Letter From The Desert: Glass Mountain

Raptor feather at Mono Lake

How many years? Eleven since I last saw Mono Lake. Thirty-one since I first visited, at least under my own power. In 1982 David Gaines came to speak to us ragtag canvassers at the California League of Conservation Voters, my first job in California, and encouraged us all to come out and visit the lake. It took me five years to take him up on his offer.

But push it further back. Driving across country in 1966, I just might have seen the lake through bleary, bored six-year-old eyes. We did drive right past it. It frustrates me that I don't recall, but it was a trip full of first sights: mountains, deserts, trees the size of buildings, rivers the size of oceans.

I do remember the road between Benton and the lake: it traversed, part of the way, an alluvial fan deeply incised with washes. The road was arrow-straight, the way only desert roads can be. The engineers did not bother with switchbacks or curves. Instead, the road plummets into each wash, then arcs just as sharply back up only to plummet again a few feet farther on. We caught some air, my siblings and I, sitting in the back of that turquoise 1966 Chevy Malibu station wagon. 'Give me a place to drive, and a wheelbase long enough, and I will slam your kids into the headliner," said Archimedes.

His words ring just as true today. Those roller-coaster bumps caught me again just now, though I slowed a bit more than I wanted to for the sake of the dog, and of the leaky left rear tire on the truck.

This was the first part of California I ever saw, and it may be the part of that 1966 trip I remember most clearly. This is remarkable given that the trip also included the Badlands, the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, Devil's Tower and Borglum's Vandalism, the Palms to Pines Highway and the various marble mausoleums arranged near the Mall in Washington, DC.

I haven't been on this stretch of road since 1992, so apparently I visit every 26 years just like clockwork, whether I need to or not. This pacing allows me to forget most of the fine details, aside from the road and the General Sense of Well Being the place engenders in me. I come here and feel as though everything in my life makes sense. My six-year-old self seems to have imprinted on this valley like a gosling on an Austrian ethologist.

To the southwest, Glass Mountain is wreathed in snow. Eleven thousand feet and change, it's one of the state's least-remembered peaks, a high spot on the rim of the Long Valley Caldera, one of the state's least-remembered dangerous volcanoes. Pumice blown out of the caldera, or perhaps the nearby and also-dangerous Mono and Inyo Craters, makes a fine substrate for the planet's largest forest of Jeffrey pine. The other day I took the leash off the dash, nodded to my eager dog, and we left the truck and walked a ways into the Jeffrey pines. My dog is fond of gnawing on the little dry pine cones provided by the Mojave's single-needle piñons. I mostly just wanted to watch her reaction to the Jeffrey pines.

pine heaven

We were there for quite a while.

Bonus photo:

Heart at Mono Lake

I really need to get here more often.

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