Most photos taken by Bill or Kate Poss, unless otherwise noted.
A murder of ravens perched on every fencepost as we headed south on Highway 395 to the small city of Bishop. Mt. Tom, which stands over the city, greeted us. In Paiute its name is Winuba. The Owens Valley, where Bishop lies, is called Payahuunadu, the land of flowing water, by the Paiute, the land’s indigenous people who still live here. Nowadays most of the water flows to Los Angeles.
Yellow leaves of cottonwood in the valley glowed like stained glass with the sun shining through them as we drove into town.
We stopped for supplies at the local grocery, Manor Market, located on Line Street.
Ronnie, one of the store managers, learned that we were visiting and asked us to wait a moment after we had paid for our groceries. He came back with half a dozen cards good for free ice. We paid it forward by leaving them at the office at Keough Hot Springs, where we we will camp for the next six nights. Ronnie reminds us so much of Brett Christensen, the awesome owner of Celtic Viking Jewelry on Whidbey. Both super friendly guys.
At our favorite campsite 7A at Keough Hot Springs, we were surprised to see much of the valley’s rabbitbrush blooming and the beautiful yellow of the cottonwoods in the distance along the canals of LADWP –Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power, the largest municipal utility in the United States, serving more than 4 million customers.
Our first night we sat out in the warm night air and admired bats flying overhead and heard little birds singing themselves to sleep in the desert sage and shrubs. Sitting on my beach chair looking at the horizontal stripes and soft folds of the White mountain range to the east. I had just returned from swimming a mile in the hot springs pool. Quite a wonderful place here. What a luxury to be here!
Our first of several neighbors were a couple from Fresno, John and Margie, the name of Bill’s parents. When they left the following morning, they left a gift of a hand-painted wooden cross with Bible verses written on it. They were kind and often proclaimed their blessings. Here in the country of the gods, their faith was genuine and the glue in their lives. He was round and she was tall and silvery.
Our campsite is located at the edge of the desert. We noticed California Quail, jackrabbits, cottontails, and croaking ravens in the nearby meadow.
As we drove north towards Bishop on our first full day, we talked about how we had such a deep love of simple things, and the natural world, and that we can share these with each other. Our first stop was at the nearby Apple Hill Ranch. We pulled into its orchard of apricot-leaved fruit trees, and stopped in front of a farm stand with boxes of apples, Asian pears, and tomatoes.
Rick Devore, the ranch owner, greeted us as his long-time Austrian employee Josephine, who had just arrived to let the hens out of their coop. Abby, a Great Pyrenees dog, bumped against my legs, wanting to be petted and scratched.
Rick regaled us with his life story, once living on Lumi Island in the San Juans, working as a purse seiner and reef netter. He fished in Alaska. Then he met Lauralee in Reno while serving in the military between the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Lauralee grew up in Bishop and her father owned a commercial bakery that Jack and Erick Schat (of the now famous Eric Schat’s bakery) both worked at. She told Rick she wanted to return to Bishop because she couldn’t bear the Northwest winters.
Rick and Lauralee moved to the Owens Valley in 1967. He worked at gas stations for $2 an hour, while renting a house for $100 a month. He eventually owned the gas station and built an additional one, and sold both, planning to retire.
A friend convinced Rick to get into real estate and come work for him. An early client owned the 20 acres that is currently Apple Hill Ranch, which locals then considered a boulder-strewn junkyard, with no roads or electricity. That was in 1988, but it took Rick three years to really get the orchards and crops going, which are now USDA organic.
A self-taught farmer, now in his 80’s, Rick has more than 17,000 trees.
Josephine with her Austrian accent will head toward San Felipe Mexico at the end of the month to spend the winter at her house. And she’ll come back in the spring. We loved her deep connection to the farm and her connection with the farm hens, who laid a variety of colored eggs. We bought tomatoes, eggs, carrots, apples, Asian pears and dried fruits. As we were leaving, Manuel, the ranch hand for more than 25 years, waved a bunch of kale in our direction as if it were a bouquet and we added that to our larder.
Back at camp we enjoyed the ripe tomatoes with barbecued tri-tip we had bought up in Mt. Shasta. Nothing like fresh tomato, steak and mayo for lunch. Our desert was Asian pears, sweet, crunchy and juicy. Rick said he saves the tomato seeds and grows seedlings in his greenhouse during the winter.
