Can’t say how many times somebody has complained to me about how ugly and boring I-5 is between Frisco and El Lay. It tells me they haven’t done much traveling, they’re not very discerning about such things and, like the rest of us, they like repeating what they’ve heard. Sometimes I’ll contradict them—even the Grand Canyon looks dull at high noon, I’ll say—but usually I let them slide, having grown used to folks who travel only between points A and B, and then only when they’ve got to and while focused on making time and saving money. In this wondrous Era of Tweets, most folks are too fully-employed, high-speed connected, occupied, preoccupied and absolutely-positively goal-oriented to gaze into the sky overhead or grab a handful of the dirt underfoot.
Because so many people are rightfully afraid of driving unlit hinterland superhighways at night, nearing sundown out on the I-5 under the smoggy red San Joaquin sky, this cultural attitude of busyness equaling accomplishment manifests itself as metallic wolf packs of luxury-muscle cars weaving at 100mph through the big rigs and sissy cars while trying to get the jump on each other. What they after? They want to be very first to have everybody else either shrinking in their rearview mirror or about to be. Yet, since it’s a Wednesday and not a Friday or Sunday sundown, the wolf packs, like flies hitchhiking a stiff breeze, are only a minor annoyance.
After camping overnight inside Motel 6 in the corporate interstate pit stop town of Buttonwillow out there on the western edge of the suddenly-not-so-voracious Bakersfield megalopolis (Pop. 800,000), we awoke with the dawn, packed and drove up into the empty Kern River Canyon. Because of all of this year’s snowfall, we figured the Kern would be at flood stage and, sure enough, it was. Winding up the ribbon of blacktop beside the river in the bottom of the fractured-granite defile, the whole way the water was leaping, foaming white and roaring, its breezes billowing and snowmelt frigid. The Kern is world famous among daredevil kayakers and locally notorious for its habit of drowning people. Come the spring thaw, you wouldn’t want to stick your finger into the Kern. It’ll drown not just children, geezers and puppy dogs; it’d drown Tarzan and Jack LaLanne, cows, horses, bears, orcas—you name it.While the river isn’t at all particular about whom it drowns, it does seem partial toward the clumsy and the oblivious. Why, the very morning my wife and I were moseying up the lower canyon, up beyond Lake Isabella, under the tall pines in the upper canyon that cleaves northward and splits the southern Sierra into the East Crest and the Great Western Divide, two male college kid campers out of El Lay, after a hearty breakfast of trail mix (?), inflated their Big 5 rubber raft, put into the river with two Day-Glo plastic paddles, quickly capsized and disappeared underwater since neither of them was wearing a life jacket or knew how to swim. The last we heard, their bodies still hadn’t been found.
After stopping in the town of Lake Isabella for a country breakfast served with a side of western hospitality—all proceeds from our stacks of flapjacks went to support the music program in the nearby elementary school—we continued eastward for some miles through the broad mountain bowl. Rimmed with tall peaks and deep canyons, and decorated with a substantial man-made reservoir, deep green runs of finger-shaped riparian woodlands and grassy bottomlands circled with creamy, sage-tinged foothills, the bowl speaks of vast herds of antelope, elk and mule deer, galloping grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, eagles, beavers, flocks of migrating waterbirds and shimmering schools of giant rainbow and cutthroat trout. Before the coming of the Euro-American prospectors and ranchers, the mining combines, lumber barons and then, after WW2 and the birth of car culture, the Army Corps of Engineers and the realtors, the people living here shared a mountain meadow about as bountiful and hospitable as you’d find anywhere. Even today a person could do worse than to live here surrounded by such scarred beauty.
Soon we’re winding up to the summit of mile-high Walker’s Pass. Nowadays a pass is considered by biologists to be one kind of “ecotone:” a place where two or more separate habitats meet and mingle. But back in 1833 when the trapper/horse trader Joseph Walker and his party were led up here by the natives, it was called a “divide” and seen as a place of parting waters. Or, at this particular spot, a place of waters gathering westward and vanishing eastward. Dotted with clump grasses and shrubs, pinyon, juniper and Joshua trees, Walker’s Pass is a notch in the Pacific Crest where it descends southward from the High Sierra into the vast oak forests of the Tehachapis. The pass is also where the Pacific Coastal Zone meets the interior’s Great Basin and, while taking a short hike to a high spot above the pass to gaze back into the bowl we’d just climbed out of, a powerfully cool and wet Pacific wind whipped our faces that had made landfall maybe four hours before.
