“Shadows of horses should be a cool carmine & Blue…” (Click for full size; the difference is radical.)
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.
It was four or five obsessions ago—before film noir, before the Iraq War, before Enron and the Italian neorealists and
vegetarian cooking the Army-McCarthy hearings—that I really plunged into the gunmen of the Old West. It lasted a while, a year or two in any case, and in that time I bored certain people silly (Gary, Kathy, Cay—are you still out there?) with the exploits of such forgotten men as John Selman, King Fisher, and Outlaw Bass. For instance, there was the handsome train robber Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum,
who caused some excitement when his head popped off during his hanging,
and “Deacon” Jim Miller, the religious nut and hired killer who asked permission to keep his hat on before getting strung up in an Oklahoma barn,
and Henry Brown, the popular but poorly paid marshal of Caldwell, Kansas, who decided to improve his lot in life by robbing the bank one town over from his own. It was a bad move: a couple of citizens were killed in the robbery, then Brown and his friends managed to trap themselves in a box canyon that was filling up with rainwater. They surrendered and spent the day in the Medicine Lodge lockup, waiting for the mob to reach its boiling point; while not posing for photographs at gunpoint, Brown used the time to write a letter to his wife which ended: “It was all for you. I did not think this would happen.” When the mob finally came that night, Brown made a break for it and was shot down in the street. That’s Henry, second from the left there, in shackles:
Some of the most famous gunmen were so thickly embroiled in the currents of history they seem like frontier Forrest Gumps, yet one can’t say much about them as people. These were far from self-actualized men, to put it mildly, and they had no say in how others represented them. Some of them come across as sociopaths pure and simple, others as workingmen carrying capitalism to its logical end, but in the main their personalities don’t communicate across the ages in any illuminating way, leaving us only with their violent, often nugatory experiences. Those experiences, draped as they were in law-breaking and immorality, were a tangled web to begin with, and any remaining hope of clarity was dimmed when generations of dime novelists, journalists, and slipshod historians took to heart the words of the too-slick newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Every field is open to information abuse, but the Old West was left to the amateurs for so long that peer reviews and other reality-checks couldn’t obtain a toehold for decades, allowing writer after writer, for generation after generation, to repeat “the legend”—the myths, tiresome the second time you read them, that Billy the Kid shot a man for every one of his 21 years, that Hardin once shot a man for snoring. Indeed, “the legend” was regurgitated so many times that the writer-bibliographer Ramon Adams felt moved to compile Burs Under the Saddle, a virtual encyclopedia of errata which painstakingly corrects, one by one, the outright myths and half-truths peppering Western histories. Beyond the weekend warriors, the field has also seen its share of warlords and empire builders, most notably the belligerent and quite possibly insane Glenn G. Boyer, whose inexplicable mindgames have hindered serious researchers for years. Nor do publishers, especially in the academic world, offer much help when they saddle their offerings with presentations trivializing their own subject matter. When the University of Oklahoma Press reissued John Wesley Hardin’s autobiography for the first time in decades, this is what it looked like:
Likewise, Joseph G. Rosa’s indispensable pictorial biography The West of Wild Bill Hickok is available only in a cheaply produced edition even though Hickok led a life richer than Picasso’s, and the man himself, an incorrigible camera hound, possessed one of the great modern gazes in 19th Century photographs.
Despite all this, certain potent snapshots still jump out from the literature that is reliable: a disconsolate Hickok sitting on his bed, surrounded by firearms, as a half-dressed prostitute putters about his room; or Henry Brown’s vest catching fire from a pistol flash and going up in flames as he ran down the street during that escape attempt. These luminous, ephemeral glimpses have no more substance than heat lightning, and they’re no help at all to, say, the grad student writing a thesis on the economics of mining towns. Anecdotal history like this doesn’t leave much more than a feeling, but it’s a feeling that’s tangled up with the texture of some rugged lives once lived, a constant shifting between the gridpoints on a wilderness, an easy familiarity with violence, and the unmistakably American flavor of all these things; if nothing else it injects some small dose of grit and authenticity into an age of designer-ripped jeans and Lady Gaga.
John Wesley Hardin, for instance, came out of the East Texas hills, the son of a Methodist circuit rider (hence the name), and his early reputation as a mankiller was based on run-ins he had with freed slaves, Union soldiers, and the hated (by Democrats and ex-Confederates) State Police. Getting himself into scrape after scrape, he was a fugitive long before he was 20; in the Taylor-Sutton feud he shotgunned a man on the deck of a riverboat even though the fellow was known to be fleeing the territory; when he subsequently murdered a deputy and lit out again, a furious mob strung up his brother.
