Monster’s Ball

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.

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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.

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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.

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When I reached the bedroom and went to open the windowI 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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!

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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!

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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.

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Holding Court at Chateau Fosho

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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After a few hours of digging I succeeded in clearing a truck size hole in the snow.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Excavating the Loo

As I sit here drenched in sweat, my leather workman gloves soaked through, I contemplate the fact that I just spent the entire morning excavating the commode.

It’s early May and after our last failed attempt to stay at the cabin that ended in the complete disintegration of my very expensive new door, the power being out, and a snowdrift in the mudroom that came up to the top of the compost toilet, it was beyond being Januburied anymore since now it was March!

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As a couple months flew by and we drifted from April into May, the spring temperatures warmed the town and reports were in that the lower elevations were free of snow.  I was positive that the cabin would be well on its way to shedding its igloo coat and a piece of cake to get into.

People are sometimes excruciatingly wrong.

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As I sludged past the neighbors cabins that faces were mostly exposed I got my first glimpse of my front picture windows that were still almost completely hidden by a massive snow bank, the back of the cabin encased in a white icy drift up and over the roof.  The door that we had patched together was still mostly in place and thankfully no bears or people were living in the snowy mudroom.  One small relief in an avalanche of disappointment.

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The door crest was peeking out so I rejoiced in the ease I had unlocking the gold padlock holding the door partially closed.  This joy was short lived as I almost impaled myself on a broken limb of said door as I slid into the ice skating rink that was now the mudroom.  The Omen, Carrie, and several other horrors flashed across my over imaginative brain as I realized how close I had come to, while not being eaten by bears or wild dogs, or sautéed by the prom queen, bleeding to death in an undignified position proving to all the world as they read my obituary what a massive klutz I was!

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As I had skidded in and survived the wooden spike of death, I also managed to climb my way over the frozen and icy toilet to get to the spot that I prayed I had a hidden key.  A key I had left for the phone company in February when they were supposed to reconnect my phone line.  (I don’t have to tell you this never happened.)  I had lost my entire set of house and cabin keys on a hike at Malibu Creek State Park a month before and it was going to be an awful drudge back to the car if the spare wasn’t still in it’s clever hiding place.  Luckily it was right where I thought it was.

Whew!  The door had held, there were no bears living in the mudroom, I had a key to get in, now if only the power was on.

It wasn’t.

I had chatted with the power company a couple weeks back and they confirmed that the power was connected and most likely I just needed to reset my breakers.

Easy peasy, right?

Except the breakers were outside in the back corner of the cabin that was currently still covered by at least 10 feet of snow.  Sigh.

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This reminded me of the cartoon from the S- Town podcast where there are 3 drinking glasses lined up, one proclaiming “I’m half Full”, the next “I’m half Empty”, and the next “I think this is Piss”.  Well I think this is piss.

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After weighing the pros and cons of wielding a saw versus removing the wood spike of death from the door I decided in the icy, slippery condition the snow steps were in it was twice as likely that I would impale myself flying into the cabin than severing an artery with the saw.  I reviewed every “I’m alone” safety procedure I could think of and quickly put the wood spike of death into it’s grave with Final Destination, Saw, and A Cabin In The Woods where it belonged.

I had managed to get some of the windows slightly dug out to allow some light into the cabin so first order of business now that immediate death was off the table was seeing what non-powered illumination devices I had handy.

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I dug out candles, refilled lanterns, got my headlamp, and flashlight all ready to go.  On a whim I tested the stove.  By some non-logical miracle it worked!  The good luck continued when the wall heaters all turned on.  With my main concerns of food, light, and warmth being covered and me not having suffered a bloody death I moved on to opening a bottle of rose and getting this business cozzzy!

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Who knew power really wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought?  It was like camping indoors.

I had already experienced the cabin for a winter season without water, then this season the phone line had gone out fairly early, so I added no phone to that list, and now no power.  As my neighbor had succinctly informed me when I messaged him very frustrated after the last trip up “ We can’t beat Mother Nature”.   We may not be able to beat it but we sure can join it!

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It’s interesting how when you start stripping away all those creature comforts and expectations how much you can do without.  I love watching shows about the apocalypse.  The Walking Dead, Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, Melancholia, The Road, you start to wonder what would you do in that situation.  Would you be a survivor?  Would you learn to adapt?  Do you have the skills necessary to live off the grid?  As I type this on my computer that is slowing losing power which I can’t recharge until I go into town tomorrow, I wonder those same things….

