Big Sky Country

We felt like we were in a horror film.  You know, you’re on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, the day is drawing to a close, and…

It’s just that we saw a sign for the Inyo Craters.  And wanting to experience everything in this life, wanting to see the natural wonders this far from home, we took a left off the main road.

Not that I’d been on the main road before either.

You see they get a lot of snow in the Sierras.  A TON!  So much that a great number of the mountain roads don’t open until summer.  As in now.  I’ve never seen the Mammoth Scenic Loop without a closed sign.  So, intrigued, we took it.  And found ourselves in an uninhabited pine tree forest.

And that’s where we saw the sign.  And feeling like we didn’t need no stinking instructions we didn’t take a look at the posted map, we just followed the dirt road.  Through one junction, and then another, to the point that I was now worried, not having dropped any bread crumbs, that we wouldn’t be able to find our way back.  But, the deeper we went into the woods, the greater the sense of our mission.  Shit, these craters had to be here SOMEWHERE!

And then, MILES from the macadam, there was a sign that it was another 1/2 mile.  Where ultimately, seemingly further than that, we found an outhouse, and a parking lot, and a SHITLOAD of mosquitoes.  Hell, I didn’t think they flew this far west, never mind this high, but when I slapped my neck a few feet from the car and saw those telltale wings and blood in my hand I knew…it was man against nature.  And nature always wins.

Now the trail sign said it was a 1/4 mile hike.  Which, at this point, I wasn’t trusting.  As we walked by redwoods, both standing and fallen, I realized we were a long, long way from home and my Eagle Scoutness was starting to freak.  But I told myself it was still only 6:30, it wasn’t going to get dark for another couple of hours.  But just as I was calming down, figuring we’d make it back to the car, I started to freak about finding the pavement again.  Ah well, forward.

And just when we were about to turn around, off in the distance, up a small hill, we saw a railing.

And when we stumbled up the hill, we were confronted with a giant HOLE!  Not caused by an asteroid but seismic activity.  And a further scramble to the right brought us to an even HIGHER crater.  We’d been laughing, that after all this work the natural wonders wouldn’t be so wonderful, but these WERE pretty cool.

And after contemplating God’s work, we turned around and were confronted with…two trails.

Uh-oh.  Which way had we come?

I checked the cell phone.  It said we had access.  But sometimes you push the buttons and it turns out you don’t.  I didn’t want to find out.  Finally convincing ourselves we hadn’t seen the picnic table on the right on our way in (but we were staring at the railing/crater!) we went to the left.  Where I recognized the giant pine cones.  And, fifteen minutes later, we were back at Felice’s Lexus.  Whew.

And we made it back to the main road too.

And feeling emboldened, when we finally got to the main drag, I suggested going north rather than south back to Mammoth Lakes.

Upon assent from Felice I steered the car onto a highway I hadn’t traveled since 1975.  I’d forgotten how desolate and beautiful it was.

My goal was June Mountain.  That far northern ski area ultimately purchased by Mammoth.  Where the skiing was tougher on the BOTTOM!

And after a dozen or so miles on 395, we hit the junction.  We turned left.  And were confronted with the kind of scenery people fly to Colorado for, but was here in our own backyard.

We hit a mountain lake, JUNE LAKE!  And then a small fishing village.  And ultimately June Mountain.  Which was bare on the bottom, but so steep I now understood why people rode the lift down at the end of the day.

And then…  With a towering edifice of rock just a mile or so away, I told Felice we had to drive deeper into the heart of darkness.

The road was twisting.  Towards what we believed would be a dead end.  And then we came around a corner and were confronted with a waterfall so vast and powerful that I could only think of its brethren in Yosemite!  Way high up the mountain.  Hundreds of feet above our automobile.  Was this WAVE of water.  I thought of the runoff in the plateau above.  How the melting snow slid down into a puddle and then off this CLIFF!  It was almost scary, like if we got too close we’d be swept away.  And the mountain came right down to our feet.  There was no gradual incline, just sheer rock face.  It was ASTOUNDING!

And then, as we drove away, we were confronted with more peaks where God and nobody else lived.  With spire tops and crop tops.  Flanked with snow here, bare there.  Pencil-thin waterfalls in spots, STREAMING down the rock.

And in the rearview mirror was a mountain so spectacular that I had to stop the car and get out to look.

And still we powered forward.  I figured this road had to be a loop.  It ultimately had to connect with 395, the main highway.  But mile after beautiful mile passed, and we just saw landscape and no people.

But then, VOILA!  395 was in sight.  We got back on the highway and pointed our car towards Mammoth.  But at the June Lake turnoff, we had to stop, I had to get sustenance, I hadn’t planned to be on this spacewalk for this long.

And after setting a package of beef jerky on the counter, I went into the men’s room to relieve myself.  And when I came out Felice was deeply into it with the clerk.  A fiftysomething man with a sunny personality.  He was pointing out the four types of trout you desired to catch in the lake.  There were pictures of them on the back of the hanging t-shirts.

And discussing fish, and the fact that this guy didn’t, we became friends, he started telling us his story.

He’d grown up in San Diego.  And had moved to Mammoth two college credits shy of graduation.  Then to Hawaii, where he drove a Porsche and worked at a hotel.  And then on to study martial arts in Tokyo.  And then back to the mainland, back to Mammoth, where he ran a hotel, improving its business forty percent in two years before the owner fired him and he ended up living in a trailer up here in the middle of nowhere, making $10,000 a year.

But he liked it.

But what about ROMANCE?

Women didn’t like him.  That was a running joke on Kauai.

And that’s when the conversation turned.

He’d been married.  For thirteen years.  But she left him for a man she’d known two weeks.  He gave her time to come to her senses, but after a sojourn to Arizona, having given her enough time to realize what she’d sacrificed, he was confronted with the fact that she was pregnant, and not only over him, but done with him.

Everywhere he went, he sent her letters.  Couldn’t they just be friends?

But she wouldn’t answer.  Finally, years later, she wrote back.  Told him she was married with two kids, and to never ever write again.

But he came back to the mainland to search for her.  And couldn’t find her.  But one day, telling the story to a guest at the Mammoth hotel he ran, he showed this woman his ex-wife’s picture and she exclaimed THAT’S MY NEXT DOOR NEIGHBOR!

He told her to make the connection for him, and to stay in touch.

But he never heard another word.

And now he’s here on desolation boulevard.  With plans for the rest of his life but nobody to share them with.

As we walked out of the mini-mart, close to forty minutes later, Felice and I stared at each other speechless.  And when Felice finally spoke, after the better part of a mile on the highway, she said he seemed so LONELY!

I figured his fantasy about his ex-wife was keeping him alive.  We all need something to keep us alive.

And as we drove in the fading light back towards Mammoth, with the highest peaks in the continental United States painted in front of us, lit up with the final reflections of a sinking sun, I started singing "Big Sky Country".

I told Felice there’d been this guy.  He’d recently died.  Chris Whitley.  He’d made an acoustic album for Columbia.  But when he wanted to change sound, to Hendrix-styled electric guitar, the label wanted nothing to do with him.  They dropped him.  He made some indie records thereafter, but now he’s gone.

Felice asked me if that debut album had been a hit.

I said it had sold quite well.  Foremost because of "Big Sky Country".

Now when this over
Over and through
And all them changes have come and passed
I wanna meet you in the big sky country
Just wanna prove, mama, love can last, yeah
Like hallelujah in the big sky country
Just like forever and ever is why
Be getting over in the big sky country
Be kissing time, kissing time goodbye

Inyo Craters

Carson Peak

Carson Peak waterfall (partial view)

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