The Owens Valley and Nevada

The trip down from Tioga (9,945 feet) to Lee Vining and Mono Lake, is a long slow slide, interspersed with steep, curving switchbacks on roads that seem to cling miraculously to the mountainsides. The process of finding a place to stop and take a look around is complicated by speed (you are going, it seems, a mile a minute with gravity urging you on) and the line of cars that can build up behind you, even on the downhills. The turnouts are often small areas that come up on you quickly and you have to hope that you don’t overshoot and become a statistic. These are different, of course, from the official overlooks, but sanctioned nonetheless, with flat, paved arcs broadening the road without guardrails or parking lines. They offer at least the illusion that you are taking an original image, but that idea doesn’t hold up when you think about it. They paved these spots because people kept stopping here top take pictures, right? Originality be damned! I took way too many pictures in Yosemite, but I challenge anyone with a camera not to.

The edges of our great National Parks are soft edges, buffered in many cases with the larger National Forests that surround them. On the east side of Yosemite, it is the Inyo National Forest sign that appears just yards after exiting the park. This section is a bit stark, starting as it does quite high in the mountains, on the dry side of the range. The climate is very, very different on this side of the pass, and while there are still forested hillsides, they exist mostly in conjunction with one of the lakes and reservoirs that fill the valleys on the side of the road. Much of the vista is bare rock or scrub.Ellory Lake, elevation 9538 feet.

The Lee Vining Valley, which stretches out to the south and east from the road, seems vast, and the sign placed there by the Park Service suggests you think about just that, the vastness of the Great Basin, into which you are about to descend. At the bottom of the road from Yosemite, the abrupt appearance of gas stations and Rt. 395 is a bit jarring, though not as jarring as the cost of gasoline on this side- $5.37 a gallon was the cheapest I was able to find in the area. I put in $20 worth and hoped I could find cheaper fuel down the road. as it was it took 70 miles or so before the price came under $5, and then only just.

Mono lake is a strange place, flat and sterile to look at, with it’s most famous visual claim to fame being the Tufa mounds in the lake and along parts of the shore. The shots of these on line are always shrouded with mist, making them mysterious and monumental. Today they were just small piles of stuff from a distance, and the state of California wanted money to let me see them any closer. I declined. I did go into the very good visitors center at Lee Vining, where the kind ranger on duty was the first to tell me of the Clown Motel, to be discussed later.

Heading south on 395, the Sierra Nevada dominates your right view, the Inyo Mountains , (far less grand but I wouldn’t want to try to walk over them) line the left, and the Owens Valley spreads out before you. It is a grand sight, light green and glowing with autumn yellow aspens along the river. Wide and fertile, the valley was “discovered” in the 1850’s. Gee, why didn’t they just ask one of the people who already lived there about it? The scale of your view from above Bishop is so wide and long that the valley seems to be a bowl with shallow slopping edges that run up the mountainsides. It is roughly 6 by 150 miles, give or take, and depending on what sign you read. Towns like Bishop, Big Pine and Lone Pine appears 20 minutes before you reach them as green areas to either side of 395. As you get close, you slow to 35, sometimes 25 MPH and then resume 70 as the town slips into your rearview mirror and the next one appears in the distance. The valley is far less productive these days because the water that once fed it was siphoned off for the city of Los Angeles, far to the south. There was a major lawsuit and… well, read about it on the link I provided. The towns are holding on, even appear a little prosperous, but they are still one-light affairs, though Bishop is bigger.

The last one of the three I mentioned, Lone Pine, is a gateway town to two major destinations, Mount Whitney and Death Valley- the highest point in the lower 48 and the lowest point just a matter of taking a right (up) or a left (down) in town! The road to Whitney is called the Whitney Portal, in fact.

A little aside- My name, Whitey Morange, was consistently mangled by databases at colleges that sent material for my art students. Whitey, a possible racial slur, was changed to Whitney, which suggested to the computer programs that I was female, so Mr Whitey became Ms Whitney with some regularity. On one memorable occasion, the spell checker atThe Maryland Art Institute corrected that to Mt.Whitney. I had now attained the status of a geological feature! I therefor had no choice of where to stay on entering Lone Pine.I had thought to go onto Death Valley from Lone Pine, but the next morning I discovered a third wonder of this little town, the Alabama Hills, which had appeared from a distance like a string of droppings from some giant horse going up toward the Sierra Nevada. When you get down into them, they present an astounding landscape of oddly shaped and weathered stone hillsides, laced with trails and valleys perfect for the movie shoot-out. I spent most of the next day there, taking roll after roll of film and even 6 or 8 shots of 4×5. What an amazing place!  I can just see those old westerns now – minus the Chevy, of course.So in the end, I blew off Death Valley and headed back up toward Tonopah, NV. I just had to see the Clown Motel! I know, I missed all the good stuff… story of my life.

Tonopah (accent the final syllable, I have been told) is a crossroads in the desert, a once thriving Silver mining town and the home of Jim Galli, a photographer and camera guy I know of from APUG (Analog Photo Users Group). Keeping with my solo style this time around, I neither contacted him to say I was coming nor tried to find him while I was there. I’m getting to be awfully stand-offish on this trip! He has taken a number of memorable images of Tonopah, so I won’t try to match them. I knew only one thing while I was there:This place has, shall we say, mixed reviews on line. People say it’s cool, people say it’s disgusting and decrepit… I say it was an alright spot to sped a night, but I wouldn’t want to live there, or next door, in the original town cemetery (from 1901 to 1911).It did amaze me that this grave had no name but flowers just the same. The motel owners have built steps from their parking straight down into the cemetary. They also had an interesting office…and that was just one wall. Every other surface was equally decorated! The room was a bit lower key, with just two patron saints/clowns over the bed and one on the door.

I was only a little weirded out…, really. Actually it was relatively clean, very calm and sold out. I gather the place is often full. I lucked into the last room. The people were great.

Driving in Nevada can get very monotonous, even though there is a stark beauty to the landscape. I headed out Rt 6 and took the Extraterrestrial Highway (NV 375) south to NV 93 and Area 51, connecting with the road to St George, Utah, and Snow canyon State Park, where I was to spend the next two nights. I’ll end this one with a picture of a friend I met on the way


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