Starry, Starry Nights

MAMMOTH LAKES — These mountains always remind me of Reese Witherspoons’ teeth. Sure, they are beautiful, nearly perfect. But as with many actresses, there are almost too many of them.

Up here, they call them “The Minarets,” those jagged peaks that make up Mammoth’s north wall, the one that looks like a mosque.

Allegedly, these granite spires all have names: Michael, Leonard, Clyde (the tallest Minaret).

Or, you can name them yourself, as I do: Grumpy, Sneezy, Groucho, Catty Cakes, Smaratcus, Suzanne.

In any case, I am back, hanging with my sidekick Searles in this snowy, linen land, to borrow from Don McLean.

Catch the breeze and the winter chills,

In colors on the snowy, linen land…

Always liked him better than Dylan, but that’s just me.

Purportedly, McLean wrote his paean to Vincent van Gogh on a paper bag, after reading a biography of the painter.

They did not listen, they’re not listening still

Perhaps they never will...

FYI, Robert Frost used to write poems on the soles of his shoes. Dizzy Gillespie wrote “Night in Tunisia” on a garbage can lid.

I’m writing this column in a little diner on Old Mammoth Road, in ketchup, on a plate of fries (hence, the spotty punctuation).

Don’t judge. Doesn’t mean I don’t take this quite seriously. To my mind, ketchup just makes everything better.

I was telling Searles when I arrived that we live in an era of blame and judgment, not an era of solutions. Were I able to wave a magic wand over the American Kingdom, I would declare it The Land of the Solution.

I would also forbid silly bickering and family infighting. Beer would be free. Everyone would have a canoe.

Trust me, I would be a lot of fun with a magic wand. I mean, once I got going….

You’d be richer, I’d be taller, Rapunzel would have even more ravishing auburn hair.

She’s up here too, by the way. Didn’t realize she was coming up till she called me from Lone Pine, the bottom bough of the 395, the first pine you come to when you leave So Cal.

Love these little Sierra towns that never change — Big Pine, Lone Pine, Bishop — with their ma-and-pa cafes and boy-howdy saloons. I pick up a twang every time I drive through them. Actually, I start twanging around Lancaster. By Independence, I’m gnawing on jerky.

Soon as I hit the 395, I turn on my fave radio station, 92.5, the Sierra, an alt-rock station that thinks Don McLean and Tom Petty are alt rock. Fine by me.

I zoom past the state hatcheries, where they feed cat food to the baby rainbow trout. Indeed, they stock the lakes and creeks of the Eastern Sierra with fish fed on Purina cat chow. Once in a while, you can hear them meow.

“Here, kitty kitty,” I say whenever I fly fish on Hot Creek.

I’m up here again to work on a book with Steve Searles, the troubadour of these silver mountains, the Thoreau of their iconic bears. He’s a folk hero up here. Before Seales (aka BS), the bears were so overstocked that they were showing up at school recesses and having babies under hotels.

Steve, the town’s hippie biologist, its mountain-man conscience, was hired to hunt them. Instead, he saved them. Don’t want to give away the ending, but this book might save you too.

Yesterday, Steve told me the story of Blondie, a big beautiful mother with anger issues, who repeatedly broke into cabins after both her cubs died.

At one point, she broke into the mayor’s home, got into the chocolate-covered Ex-Lax. Sometimes, you just have to laugh.

Actually, don’t you always have to laugh?

Anyway, the book will be about these bears, a ghostly presence. They are to the Eastern Sierra as elephants are to the Congo.

Like Steve, the bears stick to the shadows. When you’re out walking, looking down, admiring pinecones the size of small cars, the bears are often napping in the trees right over your head.

We’re going to tell you all about bears in this book. We’re going to surprise you with stories about their patience with car door locks and why you shouldn’t be afraid.

Steve used to crawl inside bear dens for a living. So he knows these bears. Wait till you hear about their sex lives.

And we’re going to tell you secrets of these mountains and the starry, starry nights. How, when it’s clear and cold, you can see the Milky Way.

By the way, Perseus made an appearance the other night, son of Zeus. As an infant, he was cast into the sea in a box.

Like you and me, Perseus had his challenges.

Eventually, he beheaded Medusa while she slept — using a Go-Pro, I think, though my recollection is a little rusty. I was very young.

Indeed, I would turn to stone too if I spent a winter up here. Hell, I can barely manage the door code at the condo. Generally, I don’t much like condos, but a Mammoth Lakes condo is among the best you’ll find, with photos and tchotchkes of bears and trout throughout.

I like that in a condo.

As I was puttering around the kitchen the other morning, I was thinking how my favorite part of skiing used to be waking early to make the kids pancakes and sausage before hitting the slopes. They’d twirl the crisped sausages in the syrup, amid the scent of cinnamon and hot coffee – all the soft sugary smells of ski slopes and Christmas mornings.

Note to self: “Hey Self, call the kids. Arrange a week for us up here during Smartacus’ spring break. I wanna get Catty Cakes in the snow, giggling. I wanna get Finn and the lovely older daughter out of the house and into one of these noisy saloons. I want Rapunzel and her boyfriend to wander in, like a couple of cheery balloons.

I might take Smartacus snowmobiling, on one of Searles’ mighty Polaris sleds, that are quicker than my car.

Yet, it’s all the simple stuff, really — the walks, the moonlit nights, the pancakes. When you inhale up here, it’s so much better. When you exhale, it smells like pine.

