California’s Magic Castle

MAMMOTH LAKES — Had the best burger in Mammoth the other night, this hyper-popular, hyper-expensive LA snow park. Some dread the 5-hour drive, but I actually like it, and this year there is frosting as far south as Lancaster.

If you like winter at all, you should spend a couple of days in Mammoth. I recommend mid-week. The hordes arrive on Fridays, led by the Germanic leader Odoacer, and all order and societal norms disappear till the crowds check out Sunday morning.

“Where do you get your cheese?” the So Cal visitors ask the server. “How do you fry your fries?”

Go on a Tuesday is what I’m saying.

The holidays were particular crushing for this snowy little village. The signs as you enter say the population is 7,000, but it’s really more like 4,000 if you count the sober ones. Everyone seems to work three jobs.

At Christmas, the world arrived, followed by a blizzard, which pinned in the weekend travelers. There was NO WAY OUT when they closed 395, and motorists waited and waited, then more visitors started arriving.

It was a snowy Armageddon, according to my buddy Searles, who pretty much oversees everything here. Searles is still this town’s alpha bear – it’s smartest and wisest dude. Tough too. They really ought to make him mayor.

Anyway, food ran low, and the local Von’s was still short of supplies two weeks later, particularly the mountain staples, like beer and bourbon.

There are three things that make this place go: Snow, beer and bourbon.

Bring your own, is what I’m saying. This Von’s is one of the busiest supermarkets in California. Bring your bread and popcorn too. And a nice bottle of Merlot for Searles. Say hi to Bonnie the checker. She’s hardly had a day off.

Be sure to go to that place “Burgers” for a burger; there’s a nice new bar upstairs now. No one asks where they got their cheese.

And rejoice in this sugar-frosted jewel. The Christmas lights are still up on the A-frames. Since they’re frozen to the eaves, amid icicles the size of swords, the lights won’t be coming down soon.

California mountain towns like Mammoth and Tahoe are busier than ever as everyone works remotely. As I write this, it’s 23 degrees, and I think the devil stole the sun. These mid-winter mountain days last about 15 seconds.

But, wow, are they a glorious 15 seconds. The sky is blue, the snow is blue, the notorious winds took the day off. In LA, you shake your head at the dozens of micro-aggressions you witness on the freeway. In Mammoth, you shake your head at the cardinal hopping across the branches of a snowy tree.

Yep, you probably should’ve bought that condo two years ago. Too late now, damn it. Basically, there’s nothing for sale up here anymore, says Sexy Stacey, the real estate tycoon who owns half the town.

The Eastern Sierra remains California’s Magic Castle. Bishop. Bristlecone. Lee Vining. June Lake.

Most of all? Mammoth Lakes — “the headwaters of Los Angeles,” as Searles puts it. You can still rent a cozy cabin midweek. Make a fire. Play a board game. Take a walk in the woods. Those kinds of activities can restore a soupy soul.

As you know, my soul is pretty stout – formed over time of igneous rock, then dipped in Godiva chocolate. I only melt down when the Chicago Bears lose, or I hear a new song that’s halfway decent. I’ll tell you, that Olivia Rodrigo sure can wail.

“You really must donate your brain to science,” my pal Schwartz suggested the other day. “You owe it to humanity to figure out how it works.”

You mean right now, Schwartzy? I mean, I’m not done with it. Or maybe I am.

I speculated the other day that all the great songs and movies have already been made, a controversial stance to be sure.

It certainly negates such huge talents as Olivia Rodrigo, who can really wail, or Bad Bunny, who reminds a lot of folks of Sinatra. Or Billie Eilish, a breathy Bessie Smith.

For the definitive answer on old vs. new and good vs. gunk, let us turn to the upcoming Super Bowl halftime show. That’s sort of why I’m here, in fact: to gird for the Super Bowl halftime, the most emotionally challenging moment of the year for many viewers.

Well, at least for me.

Because these mountains always fluff me up. I come out of the Eastern Sierra like a big load of cotton sheets, warm and smelling of French butter.

And Searles’ cigarettes and my dewy wool socks.

