By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
Last week we spent some time in Mammoth Lakes, as we have done most summers since the mid-80’s. We used to hike and enjoy the scenery, but then we started playing golf and such pursuits were given up for the joys of hacking our way around the local courses. In retrospect, and in assessing my golf game, I should have stuck with hiking.
My favorite hike in Mammoth is the one up to TJ Lake. It is a magnificent mountain lake, surrounded on all sides by rugged peaks and tall pine trees. And because of its remoteness, it is quiet and undisturbed – one of the last remaining places on Earth without a Starbucks. One of my fondest memories is of the last hike we took up to TJ in 1986 when I spent an afternoon reading “Gone With The Wind” by its shores. It remains one of the top 10 days of my life. Every year since then I have suggested to my husband that we do that hike again but we never have. Until last Wednesday.
We drove to Lake George, which is the trailhead for Barrett and TJ Lakes. I read all the trail markers – 1/4 mile to Lake Barrett and 1/2 mile to TJ. Doesn’t sound like much, right? But Lake George sits at 9000′ altitude and TJ is at 9265′. Only a 265′ vertical hike, you scoff? Hiking at 9000′ is like sucking in air through a rubber sheet. Shoot, base camp for Everest is 10,000′. I definitely needed a Sherpa.
We also noted numerous signs warning of the bears in the area. But my husband patted his side and confidently assured me that he had his hunting knife strapped to his belt. Every wife knows this moment: do you let your right brain take over and humor him or does your left brain shout “Are you nuts? You will be through that bear’s lower intestine before you even have the knife unsheathed!”. But, like wives everywhere, I weigh 25 years of marriage versus pointing out the ridiculousness of his plan and say nothing.
We set out, channeling our best Scouting tactics. Slow pace, traversing back and forth, stopping to rest. There was a lot of stopping to rest. But we forged on up the mountain, crossing a river using rocks for a path, hurdling a dead tree trunk, we were regular John Muir trekkers. At last we came to Lake Barrett. It is crystal blue, surrounded by pines and jagged mountains. I posted a picture of it on my Facebook page and got lots of “oohs and ahhs”. That would be enough for most people. But I wanted to see TJ. I was sure it was just over the next hill.
It actually was over the next hill, but I had forgotten that TJ is lower than Barrett. So down we went, knowing that with every step down we were going to have to make our way back up. But I was on a mission. And finally, there it was! You know how you go back to something many years later and the object you’ve tracked down is either smaller or less grand than you remembered (or in the case of my high school boyfriend, a lot shorter)? TJ was everything I remembered and more. I’ve attached a picture but it doesn’t do the lake justice. I sat there for a long while, taking it all in. And I have to admit that I got choked up a bit when I turned to leave. I don’t know why exactly, maybe just happy that I’d managed to make the hike again or maybe because I know that making a return trip with my creaky knees and arthritic back might not be possible.
As we got back down to George there was a couple standing at the fork of the trails. “Hey, folks!”, they shouted. I though they had obviously identified us as fellow members of the hiking community. But they went on…”Did you happen to see the big bear that just went through here? We don’t know which fork to take to avoid her.” I just about passed out, but my husband tapped his knife like a regular Daniel Boone, confident that he had the situation under control. I immediately went down to have my golf clubs re-gripped.
And now for the Tom Cruise part. Turns out that he flew to Mammoth Lakes the same day we arrived to film the last scenes for his new film, “Oblivion”. According to our waitress at the chop house (and really, who is more of an authority on local gossip than a waitress?) he stayed at the Westin next door to us and was served with more papers from Katie while he was there. Too bad we never met up with him. I could have told him that the best place to avoid problems was up at TJ. A New York attorney would never risk dirtying his tassel loafers climbing up that trail.