Tag Archives: sierra nevada

I have lived in the four corners of the U.S. Born in the Northeast, I went to college in the Southeast, later moved to the Pacific Northwest and for 25 years, lived in the desert Southwest. I found value and pleasure in each region. 

But having moved back to North Carolina after so many years in Arizona, I am having lurching pangs from missing the West. I cannot deny that when I lived in Seattle, I had similar pangs about the South — I missed the tremendous variety of plant life when faced with forest consisting of nothing but Douglas fir and western redcedar. Hundreds of miles of Douglas fir and western redcedar. Where were the dogwoods, the sweetgums, the witch hazel, the sassafras, the red maple, canoe birch, beech, elm, oak? 

Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

And so, I moved back to the East and back to North Carolina, where I had by then spent the largest portion of my life. I met my wife there and some years later, we moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where she got a job teaching and I found my life’s work writing for the newspaper. For the paper, I did a lot of traveling, and visited every state west of the Mississippi to write art and/or travel stories. It is always a pleasure to travel on someone else’s dollar. 

Pacific Coast Highway, Marin County, Calif.

After retirement, we moved back to the mountains of North Carolina, which I love. But I have to admit a nagging desire to spend time again in the desert, on the Colorado Plateau, driving up the coast of California, or revisiting the less glamorous portions of Los Angeles. The American West has wormed itself into my psyche and I feel almost as if some part of it has been amputated and I’m now feeling “phantom pain” or at least pangs in the missing limb. 

It is not the idea of the West that I harbor. The idea has been around since before Columbus thought to sail west to find the East. It was there for Leif Erickson; it was there for the Phoenicians; and before that for the Indo-Europeans. It was the idea that grabbed the early American colonists who saw the trans-Appalachian lands and envied their possession.

The West of the mind is a West of infinite possibility, of clean slate and fresh start, of fantastic riches to be had, of prelapsarian goodness. People emigrated to the West for a better life and a quarter-section. 

Fort Bragg, Calif.

The reality, of course, is something different: not enough rain for crops, prairie fires and tornadoes, mountain ranges nearly impossible to cross. And an indigenous people we first needed to wipe out and then mythologize into something noble and vanishing — as if the erasure had happened on its own. 

The Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey; we had our two epics: First, the Civil War, which is our battle epic, and then the wandering to find a new home in our Westward expansion, our odyssey. We made movie stars of our cowboys. The West of the movies is scenic and immaculate. It is a cinemascope landscape. 

But that isn’t the West I miss. The West I knew isn’t pristine; it is dusty, dry, spackled with convenience stores and gas stations, and getting hotter every year. It is even boring: If you’ve ever driven across Wyoming, you know what I mean. It has been described as “miles and miles of miles and miles.” 

Near Pendleton, Ore.

Gertrude Stein’s description of America is really a description of the West: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.”

The West I miss in my deep heart’s core is the dusty, windblown vastness, but it is also the crowded, traffic-choked cities. I miss Los Angeles as much as I miss the Rocky Mountains. 

And let’s be clear. There are four very different Wests. There is the Great Plains region; 

the mountain West; 

there is the desert West; 

and the Pacific West. 

Each has its character and its psychic magnetism. I am drawn to each. 

Route 66 near Oatman, Ariz.

The flat middle of the country is usually forgotten when we talk of the West. In the movies, Dodge City always seems to have the Sierra Nevadas in the background. The Kansas reality is very different: grassy, flat, and smelling of cattle dung. 

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Ariz.

As you drive across the Staked Plains of West Texas, you feel you might as well be out on the high seas with no land in sight. Indeed, that is how Herman Melville describes it in his story/poem, John Marr, about an old salt now living in the center of the continent. “Hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.” And the wind in the tall grass makes waves that undulate like the sea. 

Friends used to laugh when they asked where I planned to spend my vacation and I said, “Nebraska.” No one, they said, goes to Nebraska. How about the beach? How about Manhattan. But I had in my head a sense of Manhattan, Kansas, instead. I loved seeing grasslands, badlands, farmlands and cowhands. 

