California Burning

Scene from the Tick Fire

Today, as Martine and I returned from the Eastern Sierras, we passed where the Tick Fire jumped the Highway 14 Freeway and turned the wooden posts holding up the steel guardrails into a line of torches. We also looked toward the summit of a hill and saw a ruined mansion which had been burned to a crisp. The traffic slowed to a crawl as the motorists stared at the devastation—and this was just the southern boundary of a fire that had scorched 4,600 acres (1,862 hectares) as of a couple hours ago.

As we drove south, we weren’t 100% certain that Highway 14 (the Antelope Valley Freeway) was open to southbound traffic. It was only when we drove into Mojave for lunch that we were relieved we didn’t have to go by way of Tehachapi and Bakersfield to Interstate 5, which would have added more than an hour to an already long ride.

The climate change which so many nincompoops deny seems to be turning the Golden State into charcoal.

Martine and I live in the flatlands of Los Angeles, which are not susceptible to brush fires. It’s bad enough, however, to have one’s lungs filled with fine ash. It makes me sneeze so hard that I burst the capillaries in my nose and have to cope with a stubborn nosebleed.

 

“A Toast to Inyo”

The House at Laws Railroad Museum Where I Found the Poem Framed on the Wall

Hitherto, whenever I have presented a poem, it had a certain literary quality which justified the effort to puzzle it out. This time, I am reprinting a poem which I saw framed on a wall in one of the houses at the Laws Railroad Museum near Bishop, California. So at one and the same time, it is a poem and an artifact of a particular time and place which are increasingly remote to us.

Toast to Inyo

Here’s to Inyo, well beloved,
With her smiling skies so fair,
Here’s to her Sierras tall,
With their grand and stately air.

Here’s to the pioneers, old and gray,
Many of whom have passed away,
And solved the mystery, which all
Of us must solve some day.

Few there are who now remain
To remind us of the past;
Foremost in our hearts are they,
And as our “nobles” they are classed.

Here’s to the wives and mothers true
Who did their very best
To make this lovely vale of ours
A home of peace and rest.

Here’s to the noble sons and brave
Who hallow the colors three;
Smiling at the foeman’s frown,
Ready to fight for liberty.

Here’s to the daughters, fair and good;
With laughing eyes so sparkling bright,
With rosy cheeks and golden hair,
The world they hold within their might.

Remember then, whe’er you go,
There’s no place like “home sweet home;”
And think of dear old Inyo,
As o’er the wide world you roam.

I rather suspect that the poem was written around the time of the First World War based on the “foeman” in the fifth stanza.

Western Town

Sunset in the Alabama Hills

Martine and I were in agreement: Our two favorite towns on our recent trip to the Eastern Sierras were Bishop and Lone Pine. More about Bishop later. If it weren’t for the fact that Lone Pine is a little too close to the Mojave Desert, way too close to Owens Dry Lake which, on windy days, is the largest source of dust pollution in the United States, and if it weren’t such a small town, I wouldn’t mind living there.

Oh, yes, there is one other thing: Not only is Lone Pine only 71 miles (114 kilometers) by air from the recent earthquakes at Ridgecrest, but, back in 1872, there was a major earthquake that destroyed a good part of the town and killed twenty-seven people. When you consider that the tallest peak in the contiguous forty-eight states—Mount Whitney—is just a few miles to the west, I suspect that some more disasters are in the cards for this sweet little town.

So much for the negatives. Lone Pine holds an honored place in film history for being situated close to the Alabama Hills, which for almost a hundred years have been one of the major shooting locations for movie Westerns. From the days of Jack Hoxie, Tom Mix, and Ken Maynard to the TV Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s, the Alabama Hills were seen in hundreds of film and TV productions. For this reason, the town is the site of the Museum of Western Film History, which is worth two or three hours of your time if you have any love for the genre (as I do).

Just Beyond the Alabama Hills Are the Snowcapped Sierras

Although we spent almost two hours riding the washboarded dirt roads that wind through the hills, I would gladly have allocated more time. Unfortunately, the heat was beginning to build, so I didn’t get out to take the many little hikes to particularly interesting rock formations and filming locations. Instead, we headed north to Independence to take another look at those coyote dentures I wrote about yesterday.

