Location: 407 Manzanita Road, Mammoth Lakes CA.
Time: Dawn’s own ass crack, early January 2012.
I was laying in my tiny bed debating whether or not to snooze the next alarm when my housemate Dominic busted through the door.
“You gonna be ready to go in half an hour?”
I grunted in the affirmative and reached for my light. We were up before the sun to make an attempt at scaling Mount Dana today. Though not a particularly technical hike, the third pitcher of Tahoe water at The Tap the night before had me somewhat skeptical about our chances of a timely wake-up, let alone a successful ascent.
Yet there I was, chasing ibuprofen with coffee and putting on flannel-lined pants before the sparrow’s first fart of the day.
The winter drought may have made for weak skiing but we took a quantum of solace in the fact that Tioga Pass, Yosemite National Park’s eastern access road, was open this deep into the usually snowy season.
We piled into a 1987 Suzuki Samurai and broke the morning silence with the long grind of a tired starter motor followed by the persistent cough of a leaky exhaust. Dom was in front, I sat in the cargo bay clutching a McDonald’s coffee and at the wheel was Chris, another adventurous resident of our apartment.
The 4×4 belonged to him, and was a surprisingly clean example of one of my all-time favorite off road machines. With no heat, no radio, and a top speed of around sixty miles an hour it required a bit of patience to operate, but the little Samurai packed its own weight in je ne sais quoi a hundred times over to make up for a lack of amenities. And with its straight, rust-free body the little rig project potential in spades.
“You might want to put your jacket on,” was the warning Chris issued as I squeezed behind the front seat in a sweater.
“It’s going to be pretty cold back there.”
These words rang true soon enough. The soft top flapped against the roll bar and the engine spat in protest as we raced the sun across Highway 395. I tugged my Spies Like Us hat a little lower and took another pull of coffee.
But before I could open my mouth to complain the sun hit full strength and the mountain’s majesty preemptively shut me up.
Day’s first light makes for the most dramatic views of the High Sierra Mountains we were passing through, and being squarely centered in one of the country’s most spectacular valleys made for a scene nothing short of extraordinary. Sunlight revealed rocks that crashed out of snow-dusted peaks like the gnarled fingers of an exiled god reaching desperately to the heavens. Each crag was accentuated by the low sun, which presented the mountains with the deep texture of an impasto painting.
The Samurai struggled through the Tioga Pass as we climbed a thousand feet in less than a mile, and nearly another thousand in as far again. Engine surging to redline, tiny carburetor gasping for air, Chris had to dive for second gear to punt the machine up the road as its geriatric suspension keeled us like an old ship around hairpin corners.
I couldn’t help but imagine the road on my sport bike… it had been far too long since I’d pulled face-rocking G’s on my GSXR, and these corners at this time of day would certainly have given the tires a workout. But the bike was locked away in dad’s garage on the other side of the country; I’d have to rely on skis for my adrenaline drip this season.
We arrived at the trailhead just before eight, and Dom pointed out the peak we would be attempting. It looked… far. This was to be the moment of the trip when I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into.
Dom was an experienced woodsman, with seasons of work with the U.S. Forestry Service under his belt. His knowledge made itself apparent in his pre-departure advice; “If you have any candy or snacks in the car, I’d get rid of them. Because of the bears.”
The first kilometer or so of trail was on flat land, but I was already having trouble breathing. I had only been living at altitude for a few days, and we were ten thousand feet above sea level before even beginning the ascent.
Once the path headed upward, ecosystems flashed by us like a slideshow. The thick forest we began in gave way to rocky grasslands, and then steep stone steps through sparse vegetation. But by the time we were about a third of the way up the ascent angle and thin air was catching up to me, and our progress was slowed significantly.
Still, I had no qualms with frequent breath-and-water breaks as it allowed me the chance to turn around and take in majesty that is Yosemite National Park.
Peaks tore up the bottom of a brilliant blue sky, and the wind whispered ominously as it snaked through the trees. The little Suzuki, now nearly a mile away, was barely visible where we had left it.
It was easy to see why legends like Muir, Chouinard, and Bachar, called this place their favorite stomping ground. I reckoned Yosemite ranked among my top ten favorite places already… and I had only seen one percent of it.
As we continued to climb the flora features became more and more of a novelty, as the “path” and mountainside were pure rock at the halfway point.