Back in our car and coasting down the long, gentle and smooth Sierra bajada that sinks into the 4,000-foot-high northwest corner of the Mojave Desert, the air is suddenly hot, still and bone dry, and we break out the Chap Stick. Eastward stretches a vast, silent and shadeless landscape overlaid with a half dozen barren, silt-skirted mountain ranges arrayed like ghost ships becalmed in a sea of scrubby wasteland. Feeling like I’m on the outskirts of home (my wife’s from back east), I announce how hidden somewhere down in there is the fair metropolis of Trona and brag about how it ain’t often a person gets the privilege of riding a state-funded highway (178) that dead-ends at a company town out in the middle of Sizzling, Nowhere, population scalding. Eastward past Trona lies California’s sprawling, tippy-tippy-top-secret Area 51B, Annex C, and were my wife and I adventurous enough to sneak out there to tool around in some trackless, creosote-covered basin, from all sides would converge speeding armored personal carriers and the sky above would fill with Apache gunships, Command and Control vehicles and predator drones.Not wanting to start a war or proceed to Pahrump, at the bottom of the hill we turn north and head for Inyokern Junction, the Sierra’s east face towering above our left shoulders. Lone Pine with its Best Western Motel swimming pool patio chaise lounge view of craggy Mt. Whitney (14,494 ft.) is just 70 miles ahead, and I wonder how much the town has changed since, for the first time in my life, I’ve been away for nearly a half decade. Yet El Lay’s Department of Water and Power ain’t called that for nothing, and when it steals water it steals it all—creeks, creeklets and groundwater— and it stays stolen. By reputation, the DWP would snatch the tear out of a widow’s eye and ship it to a Southland swimming pool if it could. Anyway, since no community can grow without water, during my lifetime the string of little highway towns dotting Owens Valley haven’t changed much. And that’s saying something seeing how most of the rest of the state, including Anderson Valley, has been radically transformed.
Whether it’s in the erased resort town of Little Lake, or the near ghost towns of Olancha, Keeler and Cartego, or the mini-boomtown oasis called Bishop, or one of the little hangers-on like Lone Pine, Big Pine and Independence, most everything’s the same as it was when I was a kid. It’s the same cafes and saloons and motor lodges; the same Piute and Shoshone trailer park slums, the same grids of vintage, sand-blasted, shabby shoebox cottages with pounded-dirt front yards littered with piles of maybe someday useful stuff shaded under giant decrepit cottonwood trees about ready to drop dead of old age or blow over in a sandstorm. Here and there are the cleaner and more comfortable abodes of government workers of various kinds: the DWP, Cal-Trans, the Bureau of Livestock and Mining, Fish and Game, the US Forest Service (what’s that supposed to mean?), substation CHP officers, resident deputies, school teachers, public health workers and the like. Finally, like the cherry on top, there’s the “in-holdings” that are the 2nd or 5th vacation-speculation-tax-dodge homes of the anonymous rich from God knows where, their stately stone facades masking their cobwebbed interiors and empty gazes.Were you to take all of the human settlements in Owens Valley and gather them in one spot, they’d be but a grain of sand atop a bucket full. In a land so huge, trackless and unforgiving, it’s easy to put our personal concerns into a proper perspective, since like tumbleweeds we’re just passing through while the land endures. Out there where deep geologic time shows off its face, all but the most swollen of heads shrink at least a little bit and for a little while. Some folks recoil in terror from the vision of themselves as zits on a flea’s ass—what good’s the universe if I ain’t at the center?—while others take heart in it and are the better for it.
Some years ago, up in the High Sierra southwest of Lone Pine near Horseshoe Meadow, my wife and I sat and gabbed with a young local Piute fellah named Thunder. After spending a year going to community college down in El Lay, Thunder told us, he’d dropped out and returned to the Rez. He couldn’t take it down there in the smoggy red yonder, and not just because of the constant noise, crowds, sirens, choppers, gunfire and gridlock. That was bad enough, but it was all the crazy people that really drove him out. He couldn’t understand what they were saying, or thinking, or what they really wanted, it got scary and finally he had to get out of there. Then, when he returned to the valley and like a dawn mist his ancestors seemed to rise up from the ground to welcome him home, he was re-born. While it was near on impossible for somebody like himself to make a good living in these spare parts, poverty weren’t so bad when you had roots.