As I sip my steaming espresso in front of the raging fire I’ve just started in the wood stove in an attempt to take the deep chill out of the cabin’s wood paneled living room and watch the blizzard unfolding outside of the large picture windows I can’t help but think “This can’t be normal”.
It’s Memorial Weekend and five short days away from June. As everyone else packs up their bikinis, umbrellas, and unicorn pool floats to head to the beaches and warm lakes I’m here in a tattered wool sweater, fleece pants, and using my hot coffee mug to warm my icy fingers.
Being fairly new to mountain cabin life I wonder “Well maybe this is normal?”.
I came up this weekend after a grueling travel and shoot schedule to get a jump start on summer chores and to start prepping the cabin for my mother’s visit at the end of next month- Check the snow level, retire the compost toilet for the season, walk out the bedding to be washed for summer.
Having arrived at the cabin to my compromised door (high on the list of the repairs for the season) metal latch having snapped from the snow pressure and the door having collapsed in on itself yet again I wondered if my mother’s June 29th arrival was going to have to be a hike in? Having advised her against her original plan of coming in May she had settled on late June as that seemed “safe” for having an open road. As the snow keeps pouring down this late May morning I wonder if end of July is even safe…
I think about the early settlers of this area and how depressing it must have been to have had a couple of brief peeks of summer sunshine to then be buried under multiple feet of new powder and realizing it was too early to retire the snowshoes and start planting their summer vegetable gardens.
I thought ahead for a moment to our 4thof July guests this year and that they may also be faced with the situation of wading through the extra river that comes after a big snow season for the second time in three years. I heard the mountain reported is was the snowiest May on record. It certainly was some of the best conditions of the season when I took my last spin along the slopes and delighted in the clear skies and Memorial Day powder.
If this isn’t the old normal, I wonder if along with so many other global warming repercussions this was the new normal. I mean was Christmas in July going to be an actual thing now?
My Canadian guests after an initial moment of PTSD having just recently moved to sunny southern California to escape from the snow, took the high snow levels, power outage, and broken door in stride.
At least we could use the inside toilet! Having opted to retire the compost one before it warmed up too much and became rather unpleasant we decided to just roll the dice on inside plumbing with melted snow and ample doses of anti freeze. Fingers crossed come the thaw this was a wise decision! As with all things cabin it is always a game of risk versus reward!
But the rewards are always ample so mayhap the risks are worth it….
“You can’t be here right now” the snowcat driver hollered at me over the purr of the engines. Ain’t that the truth I thought to myself as I struggled the last quarter mile to the cabin in the dark with a fading headlamp.
Why in God’s name did I let my 5pm before dark quick dinner escalate into a 4 course meal with a total stranger? A lovely total stranger who I had met at the chef’s table at Skadi, a local Scandinavian restaurant tucked into a strange business park on a residential street in town. We poured through stories and courses and before I knew it deep dark had settled into the snow covered streets.
As I was huffing along the snowy path, my freezing breath exploding out of me as I tried to race my headlamp’s battery reserve to the cabin, all I could think about was the story I had heard recently from a friend that Mammoth’s hills were covered in mountain lions and that they were more to be feared than the healthy local bear population.
I was pretty sure I had been stalked a couple winters ago on a very similar night. That night I sung “hey bear” loudly for the entire half mile walk to the cabin, being careful not to run or appear panicked. The next day when I saw fresh tracks littered around the back side of the campground I knew I wasn’t just scared of the dark.
I was relieved to see that snowcat and it’s glaring headlights cutting through the pitch black of the campground. It felt so alien seeing such a large vehicle in the middle of the backcountry trek to the cabin and I had a momentary flash to The Shining and Dick Hallorann barelling his way to the Overlook Hotel.
I crossed the track well in front of the cat to make sure the driver saw me and wouldn’t inadvertently knock me into a snow bank.
I can only imagine what was running through his mind as he opened his door to reprimand me. As I explained to him that I was just trying to make my way to my cabin he grinned and exclaimed “That’s your cabin back there with the lights on?”. As I explained yes, I am the idiot trying to make my way in the pitch black after a 4 course dinner to an isolated cabin alone, he responded “Well, yes you are allowed to be here!”.