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While I feel hardship wouldn’t bother me too much as I relish challenges and seem to enjoy masochistic manual labor, it’s the alone part that would trouble me.

Having been mugged multiple times I have realized the fear of people (and small rodents trapped in the cabin with me) is the one thing that always drives me back to Los Angeles.    (That and the desperate need for a shower!)

Just today I was out for a long walk on the loop trail in town and ran across two men in a deserted section of the trail. My heart started racing and fear enveloped me. I always make it a point to look people in the eye when I am afraid or feel threatened and say hello, which is what they teach you in self defense classes.  What bothers me is that is always my reaction.  Then a panicked departure.

Today I went out of my way to take a trail that lead into town that looped me further from my car in the growing wind, but the panic was so high I couldn’t help myself.

I often wonder what life would be like if the universe would just take back ONE of those muggings.  Would I feel more sane and in control when I’m alone?

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The cabin is definitely a test of my physical strength and endurance but also of my mental ability to look this fear in the eye and try to make sense of it and take command of my terror.

I did however sleep like the full dead last night not walking, the fear of being alone was buried under the weight of sheer exhaustion.

As I had no power I slept on my favorite cot in front of the fire.  The bedroom while not having any wall heaters also smelled like a pack of wet dogs since it had spent so much time under the dome of snow coating the roofs, windows, and walls.

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I awoke to the vibration of a small earthquake rumbling under the cot.  It was morning.  I had a date with a cup of coffee and several snow removal chores.

Which is how I find myself excavating the loo.

After spending the previous afternoon and evening peeing with my knees encased around my ears, I decided the first order of “business” if I may was digging out the god damned toilet.  (In my head this is in the voice of Samual Jackson in Pulp Fiction.)

As I knelt sweating with a shovel breaking up large boulders of ice and then using my leather encased hands to sweep out the snow around the delicate mechanics of the toilet I felt a kinship with Indiana Jones.  As he swept out fine grains of sands from the tombs of ancient kings, here I was on my hands and knees digging out a different kind of throne altogether.

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Zombie apocalypse?  I have a feeling I’d do just fine.

 

 

 

 

 

“And the rain, rain, rain came down, down, down…”

As I sit in the lee of the window I’m reminded of a song from Disney’s “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” which our childhood VHS tape was so worn down from repetitive plays that the rewind gears screeched like a steam locomotive coming to an inevitable stop.

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“And the rain, rain, rain came down, down, down…” was running through my head while contemplating the symphony of snowflakes battering against the picture window.

I watched in quiet detachment as the window I had just dug out for the second time slowly started putting on its next winter coat of white.

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Tomorrow was going to be another grueling morning.

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It was official.  This was the largest snowfall in a single month since Mammoth Mountain started keeping a tally.  The town itself had received over twenty feet and it was still piling up.  There was so much snow that during each break in the weather you could see dump trucks piled high with it being trucked out of town.  A portable winter playground on the move to a less congested destination.

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Even though we had invested a monumental snow shoveling effort on the last trip up just two weeks before, we at least could still see the cabin door in plain view when we started.  This time it was not to be found.  It took a solid twenty minutes of digging, then using my best Sherlock Holmes investigating techniques to trace the roofline back from the front of the cabin and stumble my way to the door lintel.

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As I continued digging for another two hours I slipped back in time to thoughts of Howard Carter and other great archeologists and their herculean efforts to unearth remnants of past stories as I was digging and creating my own history.  I only wish I had Britian’s strongman Belzoni, whose graffiti name I once battled my claustrophobia down an unending flight of stairs into the dark heart of the second pyramid of Giza to set my eyes upon.

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That same claustrophobia was running through my conscious as I slid into the mudroom in an avalanche of snow.  What if it kept snowing?  What if there WAS a real avalanche?  Did I even want to go in there?

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Once inside it had the damp closeness of a tomb, not unlike our Egyptian heroes last destination.  I took some breaths, brought in my bags, and realized I was in my very own igloo or in travel circles “ice hotel”.  Granted at a quarter of the going price.

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Could I even stay here?

