“To find a petrified man, or break a stranger’s leg, or cave an imaginary mine, or discover some dead Indians in a Gold Hill tunnel, or massacre a family at Dutch Nick’s, were feats and calamities that we never hesitated about devising when the public needed matters of thrilling interest for breakfast. The seemingly tranquil Enterprise office was a ghastly factory of slaughter, mutilation and general destruction in those days.” Mark Twain on his creative days of writing “fake news” as a reporter for the “Territorial Enterprise” in Virginia City during the 1860s.
Quivera, our 21 foot RV, was whining again as I drove her up the curvy, steep Geiger Grade to Virginia City from Highway 395. “Stop complaining,” I told her, “or we will go explore more four-wheel drive dirt roads.” She piped down immediately.
The town is perched on the edge of Mt. Davidson at an elevation of 6, 140 feet, providing dramatic views of the surrounding country.
It all started with a gold rush in 1859. There was a lot, but it was mixed in with a chunky black rock that resisted being separated from the gold. As it turns out, the dark rock was silver ore and it was much more plentiful than the gold. The ore was part of the famed Comstock Lode, the first major silver strike in the US. It was a strike that would create several millionaires, help fund the building of San Francisco, provide the North with much needed cash during the Civil War, serve as an impetus for creating the state of Nevada, and lead to the founding of Virginia City.
Samuel Clemens arrived in Carson City, Nevada by stage coach in 1861 with his brother Orion who had been awarded a plum position as secretary to the Territorial Governor of Nevada. Orion had earned his appointment by working in Abe Lincoln’s campaign for President. He invited his brother along to serve as his own secretary. Samuel found the job a bit tame for his creative imagination, however, especially given all the ‘get rich quick’ schemes that were floating around in the West. His first effort was to run a logging operation at the still wild Lake Tahoe. Lumber was in high demand. That adventure ended with his campfire escaping and burning down the trees he planned to log— plus a substantial part of the surrounding forests. He then decided he would try his luck mining for gold and silver, an effort that had similar results for him, except he didn’t burn down any more forests.
The Territorial Enterprise newspaper out of Virginia City saved Clemens from his life of toil in 1862. It also provided him with his life-long calling. The editor had been impressed with several ‘letters to the editor’ he had written and invited him to write for the paper and serve as city editor in Virginia City. He was soon earning an impressive forty dollars a week and had taken on a pen name, Mark Twain. As he notes in Roughing It, his delightful book about his adventures in the West, he rarely took his pay. He didn’t need to. Reporting was a profitable business. There were hundreds of wildcat mines that stood little chance of making a profit. Not to worry. Miners would select a snazzy name and then print up fancy stock. A favorable article in the newspaper would almost guarantee that the stock could then be sold for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Miners lined up eagerly at Twain’s door hoping for positive articles and paying him in stock to assure that the article was written. Forty dollars a week was chump change.
Twain remained in Virginia City from 1862 to 1864 before heading west into California. Virginia City continued to grow and prosper into the late 1870s reaching a population of some 25,000 people. A massive fire wiped out the town in 1875 but it was rebuilt within a year. Most of the historical buildings found in Virginia City today are from the post-fire era. There are some beauties!
NEXT POST: We will journey up to Reno and visit one of the world’s most impressive auto museums— and see some really classy autos.
It’s time for a quick break from my Highway 395 series to bring you up to date on current events in our never-boring life such as a logging operation in our backyard. I’ll be back to Highway 395 and Virginia City in my next post.A note on photos: Peggy and I shared photographer’s duties on this post.
Removing 43 Douglas firs from our five acres was not anything Peggy and I looked forward to, either from an aesthetic or financial perspective. Global warming didn’t give us a choice. Severe drought weakened a number of our trees and voracious pine beetles took quick advantage of the situation. We decided to be proactive in hopes of slowing down or stopping the beetles.
I am no stranger to logging operations. My father was the electrician for a lumber mill when I was growing up. We considered the mill with its logging pond as part of our extended play area, much to the dismay of the nighttime and weekend watchman. He had an extensive vocabulary of swear words that he liked to share with us. We even had a logger with his logging truck living next door. He’d wake us up at 5:00 a.m. on summer mornings as he dashed off to collect his first load of logs. Since then, my backpacking trips have occasionally taken me through areas that were being logged.
None of this is anything like having a logging operation in your backyard, however. I didn’t actually hear anyone shouting “Timber!” but the buzzing sound of chainsaws accompanied by the crashing sounds of large Douglas firs (some over a hundred feet in length) was our constant companion for a week.
And Other Events…
NEXT POST: I return to my Highway 395 series and visit Virginia City where silver was king and Samuel Clemens adopted the name of Mark Twain.
