In late April, 2004, the Center organized a public tour to examine the fabled “backspace” of California, the remote, isolated, and notorious Owens Valley. The tour was part of a month-long exploration of the Valley, which featured an exhibit and the publication of a tour book. Because the valley is narrow and has only one road running its length, and because it takes a few hours just to get there from Los Angeles, the tour was divided into two parts, split evenly by time, space, and theme. Day one, going from south to north, Los Angeles to Bishop, looked at the valley as a displaced place. In other words, as a place where its materials and resources are removed and relocated elsewhere, such as water to Los Angeles, mineral resources mined and shipped away, and fish extracted by fishermen/tourists. The second day, heading south from Bishop, we looked at the Owens Valley as a place in itself, a place of the displaced.
DAY ONE 9:05 am - Culver City
The gleaming white luxury tour bus, provided by California Excursions and piloted by driver Larry Hansen, leaves from the Center’s main office in Culver City, after tour participants have a moment to browse the Owens Valley exhibit. After a brief welcoming and introductory address by the tour guide for the duration, CLUI program manager Matthew Coolidge, the tour begins, long before reaching the Owens Valley itself. The extensions of the valley are clear even in the city. Just up Interstate 405, the bus passes the Budweiser brewery that supplies most of Los Angeles with product from the “King of Beers.” Anheuser-Busch, the world’s largest brewer, has 12 such breweries in the United States, each of which is a major consumer of water. In L.A., the water that is converted into the millions of bottles of beer comes, of course, from the Owens Valley.
A few minutes up the highway, after the 405 joins the 5, the bus passes the Van Norman Complex, where the city of L.A. filters and stores water from Owens Valley, where electricity from the power plants along the aqueduct enters the city’s grid, and where the Department of Water and Power bases their fleet of helicopters that daily scan the length of the aqueduct for potential problems. On the other side of the highway are the Cascades, where the first and second Owens Valley aqueducts emerge from the hills, and spill into the city. It was here, in 1913, that William Mulholland turned the valve that brought the water to the city, saying “Here it is. Take it.”
At this point, a half hour into the tour, the bus transitions onto the 14 freeway, leaving the city, and the first element of the video program for the tour begins. A selection from the PBS series Cadillac Desert is shown which tells the Los Angeles aqueduct story. The author of the book on which the series is based, Mark Reisner, describes the turning of the valve at the Cascades, and we see interviews with William Mulholland’s daughter, and ample appropriate moments from the film Chinatown, discussed by screenwriter Robert Towne.
A brief stop at the Lamont Odette Vista Point offers a remarkable view of the Antelope Valley, including Palmdale Lake, the city’s water supply, built in a depression in the San Andreas Fault. Beyond, Plant 42 and even Edwards Air Force Base are visible, as the bus continues to the desert town of Mojave. At the north end of town is the DWP Aqueduct Division’s Southern District headquarters, where approximately 65 employees operate and maintain the 160 miles of the aqueduct system between Los Angeles and the Haiwee Reservoir, at the south end of the Owens Valley. The maintenance station is built on the site of one of the original aqueduct construction camps, established in 1907.
11:15 am - Jawbone Canyon
North of Mojave, after over two hours on the bus, passengers disembark at Jawbone Canyon, where the massive pipes of the two parallel Owens Valley aqueducts, the 1913 and the 1970 system, dramatically dip down and up the sides of the canyon. This is a moment to physically interact with the pipe, to touch it, to listen to the water inside, walk on it. This is the point on the aqueduct where the water pressure is at its greatest, and where, in 1988, the pipeline burst after a prolonged freeze. Jawbone has been dynamited a few times by protesters of the aqueduct.