FYI, we’re working on a book, Searles and I.

I can’t tell you more than that, except that it’ll come with lots of annoying little truths – bar-stool wisdom and all the personal stuff you usually only tell your oldest friend.

Believe it or not, we even have a publisher for that.

Here’s our plan: It’ll be like Kerouac, except more sedentary. It’ll be like the Old Testament, minus all the racy parts.

It’ll remind you of Hemingway and Caitlin Flanagan and Garrison Keillor when he’s really, really on.

And Johnny Carson, when Rickles was a guest.

The book will be short, not too many words (like most books). When you drop it on a table, it’ll buzz a little.

It’ll have a touch of Twain and his trademark school-yard vernacular.

“We’re gonna $*$^(!^$$&^ crush it,” Searles predicts. “$*$^(!^$$&^” crush it!”

Honestly, I don’t know what it’ll be.

No doubt.

At this very moment, we’re mangling metaphors and cooking up some new verbs you never even heard before. It’ll likely be the first book requiring subtitles.

Most of all, it will smell of wood smoke and falling snow – all the great things you love about the north woods. It’ll make you wish you were in a misty Sierra meadow at first light, with a good camera, awaiting the pubescent elk to come by for breakfast.

That’s the kind of book Steve and I are writing.

Stay tuned.

Hey Sara Lessley, thanks for the condo!

Favorite Mammoth stops: The Breakfast Club, the Warming Hut, Burgers, Toomey’s (run by the chef who helped launch the famed deli at the Lee Vining gas station). Most of the rest is overpriced and underwhelming. Best to bring pasta and a bag of meatballs and cook in your cabin, with a side of Fireball as your veggie. Because adult lift tickets now cost $240 on the busy days. Even the scruffiest motels and cabins about the same. Info: https://www.mammothmountain.com/

Speaking of scruffy, copies of “Surviving Suburbia” are going out in the mail this week. Thank you for your patience. Other titles available at ChrisErskineLA.com/shop/. Have a great weekend. Cheers.

24 thoughts on “California’s Magic Castle

  1. It scares me a little that I am starting to understand how your mind works. I knew as soon as I posted my sincere comment that you were going to take it the wrong way. No, please wait until after you’re gone to let science try to figure out what connects all those wonderfully creative, random and often brilliant dots. You need them for that new book. Please put me on the list for a copy NOW. XO, Your Pal Schwartzy

  2. Drive two more hours to Brian head and ski much better snow at more than half the price and no lines !
    Plus all parking is underground

  3. I can’t wait for the new book (you better not be joking) I could use a mirthful tome to brighten my breakfast coffees on days that are not Wednesdays or Saturdays – devoted to you. I hope it includes some “Murphy’s Law” type aphorisms. Many years ago I worked at Price, Stern and Sloan Publishers in the Art Department and I actually typeset Murphy’s Law. Here is my favorite, it’s called Schopenhauer’s First Law of Entropy: “If you add one cup of wine to a cask of sewage, you get a cask of sewage. If you add one cup of sewage to a cask of wine, you get a cask of sewage.” Words to live by. (my daughter, Torie, son-in-law, Adam and two delightfully beautiful grandchildren, Zane (5) and Sedona (4) were cavorting in Mammoth yesterday – they sent pictures) file under small world. XO

  4. Wait a minute…! You travel to frigid and snowpacked Mammoth and abandon you faithful arctic wolf at home?
    Has the SPCA been altered?
    I’m looking forward to your excuse…

  5. Always enjoy your words about the Eastern Sierra! One of the most beautiful places on Earth.
    Steve is one of the kindest, most gentle humans I know. We met through a mutual friend when I lived in Mammoth back in1980!
    Save me a copy of that book, too – I’m looking forward to you both signing it! 😉

    1. Hi Jen, everyone who knows Steve seems to admire him, except for his former bosses. He might actually be the most-interesting person I’ve ever met. Feel so fortunate to be able to tell his story through this memoir. Best, Chris

  6. I grew up in Bishop and we had a cabin in Mammoth Lakes across the road from Lake Mamie for 24 years before we sold. It is truly God’s country. None of it looks the same now. A few years ago we bought a little cabin between June Lake and Silver Lake, best decision we ever made. It is quieter there than the mob scene in Mammoth. If you go back be sure to eat at Epic Cafe in June Lake, the food is amazing.