We can thank James Stuart Cain for the fact that the ghost town of Bodie, located 13 miles off of California’s Highway 395, is something more than a few derelict buildings sinking into the ground. Cain arrived in Bodie in 1879 as a young man of 25 with a new wife and towering ambitions. He began his rise to being Bodie’s number one citizen by importing lumber across Mono Lake to build the town’s mines, businesses and homes. He would go on to own the town’s bank and the Standard Mill. Eventually he would own most of the town, which he and his family would love and take care of— an effort that included hiring on-site security. When he passed away in the late 1930s, his family continued to maintain the vacant town and security right up until the time they passed it over to California in 1962 for a state park.
I featured Bodie’s ghostly homes in my first post. Today I will feature other buildings that remain standing in the town, vehicles in various stages of ‘arrested decay’ and mining machinery.
NEXT POST: Timber! A one post break from Highway 395. Never-ever did I expect to see logging trucks using my driveway. Plus some other recent happenings at the Mekemson household. After that we will journey back to my road trip and the silver town of Virginia City.
The history of the gold and silver strikes in the Old West of the mid 1800s is one of boom and bust. Large towns of several thousand people would spring up overnight in remote locations and be abandoned almost as fast as veins ran out and other strikes fired the imagination of miners driven by dreams of instant wealth.
Some of the towns have lingered on into modern times. Diamond Springs, where I grew up in the heart of California’s gold country, is one. A 25-pound gold nugget found nearby in the early 1850s assured Diamond of its boomtown status. It was a sleepy, ‘one-horse-town,’ in my youth. Today, it is more like a sprawling suburb. Virginia City, Nevada, which we will visit next on my Highway 395 series, not only survived but worked to maintain its historical look and has become a successful tourist attraction.
Bodie is another tourist attraction. It has survived as a ghost town, however— in arrested decay as the California State Park staff describes it. Only three people were living there in 1943, the year I was born. That number had plummeted to zero by 1950. (Plummeted being relative, of course.) Gold was first found in 1859 but it was in 1876 when the Standard Company found a profitable gold vein that turned the small camp of a few hard-core miners into a rollicking boomtown of 5-7 thousand people with over 2000 buildings. Sixty-five saloons dominated its mile-long main street. I have learned over the years that the number of saloons is always a mark of pride for Old West towns. (A substantial red-light district is another.)
Bodie was named a National Historic Landmark in 1961and a California State Historical Park in 1962. Today, just over a hundred of its original two thousand buildings remain. I arrived around 1:00 p.m. on my drive down Highway 395 and spent three rather warm hours wandering around checking out the buildings and other historical remnants left behind— and dodging fresh cow pies. There were so many tourists it was hard to get photos without them. But who wants photos of tourists in a ghost town?! I did photograph the free-range cattle, however. Now if only a ghost or two had made an appearance…
NEXT POST: We will continue our exploration of Bodie by checking out some of the commercial buildings that still stand including a ghostly old mortuary with caskets. There are also several abandoned vehicles in various states of decay and some interesting mining machinery left behind.
You’re stuck if you are a raindrop falling into Mono Lake— or anywhere else in the Great Basin. There are no convenient rivers to whisk you away to the sea. Evaporation is your only escape. Water tends to become a little grouchy under these conditions, or make that salty. In fact, Mono Lake is 2.5 times as salty as the ocean, and 100 times as alkaline. The good news here is it is really hard to drown. You can float to your heart’s content. Even sea gulls have a hard time keeping their feet in the water to paddle. The bad news is a minor cut or scrape will send you screaming for the shore.
There is magic in the water, however. Springs flowing underground from the surrounding mountains are rich in dissolved calcium. When they bubble up into the lake, the calcium bonds with the carbonates in the lake and together they make rocks, or what are known as tufa towers. In the past, when the lake was full, these towers hid out under the surface and happily continued to grow. There were few or no tufa towers to see. Mark Twain camped out on the lake in the 1860s when he was searching for a lost gold mine and noted in Roughing It,“This solemn, silent, sailess sea— this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on the earth—is little graced with the picturesque.”
Obviously, the tufa towers weren’t there to greet him. We can thank Los Angeles’s formidable Department of Power and Water for their presence. Back about 1913, DPW had the challenge of supplying more water to the ever-thirsty Los Angeles with its desert environment and burgeoning population. It decided that there was plenty of water up in Owens Valley along the eastern side of Sierras. DPW didn’t bother to ask the local residents, farmers and ranchers whether they wanted their water to go to LA. It didn’t have to. It had the power to grab what it wanted. Things got nasty. Water wars in the West aren’t pretty. “Greed of City Ruins the Owens Valley” the headlines in the Inyo Register screamed. And it wasn’t far from wrong. Every stream of consequence flowing into the valley was tapped to meet LA’s water needs. What lakes that existed started drying up, including Mono Lake. Starting in 1941, DPW began taking water from the lake’s major tributaries, dropping the lake some 40 feet.