Back on Highway 14, heading north, the highway is soon absorbed by Highway 395, the main road through the Owens Valley, merging from the east. The hills too begin to converge here, indicating that the land is coming together to form the valley. At Pearsonville—the “Hubcap Capitol of the World”—and home of the “No Name Trailer Park” the highway crosses into Inyo County. This is an area that is larger than Vermont, and home to the lower 48’s highest and lowest points (Mt Whitney, over 14,000 feet tall is less than 70 miles from Badwater, which is 200 feet below sea level), and the “world’s oldest living thing” (the Methuselah Tree, a 7,000 year old bristlecone pine in the White Mountains). 92% of Inyo County is federal land. The Owens Valley is the only developed area in the county, and is a narrow strip, just a few miles wide, with nearly inaccessible mountains as high as 14,000 feet on either side. Most of the 19,000 people here live in the four towns along the main road through the valley, Highway 395. Of the 6% of the land that isn’t owned by a state or federal entity, only 1.7% is in private hands. Of the rest, 4% is owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
North of Pearsonville, the bus, running next to the Aqueduct, passes under high voltage transmission lines, another linear element exporting resources from the valley to Los Angeles—the “P” of LADWP. There are two primary sets of lines running the length of the valley, the Owens Gorge Transmission Line and the Pacific Intertie. The 230,000 volt Owens Gorge Transmission line delivers electricity generated at three hydroelectric plants in the Owens River Gorge to Los Angeles. The Pacific Intertie, a DC line, distinct as having two main cables instead of three on its anthropomorphic towers, carries a million volts for 846 miles, the world’s longest distance and highest voltage transmission line, bringing power from the hydroelectric plants of the Columbia River area in Washington state to Southern California. It uses the Owens Valley as a highway, one without any exits.
Besides being one of the deepest valleys in the world, Owens Valley is full of active vulcanism, and as we approach the valley, the bus seems to be heading directly towards a volcanic cindercone. This is Red Hill, which has been mined since the 1950s. Its lava rock is valued for its porous, lightweight characteristics, and is generally used as an aggregate for making cinder blocks. One of the largest uses of the material from this hill is for blocks used to construct sound barrier walls along the freeways of Los Angeles. Another displacement of the Owens Valley. A few miles up the valley, the bus passes the road to Coso, a geothermically active area, with a geothermal electric power plant and an abandoned hot springs resort from the 1920’s. The hot springs are located entirely within China Lake Naval Weapons Center, a million acre Navy landscape where, among other things, the Sidewinder missile was developed. At the rest stop at Coso Junction is information about the Native Americans first displaced from the valley in the 1860’s, and again when the City of Los Angeles bought much of their land. The Indians now live on small reservations in the valley.
12:30 pm - Haiwee Reservoir
The bus heads down a dirt road to the Haiwee Reservoir, one of three reservoirs built by the DWP to manage the Owens River water. The water emerges at the base of the Haiwee’s south dam, contained inside two tubes for its journey south. As a spokesman for the DWP has said, this is where the double barrels are loaded. The passengers disembark at the edge of the reservoir, and are asked to consider the function it serves. At the seven mile long, double reservoir at Haiwee, Owens Valley water slows and pauses for the last time. Sediment drops out, and it is exposed to sunlight and air, a natural purification process, before entering the pipes, tunnels and conduits which convey it to the City. The reservoirs also serve a regulatory function since they can retain inflow during shutoffs of the aqueducts downstream, or sustain flows into these aqueducts if the canal north of Haiwee is out of service.
The Haiwee Reservoir is actually two reservoirs—the North Haiwee and the South Haiwee—that are separated by an earthen dam called the Merritt Cut. At the Cut, a bypass channel can divert the water around the south reservoir through a channel. At the south end of the South Haiwee Reservoir is a dam and a hydroelectric power plant that can use the drop in elevation to generate electricity, one of five similar plants built by the DWP in the valley. At the north end of the North Haiwee Reservoir is another dam, next to the channel where the aqueduct water enters the reservoir. Swimming is not allowed in the Haiwee, though fishing with rubberized waders is permitted.
Back on the highway heading north, Owens Lake comes into view, and we approach the settlements of Olancha and Cartago. We pass the Cabin Bar Ranch, which looks abandoned. It was bought by Anheuser-Busch in 1986 for the water rights, during a drought. Apparently, by not pumping water from the wells it owns in the valley, the company has been able to negotiate with the DWP for a water credit that allows it to use more of the Aqueduct water downstream, at the big beer plant we passed in Van Nuys. Some local residents talk bitterly about other stealthy corporate land purchases like this, for companies that bottle water from municipal sources in Los Angeles. One company that still bottles water at its spring source, for the most part, is Crystal Geyser, the most popular bottled brand in Southern California. In Olancha, the bus passes the sprawling blue plant on the east side of the highway, which sits on top of the captured spring, near the shore of the dried up Owens Lake. Truckloads of Crystal Geyser water drive south on the 395, carrying water from this plant, paralleling the Aqueduct.