Republican River, Kansas

The mountain West is spread into broad bands. The largest is the Rocky Mountains that were such a barrier to the early pioneers.  We drove up and through the Rockies in many of its latitudes, from the Southern Rockies in New Mexico to Glacier National Park in Montana — and further up into Banff and Jasper parks in Alberta. 

My wife wanted to see bears. When we camped, she threatened to tie a peanutbutter sandwich to a string and drag it through the campsite, saying, “Here, Mr. Bear. Here, Mr. Bear.” I persuaded her that was a bad idea, but we found several bears on the side of the road as we drove. 

Then, there are the Sierra Nevadas of California, some of the most photogenic peaks in the country, and the background to so many cowboy movies of the ’30s and ’40s. The mountains are home to the sequoia forests and Yosemite National Park. The lowest point in the U.S. is Death Valley and the highest peak in the Lower 48 is Mount Whitney of the Sierras and they are only about 80 miles apart. You can practically see one from the other. 

The Sierras eventually turn into the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, and a series of giant volcanoes, such as Mt. Baker, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier. And Mt. St. Helens. I have climbed up portions of Rainier and walked along the Nisqually Glacier on its southwestern face. On a clear day in Seattle, the snowy, ghostlike presence of Mt. Rainier seems like a permanent cloud on the horizon south of the city. It is immense. 

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, Calif.

The desert West is the one I know best. I lived in it for a quarter of a century, in Phoenix. But it is not Phoenix that I miss, except for the friends I left there. No, Phoenix is merely Cleveland in the desert. But outside of the city the desert is beautiful. In a good year — about one in every 15 — the winter rains make the desert floor a paint palette of wildflowers. The January explodes. 

To the north of the city, the Colorado Plateau is what I miss the most, those long vistas of grassland and badlands, the Navajo and Hopi reservations, the mesas and canyons, the Colorado River and a half-dozen national parks. The plateau continues north into Utah and into the southern parts of Colorado.

Petroglyphs scar the rocks and cheap souvenir shops, like those called “Chief Yellowhorse” dot the interstate. 

I can no longer count the number of times I have visited the Grand Canyon, both north and south rims, and the forlorn and uninhabited parts of the western stretches of the canyon on what is called the Arizona Strip. Anytime someone visited us in Phoenix, we took them up to see the Canyon. Pictures just don’t suffice; you have to see in to understand the awe. A picture is static, but the canyon changes color minute by minute as the sun slides across the sky and clouds pass over the rock. One of my great experiences was to arrive before dawn and watch the growing light slowly illuminate the stone and see the slim, glowing white ribbon of river a mile below us. 

South of Phoenix, there is the Sonoran Desert, with its Saguaro cactus and unending greasewood plains. And rivers with no water in them. The common joke in Arizona was about a long-time desert rat who took a trip to New York City and when he returned, his friend asked him about it. He saw all the sights, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. “And did you see the Hudson River?” “Yeah, but there weren’t nothing to see; it was covered in water.” 

Lavender Pit, Bisbee, Ariz.

The picturesque parts of the desert are certainly attractive, but what I miss are the unlovely bits. The decrepit mobile home parks of Quartzsite, in the middle of nowhere, with its pyramid monument to Hi Jolly, the camel herder hired by the U.S. Army in a futile experiment. The burned out and abandoned shacks in 29 Palms, Calif.; the stink of dead fish along the shores of the Salton Sea; the shimmering fata morgana over the Wilcox Playa; the city-size holes in the ground where copper is hauled from the pits; and the mountain ranges of slag heaps hanging over the cities of Miami and Claypool. 

Miami, Ariz.

In so much of the desert, it is not the unsullied nature that used to be there, but the used-up quality, the peeled paint and weathered wood and broken-out windows, the abandoned and rusting cars, the roads cracked with weeds growing through. These would never be called pretty, but they have an intense kind of beauty about them. There is something very human about the ruins that no bland red sunset can match. 

As I said, it is the physicality of the West that speaks to me, not the idea. It is the West as it is, not as it is imagined to have been. 

