Note: Bill Poss took most of these photos with his iPhone. This is the second of our ‘on the road’ series highlighting our monthlong pilgrimage with Marion the Trillium trailer and Bertie the Ford Explorer.
The Eastern Sierra mountains hold us like a mistress, and our affair has lasted the past 47 years. The musky smell of sage-scented air, the croaking and soaring ravens, the jack rabbits, the valley that lies between the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo/White mountain ranges, and the wide vistas, intoxicate us like no other.
We experience pleasure and pain here. Pleasure with the high country desert, the 10,000 foot mountain lakes, many of the salt-of-the-earth people, and the way this land opens all our portals. Pain with the reality of over-tourism, nearly over-flowing outhouses at times, and the deep thirst of the land whose water is owned mainly by the City of Los Angeles. With this year’s meager snowpack resulting in only 55 percent of the anticipated need, Inyo County is asking that DWP — Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power — reduce its groundwater pumping by about a third of its usual demand. On visiting South Lake, a high mountain lake west of the City of Bishop, one visitor’s dismay was heard as he mourned the 50-foot drop in the lake in which he loves to fish. The drought is serious in this land and locals say they are worried about the increased fire danger and air pollution resulting from extended seasons of fire. A local in Bishop said fires caused unbreathable air for nine weeks last fall.
The City of Bishop has resisted wearing the fake glitter of its sister city Mammoth Lakes so far, and continues to have Eric Schatz’s Bakery, an excellent city park and swim center, the Great Basin Bakery, good grocery shopping at Manor Market, mountain athlete stores, an excellent yarn and fabric shop, nearby mountain lakes, and in a nod to the future, a Tesla-charging yard, which the City of Bishop leases to Tesla owners.
Let’s travel back in time in our pilgrimage, which took us to where we are now at Keough’s Hot Springs, where we camp at the edge of sage open space, the whistling wind and endless starry nights.
Leaving the sagebrush and juniper desert of southeastern Oregon, we drove south on Hwy 395 through the town of Alturas, which has seen better days. Bill found camping at the Likely Place Golf and RV Resort. It is located outside the town of Likely — ‘town’ is a store and a post office. The population is zero as of 2019. At the resort we camped beneath the shade of a gnarled, shingle-barked juniper. Junipers here are considered invasive and burned in order to preserve the sage steppe habitat that supports sage grouse and other wildlife.
The resort is immaculate (the staff do not wear masks) and has a beautifully crafted 18-hole golf course. We enjoyed walking around the former ranch, listening to cattle mooing and sandhill cranes calling. I imbibed with a can of hard cider made with apple juice and champagne. Good lubrication for story writing, which fueled last week’s post. If you do camp here, there is a cafe, which serves pub fare, and be aware that there is no where else to eat nearby.
Heading out early on Thursday, April 30, we were bound for Reno. We were happy to find a Whole Foods grocery with plenty of fresh veggies. We missed shopping for healthy food we are used to on Whidbey and beyond. Next door is a Sierra Trading Post outlet and we bought some new camping clothes. We’ve long shopped at Good Cheer Food Bank & Thrift over the years and are well-covered by what we find there. And glad to have our proceeds feed needy families.
Our hearts thrilled at the first glimpses of our beloved Sierra mountains as we headed south. But we noticed the remaining snow levels were more like what we were used to seeing in July and August.
Out of Reno we drove south to spend the next few days with our long-time great friends Pat and Carolyn Lewis, who moved to Gardnerville last year from Los Angeles. Pat has a boyhood history of visiting his Grandpa Gabe and Grandma Freda at their Twin Lake cabin in this country. Pat and Carolyn have an acre lot in a great subdivision of high desert with views of the Sierras that surround nearby Lake Tahoe. We camped in the driveway, positioning our camp chairs west, looking at the Sierra peaks. Next door we enjoyed the company of a neighbor with a donkey, a mule, and a cattle dog named Lola.
Enjoying home made meals together with Carolyn and Pat, we told stories, reminiscing about old days and days to come. Bill and I liked the friendly vibe of Gardnerville. I swam laps at the Carson Valley Swim Center. I could be girlfriends with the pool ladies! We were surprised to learn that housing prices average half a million for a simple place. Pat’s mom Alice is 95 and is a great storyteller. We learned she married a boy she knew from first grade Catholic school, that she rode her horse in the San Fernando Valley through the Adohr Dairy, and went to high school with Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn, Alice explained, always had the boys’ eyes upon her, but was standoffish as a whole. Alice’s love of life, her connection with the high Sierras, her true love with Jose, her late husband, and her sincere Catholic faith is a balm, and we aspire to be like her when we are 95.
Sean, Pat and Carolyn’s son, is in his early twenties and has found a niche in apprenticing with an off-road camper fabricator whose products start at $250,000. Hunter RMV is teaching Sean how to craft these machines. Sean tells stories of the older guys he works with and the fat cats they keep around the shop.
