My life took a detour, years ago, when I settled for a while in one of the world’s most majestic settings. From here I was able to see the forest through the trees—literally and figuratively. I discovered, not only an amazing landscape, but myself in the process, and began a new chapter… in California.

Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Lake Tahoe was not on my radar. It’s funny actually—I spent so many summers on waterways throughout the Northwest, but to me, the mountains meant snowy winter months skiing the slopes of Oregon and Utah. All I really knew of California was its coastline.

So in 1995, when my friend suggested that we find summer jobs in South Lake Tahoe, I hesitated. This lake is located in an alpine setting in the Sierra Nevada on the border between California and Nevada. For me, cold mountains were not my idea of a summer-break destination. I preferred to bask in warm sun.

The Pull

I still couldn’t seem to shake the idea. My mind questioned the logic; this wasn’t my next planned step. It seemed audacious. I was finally starting to see light again after climbing through some heavy times. Suddenly I was now presented with a choice—one of those fork-in-the-road moments.

After years of struggle and self-doubt, I began to feel rays of hope. Why would I leave now? I had just been awarded a full scholarship to study in Japan for a few weeks, but couldn’t do both Nagoya and Tahoe.

A constant urge within me pushed me toward the lake opportunity. An inner knowing knew I needed a fresh perspective with plenty of time to reflect—and an income. It seemed crazy, but I finally chose to give up my chance for Japanese immersion, and instead, followed the pull.

I got plenty of pushback from those who depended on me at the time. Filled with guilt, I knew in my heart I had to go. I would be back, I told them, and myself. Despite uncertainty about my selfishness, I remained curiously optimistic about what would I discover on my “soul-searching journey” as I called it.

My friend and I lined up jobs at a casino, an environment that had no appeal to me, but seemed appropriate given my hospitality experience. I had no idea what awaited me at the other end.

The Lake

My apprehension was confirmed upon our late-night arrival in June. After a full day’s drive from Portland, intense neon signs greeted us as we emerged from the blackness of the mountain road, followed by my first time inside a gaming establishment. The noisy dinging of slots paired with a brightly lit casino interior put my tired senses on overload.

The next morning, however, my angst was eased. Juxtaposed against the stimuli of the casinos was the most stunning landscape I had ever experienced. We set out to drive around the lake, motivated by a spectacularly warm, sunny day and eager to further explore our summer home.

My spirit was uplifted.

We discovered a welcome contradiction to the previous night: mountain tops surrounded a vibrant azure lake that sparkled under the clear blue sky. I was awe-struck by the brilliant blue expanse. Lake Tahoe fills a vast, deep hollow, carved from within the mountain range—the second deepest lake in the US, after Crater Lake in Oregon, and sixteenth deepest in the world.

Circumnavigating the lake’s perimeter highways exposed a variety of unique natural features. Enormous, granite boulders piled upon each other like stacks of river pebbles. Golden ecru sand beaches sloped gradually down into watery bands of teal and turquoise with the deep blue of the lake beyond. Chiseled walls of granite rose vertically toward peaks above.

Sections of the highway veered away from the lake into the trees. I was struck by the sparse, brown forest floor—so different from the dense, green foliage that obscured the woodland underbrush from which I had just left in Northwest Oregon. Under the wide bases of soaring conifers laid only a bed of fallen needles dotted with huge pine cones. It was strange for me to be able to see between the forest trees.

That summer, this environment would help reshape my perspective and inspire my path forward. But life was about to get interesting.

The Casino

As chance had it, my friend and I were offered two last-minute spots that had just opened up in blackjack dealing school. I had never been interested in gambling, but for the next two weeks, I felt like I had entered a circus act.

Under the gruff, no-nonsense tutelage of Doris—her gray beehive piled high on her head and cigarette hanging from her mouth—I learned the house rules, how to shuffle with speed, fling cards with pinpoint accuracy, make quick mental calculations, and cut stacks of poker chips (or “checks” as they’re called).

During this time we bonded with our classmates, learning to adore Doris, our casino mom. We spent our free time together leading up to our live table debut on the Fourth of July weekend.

