My life long love affair with US 395 and the Eastern Sierras all started because I was going backwards. That’s right, in reverse. I had no idea what was ahead of me, only what was behind me. And I loved every minute of it.
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I couldn’t have been but 10 years old, if that, when my parents threw my brothers and I into our Ford LTD station wagon for a vacation in Mammoth Lakes. But first, we had to sit tight for about five hours and watch the scenery pass by. There were no distractions, no cell phones or video games. Just the scenery. I can’t recall if it was by choice or by assignment, but I got the pop-up back seats that face the rear all the way in the back of the huge, wood paneled wagon.
As the hours passed and the road went from Interstate 5 to Highway 14 and eventually to US 395 along the eastern edge of the Sierras, I was hooked. I didn’t care that I nearly got sick as a dog from the fumes and watching the world in reverse at 60mph, I knew then what I know now; US 395 leads to Mammoth Lakes and the Eastern Sierras and that’s where I want to be.
“Doesn’t it take a long time to get there?” is the question that most of my friends have asked over the years when they realize how often I escape LA for Mammoth. No, I tell them, it takes no time at all. But they don’t understand that the drive isn’t about mileage (302 miles from door to door) or about the time it takes (4.5 hrs if we want to just drive or 5.5 with lunch at Schats & letting our dog stretch her little legs), it’s about the actual journey.
It’s about the mountains, the high desert, the small towns with quirky businesses (stop for beef jerky in Olancha!) that feel like old friends as we pass through. Ultimately, though, it’s about getting to the place that my family now cherishes as a respite from life itself. When you’re going to heaven, the drive is a blessing, not a burden. Although I pick up the southern edge of US 395 about an hour outside Mojave, I don’t think much about the 557 mile highway until I hit Lone Pine, the first of the four small towns that serve as markers en route. The highway has changed over the years from a rather dangerous two-lane speedway where head-on collisions were hardly rare to a well paved, mostly four lane highway well tended by Cal Trans and well patrolled by the CHP. Once you roll through Lone Pine and Independence and Mount Whitney looms overhead, 395 becomes a part of history with Manzanar, the sadly famous “War Relocation Center,” more appropriately called an internment site for Japanese Americans during World War II, beckons travelers to stop and see a piece of American history. Do it. Stop, take it in, envision what it must have been like.
Gliding past Long Valley on the northern edge of Bishop, keep an eye out for Olympians. This is a spot where marathoners, distance runners and cyclists train. Who can blame them?
Marathoner Ryan Hall trains for the Olympics at the base of the Eastern Sierra mountains.
As we point the Subaru up adjacent Sherwin Grade, past Crowley Lake and the 395 house and veer right at SR 203, we say goodbye to the highway I practically grew up on. Approaching Mammoth, we marvel at how beautiful the mountains are despite having visited for over forty years. The late afternoon light casts deep shadows on the mountain range that was (is!) home to so many great photographers, from Ansel Adams to Galen Rowell.
US 395 continues north to June Lake and skirts the western edge of the beautifully unique Mono Lake before climbing toward Bridgeport and beyond.
But Mammoth Lakes is our destination with its amazing vistas, lakes, streams, trails and wildlife. Getting there is a joy, being there is amazing and staying there is a dream to come true.