Taking a breather in Mammoth Lakes

me minarets

The tragic Rim Fire outside of Yosemite hit close to home last week, when the fire’s smoke traveled up to the Tahoe basin – and decided to stay awhile.  We’ve not seen smoke this bad since the Angora Fire, and it affected our morale as much as our ability to breathe and sleep.  With no respite forecast for the weekend, we decided to head south to Mammoth Lakes, where we had heard air quality was much better, thanks to the wind direction.

dog stick convict lake

Since we had the dog with us, our first stop was for her.  Convict Lake is just south of Mammoth Lakes, and while it’s a popular fishing spot, the 2.5 mile trail that circumvents the lake is the perfect distance for a nearly 13 year old dog.  We love the views of Mt. Morrison and Mini-Morrison, and the clear blue skies were only additional incentive.

Nils Mammoth

The real reason for traveling to Mammoth was to mountain bike.  It’s been a few years since I had been to Mammoth’s mountain bike park, and while I had upgraded my bike, Mammoth had done a lot of work to the trail system, adding trails and working on existing ones.  The net result was a whole lotta fun.  Think plenty of banked turns, bridges, more than a few pavers, and a ton of views.

With great meals at Toomey’s and Campo Mammoth, along with food, wine, live music and fascinating people watching at the Mammoth Rocks event Saturday, it really felt like a mini vacation.

For both me and my lungs.

If you go:

Mammoth Mountain Bike Park: Open 7 days a week through September 15, then weekends through September 29.

Convict Lake: In addition to hiking, there’s also fishing, boating and a terrific restaurant.  Go here in the autumn to see the technicolor brilliance of the aspens along the lake.

Toomey’s: Matt Toomey, former head chef at the Tioga Toomey’s at the Whoa Nellie Deli, has returned to Mammoth.  His new restaurant, located near the Village in the old Ski Surgeon building, boasts many of his classics (think lobster taquitos) and some new favorites, like the ½ pound burger served with caramelized onions and blue cheese.

Campo Mammoth:  This Mammoth outpost of the popular Reno rustic Italian restaurant offers wood-fired pizzas, great cocktails (try the Campo Manhattan), and an awesome kale salad.

Old New York Deli & Bakery:  The best (read: authentic) bagels you can find in the Sierra.  Seriously.  Located in the Village, it’s got great breakfasts and happens to be conveniently located on the way to the ski resort.

Age and Numbers

Dog and stick descending hiking trail

Big sticks make her happy.

You’ve probably heard that old chestnut about age being just a number.  It’s a saying you see on cards for ‘significant’ birthdays, a half-hearted attempt to make the recipient feel less decrepit.   For all it’s bad humor, there is truth to it.

A few weeks ago, I met up with my mom for a whirlwind trip to Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, to celebrate my grandmother’s 88th birthday.   She is a living example of age being just a number, appearing fearless in all that she embraces, and basically, to quote my British friends, ‘getting on with it’.  Between learning Quickbooks recently (she’s managing the local store at her retirement community) to traveling to China last October, she’s not afraid to try something new.  Plus, she can still handily beat both me and my mother at cards.

So it’s been with her in mind that I’ve tried to say yes more than no.  This is why I agreed to swim 2.4 miles on Saturday.  It’s also why I’m rocking more than a few gashes on my legs, since I’m now trying to ride more technical sections of trail on my mountain bike – not always successfully.  Though I’m pretty sure I won’t be learning Quickbooks anytime soon.

A prance in her step.

The other example of agelessness (though not grace) is my nearly 12 year old dog.  We’ve not hiked much with her this year, but took her out this weekend on a 9 mile hike at the north end of Desolation Wilderness near Meeks Bay.  An hour and a half on a gently climbing trail got us to Lake Genevieve, the first in a series of lakes along this trail (well worth exploring).    Stick chasing, swimming and prancing resulted, with Soleil acting like it was Christmas.  On our hike out she proudly held her stick between her teeth, carefully guiding it between and around the rocks on the trail, and generally not acting like an ‘old’ dog.

To me this just confirms that she didn’t get the memo about dog years.  And that age really is just a number, albeit one that she doesn’t understand.

As for me, I’m reminded that no matter the number of candles on the birthday cake, it’s not an excuse to avoid the new and exciting.  It’s a reason to relish every day, even the less-than-exciting ones.  Admittedly a hard lesson to internalize, but one I’m working on.

Day by day.

Chamonix – autumn colors + brushes with taxidermy

From Paris we hopped on the TGV and headed southeast to Chamonix.  This was another place where I had lived back in the last century. Not long after I left, I ended up buying a miniscule apartment with what was my life savings at the time. I assumed it would be my nest egg.  Said nest egg was sold when N and I bought our first house in Tahoe. That was the only wise investment decision I have ever made.

