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Riding Highs & Lows Of The Old West

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” — F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Scott’s famous metaphor, the last line of “The Great Gatsby” applies to motorcycle touring, for much of what we seek aside from the joyful highs of the road and the wind is appreciation of the history we ride.

With such in mind I phoned riding bud Duane to urge him to meet me in the abbreviated Eastern Sierra burg of Big Pine so we could partake together the 400-mile loop told here. Big Pine is situated halfway between our respective domiciles, his in Southern California, mine up here on the remote northeastern high plains of the state. Memories of riding this region thirty years ago remain fresh like those from a good book that begs to be read again.

Big Pine, California -- We begin here in this lonely niche of a town on the Owens Valley floor squeezed between the vertical walls of the Sierra and the prehistoric humps of the White Mountains where at eleven thousand feet still grow trees that were ancient when Rome fell. The retro Big Pine Motel is a good beginning because it’s my kind of place to spend the night, where the sweet ladies who run the motel treat me like family, where my motorcycle is parked three feet from the door of my room, where the evening stroll to my favorite steak and spaghetti house is a short one, and where I’m relaxed and as anonymous as I was before I was born. Sadly, said restaurant, a much loved institution run by pioneer Big Pine ranch family Rossi since the Thirties has been put up for sale, but thankfully brother Mike is keeping the lights on and tradition alive a few doors away from the old building his mother bought when he was still in diapers, where he and I bantered across the bar all those years ago when we were both a lot younger. After I inhaled my plate of spaghetti and meatballs I said, Hey Mike, great to see you again and, trust me, I know what it’s like surviving a family business. Glad to see you’re beating the rap. Your meatballs are still scare-me good.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest National Monument — Ernest K. Gann, a fine American writer who wrote of aviation with fierce talent, said the most beautiful thing about an airplane is the sky. We who are stuck to the surly bonds of earth on two measly patches of rubber, say it’s the road that’s the thing. It’s a golden late October afternoon when Duane and I soar a mile up into the wild blue yonder on one of the great ones, Highway 168, from the heights of which one’s knees are weakened by a panoramic aerial view across the Owens Valley of the fourteen thousand foot minarets of the Sierra, and of the arid Inyo Mountains plunging hugely southeast to meet their date with Death Valley. We’re here to have a look at the oldest known living things on our beleaguered planet, the Bristlecone Pines, a unique stand of trees that have been sculpted by four to five millennia of all the fire, ice and sandblast nature can dish out, and they look it; the trees aren’t tall and stately things of beauty, but short and contorted, most reaching no more than 25 feet, and erosion has exposed a large proportion of their root systems. Many of the trees are partly dead and it is thought therein lies the secret to their survival over the ages, only a small vein of living tissue keeps the tree alive. Clearly there’s a lot more to learn here. Trivia question: What American president once uttered, “When you’ve seen one tree you’ve seen them all”? Don’t tell me, I keep hope alive it was false reporting.

Deep Springs College, Deep Springs Valley, California — I stopped here once curious. A college campus that since 1917 occupies an historic 300,000-acre cattle and hay ranch in a desert valley as remote as the moon? No frat rats? No party hearty? No fight on for old D.S.? The all-male stratospheric SAT Score student body (less than thirty) runs the ranch and reads Shakespeare and Kant before breakfast. They learn heavy equipment operation and irrigation and how to butcher beef and pork they raise and how to fix fences and Emersonian self-reliance and the profound ideals of true social conscience, and they learn to write and speak well. I was especially interested in a re-visit to Deep Springs because there’s a Deep Springs alum I admire who writes like an avenging angel, William T. Vollmann, whose latest novel “The Dying Grass” is masterful immersion into a great American tragedy known as The Nez Perce War. When Duane and I rode in to take a few shots we lucked out meeting first year D.S. student Tom Sullivan from Ipswich, Massachusetts whose mother first learned of the school from a story in the New Yorker and convinced him to apply, and who kindly offered to show us around.

