Driving south on US 395 past Lee Vining, turn left on Hot Creek Hatchery Road. You’re going to make a pretty long, and pretty slow, drive east before you come to the overlook and parking lot of the hot springs themselves.
If you like volcanoes and geological activity, this is worth your time. If you just like the beautiful and strange, it’s worth your time too. Hot Creek starts as Mammoth Creek, and flows out of the mountains, carrying mostly cold water from snowmelt. At this location, a series of natural tunnels lead down to a magma chamber three miles down. The water passes over the top of it, heats up and “percolates” up into the stream. In addition to the hot, heavily mineralized blue pools, Hot Creek displays geysers and fumaroles regularly.
The water is scalding, and it should be a no-brainer that swimming and wading is not a good idea, but there are still fences and signs everywhere. Fly fishing is another matter entirely, and encouraged.
From the parking lot, there is a steep, worn trail that leads you down closer to the stream. It’s about 2/10 of a mile, partially paved. Over the years the pavement has worn away and the bottom half of the trail is mostly dirt. 2/10 of a mile is nothing, and this wasn’t terribly steep, really, but at 8500 feet, this was the one place I had the most dramatic reaction to altitude. On my way back up, I was laboring for breath, panting, nearly wheezing, and my brain was yelling at me that I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. (By the way, that wasn’t true. I was getting enough oxygen–I just wasn’t getting as much as I was used to.)
I stopped at the one switchback to catch my breath, but it wasn’t helping at first, and I thought, “Is this what having Covid feels like?” After a couple of minutes, and a picture of a lizard, my lungs stopped clamoring and I slowly made my way up the rest of the trail. I was panting like a marathoner again by the time I reached the top, though.
(In Iceland, we toured an energy plant that used “volcanic fluid” as a heating source, refining it to mostly water and using it as radiant heat in nearly Reykjavik. To my knowledge, the USA doesn’t utilize volcano power this way.)
Whether you like scenery, volcanoes, or geology, Hot Creek is worth the drive.
The ski town of Mammoth is southwest of Lee Vining, on Highway 203. A drive about 13 miles north brings you to the Devil’s Postpile National Monument Park. You crest a ridge and drive down the other side, into a parking lot, and a quarter-mile, level walk on a paved trail takes you to a fence, or stack, of hexagonal basaltic columns formed by nature.
Usually, you can’t drive to the columns. You catch a shuttle at the Mammoth Main Lodge. The Monument Park had closed a couple of weeks early, though, because of fires. When the wind direction changed, they re-opened for about a week, but did not activate the shuttle. We drove in and parked at the ranger’s station.
It’s tempting to use the title “Fire and Ice” when discussing these stone constructions and their placement. The National Park Service didn’t try to resist the temptation, and the informational boards call the formation of the columns a Story of Fire and Ice. Magma, or lava (once it reached the surface), formed the columns themselves, although they are not conventional lava tubes since they aren’t hollow. Thousands of years later, a glacier plowed through the area, plowed being a geological-time term. The behemoth of compacted ice twisted and shook the columns, rearranging their orientation to something that looks like a fence in some areas, like a pile of fence posts (hence the name) in others, and in one spot, looking like the baleen of the blue whale.
The ridge protected us from the worst of the Sequoia Fire smoke, giving us a blue sky and air that was easy to breathe.
I don’t know what is about autumn that makes me nostalgic, but something does. Maybe it’s that my birthday comes shortly before the season, and encourages a reckoning, a taking-stock. Maybe I’ve just bought into all the literary propaganda about this transitional season as a season for reminiscence (and regrets, which will not be included in this post).
Maybe it’s the steady rustle of the dry leaves and the quality of the light, but whatever causes it, in autumn I snag myself in strange fragments of memory.
These past few weeks I’ve been revisited–haunted?–by a shirt I had when I was twelve or thirteen. Made of creamy off-white satin, it had belled sleeves that gathered onto narrow cuffs. Three fake-pearl buttons did up the upright collar. It was smooth, romantic, radiant. I found it while I was helping my mother at a church rummage sale, and she bought it for me for a dime. Or maybe she didn’t even need to buy it. Maybe they just gave it to me.
