Sunday, May 17, 2009

Part IV Mammoth Lakes, California
March 16-March 27

I caught a shuttle bus from Reno to Mammoth Lakes, California. It was about a five hour ride and I was the only passenger. The bus driver seemed content to tell me all he knew about the area. The bus was so noisy that I missed most of his information. But I did catch the volcanoes he was pointing out as well as the story about the the hard working Chinese railroad builders had to be housed on an island on Mono Lake for protection from the lazy and jealous Irish railroad builders. I also managed to sleep in between his spouts of information. My butt was good and tired and my neck and back were very cricked sideways but the time he delivered me to Sarah waiting in the parking lot of the Mammoth Lakes one and only fast food restaurant, Mac Donald’s. We had a cheerful reunion that involved poaching a hot tube at a local hotel and drinking beer while soaking up the bubbly warmth.

Mammoth Lakes is a small resort town nestled at the base of Mammoth Ski Resort in the high slopes of the Eastern Sierra. The locals all call it little LA as a lot of people from LA have cabins there and come up for the weekend to ski or rock climb. It is about 40 minutes from the Yosemite National Park entrance. It is flanked by the John Muir Wilderness and the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The town has an assortment of outdoor loving locals who m or may not be gainfully employed but who are certainly backcountry skiers or rock climbers and the ritzy high class ski bunnies fresh from LA an looking for some powder. Sarah both loves and hates Mammoth Lakes and I can see why. The setting is certainly breathtaking. The icy grey granite peaks of the high Sierra are ragged and glorious. The topo maps reveal quaint mountain lakes nested in those crags and the numerous trails beg to be explored. The proximity of Yosemite and the Wildernesses almost make up for the weird dynamic that permeates the town as a result of all the LA visitors. The outdoor opportunities here are not just limited to hiking, skiing and rock climbing either. I also found cool places to bike ride and run. There are also some kayaking opportunities.

The weather was glorious while I was there. The snow was piled 12 to 15 feet high but the roads and trees were bare. The sky was bright blue and the temperature stayed in the 60s most of the day though the nights would be cold and we would start a little wood fire in her stove. I developed a bit of routine for the two weeks that I stayed with Sarah. She works at the Water District and heads off to work around 7 am. I started reading a book called Escape where Carolyn Jessop discusses her life inside of a polygamist FLDS cult. Her dramatic first-person account detailed life inside the religious group and the unbelievable, mind-boggling abuses that occurred in her polygamist marriage. She was married to 60 year old Merril Jessop when she was 17 as the fourth wife. She had eight kids who had nearly 80 half siblings. She managed to escape after 17 years of marriage and became the first woman ever granted full custody of her children in a contested case with the FLDS. The book was so entrapping that I would read it for hours in the morning before meeting Sarah for lunch. I finished it in three days and went on to read Under the Banner of Heaven, another book by John Krakauer detailing more outrageous and egregious abuses undertaken by members of the FLDS cult. I don’t tend to take issues with other people’s beliefs but after doing some further research, I have to conclude that there are serious human rights that are being abused by many of the members of the FLDS and that there are many indoctrinated victims of the cult who do not realize the level of abuse that they are enduring.

Sarah and I would spend most of her lunch break discussing my readings and then she would go back to work and I would spend the rest of the afternoon running and researching in the library or the local coffee shop. Because of Matt’s unexpected gainful employment, I had an extra week on my hands. I had hoped to spend it on an organic farm but after hours of research and phone calls, I gave up on the idea. Sarah encouraged me to stay a third week with her and some of her friends offered to let me stay on their couch. In the end, I spent more endless hours on the internet figuring out interesting things to do in LA, LA hostels and LA transportation. I also spent quite a bit of time sorting out transportation options around LA, Las Vegas, San Diego and St. George. I also worked out some Las Vegas hostel options as I would be staying there two nights before flying to Missoula. I think I spent half of my time in Mammoth trying to figure out logistics for the final leg of my trip.