1:10 pm - Cartago
Cartago, 130 years ago, was a port on the west side of Owens Lake, where steamships, such as the “Bessie Brady” and the “Molly Stevens” docked, unloading silver from the Cerro Gordo mines, in the mountains across the lake, to be transferred to the roads and rails leading to Los Angeles. When the 100 square mile lake dried up after the aqueduct was built, soda ash plants processed brine at Cartago. The American Potash company plant, which once had a 600 foot tall stack, is now enigmatic walls, blocks, and stepped stabs of concrete, next to a gleaming mountain of unused soda. The bus lumbers through these ruins and stops for a picnic lunch. Sandwiches, prepared by the Ranch House restaurant in Olancha, are laid out in a chow line on the edge of an empty slab.
After we have lunch, the bus heads out onto the lakebed itself. This side of the lake surface is dominated by its history as an extractive resource. DWP diversion of the sources of water that fed the lake, starting in 1910 or so, accompanied by a severe drought in the early 1920’s, caused Owens Lake to desiccate completely by 1928. By this time, companies had already established mining processes on the lake bed, using the dry air to evaporate water and concentrate material in evaporation ponds. With the entire lake bed exposed, the job of mining it just became easier.
Sodium carbonate mined from the lake has been used in the production of fiberglass, in powdered detergents, in medicine, as a food additive, in photographic chemicals, for pH control of water, and in a host of chemical industry applications from scrubbing sulfur from smokestack emissions to explosives. The primary use of the material has been to make glass, and a large abandoned Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company plant, between the highway and the lake, is the most scenic ruin in the valley. The active mining areas of the lake are now operated by the US Borax Company, which leases over 16,000 acres on the west side of the lake, and has an extensive network of ponds, dikes, roads, and storage pans. The owner of the 100 or so square miles of the lake surface is the State of California, which owns all navigable waterways within the state. Owens Lake of course was one, in 1913, when the lake area was surveyed before its disappearance.
2:00 pm - US Borax Owens Lake Operations
At the gate of the US Borax property, we are met by Paul Lamos, who boards the bus to guide us through the startling landforms of the mining operation, where pools of bright red water enclosed by crystalline crusts and accreted salt cones create a landscape of severe desiccation.
Back on 395 North, the bus passes the Cottonwood Hydroelectric Power Station, the oldest DWP power station in service today. The first of two turbine generators there went “on line” November 13, 1908, to power the electric dredges building the aqueduct, and is still producing energy for the DWP’s Owens Valley electric system. As at other remote hydroelectric plants and pumping stations, the DWP has a small village of a few houses for the maintenance crew of the plant and their families. At Cottonwood, the old wooden houses and the tree lined street is illuminated at night by the same old lamp posts that have long since been removed from most neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
Three miles further up the road the ruins of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant appear, with its low slung modernist lab and administration building near the road, and its Sheeler-esque metal sheds and silo complex behind. The number of disabled RVs at the plant has increased dramatically in recent years, indicating a change in tenants, and the emergence of a new chapter in the intriguing and unformed history of this place. For most of the time since its closure in 1968, it was owned by a Dr. McCabe, who invented some sort of heart valve, and who had some connection to a community of Hollywood actors, who seemed to use the buildings as a place for interesting parties. Since his passing, the buildings, which by now have been disconnected from any utilities, have changed hands a few times, but have continued to be a residence for some remnants of this social circle. Upstairs in the old lab building is an unpacked museum of the accomplishments of Dr. McCabe. As we pass the plant, we leave its mysteries intact, and now Owens Lake is behind us. We look forward to the rest of the sites of displacement in the valley ahead.
One of the most famous sites of the ongoing battle between Owens Valley residents and the Department of Water and Power is the Alabama Gates, a set of valves on the aqueduct with the ability to divert the flow of the aqueduct into a spillway that leads to the old Owens River channel. Located next to the highway, they still look as they did in 1924 when a few dozen locals took control of the site, and opened the gates. The local occupation of the site was well publicized, and as the crowds swelled, it became a festive period lasting for days. The film star Tom Mix sent a band to entertain the crowd. Eventually, of course, order was restored, and the gates were closed. With the construction of Crowley Lake, above the north end of the valley, which can hold large amounts of water, the function of the gates, to remove water from the aqueduct in times of over abundance, has ended. But someone still lives on the premises for security and maintenance.
