websites of, and sending e mails to, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Kirkwood, Homewood, Alpine Meadows, Sugarbowl and Squaw Valley to establish what their closure plans were.

Whilst, in one respect, we were now becoming increasingly excited at the prospect of skiing elsewhere, this threw up several practical issues. For example, if we were to ski near the north end of the lake, we would need to find alternative accommodation, and it was extremely limited in some resorts, particularly at such a late stage. We would also need to take a different route to the one we were accustomed to to get to the lake.

The fact that we would be skiing only a day, possibly two, at a new resort would also mean we would be unfamiliar with everything there – the terrain, transport, equipment hire and so on  – to the extent hat we might not derive much enjoyment from it.

But beggars can’t be choosers, and, after all, it meant we could ski.

And then……Heavenly decided to extend its season!

Great!

We could now avoid all the complications of staying and skiing elsewhere and return to our familiar, much loved Plan A of skiing in Heavenly for three days.

Or so we thought.

Rather than extending by a full perhaps two, to allow its customers to enjoy the fresh snow, the resort proposed to close as planned on 15th April and reopen for the next two weekends only (Friday to Sunday inclusive). The upshot of this would be that we would have ONE day in which to ski!

Again we considered different scenarios, including skiing only on the Friday, our last day. Better than nothing.

But we rather liked the idea now of skiing somewhere else too, and plumped for a day at nearby Sierra-at-Tahoe.

Now, neither of us had been fully fit in our last couple of days in San Francisco, suffering from sore throats, coughing, headaches and general tiredness. So we decided that two days skiing would be sufficient.

The final plan now went like this. As it was conveniently located just off the I-50, we would call into Sierra-at-Tahoe on our drive from San Francisco on Tuesday and familiarise ourselves with the resort. We would then take our first full day off and perhaps drive to Carson City, before skiing at Sierra on Thursday and Heavenly on Friday.

What could now go wrong? After the twists and turns, and mangled emotions, of the past three months, we were going to be skiing for two days, one of which was going to be at, for us, a new, exciting resort, and the forecast was for brilliant blue skies and warm temperatures.

Well, one three letter word ending in a vowel was about to be replaced by another and destroy those plans. 

Flu.

On the journey to South Lake Tahoe, we both started to deteriorate dramatically, to the extent not only that we abandoned the diversion via Sierra-at-Tahoe, but that we were only able to leave our room – reluctantly – in the next 48 hours to stock up on pharmaceutical supplies (and the occasional Starbuck’s). Dinner on our first evening consisted of a $1 packet of Dorito’s from the vending machine along the corridor.

It was only the last – fourth – night that we were both able to do any justice to an evening meal when we dragged ourselves to the Hard Rock Café in our hotel. Even then, we had had to cancel our reservation beforehand at the Riva Grill. We did manage, however, to drive around the lake during the day, as the last post testifies.

We had both been so debilitated during our stay that walking alone proved a challenge. As much as we wanted to, we could not have skiied. 

At least we saved on meals, ski hire and lift tickets  – although the colourful cocktail of pills, infusions and liquids – enough to have taken the weight of our baggage over the allowance had we been flying back to San Francisco – were not cheap!

We hadn’t intended to ski this year.

And we didn’t.

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“I’m coming home again…..never to roam again” the song continues. Well, sadly, I will be roaming back to the UK in no time, but not until I have spent the next fortnight back in the “one in all the Golden West”.

Many of my previous posts attest to my love for The City, especially  http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/my-san-francisco-top-ten/ .

Those of you who have stayed the course with me will be relieved to learn that I’m not going to dribble on about cable cars, bay views and hippie Haight in this post – well I might find myself unable to avoid rapping a little on the last one……..man.

No, as our upcoming ninth trip approaches, this post looks ahead to some of the less touristic experiences that await us. Some are perennial joys whilst others will be savoured for the first time.

In the best “traditions” of TV reality shows (so I am reliably informed), they are presented in no particular order:

1. Eating Sourdough bread

Taking that first bite from an authentic sourdough loaf will almost certainly be the first, and last, taste sensation of our visit. Whilst, allegedly, I can purchase sourdough bread from a farmer’s market or wholefoods supplier in the more enlightened towns and cities of the British Isles, it will not be made from the Boudin “mother dough” and, therefore, not carry the unmistakably tangy taste of the San Francisco original.

