Friday, September 13, 2019

Gondolas, games and goodies, a living history art gallery, and fissures in Mammoth Lakes

You can't go to Mammoth Lakes without visiting Mammoth Mountain and we didn't.
The day was even hazier, but we hoped for the best when we traveled out to the ski center.

One sight we didn't expect was the San Andreas fault, more correctly, fissure, running under the road. It is an awesome and unsettling sight, but no one warned us about getting out and taking pictures so we did.

San Andreas fault fissure
We later learned that the Mammoth Lakes area has an average of 17 earthquakes a day, but they aren't felt until hitting 2.7 on the scale and most are under that. Six hundred years ago the indigenous people stored food in the fissures to keep it safe from animals.

Speaking of animals, about 35 bears live around the town, often holing up in drainage pipes and underneath homes. According to Dave Searles, the local "bear whisperer," they are black bears that are primarily herbivores with a sense of smell so acute they can tell what you've bee eating. You don't have to worry about the more dangerous grizzlies; they've been hunted out. The saying goes that the last grizzly in California is on the state seal.

The ski center is impressive. All credit is given to Dave McCoy, who stubbornly persevered to bring skiing to the area.

 Starting by gathering friends and using heavy-duty trucks to pull the ropes that pulled skiers up the hills to installing the region's first permanent rope tow in 1938. Now one of the biggest mountain resorts in the country, Mammoth boasts an 11,053-foot summit, 28 chair lifts and 3,500 acres of skiable terrain. Hikers and mountain bikers take over in summer.

 We took the gondola to the top, but there wasn't much to be seen ...

... unless you count mountain bikers riding their cycles down the steps toward the trails.

That left us with some extra time on our hands and boy, did we fill it... and ourselves.

We stopped in at Mammoth Fun Shop and were immediately transported back to the best part of childhood: games, toys, wonder, make believe and ice cream. In other words, fun.  Whoopie cushions, juggling equipment, magic wands, puzzles, illusions, puppets, game sets, look-a-like bugs, snakes, poop. You name it, they have it.

We wandered, exclaiming "Oh, remember this!" or "Look at this!" at every other step.

It was "Wow!" when we hit the ice cream counter where a good three feet was filled with every kind of sprinkle under the sun. Buy a scoop or two and take your choice.

Camilla Miller holds her latest creation, the Baked Gorilla, a vertical banana split.
Camilla Miller, owner creator with her husband Brant, said she was tired of hearing disappointed children who wanted more than one kind, so she instituted the as many as you want policy.

Adults will go for the individual pies and innovative ice cream combinations, if not the array of sprinkles.

Another worthwhile time filler is The Gallery at Twin Lakes, once summer home and studio built in 1934 by famed Western photographer Stephen H. Willard. Considered one of the four great Western photographers - Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Wayne Ballock are the others - Willard combined fine photography with painting to capture what he called "the land of purple shadows." His photos were influential in creation of national parks and monuments such as  Joshua Tree and Death Valley.

Willard's cabin is now owned by Sue and Robert Jokis, who welcome visitors and
maintain much it as it was as a piece of living history.

It is a gallery, so if you want a unique souvenir, buy a work of art,  perhaps even one of Willard's.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Nearby forest fires limit our views but not our experiences in Mammoth Lakes

We arrived in Mammoth Lakes at the beginning of California's summer forest fire season, with blazes to the south and west. The nearest, the then 3,000-acre Lions fire, was seven miles to the south. The good news: we would be in no danger in Mammoth. The bad news, the smoke-filled air would continue, getting worse as the wind blew in more smoke from the uncontrolled blazes.

Not fun for us flat-land Floridians, struggling to acclimate to the town's 7,881-foot elevation. The beauty surrounding us in this ski town was both attraction and impetus to keep going.

