Many of us who live in the West, especially California and Nevada, have traveled US395 up and down the eastern Sierra and through the Owens Valley. We know Independence, Bishop, Lee Vining, and Bridgeport as pit-stops. They are places to stop for a meal, for gas, for provisions, or a fishing license.
When I was growing up in Placentia, California my dad towed our camping trailer along this road, aiming to hit Tioga Road up to Yosemite as the sun rose. My husband and I met on a geology field-trip up this highway in 1971. And after we moved to Carson City in 1977, we drove it countless times to visit the family we left behind.
I love this road and the towns along the way, and was always curious about who would choose to live in such a harsh, isolated, albeit beautiful place. Its story is in large part the story of California–for better and worse.
Author Kendra Atleework grew up in Swall Meadows, just outside Bishop and tells a big story in small, human-scale bites. Views out the window and from the top of a mountain. A look back at moments and the sweep of history. Water and its absence, its theft. The death of a person and a people. Lessons learned. Like a conversation with a new acquaintance that begins with a simple, “Where are you from?”
Who lives here now?
“In Swall Meadows there are no streetlights and no sidewalks—no need for streetlights with so many stars and no need for sidewalks with so few cars—and every road slopes and sloughs down the mountain, eroding before our eyes.”
“This dusty margin of California draws and then replicates the kind of people who have never completely adjusted to a human scale. They don’t quite fit other places, be it the orbit of their ideas, good and bad, or the size of the sky they require in order to carry out their lives.”
“Every family cultivates a culture and lives by its own strangeness until the strangeness turns normal and the rest of the world looks a little off.”
The enigma that is California
“Our state could easily contain ten European countries. It has redwoods and fog and snow, dolphins and pine martens and antelope. It has libertarians and hippies. It is a home to immigrants from everywhere. Yet all its many pieces share this in common: ours is a state thus far defined by growth. Growth demands optimism. At its best, optimism demands resilience. At its worst, optimism demands forgetfulness. And these can be difficult to distinguish”
“California’s farms now feed a quarter of the nation. This state is home to 12 percent of the US population. If you add up water to grow our food and make energy for our travel and shopping, each of us in California requires about two thousand gallons for one day of life. We built dams to accommodate growth, and in turn that growth never stopped. Ninety thousand people lived in California in 1850, 1.5 million at the turn of the nineteenth century, and over 33 million at the next.”
The story of water and its lack
“To whom does water belong? To its harvester? To all who need it? When water is taken, who inherits the loss?”
“The Inyo National Forest, which wraps Owens Valley in wilderness, was created because Los Angeles had a need to keep the land undeveloped and its water unclaimed.”
“It is suggested that the Indians be moved from Owens Valley to new locations,” DWP wrote in a report in 1933. Their homes “should be abandoned for reasons of conservation of water … and particularly to prevent contamination of water supplies.”
“In 1932 Paiute lands around Bishop were reduced from 67,000 to 875 acres.”
“But I don’t know whether Mulholland the individual is entirely at fault, or whether it was the ambitions of his culture that led to the construction of such a dam, a project once applauded—remember, the greatest good for the greatest number—its risks and weaknesses not yet understood.”
“And it hurts to think about everything this place might have been, without Mulholland, with a different idea of good, a different kind of meeting between newcomers and First People.”
“…disaster forces us back into the fold. It reminds us that we never experience loss alone, that we share our lives and we share our homes.”
“Those days add themselves to memory like ice on your boots. The person who carries the memory grows heavier for it.”
“To be made careful is to be made grateful. Loss highlights all you have, just as absence in the desert highlights presence, until what little water we harbor glows.”
“We make our own rules: do all you can to ensure that things work out. And then hope, when hope is all that’s left, that the next day will bring sun in a clear sky. In drought that the next day will bring rain.”
Kendra Atleework weaves her own experiences with those of others, magnifying them. In her hands, her personal insights become a profound story of a place and its people, and perhaps all of us. I was left both grateful and hopeful. Recommend.