If you want to read more about the genesis of the Boudin sourdough, you can do worse (just) than read my article at:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/great-san-franciscan-characters-13-isidore-boudin/

2. Riding on the MUNI

“I get sourdough bread but MUNI – are  you crazy?” I hear any resident or informed visitor exclaim. “The “service” is totally unreliable, the drivers insolent and a sizeable number of its customers are so weird that they’d fail the audition for any self-respecting freak show”.

Ah, but there be the rub, me hearties. It is the “all human life is there” quality that makes it so endearing – provided, of course, that you’re not planning to be any place soon or are of a squeamish disposition.

I wrote about one particularly entertaining and ingenious tableau in my diary from last year’s vacation:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/western-diary-day-17-hittin-the-heights-and-muni-delights/ .

3. Watching the Giants play an MLB game at AT & T Park

Two actually – the (Pittsburgh) Pirates on Opening Night, complete with fireworks, on Saturday 14th April and the (Philadelphia) Phillies two nights later. An earlier post documented my initiation into baseball, and following the San Francisco Giants in particular:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/bitten-by-the-giants-baseball-bug/

Visiting the City that little bit later this year has meant that we can finally graduate from attending desultory pre-season games featuring squad players to joining a full house crowd at a “real” game, or rather two, with heavy hitters, or rather pitchers, such as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

Oh, and eating those fabulous garlic fries – and taking cover from the dive bombing seagulls towards the end of the game.

4. Getting to Know New Neighbourhoods

After successful stays in Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle in the past couple of years, we are staying further south this year by renting an apartment for the first week in Noe Valley, or “Stroller Valley” as it is affectionately known for the preponderance of resident families with young children.

We aim to “stay local” as much as possible that week, exploring unfamiliar neighbourhoods such as Noe Valley itself and semi-mountainous Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill and Twin Peaks, as well as re-familiarising ourselves in particular with the Castro and Mission districts, much neglected on our previous trips. In fact, we are venturing further out of the City than we have ever done before, though public transport will whisk us briskly downtown should we, in the unlikely event, crave a fix of the wharf or corporate shopping at any time (that said, our two appointments with the Giants will steer us towards the bay on those days).

5. The Flower Power Walking Tour

For all my reverence for the Dead, the Airplane and the late sixties San Francisco music scene, I have resisted, in the past, signing up for the flower power walking tour of Haight-Ashbury, expecting it to be too clichéd, preferring to truck around the area on my own. But the testimonials are so compelling, and the bona fides of the individuals conducting the tour so intriguing (they lived through the Summer of Love), that I now anticipate it with relish.

6. Exploring the Old and Public San Francisco

Aside from our initial, guided trip 17 years ago, we have never explored Nob Hill in any detail. We have clanked past it on the California and Powell/ Mason and Powell/Hyde cable cars (sorry, I know I promised I wouldn’t mention them) many times but given little heed to Grace Cathedral, Huntington Park or the grand hotels – until now.

We will aim to combine that with a morning skulking as much of the public buildings that comprise the Civic Center as we are permitted to enter. I am particularly keen to visit the public library.

7. Breakfast with KRON4

Preparing for the day ahead in San Francisco has never been complete without the accompaniment of local TV station, KRON4, informing me of the weather prospects, the state of the “Bay Bridge commute” or the latest Giants news. Whilst Darya Folsom is my favourite presenter, I’ll also confess to having followed Sal Castenada’s traffic reports on rival station KTVU too for many years.

8. Skiing the Sierras

The full story of our miscalculation over the short skiing leg of our trip in Lake Tahoe will have to wait for another day. Suffice to say that the outcome is that we will finally be forced out of our customary torpor and ski somewhere other than Heavenly this time. Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood beware.

We return to the City for the final three nights of the trip, staying in a hotel on Fisherman’s Wharf. Our sixth performance of Beach Blanket Babylon and meals at two of our favourite eating places, the North Beach Restaurant and Cliff House await. And much else besides.

So, San Francisco, “open your Golden Gate”, don’t let this supplicant !wait outside your door”.

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