I’m on vacation. I’m having a great time. And it’s surprisingly sustainable.

Sustainable travel or green travel are expensive-sounding terms that imply vacations in exotic places like Bhutan or Costa Rica, places with jungles or peaks or dangerous rivers, places you fly to (earning fistfuls of carbon-offset credits) to do a dash of volunteering and engage another culture, preferably with a competent indigenous guide. In short, something other people do—other people with a whole lot more money.

The sun sets over the meadow

No jungles here. My brother and I only drove up to South Lake Tahoe to spend the week at a family member’s unrented rental house. It was a cheap – okay, make that free – opportunity to hang out in the mountains in exchange for a little midsummer cleaning.

The big surprise has been how the car has stayed put as we have explored Tahoe’s greatly expanding bike trails and public transportation system.

Like many cities, South Lake Tahoe is working on sustainability. As it implements a sustainability plan designed to “increase its livability and prosperity, reduce the ecological footprint of its residents and improve human and ecological health,” it is beefing up “increased mobility options” to “reduce dependence on the automobile.”

The trolley waits for us at the South Y Transit Center

Their work shows. One day we biked to Camp Richardson and Fallen Leaf Lake on safe, quiet roads and separate paths, loading our bikes onto a water taxi when we traveled back to town. We spent another day swimming, hiking, and exploring the Emerald Bay area thanks to the BlueGo #50 bus route and the summer-only “Nifty 50 Trolley.” The $5 all-day bus pass meant we didn’t have to compete with thousands of other people for the few parking spots along Highway 89.

Every evening I have walked along the beautiful Upper Truckee Marsh, a 513-acre wetlands restored by city and state agencies in order to filter out nutrients and pollutants that threaten Tahoe’s clear blue water. During the day I have walked past heavy equipment operators upgrading the stormwater management system—part of South Lake Tahoe’s plans for “infrastructure that improves water and air quality.”

Just about the only stated sustainability goal I haven’t seen much evidence of is local food. As the city’s plan says, “Climate and elevation make local food production a challenge.” So do tourist expectations of abundant, gambling-subsidized meals. And I confess, I enjoyed every last non-local, non-organic, completely unsustainable bite of the ample Forest Buffet at Harrah’s Stateline!

I didn’t expect to live sustainably at Tahoe. In fact, I was thinking, oh well, we’re driving there and back, and this is the land of the RV and the jet ski, so for a week, I’ll just set aside my own practices and enjoy what’s available, and maybe we’ll drive the recycling back home. What a delight to discover that South Lake Tahoe is going more than half way to meet me, doing the hard work of envisioning, planning, and setting up systems that make it easier for people to live or visit sustainably.

So, entirely by accident, I ended up taking my principles with me on vacation. You can do it on purpose. Where are you vacationing this summer? How are you getting there? Can you avoid flying, and drive or take the train instead? When you get there, what kind of systems can you participate in to avoid driving, generating waste, polluting or overusing water, and overconsuming local resources?

Do your research ahead of time, because alternatives may still be “alternative” and underpublicized. I had to work to find the Nifty50 Trolley schedule, in part because, with only one an hour, the transit system really can’t handle a big passenger load. It’s a great first step, but it will take many more riders and lots of publicity to make it grow.

If you can’t find any alternatives to the tried-and-true, to individual transportation, to unsorted garbage, to chain-store purchases, then you can spend your vacation politely asking for them. Create the demand.

May all of our vacations help nurture another community’s sustainability goals along with our own commitments, so that sustainable travel becomes the way all of us go on vacation.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal