“The desert and the ocean are realms of desolation on the surface.
The desert is a place of bones, where the innards are turned out, to desiccate into dust.
The ocean is a place of skin, rich outer membranes hiding thick juicy insides, laden with the soup of being.
Inside out and outside in. These are worlds of things that implode or explode, and the only catalyst that determines the direction of eco-movement is the balance of water.
Both worlds are deceptive, dangerous. Both, seething with hidden life.
The only veil that stands between perception of what is underneath the desolate surface is your courage.
Dare to breach the surface and sink.”
― Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration
In Lover’s Leap the snow came in May. The radio forecast had called for snow but we didn’t bother guying the tent out. It seemed impossible. The winter had been dry, warm and spring too. In a few days summer would be here.
The snow came in the night and our tent bowed under the wetness of it, a heavy woolen blanket. We woke to the dreamy whiteness and instead of climbing we walked through the forest, squirrels twitching on tree trunks, the heavy slough of snow falling off pine boughs, snow settling in rounded mounds on granite boulders.
One week later.
The desert campground sounds like a swarm of insects when we arrive. All this generators. It’s Memorial Day Weekend and all of the 80 or so campsites are full. The dirt road crunches under the tyres as we roll past another palatial RV, squinting into the darkness around roaring campfires to see people sitting over steaming plates, laughing and chatting in the night.
We must have been thinking that if we drove around patiently we would find a place to camp, but we didn’t.
Eventually we drove back down the road and stopped in a clearing about 100 metres from the gate. I’m sure we could have found a better place to camp but we were done for the day. We pitch the tent to the sound of distant whirring under the desert sky.
When you travel, every place you visit has its frequency. It’s something I notice when I arrive anywhere new whether it’s a town, city, valley or campsite. It can, and often does change over time as I come to know a place and its people and my first impression fades. But it’s invariably there, this undeniable presence, the moment I arrive.
I don’t know if it’s something I imagine or an emotional distillation of things I’ve unconsciously observed. It could be a reflection of my own state of mind. Or it could be something else, something stored in the land, something only just perceptible.
The first time I remember experiencing it was when I was about 11, visiting Kata Tjuta in Central Australia. There was a cadence to that place, a silent energy that I couldn’t put into words. I can’t remember if I said anything to my parents about this thing I could feel vibrating through me but I can still feel it now, that wonder, moving through me as I write this.
In the Californian desert I get a different feeling. It doesn’t vibrate with the same energy. It’s pale, grim somehow, and is hard underfoot. As though something has been stripped.
We are in Lone Pine, a small town in the Owens Valley, California. With a population of about 2000, Lone Pine is best known for its starring role as a film set in many films, most of them Westerns. Between the years of 1920 and 2000 over four hundred films were shot in Lone Pine and the nearby Alabama Hills, directors attracted to the dramatic boulder-strewn landscape, photogenic rock arches and backdrop of snow-capped mountains. It’s not hard to imagine this small tourist town inundated with Hollywood crew, cameras, lighting. The whole landscape is surreal and there’s something about the desert light that makes it look flat, like something out of a movie.
We woke up on our first morning here to the sound of flowing water. In one direction were the brilliant white teeth of the Sierra Nevada. In the other was flat brown desert, sage brush. Then, just meters from the tent, was a corridor of brilliant green and, within it, a creek. No more than a meter wide and less deep but flowing fast with clear water rolling off the mountains. Then the land gave way to desert again. Here we were, camped by the road on a desert artery.
Packing up that morning we found a scorpion under the tent. It was docile, about as long as my middle finger and almost translucent.
We moved our gear to campsite #8 and headed out for the day.
We were at Lone Pine to climb, mainly. There were some routes on the white granite walls of Whitney Portal that we wanted to climb. We did some climbing, but that’s not what I remember most about Lone Pine.
Here’s what I remember:
One afternoon we went to a museum in town. It was the kind of hot that slows your feet, your mind, your everything. That seeps into your skin and spreads everything out slow.
The museum is in a small rundown shack off the main road. When we walk in, two homely women greet us, looking up for a moment to make eye contact and smile before continuing their conversation. There is a glass cabinet with magnets for sale, the kind you make with those press-button machines. The magnet has an image of the rundown museum we are in. It looks photocopied and faded. I have a thing for this kind of kitsch local souvenir. Dan buys one for me.
Weaving carefully between piles of artifacts and photos, unsettled by the impression that I’m walking through someone’s personal collection of antiques, yellowed newspaper articles and local bric-a-brac, I find myself in a room filled with zoological specimens. Case after case of local scorpions, insects and bugs. I stop to see if I can find the translucent scorpion I saw back at camp.
A man walks up behind me and gets my attention, eager to tell me all about the bugs. He tells me which ones live where, which come out when, which want to kill you, which ones can and what to do if they try. But I won’t see many of those, he says. Some of them haven’t been seen for many seasons.
