THE END OF AN ERA IN MAMMOTH

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

                        Horseshoe Lake

We just spent two glorious weeks in Mammoth Lakes, California.  Glorious because a) the house we were in was recently refurbished, which was a welcome relief from our TurnKey Nipomo nightmare, and b) Mammoth is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Just ask the Europeans – who were everywhere we went.  We thought we had outsmarted the crowds by going when school was back in session but we forgot about August being the “holiday” month for Europeans.  We met some delightful people from England, Germany and Holland but the downside was every restaurant, hiking trail and lakeside was packed with people shouting in a cacophony of languages.  Still, it is one of our favorite places to visit.  My husband has been going there since 1960, when the mountain only had five ski lifts and we’ve been going there together for 30 years.  The majesty of the steep mountains and peaceful lakes never fails to make us gape in awe at the gorgeous scenery.

 

                      Kittredge Sports

Over the years Mammoth has retained a small town feel.  Some might think it too rustic.  Mammoth is known for outdoors activities – fishing, mountain biking and hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.  Unlike many other mountain resorts in the West, it has had problems attracting and retaining high-end businesses.  For many years the local outlet mall was home to a Polo and Coach store, but both of those establishments have now closed and their spaces remain vacant.  The only new store this year was a sporting goods place that had the audacity (or bad luck) to open up directly across the street from Kittredge’s – an outdoorsman’s paradise that has been in business for 44 years.  We’ll see how long they last.  The largest employer by far is Mammoth Resorts, which runs all activities on the mountain and in the Mammoth Village complex.  The rest of the town’s population is made up of small business owners and those who are employed by them.  So one does not go to Mammoth to “see and be seen” or to rub elbows with the rich and famous.  Frankly, one of my favorite aspects about the town is that I only have to bring a pair of jeans and a casual shirt and I’m dressed to go anywhere.  In other words, it’s been a great place for slobs like me.  But all that is about to change.

On August 4th a deal was completed for the sale of Mammoth Mountain to the Aspen Company.   In addition to Mammoth, Aspen will now own Big Bear, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, as well as some smaller ski resorts in the Sierras.  They have big plans for Mammoth, although exactly what changes they’ll make have not been spelled out.  We were curious as to how the local population felt about the acquisition so we engaged in some conversations with people who have been around Mammoth a long time.  The opinions could not be more diverse.  For those who work for Mammoth Resorts – whether on the mountain, the Village stores and hotels or the golf course, they look forward to the infusion of money from Aspen.  They cited broken toilets, outdated facilities and general equipment that needs to be replaced.  Of course, they acknowledge that all of this “fixing” is going to come at a price and that price is going to be paid by the consumer. But hotel rooms and lift tickets are not the only thing that will be going up.  Since the announcement last spring that the deal was being struck, the housing market has gone berserk.  Normally one can find a plethora of deals on second homes that owners want to unload.  No more.  It’s a seller’s market in a big way.

Which brings me to the other side of the coin – the average person who wants to work and raise a family in Mammoth Lakes.  Rents have skyrocketed, forcing many people to find housing elsewhere.  One guy who manages the pet store said he felt fortunate to sign a three year lease, even if it was for a lot of money.  Many workers now are living in their cars.  Mammoth has pledged to build more affordable housing, but the sheer geographic limitations make that a remote prospect. We found many people worried about the effect of Aspen marketing to the “rich and famous”, driving out the very people who have made Mammoth such a relaxed and low-key place to visit.  It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years.

                  Schat’s Cakes

I’m hoping that some of our favorite “haunts” will not be affected.  Burger’s Restaurant offers the best burger anywhere – it’s always our first dinner when we arrive in town.  The Stove is a wonderful place for breakfast – assuming you can get in, as the lines are always long.  It’s the type of place that serves your water in a jelly glass and has wooden benches for seating.   And then there is Schat’s Bakery.  I don’t know how long they’ve been in business but I first salivated at their goodies 30 years ago.  They are renowned for their Basque Sheepherder’s bread and the fresh turkey sandwiches they make, carving an average of 19 large turkeys every day.  But somehow I’ve always been more attracted to their desserts.   To enter their pastry area is to enter Heaven itself.  The photo I’ve included is only one of six display cases.  I can gain weight just standing in line.

I don’t know how Mammoth is going to change in the coming years but I’ll say this: if they do anything that results in the closure of Schat’s they are going to have a lot of ‘splaining to do.

