By Julie Pendray
MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — You’ve gotta love a town whose welcome sign reads: “The mountains are calling …” and whose exit sign states, “Going to the mountains is going home.”
John Muir Trail, named for the author of these quotations, follows the same footpath as the Pacific Crest Trail for about 170 miles from the Mt. Whitney area in the Sierras (roughly mile 767 on the trail) northward. At mile 906, hikers unwind at a campground at Red’s Meadow. From there, they can get a shuttle into the city of Mammoth Lakes and hop on a trolley that takes them around town for free.
Mammoth was almost unrecognizable to me this time, compared to when I snow skied there in the 1980s and ’90s. The same sweet Old Mammoth area is still there. However, the city itself is now highly developed, displaying big money, especially in The Village section. I arrived in mid-June, after local elections. In the cafes, locals were commenting that they hoped officials would sort through this young town’s growing pains and differences among residents over the direction the area should take.
I’d driven from Big Bear in Southern California to Mammoth overnight, to continue my journey to write this series, “Heart of the PCT Towns.” This trip would eventually take me to British Columbia and back to the PCT re-supply town of Idyllwild, where I’m based. Along for the adventure was Michelle the cat, who, I learned, was deathly afraid of semi trucks. I discovered this as they bore down on us with their huge headlights and blood curdling horns on US 395. Michelle howled a couple of times as the lights shone on her cat carrier. Note to self: avoid freeways, especially at night on truck routes.
Between Big Bear and Red’s Meadow, PCT hikers can bunk down, chow-down and sometimes collect packages of goodies they’ve mailed themselves at “re-supply” spots such as Cajon Pass, Wrightwood, Acton, Agua Dulce, Lake Hughes, Tehachapi, Mojave, Lake Isabella, Kennedy Meadows, Lone Pine, Independence and Bishop. I’ve visited some of these places over many years and I was sad to miss them this time. Instead, I drove through the night to get ahead of the hikers to write this series and get out of a Southern California heatwave. I’ll be able to stop in some of the towns later on, I thought.
As I passed through Lone Pine in the dark though, I did nostalgically recall hiking Mt. Whitney in the 1980s. At 14,494 feet (I bought the T-shirt to prove it) it’s the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. I remember coming off that trail and feeling that my body was so clean from the alpine air, the sweat and lack of candy bars that I never wanted to eat junk food again. Instead, I chowed down at a salad bar. It felt so good.
One aspect I enjoy about small Western towns is the old-fashioned hardware stores. I recall one from a visit years ago in Lone Pine or Bishop. Favorite item: a frog or toad catcher. This looked like a garden trowel with bent tines. The thought of surprising an amphibian in the dark with a spiked tool through its back was a sad and repulsive concept to me, like something out of Huckleberry Finn. I’d never seen anything like that in New Zealand (my homeland.)
This time, as I drove along the Sierras, I attempted naps in the car. However, Michelle is not fond of strange places in the dark and wouldn’t settle. I learned that she views herself as my protector and feels it her duty to prowl through the vehicle, finding the highest spot among the luggage and peering into the night for any potential problems. This trip was our first time traveling at night together. I must admit that she cried a bit on this leg of the journey, understandably. She gradually adapted and, as I write, she is back in Idyllwild now, comfortably napping and still “speaking” to me at the end of this 6,000-mile adventure.
In Bishop, at a grassy, roadside park, we slept for an hour after daybreak. I was still exhausted as I pulled into Mammoth Lakes before 8 a.m., welcomed by a heavenly, cool breeze. “Ah, the mountains!” I thought, so relieved, looking forward to all the lovely cool temperatures I expected on this anticipated trip to Canada. In reality, global warming became a topic of conversation everywhere I went on this 10-week excursion and I never found a respite from the heat like this again. I happily donned a fleece jacket and drove around looking for accommodation. At the top of a hill, I found a campground with cabins. It was so quiet and cool, yet I thought the better of staying in bear country with my cat. She is an intensely smart and curious girl and I was afraid she would jump out of the car and I’d never see her again.