Up here at the apex of the California wilderness.

Up here, in this snowy, linen land.  

28 thoughts on “Starry, Starry Nights

  1. These columns are giving me a serious jones for one more trip down Solitude, even though I know it might well end up costing me several months of golf as i go through rehab for torn ligaments. The mountain air is doing wonderful things for your writing, although you may have experienced a brief moment of high altitude delirium comparing Don McLean, a sweet voiced and reasonably talented songwriter with the brilliant and staggeringly prolific man who shattered the boundaries of what a rock and roll song could be. Still, your opinion of ketchup was spot on and knowing what a joy it is to work with you, I eagerly await your collaboration with another lucky Steve.

    1. Ha! I stand by my McLean-Dylan pronouncement, as shallow and unfashionable as that may seem. American Pie will be around a lot longer than Blowin’ in the Wind. FYI, I work exclusively with Steves now. Always had good experiences.

      1. Seriously, I’m telling the bartender to cut you off. Next you’ll be telling me The Macarena is a better song than Hey, Jude.

  2. What an evocative, lovely post! Yes, you have to laugh about bears, free beer, canoes for everyone. ( That could be a good campaign slogan, by the way.) Looking forward to your amazing collaboration in print. And more details on peaks named Suzanne.

  3. Years ago we were told by a tour guide that the Minarets were the home of the Witches in the original movie The Wizard of Oz! In the film they show the witches flying back home, to the minarets. Also have you tried the Restaurant at Convict Lake. It’s our favorite!

  4. I saw the world premier of “Vincent”, a one man show with Leonard Nimoy. The Don McLean song as well as Van Gogh’s art were featured. Great show. Years later I would meet Nimoy at his son’s graduation from the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara. Small world, and a haunting song.

    1. I gotta go with Fogelberg! His song ‘As the Raven Flies’ is still in my top 5 songs of all time; plus he’s an Illinois boy as both Chris and I are 🙂

  5. Bears are fascinating/scary creatures. Fascinating from afar and frightening were one to encounter a grouchy one.

    I recently learned that mother bears give birth while hibernating. New cubs nestle into Mama’s fur to nurse and everyone meets in the springtime. As a human mom, it seems like a not terrible plan.

  6. Really enjoyed this one. I am a third generation California girl, a rare species. Somehow you made this landscape seem both familiar and exotic, cozy and dangerous. All at the same time. I could use some saloon time.

  7. I once had to warn away a bear sow with two cubs in tow who woke me up while entering my three-sided-rock campsite in the old Curry Company dog camp on the Yosemite Valley floor. My young dog, leashed to my wrist, actually was the one who woke me, with her moans and porcupine fur. The smell was strong and unforgettable. The bear then determinedly went to the site below, and some others, tearing trunk lids open, puncturing cans to treat her cubs to their contents, strewing flour sugar, beans, bread, and various fresher edibles around each site visited, in a kaleidoscopic mess. I saw it all the next morning. This was before bear boxes, bear trash cans, etc. , came into vogue. Hanging packs from trees often was no defense. They just climbed them and maneuvered suspended edibles, whenever feasible. But the rangers told us the real attraction was the dogs. Bears are omnivores. Bears easily run down most dogs, and eat them like candy, especially the small ones. If you love dogs, you might not love bears or their strong smell, though you might admire their intelligence, tenacity, wildness, and reasonably canny adaptation to our presence in the wilderness. Read,” Setting Free The Bears” for a sympathetic literary look at their captivity, and the account by New Yorker writer and author Joseph Mitchell of the thousands(!) of bears denning in plain sight in culverts, highway underpasses, under piles of leaves in gullies, etc., etc. all over the Northeastern U.S. and Canada each winter. The ursine thuggishness currently being displayed on the Russian—Ukraine border is an example of how some of our species have adopted a bear’s glowering persistence and instinctively stubborn single-mindedness. In this and other ways do they seem almost human. To truly love a bear might be an oxymoron, but the late literary stylist E.L.Doctorow and the currently active Elizabeth Strout, having written to the contrary, might not agree. There is always a degree of uncertainty with bears; as there often is among humans. Both can bearly contain themselves when the chips are down. If what is down is potato chips, they behave incredibly alike.

  8. Thanks for the lovely prose of that area. You evoke so many of my wild, youthful memories of Mammoth in winter, including the condos. In summer, curious about about Mammoth without the moguls, I challenged myself to ride a mountain bike with my teenage son down the backside of the mountain. The switchbacks from hell almost did me in. Plenty of scrapes. It was so much easier to ski down the face of Cornice.
    If you ever run low on Steves, I’m happy to pinch hit. Good luck with the book!

  9. Hopefully Scampi, the garlic shrimp eating bear that sauntered into your backyard in search of lunch, gets a mention in the book.

  10. I’m delighted that I stumbled onto your site,a truly happy find. We camp in the Mammoth area every year–Lundy Lake, Virginia Lakes, etc. We’ll have to try the “Here kitty, kitty” routine–can’t work any worse than our usual gambits.
    I look forward to your upcoming book–sounds like a winner.
    Happy retirement!!

  11. Blondie was in our cabin when we arrived, cleaning out our refrigerator, making a huge mess on the kitchen floor. The bear whisperer arrived the next morning with the PBS crew who did a special on him. Blondie came in through a window I had told my wife was impossible for 38 years.
    Cardy Coate

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