This is the set up to a classic story from the winter of 85/86. The mid 80s was the heyday for the ski industry. My brother, Eric, aka EJ, worked for Mammoth Mountain. He was the head cook at the Mid Chalet and also lived there in the basement during the ski season. There were four rooms in the basement, which housed quite a cast of coed characters. Those stories are for another day. Martha, the lady that ran the operation, lived in the penthouse on top of the Mid Chalet. The basement has long since been closed so no one lives there now.
We all had season passes and kept our ski equipment at my brother’s place. We would go to Mammoth all the time. It was just a matter of grabbing some clothes, your ditty bag, and jumping in the car. Three hundred seventy five miles one way was no big deal. The typical trip would be arrive late Friday night, ski all day Saturday, party hard, ski all day Sunday, get home late, be up early Monday morning and off to work. We would think nothing of doing it. Now I’m exhausted just thinking about it! Below is the short story.
“You college guys think you’re so smart.”
It’s a pitch-dark moonless night, south of Lone Pine on the 395. House and I are making another weekend run to Mammoth.
“Shit! I think we’re out of gas,” I shout over the music.
“Are you kidding me?” House asks.
“It must be the headwind we’ve been battling. I thought for sure we could make it to Lone Pine. Five more measly miles and we would’ve,” I say.
House is pretty even keeled and doesn’t really get excited about things like I do. His response is a calm, “Well get this Rabbit way off the road.”
“I guess we are hitchhiking into Lone Pine. I can just see my brother now, shaking his head when he hears this.”
“Oh, yeah, he’s going to shit all over of us,” says House shaking his head.
We stand beside the Rabbit, thumbs out for every set of headlights we see approaching, and miraculously in less than ten minutes a trucker stops. We run down the road to where the semi stopped. We reach the passenger side and he scoots over and rolls down the window.
“Car problems, boys?”
“We ran out of gas,” I tell him.
“Well jump in, I’ll take you to Lone Pine.”
We climb into the cab. The trucker is an old skinny guy with a cigarette dangling from his lip. I’m guessing it’s a Marlboro, at least that’s what the red hat he’s wearing says. It’s dead silent in his cab, finally he says, “You boys been drinking?”
“Yes sir, just a couple of beers,” House replies.
“That’s not very smart.”
Of course we were drinking, it’s the high desert! Wanting to change the subject I ask. “What are you hauling?”
“Freight,” is his curt reply.
The cab becomes dead silent again. Lone Pine can’t get here soon enough. Five minutes seems like an hour. Finally he drops us off at Lee’s Frontier Liquor, Deli & Gas.
We buy a gas can, fill it up, and loiter around the pumps, gas can in hand, taking turns asking people if they are heading south, and if they could give us a ride to our car a few miles away. Most give us a good looking over and say, “Sorry.”
House charms an older couple with his politeness and they agree. Fred & Mabel, they couldn’t have been nicer. She said they have grandkids our age and hoped someone would do for them, as they were doing for us. Old Mabel is quite the talker. It seemed like we heard their entire life story in the five minutes, as if she were reading us their obituaries.
They retired to Bishop after decades in Tehachapi. He worked at the prison for thirty years and she taught elementary school. Both had a comfortable retirement with their pensions. Their son, Virgil, followed Fred’s footsteps and is a prison guard in Tehachapi. Unfortunately Virgil is divorced, but it was amicable. Their two grandkids are both going to school in Santa Barbara, the oldest at the university and the younger at the city college. That was their life.
At our car, Fred pulls over to the southbound shoulder. We wish them luck, say our good-byes, then run across the 395 to our car.
“Holy shit! Mabel could talk,” I say.
“Yeah, nice couple, but thank god it was only a five minute ride.”
We tank up at Lee’s and two hours later we are at the Main Lodge. We park, grab our duffel bags, and go to where EJ leaves his snowmobile for us. I lift up the seat and there’s the key, right where it always is. I fire up the rig and we sled up the hill to the Mid Chalet.
“Should we even tell EJ we ran out of gas?” House asks.
“Might as well, it’ll give him something to laugh about,” I say.
We wake him up and tell him our tale. He just shakes his head and spews at us, “You college guys think you’re so smart.”
He turns off the light and keeps repeating, “Fucking college guys,” and laughs every time he says it.
House and I sit in the dark, drinking Coors, and laughing every time he does.
Other than running out of gas, it was the typical ski weekend in Mammoth.
Two weeks later it was time to go again and House’s turn to drive. Per usual, we stop at the Outpost at the 15 & 395 to piss and buy some Coors. We are listening to Jimmy & The Mustangs, The Beat Farmers – Tales of the New West, and a heavy dose of REM Reckoning. We both can’t get enough of “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville.”
The moon is nearly full and we are flying down the long decline on the 395 with Ridgecrest off to our right. The headlights on the 14 are coming into focus. House’s Acura makes a knocking sound. He turns down REM and looks at me.
“What?” I say.
Then it knocks again and I feel it this time.
“Shit something is wrong with the engine,” he says.
“Dude, I can see the Brady’s Mobil Station, coast as long as you can.”
Finally the road flattens and we slow way down so House pulls off the shoulder.
“How far to Brady’s do you think?” he asks me.
“Shit that’s at least four miles away. Are you sure we just aren’t out of gas?”
“What do you mean maybe?” I say. “We are either out or not.”
He says, “I can always make Lone Pine easy. This thing runs forever on E.”
“Fuck, we are out of gas, two consecutive trips. My brother and all the guys in Mammoth are going to laugh so hard they are going to piss and shit themselves.”
“Well, I’m staying with the car and drinking Coors. You’re hitchhiking,” I say.
Some kids gave House a ride in their K-5 Blazer to Brady’s and were nice enough to drive him back. We both decide to face the music and tell my brother the truth. I think the fact we ran out of gas on two consecutive trips made his whole year. He was so happy about it.
All weekend, everywhere we went, and everyone we ran into he told the story. They all laughed. He was saying things like, “College this.” “Smart guys with college degrees.” “How much did those degrees cost?” “Did you skip the class on how to read a gas gauge?” And on and on.
Every trip thereafter, all winter long, everyone wanted to know if we ran out of gas again.
That was one long ski season for House and me being the butt of the joke. Still to this day I couldn’t tell you how we ran out of gas on two consecutive trips to Mammoth.
Back in the day, everyone wasn’t running around with a phone in their back pocket that also took pictures, so I don’t have a lot of pics from then, but here are a few.
The old gondola line from the Mid Chalet to the top.
EJ in the Mid Chalet kitchen
A trophy from a local ski race he won.
I bet you didn’t know there was a driving range at the Mid Chalet!