Mammoth, The Rental: A Short Story

“You need an SUV.”

The man at the Thrifty desk at LAX seemed as certain about my needs as I felt certain that he was trying to fleece me.

“If you’re going up to Mammoth you need an SUV, my friend,” he continued.

“Are you sure?” I asked him.

“It’s going to snow tonight,” he said. Presumably he meant at Mammoth Mountain, high in the Sierra Nevada. It doesn’t snow in Los Angeles. (Does it?) I wanted to ask where he was from. His accent was distant. If Eastern Europe, as I first suspected, I ought to have been able to identify it as such. But I couldn’t, so maybe it was the Middle East. His complexion didn’t give it away. All that really mattered was that he was, like me, an immigrant, doing his best to make a living – and perhaps to earn a bonus. Why else was he trying to rent me such a vast vehicle? “Again later this week, and maybe Sunday too. More snow. You need an SUV.”

What I really needed was sleep. I had been up since 5:30 in the morning, east coast time. Actually, I had been up longer than that: tensed up by the previous evening’s school board meeting and the inevitable pressure of packing for a trip and trying to get all my desk work concluded before departing the Catskills, taking the guest room downstairs by the kitchen to avoid waking my wife early – who had then got up early to see me off, rather making a mockery of my good intentions – I had slept but fitfully, if at all. I’d then driven two and a half hours and a hundred and thirty miles through morning rush hour to get to JFK. Parked the car at an independent long term parking spot, handled the paperwork, caught their gratis shuttle, went through the inevitable 45 minutes of security clearance (polishing off no less than three ‘daily’ cans of V8 that I’d thrown into my carry-on luggage forgetting that we live in a world where pre-sealed drinks are considered potential weapons of mass destruction), and just about made my plane… Which had then sat on the tarmac for ninety minutes while “maintenance” fought to repair a “sensor” on the “cargo hold” and I fought to catch up on sleep.

“It’s just a small item, and it might seem insignificant,” the pilot had told us, in that deceptively cheerful voice that airline pilots reserve for bad news. “But we have to make sure that you’re safe while up in the air.”

And I had to get to LA in time for my connection up to Mammoth Lakes. Two and a quarter hours had seemed ample time when I booked the flights. But at the very point I’d expected to check in with Alaska Airlines (because obviously, it would be Alaska Airlines that would have the concession for this internal Californian flight), we were still several hundred miles east of LA. That’s when I’d decided to pony up for Wi-Fi on the plane – only to find out that the Alaska flight was canceled. Maintenance problems, it said. There seem to be a lot of them around.

“How much extra is it?”

“Thirty dollars a day, my friend.” The rep saw my reaction. Double the cost of a compact, which was definitely all I needed for puttering around LA the remainder of my stay.

“But I can give it to you for fifteen,” he added quickly with a flourish and a warm smile, as if he was loaning me his beautiful wife for the week.

Why was I so certain that Avis wouldn’t be as cavalier with their rates as this guy at Thrifty – even though I already knew, because I’d checked their rates while on the plane, that Avis were more expensive to begin with? Why did that make me only more convinced I was being ripped off? Why, having called Alaska Airlines upon touchdown, and ascertained a promise that they could refund my fare both ways, and then having decided to catch the first rental car shuttle bus that came along, did it have to be Thrifty? Any other company would surely cut me a more legitimate deal.

“This is doing my head in,” I said, using the jetlagged passenger excuse as an appeal to straight talking. Except that it wasn’t an excuse. I felt hungover, although I hadn’t been drinking; something had told me not to spring for that first ‘vacation cocktail’ on the flight. “I’m not even meant to be here,” I said in exasperation. “I’m meant to be up there.” I pointed above me, hoping my “friend” understood that I meant thousands of feet up in the air, not in the Thrifty ceiling. I looked at my watch. 3:45pm. The Mammoth Mountain Inn was due to be picking me up from the local airport in barely an hour, part of the service I had been so eagerly anticipating. My lift-side lodgings, at 9000 ft elevation, right opposite the gondola, was all paid for for the night. And the three nights after that. I had three days skiing pre-paid for in-between. And I now had well over three hundred miles of driving ahead of me this evening if I expected to make the first of those ski days. There was no way this was worth it. “This is meant to be my holiday,” I sighed.

