Man-made Snow

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The sandy beaches of Santa Barbara beckon to tourists every weekend of the year, weather permitting. But in my mind, the white mountains of the Swiss Alps jutted prominently as something that Kierstin might miss from our trip to Europe. I, too, had a longing for the powdered streets of Brussels and the frosted fields of the German countryside, and so for Valentine’s Day this year, I booked a small cabin in the mountains near Santa Barbara for a nostalgia-inspired mini-vacation in mid-March. It was a much needed and well-deserved adventure, a semi-spring break just as the quarter was ending and my teaching duties were coming to an end. Immediately after a six-hour car ride from Palo Alto to Santa Barbara, which was right after two nightshifts at Stanford’s synchrotron, firing X-ray beams at some samples (more on that in a future post), Kierstin and I loaded up the car with gear for the cabin and some warm clothes and set out on a three-hour drive to Big Bear Lake in Southern California.

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Of course, Southern California doesn’t conjure images of frigid temperatures and snowy hilltops like the wintery cities that we visited in Europe, but Big Bear Lake does get a little snowfall in the winter. (For comparison, the snowiest months are about half of what South Lake Tahoe gets and surprisingly to me at least, about the same as what Boston sees.) However, the snow levels in Big Bear Lake have not been immune to the drought currently afflicting all of California. In recent years, snow cannons have fired the frozen fluffy snow along the slopes when falling frozen water was scant at Big Bear Lake, and we beheld dry streets and dirt-covered mountains during our visit. Still, we used that short weekend to take advantage of our cozy Jacuzzi-equipped cabin, the fresh mountain air that nipped just enough to have us don jackets (but we still had to remove them anytime we stepped into the California sun), and the pristine location with a serene lake and hiking trails.

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I didn’t mention that Simba came with us, but obviously Simba came with us. The cabin rental service was dog-friendly, and bringing him along was easier than finding someone to watch him. Plus, it’s not just “take” with him; he definitely adds value to our lives and makes the trip a little more enjoyable. After grueling Friday afternoon traffic on a route that took us just to the edge of the traffic hellhole of Los Angeles, we climbed a tortuous hill as twilight blanketed the sky with a speckled navy blue sheet. Finally, at nearly 7000 feet above sea level, we arrived at Big Bear Lake. Our cabin was a tiny one-room shack, just big enough for the three of us, and sat two streets over from “The Village”, where quaint shops and restaurants served tourists visiting the mountain resort. It was past what most people would call “normal” for dinnertime, and so Kierstin and I quickly fired up the grill on the porch of our weekend home and threw on some shrimp skewers. We tucked into bed and let our eyes glaze over to the visuals of the masterpiece The Shawshank Redemption. A comfortable bed with warm blankets piled high, a great movie, and our minds absent of thoughts of work or other responsibilities; it was an ideal situation.

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Our trip to Europe was partially funded by Kierstin’s generous scholarship from UCSB and partially by generous family members that gave us a little spending money so that we wouldn’t just eat ramen noodles and microwaved oatmeal every day. This trip wasn’t so unique, and so we weren’t hesitant to bring food with us and opt out on spending too much at local restaurants. Our breakfast that morning was just raisin bread toasted over the propane Franklin-esque stove. We spent the morning exploring “The Village” and poking our head into gift shops and candy stores and little cafes. There were no concrete plans, and so we just got into the car and started driving around in search of snow. There were two ski resorts right outside the town, and we inadvertently snuck onto the grounds. I write “inadvertently snuck” because we didn’t realize that Simba wasn’t allowed in the manmade snow. Still, we got away with it for just enough time for Simba to discover what the soft powdery stuff was. He had been in snow before but only in some hard-packed ice on a short trip to Yosemite. This time, he romped around for a few minutes until the ski ranger told us to take him off the snow. It was funny to watch him for those short minutes, eating chunks of ice, rolling around in the slush, and sliding down the slight incline. With the snow, and later the lake and hiking, Kierstin and I joked that this was more a vacation for Simba that for us.

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As I mentioned, the academic quarter had just ended, and so it was spring break for the UC system. Our friend Daniel was visiting Santa Barbara for his week off, and so we invited him and his local love to our little resort. They drove up on Saturday afternoon and arrived in the evening. Kierstin and I had spent the rest of the day trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to learn “trick-based” card games and were happy to have some company. Plus, they brought food and drinks. The gravel crunched under tires of Daniel’s little Hyundai as they pulled up to the cabin, just in time as the sun was falling behind the mountain. They were welcomed by Simba’s deep warning barks (which are merely a façade.) Daniel suggested that we enjoy the sunset on the shores of the mountain lake while sipping a couple of beers. The sun slowly disappeared in the west and just above, Venus shone brilliantly next to the crescent moon. It got dark and the cold air were like frozen fingers wrapping around our arms and heads. With that and growling stomachs as motivation, we hustled back to the cabin. We lit some charcoal on our little barbeque and threw some juicy strips of marinated tri-tip right onto the grating. The meat seared while we shared beers and stories of the last few months. A night alone was nice, but it was also good to share the cabin with a couple of friends. The barbeque sat low, and we threw some branches in after the food was cooked – a pleasant campfire to chat around as the night dwindled to an end.

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A weekend is too short; it was Sunday already. There was little time to do anything that morning except clean and pack as check-out was at 11 am, and we had spent most of our morning sleeping in. The cabin rental service let us keep our car in the lot while we moseyed around town. Breakfast was at the Teddy Bear Restaurant, just across the street from our cabin. It looked busy, so we took that as a sign that it was probably good. We weren’t disappointed. Plates like manhole covers came overspread with three egg omelets stuffed and overflowing with cheese and avocado, warm and flaky biscuits smothered in flavorful sausage gravy, and heaps of shredded potatoes, deep fried dark brown and salted, all complemented with bubbly mimosas. After having our fill, we left to explore the town, stopping into a couple of shops and stocking up on homemade fudge mixed with peanut butter, Oreo cookies, and caramel. The Village isn’t that large, and we had exhausted exploring storefronts after a short while.

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We couldn’t leave the mountain lake without finding a good trail and scenic view of the lake. The Big Bear Discovery Center, which serves as an information center for the surrounding area, was just on the other side of the lake, and we decided to go and find out what trails would be good for a leisurely Sunday afternoon. After wandering through the facility, checking out the taxidermied animals and browsing through the exhibits, we settled on the Cougar Crest Trail mainly for its convenient trailhead a short walk away from the discovery center. The weather was warm enough for shorts, not exactly the wintery wonderland that I had pictured while booking the place, but the hike itself was perfect. The moderate climb led to a vantage point of the lake and the surrounding mountains, and after a weekend of exploring around below, we had a picturesque view of the dry mountains towering around the tiny village and surrounding the placid lake. Breathing in the fresh mountain air, scented with dirt and pine, we stood in silence, gazing contentedly at the scenery below that served as a summary of a great mini-vacation.

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