My memory of the shirt–or more accurately, blouse–is wrong in almost every particular. The color is right. It was faded to a yellowish white because it was nearly twenty years old, probably part of a stylish suit some woman wore in the 1950s, left to fade away in the bottom of a hamper for years. I know the sleeves are right. I’m not sure about the fake pearls. And anyone who’s ever seen photos from the 1970s knows this wasn’t actually a poet’s shirt–they almost always had a froth of lace at the throat, were often yoked, and honestly, most often worn by guys. In fact I’m pretty sure what inspired me to want it was some shirt Romeo or Mercutio wore in the Franco Zeffirelli adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Or an image of The Who or Led Zeppelin.
But it was a poet shirt to me.
I wasn’t a poet when I wore it, though. I was the rebellious daughter of a noble family, sneaking out under cover of darkness, disguised as a boy, my hair tucked up under a velvet cap, my glamourous swordsman-style shirt covered by a soft black wool vest, my polished noblewoman’s boots and my… well, um, my jeans. In this disguise, riding my trusty, valiant steed, I would rescue helpless peasants from the brutality of the bad nobles, because at twelve I was a sponge who had sucked up every putrid drop of American mid-century imperialism. I could only imagine myself as a member of the power structure, aiding the downtrodden. Nowadays we call this White Savior Complex.
About the “disguise” of my daughter-of-a-noble-family self: the shirt you know. The vest was real. The boots were imaginary. The cap, imaginary. The jeans were jeans. It wasn’t under cover of darkness, but it might have been close to sunset sometimes.
The part of my trusty, valiant steed was played by Tina, a six-year-old quarter horse mix mare who was so flighty she would shy if the wind blew a leaf across the road. Heck, she’d shy if the wind blew, period. She’d shy if a cat looked at her. Sometimes she would shy so badly she’d pirouette like a drunker dancer and try to bolt for home and I would have to rein her in. And sometimes, the air would be still and silent, the cats headed for their hearths, the leaves on their branches, and the world would swell will quiet and peace and she’d shy anyway, just in case something happened later.
Tina was a sweet, affectionate horse, but hardly a valiant steed, is what I’m saying.
But I loved the shirt and the person I could be when I wore it.
Flash forward more than fifty years, and in the past couple of weeks, the shirt has haunted me. I remember riding in it. I remember feeling good about how I looked in it. (Or how I thought I looked, and these are my memories, so no one can really argue.) I remember how the shirt made me feel.
I don’t usually obsess about clothing. Yes, I’ve been thinking about clothing since the beginning of this month, in a what-am-I-going-to-do-for-Halloween problem-solving mode. And, in odd moments, imagining my poet shirt. I’d seen some on the internet now and then, but they weren’t weren’t my shirt.
Today I went out to do Halloween shopping. While I wasn’t overly successful, at least at first, I was enjoying the beautiful day–the red and golden leaves, the patterns of clouds and blue sky, the smell of the air. After good luck at The Classic Duck in Montgomery Village, I headed for Copperfields, strolling past Chico’s, a clothing store I have never entered, let alone shopped in. Ever.
Hanging on the rack by the window, next to a couple of maroon velour hoodies, was my shirt.
At second glance, it wasn’t quite my shirt. This shirt was white, not cream, with a slight satin sheen. It had a fringe of lace around the collar, and laced up the front. But the sleeves… oh. The sleeves.
I came to three conclusions:
They wouldn’t have one in my size.
I couldn’t afford anything in that shop.
I didn’t need a poet’s shirt.
I went in anyway.
The shirt on the rack was a Size 2. Conclusion Number 1 was correct, or so I thought, but when the sales rep approached me I asked anyway. “Our sizes are a range,” she said. “Our size 2 is about a size 12 in other stores.”
Conclusion Number 1 had just been proven false.
I looked at the tag, and it was a pretty expensive blouse. It was not the most expensive I’ve ever bought, but the ones that were more so were when I was working.
The rep said, “That’s our sale rack and everything left on it is 40% off.”
Conclusion Number 2: False.
She said, “And if we put you on our mailing list today you get another ten percent off.”
