Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer At The Feet Of The Mountain Gods

A California highway traces the border between desolation and magnificence.

By Paul Gerald

MAY 8, 2000:  Years ago, when I didn't know America very well, I was riding on a plane from Seattle to Las Vegas. I was, as always, glued to the window, admiring the skyline of Seattle, then the boats on Puget Sound, then the magnificence of the Cascades, then the nowhere-desert of Nevada.

But then, on the horizon, I saw a wall of white, and I didn't know what it was. It was a mountain front, a couple hundred miles long and what looked like 10,000 feet straight up. The pilot came on and said, "You folks on the right side are getting a nice view of California's Sierra Nevada mountains." It was bigger and higher than the front of the Rockies at Denver, and I said to myself, "Man, I need to go there!"

One of life's little pleasures is when you come full circle, back to a place you've enjoyed before, or check off an item on your "to do" list. And last winter, when I was leaving Las Vegas in my car, I realized this was my chance to do that, to circle around and visit the eastern Sierra Nevada. I checked the atlas, found U.S. Highway 395, filled up the tank in Baker, and turned north off Interstate 15. I let my girlfriend do the driving, and I studied my Highway 395 Recreation Map.

The thing about California is that it's about 10 different states in one, ecologically speaking. Coast, massive cities, deserts, rivers, forests, mountains, you name it. The Sierra Nevada is Ansel Adams Country -- high lakes and drifting pines and granite-faced peaks. But U.S. 395, down at the southern end, is the gateway to Death Valley. It goes through one stretch where there are 121 miles between towns. All along the way we saw single-track dirt roads going in a straight line, then disappearing over the horizon -- and going where? Another item on my life's "to do" list is to one day drive one of those roads, over the horizon to wherever it goes.

Still, this being Southern California, we came across one town just off I-15 with a massive waterslide. And the traffic going south, back to Los Angeles from the ski resorts around Lake Tahoe, looked like an invasion force of troop transports. At one point we counted a stretch of 54 vehicles going the other way; of those, 39 were SUVs.

The first thing I couldn't wait to see was Owens Lake. My recreation map showed it as this huge blue swath, just east of the John Muir Wilderness and west of the Inyo Mountains. What a sight that must be, right? And no doubt it was, until L.A. drained it for its drinking water. Last century, it was one of California's biggest lakes; now it's a breeding ground not for birds and fish but for some of the nation's worst dust storms.

That's the scene out the passenger side of the car heading up 395: desolation and desert, stretching roughly to Utah. Out the driver's side was one long mountain wall. I knew that Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental U.S., was in the eastern Sierra Nevada, and I assumed it would loom over us like Pikes Peak looms over Colorado Springs. What I didn't realize was that Whitney is surrounded by peaks almost as high as it is. It's just a bump on a ridge from 395.

Whitney is 14,491 feet, but it's tough to find, since Langley is 14,042, Mallory is 13,850, Russell is 14,086, Barnard is 13,990, and about a dozen others are over 13,000. And we could see all of this at once, without having to turn our heads, from a roadside rest area on 395.

But it's what was on my map, in between all those numbers, that made me expand my "to do" list to include coming back to this country with a backpack: Bighorn Sheep Zoological Area, Golden Trout Camp, Last Chance Meadow Research Area, Glacier Lodge, Iris Meadow Campground, the Pacific Crest Trail ....

There's a lot more peaks and meadows and rivers to the north and west of what we could see. There are, for starters, Sequoia, Yosemite, and Kings Canyon National Parks. And 395 continues up past Mono Lake (which is still a big, beautiful lake) and then into the high country, where rocks and sand give way to pines, and skiers romp at several resorts.

And at the north end of it you get to Lake Tahoe, which is one of those places, along with the Grand Canyon and Crater Lake and the Smokies when the rhododendrons are blooming, that have to be seen to be remotely comprehended.

But sitting by the side of Highway 395, Tahoe and the high country were still ahead of us, and the rest of the world seemed far away. We were enjoying the closing of one of life's circles. What I had seen from the window of the plane was now right in front of me. We had the desert behind us and the road in front of us, and we were sitting at the feet of the mountain gods.

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