The college was founded by L.L. Nunn, a brilliant electrical engineer who pioneered hydroelectric energy and alternating current delivery in the early 1900’s. What he said in 1923 best expresses the goal of the school: “The desert has a deep personality; it has a voice. Great leaders in all ages have sought the desert and heard its voice. You can hear it if you listen, but you cannot hear it while in the midst of uproar and strife for material things. ‘Gentlemen, for what came ye into the wilderness?’ Not for conventional scholastic training; not to become proficient in commercial or professional pursuits for personal gain. You came to prepare for a life of service, with the understanding that superior ability and generous purpose would be expected of you”.

Goldfield, Nevada — Following a major gold discovery in 1904 Goldfield became the biggest, richest city in Nevada. At its height population swelled to 30,000, it boasted three newspapers, five banks, a mining stock exchange, the longest bar in any mining town, Tex Rickard’s Northern Saloon that required 80 bartenders to handle its customers, and the most luxurious hotel between Chicago and San Francisco that was said to have champagne flowing down the entryway steps on opening day in 1908. Today the Goldfield Hotel is a forlorn wreck being promoted to tourists as a “ghost hotel” and the semi-ghost town, population 200, still the Esmerelda County seat, is more accurately referenced an outdoor museum of the gold rush era that can’t even boast of a single gas station. The best restaurant in town, the Dinky Deli, is sited on the ruins of one. No gas here concerns us because Duane’s 1989 Honda Hawk is on reserve and next fuel available on our planned route is 60 miles south in Beatty. So it’s either chance it 27 unscheduled miles north to Tonopah or buy “emergency gas” here on the black market at eight bucks a gallon. Anyway, postscript Goldfield history: By 1910, unimaginably wealthy gold mines were in severe decline, a flash flood surged through town in 1913 and then a devastating fire in 1923 pretty much closed the book on Boomtown.

Rhyolite, California — Now we’re talking real ghost town, no semi about it. The last guy who lived here died in 1924. Duane and I arrive on our motorcycles in streaming roseate light I’ve never seen anywhere else but late afternoon in the desert in October. No one else is here. We’re alone on this stunning painting of gold rush history. In 1907 Rhyolite rivaled Goldfield as the mega million dollar yellow metal queen; fifty saloons, sixteen restaurants, an opera house, a monthly magazine, a public swimming pool, and three banks, the ruins of one of them bathed in that haunting light as we approach it, the John S. Cook and Co. Bank, once an impressive three-story brick and stone building but now no Italian marble stairs, Tiffany lamps and imported stained glass windows, what’s now is a once grand citadel of the gold rush barb wired off that looks bombed into a skeleton; think of newsreel shots Berlin 1944. Orion Pictures used Rhyolite in their 1987 science fiction movie “Cherry 2000” depicting the collapse of American society.

If God forbid you ever wonder why you love your motorcycle it’ll become clear again as you begin the fifty mile, four thousand foot descent from Rhyolite into the yawning sub-sea level Pleistocene sink of Death Valley. You sense every degree of elevation drop, temperature rise and every scent of licorice and mint of hardy vegetation that thrives in aridity. You know in your heart that in a car you’d miss every sublime second of it. When Duane and I pull into Furnace Creek Ranch we look at each other after sharing such an extraordinary experience with that knowing look, not a word need be said.

Morning as it usually does comes. The Borax Museum at Furnace Creek is closed but the open air exhibit of old mining machinery is a fine after-breakfast stroll, and what’s left of the nearby Harmony Borax Works invites contemplation of the 12 million pounds of borate salt, called “white gold” in the years between 1881 and 1888, that was shoveled into carts by 45 men, most Chinese, for $1.50 a day, most of which went back to the company store for staples like rice, tea and dried cuttlefish. The famous twenty-mule teams that hauled 100-ton wagon loads of the refined product 160 miles across the desert to the railhead in Mojave are notable enough, but like most human history worth memorializing, the devil’s in the details.