Environmentalists mounted a major effort starting in the 70s to save the lake. Fish can’t survive in the highly saline/alkaline water, but some four trillion brine shrimp, innumerable small alkali flies, and algae find the conditions perfect. The shrimp and flies, in turn, serve as a major food source for the two million birds that stop off to dine in the lake. The lowering water levels threatened to kill off the algae, shrimp and flies. The birds were in danger of losing their handy fast food restaurant. In 1994, The California Department of Water Resources stepped in to resolve the issue by requiring DPW to reduce the amount of water it was taking from the lake’s streams and repair some of the damage it had done to the riparian habitats along the streams. While the lake won’t return to the levels that existed when Mark Twain visited, the ecosystem is now being protected. Birds will be able to continue to stuff themselves while visitors can continue to enjoy the unique beauty of the tufa towers.
It was late in the afternoon when I visited the south end of the lake where the most impressive tufa towers are found so I was able to photograph the towers at sunset. The warm tones added to the beauty. I took lots of pictures. (Grin) To get here look for the signs that direct you to the South Tufa Towers south of Lee Vining off of Highway 395.
There is a lot to see along California’s Highway 395, and I am bringing much of it to you in this series. We’ve already visited the Alabama Hills with its fascinating relationship with Hollywood. In my last post, I took you to the World War II Japanese internment camp of Manzanar with its tragic history and relevance for our modern world. You have patiently made your way through lots of words! Thank you. It’s time for another photo blog, heavy on pictures and light on verbiage. (grin) What better opportunity than admiring the views of John Muir’s Range of Light: the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s one of my major reasons for visiting the area. These are some of my favorite photos from the trip.
The World War II Japanese ‘relocation center’ of Manzanar is located a short ten miles north of Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills just off of Highway 395. I went there directly from the Lone Pine Museum of Film History. It would be hard to find two more different reminders of our past. As far as I can remember, I didn’t know about the site until I was in college. It wasn’t something that was discussed at my home. Had I been an American citizen with Japanese ancestry as opposed to British ancestry, it’s likely that I would have been born at one of the West Coast “relocation centers,” i.e. concentration camps, behind barbed wire fences overlooked by guard towers bristling with guns.
I may have learned about the camps in high school during American History but it was made real for me at the community college I attended just east of Sacramento in 1961-63. I was student body president in 1962 and a member of my council was a young Japanese American woman who had experienced the relocation effort directly. Her family, along with several other Japanese American farmers in the Loomis/Lincoln area, were rounded up, forced to abandon their farms, and shipped out to Tule Lake where the relocation center for most of Northern California was located.
Ten years later in the early 70s, I would come to know another Japanese American who had been shipped along with his family to Tule Lake as a six-month old child, Bob Matsui. In 1971, working together with other environmentalists, I had created a political organization in Sacramento to elect environmentally concerned candidates to the Sacramento City Council and Board of Supervisors. Bob, who was making his first run for city council, had scored high on a questionnaire that we had put together. I had enthusiastically supported him in his run for election and he had won. Not only did he support environmental issues on the City Council for seven years, he continued to in 1978 when he became the fifth Japanese American to be elected to Congress. He would serve with distinction for a quarter of a century and be known for his bipartisan approach in creating substantive legislation.
More to the point of this post, Bob also became a strong advocate for recognizing the wrongs that had been done to Japanese Americans during World War II. For one, he was instrumental in having Manzanar set aside as a National Historic Landmark. In 1980 he joined Senator Daniel Inouye, and Congressmen Spark Matsunaga and Noman Mineta, in an effort to establish a committee to study the effects of the incarceration and the potential for redress.The end result of this effort was the creation of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. After an extensive set of hearings throughout the West, the bipartisan Commission concluded that the decision to incarcerate the Japanese Americans was not based on military necessity and instead was based upon “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” Not one Japanese American was found guilty of aiding Japan during World War II.
The findings of the Commission led to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which granted wartime survivors an apology and individual reparations of $20,000. While President Reagan initially opposed the implementation legislation, H.R. 422, because of cost, he readily signed the bill when it reached his desk. I found his comments at the signing ceremony to be quite relevant, not only to the legislation, but for today.
He had started the ceremony by noting “… we gather here today to right a grave wrong. More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race, for these 120,000 were Americans of Japanese descent.”
