First there are the black bears, dozens of them in and around Mammoth Lakes, wandering the streets and the occasional supermarket aisle, townsfolk and their ursine interlopers navigating a tenuous, sometimes severe, coexistence.
All sorts of idiosyncrasies come to mind when Jennifer Crittenden recalls the two years she spent in the Eastern Sierra town, worlds away from the monotone affluence she’d grown accustomed to after 20 years in Del Mar.
Like the post office that doubles as town hub. And the baseball moms who think nothing of their duty to clear cow pies before the first pitch. And the unsettling abundance of hikers and mountain climbers who venture off into the wilderness, never to be heard from again.
“There were all these times when I’d think, ‘You know, we’re not in Del Mar anymore,’” she said.
Crittenden moved to Mammoth Lakes in 2014 after two decades of short-lived sojourns to her in-laws’ alpine getaway, so that her then-12-year-old son could be on the resort’s vaunted snowboarding team. Seclusion would yield her third book, she thought, presumably in a business-related vein, as her first two had been.
But the quotidian curiosities of life in the Sierras spurred one letter after another to friends and family back home. Before long, that letter-writing impulse took on a life of its own: her third book would be an ode to her new surroundings, that wild land so prone to awe and tragedy — and the resilient, intrepid people making their place in it.
That was never more evident than during last year’s record-breaking winter, when eight or nine feet of snow blanketed every building in town. Roofs were collapsing. Windows were blowing out. An avalanche nearby knocked out power.
“I call them the get ‘er done people. There’s just this approach to problem solving that’s not about safety or regulation or compliance,” Crittenden said. “It’s a pioneering spirit. We got a problem? Let’s run a few extension cords over there.”
One year became two as Crittenden hunkered down in the loft of her in-laws’ vacation home, with its wide vantage onto a majestic landscape at once foreboding and alluring. The book that took shape — The Mammoth Letters: Running Away to a Mountain Town — blends memoir, history and travelogue, punctuated with drawings by Melanie Taylor and Kira Hirsch, an art teacher and student at the Francis Parker School in Linda Vista.
Her hope is more than to simply transport readers to those dramatic mountainsides. Having so often seen wide-eyed newcomers turn tail after a year or so, she intended The Mammoth Letters to also serve as a field guide for life in that secluded distance.
“This book was an opportunity to say, ‘For those of you living down here in the traffic jam on wherever, amongst all these housing developments, if you dream about the mountains, this is what it would look like. This is what you’d find and this is how you’d learn to adapt,’” she said. “There are enough dreamers in Southern California who I think would be curious to find out how would it work.”
After moving back to Del Mar for their younger son to resume a more typical teenage life, Crittenden released The Mammoth Letters on Sept. 26 — to coincide with Johnny Appleseed Day — through the publishing imprint she started in 2012, Whistling Rabbit Press.
And though she’s settled back into her familiar suburban rhythms, every once in a while a wave will hit her, a sudden and unmistakable sense of longing that reminds her she’ll always have a part of her in Mammoth Lakes.
“When you’re there, you feel like you’re part of something big, because the landscape is so majestic and so, what’s the word — undominated,” she said. “Down here the landscape has been tamed. Not up there; that landscape will tame you. There’s a lot about learning to respect what Mother Nature can bring.”
The Mammoth Letters is available on multiple platforms. Learn more at Mammothletters.com.