50s: Dodge Ridge, Badger Pass, Tahoe

Skiing was a four-to-five-hour drive from Los Altos. We’d leave before dawn, drive, ski, stay in a hotel, ski Sunday, and then drive back. We drove the big American cars, two-wheel drive, no chains. Dad was the all-time champion of snowy mountain driving without chains.

Our first trip, we went to Deer Park Lodge near Lake Tahoe for skiing when I was in kindergarten. I hated it the first day (I was five) and then loved it from the second day on. We skied on wood skis, with cable bindings. The lift at was a rope tow. After that first trip I went several times skiing with a friend’s family. I’m still surprised that I was up to that, at just five and six years old; and that my parents were okay with it too. But it was fine. I loved it.

Dad never liked skiing, but he was good to me. Two or three times a year he’d let me coax him into skiing weekends. We’d leave Los Altos at 4 am Saturday morning, drive to Dodge Ridge or Badger Pass, ski all day, then sleep in a hotel or motel, then ski all day Sunday and then drive home. Dad had a steady work routine as a doctor, no time to spare. But I’d plead and beg, and he indulged me, over and over.

I particularly liked Badger Pass because we’d stay at the Yosemite Lodge in Yosemite Valley. Those trips were my first taste of Yosemite, which I’ve loved ever since.   

To get to Yosemite we’d drive south to Pacheco Pass, then east through Merced and Mariposa. The highway drops down steeply to the Merced River after Mariposa, and then follows the river up into Yosemite Valley. We’d see El Capitan first, with Bridal Veil Falls across the valley to the south. Then we’d drive through the snow-covered forest to Yosemite Lodge, with good views of Yosemite Falls.  The waterfalls would accumulate towers of ice near the bottom. The forest covered in snow, Half Dome in snow, all so peaceful, and beautiful.

After skiing at Badger Pass, we’d drive back down to the valley via the highway that would view the valley from Vista Point. Dad would sometimes stop to see the view, El Capitan, Bridal Veil Falls, and Half Dome at the far end of the valley.

Badger Pass was mediocre skiing and still had just t-bar lifts and rope tows, no chair lifts, when we skied there in the fifties.

For Dodge Ridge, we’d cross the Dumbarton Bridge and go through the winding two-land road through Niles Canyon, which was a winding road by a creek surrounded by steep brown hills dotted with oaks. We’d go through mostly rural farm country through Livermore and Tracy and on across the central valley, through Sonora, to Dodge Ridge.  Dodge Ridge had chair lifts.

One memorable Friday morning Dad had taken the day off and was letting me skip school for a three-day in Dodge Ridge. We got up at four and took off over the Dumbarton and through the Niles Canyon as the daylight emerged from the dark in a driving rainstorm. Dad stopped at a diner in Tracy and called Dodge Ridge about the weather. I waited in the car. He came back and told me no, it’s raining in Dodge Ridge, so no skiing. Back home we went. That morning I ended up in school on time, despite having driven the 200 miles to Tracy and back.

We didn’t own skis or boots. We rented them. It took just a few minutes. Ski boots were leather boots that were laced up and tied like boot laces. Skis were wooden planks carved into skis, with cable bindings called safety bindings. They were supposed to pop up and out during a fall.

1962: The Last Run. Snap crackle pop.

I mentioned wooden skis and cable bindings in this story from the fifties. In 1962 those wooden skis and cable bindings failed me as I tried to play hot shot jumping moguls at Dodge Ridge. It was, of course, the last run of the day. It was also beautiful spring skiing, bright blue sky, and sticky snow. Dad was done for the day and waiting for me at the bottom with Jay. It was the Sunday of one of those ski weekends Dad used to do for me, driving up Saturday before dawn, driving back Sunday after skiing.

I was only a couple hundred yards from the top, with about a mile to go, when snap, crackle, pop, I blew a jump and found myself laying in the snow with my left foot at about a 90 degree angle from my left leg. Which hurt a lot.

Funny that it was the last run. It’s always the last run, right? But in skiing, it is often a run that was set up as the last run that ends up with the injury. You’re tired, but you want to end it well, so you push that tired. Bad idea.

This was on my brother’s eighth birthday, April 8. I had turned 14 a few months earlier.

Back then, ski patrol was a lot like it still is now, but it took longer because no cell phones. I don’t remember it taking that long, so maybe the ski patrol were up at the top because the lifts were about to close. Anyhow, I lay there contemplating pain and the weird angle of my boot to my leg for a while but then I was strapped into a sled and guided down the mountain. They took me to the first aid place at the lodge and started dealing with an obviously broken leg — both tibia and fibia, and bad — while somebody found Dad (which meant scanning the parking lot for a red 1960 Oldsmobile convertible) and he appeared.

Dad didn’t trust the bone surgeons in Sonora, the closest town to Dodge Ridge. So he had them wrap me up as best they could and drove me back to El Camino Hospital, where the docs he knew took over. He put me on a lot of drugs and I sat in the back seat only half conscious (although I still remember it) for the four-hour-plus drive. He was very angry with a local drug store that wouldn’t give him the drugs he wanted to give me, despite his medical ID; but the second one did.

The broken leg changed my trajectory in athletics. I’d been an all-star in middle school flag football and I was going to play in high school, I thought. But I was in a cast from toes to upper thigh from April to August, and was on crutches until November of my freshman year in high school. By sophomore year it was too late … I couldn’t play on the freshman team, and didn’t feel good enough to break in as a sophomore.