Reagan went on to describe H.R. 442: “The legislation that I am about to sign provides for a restitution payment to each of the 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans of the 120,000 who were relocated or detained. Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
The President concluded his statements by reading a newspaper article from 1945 that had been included in the Pacific Citizen:
“Arriving by plane from Washington, General Joseph W. Stilwell pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on Mary Masuda in a simple ceremony on the porch of her small frame shack near Talbert, Orange County. She was one of the first Americans of Japanese ancestry to return from relocation centers to California’s farmlands. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell was there that day to honor Kazuo Masuda, Mary’s brother. You see, while Mary and her parents were in an internment camp, Kazuo served as staff sergeant to the 442d Regimental Combat Team (an all Japanese-American regiment). In one action, Kazuo ordered his men back and advanced through heavy fire, hauling a mortar. For 12 hours, he engaged in a singlehanded barrage of Nazi positions. Several weeks later at Cassino, Kazuo staged another lone advance. This time it cost him his life.”
The newspaper clipping noted that her two surviving brothers were with Mary and her parents on the little porch that morning. These two brothers, like the heroic Kazuo, had served in the United States Army.
After General Stilwell made the award, the motion picture actress Louise Allbritton, a Texas girl, told how a Texas battalion had been saved by the 442d. Other show business personalities paid tribute — Robert Young, Will Rogers, Jr. And one young actor said: “Blood that has soaked into the sands of a beach is all of one color. America stands unique in the world: the only country not founded on race but on a way, an ideal. Not in spite of but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American way.” (Italics mine)
Reagan then went on to note with his usual sense of humor: “The name of that young actor — I hope I pronounce this right — was Ronald Reagan. And, yes, the ideal of liberty and justice for all — that is still the American way.”
Now that’s what being Presidential, the President of all Americans, is about. Following are several photos I took at Manzanar.
“Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above. Don’t fence me in. Let me ride through the wide open country that I love. Don’t fence me in. Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze, And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees. Send me off forever but I ask you please, don’t fence me in”
NEXT POST: The number one reason for driving down Highway 395: Its dramatic mountain scenery.
When I arrived in Lone Pine, California, the first thing I did was go for a drive in the Alabama Hills located beneath the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains west of the town. I included photos of this adventure in my last post and noted that over 400 movies and several TV series had been filmed there. I was eager to see what Hollywood found so fascinating about this semi-remote location in the Eastern Sierras. The second thing I did was make a beeline to the Lone Pine Film History Museum to learn more about the movies and TV programs filmed in the area. Most of the photos in this post, I took in the museum. My own fascination with the Alabama Hills started early in my life. I just didn’t know it.
I was excited. Alan Green had invited my brother and me over to watch TV. It wasn’t just that we were going to watch TV at a friend’s house, it was to be first time we had ever watched TV. The year was 1950. Alan’s dad was manager of the Diamond Lime Company and the Greens had the only TV in town! What made the adventure even more special was that we were going the watch the Lone Ranger. Marsh and I had spent hours glued to the family radio listening to the masked man dispense justice to the remote corners of the West with his ever-faithful companion Tonto and his great white stallion, Silver. Not only did the white-hat hero use silver bullets, he always shot the guns out of the hands of the bad guys— never killing them. (Imagine that in this day and age!) Now we were going to see what the Lone Ranger and Tonto and Silver and Scout looked like in live action on a 12-inch screen. We were not disappointed. I still remember Silver rearing up on his hind legs in the final scene as the Lone Ranger called out “Hi-yo Silver away” before dashing off while the inevitable question was asked by someone he had rescued, “Who was that masked man?”
The fact that the William Tell Overture by Rossini kicked off the episode or that the Alabama Hills provided the backdrop for the opening credits would have escaped me at the time. But they still made an impression. I would forever associate the William Tell Overture with the Lone Ranger. And the Alabama Hills? Well, they came to represent what cowboy country was supposed to look like in my mind. It didn’t hurt that several other popular Western TV series of the time had episodes filmed in the area. Bonanza, Have Gun Will Travel, Annie Oakley, Rawhide,and Gunsmoke are examples. The Bonanza spread, by the way, theoretical included some 600,000 acres that stretched from Lake Tahoe to Virginia City. The imaginary ranch would be worth gazillions today. I will be taking you on a side trip off of Highway 395 to Virginia City as a part of this series.
Movies were even more important in establishing the Alabama Hills as a popular filming location for Westerns. Of the over 400 made in the area, the vast majority involved cowboys— and cowgirls— and horses. (I was amused that the horses often got top billing right under the star. Trigger, for example, was listed above and in bigger letters than Roy Roger’s wife Dale on the movie posters at the Lone Pine Film Museum.)
We have to travel back in time to the silent movie era and 1920 for the first Alabama Hills movie, Fatty Arbuckle starring in The Round Up. Will Rogers, the renown humorist, also made a 1920 movie that took advantage of the area, Cupid the Cowpuncher. Tom Mix, the best known of the early movie cowboys, arrived on the scene a couple of years later. Mix was a true cowboy who rode in rodeos as well as starred in movies. He was still making movies in the Alabama Hills when the ‘talkies’ took over from the silent era.