Just one of the many alpine lakes.
 Mammoth Lakes area of the Eastern Sierras has seen miners, loggers and now is a year-round destination for skiers and boarders, mountain bikers, boaters, hikers, horseback riders and campers, anglers and anyone with an appreciation of Nature's beauty. Like many ski towns it is hard to identify a center as tendrils of hotels, inns, hostels, restaurants, shops, services and private homes wind from main roads through often steep and narrow terrain.

Our hotel, The Westin Resort, was on a short twig of a driveway. As one would expect at a ski resort, rooms came with fireplaces and pegs for heavy winter jackets.

A 40-minute helicopter ride gave an insight into the geology, village, landscape and lakes of the Mammoth Lakes area plus the Lion fire.

Pilot Brendan apologized that he could not fly south over the ridge - airspace was closed because of the fire - and for the limited visibility.

The ridge, to but not over.

Smoke infused haze blurred views.

There was plenty to see to the west, north and east.

  Mammoth Mountain.

Mammoth Mountain

Town of Mammoth Lakes nestled in the foothills of Mammoth Mountain.

Crystal crag

Obsidian dome

 Mono craters

Mono Lake with its tufa, solidified salt pillars like a forest of Lot's wives.

Back on the ground we saw the Sikorsky helicopters being readied for another round of fire fighting.

Next up: Mammoth Lakes from the ground.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Exploring Despair at Manzanar National Historic Site

The U.S. National Park System (NPS) dates back to Yellowstone’s 1872 establishment as the first in what's become a chain of true American wonders.  Lucky for tourists, the number has grown by 2019 to a total of 61 breathtaking living landscapes. Each treasure offers distinctive vistas, climate, wildlife and sometimes otherworldly terrain. Heavily protected, they still provide a variety of recreation facilities for all who visit. 

Serene beauty in Yosemite National Park
The NPS also manages 419 national monuments and historic sites, ranging from historic homes to buildings, trails, markers, battlefields and cemeteries. The Good Girls give top priority to visiting these NPS sites whenever we travel, but not all produce the highs that the parks offer. Entering some takes cautious, open minds and yields sometimes uncomfortable glimpses of our country’s many-faceted history. 

The Good Girls previously witnessed gut-wrenching tales of Civil War prisoners at Andersonville in Georgia. We watched a reenactment of the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana, an example of a long and brutal conflict with Native Americans. Living in Florida, aka the South, we have encountered numerous sites and museums depicting the struggles for Civil Rights like Brattonsville, SC.

Statue in Vicksburg Nationl Cemetery, Mississippi

Vicksburg National Cemetery
Manzanar National Historic Site in Inyo County, California, 225 miles north of Los Angeles, takes you down a very different pathway to our past. Manzanar functioned a Japanese Internment Camp from 1942-45. More than 10,000 displaced Asians were kept captive there. Of those, 87 percent were American citizens, sent away merely because of their ethnic background and the fears it produced among an American public wrenched into a war it wanted to avoid. 

The Visitor Center welcomes guests to Manzanar National Historic Site. 
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I don’t recall learning about the Japanese confinements during my school years. I first caught this agonizing glimpse of the past while reading a novel. Much more than a glance, my trip to Manzanar engulfed me in a history lesson I will never forget. 

My first impression on arrival - - a flat desert in the middle of nowhere, backed by barren mountains, far from my daily view in lush, green, and humid Florida. Manzanar coats its scenery with thick dust, little tree or shrub life daring to break through cracked earth. The lack of water makes it impossible to envision the large community once there. 

Desolate grounds of the former Japanese Internment Center named Manzanar.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, made a crisis of long-standing hostilities and prejudices of my Americans toward the Japanese. A Franklin Roosevelt order on February 19, 1942, authorized the military to remove “any or all persons” of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. They were deemed dangerous in an era where fear of potential sabotage and espionage ran rampant. Forced to leave their homes, business and belongings abruptly, many had only days to prepare. 