3:15 pm - Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery
Continuing up the road of displacement, we arrive at the next subject of the tour, and a major resource extracted from the Owens Valley—fish. While no figures exist for the Owens Valley itself, state-wide the sport fishing industry is a three billion dollar per year activity. Our tour was held on the opening of the trout fishing season, and people could be seen wading in streams and floating on reservoirs throughout the valley. The bus pulls up to the Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery, a stone institutional building with a three story tower, built in 1917, the grandest and the oldest of the three state run fish hatcheries in the valley. Here we meet with the only employee on site, who shows us around the cavernous hatchery room, with rows of tanks and tables, only a few of which were in use. In fact, this hatchery hasn’t hatched any fish in over a decade, and will not ever again, as in the late 1980s it tested positive for whirling disease, a parasite that attacks the nervous system of fish and makes them swim in spirals. Though it still manages unhatched eggs, the echoing, hatchless hatchery feels more like a mausoleum then a nursery.
Not that there ever was any trout in the Owens Valley to begin with. All the game fish here were created by the state run Department of Fish and Game to generate a recreational industry, which is now supported largely through fees collected for fishing licenses. The Owens Valley, while it drains the snowy eastern Sierra, is dry, and has been connected to the ocean for less than a hundred years, through the plumbing constructed by the DWP. Its drainage channel, the Owens River, historically terminated at Owens Lake, or in the desert beyond. The fish that are indigenous are more like those found in desert waterways, small pup fish and suckers, left over from the larger lakes and rivers of the last ice age. Trout, and other game fish now in the streams and lakes of the valley were artificially introduced to the watershed in the 1870s, brought over from the western Sierras or elsewhere. The golden trout, for example, the official State Fish of California, was said to have been introduced to the eastern Sierra from the Kern River, which used to connect to the ocean, via the Golden Gate, but which now dissipates into the industrial agriculture of the San Joaquin Valley. Like other game fish here, the golden trout has its eggs collected from pregnant females in the lakes, then the eggs are fertilized at the Mount Whitney Hatchery, then moved to other hatcheries to hatch and be raised into fingerlings that are loaded on board a tanker airplane that takes off from Mammoth Lakes Airport and dumps the fish back into lakes in the Sierras. If this cycle were to stop, all game fish in the eastern Sierra would soon disappear.
The tour continues on, while contemplating the implications of this artificially created and maintained system, and the assumption by many that it is a natural phenomenon. Further evidence, as if more were needed, of the involvement of humans in the “natural” order.
5:00 pm - Los Angeles Aqueduct Intake
The bus arrives at the last stop for the day, at perhaps the most iconic landmark of displacement in the valley: the Los Angeles Aqueduct Intake gate. It is here that the Owens River, coming in from the north, is diverted towards this structure and officially enters the original Los Angeles Aqueduct system. By now, the system has been extended to the Mono Basin to the north, and a second aqueduct has been built. But this isolated cement structure still looks, feels and is, significant. The Owens River rounds an artificially constructed and leveed right angle turn into the concrete archway of the gate, flowing under the words and letters “Los Angeles Aqueduct Intake MCMXI” etched into the concrete above, and into a concrete lined channel. Besides the bermed up waterway, the land is flat and reedy, and there are no other structures in the area. Its a lonely place, with the aqueduct quietly, perpetually, at work, whether anyone is there to see it or not. From here the water flows by gravity 233 miles, through power plants, siphons, tunnels, and reservoirs, until it spills out of the hillside in the north end of the San Fernando Valley, next to the new Cascades office park.
The bus pulls into the visitor center parking lot in Bishop, in the middle of the main (and only) drag in the largest and northernmost town in the Owens Valley. The passengers disembark for the brief walk to their motels, where despite the quantity of rooms in this relatively small town, reservations had to be made in advance, because this was, after all, the opening weekend of fishing season.
DAY TWO 9:00 am - Bishop
On the morning of the next day, after loading up with baked goods from Schats, everyone is back on the bus for the return journey. Though we travel on the same road we came in on, we now look, figuratively, at another side of the Owens Valley. Instead of focusing on the things removed from it—the valley as source and resource—we now examine the things that came to it—its constituents, its places, communities, and history—and we see how so much of the valley is made from things that have their origins elsewhere. Isolated by geography and topography, the valley serves as an away place for the distant cities. As such, a culture of relocation and isolation is in evidence here. On the way back, we look at Owens Valley as a Place of the Displaced.