Highway 190 winds westward for fifty miles from Stovepipe Wells to the Owens Valley like a giant snake through the huge vertiginous basin and range terrain of the Panamints. The road validates the trite adjective breathtaking because that’s what happens behind your handlebars as you negotiate every rise, sweep and descent through this stark elevated amphitheater of stone and space. When Duane and I pause at an overlook to take a few shots of the immense falling away of the world I notice his hands are shaking a little too and he’s thirty years younger than I am.

Keeler, California — We pull in because even the bit we knew of Keeler was intriguing. It was a steamboat port in the 1870’s. Mark Twain would have loved it. The sternwheeler Bessie Brady was dockside regularly from the west shore of Owens Lake, loaded with charcoal from the kilns on Cottonwood Creek for the Cerro Gordo mine smelters above town in the Inyo’s, then returned across the lake to Cartago with tons of cargo in her hold, the King of Persia’s wealth in silver ingots. Before the railroad kicked in on the west side of the lake, there’s history of mule teams that hauled the rich bounty three hundred miles south to Los Angeles, a dusty frontier town, but then as always, money ruled. The mines played out early and in 1913 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power with authority invested under the golden rule, he who has the gold makes the rules, began to divert Owens Valley drainage into an aqueduct to L.A. By 1926 Owens Lake went dry. Today you stand on what was a shore in Keeler and stare across the dead bed of an ancient sea and get into your head that Owens Lake covered one hundred and eight square miles and it was fifty feet deep a millisecond ago in T.E.T., that’s True Earth Time. Then cruise town for a look at the railroad station that used to be right on the tracks that are no longer there, and the schoolhouse that’s so overgrown you’d need a machete to get a favorable look at it. Talk to the compassionate lady who lives behind Keeler’s defunct gas station, she’s one of fifty souls who still live here, she’ll tell you she thinks the railroad station and the schoolhouse need to be spruced up. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I disagree, that I think Keeler needs to proceed gently into the good night as history au natural, my favorite kind.

Independence, California -- Thirty years ago I rode into town on a late October morning when winter was coming early. The Sierra passes were snowbound and I was bone chilled despite everything I owned under my riding suit. It was way past the breakfast hour at the Winnedumah Hotel, an historic B and B with the appellation of a local Paiute legend, but I was warmly greeted by a lovely woman working alone there who implored me to shed my arctic riding wear and make myself comfortable while she made me a whopping hot breakfast I’ll never forget.

She was long gone when Duane and I checked in but the memory persists, and Independence remains one of my favorite places in the world. Walking up a leafy street from the hotel in this beautiful town is the house of Mary Austin who wrote lyrically of local people and places in her 1903 masterpiece “The Land of Little Rain”. Fronting her home is a stone affixed with a brass plaque engraved with the last lines of her preface: “If ever you come beyond the borders as far as the town that lies in a hill dimple at the foot of Kearsarge, never leave it until you have knocked at the door of the brown house under the willow tree at the end of the village street, and there you shall have such news of the land, of its trails and what is astir in them, as one lover of it can give to another”. Duane knocked but no one was home.

The Kearsarge to which Ms. Austin refers is the eleven thousand foot pass that traverses the Sierra above town, named by local mine owners during the Civil War to honor a Union war ship that sank the Confederate raider CSS Alabama off the coast of France in 1864. In retaliation, Confederacy sympathizers, of whom there were many in The West, named the range to the immediate south the Alabama Hills. Such is how history forges nomenclature. The ride up this pass to 9200-foot Onion Valley perched on a shoulder of 14,389-foot Mount Williamson is another little scoot worth mentioning, the mile-high views of Owens Valley and the great range of the Inyo’s beyond challenge your respiration and nurse great affection for guardrails around every sweeper. Two additional venues here require parking your machine: The Eastern Sierra Museum is one of the few repositories of history where I could spend a week in fascination. And a few miles south on Highway 395 is Manzanar where ten thousand American citizens of Japanese descent were stripped of everything they owned and imprisoned during World War II. The guard tower clearly visible from the busy highway is a stark reminder that the integument of democracy in the land of the free can be very frail.

Fitzgerald had no idea how prescient was his metaphor.

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