Despite any appearances to the contrary, this is not primarily about photography. Oh, photographs will be involved because they figured heavily into the plan I dreamed up last weekend to catch an early Oktoberfest somewhere here in the Southland. How can it feel like a Bavarian alpine autumn celebration, complete with dark, warm beer, when it is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside as it had been for months and was last weekend, too?
Well, the answer was to find an Oktoberfest far enough away from LA that it might change the thermometer and close enough to drive in one day so we wouldn’t have to schlep the animals or get them a sitter. There were several choices: Pine Mountain Lake, up the 5 Freeway, just an hour north from our house; Wrightwood, our closest ski resort, 90 minutes away to the east; or Big Bear Lake/Lake Arrowhead (which are just minutes apart), 2 hours and change east as well. Big Bear won.
I should mention at this point that Geoffrey and I have spent a lot of time in the past in Big Bear. When we were first living in LA, right after we were married and babysitting their house at the beach while my parents-in-law were back East, we endured a bout of sand flea infestation in all the plush carpeting. It was hideous — we were being eaten alive, especially Snowflake, our Westie. I did a bit of sleuthing and decided we would rent a cabin for a month (while the house was de-flea-ed) at one end of Big Bear at a resort near Snow Summit, one of the ski areas, called Escape for all Seasons.
The cabins were literally at the ski complex, in the woods, multiple level chalets, brand new at the time, individually owned and rented out. We had a ball. It was the early winter and there was snow almost all the time, as well as those famous bright, sunny California days when snow does not mean you have to bundle up during the day. I came back absolutely in love with Big Bear. So much so, that my MIL decided to buy a chalet and take people up there in groups for various holidays. We got to know the area really well and it just got better all the time.
While I am at it, I should also point out that all these mountain communities in California are very similar. When you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Geoff’s family used to own a cabin in Mammoth Lakes, so I got to see that beautiful town and ski resort — bigger and maybe a bit grander than Big Bear but far to the north and east of us, an eight-hour drive on a good day. We also spent time, he and I, in Lake Tahoe where he has work periodically, so I got to know Tahoe and the charming Donner Pass town of Truckee, as well as Reno. Tahoe may have wealthier residents but the town itself is not as nice as Big Bear. And, of course, I have been to ski resorts in other parts of the country as well as abroad. So I think I can say with some confidence that Big Bear holds its own with many of the prettiest, cleanest, and most versatile resorts around.
Anyway, we are up very early every day of the week, so it was easy to hit the road by 7 am. I was a bit nervous about leaving Ricky and Psyche alone all day, but they each have their own entertainment (classical radio for Ricky, smooth jazz on DTV for Psyche) and toys to play with.
It was beautiful at that time in the morning. No one was on the road. From our house, we cut across Santa Clarita and hopped on the 14 north that heads up to Palmdale and Lancaster, then turned off on Pear Blossom Highway, a two to four laner that heads east to the California 138, which loops its way back and forth, high up into the San Bernardino Mountains. On the way, we passed the turnoff up to Wrightwood where we go every winter to be in the snow, do a little snowboarding (very little, for me) — Geoffrey getting a bit of skiing in when Deanna and Al are in town — and basically get my northern climate fix. That keeps me from going off the deep end when the winters here are too mild for my taste as they have been, increasingly.
It would be hard to describe the terrain between Valencia and Big Bear. Valencia is about 1700 feet above sea level. Big Bear comes just shy of 8000 feet, with the town and the lake closer to 7000. Once you leave the Palmdale area, you are in the high desert for the rest of the journey. That means stark, wild and haunting landscapes with flinty tundras that harbor the unusual twisting Joshua trees (none of my pictures of them came out well, so I will take a better set of them for another post on Big Bear in the winter, as we plan to go back as I will explain below) and mountains of boulders and weird rock formations. It was also 90 minutes of virtual silence. The eerie quiet of wind-scrubbed sands.
