Whether you're a lifetime weekender or you were born with fresh mountain air in your lungs, there's a certain unexplainable complexity to the relationship people have with mountain towns.
I grew up in Sacramento and lived for the weekends that brought me to the nearest mountain town of Lake Tahoe. Caught somewhere between tourists and locals, it was a funny personal sense of home that drove us back here time and time again.
My connection comes in the form of a tiny cabin on the north shore built by my grandfather and his friends. What was once four powder blue walls in the woods, now houses generations of memories passed on by decade old polaroids that steal glances from us on our way to the breakfast table.
But the miles I’ve added to my odometer over the years were exclusively chasing days of eighty-five and sunny or blissfully frigid and snowing. Come shoulder season, I would return home to my so-called “real life”, never giving much thought to what was happening up the hill. It wasn’t until my recent decision to make Tahoe my year-round home that I realized what I was missing out on.
The change is abrupt.
Come Tuesday after Labor Day, hand painted signs that read "closed for the season" appear overnight, shops close down by four, and enjoying dinner on the deck of your favorite restaurant becomes impossible without a crackling fire and layers. The charm of a "slow mountain town" becomes almost too slow.
But, if I've learned anything in my newfound permanence, it's that shoulder season is a mountain town at its best.
Morning cups of coffee can be enjoyed in front of what's become a liquid mirror in the absence of early morning ski boats. You no longer travel by backroads just to keep a grocery run from turning into a full day excursion. You can do all the hikes and lay on all of the beaches that you've heard so much about but never managed to get to early enough to beat the crowds.
Local spots, the ones deemed favorites by actual locals rather than by Yelp, become incredibly easy to spot. Restaurants at the top of usual recommendation lists go from standing room only to eerily quiet. Instead you'll likely find a steady stream of people going in and out of a tiny Mexican market a block off the main road that has cheap food, cheaper beer, and customers who are undoubtedly mountain bred.
You'll walk into one of your favorite coffee shops and be surprised to find that the owner is now the one behind the counter. He'll smile and ask for your name because he hasn't seen you there before and you'll know that it won't be long before you’re on first name basis.
You'll go to a bar and have a similar interaction with the bartender, one who seems older than the ones you're used to seeing there. You'll spend the night sipping on something locally brewed while having a genuine conversation with her about family, hobbies, and life, and likely feel a desire to show up alone next time because your friend will already be there pouring a drink for you.
So, if you're wondering what there is to do in a mountain town during the off season, start with pulling on to a main highway without the traffic, grab your regular to-go cup of joe that now comes with a subtle taste of homemade, feel the comfortable weight of solitude at the top of a famous trail, and end the day asking the bartender how her kids are doing. Learn to be a part of the silence that coincides with the stillness of the land and enjoy the charm that's always promised in a small mountain town.
Authored by: Sabrina Hunt