“So take your holiday, my friend. Take a comfortable car. Enjoy yourself. You’ve earned it.” For the first time since we’d started our discussion what now seemed like several weeks ago, the rep was making sense. All of a sudden he sounded less like a pushy salesman than what he said he was, my friend. (Actually, he’d said I was his friend; I hadn’t yet reciprocated.) “Choose your own SUV from out back. I promise you, when you get up there you’ll be glad that you did. I hear the mountain is covered in snow. It’s beautiful there.”

“Ten dollars.”

“Ten dollars?”

“Ten dollars extra a day and I’ll take an SUV.”

“Okay, my friend, just for you I do it.” The rep got busy on the computer screen, then pointed me to a smaller screen on the counter, where I was to initial my understanding of the curiously paperless small print. I was so tired I just wanted to get out of there and hit the road. But not so tired I didn’t see him try and tack on $400 of insurance for my ten-day rental – as much as the rental SUV itself. And so it began all over again. I felt like was in a bazaar somewhere, haggling over a holiday souvenir, rather than in the City of Angels, attempting to do the one thing everyone has to do just to survive in this city: get myself a four-wheeled vehicle, so as I could get on my way to…

…To what? What was so important about this trip to the ski mountain? I live by a bloody ski mountain. I live within an hour’s drive of four of them. The proximity was not the reason we moved to the Catskills from New York City, but it was a damn good bonus. There aren’t too many people have arranged their lives so that they can sneak off to the local ski mountain after dropping the kids on the school bus on those rare powder mornings, or can take a long mid-day “lunch run” with friends on one of those crisp blue-bird winter days that demand to be spent outdoors, dressed warm, zooming down a steep ice-laden hill at approximately 40-50 miles an hour, risking life and limb but generally catching nothing worse than a toasty case of windburn. By most popular perceptions, I have it easy. Why make it so hard on myself?

Back up, back up. What was the word I used to describe our local ski runs? Ice-laden. That was it. That was the reason I was going to Mammoth. To escape the ice and embrace the snow. Recently the up-market magazine Ski (for which I have a free subscription as compensation for the shuttering of their down-market sister publication Skiing, which focused on the actual sport rather a projected upscale lifestyle) took a break from extolling the virtues of skiing out west to promote skiing on the east. Yet for all that they attempted to make out like they were giving us our due, our day, our fun in the sun, the cover story only reinforced just how shitty our conditions are compared to the vast snow-covered expanses the far side of the Mississippi.

I know this to be more than mere marketing. Six years ago, after we’d sold the city house, I’d taken my older kid on a spring break vacation to Utah. Solitude and Snowbird had had six hundred odd inches of the white stuff that year; hell, the day we got to Snowbird the mountain was closed for several hours while they threw ammo bombs down the canyons to clear out the latest three foot dump of “the best snow on earth.” (That phrase is trademarked.) My son – all of eleven at the time – and myself had marveled at properly groomed runs that seemed as wide as the whole of Hunter Mountain; we’d laughed as we lost ourselves waist deep in powder that pulled you along, rather than sucked you in like the wet stuff back home; we’d taken pictures of ourselves at 11,000 ft summits, not quite believing it was possible to get so high without illicit substances (well, I speak for myself there); and of course we’d lost each other on the last run one day at Snowbird, when I’d led us into the woods and my boy had vanished into thin air, like that girl in Picnic at Hanging Rock, and I’d waited at lift-side as ski patrol starting clearing one of the biggest mountains in the Wasatch Range, and I’d waited, and waited, and waited as it gradually got dark and the patrol had started radioing to look out for an eleven year old snowboarder somewhere in the glades… and finally he had ridden in from the sunset alongside one of them, and he rode right up to me and before he could even get a foot out of his board he had started pummeling me like he wanted to kill me: “Don’t. Ever. Leave. Me. Like. That. Again.” I’d told him he could hit me as much as he liked as long as he didn’t tell his mother. He didn’t. She never knew about it. And then we went off and had a slap-up dinner. Yep, it had been a fantastic ski holiday all right.