9:30 am - Owens Valley Radio Astronomy Observatory
At the Owens Valley Radio Astronomy Observatory, we arrive on time for our appointment with a representative who had arranged to meet us for a briefing, but he was nowhere to be found. The bus moves to the various complexes and idles while someone goes in to look for someone. All the offices and labs are unlocked and deserted. In one building, nobody sat in front of the rows of computer monitors, in front of a wide window that overlooks one of the antenna arrays. In another, a laboratory or maintenance building, complex equipment and parts surrounds partially assembled portions of some sort of astronomical instrumentation, next to racks of blinking electronics. Outside, huge radio dishes with distinct functions loom enigmatically, pointed towards distant points unknown. Eventually we disembark and wander around this unpeopled place, among these potent emblems of the mysteries of the universe.
Then, from nowhere, someone appears and asked the ultimate, universal question: why were we here? To learn about this place, of course, was the unsaid response. Erik Leitch, an astronomer from the University of Chicago, working on a new antenna array that will soon be installed up the hill, kindly offers to serve as interpreter of the observatory, and guides us around, pointing things out and explaining the function of the facility from the front of the bus. The observatory is here because the region is remote, and the mountains cut off a lot of the stray radio signals that can interfere with radio astronomy. It is also dry, which makes for clearer skies. Most of the site is operated by Caltech. The different antenna systems at the site include the Millimeter Array, which consists of six 10-meter dishes on a configurable track, which will soon be expanded and moved to a new location, higher up the mountains, at an elevation of 8,000 feet. There is a solar interferometer antenna array, with two 27-meter dishes, which make observations of solar weather; two Cosmic microwave background antennas, including the largest antenna on site, a 140 foot wide steerable dish; and at the east end of the site is the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) antenna, which is one of a network of ten similar antennas located at sites across the United States that make up the VLBA, a National Science Foundation project. Together, these antennas make this one of the largest radio astronomy sites in the nation. Out on the flats, near the Owens River, this site draws the faintest and most distant places that we can detect, the furthest reaches of the universe, into the human realm. The site even displaces time, as the further out into space you look, the further back in time you go - you get closer to the Big Bang, the current word for the origin of everything.
The past also comes to the present in the mountains above the Observatory, in a grove of withered, desiccated, but tenacious bristlecone pine trees. Among them is the Methuselah Tree, which at 4,723 years old, has been called the oldest living thing in the world. Despite the notoriety of the tree, its identity is not indicated on the walking trail, in order to protect it from souvenir-hunters and vandals, which have already left their mark. The tree is a sort of invisible attraction. Its status as the “oldest living thing” is of course debatable. A recently discovered, but less dramatic creosote bush in the Mojave is said to be 11,700 years old.
Above the bristle cone pines, higher up the spine of the White Mountains, is the White Mountain Research Station, a high altitude and alpine research complex, composed of four facilities, located at different elevations on the peaks. The highest of these stations, the Summit Laboratory, is a small building 14,250 feet above sea level and is the highest high-altitude lab in North America (and fourth highest in the world). Research is conducted in a variety of disciplines, including archeology, physiology, biology, and aerospace. The research station was founded by the Navy in 1940, and is operated by the University of California.
But these lofty sites, though they represent the valley’s rim, are out of range of the tour. So the bus heads back out to the 395, and south again. North of the town of Big Pine is a big pine tree, which is often assumed to be THE big pine, from which the town gets its name. But this big pine (actually a Sequoia) at the intersection of Highway 168, was planted later, in 1913, to commemorate the opening of the Westgard Pass road, one of few roads that make it out of the Owens Valley, and which was promoted by hopeful locals at the time as a possible transcontinental thoroughfare. Connecting to an even more remote valley (Nevada’s Fish Lake Valley) the highway is used mostly for local traffic. Even so, the only settlement along it is Deep Springs College, a school that while replete with quality (with full tuition paid for all students and average SAT scores around 1500), is lacking in quantity (with a student body of around 26 people). The big pine that DID give the town its name, incidentally, is said to have been cut down to make way for a gas station.
