George Shirk sits in his office at the Mammoth Times on a Saturday afternoon, with his dog, Fido, who writes his own weekly column for the paper, curled up underneath the desk. Early December is the quiet time between the Thanksgiving and Christmas rushes at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, and Shirk, a 60-year-old news veteran with a sandy smoker's voice, has kindly agreed to give me an armchair tour of his adopted hometown.
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 30 miles north of here. These days, local downhiller Stacey Cook and ski cross phenom John Teller, a mechanic at Mammoth's...
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