    1. Hi Beth, I prefer June Lake too, especially that area down around Silver. Double Eagle Lodge is one of my favorite spots in California, though now it’s hard to find an open night. Thanks for the tip on Epic Cafe. Cheers!

  7. I have swung down the slopes at Mammoth in both the old days when McCoy was building and scheming, and the old new days, when corporate L.A. modernized and enlarged the airfield for its impulsive weekend jaunts, Summer and Winter, and the condos and other lodging went up all around the town in an off-season construction parade; and the big time realtors moved in. We used to camper-camp on the road going in, and soak in the steaming waters of the Hot Creek chimney down below when it was open heaven and you could still do it, passing a bota bag around a big circle in the frosty moonlight, girls doing bushy handstands in the creek while time floated away in the silver steam like an evaporating dream. Maybe I should write about all that, sometime…

    All travelogues have their moment, and many have said you can’t go back, but it’s fun to try. Mine was a long farewell eased into place by endless skiing in the ice cream sweetness of many glittering winters, and by memorable Springs and Falls spent fly fishing on The Owen’s at Arcularus and in the canyon, as well as at Hot Creek, where on moonlit Summer nights I first learned there are places where the wolves shine and the moon howls. Perhaps there is a book in that, too.

    Hope the writing goes creatively, and well. Any words conceived up in that country will have the lux glass of the lakes and the green spice of the pines in their epiphanies, and their sentences should flow like mountain air, high in the mind of the reader. I wrote a few decent poems up there in the old days, and lived yet a few more. I think you’re on to something fine.

    1. HI Forrest, wish I had your feel for the Eastern Sierra. And “bushy handstands” must conjure some lovely memories. Did a bit of fly fishing on Hot Creek. Anyway, thanks for the “word pictures,” as always. Cheers

  8. Loved your comments on Mammoth ! We built a home in the now village area 30 years ago and have enjoyed the area ever since. Hope to be going there the first week of February. My son was there during the storm and was shoveling the deck for two days. Thank god we have snow removal for the driveway. Enjoy the area. I always read your emails. I used to read your column in the Times and then signed up for your emails when you retired. I’m in Valencia and and love to read your adventures.

    1. What a treasure that place must be. Glad there is snow. Hope it continues, though we seem to be in another dry rut already! If you happen to rent out your place, please let me know. There are few choices these days.

  9. Nice piece again! Mammoth was part of my childhood, growing up in Glendale. Watched it evolve each year, one new ski lift at a time. Then it became ridiculously expensive. So did you ski??? I agree with Burgers– great burger.

  10. Loved your take on my hometown – I know most of the people you referenced. I’m a little sad that you’re telling everyone to come here mid-week, since that’s when we catch our breath and regain our sanity. And in 25 years of birdwatching on the Eastside, I’ve never seen a cardinal..

    1. Well, in California anymore, mid-week is the only time to do anything. I don’t have enough of a following to move the needle, trust me. On the cardinal, maybe it was a woodpecker. Cardinals were always around in the depths of winter in the Midwest.

  11. hopefully you stopped at Schat’s bakery in Bishop. If not back track immediately and go there! More tales of White Fang please in your new book.

  12. Oh those pics of winter wonderland remind me of Ishpeming Michigan (the U.P.) where my friend has a cabin. The wintry landscape with evergreens all around and God’s sky as far as the eye can see makes you feel like you’re inside a snow globe…in a good way. Everyone should experience it just once. But yikes those icicles on the roof…I hope Sara doesn’t have ice dams! Looking forward to this next book. Don’t have to tell me to stay tuned…I won’t touch the dial.

  13. Forgot to mention but thought you’d want to hear…sadly we lost a legend in sports radio yesterday – Les Grobstein RIP

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