Did you know author Gretel Ehrlich learned to ski in Mammoth?
Gretel Ehrlich is a truly gifted writer.
She has authored more than a dozen books, been published in the most impressive periodicals in the country, and won countless awards, fellowships and grants. To put it bluntly, and to quote the literary friend who first recommended I read Ehrlich’s work nearly 20 years ago, “Gretel Ehrlich is friggin’ awesome!”
While her prose and poetry have found widespread success, it’s Ehrlich’s ability to write about place that truly distinguishes her. She has an uncommon ability to share the passion for, and sense of, place. Whether she’s writing about places as diverse as Japan (“Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami”), Greenland (“This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland”) or Wyoming (“Heart Mountain”), she takes mere words and turns them into land and people that are alive and brutally and beautifully honest. It’s no wonder she was a film student at UCLA.
But Westwood is not where Gretel Ehrlich’s story begins. It starts on a horse ranch in Santa Barbara. Soon thereafter, young Gretel began to take trips to her family’s second home in Mammoth, as well as Sun Valley, Idaho, where she learned to ski in the late 1950s.
“I like Mammoth a lot,” she said, while we sat in the historic Sun Valley Inn last week. “I just like Mammoth because it’s more expansive. The skiing there is really superlative.”
An accomplished alpinist, Gretel spent years carving turns not only on Mammoth Mountain, but on the peaks that surround it as well. Along with a friend and German shepherd, she spent a few years doing “winter ascents of all the big peaks in the Sierra. It was fun to see the mountains throughout the seasons,” she fondly recalled.
A handsome woman with powerful and penetrating blue eyes, Gretel looks a lot like another local horse-loving lady, longtime Mammoth nurse Tina Smith. She also still looks strong enough to enjoy downhill skiing, but has given up that part of the sport.
“I’m a sagebrush skier now,” she said, while fiddling with her drink and explaining the schedule she had for years at her Wyoming cattle ranch. “I checked on the heifers on skis during the winter. The cow dogs would always run up to my writing shack at 3 o’clock each day. Dogs can tell time!”
When she returns to California, where she now winters, Gretel likes to visit the Eastern Sierra. “I still love to drive through Bishop and Lone Pine, stop at those little towns at the base of those impressive mountains,” she said.
Even though she’s written a biography on John Muir (“John Muir: Nature’s Visionary”), it is a little ironic that she’s such a big fan of the “Range of Light.” And not just because she doesn’t downhill ski anymore, or even fish (“I do like when people bring home trout for dinner,” she said).
After spending much of her adult life in predominately dark places, like Greenland and Wyoming in the winter, Gretel has had some issues with light, including only being able to write at night for a while.
“I still have an issue with light,” she said, as we shaded ourselves from the harsh, mid-summer sun of the Northern Rockies. “I love being up before daylight. It gives you that protected feeling.”
Protecting—and paying attention to—earth is another passion of Ehrlich’s. After talking to numerous world-class scientists about global climate change, she has not been afraid to speak out about the somewhat controversial subject herself.
“Well, someone has to!” she said, showing a flash of her feisty side. “It’s part of the responsibility as a citizen of this planet to pay attention to what’s happening. Part of it is horrifying and part’s interesting. Humans have never lived in such a time of change.”
As for what it takes to make it as a writer, her advice to aspiring wordsmiths hasn’t changed. “Read, read, read,” she said. “Don’t plan anything. Be a sponge. Be awake and aware. It’s a passive art in the sense that you’re giving yourself up for others.”
She then added with a big grin, “And forget the memoir until your older!”
“Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are. We are often like rivers; careless and forceful, timid and dangerous, lucid and muddied, eddying, gleaming, still.”
– Gretel Ehrlich, “The Solace of Open Spaces”