South of Big Pine, the highway passes through an area where a displaced herd of Tule Elk roams freely, placed here by the state, despite not being native to the Owens Valley. Tule are the smallest form of elk, and once roamed the Central Valley and Coast Range of California, their main habitat, until being hunted nearly to extinction by 1870, forced off their land by the rapidly spreading agricultural industry. Owens Valley’s Tule Elk herd had originally been relocated in the Yosemite Valley, but were later evicted by the Park Service, as they are not native to Yosemite either. Though exotics, like the students of Deep Springs College, the original 27 elk brought here in the 1930’s have done well, and their progeny are often visible from the road.
The next town on the highway is Independence, the seat of Inyo County. We take a loop through town to look at some of the sights, which include the house where Mary Austin lived, author of a well known book about the Owens Valley called “Land of Little Rain.” Nearby is the Eastern California Museum, the regional museum for the Owens Valley, where rusting old farm equipment lies across the street from a large, and more functional, DWP maintenance supply and equipment yard. Also in town are a number of buildings that originally came from Manzanar, the Japanese-American internment camp, built nearby during World War II. When the camp was closed after the war, the buildings were sold to the public, and many were moved into the surrounding communities, and assumed new functions, their origin and connection to this dark part of American history often unknown to their current owners. The photographer Andy Freeman has been studying and documenting these replaced buildings of the displaced Japanese-Americans of Manzanar, and he was on the bus to help pick them out from among their neighbors. Though the buildings have often been transformed by their 60 years of subsequent uses, the distinctive WWII barracks type form is often discernible, more easily as they eye learns what to look for. One is a home, another is now a motel, and another a community center.
11:15 am - Manzanar Relocation Camp
Then on to Manzanar itself, where the tour bus creeps along the dirt street grid, past rows and rows of buildings that are no longer there, but whose functions are occasionally presented on signs, saying things like “Camouflague [sic] Net Factory.” Some of the 10,000 people who were uprooted from their lives elsewhere and forced to live here for the duration of the war come here every year, with members of their families, as part of a ritual pilgrimage. Arriving the day after the pilgrimage, we pass the fresh remnants of commemoration, like flowers for the dead, wilting at the graveyard. Now operated by the National Park Service, the site has a large visitor center inside the old auditorium, the only building that was left on the site. The visitor center is brand new, with state of the art interpretive displays about life at the camp. As it had opened just the day before, there was an unusual freshness to the displays. It felt like the information they presented hadn’t yet been totally consumed, let alone digested, and there was a tangible sense of urgency, of voraciousness, among the numerous visitors in the space.
After loading up at the visitor center gift shop, we head south again on 395. As we approach Lone Pine, the last of the four towns (of over a thousand people) in the Owens Valley, we follow an escarpment that was formed in the earthquake of 1872, which, at 8.3 on the Richter Scale, is still (so far) the largest earthquake in California history. A graveyard with the 27 citizens of Lone Pine killed in the quake rests on top of the escarpment. Today, Lone Pine, a town of 1,600 people, is known primarily as the gateway to Mount Whitney, and an energetic, outdoorsey energy exists on its streets. We turn up Whitney Portal Road, which leads to the parking lot, snackbar, and trailhead for the ten mile climb up the tallest peak in the lower 48, something that around 20,000 people do every year. While reservations are required, and the mountain is often officially booked up all season, there is no fence surrounding the peak.
1:00 pm - Movie Flats
But without a road big enough for the bus, we stop along the road long before the portal, at what we came to see—an area known as Movie Flats. This part of the Alabama Hills, just west of Lone Pine, has been used as a location for hundreds of movies and television shows. The bouldery mounds, with snow capped mountains in the background, play either a generic, Western American landscape, or is filmed to look like somewhere else entirely. It has been used in hundreds of Westerns and British-army-in-India films, featuring stars from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood, and was the location for more recent films such as Tremors, which featured an underground, tube-like monster menacing the local population, which could be interpreted as a metaphor of the conflict between the Los Angeles Aqueduct and residents of the Owens Valley.
While idling at a dirt turnout we watch part of a video called On Location in Lone Pine made by Dave Holland, an energetic promoter of the cinematic history of the Alabama Hills, as we contemplate this landscape. In a number of remarkable moments, the video shows scenes from Western films, cross-faded with scenes of the same view of the valley today, merging with the views out the windows of the bus. Back in Lone Pine, we pass the site where a sign promises the coming of the Lone Pine Film History Museum, and also pass the site of a tribal office of the local Native Americans, housed in a relocated Manzanar building. We pick up a picnic lunch, prepared for us by the Totem Cafe, then head to a nearby roadside regional information center, operated by the Forest Service and others, with outdoor tables, to feed on lunch, and on the information available inside.