I explained to him I was rarely out on the path after dark and that it was good to know what time they normally groomed now, since in three years I had never even heard the snowcat on the snow muted cross country ski trail. As I wandered forward into the night I was grateful to have had that brief contact with someone. To know I wasn’t “Alone, in the night, in the dark” to quote a line from one of my favorite scary movies.
The isolation of the cabin in winter is one of it’s greatest advantages but at the same time is also it’s greatest disadvantage when alone. Every time I take that walk back in the frigid dark alone and terrified I ask myself over and over “What were you thinking?”, and every time I awake to a pristine, silent, snow covered lake and take my first step outside to the hush of the winter forest I remember it is all worth it.
The rain is pouring and hitting the tin roof with a rhythmic patter as a light rumble of thunder breaks over the red mountain who’s name I still don’t know for some reason.
I slip another savory bite of buttery salmon with a delicate snap of citrus into my mouth and take a sip of the chilled cremant bubbling in my glass. If a deer or bear walks casually by the window I think I’ll call Disney because this can’t possibly be real life. (I won’t of course mention the fact I also got a splinter in my foot walking to the kitchen in my socks, they don’t need to know these things.)
I think back to two summers ago when I was just another sweaty Angelino sleeping on a cot in front of a fan suffering through another record setting heat wave in a city where air conditioning is rare.
Here I am now in a sweater watching the rain fall, debating if I should start a small fire in the wood stove, and thinking with all of it’s headaches, spiders, bruised legs, lack of oxygen, and the occasional rodent boarder today at this un-sweaty moment what a delight it all is.
I got a late start this season with so much work travel and non-cabin adventures that I was dreading the list of chores that were piling up. The biggest one being an actual PILE of wood that had taken over the whole yard and half of the driveway.
Five trees had be downed as falling hazards and not a moment too soon since a couple of them were positioned to freefall directly onto the cabin. Normally in this case the tree removal company would haul them out and sell them to a lumber company, but being that our cabins were across a historic wooden bridge with a minimum weight load they couldn’t truck them out.
We organized a wood splitting day with our neighbors and an old timer named Cliff who does some handy man work on the cabins in our tract.
In our society of ease and leisure it’s hard to imagine that splitting wood could actually be FUN. I don’t think the smile left my face for six hours. I now completely understand why men love power tools.
The smell of the engine oil, the rhythmic hum of the blade chugging up and down, the ripple of my shoulders as I muscled another log into place. That distinct joy of simple purpose and camaraderie.
I recently had a conversation at a friend’s book signing for a book he wrote about empathy. We discussed how many people are constantly questioning their existence, their happiness, are they accomplishing enough, are they living their best life. My theory is that because everything is done for us now and we no longer have to work to just survive like our forefathers did, that this idleness of time has led to our deep questioning of everything. The simple act of chopping wood and feeling purpose and accomplishment has been lost for our generation.
There was an addictive rhythm to the splitting. A desire to keep going. Push harder. Roll in more logs. Bigger logs. An amazing satisfaction to hurling the split logs into the ever growing wood pile.
Then the next day the stacking. (Which is actually a lot more challenging than the splitting. ) We had some spills and thrills. Bruises everywhere, skinned legs from my habit of throwing myself in front of runaway logs. But the pain seemed somewhere else. I was in the zone and it didn’t matter.
My boyfriend likes to sing this little song “Chores, chores, Michelle loves chores…” And I do!
It quiets the mind.
We have these amazing souls and desire to be something. Sometimes being something is just being.
That same boyfriend had the same stupid grin on his face everytime I looked up from the splitter. He was talking to the old timer about birds and trees, while they shimmied up the biggest logs with a crowbar and rolled them down to the splitting pile where my neighbor Greg and I were manning the machine.
Aren’t we all manning the machine in the end. The machine of our minds. Our constantly questioning and searching minds.
As I sit at a pool on the North Shore of Kauai I find myself obsessing about the cabin.
I barely made it up in the winter and then traveled for work through the entire spring.
I find the Sierra’s now slipping firmly into summer and I still have yet to make an appearance to check for winter damage, turn the water on, and see the waterfull at it’s full snow melt splendor.
I miss it so much!
Like a first child away to college I find myself wondering how it’s doing. Dreaming about opening it up for the season, painting the trim on the new window, worrying about getting the water on, and chopping wood till my arms hurt. It’s strange how much these cabin chores bring me such pleasure.
