Winter Toilet

Winter Toilet.

I had no idea how revolutionary this idea was until I met the neighbors.  It’s right up there with “propane shower” in the anals of dry winter cabin lore.

Our little plot on Twin Lakes is a small tract of 4 cabins in a row.  Adjacent to Twin Falls and right on the shore of the most southern corner of the Twin Lakes.  On my next trip up to the cabin I was delighted to have an opportunity to meet the neighbors.


After all the usual how do you do’s and getting to hear about each other’s lives, I started to ask some big questions about winter cabin use.  Being that I’m an avid downhill skier and I love cross country skiing as well, one of the most desirable things about this particular cabin was it’s convenient winter access and it’s location adjacent to the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Trail.


Being the new kid on the block, I had a lot of interest in how they have dealt with winters in the past since both of the other owners have owned their cabins for 10 + years.  The cabin’s water being from a creek that froze in the winter I was curious about how they handled a “dry cabin” during the colder months.  The other’s used their cabins minimally in the winter but were full of useful tips.

My favorite being: “ Don’t stick your head in any tree wells.”

This coming from the geologist neighbors who had us over for cheese and wine and filled our heads with all sorts of fun geological facts about the area.  One being that Mammoth Mountain is a young volcano on the Long Valley Caldera and that the “Mammoth Scenic Loop” is actually an emergency evacuation route out of town!   I also quizzed them about the potential dangers of earthquakes, since the year before while staying at the Cabins at Tamarack Lodge an earthquake shook the whole place.  Their response was, “It should be fine since you don’t have a stone chimney.”  Comforting….I think?


The geologists mentioned the greatest winter danger in the area was the Carbon Dioxide discharge from the ground that had killed a parcel of trees at Horseshoe Lake, one of the lakes directly above us.  It builds up under the snow and collects in the tree wells.  It was advised that we avoid sticking our heads near them.  This has been really amusing to tell houseguests, I think they think it’s some kind of drinking joke.  However, after my experience with Carbon Monoxide poisoning I was not interested in getting into trouble with any other types of carbon!


After these enlightening tips I got down to business about how they deal with their “business” during the winter.  I was surprised to hear that both couples dealt with their, ahem, waste by  various uses of double duty bags….!  One couple simply put a hefty bag in a bucket, the other couple used an ammo can with a toilet seat similar to what the guides used when I rafted the Grand Canyon.

The neighbors had never considered the winter toilet idea and were excited by the idea and very curious about how it would work.  Here I was to revolutionize the winters at the Twin Lakes Tract…!


I had done a lot of research on various toilet ideas for dry cabins and had finally settled on buying a compost toilet from Nature’s Head.


The Wynns had done a really great review on this one on their site for their RV and there was definitely a movement (no pun intended) towards these with eco conscious folks.

At a $1000 price tag this was a pretty big investment, but the alternative of having to deal with my own manure every time I went to the cabin in the winter was very unattractive.  I also was planning on using the cabin a lot more in the snow season then the other cabin owners.  Realizing that the winter season in Mammoth normally runs from October to May, that means 8 months of having to poop in a bucket if I didn’t get the toilet.  Gross.

Since becoming the proud owner of a compost toilet it is the ONLY thing anyone wants to hear about the cabin.  I never knew a toilet could have so much interest for people!


Wait till I get that propane shower to use next season…..







Winter Is Coming

Winter Is Coming……

Ned Stark might as well have been sitting in our living room in Los Angeles whispering this in my ear in his raspy Ned Stark voice.  Winter was indeed coming, and quickly.

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It was mid- September by the time I had picked up the keys and made my first trip to the cabin.  Jack had advised me that he normally shuts off the water to the cabin the first week of October, only a couple of weeks away!


I knew that I needed to start preparing for the quickly approaching season unless I wanted my first winter in the cabin to be a “Revenant” style experience, albeit hopefully without having to arm wrestle a bear with a cheese pairing knife.

I had gone out and met the “Landlords” on the way in this time.   I am a total visitor center junkie so getting to go to one to conduct “business” was a special treat.  The team were super wonderful and my forest service rep was a young, hip, rock climber who happened to hail from one of my favorite states – Wisconsin.  Yeah, the forest services rocks and rock climbs as it were!


Next up on the list WOOD!

“What rolls down stairs, alone or in pairs, and over your neighbor’s dog?  What’s great for a snack, and fits on your back?  It’s log, log, log….”  Was running through my head as we headed over to the Mammoth Firewood Company to pick up some wood for the season.

I have to admit walking up to a two story high pile of wood and being allowed to have at it was some of the most fun I’ve had all year.  By the time we were done I definitely had a bit of a Paul Bunyan swagger happening and the subaru was being used for some serious outdoor recreation as well as testing out it’s load capabilities!


Now the question on my mind having never done this before was  “Was this going to be enough?”  Well it kinda wasn’t.  But almost.  Certainly did look sexy though.


After all that manly labor it was time to take a well deserved break and some lumberjack refreshments…..


