A VALLEY RAVAGED BUT NEVER SPOILED
Even now in mid-August the tops of the California Sierras shine with snow, but on the floor of the Owens Valley 9,000 feet below, Toni Morris, the 6-year-old in the picture on the opposite page, fishes in lazy summer. As she sits through the timeless afternoon hoping a brown trout will fall for the gobbet of worm on her hook, she is storing up a variety of impressions of her valley: the many sounds of the cold brook, the mixed smells of sage and meadow, the flash of a trout at her feet and, overhead, the distant image of an eagle riding high in a thermal, scouting the valley floor.
What the eagle sees, and Toni senses, is one of the extraordinary sporting areas in the world. Even by western measure, the Owens Valley is a big place. Its base floor is about 100 miles long and five wide, and there is twice again that area on the alluvial plains, sloping westward to the Sierras and eastward to the White and Inyo mountains. The pleasures offered by the valley are endlessly diverse—hiking, hunting, riding, rockhounding, camping, soaring on great waves of air,'fishing, skiing—and all of these are intensified by two things: the valley's loveliness and its emptiness.
It is a strange and particular fact that although hundreds of thousands of people would like to live in the Owens Valley, few can do so. The year-round climate of the area is not so benign as that of the San Joaquin Valley west of the Sierras, nor its soil as rich, by and large, as that of the man-made gardens of the Imperial Valley to the south, but under ordinary circumstances it would be a fit place for industry and agriculture, capable of employing several hundred thousand people. Without straining a seam, in its side pockets alone the valley could hold half a dozen towns of 25,000. Yet today, while cities east and west suffer from the pains of overpopulation, sending their urban dwellers in search of elbow room, barely 11,000 people live in the Owens Valley.
August 11, 1963
There is a fundamental reason for the low population of this western paradise: high-priority water. The deep snows of the Sierras afford plenty, but long before the runoff has passed under the feet of fishermen on the valley floor most of it has been spoken for. Toni Morris can hang a worm in the creek, but she is forbidden to swim in it or wade in it, for the water is desperately needed to quench the thirst, wet the toothbrushes and drive the industry of the big, dry city of Los Angeles, 280 miles to the southwest (only in a few private impoundments are swimming and water skiing permitted).
Sixty years ago, wisely anticipating its bustling future, Los Angeles began reaching out, buying riparian land in Owens Valley. In the next 30 years the relationship between the big-city water-seekers and the valley residents was not always mellow. Occasionally the city resorted to hanky-panky in its dealings, and occasionally the valley people resorted to violence, dynamiting the city's aqueduct 15 times, seizing a set of gates once and turning the city's vital sap back onto their dry homeland. The arguments for both sides were valid. The issue was too complex ever to be weighed on the simple scales of justice.
Today, from the crest of the Sierras to the White and Inyo mountains, 98% of the land is public, a patchwork of national forest, federal reserve land and Los Angeles-owned land. Thus, by virtue of smoggy progress elsewhere, most of the valley is a wilderness playground. On private and leased holdings there is still some ranching and mining—vestiges of yesterday—but most of the valley's 11,000 live in small towns such as Bishop that cater almost entirely to the needs of tourists.
By the time the water war ended 30 years ago, many valley people had moved away, and a large part of the present population are migrants from greater Los Angeles, fugitives who have headed for the far hills to escape the jostling, the smog, the clogged freeways, the stifling restrictions and the hopped-up chaos of a big-time town. The move is a reasonable one, but difficult. Before he makes it, each migrant must be sure he can find a home for rent or for sale in the valley, and he must also be sure he has the courage to give up a big-city career and settle for a lesser, different job with a thinner pay envelope.
Eleven years ago Cliff Bayless and his wife Lucille prospered on the eastern fringe of Los Angeles. They had a quarter share in a Cadillac agency, worth about $25,000 a year, and three acres of home ground on a hilltop. But when the city and its smog closed in on them, they moved to the Owens Valley, taking a cut to $10,000 a year and spending their first three years in an apartment over a garage. "In the valley," Mrs. Bayless reports, "our son Rocky could use a BB gun and a slingshot. He could have 40 pigeons, while his cousin back in Glendale could have only 12. When his cousin would come here to visit and it was time to return to Los Angeles, he would run into the hills and hide. We gave up a lot to come here," Mrs. Bayless concludes, "but now we see the sunrise and the stars at night."