Following lunch we drove back to Bishop, getting a natural high on the blue sky and clouds and vistas of the Sierras and White mountains.
We visited Spellbinder Books in town and learned about a local young author, Kendra Atleework, whose memoir Miracle Country won several literary awards including the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award.
Andre at the bookstore suggested we watch a previous interview with Kendra and Spellbinder Books’ owner Lynne A. We learned that Kendra’s story is one of fleeing from and returning home. She honors the Paiute people and outlines the history of water leaving the Owens Valley for Los Angeles and the impact on the locals. She said the book is “a love letter to this place and the people.”
We bought her book and read it in the evening. Her words weave us even more into a sense of belonging in Owen’s Valley.
My husband Bill said, “All these years we’ve been coming here (since 1974) and always fantasizing about what it would be like to live here. Our connection here doesn’t diminish, but grows stronger. Yet, when you hear it’s 105 out during the summer, and smoke for several months, I don’t know if we could live her full time.”
Once again we talk about how to live on Whidbey in the spring, summer, autumn, and in Bishop, autumn, winter and spring.
The following morning we walked over to a creekside pool in the outflow of the hot springs. Sitting in the warm sleek water while looking up at a flat-topped glacial moraine dotted with sage, we savored the healing mineral water and the sere beloved landscape.
We drove west on Line Street to Bishop Creek Canyon to South Lake. We were startled at the low level of the lake, which is about a hundred feet lower than we’ve ever seen it. Hiking uphill along the lake, we appreciated the work and craftsmanship of the trail’s granite boulders placed as stairs that stretched our hip flexors, some steps two feet tall. A raven croaked in the high altitude at 9,750 feet. We were grateful for our walking sticks, crafted by our late friend Fred Bixby from Whidbey driftwood.
Following our high country hike we returned to Apple Hill Ranch and bought 10 pounds of apples which were pressed into sweet brown cider. We hugged Josephine goodbye, feeling such a sense of kinship with her. Look forward to seeing her next spring.
New friends who live on Whidbey part time met us on their return trip to their home on Catalina Island. We drove to nearby Big Pine and bought delicious barbecue at Coppertop BBQ at Pine and Poplar streets. The feeling in the air was testosterone on steroids as the pit masters grilled pounds of ribs, pulled pork, chicken, and beef roasted over almond wood. Many of the customers were men in camo clothes, chowing down. Next door we saw a swarm of loud motorcycles, all cobbled-together from various parts. They roared their engines as they headed off down the highway.
We took our friends Lindsey and Pat to one of our favorite places, along the DWP canals off of Schober Lane in Bishop. Irrigation canals flow toward L.A., surrounded by ancient cottonwoods, fields of willow and rabbitbrush. We watched red tail hawks hunting and sighted a beaver/mink? swim by. Met a father and his three children visiting from nearby Crowley Lake. Kids were friendly, and the little sister, June, danced for us while her dad played one of her favorite pop tunes on his phone. The dad and kids are expert skiers, and hoped to ski later in the week as three feet of snow was predicted on Mammoth mountain. The children are named for High Sierra peaks, Owen, Esha, and June.
After wandering along the canals in the golden afternoon sun, we returned to campsite 7A, where we dined on our barbecue at picnic table and later soaked in the hot creek. Enjoyed sharing a place we love so deeply with our new friends. At dusk we watched a jackrabbit stand on its hind legs and poke its nose into the rabbitbrush for some tender greens.
A big wind followed by rain and snow the following day found us stopping in Bishop Canyon to see a rainbow framing the White mountains.
The next morning we left early, savoring the newly-snow-covered Sierras. Water is much needed in this thirsty land. Bishops storefronts are painted with the message: “Pray for rain and snow.” They received a day’s worth and hope there is more to come to replenish the aquifers. We stopped for breakfast and enjoyed Josephine’s hen eggs with Mahogany Smoked Meats bacon and mushrooms while gazing up through the Alabama Hills and Mt. Whitney.
It is hard to leave this land. But Arizona was calling and we drove east on a semi-filled Highway 40 through desert scrub to Bullhead City, AZ, and, for the next four nights, camping at Dead Horse State Park near Sedona’s red rock country.