After lunch, we head south on Highway 136, to look at the east side of Owens Lake. Unlike the extractive activities of US Borax and Crystal Geyser on the west side, the east and south ends of the lake have a more accumulative nature. Once, however, the mines above the lake were a major producer of silver, lead, zinc, and other minerals, and the east shore of the lake had several large processing centers for this material. An aerial tramway operated for a few decades, bringing ore from the mines at Cerro Gordo, as high up as 9,000 feet, down to the shores of Owens Lake, where it was transported across the lake by steamships to the landing at Cartago. Later, the railway was brought around the lake to Keeler and Swansea, which had smelters and processing facilities for the mine. Now Cerro Gordo is a privately owned, partially restored historic site, reachable on a treacherous dirt road, and the shoreline processing sites are low ruins, slabs and piles, though there is some minor activity at the base of the mountains on Dolomite Road.
2:30 pm - Keeler
But it is the legacy of the DWP that reigns on the east side of the lake. Storms of dust blown from the exposed sediment of the lake can cause blizzard-like conditions here, and the lake has been called the largest point source of particulate air pollution in the United States. In addition to accumulating in drifts and mounds, the particles of dust are aspirable, and thus enter the lungs when breathed. After listening to a recorded radio program of interviews with some of the residents of Keeler, the only town on the east side of the lake, and watching a video about the dust problem, we pick up our local briefer in Keeler, who is waiting for us, standing next to his pickup truck. His name is Mike Patterson, and he has been around this area for some time. He owns the ruins of the town of Swansea, and has a residence and office there. Mike guides the bus around the town, pointing out the old buildings, and the curious habitations, some of which though obscured by bushes, are carefully ornamented with clutter and sculptures formed with found objects, as Keeler is a town of colorful characters and hardy desert rats. Though few of the couple of hundred inhabitants were born and raised here, and thus arrived here mostly by choice long after the dusty winds started blowing, there is still a lot of bitterness about the DWP, and questions about the efficacy of their dust mitigation projects.
After saying goodbye to Mr. Patterson, whose insights into the history and current conditions here were vivid and articulate, we leave Keeler (pointing out a picturesque trailer for sale on a small lot, in case anybody wants to stay), and pass the cluster of office trailers and equipment of the Keeler Research Center, run by the company CH2M Hill, the main contractors for the DWP dust control projects at Owens Lake. For the ten minute journey down Highway 138 and Highway 190, we watch the DWP produced video about the dust control project we are on our way to see. In 1998, after years of negotiations with local action groups and state and federal agencies, the DWP agreed to dust reduction programs on the 30 square miles of lakebed that was identified as especially “dust emissive.” The project involves installing a network of buried pipes supplying two parts of the lake, in the north and in the south, with water from the aqueduct. Dust reduction consists of two techniques: shallow flooding and revegitation. The project is estimated to cost more than $500 million by the time it is done in 2006, a date set by a federal clean air mandate. To date they have covered around 20 square miles, and are therefore two thirds complete.
3:15 pm - DWP Construction Camp, Dirty Sock Hot Springs
By the time we arrive at Dirty Sock, where the main road out to the revegitation project begins, we have heard about the project from two sides. Our briefer, Pat Brown, who is the operations manager for the whole project, boards the bus and guides us around the transformed lakebed. We pass by rows and rows of saltgrass planted by the DWP for the managed vegetation part of the dust control program, a strange site amid the cakey white alkali of the lake. Nearly 30 million plugs of this salt resistant grass were planted here, and are perpetually irrigated with drip pipes integrated into the low furrows, covering a four square mile area. We also pass part of the shallow flooding area, where rows of large sprinkler heads protrude from the ground, each spewing an umbrella shaped cone of water onto the ground. At this part of the project, covering under two square miles at the southern end of the lake, the ground has been graded to minimize the slope, and increase the area that stays soaked in a thin blanket of water. In the northern part of the lake, the first attempt at shallow flooding covers more than ten square miles.
