MAMMOTH LAKES -- America was certainly a different place in 1959 when my parents took me to ski at Mammoth Mountain for the first time. Eisenhower was in the White House, gas was 20-something cents a gallon, "The Mickey Mouse Club" was on television, and California's ski industry was in its infancy.
There was modest local skiing at places such as Holiday Hill, Blue Ridge and Mount Baldy, but for serious Southern California skiers, Mammoth was the destination of choice. Getting there, however, was a major expedition.
The trip -- in our Willys Jeep station wagon -- took forever, since most of the grand Los Angeles freeway system existed as patterns on a city planner's map.
To get out of L.A. we took Sepulveda Boulevard, stopping and starting all the way through the San Fernando Valley. From there, the roads heading to the High Desert were two-lane affairs that wound their way from Soledad to Lancaster and Mojave before connecting to Highway 395 through the Owens Valley. To a 12-year-old kid, the endless desert and towering snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada were the Wild West.
In those days, Mammoth's facilities consisted of three chair lifts, the No. 3 chair having just opened. There was also a rope tow that ran off the wheel rims of old cars, a poma lift and a T-bar, all of which I found difficult to ride.
Skis were long and carved from wood. Mine were called Northlands and had decals of an antlered stag glued to the tips. Getting them
Clamp-on bindings were metal with cables that ran around the heels of leather lace-up boots. Poles were bamboo with leather baskets. Clothes were woolen and heavy. And as a Southern California kid, I did not take to the idea of being cold. Falling down and generally feeling miserable on some wind-swept mountain was not my idea of a good time.
Skiing was hard. And I was not very good at it. My father, a transplanted New Yorker, was the avid skier in the family. As a result, I was usually handed over to my mother, who was a competent skier. She was the one who had to put up with my whining and lack of enthusiasm.
But since then I have accumulated almost 50 years of much more pleasant Mammoth Mountain memories. And they came flooding back over the recent Martin Luther King holiday weekend as I and my non-downhill-skiing girlfriend, Nance, headed for the mountain. This time, I felt like Dorothy Gale of Kansas about to land in a Mammoth Oz I really didn't know. I hadn't skied there for almost 15 years.
"You won't recognize it!" everyone told me.
I'd seen pictures of the new Village with its shops and eateries, and the explosion of Mammoth condomania. I was also looking forward to trying the new high-speed detachable chair lifts and exploring runs with whimsical names such as Hully Gully, Ricochet, Back for More and Haven't the Foggiest.
For accommodations, however, we chose the old over the shock of the new and made arrangements to stay at the Tamarack Lodge, a rustic inn on Mammoth Lakes that opened its doors in 1924.
Our cozy little cabin certainly presented a contrast to Mammoth's latest high-end addition, the Westin Monache Resort, with its 230 condominiums featuring sleek modern interior design, 24-hour room service and state-of-the-art amenities, including flat-screen TVs and Westin's signature "heavenly beds."
The resort also features Mammoth's latest ultra-hip restaurant, the Whitebark, featuring culinary creations by chef Brandon Brocia, who also created the popular eatery Lulu's in the Village.
The Westin is just steps away from the Village with its Mountain Center, where you can get lift tickets and rent equipment, then hop on the Village Gondola that takes you to Canyon Lodge.
Unfortunately, without the aid of a GPS system, it didn't take us long to get lost. Instead of finding our way to the Tamarack Lodge, we threaded through an endless labyrinth of snowy lanes lined with luxury cabin condos.
This was certainly not the Mammoth I remembered. That town consisted of a few ski shops, gas stations, alpine-themed hotels and a trailer park.
It was at the latter that a longtime friend of our family, George Thomas, kept a small trailer. Thomas, who for years was chief water biologist for Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power, had gotten to know another former DWP employee, Dave McCoy. And it was McCoy who had obtained a permit from the Forest Service in 1953 to develop a ski facility on Mammoth Mountain.
I can remember several trips in the 1960s when my father and I would bunk with George in his drafty trailer, wake to the sound of his steaming espresso machine -- 40 years before Starbucks arrived in Mammoth -- and head for the slopes.
By this point, skis were made of metal, lightweight parkas were filled with goose down, boots were plastic, bindings released, and Mammoth boasted nine chair lifts and a European-style gondola that whisked you to the highest point on the mountain, the Cornice (11,053 feet).
Those were great years for me, when skiing really became fun. But I always got as much enjoyment from just being in the Sierras and looking out at the far-away Minarets as I did from carving graceful turns through the wide-open bowls. All it takes is one glimpse of those magnificent mountains to remind me why I love skiing at Mammoth.
The skiing mantra of my youth had been "Bend the knees, plant the pole, set the edges, rotate the body, shift the lead."
"Forget all that. It's all in the ankles," said Willie Harder, my instructor on the recent visit.
That's the cardinal rule for shaped skis, which I was trying for the first time. Hey, unlearning is hard. But by the end of my second day, this old skier was looking pretty good.
Another new feature of the mountain, at least to me, was the number of snowboarders, which accounted for about half the people on the hill. Many appear confident and ski under control even when they are moving as fast as any downhill racer. Others, however, seem perilously out of control. I did my best to steer clear of them, which, considering the holiday-weekend crowd of 20,000 plus, was not always easy.
The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend is one of the most popular of the year. But even with thousands of people on the hill, the mountain seemed fairly uncongested. It was only at those junctions where several runs and trails came together that you felt as if you were taking your life in your hands. The lengthiest lift-line wait, though, was probably 10 minutes. That's nothing compared to the old days when 40-minute waits were commonplace.
I also availed myself of a free service many people may not be familiar with -- the Mammoth Mountain Tour. For the better part of three hours, a group of us were led around the mountain by Mammoth's former fire chief, Harold Ritter, and two members of the Forest Service. We learned how best to navigate the mountain from a guide who knew about the local geography and the volcanic activity that continues to bubble beneath the Mammoth caldera.
Today, Mammoth Mountain is operated by Starwood Capital Group, an international investment corporation that paid $365 million to obtain a controlling interest in 2005.
Starwood's goal is to transform Mammoth into a year-round destination capable of competing with luxury resorts such as Vail, Colo., said Mammoth Mountain chairman and CEO Rusty Gregory, who began his career at Mammoth as a lift operator in the 1970s. The technical innovations on the mountain, he said, combined with the introduction of high-end condominium hotels such as the Westin, are reshaping the Mammoth experience.
Gregory said the company plans to begin daily air service to Mammoth beginning in December, with three Horizon Air flights a day from Los Angeles and San Francisco, and two from Las Vegas. He estimates the cost will be around $200. But, he added, with pre-booking including hotel stays and lift ticket, the cost will add up to a bargain.
All I can say is that after my trip, I can't wait to get back and add more memories to my Mammoth Mountain legacy.
IF YOU GO
MAMMOTH: The resort is 325 miles north of Los Angeles off Highway 395. For information on driving directions, ski packages, lift tickets, equipment rental, accommodations(including Mammoth Mountain Inn, Juniper Springs Resort and Tamarack Lodge), ski lessons, special events or snow conditions, visit www.mammothmountain.com or call (800) 626-6684.
WESTIN MONACHE:50 Hillside Drive, Mammoth Lakes. "Winter Adventure Packages" (Jan. 15-April 27) start at $190. (888) 627-8154; www.westin.com/mammoth