Mammoth Lakes, California: Ode to a Childhood

Nature, mountains, snow

Mammoth Lakes, California is a beautiful town in California’s Eastern Sierra mountains that I happened to call home for over 20 years.

In 2001, when I was 12 years old, I moved to the tinny town of Mammoth Lakes from Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Back then, Mammoth wasn’t what it is now.  Back then, there was no Village.  Where the Village now stands there used to be nothing but a big pile of dirt where the three bus lines would intersect, and where they would store snow in the winter. There was no gondola that took you from the non-existent Village to Canyon Lodge.  We didn’t have The Night of Lights.  As a kid growing up in Mammoth in 2001, we had to come up with creative ideas on how to entertain ourselves.

To the kids of today, my stories will sound lame (to those older than me and reading this: I know what you’re thinking “Alexia, you’re a kid too”, or some variation of the sort).  But it’s true—hear me out.  Back then, in a small mountain town, we had one stop light and one movie theater.  The movie theater wouldn’t play the movie unless at least 8 people showed up.  One time, during a particularly bad snow storm, no one felt like going to the movies except my parents, apparently, and there weren’t 8 people there to watch the movie.  My dad told the guy he’d buy 8 tickets.  He just wanted to watch the damn movie.  But the guy said no, there weren’t 6 other people around.

The kids in my town, they were good kids.  We entertained ourselves by doing stupid things like sneaking over to a neighbors’ trampoline when we knew he was gone and bouncing around until we thought we heard the gravel in his driveway.  We would sit on the chair lifts, after dark, watching the bright milky-way while eating cupcakes—one time blowing some candles out for my friends 16th birthday.  The air was cold, and our breath was frozen before it even left our lungs.  We couldn’t hear a sound except a light breeze blowing through the snowy trees and the distant howling of coyotes.

Back then, we spent a lot of time sledding.  There was this street that had a cul-de-sac, we called it “The Pit”.  We called it The Pit because there were several untouched pieces of land that created a perfect, speedy, yet safe hill for all of the kids to sled down.  Since then, The Pit has been flattened and multi-million dollar houses have been put up; but when I walk by, I still see The Pit.  I see this one time, when someone had built a little ramp in the middle of one of the tracks on the hill so that when I slid by on my sled, man did I fly!

Back then, when we got older, our favorite pastime was driving around.  Just aimlessly driving around, for hours, through the beautiful Sierra mountain roads, listening to music.  How else are you supposed to hang out with your friends, without your parents around, in a small town?  It was usually snowing, there wasn’t much to do…everyone’s parents were always home.  Therefore the kids, at least my friends and I, would just drive.

Sometimes I pretended that my Honda Civic Hybrid was an off-road vehicle, and I went off-roading with it.  I’m serious. One time, I ended up stuck in the middle of a very distant mountain off road, before iPhones existed, with a steep cliff directly to my right, dusk fast approaching, and my car stuck…for three hours.

The town is a total of 25 square miles, and I know every single damn road in that beautiful town. Every. Single.  Road.  The best times of the year to drive around were in the tourist off-seasons. The town was desolate; there were no tourists, the place felt yours—it was yours. The tourist off-season came along with the changing of the weather, the warm, summer breeze turning crisp.  Driving around with the windows down during that time, with the cold air filling your lungs and the mountains in the distance, even then its beauty felt surreal to me.  I could clearly see what was in front of me.  I could very clearly see the mountain ranges, the green pastures, the wildflowers…but its beauty felt unfathomable.

The sheer beauty of Mammoth, especially if you manage to catch it during that special time: when it’s quiet. When Mammoth is quiet, you have lakes entirely to yourself.  When Mammoth is quiet, you have mountain ranges hundreds of centuries old for you alone.  When Mammoth is quiet, you can roll down the car windows and not hear a single sound around you.  When Mammoth is quiet, you can see a bear meandering down the way. When Mammoth is quiet, the stars shine brighter, the magic intensifies.  Mammoth Lakes, California: you are the greatest little town in the entire damn state of California, and you’ve shaped who I’ve become as a person.

My dad taught me how to hike in your mountains.  My dad taught me how to not be a whiny, spoiled brat on your mountains.  My dad taught me how to become the woman that I am today in your mountains.  I couldn’t tell you how many hikes I went on with my parents growing up in Mammoth.  But there is one very vivid memory from every single one of my hikes: me, walking behind my dad.

My dad is a tough man.  My dad is probably the toughest mother fucker you will ever meet.  And he wasn’t about to have any complaining.  My dad was an intimidating man to me growing up.  He was very tall, he had a gruff voice, he liked to hunt—I was not about to talk back to my dad.  So when we would go on hikes I would just….walk.  I would walk, and walk, and walk, countless miles behind my dad.

Sometimes the hikes were extremely long.  I remember one hike that must have been over 10 miles long, maybe more I have no idea, but nowhere near the distance he had told my mother it would be.  I was young at the time, maybe 10, and the hike took probably over 8 hours.  By the time we got back to the car I was starving and thirsty.  My dad hadn’t thought that an 8 hour hike might be hard on a 10 year old little girl and we hadn’t brought nearly enough food and water.

Nowadays, when I look down at the trail while I hike in Mammoth, I see my dad in front of me.  Breathing heavily, continuing forward, and I flash-back to the days when I was a kid walking behind him silently.  In the mountains, behind my dad, I learned patience, I learned perseverance, I learned strength.