To fuel this massive irrigation project, two connections to the Los Angeles Aqueduct were made, at the Cartago Spillgate, feeding the southern lake areas, and the Lubkin Valley Spillgate, in the north. Buried pipelines a few feet in diameter carry the water under Highway 395 and into the networks of smaller buried pipes in the lakebed, and an 8 mile pipeline is currently being built to connect the north and south parts. To maintain this system, an estimated 50,000 acre feet out of the 450,000 acre feet of the total volume of the aqueduct—more than ten percent—will be spilled back into Owens Lake, in perpetuity. Despite all the efforts so far by the DWP, 2004 was one of the worst dust years on the lake yet, due simply to rainstorms breaking up the hard crust on the lake, and windstorms blowing it around.
Leaving the lake for “dry land,” we dropped off Mr. Brown at the Dirty Socks construction trailer camp, then return to Highway 395 at Olancha, enroute to our last stop at Indian Wells. Along the way, we watch a video that addresses an important aspect of the Owens Valley as place of the displaced: the valley as tourist attraction. As it became clear to the residents of the Valley that the loss of water and land to the DWP was going to limit the commercial prospects of the Valley, the move to promote it as a place to visit and recreate began. The most famous and effective of the Owens Valley boosters was Father Crowley, also known as “the desert padre,” whose diocese ranged from Death Valley to the Owens Valley. Especially in the 1930’s, Father Crowley worked to inspire and raise hope, throughout the valley, for a brighter future based on a positive promotion of the region's attributes—the mountains, clean air, wildlife, etc.—and the subsequent visitors that would be attracted as a result, who would come to hike, to fish, to hunt, ride horses, and eat in the restaurants, stay in the motels, and shop in the stores.
As part of his efforts to boost civic pride and a sense of community, and celebrate the wonders of the region, Father Crowley staged a remarkable public event in 1937, at the opening of the highway (which we were just on), that connects Lone Pine with Death Valley. Known as the “Wedding of the Waters,” the pageant started by filling a gourd with water at Lake Tulainyo, a lake on Mount Whitney, the highest point of the region (and, at that point, in all of the USA), and ended after a three day long journey, dumping it out in the lowest point in the nation, at Badwater in Death Valley. Along the way, the gourd was carried by a series of modes of travel—foot, pony, burro, oxcart, 20-mule team, stagecoach, train, car, and airplane—representing the development of different transportation technologies over time, and symbolizing the settlement and development of the West (Indian scout on foot, pony express, miner, pioneer, industrial mining, etc...). Each leg of this symbolic spatiotemporal performance was carried out by local historical figures and dignitaries that included the Governor of the State of California and Hopalong Cassidy. It seems to have been a great success.
This story of the Wedding of the Waters was rediscovered by the Los Angeles area public television personality Huell Howser, whose popular California’s Gold series of upbeat explorations throughout the state has made him the modern equivalent of the Desert Padre, on a statewide scale. In this role, Huell recreated the event in the 1990’s, bringing in as many of the original participants, or their relatives, as he could, interviewing everyone the whole time for the production of a video, called Wedding of the Waters, funded by the US Borax Corporation, who in addition to profiting from the exposed bottom of Owens Lake, sponsored the 1950s TV series of pioneers and miners called Death Valley Days, hosted by Ronald Reagan, the future booster of all of America.
Through the establishment of scenic corridors, interpretive driving tours, overlooks, more museums and visitor centers, and newly staffed and managed attractions, the selling of the wonders of the Owens Valley is now careening into the tourist age. Like much of America, the valley is set to become a version of itself. Tragically and ironically, Father Crowley, the fabled promoter of tourism and roads, died in a car accident.
5:30 pm - Indian Wells Brewery
Outside the southern reaches of the valley now, the bus stops at Indian Wells, a natural spring on the hillside overlooking the desert of Inyokern, Ridgecrest and China Lake Naval Weapons Center. The spring has recently been developed into a source for a microbrewery, built on the site by a disabilitied former local police officer. The brewery makes Sidewinder Missile Ale, Lobotomy Bock, and Mojave Red, which is sold by Trader Joe’s. The owner shows us around, and tells us about how Anheuser-Busch has tried to buy him out, not for the beer, but for the water. We eat dinner at the steakhouse next door, at long tables in front of plate glass windows, and watch the desert fade from view. Then, heading back to Los Angeles, we watch Race with the Devil, where Peter Fonda and Warren Oates pilot a RV through the plains of Texas, lurching and veering wildly throughout, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to escape an encroaching Satanist conspiracy. The rectilinear interior of the screeching and careening RV seems metabolically connected to the tour bus, sensoramically emphasizing our empathetic connection with the protagonists on screen.