We visited Mammoth and the Eastern Sierra in a series of summer vacations.
We left San Marcos in the middle of the night. Well, not exactly the middle of the night. We left San Marcos at 4:45 on a still-dark summer morning. It just felt like the middle of the night.
My husband Jack and I had been planning this family vacation for a year and a half. A year ago March, at my father’s funeral at Fort Rosecrans, Jack told my family, “We’ll be up this summer. It’s been too long.”
I grew up in Mammoth. In 1974, after spending the first 12 years of my life in Pine Valley out in East County, I moved to Mammoth with my parents, my sister, and my two brothers. My parents had taken a job managing Tamarack Lodge, a historic inn and cabins on Twin Lakes, up a winding mountain road outside the town of Mammoth Lakes. I graduated from Mammoth High School. I took a year off between my freshman and sophomore years of college to go home to Mammoth and check groceries at Vons and ski.
During my adult life, I had visited Mammoth only a handful of times. Too far. Too expensive. My parents moved back to San Diego a dozen years ago. My siblings all settled down in Mammoth or the Eastern High Sierra after starting their lives elsewhere.
After I got married and had children, the trip to Mammoth became even more daunting. I remember a Thanksgiving trip when my oldest daughter Rebecca was a year old. On the way home, Rebecca screamed for 150 miles while I drove like a crazy woman down out of the high desert into San Bernardino. Rebecca was followed in quick succession by Angela, Lucy, Johnny, and Ben. The trips to Mammoth stopped altogether. The last time we visited the Eastern Sierra, I was pregnant with Lucy. This October, we’ll celebrate Lucy’s sixth birthday.
In the meantime, Jack and I had visited his family in Ohio a number of times. After my father’s funeral, Jack’s parents, not knowing our plans to go to Mammoth, scheduled an August family reunion in Ohio for their combined 80th birthdays. “It will be my 80th birthday present to myself to fly you and the family back here for the reunion,” Jack’s dad told him over the phone. Jack couldn’t refuse. We didn’t go to Mammoth last summer.
This spring, I picked a week in July. My sister found us a condo in Mammoth. As the week approached, she e-mailed me with plans. Tuesday morning, the week before we left, I sat at the computer with the kids gathered around me. Nine-year-old Rebecca leaned against my left shoulder. Lucy and Angela, aged five and seven, jostled for space on my other side. Four-yearold Johnny stood in front of Rebecca. Ben, 22 months, sat in my lap and tried to hit the keys. “We’ll drive up Sunday,” I told them. “Monday, Aunt Anita is having a picnic for us at a really pretty park. We’ll get to meet some of the people she works with and see some of the people I went to high school with. Uncle Jason and Aunt Joan will be at the picnic, too. Tuesday, we’re going out to dinner with Aunt Anita and Uncle Jason and Aunt Joan. Thursday, Uncle Jason and Aunt Joan are going to take you guys fishing, then we’ll have a barbecue at their house.”
“Are we going to catch real fish?” Johnny asked.
“Yup,” I answered. “With real fishing poles.”
“When are we leaving Sunday?” Rebecca asked.
“Really early in the morning. Probably around three.”
When I was a kid, we visited Mammoth and the Eastern Sierra in a series of summer vacations before we moved there. We always left at three in the morning to avoid driving through the desert in the heat of the day. I remember the jittery, disoriented feeling of being awakened in the dark, then the excitement at remembering that this was the day. My mother would load us in the car. My father would drive down the darkened roads, cool air spilling through the windows opened just a crack. I would fall back to sleep with my head leaning against the station wagon door and awaken to watch the sun rise as we drove up the Cajon Pass north of Riverside. “We’re almost halfway there,” my father would announce.
Saturday night of the last full week in July, Jack and I packed and loaded our van until just past midnight. “We’re not going to make 3:00,” I told him as we fell into bed.
“I know,” he agreed. “Let’s shoot for four.” At 4:30, we woke the kids. At 4:45, we drove away from our house, down darkened roads. The girls giggled with excitement in the far back seat. In the middle seat, Johnny and Ben stared out at the lights flashing by as we hurtled north on the 15. Jack dozed beside me in the passenger seat. I thought about my dad and our summer trips.
A few hours later, as the sky lightened, we approached Cajon Pass. We broke through some morning fog and saw the first rays of the sun work their way down the mountains to our left. As we crested the pass and looked out over the high desert, tears ran down my cheeks.
“Are you crying, Mommy?” Rebecca asked.
"It's just the sun in my eyes," I lied.