I’m in Hawaii for my step sister’s wedding and yet still the cabin is never far from my thoughts. As we were sipping mai tais at the reception and mingling with the family of her new husband I chanced into a conversation with my new brother in laws uncle who’s had a cabin for over 40 years near Lake Tahoe. When I asked him about it he blurted out “I love it!”. It was refreshing to see after 40 years of cabin ownership it’s luster hadn’t faded for him. We chatted about our different cabins, when they were built, and what to do for the next generation of family cabin owners.
As the light drifts across the green hills of the Na Pali coast and the palm trees dance in the South Pacific breeze it’s hard to believe my mind is adrift in the Sierra’s.
As John Muir said “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
As I pass the time on the verandah of the New Orleans apartment I review the morning news over a steaming café au lait in the muggy post storm air, listening to the swish of the verdant pecan tree foliage across the rutted street. Devastating wild fires in various regions of the country, massive hurricanes tearing through the overly warm waters of the gulf, Napa in flames, Puerto Rico cut off from the world, New Orleans with an unusual October hurricane that shut down the whole city on a Saturday night, what runs through my head is “I can’t remember there ever being a hurricane in October….”. I also can’t remember there ever being a summer blizzard in drought ridden California.
Global warming for some is a political catch phrase, a path to elicit much needed funding, a potential motive for mass hysteria, an easily used scape goat to deny things that aren’t beneficial to your businesses bottom line. To me at this moment it is simply what is actually happening.
It feels odd to be sitting here and seeing the real physical outcome of years and years of ignored warnings. It seems like when scientists are advising you that global warming equals a rise in temperature, which equals bigger storms, that what runs through your head is “Well that’s going to happen sometime…to someone else”.
As I observe and reflect on the succession of things that have happened just this one summer you start to realize you are living in a science fiction film and that sometime is now.
Having grown up in New Orleans a town infamous for the most famous hurricane of all you rarely saw a storm bigger than a category 3. You never saw multiple category 5’s lined up in succession one after each other like children in line on the playground of adolescence. In the historic tragedy of Galveston and the aftermath of Katrina we never would have imagined a storm that broke out above the actual categories.
As summer unwound itself in a virtual wave of natural disasters, an unclassified rating of Category 6 was something it’s waterlogged southerners had never dreamed of. Just like in all my years of traveling to the Sierra Nevadas I’d never heard of a full on blizzard in summer…until now.
Not to say these things have never happened historically, or couldn’t just be freak weather patterns, but it does cause alarm to see them all happening at once in a live and in person replay of every fictional end of days movie ever produced.
Since the temperatures were dipping rather ahead of schedule we wanted to make sure to get our wood stocked up early. The menacing dead tress behind the cabin had finally been felled and since the weight of them was too heavy to take across the old Twin Lakes bridge the logging company had left them for us to use.
It was very exciting to arrive at the cabin and see these stacks of timber lined up all around the cabin waiting to be chopped! We wouldn’t need to purchase wood in town this year or for the next couple years to come, we just had to “log” in some hours of manual labor in another round of cabin boot camp…!
Having purchased my first real axe I was very excited to be getting into the swing of things so to speak….
After some trial and error with the swing and trying not to chop a foot off I discovered that there are few things more satisfying than the swish and crack of hitting the log just right and taking the blade straight through the block. It became an almost addictive high and a desperate desire to get that perfect swing in again.
We live in such a modern society where very few people get to experience the joy and satisfaction of accomplishing something with just your hands and force of will. I’m so grateful for these moments where I feel like I have this singular purpose of just completing a simple task and feeling useful.
Having spent the first 24 hours at the cabin chopping and stacking wood I was ready to give my arms and back a break and had planned a hike or bike ride for the last official day of summer. The weather service had mentioned that we might get a dusting of snow in the morning and I was delighted to actually be there for the first snowfall of the season, albeit a month earlier than expected. We awoke to not a dusting but a full on winter blizzard!
The dusting quickly became inches and the powder kept falling for the rest of the day and into the night. I wondered if the campers in the adjacent campground when they awoke to the inches of snow were excited by the unexpected winter wonderland they awoke to or annoyed by the wet gear and changed plans.