Conclusion Number 3 still stood. I didn’t need a poet’s shirt. It’s white– this functionally means no eating, ever, when I wear it. It’s just not practical. I mean, I could wear it to hand out candy, one day a year. Maybe.
Did I buy it?
As I said, in the first paragraph, this is not a post about regrets.
Yes, I will wear it with my steampunk Halloween costume and my face covering to hand out candy to this year’s trick-or-treaters. And maybe I’ll just wear it while I’m writing. I no longer think I’m a daughter of the elite, racing about on my heroic steed, but I can give some time to that little girl who wanted to make things better for everyone.
About a mile from South Tufa, on a dirt and gravel road, is Navy Beach, where you can see limestone towers that are more otherworldly that the South Tufa constructions. The towers here form exactly the same way, except they grew in the shallows of the lake, where there was a sandy bottom, and each tower is coated with sand. They look like ghostly figures, or strange paintings, or cavernous dwellings carved into cliffs.
Some of them look like creatures from Doctor Who.
The best way to see the sand tufa up close is by walking down from the parking lot.
In a couple of places we saw towers with crowns of white limestone where the sand has worn away. There were also chunks of rock and sand on the ground. Linda thought this was the product of vandalism, and it might have been, but it could also be the expected erosion.
Tufas formed around the mouths of freshwater springs that fed into the lake. This is one of my favorite pictures, not only because it could be a fantasy castle keep, but because I fondly believe it to be the beginning of a tufa. The water receded, and as the water table dropped, the spring dried up, leaving us the foundation.
Mono Lake may be a million years old. Conservative estimates put it at 750,000 years. Once part of an inland sea, the lake, which covers about 69 square miles, is a shadow of its former greatness.
It’s still great, though.
Throughout the year the lake is a stopover and home to over 2 million shorebirds. Eared grebes make a regular stop in November. The Mono Basin Visitor Center data states that nearly 80% of the Southern California seagull population is born at Mono Lake. The high-salt lake has no fish, just brine shrimp and alkaline flies and their larvae, enough to feed millions of birds–and support a tropical-fish-food business by humans, who harvest the brine shrimp as well. The local Piute tribe who inhabited the lake region originally also used the fly larvae as a staple protein in their diets.
As the water receded, strange configurations appeared; towers formed by the interaction of the highly mineralized water with the water from the springs that fed the lake. These limestone constructions are called tufas.
The best place to view the tufa up close is South Tufa, about five miles south of the town of Lee Vining. Turn left off of Highway 395. There are two viewing areas; South Tufa, which has a kiosk and some information posted on the unstaffed station, and a well-laid-out trail, and Navy Beach, about one mile east, which is more primitive but has the sand tufas. Sand tufas are more ethereal.
Warning signs say the tufa are fragile. They aren’t that fragile, but millions of people a year come see them, year after year, and that many human hands would wear them down, so don’t touch. It’s hard not to touch the knobby surfaces, some white, some dark brown, others sparkling with salt, but resist the temptation.
Ospreys nest on the tufa that out in the lake. Even though there is no food in the lake for them, the tufas are completely isolated from predators, and the parent birds fly farther away to the many glacial lakes in the area to bring back food.
In the early 20th century, Mono Lake fell prey to the water-lust of Los Angeles. As part of the Owens Valley project, the streams that fed the lake were diverted to the lake’s vampiric municipal neighbor to the south. (Yes, I have an opinion.) Working for decades, the Mono Lake Committee managed to get the diversions stopped, and the state had developed a plan to restore the lake to 1950ish levels. Unfortunately, it takes water to do that, and the recent drought has seen the lake drop even further.
The Mono Lake Committee Visitor Center is in downtown Lee Vining, right on 395. They have great information, gifts, and an excellent book selection. During the summer season they offer tours and events. Definitely check them out–and consider donating.
North of Lee Vining is the Mono Basin Visitors Center, managed by the California Parks Service (their excellent bookshop is contracted.) During the summer season the center is open every day but Tuesday. After Labor Day, it’s open Thursday-Monday until October 2, when it closes for the season. Also a great resource, the center sits on a bluff that overlooks the lake. Check it out.
