19 Feb Home Sweet Home
How a Tahoe resident filled a gaping hole in her life by discovering a mountain paradise
As I sit on the balcony outside my studio condo, the winter sun gently warming my skin, the realization is clearer than ever that my home is not behind me, but in front of me.
I tilt my chin upwards, admiring the highest point of my home—not a ceiling, but a peak. I follow the ridgeline, past chutes hidden by volcanic rock and gullies cradled by trees, to the top of a chairlift. On the snow-covered slope below, happy humans spray clouds of white with every playful ski turn.
Six years ago I spent my first day at that same chairlift, dancing at the base in a red uniform, a bulky black ticket scanner in my hand and a gigantic smile on my face. It was my first day working at Kirkwood, one week after moving to South Lake Tahoe.
Like many before me, I moved to Tahoe with temporary intentions—to snowboard for two months, work on writing projects, then move on to the next adventure. Completely unplanned, I fell head over heels in love. With the ski industry. The Kirkwood community. The mountain.
As I glance up again, this time looker’s right of The Wall, tears well up in my eyes. “This is my home,” I whisper, overwhelmed with emotion once again.
When I moved to Tahoe, “home” was a gaping hole in my life. I’d lived in the Silicon Valley, working for Google. After three years I resigned to travel. Two months after buying a one-way ticket to New Zealand, I felt a deep sense of belonging I’d never experienced before. Within days, however, I learned through a video call from the other side of the world that my mom had lung cancer. My new home suddenly felt without. So, I flew back. Four months later, my best friend and cheerleader passed away in the Carmel Valley apartment that was our home for 15 years (we had moved there shortly after my dad died).
Where was home now? What did home even mean anymore?
During my many months of grief and depression, my big brother’s house in Salinas became mine. But other locations were calling.
Fast-forward to the present, and I find myself asking how Kirkwood became such a special place in my heart. I didn’t grow up here. It’s a major challenge to live here year-round, let alone through a single winter. The natural elements grabbed me—snow, alpine lakes, granite peaks—but those exist elsewhere, too.
To me, home is that feeling you have when you walk through a door and are welcomed and comforted by your people and surroundings. Home is the feeling of joy and familiarity, where you are safe and protected—where you can relax and be your authentic self.
Every time I near Kirkwood, from either side of Highway 88, and see Thunder Mountain above Silver Lake or Black Butte above Caples Lake, it’s as though I am entering through my own personal doorway. I can’t help but smile and sigh with relief at my good fortune. “Well, it’s still beautiful,” I mutter in awe.
In fact, it remains the most awe-inspiring view I can imagine, no matter where I am returning from, because it is far more than a pretty picture to me.
I know that when I enter the valley, I’ll see the security truck driver on duty, or a homeowner walking his or her dog, and we’ll wave and grin at one another. Here, I know I am cared for by my friends, my neighbors, my fellow employees. They’d drop everything if I needed them, and I’d do the same.
We’ve baked cookies while healing from trauma. We’ve met in a parking lot under a starry sky pacing over heartbreaking news. We’ve hunted down supplies for one another while in town—toilet paper, contact lens solution, humidifiers, you name it. Because we’re in this together. We are one family. No judgement. No pressure. What a beautiful privilege to have—a feeling not afforded to most even within the walls of their own homes.
I love wearing bright, silly outfits and the community responds with high-fives and cheers. I wake up at 5 a.m. to write before clocking in to answer questions for guests at the resort. I might turn down an invite for beers late at night, but not a sunset snowshoe in the meadow.
I’ve carved out a life—and who I am—here. I’ve gained a lifelong partner, a new career and countless memories (both good and bad). I lived the pandemic here, feeling closer than ever to the small community of year-rounders, watching some houses stay empty and others become full-time residences. I’ve witnessed first-time buyers arrive, finally realizing life is better lived in the woods.
But not everyone has the ability to own a mountain home defined by four walls and a roof. That condo I mentioned? I don’t own it. I’m a year-round renter. This does not make Kirkwood any less my home, though. I argue that it makes it even more my home, because I work hard to keep this life I have chosen, and it will never be taken for granted.
As I look back up at the mountain, I feel a deep connection to it—the way it towers over me, majestically, always watching, always remaining, not unlike a protective, loving, beautiful mother.
We chose this home. Or did it choose us?
Natasha Buffo is a writer and storyteller based in Kirkwood. To contact her or view her portfolio of articles, podcasts and a description of her unpublished memoir, visit www.dirtandtears.com.