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Maybe I was better off retracing my steps to Tamarack and getting a cozy lodge room.  The phone line was down (actually snapped in two I later discovered behind the cabin) and my cell was barely getting a text out, so the isolation would be absolute.

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After two hours of digging out the door did I even want to consider flying in the face of reason and exhaustion to unearth a window just to allow some light into my buried wooden box?  An hour later I had my answer.  Light is everything.

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I’ve now been here two days and the snow has started it’s dance with the land again, wrapping it in it’s gossamer threads like strands of white cotton candy on a carnival cone.

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The snow steps I had carved into the drift like the Egyptians had chiseled their hieroglyphs were starting to fill back in like the grains of sand that their monuments spent centuries buried beneath.

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It brought me back to Pooh Bear when he eats so much honey that he gets stuck in his own door.  Would I be trapped in my buried igloo of wood after this latest deluge?

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Hard to say at this point… but after all this exertion and calorie depravation I do believe some version of honey is in order.  After all…“Bears love honey and I’m a pooh bear, so I do care, bears love honey and I’m a pooh bear, time for something sweet!”

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Atmospheric River

Sweat.  Trickling down my nose and wafting on the light breeze to plop and disappear into the snow drift at my feet.  It combined with the slowly dripping icicle that dangled from the cabin eaves and disappeared into the wall of snow I was standing atop trying to dig out the immersed windows and cast some light into the deep shadows of the cabin.  My hair was moist and dripping, as were my hat, gloves, undershirt, and collar with excessive perspiration.  Snowmageddon had arrived to the Sierra Nevadas and as Mammoth Mountain had the most snow in North America a large portion of that had landed squarely on top of my little homestead in the shadow of the mountain.

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It was the conditions we skiers dream of, and the mountain was rejoicing after so many years of drought.  Being only my second winter in the cabin and the first after a long drought I approached the cabin with a deep sense of dread and worry.  It was the biggest snowfall in 10 years and was looking to be a historic month.  Before now as a skier I would have given a whoop, checked into my favorite lodge, and let the envelope of luxury entrap me.  I would have sunk into the routine of continental breakfast, pounding the mountain, and then après ski, followed by a sumptuous meal.

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All that had changed.  I had a home now and all the worries that entails.  Is it buried?  (Yes.)  Do we have power?  (Thankfully, yes.)  Is the phone line down?  (Unfortunately, also a YES.)  Will we be able to get in?  (Yes, but not without a massive headache with my new custom made door that was maybe not custom enough.)  The challenges of cabin life did not disappoint.

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Now a big storm was also a big headache and cause for thought and pause and most of all planning.

I had been up a month earlier in December and didn’t even need to put on snowshoes to walk out to the cabin.  I therefore didn’t think to bring a shovel out with me to store in the car in case we had a big storm.  After all, massive storm systems were unknown to the Sierras for several years.  The mountain ski slopes had been mostly empty as conditions hadn’t warranted the adulation of worshippers coming in droves to plow her hallowed slopes.

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As I watched the weather reports with a mixture of excitement (as a skier), worry (as a homeowner), and sheer awe (as a human), I romanticized about what was happening at the cabin.  What metamorphasis it was going through and what changes would befall me as I witnessed a true winter in my mountain escape.  Last year’s average winter was just a training ground for what lay ahead of me with the “atmospheric river” wafting across the peaks and bluffs of the Sierras.

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That evening after our heroic shoveling efforts, I lay in bed with my new (game changing) hot water bottle tucked into the deep folds of the sheets relishing the warmth seeping into my sock bound feet.  The moon was reflecting off the snow wall revealed by the twin picture windows and rebounding that light back into the cabin making it feel like it was under a dome or entrapped in an icy snow globe.  I reflected on the atmospheric river I felt was flowing not only over the mountain passes and valleys but also over our nation as a whole as we all came to grips with a river of polarization and separation that was wafting across the entire country.

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As I sat in my snug igloo of nature’s making I was enthralled with the peace of it all and the separation from the constant assault of social media.  The ability to step outside of myself for a minute and just appreciate the solitude of nature is something that I want to constantly remind myself to never take for granted.