Bridgeport Lake is about three miles northeast of the town. It’s a water source and a recreational spot, I would say mostly for fishing. We passed a small marina and parked in the boat ramp area, a narrow inlet of the lake that ran north. We walked down the boat ramp and about the length of a football field to get to the water’s edge. Just a reminder: generally, boat ramps go into the water, so you can launch your boat.
This was our second day in Bridgeport, and the wind had shifted, sending the smoke from the Sequoia fire sweeping down the mountains and into the valley.
The white-headed ibis is, apparently, the only ibis that inhabits the west. The birds winter in California’s southeast. This one and the second bird with it were finding plenty to eat along the shoreline. Here’s another photo that shows off the bird’s characteristics.
The ibis shared the shore with blackbirds, seagulls and a pair of white pelicans, which I mistook for swans when I first saw them at a distance.
We also found these strange structures formed of matted vegetation, possibly algae, along the shore. No one was more than three inches high. Does the stuff just dry this way? I don’t think so. Each one had a dot of whitish, opaque substance at its top, which bore a striking resemblance to the amount of guano around. All of them formed peaks, even the elaborate ones. So far, no luck determining what they are. Anyone know?
UPDATE: Juliette Wade provided the answer. At the lake bottom, a twig or stick might poke upright or slanted, and the algae would form around it. As the water drains, the vegetation mats down around it in a tent formation.
Generally, Bridgeport during the day was a very quiet town (it wasn’t at night when the trucks rolled through), and Bodie had been supernaturally still, but across the road from this end of the lake is the home of the Bridgeport Gun Club. It was the opposite of quiet.
We walked back up to the picnic tables, munched on some snacks, and watched magpies, blackbirds, ground squirrels and one brave rabbit forage in the green, irrigated lawn area.
Most of the land around Bridgeport seems to be cattle ranches, and lots of the plain, with sagebrush, rabbit brush and dried grass, was pastureland.
There was a microbrewery next to the hotel (I don’t think we ever saw it open) and a block south, close to the post office, a small shop called Sierra Strange, that specialized in cryptids–animals so reclusive and secretive nobody’s ever proven their existence even though they make people lots of money on the internet and unscripted TV shows. This mural provides a shout-out to Sierra Strange and its most famous cryptid denizen.
I saw no crows on the eastern side of the mountains, only ravens and magpies. For swagger and thievery, magpies ably fill the gap left by their other corvid cousins.
Six miles south of Bridgeport, on US 395, a left turn takes you up into the hills, to an isolated valley that holds the remains of a mining boomtown, Bodie. Now a state park, the ghost town is maintained in a state of “arrested decay,” a semi-living monument to California history and a style of living.
Founded in the 1870s, Bodie is most famous for the twenty year boom-and-bust cycle, and its rough, violent reputation. People actually lived in the town until the mid-1930s, when a fire damaged a lot of buildings and finally forced the final residents to leave.
From the highway, the 13-mile road to Bodie is winding, and the final three miles are dirt and gravel, deeply rutted. The road is wide there, and for most of the dirt road you are in the valley, so there is little danger of plummeting down a cliffside.
Sadly, the day we were there the stamping mill, which was the Standard Mine’s processing plant where they crushed quartz to extract gold, was not open for tours. There is a nicely laid out self-guided tour of the town, and of course a film that gives the highlights.
Bodie was an interesting place. I need to start with that. It was interesting, and it was the least interesting thing we saw on the east side of the Sierra. That’s not a knock on Bodie–it’s a comment on the rest of trip.
Wear sturdy walking shoes, bring a hat, sunblock and drinking water. I was aware of the altitude and thinner oxygen content the whole time I was here, and compensated by walking slowly.
In its heyday, the town held 8,000 people and it seemed like there were a surprising number of families. There was a Chinese population although I don’t know the numbers. The mining was brutal work, but the Miners Union, although they never successfully negotiated increased wages for the workers, did manage to force improvements in working conditions.
At one time, according to the local newspaper, the town had 80 saloons. Gunfights in the street were common most nights, although it’s clear alcohol consumption adversely affected the accuracy of the aim in many cases.
