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: Big California Snowfall

Jan. 21, 1962. We spent two freezing hours trapped alongside an icy snow-covered highway down Merced River while Dad struggled, under the car, going numb, to free the big Oldsmobile from errant tire chains grapping the rear axle like an iron python.  I sat outside with Dad, going numb, trying to help but not helping beyond just being there caring. The grinding cold was lulled somewhat by Jay’s cheery voice narrating an imaginary baseball game. “Tell that one bye, bye baby,” in an imitation of iconic Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges. Jay announced a home run. We just wanted to free the damned car from its iron ankle bracelet.

To make the whole thing worse, this was the one weekend in a lifetime that snow covered all of California, not just the Sierra. Normally the ice and snow end by Yosemite Valley, or at least in the hills above Mariposa. This time we had snow and ice all the way through Mariposa, and Merced. By Los Banos it was so bad that we had to stop for a night in a motel before we tried to get over Pacheco Pass.

We finally got back to Los Altos the next day. It had snowed about three inches on Eastbrook Ave. Martha woke Mom up saying, “the whole world is full of snow.”

This was when Chip’s reaction our neighbors’ (the Knights) building a snowman was a dismissive “typical Knight trick.”