Long before sunrise, Dad would pile us kids in the car and race across the Mojave and up the Eastern Sierra to catch the half day of skiing that marked our first day of a Mammoth vacation. A flat-lander from Chicago, Dad fell in love with skiing while attending Stanford, and his passion became mine. From the time Dave McCoy opened Mammoth in the fifties until I rushed headlong into a teenage marriage that took me to Boston, “the Mountain” was my spiritual home and skiing my meditation.
Snow was only to be shoveled in Boston. As it piled up across the driveway from November to April, I would slip into a malaise. Naked trees haunted the frozen landscape of damp New England winters with dark nights never seemed to end. I longed to come home to the Mountain.
After twenty-five years in New England, I did just that, catching a morning flight out of my old life back into my older one. I returned to Los Angeles with grown kids, no job and a hole in my heart that longed to be filled.
That first winter I came to the Mountain filled with anticipation and dread. Los Angeles had changed so much during the decades I had been away – three times larger with high-rises and broken, overcrowded freeways. What would I find as I headed up the Owens Valley toward the magical place of my youth?
To my astonishment, the Mountain had waited for me.
The rickety old Italian-American Restaurant with its sumptuous eggplant parm was still open for business; the man who fit my first ski boots was still on hand, slightly grayer, to help me reboot at the old ski shop in a town that time forgot; and the Stove still served up the best biscuits n’gravy in the world. As the old rodiron ski lift carried me lazily up Chair 12, I delighted that colorful Mardi Gras beads were still being strewn across the boughs of conifers like Christmas garland. Traversing down tree-lined trails hardwired into my brain, I could still find my way back to the Main Lodge where my chums and I bunked in basement dorms during school holidays. It was all there waiting for me.
Change came that next winter. Dave McCoy, now in his eighties, sold Mammoth and the Mountain succumbed to the fate of all family-owned ski areas destined to be transformed into franchise resorts catering to the uber-wealthy from around the globe. Overnight, sushi restaurants sprung up. Gondolas and high-speed lifts shuttled out-of-towners between rebranded ski trails and urbane hotels. The Italian-American Restaurant and other icons of a by-gone era were razed. Snow boarders seized control of the upper runs and the Mountain’s kitschy little mascot “Wooley” took on a new, upscale look on bumper stickers and ski jackets.
But I confess, I haven’t minded the assault on my youthful memories nor the loss of eggplant parm. The Mountain waited for me. It gave me a season to get my bearings among sights and sensations I yearned for throughout those long New England winters. It waited so we could change together.
Nowadays, I bring my grandchildren to the Mountain. We race across the Mojave and up the Eastern Sierra to vacation together as skiers. As I watch them dash with joyous abandon down the slopes, I feel such gratitude to the Mountain, which they have come to love as much as I do. They are building memories on the snowy trails of my youth and will recall in their own time that Giovannis makes amazing pizza and the Stove still serves up the best biscuits n’gravy in the world.