The earth was re-awakening 11,500 years ago. The 10th millennium BC marked the end of the Pleistocene epoch and the beginning of the Holocene. The world’s population of humans was less than ten million people, most of which were hunter-gatherers. Some pockets of Egypt, Jordan, Kurdistan, and Persia demonstrated evidence of harvest but widespread cultivation and agriculture were still 2,000 years away. The most advanced people on earth were forming the rudiments of organized religion and began building the temple of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey.
Around the globe, many cultures remained in caves and entertained themselves by painting the walls. In Europe, people were spreading into Norway, Spain, and France. Savannah-dwelling reindeer, bison, and Paleolithic hunters withdrew to the sub-Arctic. This left the remaining animals such as deer, auroch, and small mammals to forage the forests.
The Australian indigenous peoples were transitioning from their traditional hunting to a mix of land-based hunting and ocean fishing as the Arnhem land-bridge disappeared, separating Australia from Papua New Guinea. An impact of the ending ice age and rising ocean levels.
In North America, nomadic Paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers spread across the countryside most notably in British Columbia, the Southwest and Great Basin (modern Nevada). The Bering land-bridge to Siberia succumbed to the same fate as the Arnhem land-bridge.
Global ecological changes were underway. The end of the glacial age left large amounts of previously glaciated land in the northern hemisphere now habitable. In North America, the retreat of the Laurentide, Wisconsinan, Pinedale, and Fraser ice sheets spelled the end of the Dire wolf, giant beaver, ground sloth, woolly mammoth, American cheetah, American camel, and American lion. Long Island became a true island as rising sea levels broke through to the inland lake which is now Long Island Sound.
The retreat of the Fraser Glacier Cordilleran Ice Sheet in the Sierra Nevada in northern California released the White Mountains from an icy grip. White, alkaline dolomite soil of ancient limestone, which once existed at the bottom of a shallow ocean millions of years earlier, had risen to 10,000 ft above the new sea level.
Atop these mountains, in extremely inhospitable conditions, the first of the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines broke through to daylight. Named after the characteristics of the immature cone’s prickly bristles, these hearty trees adapted to thrive between 9,800 and 11,000 ft elevations. Because of the hostile nature of the soil conditions, combined with the arid and cold climate, the Bristlecone grew to exist in an almost competition free environment
Generations of Bristlecone thrived in this environment. 6,500 years later (around 3,000 BC) a new ‘class’ of cones came to the surface. Some of this grouping of trees later became known as Methuselah and Father Time, old and wise elders who stand in silence, keeping council with their contemporaries. Still watching over the desolate mountainside today.
At first light, on a calm summer morning, we jumped in Gandalf. Shore power was disconnected and we expeditiously departed the north shore. Our goal was to transcend human and natural history to enter the realm of the ancient bristlecone pine to seek the wisdom and peace that they had to share, then carry that forward as we continued to explore the eastern slopes of the high sierra.
The southerly route through the eastern Sierra corridor traverses the Antelope Valley just as the sun was cresting in the eastern peaks sending sharp rays of light through the light haze of morning. Early travel in this region of the Sierra, during this time of year, when school’s out and tourists have a tendency to create traffic anomalies is smart planning. The highway links the small towns Coleville, Walker, and forms a narrow passage along Walker river canyon. The air in the morning is cool and calm making for a generally pleasant environment.
Passing through the geological feature known as the Devil’s Gate, the highway descends into Bridgeport where the landscape opens up into wide pastures and shallow lake fed by snowmelt from the surrounding mountains.
Traveling north out of Bridgeport we turned onto Masonic Rd and departed the pavement for the first time. The road climbs out of the valley to the east. There are few trees and the landscape is rolling and vegetated with sage, bitterbrush, and rabbitbrush. Although it was mid-summer the terrain was still surprisingly green – a lasting benefit of strong, late winter storms and a significantly wet spring.
5.5 miles into the Masonic trail, and at the foot of Masonic mountain, lies the ghost mining complex of the Chemung mine. Overall, the buildings were in fair, but deteriorating condition. Pretty much every surface has been waffled by small arms fire. Around the mine complex, there are more than a dozen tailings piles, evidence of the abandoned mine entrances. The shafts that still reach the surface are poorly secured. A cold, stale breeze emanates from each of the remaining entrances.
The mine was founded in 1909 and operated successfully extracting gold until 1938 when it ceased to be profitable and was abandoned. The complex originally included the mine and well-equipped mill, offices, a bunkhouse, and a general store. Other than the mill building, the remaining structures are unidentifiable.
