Mammoth Lakes is perched in the Eastern Sierra, a half-day's walk from some of California's most spectacular high country. "The first time I drove over Tioga Pass and saw the Eastern Sierra, my eyes just bugged out," says Shirk, who bought a condo here in 1997 and moved up full-time a few years later after a career that took him from the Philadelphia Inquirer to the San Francisco Chronicle.
"We're really out here," Shirk says, rattling off the drive times to urban centers such as San Diego (six and a half hours), L.A. (five hours), and the San Francisco Bay Area (five and a half, minimum). "People take day-long trips to go to Costco in Reno. It's a little like living on Mars."
Nursing a cup of black coffee ("You take cream or sugar? No? Good, because I don't have any"), Shirk divides Mammoth's 8,000-or-so year-round residents into three groups: people who are running from something, like a failed career or a ruined marriage; skiers, climbers and other athletes drawn to the landscape as a testing ground; and "the artists, the dreamers." Shirk himself fits the last category, and maybe the first, as well.
The second group — the athletes — has included such greats as three-time Olympian Andrea Mead Lawrence, the first American skier to win two gold medals in alpine skiing. Lawrence, who died in 2009, spent decades fighting to protect her beloved mountains as well as the surrealistic landscape of Mono Lake, about 48 kilometres north of here. These days, local downhiller Stacey Cook and ski cross phenom John Teller, a mechanic at Mammoth's Center Street Garage, are spending time atop the world's racing podiums.
Others here don't fit so neatly into Shirk's matrix — young anglos and Hispanics of all ages who come to schlep dishes, clean hotel rooms and run the lifts, and the wealthy weekenders and second-homeowners who bankroll the whole show. Mammoth's service workers struggle in ways familiar to any Western ski town: low wages, high rents and housing conditions that can verge on the inhumane. The well-to-do part-timers have their pick of condos and vacation homes tucked amid the grand old Jeffrey pines or clustered at base areas connected to the ski slopes by chairlifts and gondolas. There's even a cookie-cutter base "village,' built in the early 2000s by the real estate giant Intrawest, featuring a Starbucks, a Ben & Jerry's, a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, a boutique leather shop and, of course, a real estate office.
Rising over it all like a local deity is Mammoth Mountain, an 3,371-metre dormant volcano that rises just east of the Sierra Nevada proper. "It's the lifeblood. The food," says Shirk.
But Mammoth Mountain can't nurture this community if the snow doesn't fall, and if the tourists quit descending from the skies in planes from Southern California or rolling up the highway from the coast. As the climate warms, both may become even less reliable. There are already indications that the long-term future looks bleak.