Big Country Views


All along California’s Hwy 395 I can see for miles and miles, north and south. To the east and west of the Owens River Valley, however, views are quickly interrupted by the sudden, dramatic peaks of the Eastern Sierra on one side, the Inyo and White Mountains on the other. Each of these ranges also reach north and south as far as I can see, in somewhat formidable formation, with their string of sharp summits and shadowy fissures freckled with year-round glaciers. Our last few days along this stretch of highway were spent just outside Lone Pine where the Sierra sits right there, in your face and where, from our campsite, I felt I could easily reach out and touch the giant granite walls. I am completely enamored by the Eastern Sierra, and while Lone Pine may not have a lot of opportunity to offer as a town, the contrast between looming, gray mountains and warmer yet quirky landscape of the Alabama Hills is no less bewitching than the scenery around Bishop or Mammoth Lakes.

While camping amongst the peculiar rocky formations of the Alabama Hills, my mood improved pretty dramatically from a meltdown I experienced during our last weekend in Bishop. I’m not sure why exactly. As usual, an explanation for my mood swings elude me, but when I woke up the second morning in Lone Pine the sun was bright and already warming our campsite by 8:00 am. Warmth, sunshine and open blue sky always comforts me. Part of my temporary melancholy was because I had to admit that my body is just not healing and forcibly talk myself into tabling all the long hiking, riding and (attempted) running for a while longer. Sometimes I just need an adjustment period to panic and mourn, before entering the recalculating and re-planning phase.

A change of scenery always helps, too. I have this funny, inexplicable draw to rocks: to climbing on them, to sunning lizard-like on them, to simply admiring their personalities. The Alabama Hills’ rocks offer plenty of personality. They exude a sense of movement and I kept waiting for one of the otherworldly formations to come alive, out of hibernation, like a sleeping monster disturbed by my clumsy bouldering. Disguised within the masses of stone we spied eagles, skulls, giant fish and what I thought looked like a hippopotamus fetus but Paul thought was a kneeling monk. We wondered if the arrangements were in fact a haphazard natural phenomenon, or whether the area is the remains of an alien Lego project, or if maybe Hollywood had actually fabricated the scenes along “Movie Road” against the mountainous backdrop. Whatever the origin, scrambling around the new and bizarre desert landscape helped to get me out of my head, I think.

I liked the refreshing quirkiness of the Alabama Hills, and in fact much of the 395 corridor suits my spirit, and my constitution. Bishop, and even Mammoth, though more nestled in the high altitude mountains, reconciles my dual gravitation toward steep mountain peaks and broad, open desert. Even when climbing up through elevation in the Sierra, the trails quickly open up out of the trees into expansive granite basins exposed to the elements. While beautiful and seductive in its own way, the typical PNW wilderness with its heavy foliage and dark, shadowy, mysterious forests have made me feel claustrophobic. In contrast to the heavy, suffocating dampness of areas like the McKenzie River, deserts and rocky peaks like these along the 395 offer brilliant sunshine and fresh, clear air where I can breathe. I like the exposure, the hint of risk in being out there and I like unobstructed 360 degree views. I suppose the sea-shore is the same way; I can see out forever and my mind must translate that into a sense of freedom.

Along that train of thought, I have realized that another part of what draws me to Hwy 395 is the inherent transiency of the area. Physically, the highway serves as Main St in Bishop so travelers, truckers and adventurers are constantly moving through. Mammoth, though with a larger permanent population, is still definitely a resort town and obviously houses plenty of seasonal residents. With my natural inclination toward commitment-phobia, there is comfort in the impermanence. I feel like I could plunk myself down for a while with an acceptance that my stay might be temporary, that the climbers and thru-hikers at the coffee shop are in the same place as me. I’m sure many can not relate to this, but the lack of expectation is comforting. Movement, or the freedom of it if I choose to accept, is more grounding to me than typical nesting. As comfortable as we both felt in Bishop, and even with several excursions into the Inyo National Forest, it felt like time to GO, to move and resist routine. I wonder if the four weeks of “settling-in” may have contributed to last weekend’s negative head space. Was I feeling “stuck” again? Already? Is anything wrong with that?

It has occurred to me sitting here on the luxurious Circus-Circus pool deck where we’ve splurged on a bed for a couple of nights, that I have totally misinterpreted myself. During our drive east from California, we have been talking a lot about the importance of honoring individual innate tendencies. It’s been easy to fight the path of physical stagnation, as far as moving my place of living around a bit, not getting tied down, but I have upheld a vision of a static version of my Self. Why have I insisted on building a final product? If I am more comfortable with transience and impermanence, then why not accept that I don’t have to be tied to one specific Self or that I don’t have to answer that infuriating question, “What am I going to be when I grow up?” The despair and anxiety that keeps popping back up is partly an instinctual reaction to feeling obligated to my own self-imposed, unnatural expectations.  Do I want to feel smothered in a dark, dank forest, or do I want to breathe freely in my beloved exposed, open spaces with miles and miles of views? 

“So take that look out of here it doesn’t fit you

Because it’s happened doesn’t mean you’ve been discarded

Pull up your head off the floor, come up screaming

Cry out for everything you ever might have wanted

I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered

But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered, see ya

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert

But I can live and breathe

And see the sun in wintertime

Stay Alive”

In a Big CountryBig Country / Songwriters: Michael Barson/Lee Thompson

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