Then he asks me: ‘Have you heard of the California Water Wars?’ I shake my head.
A few weeks ago we went rafting on the South Fork of the American River. I’ve been rafting before in Tasmania and Alaska and my overwhelming memories are of massive volumes of water coursing over boulders, through chutes, foaming and boiling and rushing with a power I found terrifying. Rafting the Franklin, we were marooned on a steep, forested riverbank in torrential rain for 4 days before the water dropped enough that we could continue our journey. We didn’t see anyone else for twelve days. Or was it fourteen? My experience on the American was somewhat different.
When we arrived at the put-in there was a carnival atmosphere. Rafts everywhere, people milling around drinking beers and eating sandwiches, guides looking busy and groups of guys in boardies eyeing off girls in bikinis. I’d never seen so many people hanging out waiting to get on a river, and there was a good reason. Everyone was waiting for the bubble.
The South Fork of the American is dammed, so the amount of water that flows (and when) is determined by releases from the Chili Bar Dam. River levels are too low to run the rapids without these releases, so everyone waits for the bubble – the water released by the dam.
During the boating season these run to a timetable, which makes paddling this river a lot like going to Penrith Whitewater Center or a dance class. The last couple of years have been dry in California, so this year they are only releasing once a day, Thursday to Monday.
As we waited for the bubble, I could feel a bubble starting to burst. The California of my imagination, the California of unexpected snowfall at Lover’s Leap, of enchanted pine forests and towering redwoods, rushing rivers and sapphire lakes, was revealing itself to be all that, yes, but it was also ravaged. Ravaged by fire, drought – in fact much more like Australia than I’d realised.
Water shortages are nothing new for Australians. We live with a drought/flood cycle driven by La Niña/El Niño that’s been going on for as long as I can remember. But living mainly in cities and towns, I’ve never experienced the devastation of drought first hand. I’ve never felt the pinch of water restrictions beyond having to water the plants in the morning and afternoon and take a shorter shower. But over the past ten years I’ve been hearing and seeing things, things that make me aware that this bliss isn’t going to last:
Like the hike I did in Israel, where Lebanon, Syria and Israel are facing a bitter battle over the Jordan River, which runs through these three nations at war.
Or the stories I heard from friends about India and China rushing to dam the rivers that flow from the Himalaya.
The ten days I spent in the Strzelecki and Simpson Deserts, where the land is visibly devastated by drought and overgrazing.
A winter in the mountains of western Canada with almost no snow.
A dam west of Sydney where the rain never seems to fall.
More and more headlines about drought, dams and the politics of water.
We can survive weeks without food, but we can’t survive days without water. The more I learn about water, politics and climate change, the more of a problem this becomes. The California Water Wars weren’t the first, they won’t be the last and the story blew my mind.
There was a time when the Owens Valley, where Lone Pine sits, was a fertile river valley. Before white settlement the Paiute people lived subsistence lifestyles there, using irrigation for their small-scale agriculture.
When white people came they used the land for mining and farming, taking advantage of the abundant water supply. They used to call the Owens Valley the ‘Switzerland of California’ and it attracted birds, deer and elk. It’s hard to imagine that this desiccated landscape could once have been the kind of lush, fertile country I associate with these animals, but it was.
In the late 1880s all this changed. Los Angeles, about 400km southwest of Owens Valley, was growing thirsty. Water supplies were running low and a couple of LA visionaries came up with an ingenious solution.
According to my friend at the museum, these guys managed to effectively swindle their way into purchasing/possessing land and water rights for a lot of the Owens Valley. Despite local resistance they built an aqueduct to transport water from there straight to Los Angeles. 400km. This period became known as the California Water Wars.
Los Angeles went on to become a major city and by 1925 or so, Owens River and Lake were both completely dry. An entire ecosystem had been destroyed. The dust whipped off the dry Owens Lake became the biggest source of dust pollution in the United States. Farmers suffered, many left.
So this place wasn’t always a desert. It is undergoing a slow process of desertification, a constant reminder of the capacity we have to transform our planet, for better or worse.
We spent another 6 weeks or so in the United States before returning to Australia.
When I got home I decided to look into the California Water Wars and discovered that the story didn’t end there. In 2006, Los Angeles actually restored a small amount of flow to the Owens River. This has allowed water to flow through Owens River Gorge and down the river towards the lake. The hope is that over the next 5 to 10 years, regular (if limited) water flow will promote the return of the vegetation and animals that used to live there.
Over the past year, the situation in California has worsened. The drought has gone from being a local concern to making international headlines. California is now in its fourth year of severe drought. Things are getting serious. Water restrictions are ramping up. Everywhere, bubbles keep bursting.