Within the mill building, there are the remains of two rotating clarifiers. There is a large rotating drum outside the building. Various piping and compressed airlines are lying around. The remnants of a complex belt drive system have survived and remain mounted to the ceiling. This remaining equipment suggests that the facility operated a hydrometallurgy or froth flotation system along with gold cyanidation as part of the ore processing. The known ecological impacts of these refining processes, amplified in impact by decades passed without any remediation have undoubtedly rendered the terrain surrounding the mine toxic.
Common lore has it that the Chemung mining complex is haunted by a poltergeist. One that only causes trouble on Saturdays. I learned this after our visit while I was writing this article and found it so intriguing that I chased after the myth on the internet. It is indeed documented and one account speaks of an individual camping in the mine complex on Saturday, who was physically removed from the site by supernatural forces. We were visiting on a Thursday. It was sunny and warm. There was a cool breeze. It was peaceful. We were alone and free to explore the site as we pleased. Birds and butterflies hurried about their bird and butterfly business.
The trail continues to the east before rolling to the south around Masonic mountain and then through Aurora Canyon, Potato peak, and Bodie mountain before descending into the town of Bodie proper. The trail condition is good, on the standard trail rating system I would assign it a category 1-2. Although it may have been a period of time since the last time the NFS ran a blade along it, the surface was not rutted and there were few rocky (meaning there were some rocks) sections to traverse. If anything, the light dust hung in the air long after we passed, but since we were completely alone it wasn’t a factor.
The rolling terrain is carpeted in a pale green, fragrant blanket of scrub brush. Random outcrops and hoodoos on the hillsides and several creeks break the monotone texture (as it is perceived from a distance). The roadway meanders through the environment like a sinuous ribbon. Without obstacles impeding visibility, traveling through this region affords one a continuous panoramic perspective. On this day, it was complete solitude. The aggregate effect of the scenario allows today’s experience to perhaps be similar to what prospectors first saw more than a hundred years ago. We stopped frequently for photo-ops. When stepping out of the cab the light cool breeze cleared the head of yesterday and tomorrow, leveling the mind to the present.
I believe that arriving in Bodie from this direction with eyes adjusted to what earlier travelers encountered has parallels to what modern drivers experience entering Las Vegas from the desert. It seemed like a relative shining metropolis.
Mining in the town of Bodie began in the mid-1800’s. As the town boomed between 1877 and 1881 the population grew to more than 10,000. Along with the growth and prosperity that came with the gold boom so came the societal elements that had plagued the other booming mine towns of the west. In 1881 Reverend F.M. Warrington, disgusted with the lawlessness of Bodie described the town as “…a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion”. His description was not far from the truth. It is documented that at its heyday there were 65 saloons, numerous brothels, gambling halls and opium dens. Bar brawls, holdups, robberies, and gunfights were a daily occurrence.
We parked Gandalf in between an RV (that had clearly been to Burning Man and never cleaned; still decorated and plastered with playa dust) and a loaded minivan from Missouri. A busload of tourists gathered in front of the parking lot interpretive display were swinging around selfie-sticks with reckless abandon.
The remaining and reconstructed buildings of the town are protected as a California State Park. The town is large (in my opinion) as far as ghost towns go. We invested about an hour walking the park, getting as close as possible to the buildings while doing our best not to entangle ourselves in the selfie-stick fray. Bear was making-busy clicking off pics. The crowd was wrecking my vibe. Time to move on.
Temple of the Elders
“Standing as ancient sentinels high atop the White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest, the Great Basin bristlecone pines rank as the oldest trees in the world and have achieved immense scientific, cultural and scenic importance” -USFS
Bishop, CA is situated in the middle of the Owen Valley, elevation 4,150 feet. In the summer, it’s hot. Today was no exception. We fueled up and grabbed some last supplies. Gandalf said it was 102°F prior to our last stop before ascending into the White Mountains.
We chose to reach the crest by way climbing Silver Canyon. Entering from Laws is a flat gravel road. A few miles ahead lies the canyon entrance. Reaching the opening, the cliffs narrow and begins a gentle climb along the creek. The canyon walls closed in behind us fencing us into one of the most inhospitable places I have visited. The tall, volcanic rock buttresses reflect heat like the inside of a kiln. With exception of the riparian zone at the bottom of the canyon, there is no vegetation. Few birds circled overhead. Golden-mantled ground squirrels scurried about. Western Bighorn Sheep eyeballed us in bewilderment.
At the head of the canyon, the road turns sharply to the left (North) and the ascent begins. The road is roughly graded. It is not technically challenging, I would rate it a 2-3 on the trail rating system. It is, however, a loose rocky surface, narrow, incredibly steep, and there are at least a dozen switchbacks between the creek and summit. Almost all of the switchbacks are wide enough to allow 2 vehicles to pass. Gandalf was fully loaded. In low range, he had no problems at a slow pace and didn’t spin wheels. Along the ascent, looking out the windshield to see the road is mostly useless. In a few locations, we did need to hang heads out the window to verify our position. We crossed paths with a few more bighorns, they too looked at us funny. Any SUV or Truck with low range 4WD and upgraded off-road tires should have little problem climbing the trail.