So, instead, I headed for breakfast spots “where the locals hang out,” recommended to me by campground staff. I saw three young, male PCT hikers walking into The Good Life Cafe, so I followed them in. Knowing how hungry they were, I let them eat breakfast in peace, after agreeing to an interview later. The manager quickly understood the intent of my series “Heart of the PCT Towns” and agreed to trade my breakfast for a mention in this magazine. So, leaving Michelle in her carrier in the car in a shady spot in the parking lot, with the windows down, I happily ensconced myself at a table and ordered yogurt, fruit, cereal and bacon. The servers were interested to hear about my adventure. Unfortunately, as I ate, the hikers took off out the door and I didn’t see them go! Hunger made them forget our interview! Not a problem, because I had interesting chats still to come at the post office the next day. For now, I needed to get settled and rest. I rewarded Michelle with bacon for her wait in the car and we took off for the visitor center.
The parking lot at the center was warming up and there was no shade, so I carried Michelle inside in the pet carrier. As we entered, I heard a tentative “Meow …” as she tried to make sense of an army of legs in front of her.
“Did I just hear a cat?” people started asking. To my amusement, Michelle and her trip to Canada became the talking point in the room as I wearily asked about where to lay my head for the night. Staff gave me a map with spots marked “X” and I set off to inquire at pet-friendly locations.
Rustic, quiet Edelweiss Lodge agreed to trade two nights’ lodging for advertising on this magazine and a mention in this series. The lodge is owned by a young couple who understood my interest in the PCT and told me what they’d heard about the snow pack this year and the difficulty hikers were having. I was to hear this again from PCTers at the post office the next day, where my own re-supply package was waiting. For now, I let out a deep sigh of gratitude and agreed to come back later when the room was ready. As we parted company, my ears pricked up when they said they would be distributing homemade cookies later. I was beginning to feel like a long distance hiker. Any mention of food got me going. Mmmm.
I had several hours to kill, so I set out to get reacquainted with the area. In my skiing days, my husband and I had been goal oriented. Daytimes, we hit the slopes hard. Nighttimes, we ate and fell asleep soon afterward, dog tired. I’d once been to Devils Postpile but I knew nothing about the lakes. This time, I found my way around so many beautiful bodies of water. Way up high, at the end of a winding road, I saw the water shining at Crystal Lake with a backdrop of snowcapped mountains and decided it was one of the prettiest destinations I’d ever seen.
At one grassy spot, I let Michelle out on a leash and harness to see ducks by a pond. I learned she cannot focus when there’s noise from street improvements next door.
Back in our room, I took a shower and nap. The lodge gave us an extra sheet to put on top of the bed so Michelle wouldn’t shed on the quilt. I’m happy to report that my cat’s fastidious personal hygiene and quiet manners won favor with hoteliers along the PCT route, perhaps paving the way for future feline visitors.
Still tired and having skipped lunch, I yanked on knee-high boots, happy I’d brought winter clothes in summer, and departed to find dinner. Rafters Restaurant immediately accommodated me, after viewing my years of press credentials. As I waited for a delicious salmon and kale dish to go, I regaled the manager and hostess with my adventures. The manager brought me a glass of divine sauvignon blanc from a California winemaker, Brander Vineyard. I hadn’t heard of this company, which is north of Santa Barbara, so I made a note to try more of their offerings. Growing drowsy and pondering a good night’s sleep, I chatted with visitors from all over the world who walked into Rafters off bus tours. My meal arrived and I drove it back to the lodge, devoured it with gratitude, shared a little salmon with Michelle and turned off the light, dreaming of my happy adventure to Canada. I couldn’t have known all the obstacles and challenges that lay ahead. But they would be interspersed with jaw dropping views and heart-melting moments that would make me weep.
To be continued ….
Julie Pendray has been writing about Pacific Crest Trail hikers for three years. To follow this series, you can read:
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