Colorado’s recent acceptance of civil unions reminded me of a social experiment in little Alpine County, California, shortly before Ellen and I moved there in 1973.
Alpine was and still is the smallest county in the state, population-wise. The biggest town is the county seat of Markleeville (2010 census: 210), a former silver mining camp on the east side of the Sierra crest, south of Lake Tahoe.
The ski resort of Bear Valley, to which we moved, is the only other town. It’s on the west slope of the range. In winter, when Ebbetts Pass is closed, you can’t get from Bear to Markleeville. Well, you could, but you’d have to drive down the west slope to Angels Camp in the gold-rush foothills (This is where Mark Twain set his short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”), take a right on historic, twisty Hwy 49 north to Jackson, turn right again and drive up Hwy 88 through Kit Carson to Carson Pass, over the top, through Hope Valley and down Hwy 89 to Markleeville. It would take you all day. In three winters, I don’t think we did it once.
Bear Valley has an official population now of 121. I want to say when we were there it bustled with a permanent core of about 150 people, most of them employees of the ski area or the lodge or the Forest Service.
Anyway, some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s, soon after the ski area was founded, a bunch of enterprising homosexuals in San Francisco had an idea. (Was the term gay even in use then?) If they could move just a couple hundred like-minded folks, maybe as few as one hundred, up to Bear Valley and establish residency, they might be able to vote in a slate of sympathetic county commissioners, and, voilà – the first and only gay county in America.
E and I loved Bear Valley. The town wasn’t so much a town as a lodge in the sugar pines. Just about all the amenities were under one modernist, shake-shingled roof: the post office, the cramped general store, a sports shop, a restaurant, and the biggest stone fireplace you’ve ever seen. Maybe not the biggest walk-in fireplace – though you could walk straight in, without stooping – but the biggest stones making up the fireplace. Four massive rectangles of Sierran granite were somehow fit together to support the whole thing.
The rest of the community spread out in a handful of forest subdivisions, A-frames and other modest homes strung out on one-lane paved roads. In winter those roads weren’t plowed. At 7,000 feet, and just three hours from the ocean, the snow came in too heavy and deep. Wisely, they let it pile up, and the community perforce abandoned their cars. You got home either by snowmobile or on cross-country skis, which is what E and I, and most of the rest of the ski school, did. It was romantic as heck.
Being in California, Bear attracted its share of celebrities, but, appropriately, they were more like B-list celebrities: the pugnacious TV actor Robert Conrad (a detective in Hawaiian Eye, a Secret Service agent in Wild Wild West); Sea Hunt star Lloyd Bridges and his actor sons, Jeff and Beau.
We did have Clint Eastwood sitting on the bench in our ski school room one time. And our director, Peter Brinkman, dated a Playboy Playmate, Ann Pennington, until she broke her leg on the bunny hill.
The bigger stars, in our eyes, were the pro racers who came every March for a stop on the World Pro Skiing tour: Killy, Spider Sabich, Hugo Nindl, Hank Kashiwa.
The crowds on weekends could be pretty intense. Bear was a short drive from the big Central Valley cities of Modesto and Stockton, about three hours distant from the Bay Area, more or less the same trip time for San Francisco skiers as going to the Tahoe resorts.
But midweeks were bliss, and we became fiercely loyal to the terrain and snow conditions; we thought they rivaled better-known Squaw Valley. I still think that. We used to say the skiing just started to get good when there were 100 inches of snow on the ground, which usually happened sometime in January. You haven’t lived until you’ve slashed down Strawberry Fields or Yellow Submarine (trail names proudly defining the era) in four feet of overnight new snow.
What became of the gay takeover? I don’t know the details. I don’t know that we ever heard a definitive recounting. Suffice it to say, the experiment failed, whether due to insufficient numbers, or organization, or a riled up voting populace in Markleeville.
Our gay friend, Paul, a chef and a skier, who moved to California soon after Ellen and I did, didn’t know the story. Somebody out there does.