Sarah, and her boyfriend, Keith, and I found various entertaining things to do in the evening. On St. Patrick’s Day we went to the Tap for live music and corned beef and cabbage. I met all of her friends and danced and danced. I didn’t get piss drunk though as one always should on St. Patty’s day. I was still feeling like I didn’t like beer from all the Texas breweries. It would take me quite some time to loose that feeling. Sarah also invited me to join here at her African drum lessons. It was a really fun beginner’s affair. At one point we had such a grooving beat going on that I felt impelled to dance. The instructor loved and I felt so at home. It seems like I can find a vein of Africa everywhere I go. Little gems like the drum class are what life is all about, or at least what travel is all about! We cooked pasta at Keith’s and watched a horror movie called Mirrors. We ended up sleeping there. I was on a mat on the living room floor trying to fall asleep when Keith’s roommate stumbled in from a night on the town. I didn’t want to startle him so I said “hello” and that really startled him. He ended up laying down next to me to chat and he told me all about his attempts to get free drinks from all the gay LA men that were in town for Gay Week. Eventually the ticking clock drove him into his own room and I got some sleep.

Sarah and Keith had a three day weekend so we decided to go hiking and climbing in Yosemite. I was very reticent to go climbing. My knee and back ha been bugging me and I felt particularly incompetent as a climber. All my gym wall experiences had ended in fatigue and disappointment. I decided to be open and give outdoor climbing by best shot though. Yosemite has the largest and most solid granite rock wall around, after all. Not climbing in Yosemite is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel tower. The entrance to Yosemite that is just outside of Mammoth was closed for the winter so we had to take the long way around to the other entrance. The drive was eight hours long and we didn’t arrive until around 2 am. We stumbled around Camp 4 in the dark looking for open camp sites, setting up our tents and transferring all of our food from the car to bear boxes. We had enough food to feed a small elephant for a week, I’m sure. Camp 4 is a walk in camp at the base of a very high granite wall. Climbers mob it in the summer time and leave all kinds of micro trash around. As a result, the black bears are a huge problem and they haunt the camp at night and break into cars that have food left in them.

It rained in the night and we decided to skip the rock climbing for the day. Whew! We hiked to Yosemite Falls instead. It was a very scenic, rainy and chilly affair but there appeared to be droves of hearty tourists who could not be sullied. There were a few diehards (or perhaps just really unprepared) people who were hiking in sandals and carrying paper bags with their picnic lunch inside – poor idea in the rain. The view from the top of the falls was very scenic. We had fleeting glimpses of the valley floor and Half Dome between the whispy rain clouds. Sarah and I went to the furthest overlook and contemplated our deaths. We both are hoping for some kind of spectacular death instead of rotting away from some chronic wasting disease. The problem with spectacular deaths is that they are also often stupid. Falling to my death at the base of Yosemite falls would be pretty epic but everyone would think that I had been horsing around to close to the edge and slipped. Sarah and I decided that if you were going to die that way you would really want to make it look purposeful by making eye contact with spectators and waving good bye to them. We thought that wearing a cape and your underwear over you pants would do away with any lingering doubt that you slipped or tripped. We made our way back from ledge and found Keith more than half way through a hip flask of whiskey and putting the finishing touches on a snow man. We took some compromising pictures of the snowman and headed down. I slipped on the way down and wrenched my left pointer finger. It still hurts every once in a while, almost two months later.

That evening, the rain still hadn’t let up and we huddled under a tarp and cooked soup for dinner. A black bear visited the campground as dusk settled in. It left us all feeling a bit uneasy about going to bed so we spent the rainy evening looking over our shoulders into the darkness for a glint of a beady bear eye. Sarah and I stayed up drinking whiskey and chatting. I had this sudden uneasy feeling. Over the course of the evening we had seen the bear here and there, pawing through empty campsites or approaching fellow campers while they were cooking. I realized that I hadn’t seen the bear in awhile and mentioned this to Sarah. We started casting around for a glimpse of the bear and I heard Sarah gasp. As I turned around to look behind me I got a square view of his reflective eyes approaching us from about a distance of 15 feet. Reflexes got the better of me and I let out a blood curdling scream. I mean I really let it rip and the bear turned and hightailed it back into the woods. Our adrenaline was pumping and we started to giggle and reflect about what the bear would have done had his approach not been discovered. We theorized that all he really wanted was a shot of whiskey to warm him during the cold, damp night. A fellow camper, apparently wakened by my scream, came over to check if we were okay. The bear had approached him unawares earlier in the evening while he was cooking dinner and we had warned him. He brought his whiskey with him and we all sipped away our fears.

