Heaven & Hades

Went back to Lone Pine this weekend, and if the L.A. Department of Water and Power didn’t have a stranglehold on the real estate I’d seriously consider moving there. It’s hot—that’s the one setback. Oh, and I don’t have a job or a house or any friends there, there’s that too, but apart from these bumps in the road the area looks like God cooked it up just for me. I’m not sure what other single place gives up such rich doses of the West (both old and new), film history, and (if you count Manazanar about five miles up the road) World War II, with the Sierra Madres looming above it all. Even the Manson family has a link to the area: after the raid on Barker Ranch they were booked at the Inyo County seat in Independence, just up 395 from Lone Pine and another focus of activity in California’s water wars.

We also went back to Death Valley, got there by way of the mightily impressive Eureka Dunes. It looks to me like a single dune, albeit one almost 700 feet high,

and backed by cliffs with astonishing rainbow-colored striations running across them like a racing stripe.

The area was so deserted we drove 60 miles without seeing another car—break down there in the pre-satellite days and, baby, you’re fucked. Wound down the long dirt road through Chidalgo Canyon, red sandstone teeth with a million cavities bored into them, towards Scotty’s Castle, the Spanish-Mediterranean villa dropped onto northern Death Valley by a weirdo insurance tycoon back in the ’20s.

At Stovepipe Wells it was 119 degrees—I kid thee not—and just standing still I felt like I was in a sealed trunk. Driving through heat like that in perfect AC heaven, then you crack the window and stick your hand out, and it’s more than just hot: it actively hurts. While I was standing in the small tourist center at Stovepipe—a bar, a restaurant, and what-not—a raven the size of my damn head landed next to me, then looked up at me, panting.

Sunday morning it was back to the Alabama Hills, which jut out of the flatland between Lone Pine and the Sierras. It’s just another of the area’s rich geological finds, a vast moonscape of oddly shaped outcroppings: giant monoliths crowding against each other like people trying to stay dry in the rain, turd-shaped balls simply plopped out on the landscape, rocks whose surface have been broken into layers that look like breaking waves.

Since the Hills are an easy drive from L.A., Hollywood latched onto them before talkies came in, and a slew of movies—from Gunga Din and the Boetticher/Scott Westerns to Tremors and Iron Man—have been shot there. We drove back east of Lone Pine and found the old location for Bad Day at Black Rock. It’s not a movie I like that much but it’s got a hell of an opening, with the hellish red locomotive bearing down on the tiny town, and Sturges performed some neat spatial tricks in the early going, placing Borgnine, Lee Marvin, et al., in funny arrangements on the open stage of the desert floor. The town “Black Rock” was obviously a set, and it’s gone now save for what was once a real train depot. Today the tracks are gone, and the depot is a private residence whose owner discourages visitors.

Good weekend.

3 Responses to “Heaven & Hades”

  1. glenn Says:

    very interesting about the old-time gunmen. like you, i am fascinated by what we know of them. picked up several new pieces of information here and appreciate it.

    i’m betting you are familiar with dee harkey, originally from near san saba, tx. if you haven’t read harkey’s book, ‘mean as hell’, you need to find it and absorb it. that is, assuming you still have interest.

    harkey was a sometimes lawman, sometimes rancher, who lived out his last days in eddy county, nm, near carlsbad, where i think he functioned occasionally as a cattlemen’s assn detective.

    harkey knew jim miller and had dealings with him off and on for many years. he once arrested miller and said he regretted not killing him at that time.

    harkey claimed to have only killed one man and it had nothing to do with his law work or cowboying. as a young adult he sharecropped with a fellow who was known to cheat people out of their crops. when he came for harkey out in a field one day, the ensuing fight resulted in that man’s death.

    very interesting story, and, like yours here, well told.

    late in life harkey got into some kind of trouble with a young girl who was debilitated some way. i’d really like to know the story of what happened. probably impossible to get the true low-down, especially since truth can look so different from different angles.

  2. Tom Block Says:

    I did indeed read Harkey’s book, and was glad I did. His was a relative voice of reason for the time and place.

  3. Back in the Saddle « Tom Blog Says:

    […] spent the night in Bishop, in the Owens Valley. This is a stretch of ground I’ve long been partial to, though Bishop, at the northern end of the valley, is my least favorite part of it. Saturday […]

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