The Texas Rangers caught up with him on a train outside Pensacola, knocked him out, and renditioned his ass back to Texas, where he was given a 25-to-life prison term. In Huntsville he taught Sunday school—par for the course for celebrity felons today, but Hardin seemed to believe his own sermons, and he went one step further and began studying law. He served 20 years before he was pardoned in 1894, and the Texas of his youth was fading away fast. He passed the Bar but few people wanted to pay John Wesley Hardin for his legal advice. He married a 15 year old girl who fled on their wedding night and refused to discuss him ever again. The children from his first marriage, grown now, were strangers to him. He moved to El Paso and hung out a shingle.
There he began work on his autobiography, a book short on insight but long on detail, with names and dates supplied for almost every killing, some 30 or 40 in all. He distributed autographed playing cards drilled by bullet holes—keepsakes which are traded to this day. But things continued to slide downhill for him: not enough clients, a messy affair with the wife of one of the few clients he did possess, a card game that so pissed him off he scooped up the pot and walked out the door, silently daring anyone to object. The local newspaper, hearing of this, began a drumbeat: the day of the gunman was over. It was just a matter of when. There was one final dispute, one final exchange of charges and countercharges, this time with a degenerate constable, and on August 19, 1895—115 years ago yesterday—Hardin was playing dice in the Acme Saloon when John Selman stepped up and shot him in the back of the head.
Now, not even with a gun to my head could I tell you why I find these details irresistible. The fact is, I just do…
Went back to Lone Pine this weekend, and if the L.A. Department of Water and Power didn’t have a stranglehold on the real estate I’d seriously consider moving there. It’s hot—that’s the one setback. Oh, and I don’t have a job or a house or any friends there, there’s that too, but apart from these bumps in the road the area looks like God cooked it up just for me. I’m not sure what other single place gives up such rich doses of the West (both old and new), film history, and (if you count Manazanar about five miles up the road) World War II, with the Sierra Madres looming above it all. Even the Manson family has a link to the area: after the raid on Barker Ranch they were booked at the Inyo County seat in Independence, just up 395 from Lone Pine and another focus of activity in California’s water wars.
We also went back to Death Valley, got there by way of the mightily impressive Eureka Dunes. It looks to me like a single dune, albeit one almost 700 feet high,
and backed by cliffs with astonishing rainbow-colored striations running across them like a racing stripe.
The area was so deserted we drove 60 miles without seeing another car—break down there in the pre-satellite days and, baby, you’re fucked. Wound down the long dirt road through Chidalgo Canyon, red sandstone teeth with a million cavities bored into them, towards Scotty’s Castle, the Spanish-Mediterranean villa dropped onto northern Death Valley by a weirdo insurance tycoon back in the ’20s.
At Stovepipe Wells it was 119 degrees—I kid thee not—and just standing still I felt like I was in a sealed trunk. Driving through heat like that in perfect AC heaven, then you crack the window and stick your hand out, and it’s more than just hot: it actively hurts. While I was standing in the small tourist center at Stovepipe—a bar, a restaurant, and what-not—a raven the size of my damn head landed next to me, then looked up at me, panting.
Sunday morning it was back to the Alabama Hills, which jut out of the flatland between Lone Pine and the Sierras. It’s just another of the area’s rich geological finds, a vast moonscape of oddly shaped outcroppings: giant monoliths crowding against each other like people trying to stay dry in the rain, turd-shaped balls simply plopped out on the landscape, rocks whose surface have been broken into layers that look like breaking waves.
Since the Hills are an easy drive from L.A., Hollywood latched onto them before talkies came in, and a slew of movies—from Gunga Din and the Boetticher/Scott Westerns to Tremors and Iron Man—have been shot there. We drove back east of Lone Pine and found the old location for Bad Day at Black Rock. It’s not a movie I like that much but it’s got a hell of an opening, with the hellish red locomotive bearing down on the tiny town, and Sturges performed some neat spatial tricks in the early going, placing Borgnine, Lee Marvin, et al., in funny arrangements on the open stage of the desert floor. The town “Black Rock” was obviously a set, and it’s gone now save for what was once a real train depot. Today the tracks are gone, and the depot is a private residence whose owner discourages visitors.