Undertakers in Bodie had job security, that’s for sure.
Even with a good number of other visitors, the place was still. The stillness is primarily what I remember.
With these images, you can get a sense of the height you’re at. I stopped and took these as we headed back down the hill.
Towns have identities. Some towns, like my hometown, struggle to decide what their identity is, or try to change it. Some embrace what they are: a college town, a company town, a working-class town, a tourist town, a bedroom community.
Bridgeport, CA has a year-round population of about 860. Situated on the eastern side of the Sierras, on major highway, US 395, it has a reservoir and an airstrip, and it is the gateway to the state park that encompasses Bodie, California’s most famous ghost town.
Bridgeport is also the Mono County seat, with a courthouse, adult and juvenile detention facilities, and a public library. It has a great museum. In talking to the locals, I wondered if the museum seemed wonderful mostly because the day we were there we had a wonderful docent. Hard to tell–still worth a visit, and it’s free.
Our first morning there we trooped downstairs. Linda said to the young woman working, “Is there a good place for breakfast? Or is this a good place?” (mostly to be polite, I think.)
The clerk said, “This is the only place for breakfast.”
And dinner. And probably lunch, although the Jolly Kone across the street was open and it looked like they offered burgers and hot dogs. We thought one other restaurant was open but it looked iffy and we never confirmed that. The Bridgeport Inn dining room was popular, let’s just say that.
The Jolly Kone signs seems to offer hot dogs, burritos, ice cream and massage, but in fact the massage parlor is deeper into the parking lot, next to the deli.
Back in the brief golden window of May, when vaccinations were booming and we thought Covid was on the run, we considered staying at the Bodie Victorian Hotel, also in Bridgeport. Ultimately, the reviews made it sound very noisy, so we opted from the Inn. And a good thing–the Bodie Hotel is closed, but up for sale.
The Bridgeport Inn will close the end of September, reopening in late April or early May, dependent mostly on when the passes open. I don’t know what this means for the county employees who work in Bridgeport– guess most of the brownbag it, or plan to drive have an hour south to Lee Vining, where some things might still be open.
I’ve ridden or driven past the turnoff for the South Shore of Camanche Lake Reservoir a hundred times, literally, but I’d never driven up to it. Linda and I weren’t on a clock, not really, so we took the turn and went up to the lake.
Camanche Lake is part of the East Bay Municipal Utility Department (East Bay MUD). Based on the levels of the lake, the east bay is in serious trouble this drought cycle. There is still enough water for some houseboats, but lots of orange earth shows, even out in the fingers of blue water.
As we were leaving we drove past a campsite filled with vultures. The site was teeming with them, and they were behaving like crows. I’d never seen that before. I counted 27 but since they were flying in and out, I may have counted some twice. And I may have missed some. A whole group sat in the tall grass outside the campsite, but they weren’t eating. (Linda and I looked at each other, thought, “Body?” and decided not to go there.)
The most interest seemed to be centered around the campfire circle– yes, in these bone-dry, high-wind times, surrounded by dried trees and grass, you can apparently have a fire– and the grill, which is mounted on a pole. Whatever was there, and I’m guessing remains of fish, the scavenger birds were squabbling over it.
The Lake is north east of the town of Wallace on Highway 12. We stayed on 12 until it turned into Highway 49, driving through San Andreas and Angel’s Camp, where we had a late lunch at Mike’s Pizza. While Mike’s Pizza had been a staple of Thanksgiving weekends at Buzz and Sharon’s house, it had always been carry out. The interior has that timeless pizza parlor quality; some kind of indoor-outdoor carpet, dim lights, rounded table, a clutch of noisy video games and grab-games in one corner–the ubiquitous counter where you order, the drinks station. Linda had a bambino pizza and approved of it. I had chicken strips. They were chicken strips; I was hungry; they accomplished their mission.
We drove through the picturesque town of Sonora and turned left (east) on Highway 108, which we followed all the way over Sonora Pass (9,623 feet above sea level) and down to Highway 395 which took us into Bridgeport, Mono’s County Seat, where the Bodie Victorian Hotel is for sale, for about half the cost of a house in my neighborhood.