When Buddha Sat On Tioga Pass

Late-season Sierra touring goes off, threatening to cause world peace

To the end of the earth. Tioga Pass delivers. PHOTO: Kiersten Puusemp

WORDS: Kiersten Puusemp

Random voicemail left for a friend (with a 5-month-old son) who I hadn't talked to in awhile:

"Hey Dan! How are you guys? I'm thinking of heading up there. John's trying to coerce me with a gracious offer to stay on his couch, but in their little apartment with the new puppy that doesn't seem realistic. Can you think of anybody who's still bum enough to have an extra room I might be able to pro-rate for a week? I just really want to ski."

Text response two hours later:
"Ha! I still live the ski bum lifestyle and happen to have a spare house for you."

That's what I'm talking about.

Friends, neighbors, we have arrived. PHOTO: Kiersten Puusemp.

At the tail end of a disappointing-ski-season numero deux, many turned the other cheek to the piste, hung up their skins, and advanced to off-season pursuits. My winter was short and shallow. Painfully so. But like fleeting exchanges with a distant lover, the lack of interaction and the denial of exquisite moments could lead one either to distraction or to a desperate desire to reconnect. Out of sight, out of mind so they say. But absence also makes the heart grow fonder and though the snow was melting fast, Tioga Pass had entered a corn cycle.

At 6 a.m. the next foggy morning I pulled a fallen palm frond from the roof the my car and fumbled-stuffing skis into the rack, throwing piles of crap in the back seat and setting a course from Encinitas for approximate-north. A windy and warm drive skirting the Eastern slope of the Sierras ushered me to the luxury of a mid-day breakfast burrito from Big Pine Chevron. The pale stucco box would not let on but Big Pine Chevron is like having dark haired lady relatives who are amazing cooks, want to feed you and happen to live on the way to the mountains. You have to go. And from the sprawling dusty lakebed of the Owens River Valley the road wound upwards to a cozy and temporarily unoccupied abode in the perpetually sleepy town of Mammoth Lakes.

Problem solvers. PHOTO: Kiersten Puusemp

Evening settled like a dimly lit imaginary Buddha whose bulging form rested perfectly onto the region's erratic topography. The air grew crisp and I was unfurling my sleeping bag in the kid's room when the carcinogenic thought suddenly sparked: "I'm in a baby's room... am I too old for this shit?!" Thankfully the monstrous idea wasn't malignant and died of it's own stupidity as fast as it came, replaced simply by the words "Shut up!" Yes, thank you semi-subconscious mind. I will.

If this great recession is going to take such a toll on stable work and the potential overall security of more than one generation it is one's duty to take advantage of the very few things it offers as condolence - in this case the ability to jump in a car with a laptop and whatever freelance work has been scraped up and head to the home of dear friends which will serve as a portal to the clinking toothy scree, pine needles, sun cups, thawing lakes and wind scoured Sierra Nevada plateaus capable of reminding you why it makes sense to be alive and on earth and grinding through the many things that we all share as trials in the first place.

Buddha's house. PHOTO: Kiersten Puusemp

Thing #1 never to be taken for granted: The pure and beautiful generosity of great people and friends. Thing #2: The requisite humility to take them up on it. Thing #3: Pay it back. How ever you can. Thing # 4: The mountains can solve all the world's problems. Even if the solution only lasts for a day.

The sun rose, shooing lumbering darkness from its throne, and by 8 a.m. we had convened at the freshly opened Mobil Mart near the south edge of Lee Vining. The parking lot buzzed with cars and tourists eager to ogle Yosemite. It was too early for the Deli's 'Legendary Lobster Taquitos' so after the usual amount of excessive social loitering we caravanned our way up the heady exposed ribbon of highway that is Tioga Pass. Spring-melt rock fall littered the road. Cars parked, skins on, it was still early and the spotty sea of snow was frozen but the sun was already blazing. A sorted all-star posse of Mammoth locals and Tahoe die-hards started out for Saddlebag Lake, headed for the cathedral of Mt. Conness. An hour into the ascent it was getting hot. Gravity teased a bead of sweat down the center of my chest. I was out of breath. Out of it all. And the day had only started.