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As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of our National Parks and America waits with baited breath and fear of the potential reversal of protections that our forefathers worked so hard to put in place I hope that many of those who don’t have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the beauty of our gorgeous country’s natural environments will get an opportunity to experience the peace and understanding that comes from being submerged in something larger than yourself and how important it is to continue our preservation of this planet, not just for our future generations but for our own sanity in the here and now.

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A Year in the Woods

There’s a passage from Hemingway that I’ve often told people if offered a choice I would live in for eternity….

“Now that the bad weather had come, we could leave Paris for a while for a place where this rain would be snow coming down through the pines and covering the road and the high hillsides and at an altitude where we would hear it creak as we walked home at night.  Below Les Avants there was a chalet where the pension was wonderful and where we would be together and have our books and at night be warm in bed together with the windows open and the stars bright.  That was where we would go.”

And that was where I had gone.  While not in my beloved France, I had carved my own version of this utopian scene in my own little patch of forest in the woods.

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This first winter I had done just that.  Sat in my bed reading with the window slightly cracked, the snow falling softly with that almost silent swish, the fire cracking in the wood burning stove.  The warmth not fully reaching me in the bed but seeing it there created an internal warmth that spread outward and covered me in it’s own glow.

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When people speak of bucket lists they are really speaking of dreams.  The dream of going somewhere or doing something that uplifts their spirit, gives their lives hope, fulfills a deepest wish in their soul, makes them leap out into the world, throw themselves in the mix of humanity and experience.

You could say the cabin was my ultimate bucket list check off.

It’s the first anniversary of acquiring my little patch of felicity in the woods.  It’s been a year of wonder, magic, aggravation, solitude, terror, reflection, disruptions, solace, empowerment, but mostly it’s just been absolutely life changing wonderful.

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It’s become not just a place I go to but almost a mental retreat available at all times.  If I’m having a soul punishing day I shift my attention from what I’m working on to looking up a cabin project idea and daydreaming about what I’m going to plunge into on the next trip.  Cabin as a state of mind?  I certainly think so.

After traveling around the world and methodically checking off one bucket list destination after the next I came to a point where I was not satisfied with just my week or few days in one of the places that I loved.  I yearned to be able root myself to a specific place of meaning.

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I normally spend a lot of time researching interesting places to stay.  Whether just an off the grid destination or someplace that had been designed with a bit of magical realism in mind.  Places where they spent that little extra time to add something intangible that you feel as well as see.  I drew inspiration from these places and wanted to carve something like that as my own.

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The cabin was years in coming.  It was a spark in the back of my brain after my first visit to Mammoth Lakes when I was 25.  I didn’t ski, I hadn’t spent much time in snow, and even with being raised basically underwater in New Orleans I was a mountain girl in spirit and I knew it.  My heart soared anytime I saw a peak in the distance.  There was a little leap inside of me every time I saw the topography of the land changing to a rising landscape that directed your eyes and your soul UP!

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As I look back on the year it’s sometimes amazing to me that there wasn’t always a cabin.   Maybe in my mind it was always there.  The reality of it was just an extension of someplace I was already living in the deep reaches of my soul.

Why the cabin?

Why did I decide to plant my soul in a spot with no running water in the winter, road access only 4 months of the year, horrible resale value, and a water system that defied logic or reason?

When I inherited the cabin there was a book there.  Sitting solemnly in a stack of other old books on the coffee table called “The Man from Mono”.

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On one of those nights that writers always love to write about, where the wind and snow were swirling outside and the wood stove was stacked with as much wood as I could squeeze into one metal box.  I was buried under four blankets, wearing a pair of ear muffs, and trying to figure out how to line my long johns with long johns when I realized that I had left my book in the car.  Having no desire to test the limits of my wardrobe and sanity by trying to deconstruct my sofa attire and rig myself back up to go out in the blizzard.  Then snowshoe a mile round trip to the car parked at Tamarack Lodge just to retrieve a small paperback.  Tonight’s reading was going to be “The Man from Mono” by default.

What a find.

As I sat there with my frozen fingers and a bottle of wine that was conveniently chilled to the perfect temperature.  (Not by a wine fridge or any special device, but by the sheer chill of the cabin.)  I delved into this story that brought to light just why we do it.  Why we’ve always done it.

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The need to not only be in nature but to conquer it lives very deeply in all of our souls.  John Muir, Shackelton, Franklin, Captain Cook, Krakauer, Ansel Adams, Bruce Chatwin.  Contemporaries to our world and the years behind us.