The government eventually deprived over 120,000 people of their freedom, sending them to 10 camps across the nation. Half children and young adults, 10,000 of the dispossessed arrived on buses and trucks at Manzanar War Relocation Center. All they had beyond what they could hand-carry was an identification number assigned to them. Two out of every three were American by birth. 

A reconstructed watchtower stands in the field. Manzanar was surrounded by eight towers. 

A 550-acre housing section (1-square mile) constructed and surrounded with barbed wire awaited. Military police manned eight guard towers, used searchlights, and patrolled the grounds. Outside the fence, some 5,500 more acres contained military police housing, a reservoir, a sewage plant and agricultural fields. The backdrop of the stark mountains completed the picture of confinement. 

The layout of buildings with Manzanar War Relocation Center.

I highly recommend your visit to the site start with a 22-minute movie in the interpretive center. Afterward, look at the exhibits and audio-visual displays; not many structures remain on the property. Then, you can choose to take a self-guided walking tour or 3.2-mile car circumnavigation of the camp, including some reconstructed buildings. National Park Rangers now patrol the grounds, exchanging answers to questions and leadership of tours for threat and confinement. 

Don't miss the film: Remembering Manzanar 
Photos and interactive displays in the Interpretation Center.

At its peak, 504 barracks organized into 36 blocks crowded the campgrounds. Each block included 14 barracks, divided into four apartments - - producing individual spaces of only 20-by-25-feet. Any combinations of eight individuals were allotted to an apartment. 

An apartment for eight
An oil stove, a single hanging light bulb, cots, blankets and straw-filled mattresses offered the only furnishings. The space reminded me of a basic scout camp, with single and double cots and lack of other furnishings, and without the promise of returning home in a few short days.

Items built my internees or later acquired at the camp.

The internees had little or no privacy; mere open spaces comprised the men’s and women’s showers and latrines (as they were called). The reconstructed bathroom on the site tour succeeded in producing the feeling of humiliation those consigned there must have felt many times each day. 

A total lack of privacy in the women's toilets.

The park ranger added to the sense of despair that must have blanketed the place, describing the wicked dust storms that invaded the hastily built barracks. The internees had to stuff socks in the floorboards and windows to keep out the dirt. A small concession, later covering the floors with linoleum helped to ease at least that problem. 

The Barracks stand above the barren earth on cinder blocks. 

Most of the internees worked in the camp. They dug irrigation canals, tended the farms and livestock, made clothes and furniture for themselves or worked within the camp as mess hall workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, etc. Professionals were paid just $19 per month. Modest though these products were, they memorialize the indomitable spirit that infuses us all. 

My group walked around the grounds trying to imagine the scene from nearly three-quarters of a century ago. The few visible reminders include concrete outlines of some buildings, former rock gardens, and an old basketball court. A ranger explained that the internees developed their own leagues, clubs, gardens, and activities to help pass the time. 

A basketball court at Manzanar War Relocation Center

They built a library, published the Manzanar Free Press and operated cooperatives. We stopped into one of the reconstructed mess halls - - I imagined lining up for communal dining three times a day. American- style meals were served, adequately nourishing, but yet another source of alienating the more elderly to whom such food was unfamiliar. 

Reconstructed Mess Hall at Manzanar

The confinement period lasted for three years, when, in January 1945, the West Coast exclusion order was lifted. Japanese Americans were given  $25 and a bus ticket to wherever but they were not allowed to own land in California. Many had nowhere to go and no jobs anymore. The last internee, a four-year-old boy, left Manzanar on November 21, 1945. By March 20, 1946, all 10 war relocations centers across the U.S. were closed, ending a dismal chapter in America’s past.  

In 1988, a U.S. Civil Liberties Act granted a $20,000 payment and apology to 82,000 former internees. 

While we can’t change history, this site forces us to remember some of its darkest acts. The United States may be called the land of liberty, but it has not always held itself consistent with the definition. Manzanar forces visitors to remember the protections promised in our Constitution and the consequences when we ignore them. 