Mural, Los Angeles, Calif.

This is true also of the Pacific West. I have written many times about Los Angeles and the parts of the city I love most: the concrete river, 

the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills,

the thousands of little strip malls and their ethnic restaurants and food markets. The bungalow houses, the back streets, the Deco architecture. 

I have driven from Tijuana to Vancouver along the coast, soaking up cities and redwoods, mountains and rushing rivers; the Samoa Cookhouse of Eureka; the bridges of Conde McCullough; the stonehenge of Maryhill; the Channeled Scablands; the floating bridge over Lake Washington; the Olympic Mountains. 

Jupiter Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

I have visited every state except Hawaii and every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island and Labrador, and I have absorbed the geography into my tiny head, swallowed whole. 

Mexican cemetery, Chandler, Ariz.

We all become the landscape we have lived in. It is what makes a Southerner so darned Southern, the Yankee so taciturn, the desert rat so possessive of his burning sun-broiled gravel. In the past — and still in the American South — people tend to live within a few miles of where they were born, and their regional differences become part of their DNA. In more mobile times, when so many move around the country or even to foreign climes, that conflation of land and psyche may attenuate. But it is still there, defining, in lesser or greater extent, who we are and what we feel and think. It is why red states tend to be rural and blue states urban. 

Yosemite Falls

And because I lived in the dry air so long, with the greasewood flats and the arroyos and the roadrunners and javelinas, the West — not the idea, but the real thing — has become a part of my insides. It is why even in the gorgeous Blue Ridge, I miss the desert, mountains, plains and cities of the West. We are in some part, the same thing. 

Click on any image to enlarge

Mono Lake From Mt Dana

You drop down nearly 2,000 feet from Conway Pass in the Sierras, taking U.S. 395 over the top, and spy in the distance a very large, whitish lake. It is Mono.

The alkali lake, which Mark Twain called the ”Dead Sea of California,” nests at about 6,000 feet in a drainless basin, surrounded by sagebrush and mountains.

”Half a dozen little mountain brooks flow into Mono Lake, but not a stream of any kind flows out of it,” Twain wrote in one of the few lines in his book Roughing It that isn’t a complete lie.

From "Roughing It"

From “Roughing It”

He also wrote, ”Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert, 8,000 feet above the level of the sea, and is guarded by mountains 2,000 feet higher, whose summits are always clothed in clouds.”

I should point out he has the altitude wrong, both for the lake and for the surrounding mountains, which, in fact, rise up to 4,000 feet higher than the lake, as Mono Dome tops out at 10,500 feet, with a load of snow in December.

”This solemn, silent, sailless sea — this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth — is little graced with the picturesque. It is an unpretending expanse of grayish water, about a hundred miles in circumference, with two islands in its center, mere upheavals of rent and scorched and blistered lava, snowed over with gray banks and drifts of pumice stone and ashes, the winding sheet of the dead volcano, whose vast crater the lake has seized upon and occupied.”

Well, the lake is about 100 square miles in area, but in circumference is considerably smaller than Twain brags. The actual circumference alters with the water level — which changes with the climate, both meteorologically and politically — and is about half what Twain has.

But his greatest calumny is in saying the landscape is not picturesque. Mono lake tufa

For Mono Lake, sitting at the base of the great, battleship-gray Sierra Nevada Mountains, is one of the most beautiful sights in the eastern part of the state.

The sight of water alone, in the midst of the high desert, is a delight to look upon. But the lake is surrounded by minty-green sagebrush — which will perfume your fingers for the rest of the day if you crush a few leaves under your nose to gather the aroma — and its surface is broken by the eruptions of tufa towers.

These towers, created underwater out of calcium carbonate, look like giant African termite mounds, except they are as hard as concrete, which they very nearly are.

They are formed when fresh water, bearing calcium, bubbles up from springs under the lake and mixes with the carbonate in the lake water. The towers rise higher and higher until they reach the surface of the water.

