My happy place

It’s a little cabin on a little lake in Pinecrest, California. The rode ends on the south shore, so the only way in is by boat or by foot. That small inconvenience is actually what makes it so special. The eight-minute trip across the lake is like the space shuttle lifting you off from terra firma to zero gravity. You’re in a different mindset when you pull up to our raggedy old dock. You’re on Pinecrest Time now. 

It was built by my great grandpa, who heard about some parcels on a lake in the Sierras built by PG&E, where he worked for most of his life. Having been raised on a ranch and working in downtown San Francisco, he jumped at the chance to sign a lease in the Stanislaus National Forest. This was right around 1928. 

Jim, my great grandpa, picked our lot because it holds three huge ponderosa pines. Easily the biggest trees on the north shore, they tower over our cabin so high you actually have to go into the lake in order to see the top. 

Legend has it he built the main frame of the house in just two weeks, which was all the vacation he had at the time. That first part of the cabin is now the kitchen and dining room. A living room and bedroom with bunks notched into the sides were added perpendicular to the kitchen and dining rooms. Later, when my grandpa started his family, a second bedroom was added with a small covered porch connecting it with the main cabin. Both are painted fire engine red with green shingles on the roof and shutters.

But what’s special about this cabin and this place is not the pine walls and trees beyond them, it’s what happens inside. Hours of gin rummy, spades, and hearts games. Quiet nights reading by the fireplace. Family dinners, and Pinecrest waffles. Time spent the way it was spent for hundreds of years before cell phones and Internet.

For me, it’s the family history that makes this place so priceless. Notched on the entry frame to a bedroom is the heights and dates at various ages of pretty much everyone in my family.

In this most special spot on the wall, I can see my dad’s handwriting marking my height at 12 months. Just above it is where I marked the height of my first daughter at 20 months. It’s almost dizzying to think about the 34 years that passed between those two moments. Or the fact that my dad and I were the same age when we made those marks.

That’s the strange thing about Pinecrest. It marks the passage of time but at Pinecrest time itself seems to stand still. Pinecrest doesn’t change. Only we do.

When I was young, all of my Pinecrest time was spent with my grandparents for weeks, even months, at a time. Sometimes the time would go slowly. I’d yearn for home but also would be sad to leave. Every year when summer came around again it was Pinecrest that I looked forward to most. That morning when my grandpa’s ancient analog alarm clock would go off when it was still dark and we’d pack the two old aluminum coolers into the back of his truck along with his knapsack and my duffel bag was my favorite morning of the year. Yes, better than Christmas. My grandma would be wide awake with excitement too. I’d usually climb into the back of the truck with their yellow labrador Bowie and bounce my way across Central California and up to Pinecrest.

I was probably in my early 20s the first time I stayed at Pinecrest alone. My grandma had passed away. My grandpa could no longer be at the cabin by himself. My family trusted me to take care of the cabin without supervision. I’d spent every year for my entire life there, after all. I knew how to safely do everything, from cleaning the outhouse to starting the fragile Johnson outboard motor without breaking it.

For a few years I invited a group of close friends up. One year I pushed the limits a bit and invited 17 of them. I called it “A Fine Time at Pinecrest” and encouraged everyone to bring their favorite food, to splurge on it, and bring enough to share. These were friends from all parts of my life, my LA crew, my UC Berkeley environmental friends, and buddies from high school. All ages too. It was a blast.

I made singalong books I called “The Pinecrest Hymnal” in 2006, 2007, and 2012. One tradition I’ve enjoyed is playing guitar and leading a singalong at night at the cabin but I’d always forget the words. The Hymnals were my answer.

Pinecrest is harder with a wife and kids. The summer before each of my daughters turned one was the most strenuous. We cut the trip short both years. I believe we’ve turned a corner now, though. As of this writing my daughters are two and four years old. They’re no longer crawling all over the dirty linoleum and putting bits of pinecone and pine needle in their mouths. They love to swim, hike, and climb up and jump off of rocks. Pinecrest will be the ultimate playground for them this summer. It won’t be long before they can start bringing friends up too and sharing this magical place the way I did so many times before.


My other happy place is, fortunately, my home. It’s a lot like Pinecrest. Tons of trees, a room with a tall, vaulted wooden ceiling. And my house is old with its own storied family history. In a way, with this house, we’ve inherited another family’s Pinecrest. I find little bits of that history throughout our yard. Old ladder rungs and notches on the oak trees. A buried pond. Real horseshoes. An old wooden fence door hung on a tree trunk.

Bits of beautiful history are everywhere. You just have to look for them.

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