Weird days at Black Rock

Weird days at Black Rock
Bill Hatch
June 2023

When you drive into the Owens Valley from the south, on your left to the west is the most magnificent mountain range in the Sierra Nevada. Majestic Mt. Whitney, tallest peak in the continental United States, stands in the middle of a jagged row of peaks, not much shorter. In late spring, great paths of snow descend nearly to the valley floor, which tilts up gradually to the foot of the mountains. On this, the eastern side of the Sierra, there are no foothills. Pastures, occasional fences and a few houses hidden in copses well off the road near the mountains, present the occasional sight of working ranchland but Los Angeles Department of Water and Power probably owns it and leases it to the ranchers. Most of the pasture land is idle. 
On the east side are the Inyo Mountains, lower, more rounded, impressive but definitely a desert landscape. Beyond them lies Death Valley. Between US Route 395 and the Inyos in the southern end of the Owens Valley, you see the dark outlines in riparian vegetation of the nearly empty Owens River. As you drive farther north you see to the east the main characteristic of the valley, Owens Lake’s alkali bed, which this year had more wetlands around and within it than usual due to the record snowfall and runoff. The importance of the fresh playas of runoff for the residents, they told me, was that the water suppressed the usual toxic dust that had plagued the valley since the LADWPappropriated the river, the lake, and much groundwater besides. 

The towns of Lone Pine and Big Pine (farther up the valley) seem almost to have no visible means of support. Looking for a stock cane I’d forgotten to support my bad hip as I toured different sites, I visited a feed and seed store that had no canes for managing animals but featured pet supplies in the foreground and decorative pastel nylon lariats hanging on the back wall. 

The City of Independence is the county seat of Inyo County. Its homes and main street display the industry and prosperity of government employees. The Museum of Eastern California is the most interesting place in the valley. It has excellent exhibits of Paiute and Shoshone artifacts – baskets, arrowheads, leather clothes, and photos. The museum had a great collections of photos of its history including early European-American settlers, the farming period, the period when Los Angeles bought most of the water rights and land, and Manzanar, the WWII Japanese internment camp located in the valley a few miles from Independence. We stopped by the Manzanar camp itself, which may mean many different things to many people, but to me it just means a collision of the racial hatred that suffuses California and the magnificent cultural stamina of the Japanese people.  While trying to think about that disjunction for a moment, I wandered into a gift shop full of toys for children touring in the backseats of family cars where I met a US Park Service official who was certain that the most interesting thing in Manzanar was her PhD. 

I was growing uneasy about Owens Valley. 

Later, we saw on the east side of the road about 15 horses, some of them paints, hanging close together in a pasture that was small enough that you could see all four fences. I thought they might have belonged to the Big Pine Paiute Shoshone Reservation, but their receptionist told me that those mustangs belonged to a private rancher. It added new meaning to the comment of a farmer friend of mine that horses are just “pasture ornaments.” This band seemed to be somebody’s Wild West pets. On the other hand, maybe the rancher saved them from the pet food factory. Or, possibly, they are movie-extra mustangs.  Either way, it didn’t add up to the thrifty organization of working cattle ranches I’m familiar with. Maybe the small herds in the distance here and there, barely visible from the highway, were part of actual working ranches. But the Owens Valley just doesn’t look right to someone who’s traveled to many of the remote parts of California where cattle are still raised.

On the other hand, 502 movies were made in this valley, most around Lone Pine, so, if certain vistas strike a chord of recognition, that’s the reason. Every cowboy star has filmed there, from Will Rogers’ silent film in 1920, “Water, Water, Everywhere,” to all the great cowboy stars – Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Hoot Gibson, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum – all the way to Jamie Foxx in “Django Unchained” in 2012. The Spencer Tracy masterpiece, “Bad Day at Black Rock,” was filmed in part there. Parts of the Owens Valley have been filmed so many times from so many angles, the reality before you gets confused with the illusion in your memory.

The towns don’t have the rhythms of the land they rest on because that land is owned by a city far away. Because of this nearly total outside ownership, the towns have a sense of idle waiting.  Some of the houses in the streets off the highway have the eccentric front gardens of retired country people and there are some fine looking homes in the county seat that probably belong to government managers. But, generally, they don’t look prosperous. The restaurants were crowded with travelers when we were there. Many customers appeared to be hikers and fishermen, not the more affluent skiers that go farther north to Mammoth. The restaurants themselves are an uneven mixture of mediocrity that all close early in the evening. Bishop is bigger and has more bustle.