Emerging at the ridgeline came with a sigh of relief. At 10,400 feet the temperature was a delightful 72°F. We were close to our first goal. The Schulman Grove (named for Dr. Edmund Schulman, dendrochronologist) is home to the oldest known of the species. There are 3 hiking loops that originate from the visitor center. The Methuselah loop is home to the majority of ancient groves. The hike itself is not strenuous. The trail is mostly flat, a total elevation gain of 800 feet over 4.5 miles, which regains the 800-foot descent during the first half of loop.
Departing from the visitor’s center the first mile into it grove is thick with anticipation. Bear raced ahead, SLR in hand when we were approaching the first of the ancient trees. Mostly devoid of any remaining bark, the grain of the trunk, limbs, and roots twist into the soil and sky.
The deeper one heads into the groves the more evident the dolomite soils become. The harsher the environment appears. Between the trees, there is no undergrowth. The elders of the grove are spaced apart. The importance and relevance of these beings become clear. In the distance, we can see into Death Valley. The warm breeze is gentle. There were no birds. The only sound is the air moving through the limbs. Well that, and Bear complaining about how his feet hurt. Otherwise silence. Inside the grove, the trees hold court and stare at us from all sides. Observing warmly, welcoming, like grandparents. We spent what seemed like a long time standing amongst the trees, listening to the wind. Tranquility. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was sinking towards the Pacific Crest. Bear was uncharacteristically quiet on the walk back to the trailhead. We were both quiet.
Opportunities to camp along White Mountain road are plentiful. There is a bit of required descent to the south from the Schulman Grove, about five miles, and 2,000 vertical feet. The road is paved and well maintained. A good number of USFS roads branch off from either side of the main road. Some work their way onto solitary vistas. Our decision was to make camp in the established Grandview campground. It has 23 well-spaced sites. Many of which provide good shade over the sites. There were few travelers this evening. This was a good place.
The campground is situated on a saddle in the ridgeline at 8,600 ft. From either side (respectively) we could see Death Valley to the East, the High Sierra and Sierra Crest to the West.
The White Mountains are a place of incredible remoteness. Once the sunset and the last light of day had faded, the absence of light pollution and cloud cover opened the cosmic boundaries to endless starlight and the arms of the galaxy wrapped around the sky. Coupled with our recent experiences, this night sky created a mental place space, wide and free, to ruminate on the day’s events and tie it together.
Sunrise is equally as impressive. The silence persisted, no birds singing, the air was still. The sun cut through the mountains to the east. The morning rays lit up the snowcaps of the Sierra and the granite walls were shining as polished steel.
Into the Land of Golems
Traversing the ridge and dropping into the town of bishop is peaceful. As your elevation decreases the Sierra Nevada rise across your windshield. By the time you reach the Owens River Valley at 4,000 ft. you’re looking up at the stoic 13,000 ft. peaks standing guard over Big Pine. Along the twisting (one lane at times) road into the valley, Bear and I talked about the geological features of folded strata easily identifiable on either side.
In town, our friends at Eastside Sports (formerly Wilson’s Eastside Sports) gave us a pretty accurate local backcountry report. Snow holding on the western aspects above 11,500 ft. Not a factor.
Before heading out again we needed a few days resupply. In its history (during the 19th and into the 20th century) the Buttermilk Country was home to Joe Inman’s dairy farm, a major tungsten mining operation, and an industrial sawmill. According to local lore, the road from the dairy to Bishop was so rocky that the movement of his truck would churn the milk into buttermilk by the time he reached the town.
Today the buttermilks are a patchwork of USFS, BLM, City of Los Angeles, designated wildlife habitat, and private lands. All of which are… somewhat/mostly open to the public. The beauty of the giant boulders of mythical proportions and granite formations at the feet of the 13,000 ft. Sierra Nevada eastern Front Range has returned to its previous natural glory.
Heading in, it was hot. Hot and dusty. Hot, dusty, and perfect. The buttermilk road transects the buttermilk country in a westerly direction before turning more to the south around the Tungsten Hills. The road crosses McGee creek several times. Our favorite spot along the creek to camp had been occupied by a group of climbers. Happy to see that it was still being put to good use.
In this area, there is a grotto amongst the boulders. I have always been surprised, every time we come back, that it never changes. Bear and I stopped and climbed down delighted to find that it continues to exist in pristine conditions. This day it was reaching 100 degrees and the crystal waters born of snowmelt flowed somewhere near 45. Climbers I have spoken to are unaware that such a place exists as if it’s hidden from the sight of the world. For the purpose of preserving this jewel in the desert – the location must stay that way.