This snowy September marked the two year anniversary of cabin ownership and in those two years only a handful of friends have made it up for a visit. Outside of the long drive the question I always hear first is “Does the cabin have wifi?”. It’s so hard to step outside of our daily lives and routine, step away from our cell phones, televisions, computer monitors, and simply live in a different more simple time for just a minute and experience the incredible joy of a perfect axe swing.
As I sit in my salvaged adirondack chair rescued from a neighbor’s thrift pile, with the heavy reassuring weight of my porcelain mug in hand I find myself catching my breath and sighing into the peaceful morning after the insanity of last night.
I’ve come to realize along with the joy of cabin ownership there are also deep moments of despair and self doubt.
This past winter with the severely needed snow pack also brought extreme amounts of damage to so many cabins. My immediate neighbors and I got off light. Minor deck damage, some broken shutters, my disintegrated door, flooding in low zones, and various swelling and shifting of wood. We were so lucky. Some neighbors across the lake had massive structural damage, a resort on Tioga Pass looked like it had been wrung like a dishrag by a passing giant.
The weather was crisp yesterday afternoon when I arrived, it almost had a touch of fall in it already, warning signs of a possibly exceptionally short summer. I loped about the cabin opening windows and inhaling deeply. It always feels so incredible to be out of the car after that 5 hour drive. There’s a deep layer of delight in lowering the heavy wooden shutters and opening the cabin up for the week.
When I reached the bedroom and went to open the window I realized after much pulling and pushing it was stuck firmly shut.
As the summer progressed the wood of the cabin had been on an ever evolving journey of self discovery. In most cases it seemed best to just let it go through it’s paces like an emotional teenager trying on it’s personality for the first time. Best to give it some space and hope it all settled in for the best of all involved.
When it didn’t budge after an acceptable amount of trouble shooting I let it be with the patience of an indulgent grandparent knowing that at some point the toddler will stop blowing the whistle. Acceptance is sometimes the best defense.
Per my usual routine that evening I went about the cabin switching on lamps and enjoying the glow of light bouncing off the wood beams.
I was busy flitting about doing some first night chores so failed to notice the festivities unfolding around the lamp in the bedroom.
By the time I waltzed into the room book in hand, ready to collapse into an evening of chivalry and poets a festive monster’s ball had unfolded around my bedside milk glass lamp.
The window that wouldn’t open had contracted in such a way that a small gap existed between the outside and the box the window dropped into, causing a tiny speakeasy door for the thousands of gnats beating against the pane of glass anxious to get close to the belle of said ball, the warmth of that stylish 40 watt light bulb.
Scarlett O’ Hara never had it as good as Ma Bell this evening.
The image that flitted through my mind as I watched them enter in, one and two at a time from the corner of the window, was that scene in The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland of the ghosts in the ballroom waltzing in and out of vision, floating in and off through the wall.
As they entered through the window I watched them dance their way up and under the shade and descend serenely into their deaths. The amount of tiny carcasses dropping onto my nightstand and pooling in the bowl of the lamp were too numerous to count and disgusting to behold.
There were so many in the room there was that brief moment of thinking “Are they going to suffocate me?”
I didn’t think I needed to add “Death by insect suffocation” into the hazards of the cabin but who knew at this point? After quickly scanning the insect party busting options it seemed the most effective line of defense was to shut off the disco ball and plug the hole. That seemed to stem the bulk of the tide and I drifted off to sleep with the smell of burnt gnats tickling my nose.
I awoke and started my day with a firm resolve to resolve this issue with the window. After my morning coffee I pulled together my little cabin assistants- Hammer, screwdriver, wrench, and an old beat up coffee can full of nails and the rusty hum of tetanus.
I figured I should start with getting the window to actually open and go from there.
The wood around the window had swollen so much from the moisture that it was pressing the window in a crushing grip of immovability. The remnants of the wet dog atmosphere of the winter of no power in the snow buried bedroom.
It was an easy enough fix. Although it was a trick to not break the window with the hammering, a couple of nails to secure the loose bits tighter resulted in a window that now functioned the way that it was designed.
Plugging of the gnat hole proved to be slightly more challenging. I tried hammering in a new exterior sill in the hopes that this would block the little guys entry, but alas that night it was back to a stuffed shirt and a miniscule dance party. In the end a piece of wood inserted into the inside sill worked as a temporary fix until the day I could finally get real screens installed.