The cowboys just kept riding into the area during the 30s: William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Cesar Romero as the Cisco Kid, and John Wayne, to name a few. Boyd would make some 30 movies in the area. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Tex Ritter were singing cowboys, ready to burst out in song at the least excuse. Their guitars were right up there with their horses in importance. The ‘Duke’ spent the 30s as a B level actor producing B level movies. Six of them had scenes filmed in the Alabama Hills. His big breakout movie, the one that would move him up to an A-level actor performing in A-level movies was Stage Coach, directed by John Ford and costarring Claire Trevor. Wayne played the Ringo Kid. Another world-famous actor who had his breakout movie in the Alabama Hills was Humphrey Bogart in the1940 movie High Sierra. The car used in the chase scene from Lone Pine up through the Alabama Hills to Whitney Portal can be found at the museum, along with a cutout of Bogart. Visitors are invited to take their photo with ‘Bogie’ and tweet about it.
Not surprisingly, as the fame of the Alabama Hills spread in Hollywood, other film genres began to consider producing movies there. The movie Gunga Din, based on the poem by Rudyard Kipling, is a prime example. Why go to India when a day’s drive would get you to the Alabama Hills? Utilizing over 600 extras, the movie starred Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Fontaine and Sam Jaffe. It was a blockbuster of 1939, second only to Gone with the Wind in box office revenue. Similar in nature, The Charge of the Light Brigade starring Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland was another. As was Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Davila starring Hedy Lamarr, Victor Mature and Angela Lansbury. Lamarr, known for her sultry look, was also brilliant and helped invent Wi-Fi during World War II. (The Navy suggested she would serve the war effort better as a pin-up but quietly made use of her work.) As for Lansbury, I keep getting this image of her as a singing tea kettle in Beauty and the Beast. Or here’s a fun one in 1943, Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan’s Desert Mystery. Guess they had to get the ape man out of the jungle. Jumping forward to 2000, we have Russel Crowe in The Gladiator.
While the use of the Alabama Hills for movies dropped in popularity in the 60s, it continued to be used for the occasional Western. James Coburn in Water Hole #3 in 1967, Clint Eastwood in Joe Kid in 1972, and John Wayne along with Katherine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn in 1975 are three examples. More recently, Django Unchained directed by Quentin Tarantino in 2012 and The Lone Ranger starring Johnny Depp as Tonto in 2013 used the Alabama Hills in their movies. The other-worldly look of the area also caught the eye of the Sci-Fi/fantasy crowd. It was a natural for an episode of The Twilight Zone. Robert Downey Jr., aka Tony Stark in Iron Man also made an appearance in the Alabama Hills and scenes from Star Trek Generations and Star Trek the Final Generation were filmed there. And finally, the movie, Tremors, was filmed totally on location.
While this post has gone on long enough and you surely get the point of how important the Alabama Hills were to Hollywood, I just can’t help but mention a few more stars associated with movies that used scenes from the area: Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Tim Holt, David Niven, Spencer Tracy, Maureen O’Hara, Tyrone Power, James Stewart, Randolph Scott, Alan Ladd, Jamie Fox, Demi Moore, Nicholas Cage, Jack Lemon, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Audie Murphy, Brad Pitt, Robert Taylor, Jack Palance, Rita Hayworth, Vincent Price, Mel Gibson, Elizabeth Montgomery, Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen, Henry Fonda, John Travolta, Mary Pickford, Richard Burton, Cuba Gooding, Bing Crosby, Alec Baldwin, Minnie Driver, Susan Hayward, Kevin Bacon, Rex Allen and Glen Ford. There are some I didn’t recognize but who made a ton of movies in the Alabama Hills in the 20s and 30s including Jack Hoxie, Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones and Tom Tyler. There was also Rin Tin Tin, Ranger the Dog, and Johnathan Livingston Seagull! Enough you say? Google “List of movies made in the Alabama Hills” if you want to learn more. Finished. (Grin)
Two more photos. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans had stiff competition in this post. I was working on their photo caption when this fellow popped up in the window in front of me and then laid down a few feet away. I had Peggy come in to take a photo over my shoulder of the latter.
NEXT POST: I’ll travel 10 miles up Highway 395 from Lone Pine and visit the World War II American-Japanese internment camp.
I’m back! While the three months of hanging out at our home and taking care of my brother may not seem like long, it felt like an eternity. I have one more post to write on the experience but it is going to have to wait. It’s play time. While Peggy decided that she needed a kid/grandkid fix and headed east, I decided I needed a road trip. I loaded up Quivera the Van and took off down Highway 395 along the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, one of America’s most scenic and interesting drives.
