Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography

On the Edge

I’ve given up on the tent, instead opting to lay out my bedroll out the ground at Stovepipe Wells and then on a picnic table at Panamint Springs. There just isn’t a point really: I haven’t seen even a hint of rain or snow since The Wave back on December 18th, there’s little to no wind here, and all of the usual biting and stinging things that usually creep around the desert at night are hiding for the winter. I can’t think of anything else that I would need a tent to provide shelter from so I’ve resorted to sheer laziness.

Since leaving Supai and dropping off the Colorado Plateau I’ve been in what’s known as the Basin and Range Province: a series of deep valleys divided by high ridges running north to south that makes up most of Utah, Nevada, and eastern California. Las Vegas and Salt Lake City are each in one of these valleys, Death Valley and Panamint Valleys are other prime examples. The Inyo Range marks the western edge of Panamint Valley and beyond it is Owens Valley containing the Owens River and Owens Lake. The drastic terrain relief here is staggering, you can wake up at (or below) sea level and climb to over 10,000 feet before breakfast.

As if the dramatic elevation changes in the Basin and Range weren’t extreme enough the Sierra Nevada distinctly marks the western edge of the desert and towers even higher with Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,505′, looming over the Owens Valley right at the edge of the Sierras only 85 miles from the lowest spot on the continent at Badwater, 282′ below sea level. Good luck trying to follow the direct line though, slogging directly up and down through the intervening ranges and valleys increases the amount of uphill travel required to something in excess of 30,000 feet, equivalent to trying to climb Mt Everest from sea level. The tall barrier created by the Sierra Nevada is the reason why the desert is so dry, it blocks weather systems and casts a “rain shadow” that extends clear across Nevada and Utah to the Rockies.

High up at the crest of the Inyo Range around the 8,200 foot mark are the Cerro Gordo mines and the accompanying ghost town. Cerro Gordo was a rich silver, lead, and zinc mining operation that started in 1866 and lasted for over 90 years in various incarnations. The dirt road up to Cerro Gordo starts 4,600 feet below in the Owens Valley and climbs up the ridge in less than 8 miles with an incredibly steep grade that exceeds 15% near the top. Motorcycles don’t have parking brakes and when parked on an incline they are simply left in gear to keep them from rolling away, just like a car with a manual transmission; I have inadvertently discovered that a 15% grade is sufficient to crank the engine over by sheer force of gravity necessitating some careful consideration in choosing a parking spot. I can’t imagine how brutal it must have been trying to get wagonloads of heavy ore down this road to the smelters in the valley below. In an example of some of the incredible engineering that went into these mining operations an aerial tramway (similar to a ski lift but with wooden towers) was built down the side of the mountain in 1906 to get around this problem.

The Owens Valley was a nice place once. In spite of its location in the Sierra Nevada’s rain shadow the valley receives a significant amount of runoff coming down the eastern flank of the range, enough to form the Owens River running 183 miles along the valley floor before terminating in the lake where the water would evaporate off under the desert sun. Farms, ranches, and orchards sprang up in the valley making this area a rare center of agriculture in the region. Unlike the fraudulent advertisements for Leadfield showing steamers “traveling on the Amargosa River” there were actual steamers on this lake, carrying the ingots smelted from Cerro Gordo ore across to Olancha where they would be loaded onto wagons and shipped south to Los Angeles.

This all changed though, the Owens Valley was exploited for its most valuable resource: water. Through political dealings the city of Los Angeles managed to get a planned irrigation system for the Owens Valley cancelled and instead started buying up water rights in the valley for itself. In 1913 an aqueduct running over 200 miles south to Los Angeles was completed and the diversion of water from the Owens River began. After 10 years with its entire water supply diverted (not to Los Angeles but instead to irrigate the San Fernando Valley where the politicians behind the aqueduct had bought land when it was dry, useless, and cheap) the 108 square miles of Owens Lake would be bone dry. The outraged ranchers in the Owens Valley saw their livelihood disappearing and started what became known as the California Water Wars, forcibly taking over part of the aqueduct and sabotaging it but it was too late, Los Angeles was not going to give up its aqueduct. In the 1970′s Los Angeles’ growth required even more water and the pumping of groundwater in the Owens Valley began, even the springs stopped running and the native plants died off. The old lakeside towns where steamships docked have all but disappeared, being replaced by chemical plants scraping the dry salt pan where the lake once was to extract whatever minerals had been deposited there over the years. With the water and vegetation gone there is nothing to hold the dirt down so the wind can kick up enormous alkali dust storms that rage across the valley. Today this once lush valley standing on the far edge of the desert is effectively as parched as Death Valley itself, all of its lifeblood being pumped out and carried away to Los Angeles.

This valley is home to more than one sad story. This one is about who was sent here rather than what was taken away. After the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II there was widespread fear of an attack on the west coast along with suspicion that people of Japanese descent were not loyal to the US and would aid the enemy. Orders were drawn up for an “exclusion zone” whereby anyone of Japanese ancestry would be removed and detained in remote camps; forced to leave their homes, jobs, belongings, and businesses behind. Almost the entire Japanese-American population at the time, 110,000 out of 120,000, were locked up in the camps; over 60% of them were US citizens, born in this country, rounded up based on nothing more than where their parents or even their grandparents had been born. In contrast, and betraying the discrimination inherent in the program, the 11,000 Germans interned under the program were only those who were still German citizens that hadn’t been naturalized in the US. Internment of Italian citizens was simply unfeasible due to large scale of Italian immigration in the decades before the war.

It should be noted that the term “concentration camp” existed before World War II, referring to a camp where members of an ethic group were relocated to and kept under guard, murdering the occupants was optional. The term actually originated with the British as a euphemism for camps they ran during the Boer wars in Africa, it was only after the full scale of Nazi atrocities became known the term took on the connotation of a death camp that it retains today. Strictly speaking, according to the dictionary definition of the term, these were concentration camps and had been referred to as such by members of the US government during the war including President Roosevelt himself.

Manzanar, the site of a former farming town in the Owens Valley that had been abandoned after Los Angeles diverted all of its water, was the location of the first of these camps. Over 10,000 people were crammed into tarpaper-covered barracks hastily built in one square mile of desert surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers armed with machine guns. Privacy was non-existent: “Apartments” measuring 20′x25′ were created within the barracks by partition walls that didn’t extend all the way to the ceiling, but this was at least better than the community latrines and showers that didn’t have any partitions at all. Holes in the floors and gaps in the walls allowed the alkali dust to blow into the barracks while the black tarpaper walls soaked up the sun’s heat during 100 degree summer days. The uninsulated walls weren’t enough to keep the heat from the small amounts of rationed oil in during the freezing winters. Food was rationed as well, it was wartime after all, so meat was scarce. The food budget for the camp was 45 cents per person per day. Anyone caught outside the wire could be (and were) shot. The war finally ended and the camp was closed after nearly 4 years of operation. For their troubles the released internees were each given $25 and a one-way bus or train ticket to go start their lives over again.Mt Whitney Sunset - galleryOwens Valley - galleryCerro Gordo - galleryMt Whitney - galleryOwens Lake - galleryTramway Tower - galleryBarracks - galleryFoundations and Reconstructions - galleryGuard Tower - galleryCemetery - gallery