At this point the peak was clearly visible, and I could taste victory. And beef jerky. Dom had brought a righteous three-quarter pound bag of the stuff, and we indulged ourselves in a few strips for a morale and calorie boost.
The last quarter of the climb was the steepest, rockiest, and biggest pain in the ass. I was taking giant steps and grasping footholds with my hands, to avoid putting one of these tippy boulders into my teeth.
All three of us were feeling the strain, and but with a few encouraging insults we inveigled each other to press on.
Dom had got a bit ahead as I scaled the last rock… which wasn’t. I made it to what I had thought was the last ridge to be greeted with a fantastic view of Mono Lake, and the actual peak of Mount Dana another hundred meters up.
I could hear laughter from the top, and Dom called down “thoughtcha were at the top didn’t ya? Just one more ridge!”
After a quick timer-photo I zipped my coat up all the way and reached deep into my energy reserve for one last scamper to the peak.
I made it, with Chris close behind, and was rewarded with a three-hundred sixty-degree view of the most unbelievable curves I’d seen since I left Hollywood three weeks prior.
I’m talking about the horizon, of course.
Huge lakes, valleys, peaks of all sizes and the biggest sky in California had my team and I completely speechless for nearly a whole second before I ravenously dived for the jerky bag to rescue myself from a calorie deficit.
Chris was still in disbelief at the fact that he had completed the climb as I gnawed on my second strip of beef. He had wanted to bail more than a few times, but I’m happy to say we talked him into sticking it out.
We allowed ourselves a few moments to revel in our accomplishment, but it wasn’t long before the howling wind coaxed us back toward the bottom.
The descent was a lot easier and less dramatic than the climb, but while easy on the lungs it was hell on the knees.
Finally back at the 4×4 and happy to discover it un-tampered with by bears we were ready to return to the apartment and right on schedule to arrive before 2:00. Hell, there was still enough daylight for another climb… almost.
I reckoned six weeks in Hollywood had left me full enough of “city” to last another year, and one week in the Boston ‘burbs was more than enough time to spend with the family and cash in on a Christmas appearance, so now it’s on to the next adventure.
I landed a winter job at a ski resort called Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierras of Northern California, so after a long night of Laphroaig and laughs with my old man, I packed up my shit and dragged myself into the security line at Logan International for a 6:00AM departure to Mammoth Lakes/Yosemite Airport via San Francisco.
I had managed to navigate baggage check and the Dunkin’ Donuts line using only grunts and gestures to communicate, but the TSA agents at security were less amused with my groggy antics. The fluorescent lights were burning a hole in my brain and I could barely stand up straight while the body scanner emailed pictures of my wiener to some dude behind a curtain. I had forgotten to remove my belt, which earned me the removal of all my bags contents onto a steel table.
“How long did you say you were going for?”
“Uh, three months. Ish.”
The agent looked at me suspiciously. Apparently he didn’t reckon a jacket, two t-shirts, three pairs of Calvin Kliens, and a toothbrush was enough equipment to live off for that period of time.
“And you’re on a one-way ticket?”
Christ, at least I had shaved my beard that morning.
They finally let me go when they saw my MacBook Pro. Obviously someone willing to spend $1,500 on a computer couldn’t be bothered hijacking a plane.
I rocked up to the gate as the jet was boarding, and was met with another buzzkill when I realized I had a middle seat.
All the way to San Francisco? Nooo.
As I sauntered through the aisle of the 727 my eyes dawdled from my ticket to the seat number, then down to the person I’d be spending next seven hours rubbing shoulders with.
Wait… could it be?
Not only was the person tiny, but she was a she, and she was actually rather attractive.
God, Allah or whoever was watching over the universe that morning had taken pity on me and hooked me up… this more than made up for the lack of free champagne on the cheapass airline I had booked last minute.
I wanted to say something to her but I knew I reeked of scotch and I hadn’t slept in over thirty hours… if I ever had an excuse to be off my game, that was it.
So I passed out and woke up five hours later, took an airplane shower (lavatory sink water splashed in the face and under armpits followed by two swift slaps to the right cheek) and started talking to my neighbor.
She was pretty cool but sadly, not heading onward to my destination, so I reckon the SFO United terminal was the last place I’ll see her.
No matter, a few hours later I was walking across the tarmac to my friend Mary’s Subaru and on to the tiny town of Mammoth Lakes, which I’d call home for the Winter of 2012.