My journey started in Reno visiting the National Automobile Museum. Even if you don’t care a rat’s behind about old cars, I can pretty much guarantee Bill Harrah’s collection will awe you. (Rat’s behind? I’ve been reading Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” and have been inspired by his colorful choice of words.) From there, I headed south, enjoying the sheer grandeur of the mountains with side trips to Virginia City where Samuel Clemens assumed the name Mark Twain, the ghost town of Bodie, Mono Lake with its strange, other worldly tuff towers, a mountain of obsidian, the World War II Japanese internment camp of Manzanar, and finally the Alabama Hills next to Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney.
I stayed in summer-touristy but interesting towns, visited local museums, learned about water wars, and ate some great food. I’ll take you inside the ‘world famous’ Schat’s Bakery in Bishop where simply stepping through the door guarantees that you gain five pounds, and we will stop at the Copper Top, a hole in the wall front yard family bar-b-que in Big Pine that was named America’s best restaurant in 2014 by Yelp. Yep, its ribs and tri-tip are to die for. When the restaurant is closed, you can get the tri-tip from a vending machine.
Originally, my goal was to head farther south to where Highway 395 intersects I-15 and ends. The road had originally gone all of the way to Mexico but had been done in by bulldozers and Southern California freeways. You can still follow the highway to Canada through remote country where there are fewer people and bulldozers. My primary objective had been to visit the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans museum in Victorville near the highway’s terminus. It wasn’t that I was so interested in Roy and Dale, I wanted to see Roy’s horse, Trigger. The singing cowboy had him stuffed. Visiting the horse had been on my agenda for a long, long time. Boy, was I out of date. Googling Trigger, I discovered that the museum had closed in 2003 and the horse had been moved to Branson, Missouri. (I’ve been to Branson; there are lots of strange things there.) Trigger never achieved the stardom in Missouri that he had out West, however. It could be that most of his fans from the 40s and 50s have ridden off into the sunset.Maybe ifDale had stuffed Roy…
Along the way, I was going to make a side trip to the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest with its focus on the petroglyphs of the Coso Range. That trip ended up on shaky ground, however. The 6.4 and 7.1 earthquakes near the town at the beginning of the month persuaded me that the museum could wait. I just read that there have been thousands of aftershocks since.That’s a whole lot of shaking going on.
Today I will restart my blog— get back in the saddle, so to speak— with a drive through the Alabama Hills, which I think you will find unique and beautiful. I did. Having the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains as backdrops doesn’t hurt. The set locators, directors, actors, script writers and film crews of the over 400 Hollywood movies made in the area starting in the 1920s obviously found the hills attractive. But I will get into the details of the movies in my next post when I will take you into the Lone Pine Film History Museum where Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger rub elbows with the likes of John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, Ann Francis and Spock, not to mention Trigger, Silver, Rin Tin Tin and Buttermilk. Buttermilk!? Hmmm. Okay, you trivia fans, who was Buttermilk?
I first thought that the Alabama Hills had been named by some homesick prospector from the East. That happened a lot in the 1850s, 60s and 70s. Heck, the lonely miners were even known to name mountain lakes after their favorite prostitutes. What I learned, however, was that Southern sympathizers named the hills after the CSS Alabama, a Confederate War ship that had caused the Union considerable strife by taking some 66 merchant ships valued at over six million dollars during its brief two-year career. Its success was finally ended when the Union sloop of war, the Kearsarge, caught up with the ship at Cherbourg, France and sank her. Other prospectors in the Lone Pine area who were sympathetic with the North, named their mine the Kearsarge. The name lives on in the Kearsarge Pass along the John Muir Trail.
But enough on background. Let’s rock!
NEXT POST: A visit to the Lone Pine Film History Museum.
I was with Marsh when he died on June 2, gently holding his shoulder. His hospice nurse, C, was holding his hand and quietly taking him through a beautiful meditation. She included the deer herd that had come down off the hill and stood around the RV. Coincidence? Probably. We normally have three or four that live on our property. But this time there were nine or ten. The extras had shown up when Marsh had come in from wintering in Arizona. Last summer he house-sat for us while Peggy and I were backpacking on the PCT. He was very generous with apples, a fact the local deer had shared with their country cousins.
When I went out to tell Peggy that Marsh had passed, the deer herd had disappeared. Only Floppy, named for her ears, was still there. She was Marsh’s favorite and had always been able to talk him out of an apple. She waited until the hearse arrived and took Marsh’s body away. She watched as it drove up the hill and then walked over and sniffed his chair. A final farewell, perhaps. She then hurried off to our canyon where she had hidden her fawn. I had hoped she would bring the baby by while Marsh was still alive, but a cougar hunting in our area made her more wary than usual. Our next-door neighbor had called three weeks earlier to tell us that the cougar was sleeping in her yard. We were all more cautious.
