Chris Erskine: A weekend in the Sierra, land of wood smoke and heavy socks

Silver Lake in repose. Director Frank Capra kept a cabin here. See why?
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

The lout in the next motel room is up early, so I guess we’re all up early. Our neighbor is stomping around, coughing, sputtering, showering.

This is the kind of motel you end up at when you have a pet in tow: cheap compromises made of rice paper and matchsticks.

One guest showers, we all shower.

When the maid service knocks, the workers don’t say “housekeeping.” They yell, “Get out while you can!!!”


Listen, I don’t mind bargain lodging. For we are back in my forest primeval, the Eastern Sierra, a range of snow and pine that stretches up the 395, California’s slender neck.

Lone Pine. Big Pine. No Pine. Highway 395’s timeless little towns are roadside attractions. I could make a weekend stopping in every bait and tackle shop along the way, bumming the free coffee in the back.

And finally, at the top of it all: Mammoth Lakes, a snowy masterwork, land of wood smoke and heavy socks.

I am probably too easily charmed, yet I am smitten by the ski village’s pre-winter stacks of pine outside almost every cabin. Think of the labor that goes into that, the anticipation, the Puritan spirit. A good wood pile, split and properly stacked, is the triumphant afterlife of trees. It is Longfellow with a whiskey chaser.

With me I have a boy, a pet wolf and a phone full of photos. It’s our second day here, and the Sierra aspen are turning to gold bullion. Radiant is too weak a word.

White Fang is a magnificent wolf-dog, by the way, blue-eyed and with the hint of an upper-crust upbringing. That’s a false front, but I’m fond of those as well.


Pretense has always been strangely alluring to me, almost a puzzle to be solved. It reveals a tender spot in my character, I’m sure, a soft, mossy flaw. But bony and pretentious Gwyneth Paltrow would be, like, my dream date.

Yet this wolf is a far better person. For one, White Fang doesn’t talk about wellness. She’d never scold me for eating a Slim Jim and leaving the wrapper on the dash. She’s good company that way, as is my son, who is my sidekick and merely my entire life.

Like him, the temp is in the teens this morning. A mug of coffee feels good against the hand. The boy, legally married now to his cellphone, shudders as we head off for a hike.

As you know, Shakespeare was like an undertaker — he saw death everywhere, including autumn’s gasping, quivering trees.

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

He was pretty good, Shakespeare. He called autumn, “Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.” But I see it as a roaring aria.

On days like this, I wish October were 90 days long.

Some Saturdays, you just need someone to knock around with, and that’s this boy. We are the oddest couple ever, a before-and-after cautionary tale. He is tall and handsome as timber. I am what happens when you spend too much time in your car.

A dark little stream spills out of Silver Lake, one of the great escapes in the Sierra.
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

The dog bonds us. As you may remember, she belonged to my late son, and now — as if an angel, as if on some sort of mission of mercy — she splashes across mountain streams, tugs playfully on her leash, bounds along these trails she once shared with him.

Dogs do God’s work, and they never ask for much — a bowl of the most awful food, a scratch behind the ears.

The young dog is our jester — heck, they’re both jesters. You should see her giggle when the boy checks her for ticks. Turns out she’s a little ticklish just about everywhere.

By late morning, the three of us have threaded our way through the trails of June Lake, down by a lake called Silver, one of California’s most magnificent playpens.

At Silver Lake, long corridors of aspen ring the shoreline, and a dark little stream empties out amid some campsites set in high grass.

Campsite No. 18 is the most splendid, but really you can’t miss here, if you like to fish or kayak or ponder the freckles on your wrist. It is good for all of that.

On the north shore are these sprawling summer places; legendary director Frank Capra once kept a cabin there. It has the feel of rural Pennsylvania, a Bedford Falls set against the backdrop of Carson Peak, a close cousin of Half Dome (they share the same movie-star chin).

To be sure, it’s a cinematic setting that Capra must’ve loved. The sunlight — California’s famed butterscotch beams — flatters everything it touches here.

The trees, the pumpkins, our raw and stubborn souls.