We passed through the town of Little Rock, California with its landmark roadside shack complex, Charlie Brown’s. I will be posting a few of the pictures I took there, on Flickr. There isn’t room to do it justice here. Actually Charlie Brown’s deserves a post of its own. I have never seen anything else like it anywhere. But, as an aside, when you are in Little Rock, you might as well be in Appalachia (given the environment and the accents), where I have been. More on all this in the future. Then you hit Victorville. For anyone reading this who knows Southern California, and haven’t been to Victorville in a while, you will be shocked. In the middle of nowhere, literally, popping up out of the desert without warning, Victorville is now a sprawling suburbia with thousands upon thousands of big, new single family and condo dwellings, buttressed by strip mall after strip mall. Every major chain of every type is there. Name a store? Victorville now has two of them or more. We were stupefied. Good!
But, once you climb up the mountains to Big Bear Lake and its surrounding communities, you are in my idea of heaven: tall old pines scraping against a perfectly clear, deep blue sky, flocked with white clouds. Sea birds flying overhead, deep shadows spreading across the country roads. And, best of all, crisp, cool air, even in early October. The minute I get there, I feel like I am myself again, like I am home. The stress just melts off me with the first crisp breeze.
You may recall if you have read my blog for a while, that I choose places like Big Bear deliberately. I chose to go to school in Upstate New York, which resembles Switzerland and Austria more closely than anywhere else. February Vermont is where I picked for one of my two Un-y-Moons. Once when I was taking a course on relaxation for troubled children, we had an exercise that directed us to create a safe haven in our minds (which we would presumably teach the children to do later on). Everyone else described a warm water lagoon in a beachy island somewhere in the Pacific or Caribbean. People were shocked to hear my emotional hideaway: a cozy log cabin deep in a snowy forest, with a roaring fire and mugs of hot cider.
That is why I love Big Bear. That environment dominates the town and the people who live there year round have created a little fantasy world. Something that Thomas Kincaid himself would depict in his idyllic and nurturing paintings. As Kincaid said before he died, he wasn’t sorry if people found his paintings to be quaint or smarmy, he just wanted to make people feel happy. And he knew what kind of scene would do just that. Big Bear is comfort food for the city-weary soul. Especially in very hot, very dry California.
Everywhere you go in town, you will see the evidences that it attracts tourists. Only about 5000 people live in Big Bear full-time, year ’round, but as many as 100,000 people can be there on any given weekend. There is something to do all year long. Skiing and all the snow sports are fostered and promoted in the winter. The rest of the year, the lake is the big attraction. Two lakes had dried up, we were astonished and saddened to see on our ride up, including the once huge and deep Baldwin Lake. I took pictures of it to share some time. But the biggest of the Big Bear Lakes was just below normal and seemed to be surviving our horrible dry spell, largely intact.
We had planned to go to the Oktoberfest there, but when we arrived, we decided to spend our time instead in the center of town. There are dozens of shops and restaurants — even one specializing in Himalayan food — and quite upscale. I was planning to do some Christmas shopping for various people there but ended up buying the two of us armloads of clothes and accessories. I think the relief and happiness I felt being there in such a congenial, safe, lovely, beautiful place again, just went to my head. Luckily for me, the man I married didn’t say one discouraging thing. He just walked around getting us snacks and running the bags to the car.
The best outcome of this trip was that we resolved to get a house in Big Bear as soon as we can manage it. We both agreed, we don’t want to spend the rest of our lives in an inferno that is only going to get hotter and drier with the warming climate. So, that is something for me to look forward to.
In order to get that ball rolling, we agreed to make more frequent trips up there and to find a place we like, either in Big Bear or Lake Arrowhead, nearby and still at a fairly high elevation. So, stay tuned for more pictures and posts on all of this. Much as I would prefer Northern California, staying here close-by would be more practical and still give me that back-home feeling that I miss.
As for Oktoberfest, we are going to try it again this weekend, a bit closer to home, so look for an upcoming post to see if we pull it off at last. We still have some time in the month for that and to report on Halloween in our neighborhood.
Images: Beth Byrnes archives – roll over to enlarge; all images edited in Lightroom – some with the same double-vision watermark, inexplicably, Grrrrrr …