SPEED SNIFFING

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Dash, doing what he does best

Dash, working hard

This is a special day in our house – Dash the Wonder Dog was born three years ago today.  It seems like just yesterday that we brought him home…and that we had a life.  Since he adopted us our every waking moment has been devoted to his care, feeding and entertainment.  As you can see from the picture (left) his job is to lie contentedly on the couch and be cute; our job is to fawn over him.  My husband, who was adamantly against getting a dog for the past 25 years, will now not leave Dash alone for more than four hours at a time.  Golf games have been sacrificed so he can stay home with the dog. He makes me feel like I am Joan Crawford if I schedule activities that take me away during the day AND at night.  Next he’ll be accusing me of using wire coat hangers.  Truth be told, it’s been a great three years and as I reflect on  what we’ve learned from dog ownership it boils down to a few good lessons.

The sniff test

The sniff test

First  – we humans could learn a lot from dogs about assessing new people.  We usually utter something like “the jury is still out” when asked about someone recently met.  We pause, we take our time in forming an opinion, we seek advice from others.  Dogs, on the other hand, get right to the heart of it. They sniff butts.  One good whiff can tell them if the new acquaintance is friendly, sociable and what they had for dinner last Tuesday.  They make instant judgements that I’m fairly certain are right on the money.  The scene at our local dog park is like watching speed dating – one good sniff and the dogs either form a friendship or move on.  I’m certainly not suggesting that we sniff butts, although it might be as illuminating a way to pick a President as our current debate system.  But I do think that dogs are on to something – we should trust our initial impressions.  Usually our gut is a pretty good predictor of who we might want to be friends with and who is to be avoided like Louisiana in July.

Elizabeth Brown

Elizabeth Brown and Dash

Second – we have been amazed by the people we have met just because we have a dog.  Every time we take Dash out, which is often, people stop to pet him and talk with us.  In fact my test for whether I would want someone as my friend is not the sniff test but whether they smile when they see Dash.  People who walk right by or who, worse yet, go out of their way to avoid him, would definitely not make my Christmas card list. But other dog owners in particular do stop and while the dogs are sniffing, we generally have some short conversation about how great our dogs are.  We commented last month after one such encounter up in Mammoth Lakes that we have met so many nice people because of Dash.  And even though some of the conversations are very short, the cumulative effect is that our lives are happier because of them.  One that particularly stands out is Elizabeth Brown, who we met in Tahoe two years ago.  She was visiting from England with her parents and grandmother.  She was bored to tears (as she told us) until she saw Dash.  She was so excited to hold him that she asked if she could have her picture taken.  We made sure she asked her parents for permission since we didn’t want to end up on the Sexual Predator list in our neighborhood, and once that was granted we snapped the picture (above).  I know that Dash made her trip more enjoyable and to this day we smile when we see the photo.  We can thank Dash for hundreds of small meetings that have truly enriched our lives.

A true friend

A true friend

Finally, I harken back to a phrase that I heard 30 years ago when I had a cute little mutt – “Lord, let me be the person my dog thinks I am.” It goes without saying – and every dog owner knows this – that there is nothing like the unconditional love of a dog.  Really, most of the time I don’t deserve the excitement Dash expends when I walk into the room. We all could probably take note from canine behavior – always happy, intuitive to every emotion, kisses on command, and loyalty.  The other day I was in our local pet shop and they had a new supply of the Life is Good tee shirts – the ones with cute dogs and great slogans.  My favorite was “Be Your Dog”.  There’s not a chance I can be that good, but surely it’s a worthy goal.

Since this is my last post before Thanksgiving I’d like to take a moment to thank all of our subscribers and wish each and every one of you a very Happy Thanksgiving.  We truly appreciate your continued support of our weekly attempts to entertain.

 

 

THE DROUGHT AND THE JUNE LAKE LOOP

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

mammothYes, it’s me again this week.  As you read this my brother is hiking Machu Picchu.  Which means he has no access to the internet.  This could be my opportunity to write something really awful about him, except that he’s a really good guy and right now I’m just hoping he has a really great time.  So instead, I’ll write about my recent trip to June Lake Loop and the ravages of the California drought.