Manzanar National Historic Site
5001 Highway 395, P.O. Box 426
Independence, CA 93526

Admission is free. 
Manzanar became a designated California historic site in 1992. The Interpretive Center opened in 2004. The official purpose of the Manzanar Historic Site is to preserve Manzanar’s cultural and natural resources and interpret the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese American and Japanese immigrants during WWII.

Photo by Ansel Adams, 1943, on a visit to Manzanar. Photo from the Library of Congress Collection

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

What next? See the best free museum, eat the biggest pancake en route to Mt. Whitney and off-road around old tungsten mines

There is so much to see and do around Bishop we had to save the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, the White Mountain Research Center and the ancient Bristle Cone Pine Forest for another trip. 

We were glad we didn't skip the Eastern California Museum in Independence, which proved to be a many-faceted gem. 

We began with the historic equipment yard, begging to be photographed, 

then moved into the Engine House to see #18 steam engine, the Slim Princess, that volunteers had impeccably restored to working order

From there we wandered through "Little Pine Village," a tree-shaded collection of early settlers' buildings from a multi-seater outhouse to post office. 

Next we explored the Mary de Decker garden of native plants.

Already impressed, we were awed by the variety of materials in the museum itself, first and foremost the collection of some 400 Paiute and Panamint Shoshone baskets, utilitarian and trade. 

The trade baskets were jewels of design, those woven for use - up to 47 to 50 stitches per square-inch - were virtually waterproof. 

We could have spent the better part of a day wandering through exhibits of the life and characters that inhabited the area. 

Where else would you find the story of mountaineer Norman Clyde, nicknamed the "pack with legs" for the 80-pound backpack he carried ascending the peaks within the Sierra Nevadas? 

Or a suit  worn by Amelia Earhart, whose husband found refuge here after her disappearance?

Don't miss this remarkable, and free, gem.

The drive up to Mount Whitney Portal  at an altitude of 8,360 feet is another don't miss. From the trailhead behind the Portal you will have to hike and climb another 6,044 feet through wilderness to reach the top of the highest mountain in the continental United States.

For most of us, the Portal with Lone Pine Creek Falls, picnic grounds, store and diner is entertaining enough. The pancakes, promoted as the world's largest, are another memorable sight and taste. 
Why the big pancakes? Story is that three kids stopped their bikes, came in and asked for the "cheapest, biggest thing to eat you have."  They caught on.
Doug Thompson
It's a precarious economy, said author, owner of Portal plus its Hostel in Lone Pine and 30-year veteran of the mountain, Doug Thompson. "There's no economy except tourism. The year starts in June and ends four months later." Skiing is out, he added. "The good news is there's lots of snow, the bad news is the roads are closed."

There were roads and sometimes we stayed on them when we went off-roading with Randy and Susan Gillespie, owners of Off Road Rentals. 

Donning our helmets and settling into a Yamaha Viking UTV, we headed into the Tungsten Hills mining area of Buttermilk Country that abuts the John Muir Wilderness.

Up, bounce, jerk, down, bang, twist, repeat. With variations in order, this was the tempo throughout our rough and rocky ride. 

From the late 1800s until the 1930s, this area was pocked with tungsten mines, from the world's largest to smaller efforts, plus a few gold digs. In 1980 mining in the area was ruled illegal. 

According to Randy, there's still tons of tungsten to be had, but demand has lessened for the second-hardest element known to man with the highest melting point - 6125 degrees F - used to harden  metals for everything from tools to armaments and projectiles to electronics. 

We stopped for a picnic lunch amid the boulders of Buttermilk Country which offered a bit of shade in the otherwise treeless area. 


We had never heard of boulder climbing but this is where you come to do it. 

We looked back at photos we had taken and were dismayed by how badly the increasing haze overlaying this usually smog-free area affected their clarity.

The devastating fires engulfing the Sierras were coming closer. Did not bode well for images in Mammoth Lakes, our next stop.