Chamonix in 2011 is both same same and different different to the place I left twelve years ago.  Like many mountain towns, there are plenty of people I know who are still there.  They might have spouses and kids and mortgages now, but they stay for the same reasons I wanted to.  The mountains.  In the past decade the town has certainly changed and grown. There’s a MacDo now, a few more roundabouts getting into town, underground parking and a Chanel boutique. For me the most revelatory difference was the receding glaciers.  They were quite a bit smaller than I remember.  And I heard that they’ve even covered one.

We were in Chamonix to see friends and do some exploring.  I’d found a small flat in Cham Sud, ironically in the same block as my old studio.  The views of the rental were much better though, looking out towards the Aiguille du Midi.

Views from the bedroom in Chamonix

The mild weather was perfect for hiking, so I took N up to the Lac Blanc, which used to be my favorite hike.  It’s a lot easier when the trams are running, as that shaves off 3000 feet of hiking.  Alas, the off-season meant that the trams were closed, so we ended up climbing 4600 feet up and down.  But the views were well worth it, even if I had difficulty walking the next day.

Lac Blanc's amazing views

Descending from Lac Blanc to Argentiere

Hiking down from Lac Blanc to Argentiere

The following day my friend H suggested we hike up to the top of the Montenvers Tramway, which is on the other side of the valley from Lac Blanc.  It was a great way to see where we had been the day before, but the highlight of that hike was encountering this incongruous sight at the top – a golf cart filled with haphazardly stacked taxidermied creatures.  H’s suggestion of a photo ended up being my favorite photo of the trip.

Dead animals in golf carts at the Montenvers

Dead animals in golf carts in the Alps - bien sur!

And really, after a photo like that, that’s pretty much it.

While it was a brief trip that didn’t include skiing,  it was nice to be in Chamonix during the ‘intersaison’. It was less crowded and much quieter. Which I didn’t mind at all.

Mosquitogeddon (adventures in backpacking)

Clearly we had no idea what was in store for us

We’ve talked about going backpacking locally for a long time now, but life (and mountain biking, roller derby, etc.) kind of got in the way.  Until this past weekend, when we took a quick overnight trip into Desolation Wilderness.  It was an experiment of sorts, one that I’m not sure entirely succeeded.

Over the years, we’ve amassed a surprising assortment of lightweight hiking and backpacking gear, though said collection has never really been used for its intended purpose. After our last trip to Switzerland, N surprised me with a stable and lightweight Black Diamond backpack (to match his), which he reasoned would work well for future hut trips as well as backpacking.  The dimensions of the packs are such that you need a really small sleeping bag or else you have room for little else, so his next purchase was two super light down bags from Western Mountaineering.  I supplied us with titanium pots (thanks to Steep & Cheap), and with our Jetboil stove and Eureka Zeus 2 tent we had all the fixin’s for super light backpacking.

Unfazed by the bugs

Part of the incentive for this is because our dog is getting older, and really isn’t capable of the 15+ mile day hikes we used to do.  An overnight trip means less miles per day for her, and would give us an opportunity to relax in the backyard (read: Desolation Wilderness) that we’ve spent so many daylight hours exploring.  Plus, it’s like Disneyland for the dog, providing her with infinite numbers of sticks and logs to play with, lakes to swim in, and things to sniff and mark.

It being August, we hoped that the upper elevations of Desolation had melted out enough for us to camp.  Clearly we were not the only ones with that thought, for finding an overnight permit was tricky.  The one option that didn’t require a 9 mile hike or a waist deep creek crossing was a lake (Triangle) that had a reputation for bugs.  But magical thinking convinced that it wouldn’t be all that bad, especially if the nighttime temps dropped to the mid-thirties, as they have at our house the past week.

How wrong we were.  The mosquitoes arrived almost immediately, and while it cooled off a bit, it wasn’t enough to convince them to leave.  I was in the tent by 7.30 pm and didn’t leave again until the morning, when the promise of coffee, and a reprieve from the hard granite slab we slept on, roused me. Alas, mosquitoes are apparently early risers too, for they were up and at ‘em before the Jetboil was done.  While they served as an incentive to break down camp quickly, I would have preferred a more leisurely morning.