This man from Mono told a story of a very regular life led in very extraordinary circumstances and hardship.  Where this simple man set up trap lines in the winter, tourists wait in long gate lines to get into one of the most famous National Parks in the world.  His world was challenging and difficult.  He lost many friends to the rigors and dangers of that time and lifestyle.  But you could sense that he wouldn’t have chosen any other life.  His existence was connected and fed by the world in which he lived and the people who also chose that same life.

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I was no different.  That siren pull of nature was always beating inside me.

Somebody asked me recently what the best part of having the cabin was and I answered because I knew it was always there.  Always within reach.  Always just a drive away….

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Dry Cabin Cookin!

Julia Child would probably have a hard time getting behind this concept, Mario Batali I’m guessing would not enjoy the delights of cleaning up a red sauce pan with no running water, Mimi Thorisson would perhaps handle it best since she is used to living in a country farmhouse which I imagine has had it’s own share of homesteading dilemmas.  (She’d also probably do a killer job with the wine pairings!)

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I feel like first I should explain what a “Dry Cabin” is, since many folks are unclear on the term unless they spent some time in Alaska where no one bats an eye at no running water.  (Those Alaskans are tough!)  A dry cabin means a cabin without running water.  While we have full amenities in the summer, the cabin’s water is gravity fed from a creek which freezes in the winter.  We also have to drain the cabin completely dry when the temperatures start to drop consistently to insure that none of the pipes burst, which translates to we also can’t dispose of any water down the drains in the winter either.

While dry cabin cooking likely isn’t for everyone, it’s mostly a matter of getting creative with managing kitchen mess and clean-up, as well as coming up with simple dishes with limited ingredients.  This is important when everything you use has to be either frozen and stored from the fall, dragged in on a sled, carried on your back, or occasionally thrown like a piece of airline luggage and picked up several paces later.  (This tactic I sometimes employ when the snow is particularly deep and I’m feeling particularly fed up with whatever I am lugging.)

The first winter season we did the obvious.  Stocked the cabin with cans of chili, grits, pasta sauce, canned tuna.  All those things you imagine would keep in the rapidly changing temperatures and still be easy to cook.  Seemed like a brilliant idea, that is until you go to clean up all those pots and pans with melted snow!

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I recall the first time we made tomato sauce and it was time to rinse the pan.  First there is the matter of melting snow and making water.  Then there is the dilemma of how to scrub the pan.  I started the first time with a regular sponge.  I then realized I also needed to clean the sponge.  This required melting more snow and soaking it in a pan of hot water.  But then wait, now I needed to clean the pan again because the tomato sauce from the sponge was now back on the sides of the pan.  The joys of cabin living never cease to surprise one….!

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Next it became time to rid ourselves of the dirty water.  Since we can’t pour anything down the drains because the water would sit in there and freeze the pipes it all had to be disposed of outside.  After throwing the red water out into the snow I realized this looked very similar to a murder scene and probably not the best message to be sending to any random passersby.  I also came to the conclusion that if there were any starving bears or mountain lions around this probably was akin to ringing a critter dinner bell.

Obviously there is a lot more to this winter cabin cooking than I realized…

As we start on winter season part deux we have gotten a lot wiser about how to handle the cooking.  In Louisiana cooking the “Holy Trinity” is always considered mandatory:  Onions.  Bell Peppers.  Celery.

At the cabin we quickly have come up with our own version of the “Trinity” :

Paper Plates.  Aluminum Foil.  Wet Wipes.

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As eco friendly as we are in our daily home those rules quickly got tossed out the proverbial rustic window at the cabin.  For winter use we realized that good old fashioned paper plates were the way to go.  Although, since we tend to use the same couple of paper plates for most of the day instead of constantly rinsing china plates, perhaps the water conservation balances out against the paper waste.

I decided to record my first day of winter cabin cooking this year…

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For breakfast I normally have fresh ingredients handy.  It’s always lovely to have a nice leisurely mountain breakfast on a snow day, something hearty and comforting to keep your belly warm and cozy and help insulate you against the less than tropical temperatures.

One of my favorites is a potato and egg omelette.  You can make this in a traditional Spanish way where it comes out more like an egg cake or my favorite way, which is messy and loose.  More like an omelette scramble.