For those of you who live in Southern California you are probably familiar with Mammoth Lakes, a renowned ski town and home of several Olympians.  It is a place that my husband has visited yearly since 1960 and we have been going there together since the mid-80’s.  As someone who grew up going to Lake Tahoe,  I always considered “the Lake” to be the most beautiful mountain retreat in the Sierras.  And truly, it IS spectacular. But there is something about the eastern escarpment of the Sierras around Mammoth Lakes that takes your breath away.  Rather than the gently sloping foothills that you see on the western side, the eastern stretch juts out at a sharp angle from the flat terrain.  Mammoth is also higher than Tahoe – the town sits at about 7800 feet and the top of the mountain (which I have been crazy enough to ski down) is at a staggering 11,000 ft.

The Aptly named "Oh" Ridge

The Aptly named “Oh” Ridge

When we travel there in the summer we usually make a point of driving the June Lake Loop, a five-mile stretch of Highway 158 that is approximately mid-way between Mammoth Lakes and Lee Vining.  The loop is literally a horseshoe-shaped road that sits between the eastern Sierras and the four lakes that rim the road: June, Gull, Silver and Grant. Six hundred and twenty-nine brave souls live along the shores of the loop as permanent residents, but the population swells to thousands during the summer and fall.  It is the ideal place for fisherman, backpackers and day hikers.  They also have added a new spa which is attractive to people like me who leave their siblings to do the “outdoor” stuff.  This year we made the trip again, partly to see how the drought had affected one of our favorite spots.  As we entered Highway 158 coming north from Mammoth Lakes the first site we came is Oh! Ridge.  As you can see from the picture (right) the ridge earned its name.  I can’t remember a time when upon coming to that point I didn’t say “OH!”.  This picture was taken from my car window as my husband was trying to avoid the jerk driver behind us who was tailgating.  So you can imagine just how gorgeous the picture would be if we had actually stopped.  Still, you get the idea.  Although we had been reading a lot about the California drought, and June Lake was definitely down from previous years, it still looked pretty good.  A bit past the ridge we entered the village of June Lake, the hub of the loop.  It is where most of the population lives, where the businesses are and is adjacent to the June Mountain ski area, a favorite of locals.  There are several good little motels and best of all, an ice cream store.

Gull Lake is a litter harder to see from the roadway but sports its own marina and is a great place for fishing.  A mile down the road is the beautiful Silver Lake.  It is situated such that it often has a reflection of the mountain on the water and is another breathtaking site.  Unfortunately we were there on a cloudy day so it wasn’t showing its best side to us but is beautiful none the less.  I always have a soft spot in my heart for the only business on the lake, the Silver Lake Resort and Café.  It has been in business since the 1920’s, making it one of the oldest recreation resorts in the Sierras.  Make no mistake, “resort” is stretching the term a bit.  It is the type of place that sells everything from tee shirts to fishing lures at the check-out counter.  But back in the late 80’s when we embarked on this trip I had had a few too many…coffees.  There wasn’t a proprietor in June Lake who would let me use a restroom.  But the kind owners of the Silver Lake Resort saved the day, and my bladder, and I will always be grateful.  Again, Silver Lake looked a bit recessed but not alarmingly so.

The depleted Grant Lake

The depleted Grant Lake

The last lake on the loop is Grant Lake, by far the largest of the four.  It serves as part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct so its level is constantly changing depending on how much water is being sucked out of it to head south.  Given the relatively good conditions at June and Silver Lakes we were not prepared for what we saw as we rounded the bend and Grant came into view.  While the photo I took (left) shows some beautiful colors, I quickly realized that I was looking at brush and other flora that used to be underwater.  Trucks and boats were parked on its shores where water used to be.    The marina, which previously sat at the center point of the shoreline is now at its most northern edge.  After spending much of our summer traveling California this was the first time we came face to face with the ravages of the drought.

Snow!

Snow in October!

We left “the Loop” and headed north to Lee Vining to see what Mono Lake looked like.  In past years when the water is low the two islands in the middle of the lake seem to be attached.  As Mono came into view it was clear that not only were the two islands seemingly connected, you could walk from one to the other without so much as getting your toes wet.  We headed back to Mammoth Lakes very depressed by what we had seen.  I’m not sure there’s enough water conservation techniques in the world that can bring Grant and Mono Lakes back up to normal levels.  The weather nerds are predicting a record-breaking El Nino this year and I sure hope they are right.  I won’t mind cancelling a few plans if it means the Sierras get dumped with snow. 

The next day, perhaps a portent of things to come, it started to rain.  The following morning we awoke to snow on the mountaintops.  We can only hope there is much more on the way.

MY (ALMOST) WEEK WITH TOM CRUISE

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.

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