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Mike Stevens – KNEE DEEP

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The Eastern Sierra sans trout
I remember the first time I thought to myself, “You know, if I didn’t fish, I would still come up here and check out all the non-fishing things to do, and I’d have a damn good time.” That was no less than 15 years ago when I first heard the rhythmic thump of a well-tuned bass from a headlining act taking the stage at Mammoth’s Bluesapalooza. I was in a Seasons 4 condo crashing out after and prior to a long day of stalking Sierra trout.

In this issue of WON, the Eastern Sierra Travel Guide rattles off all manner of Eastern Sierra activities that are available, and even that is just scratching the surface. But what happens when you start testing those waters is, you come up with your own list, unique from all others.

Now, heading up Highway 395 without fishing is as out of the question for me as it is you, but I have since etched out time in each visit to take part in non-angling activities, and I’ve figured out ways to make it happen without interfering with prime fishing time. Between 11 a.m and 2 p.m. on cloudless, hot days, the night before “getaway day” with no risk of sleeping in past the morning bite, or maybe just the day following harder-than-usual backcountry mileage.

WHITNEY PORTAL HOSTEL and hotel in Lone Pine serves as an ideal basecamp for any Owens Valley activity. WON PHOTO BY MIKE STEVENS

I just turned 42. Mid-trip recovery days after serious trail work are now very much part of the program.

For me, it starts on the way up. In previous columns, I’ve touched on my “Day Zero” element in which I spend 24 hours in one of those highway towns to kick off each trip — Lone Pine, Big Pine, Independence, Bishop — up and eat, drink, wander, people watch, buy wacky stuff. A trout here and there is just gravy.

I ultimately settled on Lone Pine (specifically, Whitney Portal Motel and Hostel) for Day Zero lodging, but the low-maintenance exploration can go on anywhere through that lower end of the corridor: day jaunts to get up and out of the heat to destinations like Whitney Portal or Onion Valley, scouring every creek rushing east out of the Sierra, breakfast at the store at the Portal (manhole cover pancakes), Jack’s in Bishop, Country Kitchen in Big Pine, or a quick breakfast burrito and a cup of Black Rifle Coffee at veteran-owned Brewed Awakening, also in Big Pine. The lunch rotation includes Copper Top BBQ in Independence or the deli in Lee’s Frontier in Lone Pine.

At night, it’s a couple-few beers at Jake’s in Lone Pine or Rusty’s in Bishop, both Clamper-friendly (if you know, you know) establishments and people-watching gold mines. After that, nighttime activities have ranged from wandering into the Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop to just hanging out and talking to whoever happens by the motel.

During the main body of the trip — which for me is based out of Mammoth Lakes — it’s gotten to the point where several days are finished at Mammoth Brewing either for a quick growler fill to a tasting to full on dinner. I buy a book at Booky Joint every visit as a rule, and hit Roberto’s (upstairs, first-come first-served seating. More fun up there), Base Camp Cafe, Looney Bean coffee, Rick’s Sport Center and various spots throughout The Village.

Outside of Mammoth it’s the Whoa Nelli Deli near Lee Vining after a day fishing Tioga Pass or any number of pit stops throughout the June Lake Loop. South of town, the bar menu at Convict Lake Resort is going to be lunch at least once.

That’s just my starting rotation, and while it reads like a list of shameless plugs (that’s precisely what it is), the point is, once you decide to put the rod down even for a small amount of time per trip, you’ll definitely wind up with a personally curated collection of gap-filling spots of your own.

I’ve yet to get on a horse, rent a mountain bike, hit golf balls, dive into a lake off a big rock, or float the lower Owens, but the good news is, without some major volcanic activity, the Eastern Sierra isn’t going anywhere.

Funny thing, after all this, I’ve still never been up for Blues­apalooza. Live music and craft beer vendors from all over? I have a feeling when it does happen, I might realize it’s the top of the off-the-water food chain.

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