And when the water recedes, as it has done in the past 50 years, the towers are exposed to the air, looking like great sand castles clustered near the shoreline. A few sit out on high ground, 20 feet high. mono lake monochrome

Twain also has it wrong when he suggests the lake is lifeless. There are two main inhabitants of the water. First, the trillions of tiny brine shrimp, and second, the equally attractive brine fly, whose larvae live underwater and forage on the algae that grow there. In the summer, the shores are blackened with the adult flies.

Brine shrimp

Brine shrimp

And they in turn attract up to 90 percent of the sea gulls that live on the California coast, who migrate in the summer over the Sierras to breed and to feast on the banquet of buzzing lunch.

About 80 species of bird make the trip to Mono for the festival. That includes an estimated 800,000 eared grebes and 150,000 phalaropes.

Mono’s biggest problem is Los Angeles, about 250 miles away and thirsty for the water that flows into the lake.

Beginning in 1941, LA began diverting the water from four of the tributary streams. Over the next decades, the water dropped 45 feet and doubled in salinity, making life difficult for the creatures that depended on it. The exposed salt flats created corrosive dust storms. The island where the gulls laid their eggs was connected to the shore by a land bridge, allowing predators to feast on the eggs. Trout fishing dried up in several streams.

No one seemed to care, as long as LA spigots gushed forth. No one but the few people who loved Mono. The Mono Lake Committee and the National Audubon Society, with some others, brought suit and in 1994, after 16 years of court battles, research and hearings, the state Water Resources Control Board issued orders to protect the lake and raise the surface level of the lake by 17 feet over the next 20 years.

In the meantime, Mono Lake sits in its landlocked basin reflecting the blue Sierra sky and looking like a fantasyland of surreal castles.

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite NP Calif

Scarcely 100 miles separate the lowest and highest points in the 48 states.

There is no more striking contrast in America than to drive from Death Valley to Yosemite Valley. In July, it may be 120 in one place and snowing in the other, only a hundred or so miles to the west.

The range of the Sierra Nevada blocks the way west for hundreds of miles; if anything can be called the bony spine of California, the mountains can. They continually surprise with color, size and expanse. John Muir called it the “Range of Light,” and he didn’t have to be a poet to think that up.

There are only a few places where pavement jumps the hump.

One of those is the Tioga Road over Tioga Pass. It climbs and twists to the 9,945-foot summit and the first time I drove it, it closed over with gray sky and fog. The fog turned to ice and, just as we passed the entrance gate to the national park, it turned to great gobs of wet snow. The road winds around the mountains and though there are sharp twists and drops of thousands of feet, there were few guard rails.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But I hardly knew the danger, because there was no declivity to be seen, not much of anything but wet, icy pavement and the occasional car going in the opposite direction.

I drove slowly and with tight fists on the steering wheel. As we descended from the pass, the snow changed slowly back to sleet and then rain. The glorious views promised by the road markers were curtained by the mist. All but the road and a few trees alongside it were white with fog.

We reached the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center in a heavy drizzle and went in to find a warm and dry wood fire in their Buck stove. Outside, it was in the low 40s; inside was a toasty 70 degrees. The building was an old one of log and hand-hewn boards.

I had always wondered how to pronounce “Tuolumne” but I had never guessed “twa-lum-nee,” which is what the ranger said.tuolumne meadows

The meadows, the biggest in Yosemite, stretched for a mile or so, rolling softly in short grasses and erratic boulders. It was bissected by the Tuolumne River, a shallow brook meandering among the oozy weeds. The fog was lifting and we could see the bases of the mountains that ringed the meadow, but their peaks were still obliterated.

Tioga Road continued all the way through the park, past Lake Tenaya and Porcupine Flat. The lower mountains, beginning to show themselves, were shear domes of exfoliating granite with twisted junipers growing from solid stone in their higher elevations. All the naked stone and rushing water filled every expectation I ever had about the high Sierra.???????????????????????????????

We had not planned on stopping at the valley. I half wanted to go and see the glories pictured in the Ansel Adams photographs, but I also knew that Yosemite Valley is one of the most crowded places in all the national parks, and I hate crowds.