On Kentucky Derby Day, May 1st, Carolyn and Pat drove us to Lake Tahoe. We hadn’t been there in more than 30 years, and thought it would be worth a visit. First we took a stroll at Spooner Lake State Park, enjoying the blue lake and the lucky woman who bagged a big rainbow. However as soon as we hit South Lake Tahoe in the State of California, madness prevailed. People and cars brought to mind a cloud of well-heeled locusts descending to gorge upon the host. Clogged traffic. Wandering hordes of people in beautiful clothes. We tried parking in a grocery store lot, but signs warned that if we were seen walking out of the lot, our car would be towed. Aye yi yi. We could feel the adrenaline rising and the blood sugar dropping. We escaped, what felt like to us, was Dante’s eighth circle of hell. Heading back to the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe we found refuge in a local pub, Mott Canyon Tavern & Grill, enjoying Bloody Marys, Moscow Mules and good bar fare. We viewed the victory of Medina Spirit and exchanged Facebook posts with our friend Patty Maloney, who was watching the race in Kentucky with her son and daughter-in-law. There the gals wore hats and the guys wore derbies and bow ties.
Pat suggested we take the scenic drive along Hwy 208 through Smith Valley instead of the usual journey along Hwy 395. Serene ranch country vistas greeted us with the essential Sierras getting closer and closer.
Stopping in Bridgeport, California, we noticed white pelicans swimming in the city reservoir — wonder if they’re refugees from the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and its depleted lake? — and popping our eyes at the price of gas at $5.29 a gallon. Bridgeport locals told us they get their gas elsewhere and it’s the tourists who are willing to pay the high price.
We passed Mammoth and its Los Angeles glitter and glitz and turned west to Convict Lake where we’d spend a night. Our #35 campsite gave spectacular views of Convict Peak and Mt. Morrison. We swooned. We drank deep of the scenery and walked around the lake. We came out of our intoxicated state when we saw the nearly overflowing outhouses and the piles of trash at the marina. Signs asking people to take their trash to a nearby container were largely ignored.
Hordes had descended for the opening of rainbow trout season the week before and left a mess for someone else to clean up. That included someone’s missing the woman’s toilet completely when having a gut attack. I pitied the campground hosts who had to clean it up. Next morning we chatted with a grandpa smoking a cigar, who said, “There’s nothing like a cup of coffee and a stogie while in the Sierras.” Like us, he’s had a love affair with the High Sierra for decades and returns now with his grandson to carry on the tradition of fishing and respecting this awesome country. He talked of camping here last summer and picking up others’ trash. Of the bears that descended on the mounds of garbage. Of the virus that hit the stock fish supply and devastated the normal run of hatchery-raised rainbows to satisfy the fisher people.
Bill said Convict Lake is like a seductive woman who unfortunately is not respected by all who are drawn to her charms.
Keough’s Hot Springs
One of our touchstones, Keough’s Hot Springs, combines the qualities of open space views with a hot springs-fed swimming pool. The well-run campground and resort with just the right amount of funk is south of Bishop CA and is owned and operated by the Brown family.
We camp in site 7A, on the edge of open space at the foot of brush-covered moraines. The hillsides are freckled with pinyon trees and sagebrush. The air smells sagey/musky and at night is scented with the perfume of desert flowers. We see jackrabbit, California quail, ravens carrying nest sticks, and stare at the varying shades of color, revealed according to the sky’s mood, of the Inyo mountains to the east.
We love this country so much we get to thinking we’ve got to live here. We’ve replayed this scene many times in the past, going back to 1989 when we were sure we would move to Crowley Lake, up 395 a little ways, and live with our baby daughter (our son Raymo did not arrive until 1993) in a jerry-rigged two story trailer. We stayed put in our canyon home in Southern California until we moved to Langley in 2000.
While basking at Rock Creek Lake yesterday, we realized that Bishop and the High Sierra are meant to visit and enjoy as often as possible. However, we can no longer bear the heat, it’s 82 degrees at 2:13 pm on May 6th as I type this in our little trailer sweatbox while the wind outsides desiccates our skin to leather. My lips dry up. The 10,000 foot elevation mountain sun requires frequent slathering of sunscreen so our exposed skin doesn’t feel aflame.
Our first night’s camping neighbors were a gift. It seemed as if we always knew them, we had so much in common. Jim helped start the Traditional Medicinals company back in the 70’s in Guerneville CA. Then he drove around in his VW van talking stores into selling the teas, bath salts and lip balms that made the company famous. He was later bought out and bought a house in Santa Rosa. Traditional Medicinals thrives, now based in Sebastopol CA. Jim and his beautiful wife Peggy are living the dream and told us stories of world sailing, living in Sausalito, and now living on a farm in Mariposa, near Yosemite. We exchanged contact information and invited them to visit us in Langley. Loved talking with them.
Jim and Peggy moved on and our new next door neighbors are a couple with a Chihuahua named Chewy, who swaggers with a manly air with tail held high. The couple sleep in their car, smoke strong-smelling pot, and play good rock and roll that provides the score for today’s story writing. We thought them rough at first. But I asked the mister last night how they were doing. He wears a derby with goggles affixed to it. He so loved Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka character that he found a copy of the hat to channel the magic of the story. The lady in the couple wears bikini tops revealing tattoos, with long skirts and a cowboy hat. He told me he was wiped out from sitting in the hot springs pool all day. Then he said he has cancer and lifted his shirt to show a swollen and purple belly. I thought, ‘Whoa, he and his lady are here to feel the power of this healing mountain/desert juju.” I wished him the best life he could have and he thanked me sincerely for the sentiment. Humbling, this journey is.
We will spend the weekend at Grays’ Meadow up high in the mountains outside the town of Independence before heading to the coast. Stay tuned.