Helena de Bertodano, The Daily Telegraph, April 25, 2013
Lying in tall grass studded with yellow flowers beside a tranquil lake, Tom Cruise pulls a baseball cap over his face and murmurs dreamily: "I wanted to spend the rest of my life here." Of course, this being Cruise's latest science-fiction film, Oblivion, the idyllic scene is quickly shattered.
Earlier this month, my three children were standing on the spot where Cruise was lying – next to one of the smallest lakes in the June Lake Loop, a 16-mile stretch dotted with large expanses of water that follows an old glacial canyon in the Sierra Nevada in eastern California.
The mountains fringing the lake were capped with snow. The grass beneath our feet was icy, not verdant, and no flowers had broken through yet. The only sign that this remote spot had been the scene of intense Hollywood action was a piece of paper pinned to a tree, showing a weathered photograph of the wooden cabin Cruise built in his role as one of the last men on nuclear-devastated Earth in the year 2077: "Lake with floating camera platform is on left," it read. "Cruise's lean-to homestead is on right, covered with plastic sheeting against the snooping paparazzi."
In the movie, Cruise builds the cabin single-handedly. "In fact, it took about six weeks for a crew of 12 to 15 men to build it," Ralph Lockhart, the personable owner of the lake, told me. He was hoping the cabin would stay – but it was demolished the moment filming had finished. "Liability issues," he said with a sigh. But no one could stop him renaming the lake, which pre-Cruise was known as Black's Pond. Now it is called Lake Oblivion.
Our visit there was accidental. We had been staying a mile or so away at the Double Eagle Resort and Spa, a collection of well-appointed cabins also owned by Lockhart, situated in woods beneath the majestic 11,000ft Carson Peak, which towers overhead, a waterfall tumbling down its side. Hearing that my two sons, aged 12 and 10, love to fish, Lockhart offered to show us the lake, which is reached off-road down a long, bumpy driveway – or in winter on cross-country skis.
In one scene in the film, Cruise talks to a trout swimming in the shallows (the fish, apparently, was anaesthetised first to make it co-operate). Lockhart showed my sons a photograph of a monstrous 8lb trout caught by one of the film crew. My boys were hooked. They couldn't wait to get started.
The scenes at the lake, which in Oblivion is perhaps the last habitable place on Earth, were shot days after Katie Holmes filed for divorce from Cruise last summer – so glimpses of Cruise were at a premium. According to Lockhart, paparazzi were scrambling up the steep mountainsides during the five days of filming; security guards on a platform mounted on a high rock intercepted any who got too near.
My sons didn't have any luck with their borrowed fly-fishing rods, either at Lake Oblivion or at nearby Ron's Pond. So we went for a short hike around the lake, then returned to have dinner at the resort's restaurant, Eagle's Landing – smoked local trout followed by trout piccata (there are many other options, but we seemed to be stuck on the trout theme that day). My sons chuckled at a sign on the wall: "Fishing: A jerk on one end of the line waiting for a jerk on the other end." But what does it mean, asked my seven-year-old daughter. I told her it means that some people find fishing boring – a sentiment with which she heartily agreed.
She was far more enthusiastic about the rest of our trip. We had just spent three days skiing at Mammoth, 20 minutes down the road: one of the best ski resorts in the West, well geared towards families and with a ski season lasting well into June and sometimes as late as Fourth of July. Although many of the higher slopes are gnarly enough to excite the most experienced skiers, more than 30 per cent of the runs are suitable for beginners.
We chose to stay in "The Village", a series of condominium buildings surrounded by restaurants and shops. What it lacked in Alpine quaintness, it more than made up for in convenience. A few steps from the front door of our apartment was a gondola that ran directly to the ski lifts. We didn't need our car once.
My children, who hadn't skied for a couple of years, joined the ski school – which they loved. Groups were small and the instructors almost all first-rate, going out of their way to make sure the children had fun and were safe. One instructor, Tory, later emailed me – unsolicited – several photographs she had taken of one of my sons skiing in her class. She had no idea I was a journalist.
Views from the top of Mammoth, which is a dormant volcano, are astounding. Even non-skiers can take the scenic gondola to the summit to look out 150 miles west across the state to the Coast Ranges, lakes sparkling in the distance, or east to Nevada and the Great Basin beyond.
We took a day off to explore nearby Mono Lake, a shallow saline soda lake with strange "cathedral spires" of limestone rising out of it. "Why do grown-ups think this sort of thing is interesting?" grumbled my 10 year-old as we took a freezing walk to visit them. On the shore of the lake, however, his interest surged as he realised that the tiny black rocks underfoot were chunks of obsidian. In the end, we were begging him to hurry up, rather than the other way around. Most visitors also make a beeline for the nearby interpretative centre, which is reputed to be excellent. To my children's immense relief, it was closed when we visited.
Half an hour farther north, not far from Yosemite National Park, is the ghost town of Bodie, deserted almost 70 years ago, long after all the gold had been mined from the region; at this time of year the road is still closed and you have to hike the last mile and a half. But it's worth the effort, especially as there are few other tourists, and so it seems genuinely spooky. As we walked towards the first building, the door creaked out towards us in the wind, making the children shriek in excitement.
They were fascinated by the schoolhouse, with its crumbling maps and children's names still on the blackboard. The town, now silent and windswept, had quite a reputation in its heyday, with more than 60 saloons, brothels galore and shoot-outs on Main Street almost every day. The church bell would toll for every year of a murdered man's life; the story goes that it never stopped tolling.
At least the buildings of Bodie have survived better than Tom Cruise's post-apocalyptic cabin of the future. But the cabin may yet have an afterlife. Lockhart told us that the film studio gave him the architectural plans and he was considering building a replica on its original footprint. Future guests of the Double Eagle resort can choose to stay there and they might even spot a familiar figure beside the lake: "Tom said he is going to come back here to go fly fishing," Lockhart said. This time, however, there will be no shortcuts: the fish will not be drugged.
- For more on holidays in California, see visitcalifornia.co.uk .