Here, as much of the Sierra, there is an undeniable energy that surrounds these mountains. It’s welcoming and friendly. You belong here. In the mountains, in the desert, on the granite, around the boulders. Bear and I joked around about the formations here. We wondered if at night, or when there are storms, do they come together to form monsters that roam the Buttermilks as protectors or vigilantes? Do they return their disparate parts to the right locations when the light touches the valley again?
On this visit, we took the time to explore most of the spurs off of the main road. It was very helpful to have the USFS Inyo National Forest Atlas in hand. This is a great map collection for the east side of the Sierra. More detail than I have found in any other atlas for this region. It’s published by the USFS. Available in the online bookstore or in visitor centers on the east side. Worth the investment.
Continuing our climb up the foothills, the track led us across several washes and tight willow groves until we reached the pines where there was a well-established, large group camp. Beneath the trees and adjacent to McGee Creek – home for the night.
When long days of travel are stacked together, it is a gift to shut down for some time. It’s an opportunity to repair and service gear. Take stock of where you are and plan ahead. It’s also perfect for slowing down, taking time to cook a big meal and rest from the road. All part of the overlanding cycle.
Morning arrived with a shock. Dreamtime was shattered with the thunder of 10,000 hornets. Shaking off the fog, scrambling to see what was going on, finally getting eyes to focus – a hummingbird had found his way into the camper. Investigating. Sizing us up. Time for coffee.
We wanted to keep moving on. As part of our (new) plan, we decided to explore the northern corner of the Buttermilks to the west of the Tungsten Hills. Around this formation, which was already crawling with climbers like ants on a sliced watermelon, we found where the golems lived. Massive boulder outcrops that would make for amazing locations to post up for a few days. If only they were not inside the boundary of land controlled by the City of Los Angeles, where camping and cooking are punishable offenses.
Up close and personal with the rock feeds the soul for sure. We were unprepared and felt pretty foolish for leaving our equipment back in Tahoe. The next time we explore on the east side rudimentary climbing gear will be part of our kit.
Oasis on the mountain
Escape became a priority. Climb away from the heat, head higher up the mountain, as high as we could. The dust and heat were great. After several days we were ready for conditions to be a little kinder.
The road forks along the branches of Bishop Creek. At the end of the pavement, there are several lakes around each fork. Now a weekend, we presumed that others were climbing for cooler temps like us. Northlake, which boasts the highest drivable altitude at 9,500 ft. was completely full of travelers, as was Sabrina Lake.
We searched until we befell the creekside hollow called Willow, which is in a thick aspen grove. Not as high in altitude as the North Lake, Willow (situated at 9,000 ft.) is located on the south fork of Bishop Creek.
We set camp deep in the aspens, 50 ft. from the creek. The 2-tone leaves fluttering in the brisk wind and bright sun created the effect of cheering fans in a packed soccer stadium. The banks here are a grassy knoll surrounded by willows, wrapped by the creek which flowed in a semi-circular channel. The water was crystal clear and cold. Many holes loaded with rainbow, brook, and golden trout were observed. The entire area is shrouded by steep granite walls that rise another 3,000 ft.
In many ways this place is idyllic. In others, not so much. The downside of the dense aspens and willows close to the grassy banks was a phalanx of mosquitoes that began their vampiric assault moments after we parked Gandalf. They were relentless in their bloodlust. No Deep Woods Off could protect us. There is no DEET powerful enough to shield against the waves of the anopheles armada. I dug deep into my fishing tackle to find our only hope. A relic of my youth from backpacking in New England. Ole Woodsman Fly Dope is a greasy tar insect repellent born of the maniacal imagination of loggers and fishermen from the deep forests of Maine. Although it only provided a temporary reprieve and required regular re-application, it was a savior.
Elevation turned out not to be the relief that we sought. Regular dips in the icy creek were intermittently dispersed among castings for trout. We didn’t catch any keepers. The heat drained us. Continuous days of blazing heat can suck one’s energy with unhealthy results. The sun descended behind the granite horizon. The breeze dropped out. A hot day became a hot night.
We cooked. I drank our last beer and started a fire to create a force field against those little bloodsucking bastards. When that burned out we were forced to seek refuge in Gandalf.
We needed to turn back towards the North at morning’s first light. Not sure if we accomplished the mission that we set out with. We did get into some new cruxes and slotted ourselves in some pretty unique, extraordinary places. In that way, as well as several others, this experience was special and fulfilling. The East Side will call us back again. When it does, for sure we will answer.
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