MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. — When I was a year old, my mother tied me to a tree. This was outside our log cabin high on a hillside above Twin Lakes at Mammoth. Mother didn't want me rolling down the hillside into the lake. I have been tied to the place ever since. We long ago sold the log cabin and have added new Mammoth traditions to our family lore.
For most Californians, Mammoth and snow go together. But for me, the glory time is between Labor Day and the first of November. The leaves of the quaking aspen trees and sumac bushes turn golden yellow around glittering lakes palisaded by pine, the whole panorama set against a background of gold-veined red rock, the gray spires of mountain peaks and electric blue sky. The lakes are stocked with trout, and old-timers calculate the length of autumn by the snap in the air and the creak in their bones. The air has the smell of smoke in it, but the sun is warm, and although the fishing season is in full swing (until Nov. 1), there is a quiet restfulness about the place.
On past visits, our family had done the campground bit ("It'll be fun to rough it") and the rented-rustic-cabin routine ("Never mind the mice, and sorry, we meant to fix that heater before you got here."). Three years ago we decided we wanted to preserve the Mammoth tradition, but in something with hot water all day long and enough electric light in the evening to actually read a book.
We found just what we were looking for at Snowcreek Resorts on Old Mammoth Road. Their "fall special," good Sept. 11 to Oct. 31, offers value ($150 a night, as opposed to $280 in summer and $330 to $410 in winter), and their condos provide the level of comfort we wanted. Built in the same meadow that once housed the frontier town set for the 1966 Steve McQueen Western "Nevada Smith," Snowcreek sits just below the limestone, fossil-encrusted bulk of Mammoth Rock.
Our two-story unit had three bedrooms, three baths, a large kitchen, outdoor verandas upstairs and down, barbecue and fireplace. An added attraction was free use of the Sports Center down the road, which contains a lap pool, whirlpool spas and exercise rooms.
Five of us left L.A. early in the morning for the six-hour drive up U.S. 395 to Mammoth. We had stocked up on deli sandwiches the night before, and four hours into the drive we ate lunch at the play park in Lone Pine. My nephew, William, just a week from his 5thh birthday, sped from slide to slide, jumped off the swing set and bounced on the teeter-totter. Two hours later, he was exploring the playground just a mile from our Mammoth condo. That evening at sunset, the big ones were biting, and we headed for "our rock."
On the western perimeter of Lake George, just north of Lake Mary on Lake Mary Road, is a boulder where my family has fished for more than 60 years. The sun was sinking, and the lake surface popped with the small bubbles of trout rising to the surface to feed.
As we got the fishing tackle out of the trunk, a fly hook swung wide and fastened in Grandpa's trousers. The ancient wise one cursed under his breath while, beneath the fascinated gaze of his grandson, he tried to free his trousers and his dignity and look as if it was something he had meant to do all along. He was forced to the extremity of pliers while the rest of us, smothering laughter, tried to preserve a serious silence and William kept asking, "But why do you have to hook yourself before you start fishing?" William's interest in fishing was sharply piqued when he hooked a large rainbow and reeled it in under Grandpa's watchful eye. "It's bigger than Grandpa's!" the expert fisherman announced.
We had planned to have most meals at the condo, with a fish fry as our final dinner if the anglers got lucky, so that evening was our big night out. We made reservations at the Restaurant at Convict Lake (two miles west of Highway 395 at the Convict Lake turnoff), a historic establishment that combines the ambience of a mountain lodge with European-style cuisine. The sky was a deep cerulean blue as we turned off the highway and drove back through the mountains toward Convict Lake. In the headlights, two mule deer skittered away into the scrub.
While relaxing with a glass of wine in the restaurant's comfortable bar, with its log walls and picture windows, we studied the menu and decided on rack of lamb, peppered pork loin and New York steak as the front runners for dinner. They tasted as good as they sounded, and for dessert, we took a walk in air as cold and heady as champagne and sampled a sky full of stars. Mammoth is the only place where William has seen the splendors of the Milky Way.