Highway 395 along the Eastern Sierras is a very special place. It is one of the only physical places I go to and feel I am Home.
For a long time, the 395 for me was the three and a half hour Friday night drive north to Bishop, California, camping on BLM land,
and waking up to the majestic, rugged mountains that the desert I just slept on sweeps up against.
It was the first time I saw the Milky Way, consistently, above me and around me, seemingly always with shooting star showers.
After breakfast and coffee, we’d trample around the rest of the weekend to climb the round, abrasive boulders of the Buttermilks or the geometric, kind pocketed rock in the dark volcanic tablelands of the Happys and the Sads. Sunday would come, we’d drive home, and repeat the next weekend. Later, when I sought retreat or solitude or space to just listen, I would return to here.
To really explore the majesty of the Eastern Sierras, you cannot just go with rock climbers, or if you do, you have to be willing to break away.
For those of us who head north to reach Bishop, stop by the World War II internment camp site of Manzanar. A desolate location in the middle of nowhere Owens Valley, a place that can easily be imagined to experience the extremes in weather.
One voice of a man who spent part of his childhood at Manzanar when the United States forced the American Japanese out of their homes and into these camps, describes his first night: he saw the stars above him; the buildings were not even finished. And did you know, the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles County was an intermediate assembly center before the American Japanese were relocated to camps like Manzanar? A view of it now makes it hard to imagine the dark side of its history.
(I once thought, as I watched the protected bison graze in Yellowstone National Park, how we have forced Native Americans and other groups of human beings into the corners of America very few people would selectively live, yet we care so much more about animals like the bison that do not contribute to general society that we let these animals live and roam freely on pristine, coveted land. But not the Native Americans, or those who are temporarily politically out-of-favor.)
Los Angeles plays another role in this land nearly 300 miles north of the city. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power owns the Owens Valley water. Four hours’ drive away. Through a weaseling and sordid history thanks to the man that popular road in Malibu is named after: Mulholland. I had wondered drive after drive up to Bishop why this big expanse that was identified on maps as the blue Owens Lake on the east side of the 395. What I saw was man-made dry white dust. Listening to “There it Is – Take It!” pieced more of the history together, and reminded me that it was the Native Americans who were first on this land caring for the water before the cattle ranchers, before Mulholland, and before everyone now.
Keeping water in the valley likely would not have prevented these fires, but the more time I spend in the desert, I realize the many beautiful hues that the landscape draws out of itself.
I also wondered if the Owens Valley water remained in Owens Valley instead of being drained away to the city 269 miles south, if more of the lower sections of the 395 would look more like the grazing land in Bridgeport which is located further north on the 395.
For more perspective, start your travels in Death Valley and move east to west towards the Eastern Sierras. In Death Valley you will experience another context of extremes, of dry, of rocky, and even of sand dunes, and a change in enough elevation that, depending on what time of year you go, you can comfortably hike the dunes in a tank top then have to park your car and hike through a couple of feet of snow to the Charcoal Kilns. But the sweep of Death Valley puts the extremes of the Eastern Sierras into perspective. Harsh, stark beauty, mining, a land where outlaws can rest easy, or just anyone who wants an escape from city or suburbia life. Also for perspective, you can visit one of the fourteeners (peaks over 14,000 feet) along the 395, like Mt. Whitney, whom only one person I know, a woman, has described it as being “like any other hike” (don’t be fooled!). Besides the peaks that seem to outlast anything,
the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest with trees over 4,000 and 5,000 years old take up residence here. The trees themselves are gnarled yet impressed me less than the impression of the end-of-the-world feeling the barren land gave.
Moving further north on the 395, you can take the road that branches off into Mammoth. Alpine lake trails to more remote lakes for those willing to put in some effort; and lakes you can park next to if you that is your preference.
Mammoth Brewery does tastings, makes the best root beer I’ve ever had, and brews my favorite: the 395 IPA, with desert sage and mountain juniper; to me, the essence of Bishop, the 395, the Eastern Sierras.
Keep going north. And hang a left in the town of Lee Vining onto Highway 120 toward Tuolumne, which, if you pick the right season, will lead you nearly all the way to Yosemite Valley. Stop at the Mobil gas station for a gourmet dinner.
I repeat: stop at the Mobil gas station for dinner at the Whoa Nellie Deli. Their lobster taquitos are delicious.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, on Thursday and Sunday evenings, folk bands play here and as you listen you know you are eating a gourmet meal, at a gas station, with live folk music, Tuolumne and Yosemite to your west, and Mono Lake to your east.
And after you stay a spell, keep going north.
North to Bodie, CA.
Bodie was described to me as a ghost town I had to see, where the buildings are maintained only to the extent that further decay is able to be prevented or slowed. The state park website describes Bodie as “preserved in a state of ‘arrested decay’. Interiors remain as they were left and stocked with goods.” I went expecting to spend only an hour or so. I spent a few hours and still did not see everything. You can really begin to imagine what life might have been like there. This is the only place that has ever made me consider being a park ranger, just so I could live in a ghost town. Old mining equipment,
buildings, wells, and automobiles and their parts are strewn across the site.
You can peer into the windows, and see houses as if the residents just picked up and left, leaving things behind.
There are desks and books still in the classroom.
There are coffins in various states of production still in the coffin maker shop.
The place is intriguing. Bodie is a must.
And there is where I will stop. I have left a lot out of what else makes the 395 special, unique, places where the locals or transient pseudo-locals hang out. I’ve got to leave some for you to discover.