Deep in the heart of the Eastern Sierras lies the city of Mammoth Lakes: population 7,093, elevation 7,800 feet; 300 miles from either Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Many of you are probably already familiar with this resort town because of its close proximity to legendary skiing haunt Mammoth Mountain. Or, if you took the Natural Disasters class, you know Mammoth because of its location inside the Long Valley Caldera, a volcano so large it covered the entire west coast in ash when it last erupted. Or, you’re like me and you can’t help but stop by because it’s only a hop and a skip away from both Yosemite and the Owens Valley.
Last week, I wondered out loud about the effect of gentrification in our state, but in sparsely populated Mono County, an equally monumental process is afoot: Aspenization. The name comes from Aspen, Colorado, the resort cum Rocky Mountain version of Montecito: an impossibly expensive collection of second homes and nightclubs for celebrities.
It would appear Mammoth Lakes wishes to follow the same path. Following a 6.1 earthquake in 1980 that sent property values plummeting, a recession 15 years ago that cut the number of visiting tourists in half and the frustrations of tourist activity that only occurs on the weekends, the city decided it is no longer content to be the playground for Angelenos who consider themselves too good for Big Bear. The city council would rather they be known instead as the Golden-State alternative to places like Sun Valley, Park City, Vail and, you guessed it, Aspen. In other words, bring in the out-of-staters. Hey, it worked for Lake Tahoe.
But, like gentrification, Aspenization bumps up the cost of not only the local real estate, but also the hotels and even the recreational activities. There’s a reason nobody making less than six figures a year skis in Aspen. And how are people from other states getting to Mammoth? Tahoe is an easy drive from the Carson City airport, but Mammoth Lakes is over a hundred miles from the nearest big city. That means revamping the Mammoth-Yosemite Airport and sending passenger jets bellowing past Minaret Ridge on a daily basis – yeesh. So what we have at stake, then, is the preservation of the old Sierra lifestyle versus the survival of an independent small town in a 21st-century economy.
For instance, there was a foothill at the base of Mammoth Mountain that made for absolutely primo sledding when I was a kid. It was a steep, 500-foot slope with uneven terrain that bounced your dinghy around like a super-ball, leaving you grinning like an idiot and wishing you’d land just 10 feet farther. There wasn’t even a parking lot nearby, let alone a store.
My sledding hill is now a twenty-acre development called The Village – a four-story complex of restaurants, shopping areas and condos targeted specifically for the wealthy. An outside corporation owns it, from – shudder – Vancouver, no less. They call themselves Intrawest, and as of last year they own the entire Mammoth Mountain ski area. It’s enough to make one flash back to the fairies from “Fern Gully,” watching as their “last rainforest” got drenched in evil toxic goop.
I don’t know, perhaps it’s selfish of longtime Mammothites to feel as if they belong to a special club just because they don’t mind driving several hours for a few days of fun without a broadband signal. By now, however, it’s too late to reverse the direction Mammoth Lakes is going.
So let’s just go ahead and look at the bright side of this, because the old Mammoth Lakes was not without its problems. For a place that’s supposed to put you at one with nature, you sure need your car an awful lot … ironic, considering that the parking is lamer than Barbaro. And did I mention that the old ski lifts were rotten? Intrawest installed much better, faster gondolas that practically cut the time it takes to get to the top of the mountain in half. I’ll assume that fixing parking is next on their list.
Or we could always just wait for another big earthquake to bring things back to normal.