VISITORS WELCOME, ALL YEAR ROUND
Because its natural bounty of water is claimed by Los Angeles, the Owens Valley has limited facilities for permanent occupancy. The valley has, nonetheless, a decently large heart and the capacity to absorb a lot of visitors. The streets of the small towns are lined with motels, cafes and sporting goods shops. In a summer week, in any one of the Sierras' steep, long gorges, where creek water, white and raging, tumbles from pool to pool, there may be 1,000 vacationers roughing it or lodging it and another 500 hidden under the aspen and tall pines in the side gullies dug out of the mountain flank by the upper arms of the creek. There is plenty of room on the mountainsides and, except for beer cans wantonly discarded and the distant sound of motor cars huffing and gasping in the thin mountain air, little evidence that a small army of city people has taken over.
The summer visitors come for various reasons, the majority merely escaping their city life to spend a week or two in quest of some lesser Grail, such as the trout that abound, thanks to the beneficence of God and the California Department of Fish and Game. The trout—one species or another—are fished from the Owens River right on the valley floor and from creeks and lakes reaching upward to the 13,000-foot level, where winter never really quits. The trout come in all sizes. In lower lakes there are browns which, being either too stupid or too smart to take a hook, are as long as a man's arm. On opening day this spring at Lake Crowley, a 6,000-acre impoundment on high ground at the north end of the valley, 11,000 fishermen in 3,300 boats took more than 30 tons of trout, any fish under three-quarters of a pound being considered a runt. In the highest glacial lakes, by contrast, the little native golden trout rarely exceed nine inches—but there the angler fishes alone in alpine grandeur. Like the fish, the fishermen run the gamut. At one extreme there are the classicists who kill their fish only with the artificial fly; at the other are those who simply want fish and would just as soon toss a cherry bomb in the water, if it were either legal or productive.
The important thing in such a large playground is that every angler has full option. He can stick to the classic rules laid down on the chalk streams of the old World, or he can use damn-near-anything for bait: fake bugs and real bugs, worms and grasshoppers, marshmallows and cheese, salmon eggs from the Pacific Northwest and fake salmon eggs made in Newport Beach. He can wait for the evening hatch and try to match it, or he can wait in a parked car on the streets of Bishop until the hatchery truck goes by, follow it and take a fish one minute after it has been released in a stream. With the dutiful passion of oldtime Wells Fargo carriers, the California Fish and Game trucks replenish the more heavily fished waters once a week and sometimes twice.
As might be expected, most of the valley's winter visitors are skiers, who move through the towns bound for the Mammoth Lakes area that lies 50 miles beyond. The ski season starts with the first good snow of late fall or early winter, and it continues on and on, through spring and early summer. The bottom of the elaborate skein of lifts at Mammoth Mountain is 8,900 feet, so that by July 1, when the sport is only a memory elsewhere, there are still diehards on the slopes.
At Mammoth the skier is free of the restrictions of the city, but not of the crowds. Weekend attendance sometimes exceeds 3,000, including some who use the slopes and trails as if they were freeways back home. But crowds and collisions are familiar hazards at ski areas everywhere these days, and at Mammoth one can at least find consolation: there is a bonesetter in residence. In the small town of Mammoth a sign proclaims: "E. Victor Gallardo, M.D., Orthopedic and Traumatic Surgery."
Lower down in the valley there are other signs urging the traveler to "Visit Harold's Club in Reno" and to "Get Right with God," an option that should attract either the fisherman or skier, depending on his luck that day. He can have a ball trying to win a bundle, but if the dice and the wheel roll against him and he loses his worldly goods to Harold, he is properly ready to meet his Maker. It is doubtful, though, whether any visitors come with such sober motives. Most of them come to the valley simply to use this world for a short time unfettered, taking a trout with a bait of their own choice or skiing as fast as they want on slopes where there are no slow and fast lanes.