Back in the Saddle

I’m a little spaced-out here this morning, and a little cranky, too, if you must know the truth—I went to bed on the early side and even slept in a bit, but I still didn’t catch up on my sleep.

I spent the last few days on the eastern side of the Sierras with my buddy Chris. Friday, on the drive into the mountains, we stopped off in the western foothills at Chinese Camp, a Gold Rush settlement that sprang up when some right-thinking Anglo miners figured life would be better if their Oriental counterparts were vamonosed to a camp all their own. The 2010 census pegged the town’s population at 126 people, and I suppose they’re there somewhere, but we didn’t see a soul. It’s mostly a gathering of decaying buildings lost in a grove of ailanthus trees: a post office, a foundry, the obligatory Odd Fellows hall, a sprawling, now overgrown hotel that looks like the stage for some overripe Tennessee Williams drama—each with its own dilapidated charm.

We spent the night in Bishop, in the Owens Valley. This is a stretch of ground I’ve long been partial to, though Bishop, at the northern end of the valley, is my least favorite part of it. Saturday morning we drove 60 miles south to Lone Pine, turned east, and followed a road from the mostly dry Owens Lake bed up into the Inyo Mountains, with the Sierras to the west and Death Valley on the east. It’s unpaved but it was recently graded, which is a good thing because it’s a hell of a winding little drive which at some places seems to shoot straight into the sky. I had no idea where we were going, but at about 9,000 feet the road widened out and maybe a dozen buildings sprang into view.

The town, in its day, was called Cerro Gordo—“fat hill”—and it was a silver and lead mining community that sprang up after the rush. In the late 1870s it boasted 4,000 people and its hillsides were crowded with structures ranging from dugouts and rock shelters to the two-story American Hotel, which actually had running water. There were brothels and saloons and the other amenities of camp life, and every day wagons loaded with silver ingots—each weighing 83 pounds—would labor down the road, heading for Los Angeles, from whence they’d be shipped back up the coast to San Francisco.

I learned all this and much, much more from a walking encyclopedia named Bob Desmarais—a slender, gravel-voiced guy who brings Levon Helm to mind. He’s the caretaker at Cerro Gordo, and he and his wife, along with a Chihuahua named Harley, are its only current inhabitants. Ms. Desmarais was away on a mail-run at the time, but Bob seemed happy to drop what he was doing and give us a tour of the grounds.

Bob and his wife hope to reopen Cerro Gordo as a going concern, but the last caretaker’s will left it tied up in probate. In the meantime Bob’s approach towards maintaining a historic ghost town has been perfectly balanced halfway beween the tack taken in Bodie, Nevada, where visitors aren’t allowed to enter any of the structures, and Aurora, California, which has been virtually plundered to the ground. (The only thing you’ll find there is thousands of rusted sardine cans.) Cerro Gordo is returning to the earth but at a managed rate, and thanks to its elevation and caretakers it’s been blissfully free of the casual scavenger. As a result, the hotel, the chapel, the barracks, and so on, all of which you can enter, are stuffed with actual goods from when the town was a going concern. It’s not just a collection of bottle caps.

That road going up had been an adventure even in Chris’ 4X4, so it’s a mystery how a wagon loaded with thousands of pounds of silver could’ve navigated it going down. The answer is simple: the mule. The poor damn mule. Mules had a hard enough life just pulling their damn loads, but to keep Mortimer Belshaw’s heavy silver wagons from splashing all over the valley floor, teams were harnessed to the rear of them, too—specialized teams that were trained to pull backward even as their hooves were inching forward. When we were driving home I saw a lone mule grazing happily in a green field, and I heard a crazy voice in my head: “My great-great-great-great grandpappy pulled silver wagons backwards so that one day I might roll in clover…”

Cerro Gordo is a fantastic day-trip if you’re ever in the area, but getting out of there is something else. As rough as the western road was going up, it’s nothing compared to the eastern road that goes down the backside of the mountain. Twisty and turny doesn’t begin to describe it, and there was one particularly nasty stretch that was six or seven miles long—an eternity when you’re moving 10 mph. Washouts made the road all but impassable in three or four places, with one in particular almost screwing us for good. Bob had said it wouldn’t be smooth sailing but he didn’t say we might get stuck 30 miles from nowhere, which is damn near what happened. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t The Wages of Fear—it was still nerve-wracking as hell.

That night we hit the Double L again. It’s just a honky-tonk on Lone Pine’s main street, but damn, it’s a good time. Friendly locals, a reed-thin bartender named Cindy who gives a wry, downturned smile when she likes something you said, a couple of decent pool tables in the back…What more can you ask for? It was Karaoke Night, so the locals were climbing onto the stage and spinning off their versions of “Cocaine” and Britney Spears songs, and I had just a damn good time shooting pool and bullshitting with people, but it was very likely our last hurrah there. The owner of the Double L sold his liquor license—sold his business essentially—to a casino that’s moving into town, so Cindy and the rest of them are going to need a new home soon. Which bites.

Anyway…I’m back. Sam, my boss, died on the Fourth of July—a fact I don’t think I’ve mentioned here—and the company hasn’t named his replacement yet. I’m getting my assignments from an attorney in Sacramento, but they’re slow in coming and I don’t have anyone acting as my supervisor in the S.F. office, so I’m just waiting for the word to come down. Sam’s boss told me the position might be moving to L.A., which, to put it mildly, would be an unhappy turn of events, but I’m not going to stress over something which: a) might not happen, and b) I can’t control anyway. My biggest bitch right now—me not being a mule and all—is that I just can’t wake up.

5 Responses to “Back in the Saddle”

  1. DAK Says:

    Great travel piece. I love the mules thanking their great-great-grandmules for hauling their assy asses backwards so this generation could roll in clover. Beautiful.

  2. Jim Bruno Says:

    Really well written, Tom!

  3. Tom Block Says:

    Gracias, Jim. And it’s good to see you…!

    Yeah, DAK, I’d have made the worst mule ever.

  4. mary ann Says:

    You should be a travel writer, Tom. Excellent stuff…

  5. Tom Block Says:

    Thanks, Ms. S!

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