The whiskey comforted me enough to go to sleep and the rain drowned out all the sounds of the night. At around 3 am, I was awoken by a sound, or I should say, the absence of sound. The rain had stopped, thank goodness. Then there was a giant thump on my tent and my heart jumped into my throat. The bear!!! Oh my god, the bear was clawing it’s way into my tent. I groped for my bear spray but stopped when there was no follow up thumping or ripping. I listened for a while longer but there was no sound so I went back to sleep. When I finally got up and unzipped my tent in the morning, I was barraged by snow. I stepped out into almost 5 inches of freshly fallen fluffy white snow. The silence had been snow! The plunking sound had been snow slipping of the tree branches onto my tent. I could find no trace of bear tracks in the snow either. Sarah and Keith had spent the night trying to stay dry. Their tent, a small circus tent with a pole in the middle and the four corners staked out, was a dismal affair and had buckled under the weight of the snow. We spent most of the day in the laundry mat drying their sleeping bags and clothes. It was actually quite agreeable and we had the company of several other soaked campers. We did a couple of short hikes and got our feet very wet and cold. We went to a rock climber movie in the evening. While we cooked dinner we saw no sign of the bear. But after Keith and Sarah went to bed, I saw its reflective eyes right in front of me on the way to the bathroom. I hollered at it but that didn’t really scare it away. I went to bed and stayed awake with an uneasy feeling for quite some time listening for the spooky sound of a bear snuffling around outside my tent. I never heard a bear and eventually fell into a restless sleep. The next morning, I inspected the snow for tracks and found clear prints leading through our cooking area, to the corner of my tent an then off into the woods. I felt eerie, very eerie. A black bear with no fear of humans is worse than the very biggest wild brown bear in Alaska.

The snow stopped falling and the overcast sky broke away into the clearest of blues. Everything was radiant in the sun. We took a very scenic and picturesque hike to Mirror Lake. It’s amazing how different the sun makes everything. My heart soared as high as the peaks and I felt like dashing between the falling snow clumps. We drove back to Mammoth Lakes via El Portel. The poppies and wild flowers made the green Irish-looking hillsides orange. It was truly stunning. Spring had arrived in the foothills of the Western Sierra. Sarah’s car overheated on a hill we stopped to drink a beer amidst the poppy fields while it cooled down. We beat a slow and steady retreat after that. The car seemed to overheat if we let the RPMs get too low. Yosemite had been a very endeavor and despite the cold rain and snow, we had a good time.

The next week in Mammoth was much the first; African drumming, dinner parties, running and coffee shop research. I went to Bishop, the nearest big town for a day. I biked and ran and went to a coffee shop there. I also looked for petroglyphs and bought some gloves at Kmart. The town had a couple quaint shops including a very large German style bakery. It was good to spend the day alone and I didn’t return to Mammoth until late in the evening in order to give Sarah and Keith some alone time together. The Yosemite trip had caused some tensions between all of us and Keith and I had been butting heads a tad.

Sarah had to go to LA for the weekend for a two-day prep course for an engineering exam that she was going to take. I decided to go to LA with her as both an adventure and means to get to San Diego. Mammoth Lakes is a transportation void. We went snowshoeing in the Mammoth Lakes basin the morning before we left. I was sad to leave Mammoth Lakes and the familiar coffee shop with its familiar set of unemployed locals. I was sad to leave my nice little routine and my favorite running trails. But most of all I was sad to leave Sarah. She is such a good friend and I always feel so welcome and at home with her and her friends. I got to bake and read and workout and have meaningful conversations. I also felt like I wasn’t putting Sarah out by staying with her. However, I also felt like I need to beat my fear of LA and dispel my movie generated stereotypes. I was determined to spend a couple of days there.
Mammoth Lakes Basin
Sarah and I snowshoe in the Mammoth Lakes Basin
Poppys on the hillside outside of Yosemite
Sarah and Keith in a winter snow-scape
Keith's snowman near the top of Yosemite Falls
Looking down from the top of Yosemite Falls
Warnings about slippery conditions that I should have heeded

El Capitan, the rockclimber's dream

Sarah and Keith's tent after a night of snowfall

Yosemite Falls

1 comment:

thechrisotto said...

Will you narrate a recording of this then mail it to me? It has been far too long, freebird.