In Mammoth Mountain, when the summer turned to winter I skied the mountain backwards and forwards, both fast and slow (but mostly fast).  I was a regular at the ski school, sometimes speeding my way down the mountain, other times taking it slow and going through the fresh powder between the trees.

I was a better skier than your average kid.  I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in the mountains growing up. One winter day, my guess is I was 9, I was in a ski school class with one of my regular teachers.  We were skiing the top of the mountain, a black diamond run called “Dave’s Run”.  It was named after Dave McCoy, the founder of Mammoth Mountain, and a local legend.  I had skied this run countless times before.  I’m not sure what happened to me that day.  I was tired. I might have slipped or I decided to sit down for a rest, but the run is not usually groomed and can be tricky if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Anyway, for whatever rhyme or reason I sat down.  I remember my ski instructor yelling “Alexia, don’t sit down!” The next thing I knew I was rolling down that mountain.  You know those YouTube videos of someone totally eating sh*t like a rag doll going down a snow covered mountain?  Yeah, that was 9 year old me.  Rolling, rolling, rolling all the way down that mountain (pre-helmet days).  Somehow, miraculously, after a while, the rolling stopped.  I was fine.  I didn’t break nor scratch a single bit of my body.  I knew who the current president was, but man was I scared.  I started crying out of shock and fear.  My mountain.  How could it betray me like that?

If YouTube existed in that day, I would be on there.  But YouTube didn’t exist and a confident, bad-ass little girl just had the scare of her life.  I stayed off the mountain for the next few days.  I drank a lot of hot chocolate, I sat by the scorching fire my dad lit, I sat on the couch, and I watched the snow flakes fall on the window—fascinated by each unique pattern.

One day a post card came for me in the mail.  I was 9.  How many post cards do you get when you’re 9?  The front of the post card had a photo of Mammoth Mountains’ mascot—a Wooly Mammoth.  I turned the post card around and looked at the signature first, Dave McCoy.  My heart stopped as I read the letter, even then I knew what a big deal it was. Nowadays, I vaguely remember the post card saying something like, “Dear Alexia, I heard you had a pretty bad fall on my run the other day.  I hope this doesn’t stop you from skiing, and I hope that you get back on the mountain soon!”

The next day, I went back on my mountain.

My dad, previously an airplane salesman executive, retired and started driving the bus for the mountain. Retirement wasn’t for him.  He was bored, he needed something to do, plus you get free ski season passes for you and you’re entire family if you work for the mountain.

Back then, when there was more freedom and the times were simpler, I used to ride on the dashboard of the bus my dad would drive.  Back then, the bus had a huge dashboard, and I was a very tiny, little girl.  There was this manual tally, and my dad would have to press a button each time a person got on the bus.  When I would ride the bus with my dad, I begged him to let me do it.  I would sit on the dashboard and count the people as they came in.  Smiling and chatting along with all of the people coming in.

That winter, we got a Golden Retriever puppy.  Then, the puppy got to sit next to me on the dashboard.  During Christmas time I put a big, red bow on his collar.  Lines started to form to get on our bus.  We would ride around the whole town, my dad, me, and the puppy on the dashboard, and I would manually count each person that came on the bus. Some days, especially when it would snow, it would just be my dad, the puppy, and me.  I remember the snow softly falling on the pavement below, and my dad making the rounds, even though there was no one to pick up most of the time.

What I remember the most, out of all my years in Mammoth is the air.  So cold, so crisp, it would penetrate your lungs instantly.  I can almost feel that air flowing through me as I type—it’s almost unexplainable.  Back then, when Mammoth could truly be yours.  When you could walk through the streets and it was just you out there, the crunching of the snow beneath your feet, stars so bright you felt like you had never truly seen stars before that.

I couldn’t quit Mammoth.  After college in a city far away, and one of those “I have no idea what I’m doing with my life” quarter-life crises, I decided to move back to work for my mountain.  I decided it was only fair to pass the torch and become a ski instructor.  My time may have been cut short by a knee injury but before it, I got to teach people how to love my mountain.  I taught small, little three year olds who had never been in skis before how to go down a hill. I taught 10 year old kids how to go from a pizza (a ski wedge) to fries (parallel skiing).  I taught a 40 year old Thai lady how to overcome her fears and go up a chairlift.  I showed people the beauty of my mountain.

When I was done with my lessons for the day and I was on my way home, I stopped, every time.  I would look at the Sierras.  I would look at the mountain.  My mountain.  It was quiet.  It was mine.  It was home. And I was passing the torch.  Full circle.

I went back to Mammoth recently and ran into an old ski school instructor of mine.  She asked if I still lived in town, and I said that I didn’t.  She said, “Well you know, when Mammoth is your home once, it is always your home.  Welcome home.”  And then, she hugged me.

Mammoth Lakes, California—thank you for your beauty.  Thank you for the beauty that you have brought into my life, the lessons that you have taught me, and for the adventures that you gave me.  It’s true that you are different now, it’s only natural, with time, with progression.  But don’t worry; I remember you like you used to be.  I remember who you used to be so vividly that when I close my eyes I can see you, I can feel you, I can smell the pine….I remember.  I remember who you were, I remember who I was, and I remember that you will always be a part of me.



3 Responses to “Mammoth Lakes, California: Ode to a Childhood”

  1. Dadio

    Enjoyed your writing brought tears to my eyes. It’s a great piece of work. You forgot to mention the doughnut trip you took without parental knowledge.



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