They follow me, a man with a snowy mustache and credit problems, deep into the Sierra. It sounds like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, except the Uber arrives with tire chains and the lumberjacks only take Venmo.
Sure, the lackluster Mammoth dining scene is the biggest danger. They can’t even manage a decent glass of water up here; it tastes like the detergent they rinsed it in. But they can pour a nice glass of happy juice. I devoted Saturday to skiing and the next day to my mastery of the greatest drink the world has ever known, the Bloody Mary.
Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Look, I need my fluids. I am skiing, mind you, with the kind of people who can’t pull on a sweater without ensnarling themselves in the sleeves for five minutes.
“Help!” my son says.
“What’s the magic word?” I ask.
“Help!!!” he pleads again.
In our family, the magic word is help.
There are a bunch of us up here: three kids, a favorite niece, a couple of boyfriends we can’t shake – I’ve almost lost count. Our friends Gayle and Jason lent us their cozy condo, and the highlight of the whole weekend is the cousins piled like puppies under blankets while someone struggles to start a fire.
At night, we play the dumbest board games – “I SWEAR, CAMAGRAPHER IS NOT A WORD!” And the pizza takes, like, 14 hours to arrive.
This is a particularly restorative trip, a family jaunt into the sugar-frosted Eastern Sierra and the finest ski conditions I’ve ever seen in California. Thirty-foot drifts ring the entire town, turning Mammoth Lakes into a walled medieval city.
In Mammoth, spring might be seven years away.
All I know for sure is this: The ocean clears my head and the mountains clear my soul. Family fixes the rest of me … broken me. I’m an old heirloom that’s a little chipped and past its usefulness. At a yard sale, you couldn’t give me away.
Yet the kids keep me around, since I pick up most of the tabs and am good company in the ski lodge after five hours of falling down the mountain.
After a certain age, youth sports are over and you have to build in these dates with your adult children. A beautiful mountain hideaway like this lures millennials like avocado toast and free Tito’s.
By the way, props to the hearty folks who keep a ski hill humming. It is raw and crushing work. Each morning, the sound of avalanche cannons greets visitors, and you know immediately there’s a war on. Mammoth is notorious for 100-mph winds that can fling you — like a howitzer — right off the hill.
In New York, you play with the city. In California, you play with the land.
So here we are, at the end of a long day on the land, ticking off the things that hurt us – calves, schnitzels, backs, butts.
We watch the snowboarders coming in hot toward the snow fence that protects the lodge from their unfettered flights. Once in a while one will snag himself, a shark in a gill net. I could draw a million social media hits by taping their agony. That would only encourage them.
At this stage in my life, I am a reluctant skier. I do it for the spectacular views and the camaraderie of this ridiculously expensive sport. A wiseguy buddy (Ulf) compares skiing to standing in a cold shower and tearing up $100 bills. I mean, wouldn’t that be simpler?
To be caught atop Mammoth Mountain in a sudden blizzard makes you question the existence of a benevolent snow god. In modern life, we rarely experience life-and-death decisions. Yet I’ll take my chances up here in the clouds. I’ve had enough death for a while; I need a little life … adrenaline … a yodel or two.
This I also know from skiing:
--The best part is taking off those cement boots at the end of the day.
--The best radio station in California — by far — is 93.3 FM, “The Rock of the Sierra.”
--Mountain breakfasts are the finest breakfasts, elevated by the simple pleasure of a crispy sausage link rolled in the pancake syrup that lacquers your plate.
--My lovely and patient older daughter — the other rock of the Sierra — has the finest mental approach to skiing that I’ve ever witnessed: three runs, four beers, unlimited snarky asides.
“I’m retiring,” announces our own Lindsey Vonn. “Want my autograph? Fifty bucks.”
Of all the Irish smiles I saw this past weekend, hers was the very brightest. The bartender knew her by name, and if she had stayed another day they might’ve renamed the entire mountain after her.
Such an Erskine. Such a smile.