Now off to tackle the official water cut off for the season.  I won’t bore you with all the details but in short the water to the cabin is supplied by a small creek up the hill behind the cabin. It is gravity fed to the cabin by a series of twisty pipes running down the side of the mountain, true homesteader style worthy of the Kilcher Family.

To shut off the water for the season the first step is to cork the pipe up at the source, which is managed by the very high tech method of sticking a WINE cork into the pipe.  I can’t think of a more eco friendly, sustainable practice for a wine lover as myself.  Let’s just say there will be no shortage of corks to stem the tide each year.

Then you open up a series of pipes to drain the water off, ending with draining all the water out of the cabin itself and leaving the valves open.  I’m already anticipating flooding the whole cabin next year when I turn on the water while forgetting to close all the valves. I have written myself copious notes and warnings on every instruction sheet, typed or otherwise, and I am considering a tattoo on my wrist in Sanskrit stating  “Use this hand to close the house valves before turning on the water and flooding your whole cabin.”

Next up is a little anti freeze in the toilet and down all the drains, removing the water filter, and disconnecting the on demand water heater.  Ahhh the joys of hot running water, not to be experienced again till next spring or possibly summer if El Nino has her way with us.

Cabin winterization is officially done  (I hope I did it right)….now time to celebrate with a little Italian magnum from our friends at Poliziano!   Salute!


After a little wine in the afternoon we settled in for a cozy night of cabin exploring and discovered some cabin gems.

Old places have a way of collecting things and the cabin was no different.  I discovered a treasure trove of vintage park pamphlets, maps, and books about the local area.  Girl Scout nirvana!   Man from Mono was a total delight and a must read for anyone wanting to learn about homesteading in early Mono County.


Also, realizing that I had forgotten my book at home, I did a little searching and found a treat in the cabin library….who couldn’t resist a story about Barney and Big Boss Man Dan Peary.  I think I found Tarantino’s next script.


My favorite discovery though was this New Orleans Cabildo decal on the bathroom mirror.   I guess  this cabin was truly meant to be my mountain home.  Kismet.





This was not a term I was hoping to become familiar with on my first night as a cabin owner.  Neither was carbon monoxide poisoning.

I’ve stayed in cabins before on my own, I’ve stayed in cabins with wood burning stoves before on my own, I wasn’t a novice at this.  I’ve done this before.

As I lectured myself later that evening…..

I love making fires (who doesn’t?), playing with fires, and once as a child actually set my own hair on fire playing with a book of matches.  I may have actually been roasting honeycomb cereal while pretending it was marsh mellows on a campfire.  I still have the spot that my hair never grew back to prove it!

As I settled into getting comfortable and getting the feel of the place thinking, “ I own this cabin, now what do I do?”.   I got the fire going and opened the flue, half way only per Jack’s instructions to get it going, and sat down to read a book for awhile.


Now this was COZY.  Sigh…everything I was hoping for.  Warm fire, good book, a glass of wine, and the immense sense of pride of owning the cabin I’ve dreamed of for so long.

I promptly dozed off, this should have been my first tip off as I have an impossible time taking naps!


I awoke awhile later with an insanely loud ringing in my ears, intensely painful headache, and a desire to vomit.  I went to stand and immediately almost fainted.

BLOODY HELL I thought, this is not good.

I was able to force myself standing and went to open the window, only to realize the window didn’t work.  I tried the next one which I’m pretty sure was actually nailed shut. It seemed like I was living a common plot in all disaster and horror movies.


Now about this time in my woozy condition, I thought how do I get air into this place, and then well duh -The DOOR!  (As I’m sure any audience member in a theater would have been screaming at me through the screen by now.)  I quickly stumbled over to the door and flung it open and breathed in the deliciously crisp mountain air my body was screaming for.

What I couldn’t figure out was how it had actually gotten bad enough to put me in such a state.  The cabin wasn’t exactly air tight.  The windows are definitely “vintage” with various little pieces of wood laid up against the bottom seams to block the draft.


I also realized the first thing I needed to do as a proud new cabin owner was to invest in a carbon monoxide detector and fire alarm!

After a sleepless, cold, first night in my new cabin, as I was terrified to have the fire on while I was alone and not knowing if the heater was also a problem left that off as well, I called the emergency room at the hospital that morning to confirm that I didn’t need to come in to be checked for carbon monoxide residual damage.  They assured me that if I felt fine and wasn’t still nauseous or experiencing any symptoms that I was ok and didn’t need to worry.  Whew!

My friend Jen, who also happens to be the best realtor in Mammoth, was delighted that I didn’t actually die my first night as a cabin owner, and I decided to hold off on sharing that story with my mother for awhile since she was already worried about me being alone in the woods.  With my penchant for getting mugged in busy cities her mind had already built up a long list of things that could happen to me alone at a “Cabin in the Woods”.  Yes, we both watch too many horror movies for our own good.

Now, maybe I took Jack’s instructions way too literally, and the thought did cross my mind that perhaps the mountain wasn’t quite ready for Jack to part with his wilderness home and this was it’s way of getting his cabin back!



So I Bought A Cabin



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!

IMG_20150104_153822And 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….