 

Indian Baskets and Coyote Dentures

Panamint Shoshone Indian Baskets

Inyo County’s county seat is the small town of Independence, CA. To me, it will always be associated with the Eastern California Museum and the writings of Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934). Curiously, the museum and Mary Austin’s house are just across the street from one another. I have always thought that Austins The Land of Little Rain and The Basket Woman are two of the best books written about life in the Eastern Sierras over a century ago. The Austin house is not open to visitors, but you can always cross the street to the museum to buy her books and learn about this incredible writer.

In fact, there is little about the Eastern Sierras that you can’t learn about from the museum. If the Owens Valley and its continuation northward to the Nevada state line is of any interest to you, you owe it to yourself to spend at least half a day at the museum. There you will learn about the miners, the Indians, the Japanese interned at Manzanar, the pioneer men and women, the mountain climbers, the water wars, the geology, the railroads, and the farmers.

One of the most incredible displays is a set of dentures using coyote teeth for a dentally distressed resident by the name of George Washington Hancock. While we visited the museum, we heard two visitors walk in the door and immediately ask about the “coyote teeth.”

The Coyote Dentures and the Story Behind Them

The collection of Paiute and Shoshone Indian basketry is world class. I particularly liked the Panamint Shoshone designs on their baskets. I was disappointed to learn that these baskets were made for early tourists to the area, as the Indians were much too pragmatic to bother about designs for something so utilitarian as a food container. Yet the designs came from somewhere and are visually striking.

In many ways, it is recommended to visit the museum at or near the beginning of your trip along Highway 395. Wherever you are going, whatever you are planning to do, you will find answers here in this museum which is owned and run by Inyo County. There are no admission fees, but I strongly recommend you make a donation so that this outstanding institution can continue to highlight one of the most interesting corners of our country.

Back from the Desert

Gus’s Fresh Jerky in Olancha, CA

Today, as a major heat wave was sending the desert temperatures as high as 107° Fahrenheit (42º Celsius), Martine and high sped south from Lone Pine to return to Los Angeles by mid-afternoon today. We had expected hot temperatures on the floor of the valley, so all of our major destinations were at an altitude between 7,500 feet (2,286 meters) and 10,500 feet (3,200 meters). It was not unusual for the temperature at these higher locations to be 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than our starting point for the day. In the White Mountains, where we viewed the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, it actually became chilly.

Gus’s Fresh Jerky (shown above) was one of the first stops on our trip. The unpromising building actually had delicious beef jerky and various types of dried fruit, honey, and olives. In fact, we stopped not only on our way up the valley, but also on the return trip.

One of the things one learns while traveling in the California desert is that there is little correspondence between how fancy a building is and the quality of merchandise (or exhibits) within. A store like this in Los Angeles would not be taken seriously. Check out their website, which belies the casual look of their premises.

The Laws Railroad Museum

Gas Station and Jalopy at Laws Railroad Museum

It was January 2010 when Martine and I last drove through the Eastern Sierras. One of our favorite destinations was an outdoor museum of pioneer life in the hamlet of Laws, CA. Four miles northeast of Bishop, Laws was a station on the Carson & Colorado Railroad, which ran from Mound House, NV to Keeler, CA, site of the Cerro Gordo (“Fat Hill”) mines, which produced high grade silver, lead, and zinc. In 1900, the Carson & Colorado was sold to the Southern Pacific where it operated in various forms until around 1960.

Today, the Laws Museum is one of those outdoor museums to which various old local structures were moved, from railroad buildings and residences to various types of businesses. Martine and I plan to pay another visit next week.

One of the Original 19th Century Boxcars of the Old Carson & Colorado Railway

We love the strange desert landscapes of the areas flanked on one side by the steep eastern flank of the Sierra Nevadas on the left and the Inyo and White Mountains on the right. We expect that the Sierras will still be covered with snow because of the record precipitation this last winter.