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Heading for Adventure, Yodelay Hee-Hoo

April 18, 2001|Chris Erskine

In the back seat, the kids practice their yodeling, high on thoughts of heading to the mountains for spring break. In the front seat, I slip an Advil under my tongue and stomp on the gas.

"Mom, you should try yodeling," the boy says.

"Yeah," says the little girl. "Yodeling is pretty fun."

"Here, have an Advil," I tell my wife.

To me, there are three great ways to travel north and south in California. Heading up the 101 is the first. Taking an airplane is the second.

This simple road, the 395, is the third, a scenic blast-from-the-past featuring the Mojave Desert on one side and mountains on the other.

To our left are the Sierra, where Southern California's water table rests 12,000 feet in the sky, stored along these mountain peaks till spring, when it begins to roar into the aqueducts and the reservoirs, and eventually our bathtubs.

Sun filtering through these mountain clouds makes this stretch of road look like some movie director's vision of heaven. But this ain't heaven. There are three kids in the back seat. Yodeling.

"Could you ask them to stop yodeling?" my wife asks.

"Maybe you should try yodeling," I say.

"Give me those," my wife says, snatching the bottle of Advil from my fist.

Through the towns of Independence and Bishop we go, up past the mountain streams and the ma-and-pa motels you probably figured disappeared when the interstates took over. Not here.

"Color TV," the motel signs say. "Air-conditioning. Fish cleaned."

"Do they have clean fish here?" the little girl asks.

"Obviously," I say.

*

I like these small towns, filled with little cafes where the waitress slips her thumb into your mashed potatoes and calls you "honey."

I want to stop here and spend a few days getting a taste of the mountains and the rhubarb pie. I want to chase trout. I want to yodel.

"How much longer?" the boy asks.

"About an hour," I say.

"That's too long," the little girl says.

"Way too long," says the boy.

Fortunately, we have yodeling and snowboard jokes to entertain us. Without those, we'd have to gaze out the car window and learn about America.

"How does a snowboarder introduce himself?" the boy asks, reading from a book on snowboarding.

"I give up," I say.

"Whoa! Sorry, dude!" the boy answers.

"That's pretty good," I say.

"What does a snowboarder use for birth control?" the boy asks.

"His personality," I say.

"How'd you know?" the boy says.

"I just know," I say.

Farther up into the Owens Valley we go, where the cottonwood trees replace the sage brush and the creosote.

Near Crowley Lake, we pass the small boarded-up shack that was once this area's main ski lodge.

It has been replaced by a sleek, world-class ski resort at Mammoth Mountain, on the north slope, where the snow is more dependable and the scenery is spectacular.

Mammoth Lakes is like a Walt Whitman post card. But unlike those tiny towns we just passed, this paradise carries a hefty price tag.

When we get there, I will open my wallet, turn it over and pour out $20 bills.

When that stops, I will reach for the credit cards. When those max out, the kids will turn to the ATM in my forehead. As a dad, it's good to have an ATM in your forehead.

"Can we go out for dinner?" one of the kids will ask.

"Sure, just press my nose," I'll say.

"Can we ski tomorrow?"

"Sure, just twist my ear."

"Thanks," they'll say and empty out my head.

The older the kids get, the more they like skiing. The older I get, the more indulgent it seems.

For 10 years now, I have carried skis and money to the mountain, with no end in sight.

When we get there, I'll stand at the top of the mountain, look out 30 miles over the rugged terrain Ansel Adams once prowled. Still, there will be no end in sight.

So I take another Advil and stomp on the gas, pointing the minivan toward Mammoth's pricey trails.

"Hey Dad," the boy says.

"Hey what?"

"What do you call a snowboarder without a girlfriend?" he asks.

"I give up."

"Homeless," the boy says.

"Good one," I say.

Sometimes, just the journey is enough.

*

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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