Maybe, my sense that nobody seemed to be getting better at anything in these towns comes from the de-skilling that takes place when a region is absorbed into a tourist economy. There is no farm or ranch economy left and its myriad skills have vanished leaving little behind but hopefully grinning salespeople.

Walking back to my motel from a coffee shop I passed a crew of young Mexican men behind a chain-link fence, sitting at a picnic table behind which was a food truck feeding them through a window. Again, they weren’t what they looked like any more than these towns were the “Old West” towns they looked like. The boys weren’t ranch hands or farm workers, they were working on some government project – something for LADWP on the aqueduct, or perhaps on the CalTrans highway-widening project south of Lone Pine that has been unearthing ancient bones, which has raised deep concerns among the Paiute and Shoshone residents of the valley.
At the motel I noticed in the office a small orange wooden swing in which two statues sat. I asked who they were and the manager (from India) told me they were Vishnu and a consort. A touch of Vedanta was just what the day had lacked, evidently.

The moon was full the evening I was there and I stepped out the door around 10 p.m. to look at the Mount Whitney Range. Mount Whitney, 14,500 feet, is the tallest mountain in the continental United States. Its top quarter was still snow covered, with wide paths of snow falling down the slopes to the edge of the valley. Its massive size, beauty and grandeur stunned me and I didn’t stop staring at it for quite a while. The silver glow off the mountain top washed away the entire history of Owens Valley from my mind for a moment. Great mountains are symbols of the Center of the World, the Axis, Unbilicus, where Heaven and Earth, the higher and lower realms, connect. It is a place where stories become ideas.

But, while the silver glow of this great peak pulled my thoughts well beyond the history between this poor valley and that huge city, it provoked me to think about the reason.  It cannot be condemned and explained simply as rampant capitalism. Although there were certainly powerful private railroad and real estate interests and cadres of eager engineers, capitalism is only part of the story. In the case of the legal expropriation of Owens Valley water, only owners of the valley land were private; they were paid with public funds in a bond issue approved enthusiastically by Los Angeles residents, state and federal government officials.  

Transporting enough water from Owens Valley and later Mono Lake to Los Angeles for it to grow throughout the 20th century, from 300,000 in 1910 to nearly 4 million today, was the very essence of the slogan of Republican Progressives from Teddy Roosevelt to Arnold Schwarzenegger: “The greatest good for the greatest number.” Yet, always, beneath that happy trope, there was another, best expressed by the supply-side economic baloney peddled by Hollywood’s gift to government, Ronald Reagan: “Greed is good.”

Of course, without that water, eventually Southern Pacific Railroad would have had to cut back on its advertising of the grand advantages of living the California Dream and Los Angeles would not have grown to its present grotesque size. It is a city with constantly increasing thirst, smog, traffic, political unrest, population density, and property values as land for development runs out.  If it had not been for the Owens Valley’s water, many people who had no idea they would ever live one day in a place called Los Angeles might have remained closer to home and the incredible weight of this city, which knows no value but More, would not have become such a drag on the state’s resources.

I searched for a reason for this enormous display of human hubris at the foot of one of the nation’s greatest mountains and found myself back with Hesiod. 

Around 700 BC, in “Works and Days,” Hesiod wrote to his brother: 

“For we had already divided our inheritance, but you seized the greater share and carried it off, greatly swelling the glory of our bribe-swallowing lords who love to judge such a cause as this. Fools! They know not how much more the half is than the whole, nor what great advantage there is in mallow and asphodel (poor people’s food--ed).”

From thoughts like these the Greek concept of pleonexia developed. It’s not just greed; it’s a special kind of greed,  a lust for the goods of others, taken by superior force. When dealing with petty criminals, it is grist for the criminal courts; but, when whole cities and states are taken and incorporated into the order of a new tyrant, the pleonexia of the tyrant becomes justice because he owns the law.  

Anyone who looks at Owens Valley can see the perfectly orderly result of our system of progressive American pleonexia. To complete its total dominance, Los Angeles turned Owens Valley into one of its favorite western movie sets.