All the same, even “The Greatest Snow On Earth” ™ had its limits in spring time, the lower levels of Snowbird thawing under our feet that first week of April. Plus, I wasn’t that great a skier back then. (I’m still not, but I’m sure better than I was.) And I hadn’t been able to roam free; I’d had a kid with me, after all. Besides, the whole trip felt like half a lifetime away by now – which is precisely what it was for my older son, now a big strapping teenager who’s outgrown riding with dad, or anyone else for that matter, and only gets on his board under duress.

All the more reason to go to Mammoth, on my own timetable, in early January, mid-winter, tacking on three days of R&R ahead of a work week in LA and San Francisco. I justified it as fair reward for my hard work on and the modest success of the Smiths book. As the rep said, I’d earned it.

Which didn’t mean I could afford the $400 in insurance. “I’ll decline,” I said. “I’ve never had a crash yet in a rental car.” Yet.

The rep could see he wasn’t going to win this one. A long line had formed behind us full of people who had pre-booked their vehicles at a set price, rather than leaving it to chance and barter. Their patience was admirable, but it wasn’t wise to test it much more. “Take your pick,” he said as I squiggled my signature one more time on the screen and he handed me a print-out of various extra charges he’d previously neglected to mention. “The cars are out back. Go to the area marked S for SUV. All the keys are in the vehicles.”

I dragged my suitcase – weighed down with new ski boots, though I’d figured to rent actual skis at the mountain rather than pay all additional luggage fees across five flights (make that three flights now) – round to the area marked S. A bunch of Toyotas and Hondas built for families. A type I know all too well. Comfortable and secure, if liable to roll in the ditch should you dare take a corner at more than thirty miles an hour. And two shiny black Jeep Libertys. One with Texas license plates. The other sporting Nevada. Nothing against Texas, but Nevada is home to Burning Man.

I’d never driven a Jeep before. And to be fair, this wasn’t your grand-dad’s Jeep, open to the elements on its way to battle the Nazis. This was the kind of Jeep I’d seen Bill Berry drive in Athens in 1991, when I’d gone down to Georgia to interview R.E.M. upon the release of Out Of Time, right on the eve of the first Iraq War (we had no idea we’d soon be numbering them), over which R.E.M. had canceled a European promo trip rather than having to answer for the supposedly oil-influenced decisions of the first President George Bush (ditto). Bill had pulled up in this massive shiny black Jeep SUV, and I’d been careful not to say anything about conspicuous oil consumption but rather, had thought to myself: wow, you guys really do earn a lot of money don’t you? I was still paying off the debts I’d left behind in Britain at the time.

“And now look at me,” I said to no one in particular as I lifted my heavy suitcase into the back, threw my hand luggage in the front, and plugged a route to Mammoth Lakes into the Map App on my iPhone. A bloody Jeep SUV for one person on a seven hundred mile round trip plus a few days cruising round LA. I’m so doing my part to slow climate change. Not.

I looked at my iPhone. The very last thing I had done with its car charger back at the JFK Parking Lot was to remove it from plain sight and stick it in the glove compartment, figuring that as I was flying straight to the ski resort, I wouldn’t need it in California. Let that be a lesson learned, I now said to myself, knowing perfectly well I’d make a similar mistake within minutes. I did. I allowed myself to pass by a garage on the ramp onto 405, even though I needed not just a charger for the phone but fuel, for myself, to get through the ensuing drive. Ah well, there was bound to be another garage soon enough.

But there wasn’t. Californian freeways don’t work like New York Thruways, with clear signage to gas stations and diners at each exit. In fact, they don’t work much at all. I spent the next hour on the 405, watching the sun go down in the western sky and my battery go down on the dashboard as the rush-hour traffic navigated the obligatory stalled car in the middle lane. Managed ten miles in my first hour. Welcome to LA. The 405 then merged onto I5 before I could visibly pin-point a gas station, or a 7/11, let alone a Best Buy or a Radio Shack or some other strip mall electronics store where I might be able to get a phone charger. And before I could check where I was meant to get off I5 to get around to the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the iPhone went dead.

There was no possible way this trip could be worth it.

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September 2021