In the light of the days that followed, I soaked up the sun while taking in the surreal views: I lounged in my bikini on a lakeside beach while gazing up at snow-capped mountains; I climbed stacks of rounded boulders to find sweeping vistas of jagged mountains; I swam in the frigid lake water of Sand Harbor while looking clearly down to its sandy bottom several feet below my treading feet.

This beautiful, calm serenity was starkly contrasted by lively nights spent within windowless, smoke-filled, brightly lit casinos where one can’t tell the difference between day and night.

Life became a mixture of action-packed nights working the tables, dancing and parties, or listening to music in local hangout bars. We would also escape the noise to discover more lake views—from the top of Kingsbury Grade or over Emerald Bay to watch the sunrise—while discussing our hopes and dreams for the future.

Among my new friends was Aaron, a handsome, intelligent, kindhearted straight-shooter with a unique Italian last name. He would encourage and inspire me, becoming my closest friend and eventual love.

The Shift

As summer came to a close, I was uplifted by consecutive days of cloudless sunshine. Portland may not have as much rainfall as Seattle, but cloud-cover is common, keeping the landscape lush and green but also clouding my spirit. Although winter snowfall in Lake Tahoe may be abundant, summer temperatures are pleasantly warm. Many more sunny, cloudless days are enjoyed here throughout the year.

Along with the lake, that sun seemed to wake my senses.

Feeling my world expand and the pull to stay, I extended my summer job for an additional year. With this decision, my relationship with Aaron evolved. Having fun with him playing cards and dice, golfing (a skill he proficiently taught me), and taking excursions, we ultimately decided to move in together. After all, it was his dad who told us not to live in one apartment and pay for two.

Life felt full of possibilities.

Over the next few months, we experienced the highs and lows of casino life. We worked with many kind, hard-working people, all enduring periods of monetary drought when tourism dropped. During this time Aaron and I learned to deal other table games (like pai gow poker and roulette) then put in endless hours in the two weeks surrounding New Year’s celebrations, only to end up back in a lull season.

Although I was happy to take advantage of limited work hours by traveling and skiing through a very snowy winter, as summer eventually returned, the heaviness of the casinos started to weigh on me. I was no longer immune to daily subjection to smoke and evident addictions, instead becoming more cynical to the negative aspects of a gambling environment.

This lake that had welcomed and nurtured me, and had provided me with unrelenting clarity about my next step, was now ready to release me. It was time to say Goodbye to the place that had offered a new vision for my life, and Aaron as a partner.

I now felt more than ready to move onto my next phase, reinvigorated to continue my art and language studies and complete my architectural design degree—although now it would take place in California with Aaron by my side.

The Lessons

The lake taught me the importance of listening to my heart and my intuition, deferring to my strong inner call, rather than succumbing to my doubt-filled mind. I’m glad I didn’t limit myself based on my fears or preconceptions. There will always be uncertainty and challenges, but yielding to that wiser space within allowed me to grow and evolve, not stay stuck.

Following our intuition allows life to guide us. Faith in the source of our instincts empowers us to leap into the unknown. Through this we realize places, people, and things aren’t always as they seem, nor are they one-dimensional.

We have a choice. When we look for the goodness and beauty of a place, and in its people, we find them. We have a responsibility to nurture these virtues, in our environment, throughout our world, and especially, in ourselves.

I don’t know exactly what it is about this mysterious place, but Lake Tahoe can be transformative. Its special powers will always evoke something spiritual within me. Like images reflected from the water’s surface, Lake Tahoe allowed me to see myself clearly, and to create a vision for what I truly wanted.

Now, twenty-four years later, Aaron and I share his unique Italian last name with our two, now teenage, boys, living in scenic El Dorado Hills at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It’s amazing how quickly life evolves. I appreciate my life’s journey to this point and the life we have created together.

Savoring each moment, we still enjoy the beauty of the lake, grateful it brought us together… and are always looking for our next adventure.

Make the Loop

I encourage you to take the leap, make the journey, and live the best version of yourself.

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