I refused to believe that the bugs were that bad in other areas of the wilderness, so I convinced N that we should take an extended day hike to Lake Aloha, which is typically breezy.  There was still a bit of snow there, along with a lot of mud…and a lot of gnats and mosquitoes.  The mountain breezes that seduced us into stopping to filter some water on the lake’s edge skedaddled the second we had our packs off and filter half in the water, leaving us surrounded by a cloud of buzzing and biting insects.  It’s obvious my magical thinking was flawed all the way around.  We did have bug spray with us, and pretty much depleted the travel size we brought.  I’m not a fan of chemicals like DEET, but in this case I was ready to drink the damn bottle if it kept me from becoming a giant welt.

Flowers on the way to Echo Lakes

Fortunately for our sanity, the hike out to Echo Lakes was much more pleasant, involving a descent, wildflowers, bugs of a more manageable volume, and even a breeze.  And I should note here that the flowers are absolutely INSANE this year.  I’ve been hiking in Desolation for 10 summers now, and I’ve never seen so many vibrant flower-filled meadows.  Even so-called ‘dry’ areas are boasting lupine, paintbrush and a ton of other varieties that I can’t identify.

Anyone know what these are called?

So it’s definitely worth a visit (or two).  Just remember to bring some industrial grade mosquito repellent and a good camera.

My hiking buddy

For most of her life, Soleil has been my favorite hiking buddy.  She was there before I met Nils, and was there long before I realized that mountain biking was actually more exhilarating than hiking.  She’s accompanied me along numerous Lake Tahoe hiking and running trails, and knows the Desolation Wilderness better than most people.

My hiking buddy is now 10, and the hip dysplasia that she was diagnosed with 8 years ago is a little more prevalent.  She’ll still prance and frolic and pick up large sticks, but she’s decidedly stiffer the next day.  The days of 20+ mile hikes are over, so our adventures together are a little less extreme.  Yet she’s just as exuberant about a 20 minute walk in the nearby meadow as she is a 10 mile hike.  (Yes, there are lessons there for me.)

Most of this summer has been spent in the bike saddle – or on my roller skates – so the dog’s not had the same volume of hikes as years past.   I’ve only begun to make it up to her as the leaves change, which isn’t a bad thing, given that autumn is one of the nicest hiking seasons here.   The past few weekends have brought us quiet trails, colorful leaves, and some terrific views.

As for the mutt, even at 10, or 70, depending on whether you count dog years, she’s still able to climb the 3,000 feet to summit Tallac, and still garner the adoration of dog-loving passersby.  And when there’s someone watching, she’ll still prance with a large stick like the overgrown puppy I like to think she still is.

I know she’s getting older, but I’d like to think we’ll have another few seasons of hikes ahead of us.  After all, there are lots more large sticks out there.  And loads more prancing to do.

Happy birthday Nimtard.

Attempts at Creativity

I’ve had many intentions of posting my latest cooking experiment, but the millet feta patties never quite ‘pattied’, and ended up a tasty but ugly mess.  And the balsamic reduction over grilled fruit wasn’t that pretty.  That and we’d finished it before I’d remembered the camera.

With my conference now over and a very slight lull before some other projects (and vacation planning), I’m at a loss for exciting adventures to post.  It’s settled into a routine again – work, play, eat, sleep – and I’m not inspired enough to make my characteristic cynical observations.  Maybe it’s the continued rain & clouds? I say I like the change from the incessant sunshine, but maybe the greyness is taking its toll.  In any case….

Our weekend was slightly stymied by the early onset of clouds & drizzle on Saturday, so we opted for a hike instead of a mountain bike ride.  We headed to the Desolation Wilderness to see how snowy the trail to Lake Aloha was.  It was mostly clear to the last half mile, and we would have explored further had the sleet and hail not hit us hard.  Since we had the dog with us, and she doesn’t have a rain jacket – oh the humanity – we turned back.  It was a little under 13 miles, which is a decent hike, but not one that should have wiped the mutt out like it did.

October Hiking

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve gone hiking.  Life, work and my boyfriend’s injured foot meant more mountain biking and less time to commit to a long-distance nature walk.

So I was excited that I had Saturday to hike, and had grand plans to go to Lake Schmidell, located in the center of the Desolation Wilderness.  I hadn’t banked on the gray changeable weather that greeted me that morning, but figured that we (the dog and I) would go as far out as we could until the rain/snow/windstorms arrived.  The early morning clouds did mean that I was rewarded with an awesome sunrise.

The brief bit of sun was quickly obscured by clouds, and then wind, and then some rain.  I decided to turn back a few miles from Schmidell, instead taking a long loop back via Fontanellis Lake.  It was there that I bumped into a few long distance trail runners, 2 middle aged guys with their dog who were running trails from Echo Lakes to Barker Pass along the PCT  – 20 some odd miles?  I was more impressed with their dog doing that run than with them, as that’s a long distance for a dog.  Soleil was more impressed with her stick than the dog.

