It’s a little cabin on a little lake in Pinecrest, California. The road ends on the south shore, so the only way in is by boat or foot. That inconvenience is what makes it so special. The boat ride across the lake is like a space shuttle launching 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 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. That 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 have to go into the lake 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. 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 the Internet.
Our family history makes this place so priceless. Notched on the entry frame to a bedroom are the heights and dates at various ages of 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 between those two moments in time. Or 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 stands still. Pinecrest doesn’t change. Only we do.
When I was young, all of my Pinecrest time was spent with my grandparents. I’d be at the cabin with them 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, I looked forward to Pinecrest 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, his knapsack, and my duffel bag into the back of his truck was my favorite morning of the year. Better than Christmas. My grandma would be wide awake with excitement, too. I’d climb into the back of the Toyota with his dog Bowie and bounce across the central valley and up to Pinecrest.
I was 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 to join me. 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 in 2006, 2007, and 2012. I called them “The Pinecrest Hymnal.” 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 was harder with a wife and kids. The summer before each of my daughters turned one was the most strenuous. We cut the trips short. 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 needles in their mouths. They love to swim, hike, and climb up and jump off 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 like I did so many times before.
My other happy place is, fortunately, my home. It’s a lot like Pinecrest. Tons of trees and a room with a tall, vaulted wooden ceiling. 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.