As I was working next to the house, hammering and perspiring in the morning sunshine I was amazed to observe a man casually walk up to the open window and nonchalantly stick his head in and take a look around. I was relieved I was outside when this event took place since if I was inside he likely would have been greeted with a scream and a blast of mace in his face!
As I looked at him in astonishment he turned and shot me a beaming grin, I smiled and quizzically inquired “If someone did that at your house you’d probably call the police right?”
His smile faltered and he looked towards his girlfriend and back at me and questioned “This is your house?”
I replied amused “Yes, hence the hammer, nails, and manual labor.”
He then responded “I thought you worked for the resort and I was curious about the inside.”
My internal thoughts at that comment were “You thought I was an employee of the resort and still thought it was ok to stick your head in the window?”
He was extremely apologetic and I realized this fell in line with why people think it’s ok to sit and then move my lawn furniture around and occasionally walk into my mud room to have a look.
They don’t consider it someone’s property or house, while if I walked into their garage to have a poke around they would probably call the swat team or at the very least scream very loudly at me. To them it’s just part of nature’s Disneyland. Like the row of art directed shop fronts on Main Street Disneyland, something designed for their own personal entertainment and perusal.
We had a good chuckle over it and I gave him and his girlfriend a tour of the cabin but since this encounter I’ve considered getting a life size print out of Jason in his hockey mask, or maybe a half undressed woman with a scream on her face. Just something to advertise that peeking in people’s windows isn’t good for anyone involved!
After this interesting interlude I continued down my path of small cabin fixes and tweaks. I was excited to have my first batch of summer houseguests coming out the next week and anxious to get it in tip top shape.
I shouldn’t have bothered. If I had know I was going to have the Dr. & Dr. team of Mr. & Mrs. Fix It come out I would have just sat on my laurels and waited!
A person has never been luckier in the selection of cabin guests. I will not disclose their names as then everyone would be competing to have them out for a visit. (Or perhaps a remodel!)
As the weekend rolled around I informed the upcoming guests of two caveats.
That the water still wasn’t working. As a point of fact it had barely worked the whole previous summer and the toilet had also gone on the fritz to complicate things even more.
That because of all the heavy snowmelt there was a river flowing across the road courtesy of Horseshoe Lake overflowing and creating the only 3 time in 50 years “Horseshoe Falls” that was now raging down the backside of our cabin tract and while creating an absolutely stunning scene it was also now impossible to drive to the cabin and one had to wade across ankle deep frigid water with all of their baggage.
My adventurous friends were not put off and after the usual pleasantries and guest welcome cocktails the surgeon turned to me and asked “So tell me, what’s going on with your water system?”
After laying out the basics he looked at my boyfriend and suggested they take a walk up the hill to have a look.
An hour later while all the ladies in the cabin napped in an ode to Victorian times the men rejoined us having solved “The problem of water.”
After realizing that the old pipe was completely corroded and unsalvageable the boys cleverly used a piece of rubber hose to re-run the line and came up with a crafty solve to sediment seeping into the pipe. We now have this handy system of just lifting the hose out of the water basin each time we leave. Presto chango!
It was with great excitement that we started to connect the inside pipes and reconnect the new water heater to our in house system. I knew it was going all too well. As we pulled the heater out of the box we found it needed to be wired together by an electrician.
No hot water was a set back but I was thrilled to have any water, icy or otherwise!
The toilet however having suffered damage to the inside workings from sediment was filling at a snails pace. Dr. Fix It securing his place as officially the best houseguest in history took a look and told me if I went into town and grabbed the part he could fix it in 10 minutes.
The water system problem solved and the toilet repaired, it was like homesteading Christmas in July!
Bug invasions, no water, too much water, power, no power, peeping toms, bumps in the night, flooded roads, snow shoveling….was it all worth it? I imagine so.
As a group of energetic French tourists from Avignon on a motorcycle tour sailed out of the cabin after partaking in some California Pinot I had on hand I felt like Louis the 14th holding court. The Sun King may have had his lush golden palace but I had my lovely chalet in the wilds behind Mammoth Mountain.
