Written by: Chelsea Leigh Trescott
We crossed the Nevada state line after 3 a.m. The seat heaters were on and the road was empty, quiet, save a single rushing stream and the voluptuous scent of pine sticking to the mountain air. It was 40 degrees out, and the hour—blindingly dark. We pulled over, anyhow, to put the convertible top down, and pack our bodies in blankets. We were looking for something. But nestled in amongst the sugar pines and firs, the piers and tiger-eyed sand, that something couldn’t yet be seen. In the morning, though, we would come to feel Tahoe had burst upon us as it had for Twain.
Tahoe, after all, is a reputable saga for good reason. Twain walked there, carrying a couple blankets and an ax. He was looking for a vast oval and found a spellbinding surprise: a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea. With Lake Tahoe’s majestic backdrop, his travel life was a shoe-in for volumes of great American literature. But long before a classic author was plotting tales alongside the lake, there were pioneers settling throughout the basin, staking land, and supplying mines, lumber, and fuel. There were also the hundreds of hopefuls, looking to strike rich, rushing Tahoe in the 1860s for silver. But eventually all the rushing and dispensing stripped Tahoe of its natural forestation, and entrepreneurs rolled through the town, giving trailblazers the boot. In their place, hotels and mansions were built for San Francisco’s wealthiest.
No one knows Tahoe better than the lavish. During the 20s, land was acquired after all-night poker games and summer homes shot up in a ring; long and lean wooden boats graced the water, while exuberant parties sowed a halo along the lake, and Gatsby-esque bad boys chucked a night’s worth of empty bottles into the mountain’s limpid, brimming pool. Today Tahoe sparks a similar coterie, and supplies them the same legend-ed charisma. After all, Twain’s robust spotting is why Tahoe dazzles and lures the thousands of summer travelers and weekend carpools. But while the author may have left behind pages dripping with praise and vibrancy, it was another character who gave Tahoe its summertime and famed recreational pull. He went by Gar Wood—was quick as a whip, and the pioneer of playthings. In the 20s, when Lake Tahoe provided millionaires water and a view, Gar Wood began supplying them sport boats and speed. There hadn’t been a combination like this before.
Over the weekend, Tahoe’s main attraction was tied off at the Sierra Boat Company. With 80 wooden boats—Gar Woods, Chris-Crafts, Centuries, Hackers and others—competing in one of 13 classes, the lake was crowded with proud owners, caretakers, friends, judges, and forty-dozen admiring spectators. It was the 39th Concours d’Elegance, an annual competition celebrating classic boats on Lake Tahoe, sponsored by Frederique Constant of Geneva—a family owned business whose reputation can be traced back to its iconic ‘Heart Beat’ window design and its luxury treatments in the art of horology. The event’s original namesake dates back to the 17th century French aristocracy—a snooty gathering that judged the appearance of each owner’s automobile. It’s fitting then, that this year’s Marque class featured 30 Gar Woods—the racecar of the water—and that, on land, the event showcased Jaguars and a Land Rover.
But the hype was really the stories in the water. All 80 classics were being judged on the authenticity of their restoration in light of their appearance when first shipped from the factory—say some 70 odd years ago. The magic is these glistening boats had been recovered, stripped, stained, and obviously adorned—while maintaining their distinct tales and history. Behind the pristine state of the art-deco Bugatti windshields and Chrysler Hemi blue Tolex interiors it’s troubling, however, to picture the various states of decay these boats were found in. Watching Dispatch, a 1931 33’ Gar Wood Runabout with a Rolls Royce V12 engine—converted for marine use—tear through the lake like a rocket at eye level can make anyone rethink the direction of his life. And yet, some of the entries most marveled rarities sat stored and untouched for up to 50 years in a garage. Learning of their survival and the original standards that new owners have reinstated, one reads a different story beneath the shiny Honduras open grain mahogany. In no other circumstance though, could one then look at the lake and seeing 80 different Cinderella stories, still be reminded of the early cruisers—the playboys and rumrunners—whose spirit will forever keep the saga of the speedboat alive and necessary. After all, the legendary Gar Wood must have known that speed would keep these wooden boats badass. Or maybe that’s the spell of Tahoe—everyone experiences its rush but no one is ready to leave, or able to forget whatever happened on the lake.