Loose ingredients for one serving:

1-2 Small Potatoes Cut Into Small, Thin, French Fry Style Pieces

Handful of Chopped Green Onions

2 Eggs

Olive Oil

Salt & Pepper

For the cabin the cast iron skillet is unavoidable and essential!  Not only does it look good in situ but it is by far the easiest pan to clean.

First decision today, which bottle of frozen olive oil should I use for this recipe?  Winter cabin cooking problem # 1 – everything freezes!

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I start out putting enough olive oil in the pan to coat the bottom and have a nice layer for the potatoes.  I tend to not use too much oil and more sauté them rather than deep fry.

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I scramble the 2 eggs in a paper bowl with the handful of green onions and salt and pepper, then set them aside.

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I cook the potatoes until they break easily with a fork.  Depending on how much oil is left in the pan I either drain and pat dry the potatoes or just blot them dry in the pan to remove the excess oil.  I usually lower the fire a bit so the pan isn’t so hot when I add in the eggs.

After the pan is the right temperature I add in the eggs and keep them moving with the potatoes until they are done but before they start to brown.

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Then serve immediately.  You can also garnish with additional green onions if you like.  Bon appetite!

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For this recipe I brought in the eggs and potatoes but had green onions chopped and frozen in the freezer.  This is a practice I learned from my New Orleans upbringing where we always kept at least this part of the trinity frozen and ready for eggs!

The clean up is very easy on this one.  While the pan is still hot I use the spatula to scrape any egg residue up.  After the pan cools I simple dump out the egg residue in the trash and then use a paper towel to wipe down the pan.  Voila.  The oil residue keeps it perfectly seasoned for the next use!

After a large breakfast I tend to just eat some snacks for lunch so the next meal up for today was dinner.  After an afternoon of harvesting deadfall wood in the snow and testing my mettle with the axe, I decided that a hearty lumberjack meat dish was sounding pretty good for supper..!

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I had stocked the freezer in the fall with a couple packs of ground bison and decided to make  a meat loaf.  I prefer bison over ground beef as it’s much leaner and cleaner than ground meat.  This is a much messier dish to put together.  I stock larger paper bowls for cooking projects like this one.

Ingredients:

1lb Bison Meat

Handful of Chopped Onion

Handful of Chopped Green Onion

1 Egg

Handful of Italian or Homemade Bread Crumbs (Optional)

Salt & Pepper

First dilemma for this recipe is how to thaw out the solid as a brick frozen meat in a below freezing cabin setting.

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Well you collect some snow of course!

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If you are scratching your head at that one and imagining that I’m some kind of outdoor magical genius let me be very clear, I am NOT and I have the scars to prove it.

I collect the the snow and then build a very hot fire in the wood stove.  I then take the cast iron skillet and throw some fresh snow in it to thaw.

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After that powdery goodness reverts to it’s liquid state I add in the pack of frozen bison meat and let the stove do it’s job.  It’s important however to keep an eye on the meat so it doesn’t start to cook in this set up!

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I take the bison meat out of it’s package and drain off any excess liquid or you can pat it dry with paper towels.  I salt and pepper the meat.  Throw in the onion, green onion, egg, and bread crumbs.  (If you’d rather not add the carbs you can leave off the bread crumbs.)

I massage this all together until it is well blended.   (This is the messiest part of this recipe since cleaning up your hands is a chore with no water!)  Next I take a medium size piece of heavy aluminum foil  (the one for grilling works great!)  and create a pan out of it by folding up the edges.  Then you simply mold the prepared meat mixture into a loaf and place it onto the aluminum foil and pop it into a pre-heated oven.  I normally go 350 degrees but you can adjust as needed.  The altitude wreaks havoc on oven cooking so it’s always wise to pay attention and a meat thermometer comes in handy.

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This is great pared with a baked potato or sweet potato in the oven, frozen peas, or any other easy to steam veggie.

Clean-up on this is also a piece of cake.  You are basically just throwing out the used bowl and aluminum foil.  Minimum trash and no dishes to clean!

And for those of you wondering about the hand washing I normally melt and boil some snow and then use some good old Dr. Bronner’s soap to finish the job which is biodegradable and environmentally safe so the water can be tossed outside with aplomb!

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