I found Peggy busy watering the honeysuckle Marsh had urged that we plant in our yard. It was her way of honoring him. He and I had grown up in Diamond Springs, California in the 40s and 50s with a large trellis of it outside our bedroom window. It was packed with flowers in the spring. At night when we went to bed, its delightful fragrance would come drifting in our open windows. Peggy had planted ours in April and it was in full bloom in May. Each time my brother walked by it, even when he could barely walk, he would stop and admire it, a fitting, living memorial.
Utilizing Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, Marsh had chosen the time and place of his death. When he had called in March, he had told me that his tongue and throat cancer were back. He had fought a valiant battle in Florida five years earlier. It had allowed him to continue doing what he loved to do— wander. He had spent two more years migrating between North Carolina and Florida as he had for 13 years and then moved West to travel between Oregon and Arizona. At 78, he had decided to let the disease run its course. There would be no ambulances, no emergency rooms, no ICU’s, and no tubes keeping him alive into insensibility. He requested that I be empowered to make decisions through an advanced care directive and a dual power of attorney to make sure his wishes were followed if he were incapacitated. I drafted a will for him based on his desires and we signed him up for hospice care. It was his intention to die in our back yard.
Marshall’s preference was to simply go to sleep and not wake up, peaceably drifting off to nothingness or wherever else death might take him. While neither of us is religious, we both believe the universe is a wondrous place, full of the unknown. He had gone through the process of signing up for Oregon’s Death with Dignity as an option. It was a detailed process. Two physicians had to agree that Marshall had less than six months to live and that he was mentally capable of making the decision to end his life. He had to state his desires both orally and in writing some 15 days apart. And, in the end, he had to be able to sit up and drink the medication on his own without help. Two End of Life volunteers, Tall M and Short M, had met with us to discuss what the procedure would entail if he chose to use it. Everyone, including doctors, end of life volunteers and hospice workers had emphasized that he could change his mind at any time, right up until he drank the medication. It was his decision— and only his decision to make.
As the weeks passed, Marshall failed rapidly. His tongue and throat cancer made it difficult to eat, drink and talk. Eating or drinking anything caused him to cough. Never big, his weight had dropped from 120 to 85 pounds from February until June. His skin draped over his bones. During his last week, his food had consisted of two 8-ounce bottles of Ensure. Earlier, he had desperately wanted to eat something else. He tried scrambled eggs and could only eat a couple of bites. “But those bites tasted so good!” he had exclaimed. I made him a fruit smoothie as recommended by his hospice team that he drank with delight. I cooked him one of his favorite veggies, acorn squash, to the consistency of baby food and he ate a whole bowl. But those were exceptions, and he didn’t want more.
When it became obvious that he had only a week or two left and he would be confined to bed, he decided to it was time to end his life. Being fiercely independent, he couldn’t imagine lying in bed while someone attended to his every need. He set Monday, June 3, four days away. Marsh decided to spend Thursday outside enjoying nature, which is what he had been happily doing for 17 years, except when driven in by the weather to his tent, van or RV. He had me cut up a bowl of apples for his deer visitors and insisted that I cover the apples with water so they would be fresh. Peggy and I sat with him. That evening, I joined him in the RV to keep him company. He asked for help walking to his bed and collapsed in my arms. I had to carry him. I worried that he had waited too long, that he would end up helpless, unable to meet the requirements of Death with Dignity.
His hospice nurse came in on Friday morning. I am convinced that these women and men who devote their lives to helping people ease their way out of life are as close to angels as we come on this earth. I say this not only for the expertise, peace and comfort they brought to Marshall, but for the knowledge and comfort they brought to Peggy and me. The End of Life volunteers that functioned as a support team under Oregon’s Death with Dignity law were equally caring and supportive. C talked to Marsh about his rapidly ebbing life. And Marsh, out of caution, moved his date from Monday to Sunday morning at 10:30. He also sat up and drank an Ensure in under ten minutes to prove that he could swallow the medication in the time required. Time is important because the medication contains a potent medicine that puts you to sleep in a few minutes. You need to drink all of the medicine before then.
While Marsh was meeting with C, I drove into Medford and picked up his medicine. Only two pharmacies in Medford carry it. Again, there are stringent safety rules. I produced both my driver’s license and my dual power of attorney. The doctor’s prescription had the wrong date for Marshall’s birth. Fortunately, the POA showed the correct date. I waited while the mistake was cleared up with the doctor. The whole experience felt strange and almost surreal. I was collecting the medicine that would lead to my brother’s death.
