• Otter Views: Southern Exposure

    by Tom Stevens

    Ever since relatives moved to the desert 30 years ago, Southern California trips have been a yuletide tradition. Sometimes I drive, usually with my bother Mike. Sometimes, like last week, I travel by air. Flying has proven quicker and less punishing, but the road trips have yielded better detours.

    One of those led on a January night years ago to the high desert town of Lone Pine, a five-block sprinkle of lights between Death Valley and Mammoth Mountain. The night there was as black as Lash La Rue’s hat; the air icy and clear. Like cowboys drawn up around a fire, the town’s cafes and motels huddled up to Highway 395 as if to warm themselves on passing traffic.

    It was a vain pursuit that night. In the 20 minutes needed to walk the town, just two cars and a semi hauling fuel passed through. As the big Peterbilt rumbled northward, Christmas lights strung over the street flickered from the silvery curve of its tanks.

    Bereft of traffic, Lone Pine became a black velvet canvas for the hot neon loops of 1950s-era motel signs: Pinky Lee pinks, electric blues, buttery yellows, reds smoldering like raked embers. The signs vaulted skyward in bold cantilevers as hopeful and audacious as America was back then.

    A short stroll revealed that, like the nation, Lone Pine’s neon had taken a few hits since the days of 25 cent gas and cream-white Coupe de Villes. The Motel Dow Villa had lost its beautifully scripted V, and the O in Motel Mt. Whitney had gone as dim as a donut dunked in the Whitney’s “in-room coffee.”

    After 800 miles on the road, my brother and I didn’t need the in-room coffee. We needed respite from the blurring, glary, ever-repeating desert diorama and the soul-buzzing whine of tires. Lone Pine provided it. Once out of the truck, we listened to the ringing stillness of the desert itself, the sound that no sound makes.

    Below the winter stars rose the sort of gray, wrinkled hills Georgia O’Keeffe called “a mile of elephants.” And over them loomed the steep eastern face of the Sierra Nevada, a craggy escarpment immortalized in black and white by Ansel Adams and in Technicolor by cowboy movie directors.

    The posters of those old westerns shared the knotty pine walls of The Sportsman Café with bull elk and buffalo heads, perhaps trophies from some bygone movie set. For in the 1940s and 1950s, countless directors used Lone Pine as a backdrop. All the matinee cowboys galloped through – Tyrone Power, Gene Autry, Ronald Reagan, William Boyd, Tex Ritter, Allan Ladd, Smiley Burnette, Roy Rogers and a hundred others. If you saw “Horsemen of the Sierras” or “Texans Never Cry,” you saw Lone Pine.

    And if not, you’ll just have to drive that stretch of Highway 395 yourself. You might discover how mysterious California’s high desert can be. Or maybe it just seems that way. Cleansed of barns, silos, water towers and other human references, the desert shimmers with optical trickery. That shiny patch on the left, for instance, could be water, salt, sand, or a mirage of all three. And way up ahead, is that steam rising through snow, or snow falling through steam?

    It turned out to be steam rising through snow, one of 395’s many winter surprises. Parking the truck near some others, my brother and I set off down an unmarked road, fresh powder snow squeaking underfoot. The midday sky was robin’s egg blue; the air sharp and fine.

    We pursued the plume of steam for a mile, until the air grew slightly sulfurous. At length the trail descended to a narrow river flanked by bluffs. Deep, puffy snow reached to the sparkling water’s edge. But instead of ice, the banks showed unseasonable green reeds and river grass, the handiwork of hot springs.

    Hopping from foot to foot in the snow, we stripped down and joined laughing Europeans, old hippies, crew-cut servicemen and splashing children in the smoky, sulfurous water. Moving from hot to cool to hot again, everyone swam lazily around to keep from poaching. Bubbles of hot gas rose from the river bottom to hammer our ribs, prompting uneasy images of molten magma prodding the earth’s crust inches below our feet.

    Later, another desert detour led to an even stranger site, the Salton Sea. Man-made by error, this vast and shallow lake once drew vacationers and trailer parks to its sunlit shores. But by the time we saw it, the lake has soured and shrunk, leaving a rank stench of decay and a crackling carpet of fish bones along its banks. Long-dead palm trees, empty pools and the charred hulks of vandalized homes suggested an apocalypse at the oasis.

    It was time to head back north and into a new year.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on January 4, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views


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