Clearly pleased with herself

While evidence of last week’s storm is visible on the north facing slopes, it’ll be awhile until Dick’s Peak is truly skiable.  I’m staying optimistic that we’ll see another cold snap this month, as Tahoe’s economy, so reliant upon tourism, could use an early and long winter season.

snow on Dick's Peak

We made it back to the car right before the drizzle began in earnest, and while the Bayview parking lot had a number of cars in it, I only saw 3 groups of hikers – all in the last 3 miles – all day.  Which is exactly why I love hiking in the autumn.

Wha’ Happened?

It was only Monday last I looked.  How did it become mid-September already?

The wind from our Labor Day trip to Mammoth must have pushed the time by all the quicker.  It’s quite versatile, that wind.  Not only did it exfoliate my face with the help of the pumice that’s native to Mammoth, but it kept thing exciting at our hotel, the Tamarack Lodge, by rattling windows and trees and gusting to ridiculous speeds (I heard 95 mph on the local weather).

Despite the unusual weather, it was refreshing to get out of Dodge for a weekend and enjoy some cooler temps, different scenery and see old friends.  N had spent Saturday morning doing maintenance on the Ski Club Lodge (a keeping it real quonset hut perched on some prime Mammoth real estate), so we stole a few hours in the afternoon to do a short hike.  That meant Mammoth frontcountry, which is polluted with people, many of whom have no clue about hiking etiquette.  N had words with some retards who insisted on cutting the trail, and the idiots acted contrite but continued to do so until he caught up with them again.  However, there was a lake within short distance which meant the dog could swim, so we suffered stupidity for her needs.

She amused the various groups of Japanese tourists (there were many) who weren’t familiar with a dog prancing with a log.

Most people just hike to and from the lake, but we continued another half hour up the trail to the Mammoth Crest, which is well worth it for the views.

The best part of the hike was the descent – it took only 20 minutes to descend what took an hour to climb, and got us back to the Tamarack Lodge in time for cocktail hour.

Showing Mom that Tahoe has Culture

My mother came up to visit us last weekend, and while we tend to steer towards hiking and enjoying the area’s natural attractions, I wanted to show her the other side of Lake Tahoe, that of the area’s culture (don’t laugh) and history. It’s a side I don’t usually explore, to be honest, but one I wanted to learn about.

Thursday night we had tickets to see a celtic duo, Men of Worth, at the Valhalla Boathouse Theater.   Being that the boathouse is located on the lake, I suggested a picnic beforehand, and the champagne, sushi & other nibbles at the lake’s edge set the mood for the evening.  The performance was surprisingly enjoyable for me, a non-celtic music lover, a balance of classical Irish/Gaelic songs and Irish banter.

The next day we drug Mom up to D.L. Bliss State Park, just north of Emerald Bay.  I’d never been there before, primarily because dogs are not allowed on the hiking trails, but we wanted to do a short hike with minimal elevation gain and maximum views, and the Rubicon Trailhead, located in the heart of the park, fits the bill.  We even climbed up to the anticlimatic lighthouse that looks surprisingly like an outhouse.

An outhouse lighthouse?

Part of the reason for the short hike was because we had tickets for an afternoon tour at the Thunderbird Lodge, a fantastic lakefront mansion built by an eccentric millionaire on Lake Tahoe’s east shore.

Lighthouse at the Thunderbird Lodge

Having only done this tour once before in the autumn, I wasn’t aware that it was so popular with the geriatric set.  The 3 of us (we met a friend of mine for the tour) brought the average age of the shuttle bus– including the deaf but adorable driver — down by about 25 years, and I’m still disappointed I wasn’t able to surreptiously snap some photos of our fellow tour-takers, as they were almost as fascinating as the lodge itself.  This news would no doubt disappoint our tour guide, an older snazzy gentleman who was concerned enough about his coiff to break out his comb multiple times during the tour to comb back imaginary stray hairs. He was able to keep his banter/schpiel going during this, however, which was pretty impressive.

I didn’t take many photos of Thunderbird, primarily because watching everyone else snap away fatigued me.  I did, however, capture the Thunderbird boat, a gorgeous mahogany yacht that has a story and history of its own.  It’s stunning.

The Thunderbird

Thunderbird is available for hosted parties and weddings, so I’m hoping that one day I get to attend something held here, as that’s the best way to enjoy the gorgeous location.   Anyone got a party coming up and need a venue?

After all this history and culture, I was exhausted – this is obviously something I need to work up to.  So I got out of cooking dinner and we instead watched the sunset on the patio of the Fresh Ketch over ahi tuna and drinks.  Definitely not a bad way to end a cultural marathon 24 hours!