Christopher Dorner Crime Tourism: Big Bear, LA's Mountain Getaway

It is tawdry, and also so pretty!

Unless he is actually the Terminator, alleged maniacal killer and ex-LAPD cop Christopher Dorner died yesterday in a burning vacation cabin near the Southern California mountain resort town of Big Bear. And for the first time in probably forever, Big Bear is at the top of the news. As often happens when little-known places make the headlines, cable news hosts struggled to understand the mysterious place — did it have access to television or the Internet? — and people on Twitter mocked the confusion of the cable news hosts, while Big Bear residents used Twitter to say things like, “I was literally looking at the house Chris Dorner was at from the top of the mtn.” (And then the cops tried to shut down Twitter.)

So what is Big Bear? Are there bears? Do they have the Internet and the teevee, so far away from Los Angeles? Here is all you need to know:

What other famous things happened in and around Big Bear Lake?

If you’ve ever enjoyed the Sid and Marty Krofft freakout kids’ show “H.R. Pufnstuf,” you’ve seen the forested mountain landscape around Big Bear Lake. It’s where “Jimmy,” played by a hard-drinking child actor, dances around with a talking flute, before a witch lures him onto a living boat that takes him to an island filled with monsters.

The bizarre Clint Eastwood/Lee Marvin musical western, Paint Your Wagon, was also filmed at Big Bear Lake. Like most scenic natural areas within a few hours drive of Los Angeles, Big Bear also served as the location for many period shows of the 1950s and 1960s, including “Old Yeller” and “Bonanza.” And it’s where the brilliant computer scientist who prevents World War III is found in seclusion, in the important Cold War drama War Games.

Are there bears?

The majestic California Grizzly — the golden bear on the state flag — was hunted to extinction in the area by 1908. Black bears were reintroduced to the transverse mountain ranges of Southern California in the 1930s, and these animals are occasionally seen digging through garbage dumpsters for discarded hamburger and burrito remains.

Do famous Hollywood people go to Big Bear?

No. Like the other once-glamorous getaways within driving distance of the Hollywood entertainment industry, it was fashionable 70 years ago. Today, it’s all very middle-class and down-market and worn out the way old resort towns tend to get after a century of abuse by real-estate developers and other hucksters. Famous people do not go where the working people go, so you’ll mostly see weekenders from Southern California. There’s a sad little zoo, and a lot of chain restaurants. Because the town was primarily developed in the 1950s, there are few sidewalks. Traffic jams are common on three-day weekends, as people go back and forth between restaurants and vacation cabins on the one main road that curves along the lake’s south shore.

Nothing but chain restaurants? Really?

The best restaurant in town, as of now, is a tiny Italian place tucked into the back of the bowling alley building. It’s called Sweet Basil Bistro, and it’s always busy on weekends. Make a reservation. It is decent and tasty food, but the Yelp reviews note that this isn’t something you’d be excited about in Los Feliz or Venice.

Otherwise, there are some family-owned mountain-themed diners. The best of these is the Teddy Bear Restaurant (the bear theme is persistent up here), with the “grilled cheese bar” of interest to vegetarians and the breakfasts all pretty good. But there are big lines on Saturday and Sunday mornings, so just get there by 9 a.m. or so, and you won’t have a wait. Everyone in line will have a terrible hangover, which is also why they can’t get out the door for breakfast before 9:30 a.m. (There is not a lot to do in Big Bear at night beyond “drink in your cabin.”)

Due south of town, there is a beautiful and remote wilderness around San Gorgonio, the 11,499-foot monster mountain that towers over Southern California. You need a permit to hike up here, but they can often be picked up in person from the Barton Flats ranger station. You’ll also need a “Forest Adventure Pass” or the combination National Parks/Federal Lands pass to hang on your rearview when parking at the trailheads. This is wild country, nearly as spectacular as the Sierra Nevada, especially in springtime when the alpine meadows are in bloom and the creeks are flowing.

What is there to do, besides being a crazy murderer playing Rambo with the LAPD and sheriff’s deputies?

In wintertime, there is cheap snow skiing. It’s a fine place to learn how to ski. I learned to ski here as a kid in the 1980s and it was awesome, especially because I’d never seen a “real” ski destination at that point. The rest of the year, you can hike in the beautiful pine forests. There’s a lot of aspen and oaks in the lower elevations, for Fall color.

The lake is fairly gross, although it’s pretty from a distance. It’s full of motorboats and all the related garbage and smell and trashy people (goatees, “rap rock”) who come with the weekend motorboat scene. Remember, too, that Big Bear Lake is in San Bernardino County, near the bankrupt Inland Empire slum of San Bernardino and the vast foreclosure sprawl of the Inland Empire.

What did Raymond Chandler have to say about this place?

Like many Hollywood people, Chandler used to come up to Big Bear for the cooler weather in the summertime. He and his wife Cissy often stayed in a rental cabin here to escape L.A. heat waves. (The Chandlers wintered in nearby Palm Springs.) And it is Big Bear Lake that appears, barely disguised, in his novel The Lady in the Lake. Chandler was cynical about the place, but he also loved it enough to return seasonally for many decades.

And here, in a few paragraphs from that 1944 novel, we get a wonderful picture of World War II-era Big Bear Lake, which seems not very different from the Big Bear of today:

The road skimmed along a high granite outcrop and dropped to meadows of coarse grass in which grew what was left of the wild irises and white and purple lupine and bugle flowers and’ columbine and penny-royal and desert paintbrush. Tall yellow pines probed at the clear blue sky. The road dropped again to lake level and the landscape began to be full of girls in gaudy slacks and snoods and peasant handkerchiefs and rat rolls and fat-soled sandals and fat white thighs. People on bicycles wobbled cautiously over the highway and now and then an anxious-looking bird thumped past on a power scooter.

A mile from the village the highway was joined by another lesser road which curved back into the mountains. A rough wooden sign under the highway sign said: Little Fawn Lake 1 3/4 miles. I took it. Scattered cabins were perched along the slopes for the first mile and then nothing. Presently another very narrow road debouched from this one and another rough wooden sign said: Little Fawn Lake. Private Road. No Trespassing.

I turned the Chrysler into this and crawled carefully around huge bare granite rocks and past a little waterfall and through a maze of black oak trees and ironwood and manzanita and silence. A bluejay squawked on a branch and a squirrel scolded at me and beat one paw angrily on the pine cone it was holding. A scarlet-topped woodpecker stopped probing in the dark long enough to look at me with one beady eye and then dodge behind the tree trunk to look at me with the other one. I came to a five-barred gate and another sign.

Across the lake the long way by the road and the short way by the top of the dam a large redwood cabin overhung the water and farther along, each well separated from the others, were two others cabins. All three were shut up and quiet, with drawn curtains.

Raymond Chandler, everybody. This is how to write. It is also the best description you’ll read of the end-of-the-line cabin where Christopher Dorner barbecued himself yesterday, probably after putting a bullet through his brain. (A pro puts the barrel in his mouth, so there’s no way for the weapon to slip when the trigger is awkwardly pulled from the wrong direction.)

Dorner died — again, if he’s really dead and not Wolverine or something — in a little vacation cabin like the ones where Chandler used to stay, like the ones where hundreds of thousands of SoCal families and couples have escaped for a weekend out of the smog, protected by the tall pines from the Santa Ana winds making everybody crazier down in the city, in the sprawl of the L.A. basin.

Ken Layne is a frequent visitor to the San Bernardino Mountains, and lives 20 miles east of Barton Flats in the High Desert. Photo by his wife.