Of ski boots and cactus spines

Local author David Page’s award-winning guidebook packs a surprise on every page

David Page is one of those true Mammoth iconoclasts. He’s a big-name writer and world traveler—living deep and quiet right here in our backyard. He’s written for national publications and media, including the Discovery Channel, Men's Journal, Skiing, Backcountry, The New York Times, Hemispheres—and for locally produced media, such as Eastside magazine.

He has travelled around the world, he speaks several languages—and he lives in Mammoth, is married and has two young sons, and once hiked from the bottom of Death Valley to the top of Telescope Peak, ski boots and cactus colliding in one glorious riot of insanity.

But the reason we like David Page most is because he writes about us, about this Eastern Sierra land and people and establishments … and because he does it so well.

And we are not the only ones to notice it.

Page’s most recent book, “Yosemite and the Southern Sierra Nevada,” now in its second, revised edition, has won the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award, a Best Guidebook from the Outdoor Writers of America and a Best Travel Guidebook award from the Bay Area Travel Writers.

It’s a big, thick, satisfying book for those who love this big and sere and unbroken landscape; rich in intimate details, tightly and beautifully written, packed with more information in one page than most books accomplish in ten.

It’s a guidebook, yes. It describes roads and hotels and trails and rivers and restaurants. It gives prices ranges and ratings in exhaustive detail and you can tell Page didn’t just breeze past the places on his way to a guidebook. He ate, slept, talked and roamed, then wrote.

But that’s about all it has in common with the traditional guidebook. Here is Page, on skiing Death Valley’s Telescope Peak:

"I’d been sleep for maybe 20 minutes when I smell coffee. We’re into the second hour of March at almost 1,900 feet above the lowest, hottest, driest basin in North America and it’s a balmy 65 degrees. The lights are on in Ryan Boyer’s camper. Orion is still midway through his long, slow faceplant over the tail of the Panamints. A warm wind sweeps down-canyon, bearing only the faintest memory of winter.
John Wentworth arrives, racketing Paris-Dakar-style out of he dust and the moonless desert night. He’s fresh from a day of epic, midwinter “pow” on the Four Gables in the High Sierra backcountry. (Later he would show us pictures on his phone, as if to reinforce the depth of our folly.)

“Where’s the snow?” he says.

“It’s going to be a bit of a walk,” I say.

When he writes closer to home, no one who’s ever been to Mammoth, or lives in Mammoth, can doubt he has our number.

"If you want to experience what Joseph and Mary went through on that famous trip to Bethlehem, try visiting Mammoth around the same time of year without making reservations," he writes.

The book covers a huge landscape— from the northern border of the eastern Sierra region with Nevada then down the east and west sides of the Sierra range to the land just north of Mojave. Along the way, it grabs Mammoth and all the Eastern Sierra communities, then Death Valley and Sequioa Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Park.

Not satisfied to just show a place, Page dives in deep into history and geology and ecology and personalities, revealing quirks hard to imagine are in any other book ever written, like the exact month that female date palms begin to be hand-pollinated at China Ranch deep in Death Valley (November).

This attention to detail, his willingness to take the guidebook form to another level, is a reflection of his deep love of the place he writes about.

“The first time I came here, I was blown away by the mountains,” Page said. “I came up for a short time but within a month, I’d met some of the most amazing people … families, all connected by the landscape, the vastness, the fact that this place is still wild, that it’s still 200 miles to anywhere … it’s like nothing anywhere else.”

"There's no other place like this in the world. Around every corner, at every roadside turnout and in every character you meet, are fascinating stories about how this region has managed to hang on as one of the last great holdouts of 'wildness' on the planet,” he said. “Sometimes it just takes a little digging. My hope for the book was that even the most casual passer-through might find in it more than just a pretty place but also the beginnings of a life-long passion."

“I work with thousands of authors all around the globe and David Page is one of my top five writers,” said Page’s publisher, Countryman Press publisher Kim Grant.

“His writing just sings.”

The difference between Page and many other guidebook and writers, besides his elegant writing, is his ability to provide context that gives the reader a sense of being there in person, she said.

“He digs up historical anecdotes that just bounce off the page,” she said. “He doesn’t take the easy way out, he doesn’t stay on the surface and that makes all the difference. It’s a combination of research skills and a deep intellectual curiosity that is not that common.”

Locals agree.

“Foremost, it is incredibly well written (which you rarely find in a travel guide), and it is full of elegant little stories from the near and distant past that help to illustrate the character of the region,” said RDC architect Robert Creasy. “I find myself referencing it whenever we're planning short trips around our region so as not to miss the gems he's uncovered—many of which would not be immediately obvious to someone passing through.”

“My copy of the "Explorers Guide" lives in the back seat pocket of my truck—it has coffee and wine stains and the corners are worn,” local outdoor and travel writer Monica Prelle. “It's a book that every Mammoth local should own and read. You can read it cover to cover or reference it as needed and you can read it three or five times.”

Page’s book, Yosemite and the Southern Sierra Nevada, is available at the Booky Joint in the Vons shopping center in Mammoth Lakes. Call 760-934-5023 or stop by to get your copy.