I moved to California 15 years ago right at the end of one millennium and the start of another. Being raised in New Orleans with an elevation below sea level (and made abundantly clear by hurricane Katrina), the first thing I wanted to do when I got to California was get to the mountains and as far above sea level and out of the swamp as this fair state would take me.
Not that I have any problems with the swamp. It has it’s own beauty, mystery, and majesty that years of being out on the water and in it’s midst have shown me. The problem is it’s a bitch on hiking boots.
Having spent a childhood touring the West, one of the most alluring things was the call of the mountains, the rugged beauty of the John Muir Wilderness and the Sierra Nevadas. From the minute I moved to Los Angeles, I took every available moment of free time to start running around all landscapes higher then Monkey Hill at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. The previous highest spot on the horizon of my youth.
I soon discovered Mammoth Lakes, CA and have spent the last 15 years whining to anyone that would listen that I wanted the proverbial cabin in the woods to call my own.
I had found what was to become my happy place, a place I could always count on and grew into and under my skin in a way few places have.
I had tried skiing once before I moved to California when I was a young, newly hired and inspired film industry professional. Having managed to secure a career by way of an overheard conversation in a bar (this is a much longer story for later) I had been invited to the Sundance Film Festival after helping produce a short film for a local New Orleans film maker.
Though I spent loads of time touring the West with my a family as a kid, I was never actually exposed to skiing. I decided at this film festival to take a crack at it one afternoon in between screenings. It was wonderful! I had no idea something so slippery could be so much fun that didn’t involve a hose and a tarp in the grass. Whoever decided to wax a couple of sticks and send then hurtling down an icy mountain was either a genius or a complete moron hell bent on killing us all.
I didn’t ski again until after a couple years of living in Los Angeles. A new boyfriend at the time, who was a snowboarding camera assistant, took me up to Mammoth in the winter. I was mesmerized. By the snow, the mountain, the people, and this marvelous thing called “Apres Ski”. Yes that ski inventor was a genius indeed.
I somehow managed to fail at the multiple snowboard lessons I took. I finally gave up when I watched a 4 year old stand up and slide down the hill and I couldn’t even manage to stay straight up the conveyor belt. Yes, the mountain, or should I say Mammoth’s version of Monkey Hill had beat me in 3 lessons. I did a fine training session in my new skill of “Apres Ski” and gave up on the snowboarding.
Since I had done so well in Park City, the next trip up to Mammoth I decided to give skiing another go and say goodbye to the trendy and cool kids of snowboarding. Skiing was a dream. I caught on right away and I’ve been addicted ever since. The mountains call in many ways and I finally found my way to answer.
Which takes us to February 2015. My adventurous friend Jennifer had recently moved back to Mammoth and started working as a realtor. I put her in charge of the task of checking out any ripe cabin opportunities that popped up. Now being that I am not a Rockefeller, You Tube Disney Box Opening Sensation, or one of Angelina Jolie’s adopted children, I was definitely working on a finite budget. Being that I also didn’t own a home in Los Angeles and was just a “renter” this didn’t add up to the brightest financial decision. But well, you only lose all your money once right?
Enter in (long pregnant pause here) THE FOREST SERVICE. So these guys have this amazing / terrifying / it sounds really great until you read the fine print program, where you BUY a cabin for CHEAP, with one small caveat: it’s on Forest Service land that you lease from them.
Oh the rumors I heard. The fact is very few people research how it works so hence the terror. I must have had 20 people ask me if I got a “100 year lease”. The program itself is actually truly amazing and if you take the time and the patience to learn about it it isn’t so scary in the end. Well except the whole part where you can’t get financing and you have to pay CASH. Now that was scary.
But the really wonderful part is that you get to set up house inside the National Forest, which you could never afford to do even if they allowed it unless you were above said Rockefeller or named Maddox, Pax, or Zahara Pitt-Jolie.
You actually are called “Stewards of the Land” …! Holla!
I swear all my Girl Scout dreams have now come true. If I could only get them to give me some kind of “Steward Badge” or “Now You’ve Spent All Your Money and We Own You Badge” or the “ That Hot Forest Ranger is My Landlord Badge”. Maybe we could start some kind of local petition, ground roots movement to secure funding for above? I’m sure there is a You Tube millionaire somewhere that would contribute to such a just and worthy cause.
So now back to February. We were experiencing the worst ski season possibly on record and someone had coined the phrase: “This ski season is the best summer I ever had in Mammoth.” Horrible conditions, no snow, drought, by the real summer the snow pack was at zero. Unheard of. This incredibly bad snow season though opened up time for cabin hunting in the winter….!
We were staying in our usual spot at Tamarack Lodge right on Twin lakes. Being unable to ski because of an injured foot from a double whammy hiking sprain in New Zealand a couple weeks before, it seemed a great idea to go check out some properties.
Properties that we could walk or cross country ski to that is, since these dreamy Forest Service cabins were engineered for summer use and most had no access, or extremely limited, grueling cross country ski or snow shoe in scenarios to get to them. Guaranteed to make you feel every foot of elevation. In the back of my brain was Doc Brown from Back to the Future yelling, “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.”
Luckily, a small cabin had popped up just across the lake from the lodge which meant one thing which sang to me in my ear. WINTER ACCESS. It was adjacent to Tamarack’s groomed cross country ski trail which meant even in a hard winter most of the way would be paved by twin tracks that led straight to the “Twin Lakes Tract” that was my potential new woodland paradise.
After a delicious hike in with my lovely realtor I’ll admit the cabin looked a bit dismal. Boarded up and in that not sexy, slightly depressing, bad ski season, yes we are in a massive drought kind of way. But still it had “something”. We stepped inside to a dark cold cave with no lights and the word cozy was not exactly hitting me. But once we got some lights on and saw all the wood beams I knew that this could be the place for me. It took some imagination at that moment but I knew I could create something here and well there was nothing a delicious log fire couldn’t fix!
And here we are several months later, my last offer on the cabin was accepted in late summer and all the fun paperwork stuff started to fall into place as I was headed to France for a dear friend’s wedding in another delightful mountain town Chamonix. We actually closed on the cabin on a glorious day in the French Alps and I bought a little tin Chamonix sign to hang in the cabin to commemorate the date!
It was very special that such an momentous life changing event had taken place in such an epic place and I was filled with inspirations for my new mountain home.
I arrived back from Europe and was finally available to head up to Mammoth to claim my prize! I made arrangements to meet up with Jack, the former owner, for a key exchange and some handy tips from the person who had put as much love and care into the cabin as I was hoping to do in the future.
After an exciting afternoon learning about all things cabin I was ready to spend my first night there on my own. Which… well had a couple of bumps….