The Other California


Alabama sprawlMoonrise over the Whites

Traveling down the east side of the Sierra Nevada, along California Hwy 395, I am struck by how the landscape and people don’t conform to the stereotypes assigned to this maligned state—the pollution, cars, and superficiality. I love what I find–sun-etched wrinkles, old trucks, open-space–and what I don’t find: high heeled shoes, traffic jams, fastfood. To be fair, in this land of little water, you also don’t find fresh vegetables.

Each time I drive this route, I fall slightly more in love with the sagebrush, the hotsprings, and the “range of light” that glints off the eastside granite. Oddities tucked here and there in the desert delight: the ancient Bristlecones of the White Mountains, “The Still Life Café” in the town of Independence where a French chef makes bouef bourguignon for travelers, the crepe maker in Shoshone, and China Ranch–a surprise oasis full of date trees. I love browsing the bookstore at Mono Lake and lingering at the Galen Rowell photo gallery in Bishop. And there is the view of Whitney the Alabama Hills.


Let Los Angeles take the water; at the very least it keeps away the sprawl—an ironic form of preservation.


I love the people who have loved the desert—Georgia O’Keffee picking her way thru dry rock in a black dress, Mary Austin who had an eye for things that scrabble, dart and scurry, Edward Abbey who relished the lack of people, photographer Galen Rowell who captured the particular clean-lined light of the eastside. I love some of the characters I meet: Anna-the-musician whose boyfriend ran off with her best friend. “Let the dead bury the dead,” she laughs. Now, for insurance, she keeps two men—a roadie and a horse whisperer from Tennessee.

And so I drive. Mountains jut up from the desert floor. Bighorn sheep hide. Raven caws break silence.

I drive and feel, not the urban desolation of a crowded street, but a sort pleasurable loneliness that feels affirmed here on the east side.