It’s technically the summer in Mammoth Lakes being early June, but the shoulder season is hanging on for the town and I. The upper lakes still had a firm grip on their winter coats come the middle of the month, although some resilient hikers and paddle boarders were trying to make the best of winter in summer!
The snow however was finally melting with a raging intensity causing roads to turn into muddy run off rivers, campgrounds to flood, and adding messy road work to the long list of spring repairs on my list.
I had a mini celebration upon arrival this time when the windows that had been completely covered 10 days before were finally exposed and I could have a view different than the backside of white that I had been gazing at for the past 5 months. What a difference a few days make in the mountains!
I’ve been spending a lot of time this trip getting a head start on summer repairs and taking advantage of the 80 degree temps to sit outside in the sun and beam in the glow of actually being able to sit ON. THE. ACTUAL. GROUND.
The bustling waterfall in all its epic snow melt splendor seemed to be on the top of the tourism checklist as I watched an unending parade of folks tromp past through the slushy snow banks in attire ranging from full winter gear to shorts and muddy flip flops.
When they see a girl romping about outside hammering shutters, shoveling snow, drinking wine, or reading a book they can’t help themselves but to inquire what I’m doing here.
“Are you the caretaker?” they ask. You could say that I muse, but not in any Jack Torrance kind of way.
“Are you renting this place?” No, I actually own the joint hence why I am hammering madly at a loose nail drenched in sweat!
I’m considering proposing to the Forest Service a cabin version of the “Home & Garden Tour”. In the last two days I’ve paraded at least a dozen people through the cabin. Explaining it’s history, how the Forest Service cabin leases work (no they are not 99 years), pointing out the original 1920’s douglas fur floors, and telling them all about how “You too can own one of these if you are CRAZY like me”. I’ve finally had to ask my realtor friend Jen to leave me a stack of business cards since some folks are pretty serious about investigating these little nooks and crannies of the Mammoth Lakes basin.
As the week meandered on I careened ahead with backbreaking cabin chores that mostly involved moving snow around. There was still a LOT of it about. In my efforts to unearth the fire pit and get access to the grill in our back shed the yard started to look like an avalanche disaster movie with snow strewn everywhere!
When I finally located the fire pit the weight of the snow had actually ripped the metal on the swivel arm, it and my sopping bathroom floors were both casualties of the 6 foot high snow bank still dripping behind the cabin. Apparently there was lots of flooding in town and the main lodge had to rig up platforms for skiers to get across the pools of water spreading through the locker floors.
I had been chatting and getting visits from the power and phone company over the past few days, while enjoying our talks about this epic snow year, all of those visits ended with the phrase….
“We can’t quite get the truck down here yet.”
As 2 days wore into 3, I decided to take matters into my own hands- LITERALLY. There was one 2 foot high snow bank still blocking the road so I got to work clearing it out.
After a few hours of digging I succeeded in clearing a truck size hole in the snow.
Everyone thought I either worked for the Forest Service or was a good Samaritan clearing the path to the falls. I assured them it was the entirely selfish reason of not wanting to go another day without a fridge!
What I found comedic was how many unaware people almost walked into my shovel in motion as they were trying to use the path I was in the process of clearing! I got one good natured man with a shovel full of snow, after we had a laugh he offered to do some digging for me.
The power company were good to their word and came back at the end of the day. I toasted them as they shimmied up the tree and got the neighborhood reconnected!
The phone company however still had a lot of work to do. Those poor guys after discerning that our box had been struck by lightening and was completely burnt out, then hiked all the way up the hill and across the falls tracing the line trying to figure out where it was out. Turns out two trees had fallen and knocked out the line on the other side of the falls so the construction team would have to be called in to clear it.
Still no phone, but by that night I enjoyed a glass of wine while listening to the delightful hum of the now working refrigerator and turning on every lamp in the house!
One thing that became clear as my week progressed with a stream of locals, technicians, and tourists was that no one had ever seen a winter like this in Mammoth.
It was truly a season of wonder and we were lucky to have survived it with just the inconvenience of no power or phone, and some minor repairs. It seems on my second winter season at my little cabin in the woods I had gotten the full force of mother natures bounty and took it in stride and the joy of wonder. It is a lesson in our world of amenities what little we actually need to survive and how if you just let go, all those conveniences are just another thing adding to the clutter of life.