Escaping the Heat

Owens Dry Lake South of Lone Pine with Its Toxic Dust

South of Bishop, the Owens Valley can make you feel as if you were in a hot oven. Although the area is considered as high desert, it is not all that high. The elevations from south to north vary only by some 500 feet (152 meters). Here is the data in both feet and meters:

  • Olancha – 3,658 feet (1,115 meters)
  • Lone Pine – 3,727 feet (1,1136 meters)
  • Independence – 3,930 feet (1,198 meters)
  • Big Pine – 3,989 feet (1,216 meters)
  • Bishop – 4,150 feet (1,254 meters)

When we were in Big Pine two weeks ago, it was 95º Fahrenheit (35º Celsius), and we were sweltering. After eating lunch, we headed up into the White Mountains to visit the Schulman Grove of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest at an elevation of over 10,100 feet (3,078 meters). In some 30 miles (48 km) we were to climb some 6,000 feet (1,829 meters).

In my 2018 Subaru Forester, there is a display showing the current outside temperature. After our hot morning on the floor of the valley, we saw the temperature decline by some 20º Fahrenheit and become downright cool by the time we reached the piñon pine zone.

In the Piñon Pine Zone: The Sierra Nevada in the Background and the White Mountains in the Foreground

By the time we got to the Schulman Grove, we were perfectly comfortable. There is a backpacker rule of thumb that the temperature drops by 3.5-5.0º Fahrenheit per 1,000 feet, depending on a fairly large number of variables.

In the past, Martine developed a headache when we got to 8,000 feet elevation at Chama, NM and Mesa Verde, CO. This time we both felt great at 10,100 feet. Was the difference that we drank a whole lot more water? Could be.


Pinus longaeva

The Bristlecone Pine Forest at 10,100 Feet Elevation

Perhaps the most interesting destination on our recent trip to the Eastern Sierras was the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the Inyo National Forest in the White Mountains. The living bristlecones are as old as 4,862 years old. Using the science of dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, it is possible to go back almost 10,000 years comparing overlapping dry/wet year rings with those of standing dead bristlecones and even fallen dead bristlecones. Because of the climate near the peaks of the White Mountains is so dry and windy, fungi that destroy the dead wood are slow to take hold.

The following illustration shows how the sequencing of dry/wet years going back in time works:

How Dendrochronology Works

Using these methods, it is possible to scientifically disprove Bishop Ussher’s contention that the creation dated back to 4004 B.C. Dendrochronologists can take wooden lintels from Maya ruins and prove when the piece of wood was cut down. They have shown that the ruins of Stonehenge, for example, are a thousand years older than previously thought—which knocks into a cocked hat the anthropological theory that European civilization had its cultural origins in the Middle East.

Martine and I took the Discovery Trail from the Schulman Grove Visitor’s Center at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. We were unable to finish the trail, because it kept going to higher elevations, and I was having some trouble with breathing and light-headedness. Fortunately, these symptoms became less pronounced as we went about a hundred feet lower.

This Bristlecone Had, at Some Point, Been Subject to Fire

At the Visitor’s Center, I bought a bookmark with “Advice from a Bristlecone Pine,” which consisted of the following:

  • Sink your roots into the earth
  • Keep growing
  • Be content with your natural beauty
  • Weather adversity
  • Go out on a limb
  • Its OK to be a little gnarly
  • Honor your elders!

That second last bit about being a little gnarly is particularly interesting. The tall straight bristlecone pines are never as old as the twisted trunks and branches of trees that grow closer to the ground. Part of these trees could be bead, but they contain live branches that can continue living until something kills them. Amazing trees!


Eastern Sierra Road Trip

The Alabama Hills Near Lone Pine

The Eastern Sierra Road Trip is now a definite go for next week. Today, Martine managed to get a few of her healthcare scheduling issues taken care of, so I went and reserved accommodations for our trip. I just have to do a little shopping, like getting good AA alkaline batteries for my little Canon rangefinder.

Most people don’t know much about the Eastern Sierras. They’re usually familiar with the National Parks along the Western Sierras, places like Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite—but the eastern edge of the range is steeper and the base is, for the most part, desert. In fact, we will have to drive through a good chunk of the Mohave Desert between the town of Mohave and Olancha, where the interesting sights begin, right near the turnoff for Death Valley. (Mind you, we don’t intend to visit Death Valley in July: That’s the sort of thing that only German tourists do for some reason.)

If you want to get an idea of what there is to be seen along Highway 395 as it wends its way along the eastern slope of the mountains, click on the California Through My Lens website, which does a fairly good job of enumerating what is to be seen along the way.

As I mentioned elsewhere, our three main destinations are:

  • The ghost town of Bodie
  • The Devils Postpile National Monument
  • The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

I have been to Bodie, though Martine has not. Neither of of us have seen the other two places. All three are on high ground off Highway 395, somewhere around the 10,000-foot (3,000 meter) elevation mark.

The great thing about traveling through the desert is that there are always a ton of minor destinations that amuse you without eating up too much time. One such place is Pearsonville, the “Hubcap Capital of the World,” where you can find a 25-foot-tall statue of a young woman:

On the Road to Olancha


Owens Valley Escapade

Ghost Town of Bodie, California

Although Martine and I have been to the Owens Valley before, Martine suggested another visit to see some of the sights we have missed. To be specific, there are the following three destinations she’s never seen before:

  • The ghost town of Bodie, a town which was abandoned by its residents, especially after the mine closed in 1942. It is now a State Historical Park which will be allowed to decay naturally—but not before I’ve had another look at it.
  • The Devils Postpile National Monument, a natural feature that resembles the Giants Causeway of Northern Island with its hexagonal columns.
  • The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains, containing the oldest living things on earth: trees that are thousands of years old.

The Devils Postpile National Monument

In addition, there are a number of other sights with which we are familiar and which we may revisit:

  • The Manazanar camp for the resettlement of Americans of Japanese ancestry during the Second World War.
  • The Eastern California Museum of Inyo County
  • The Lone Pine Film History Museum and the nearby Alabama Hills where hundreds of Westerns were shot.
  • Mono Lake and its natural tufa structures
  • The Laws Railroad Museum near Bishop, California

Bristlecone Pine Tree

There is a very informative website called Highway 395 Roadtrip Stops complete with photographs, of the many features along the route.

We will probably be gone for five days sometimes in the next month or so.