On Saturday Morning, I joined Marsh in his RV at 9:00. As I walked in he gave me a big smile and a thumbs-up. He had managed to get dressed, was sitting at his breakfast table, had drunk another Ensure, and had written up a to-do list for me. Among other things, he wanted to make sure that his beer found a good home. He’d bought a couple of cases of Miller Ice at Walmart to see him through his last weeks and then couldn’t drink it. (I gave it to Ed, my barber. Ed greets Pacific Crest Trail hikers as they cross the Oregon border into California with food and drink. Having hiked over 700 miles of the trail myself last summer, I knew how much the beer would be appreciated.)
I sat with Marsh all day while we listened to music from his 40s, 50s and 60s collection, sad songs and love songs from an almost forgotten era. He could barely talk. We communicated when necessary by writing notes. Mainly we sat in quiet, supportive silence as the music took us back in time to when we were young. He checked his watch often as the seconds, minutes and hours wound down.
I was out early on Sunday morning. I knew Marsh would want to be up and I needed some time on my own to prepare for the day. At eight I went out with a cut up apple and left it where I keep a deer block to supplement the does’ diets when they are nursing. I thought of the apple as an offering. Decades earlier, when I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa, I often found food left at the base of towering cottonwoods as I hiked down jungle trails. It had been left for the spirits that resided in the trees. I’d been fascinated by the ritual. As I placed the apple on the deer block, I asked the forest spirits, or whatever gods that were listening— if any— to make Marshall’s passing easy and give him peace.
Marsh was in his bedroom. “I am so glad you came early,” he whispered. “I tried to call you on the walkie-talkie but couldn’t make it work.” Technology wasn’t his thing, to put it mildly. He was still in bed, unable to dress. I helped him pull on his pants and socks. He had me pick out a handsome, long-sleeved pullover. He wanted to look good. Marsh asked for my hand in standing up but insisted on walking out to his couch, carefully holding onto things as he went. It was to be his last walk; he wanted to do it on his own. He sat up straight, fighting sleep. Peggy came in, sat down beside him, and held his hand. She and I shared stories and even laughter, helping Marshall pass the time and letting what we feel for each other include him. He started coughing so I offered to place some liquid morphine under his tongue. C had told us it would relax him and help reduce the coughing. Marshall agreed since coughing might interfere with taking the medicine. Although the hospice team had brought the morphine on its first visit, he had refused to use it. He was proud of the fact that he had reached 78 without prescribed medications and had been feeling only minimal pain.
C drove down our road at 9:30 and joined us. While hospice nurses are not allowed to mix or provide direct help in consuming the medicine, they are allowed to give comfort. Their presence is totally volunteer. Marsh had wanted C to be there and she had readily said yes. I brought out the anti-nausea medicine he was supposed to take. Throwing up was not an option. I told Carrie some of my favorite Marshall stories while we waited for the End of Life volunteers, again helping him pass the time. He grinned when I told his favorite tales.
Tall M and Short M arrived at 10:00. Peggy and I went into our house to give the three time to meet with Marsh. Their job was to assure that he still wanted to take the medication and to determine whether he would be able to sit up and drink it. Short M told us later that he had dozed off while talking with them. He had awakened with a start. “Am I dead?” he had asked. All four, including Marsh, had shared a laugh. After a very long 15 minutes, the EOL volunteers came in and told us that he still wanted to take the medication and that they felt he could manage it.
While Peggy stayed with the volunteers to assure they had what the needed to prepare the medicine, I went out to share my last minutes with my brother.
Tall M came in with the medicine in a glass and handed it to Marshall. She also brought apple juice. The medicine is said to be extremely bitter. The apple juice would help counter the taste. There was absolute silence as Marsh took his first sip: silence out of concern and out of respect. The concern was real, intense. Could Marsh finish the drink before he fell asleep? Would drinking the medicine cause a coughing fit? Would his passage be easy? While people drinking the medicine go to sleep immediately, it normally takes 30 minutes or so to die. It can take up to 20 hours.
The seconds passed, becoming minutes. Marsh moved slowly. Stopping to look at the glass or to sip apple juice. I quietly spoke encouraging words to him. We all did. Then he was finished. He motioned for the apple juice, raising it toward his lips as C began her quiet meditation. It never made it. A tear formed in the corner of his eye. I gave his shoulder a squeeze and whispered “We love you.” And he died. A quiet, dignified death.
Peggy went out later to tell him goodbye. The EOL volunteers had laid him out. “He looked so peaceful,” Peggy told me. “His eyes were closed and his lips were parted like he was sleeping.” Or maybe he was smiling.
The Bush Devil Ate Sam is an important record and a serious story, yet told easily, and with delightful humor. This is one of the most satisfying books I have ever read, because it entertained me thoroughly AND made me feel better informed. —Hilary Custance Green: British Author... Click on the image to learn more about my book, the Bush Devil Ate Sam, and find out where it can be ordered.
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