And I knew that many of the Adams pictures had been snapped in the ’30s and ’40s, when there were fewer tourists and fewer buildings:  Judging from our map, there appeared to be no fewer than 200 buildings on the valley floor.

But we went, anyway, and it turned out wonderfully. There are giant hotels and vast campgrounds in the valley, but a short jaunt around a bend in the road and they disappear.

The gray rock walls of the valley were showing to a height of 800 feet and were obscured higher than that with the low-hanging scud that scooted by in the breeze, changing the face of the valley from moment to moment. Yosemite Valley, Yosemite NP Calif

Through the center of that stony valley cascades the Merced River. In the spring, it floods and in the late summer, it can dry up. We were halfway between the extremes and it burbled satisfyingly between lines of rustling willows.

With the dark trees in the foreground and the cloudy ceiling over the vertical rock walls behind, it would have been hard to come up with a more sublime scene. No Bierstadt can compare, no Moran, no Cropsey. They seem literary; the scene before us was breathing the now.

Mt Whitney, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine Calif

I first visited Lone Pine, Calif., in 1982, but I’ve known it by heart since the early ’50s. I didn’t know where it was, but I saw the boulder piles of its Alabama Hills in every B-Western I watched on TV. For a small boy growing up in New Jersey, the Alabama Hills was the West.

The tiny, dusty town lies directly under Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Sierra Nevadas, and the the highest in the lower 48. The snow streaked arete forms an impenetrable wall to the west of Owen’s Valley, which Lone Pine sits in the center of. To the east, the impressive Inyo Mountains look soft and velvety in contrast to the hard, stony face of the Sierras.Hoppy Rocks Hiding

And the low, brown foothills of the Sierras were the location sets of hundreds of Hopalong Cassidy, Three Mesquiteers, Bob Steele and Tom Mix films. Whenever Hoppy had to evade the gang of bad guys chasing him, he’d duck behind the rocks of the Alabama Hills and watch them thunder by in a dust cloud. One such rock-pile is still known as the “Hoppy Rocks.”

It wasn’t just Westerns that were made in Lone Pine, though. The valley and hills stood in for India in The Lives of the Bengal Lancers, Kim, King of the Khyber Rifles and Gunga Din. For the last, a great “Temple of Kali” was built up in the hills.

It was also the location for Humphrey Bogart’s “Mad Dog” Earle in High Sierra.

Later, the terrain was the backdrop for The Lone Ranger, Wild Bill Hickock, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Bonanza and Have Gun, Will Travel.

You can hardly watch a Western without seeing those great rubble-heaps of boulders catching the afternoon sun.AlaHills rocks

But for me, it is the silvery grays of the landscape, shot in orthochromatic film in the ’30s, that define what the West looks like. It is the scenery in every Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Buck Jones and Gene Autry film.

You can drive down Movie Road, up the west slopes of the Alabama Hills, and see where the Lone Ranger was ambushed in the very first episode, see where John Wayne and his Singing Riders captured Black Bart’s gang in Westward Ho, and see where Gene Autry jumped from his horse, Champion, to a speeding convertible in Trail to San Antone.

There are more sites up Tuttle Creek Road, including the “Hoppy Cabin,” where William Boyd lived during the shooting of the Hopalong Cassidy films. The cabin is still there. You will recognize it from other films it’s been in.hoppys cabin

Over the years, many sets have been built in the hills, but except for the Hoppy Cabin, they are all gone. The Bureau of Land Management, which administers the area, has dedicated nearly 30,000 acres as the Alabama Hills Recreation Area and plans to preserve the Hills in as close to a natural state as possible.

The hills, by the way, were named at the time of the Civil War by a group of Southern-sympathizer miners, who were looking for gold among the rocks. When the Confederate cruiser, C.S.S. Alabama, wreaked havoc on Union shipping, they named their claimsite after the ship.

In retaliation, 15 miles to the north, Union-sympathizing miners named their claim “Kearsarge,” after the Yankee ship that sank the Alabama. That name remains on a mountain peak, a pass and a town east of Independence in the Inyos.AlaHills medium view hiding place