Peter Shelton

Pulling Up Stakes: From Hometown to ‘Chinatown’

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on May 17, 2012

Daughter Cecily and son-in-law Mike Bryson are starting a new life, with new jobs, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Mike is leaving in little more than a week to a full-time position – something he has been seeking for a while – with a helicopter crew based in Independence, Calif., fighting fire for the U.S. Forest Service.

They figure they’ll look for a place to live in the bigger town of Bishop (pop. 3,800), about 40 miles north, where the Owens Valley jumps up abruptly to the higher country around Mammoth and June Lake, country that is every bit as severe and beautiful as the north side of the Sneffels Range.

Cec threw Mike a going away party on Sunday. (She’ll be joining him at the end of the summer.) They have a lot of wonderful friends here. Cecily was born in Montrose and raised in Ridgway. We stood around on their patio in Elk Meadows watching the neon-green of the new aspen leaves, and the tireless cavorting of three high-energy toddlers, including our grandson, Boden.

Ellen and I are trying not to be too sad. We’ve enjoyed an extraordinary run of good fortune. Cecily married and came back to live in her hometown a few years out of college. She’s been the Art Director at The Watch for the last six years. And for the last two, since I signed on as Ouray County Editor, we’ve shared the same office. Lucky me. In an update of the elementary-school cliché, Cecily took her father to work. And he stayed.

Boden came along 19 months ago. Nana and Bup got to watch him grow, read to him, dance him on our shoulders, teach him the crow caw, and listen to his uninhibited, wrinkle-nose laugh. We want it to go on forever. But, of course, it can’t.

At the party, talk turned to the scary dryness in Colorado this spring – there were other firefighters there – and to the permanent dryness of the Owens River Valley. Through “chicanery and subterfuge” the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power acquired nearly 90 percent of the water rights in the once-lush valley, fed by the creeks of the Eastern Sierra, and sucked it dry to slake the growing metropolis. Owens Lake was completely barren by 1926.

Ellen brought up Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s 1974 neo-noir classic based in part on those turn-of-the-century water wars. In the movie Jack Nicholson’s character gradually uncovers the plot by aqueduct builder William Mulholland and L.A. Times publisher Harrison Otis to manufacture water scarcity, including a false drought, to scare Angelinos into supporting the water grab.

“You remember Chinatown,” one of the young women said to another. “When Jack Nicholson had hair!”

I remembered my first experiences in Bishop. Beginning in the 1950s, we started a short-lived tradition of taking a family ski week at Mammoth Mountain. (I think it lasted two or three years only, but it was enough to hook me into a lifetime love of sliding on snow.)

Bishop was the last desert town on our long drive before the air got cold and piney, before the high-altitude magic of snow on the ground.

Later, as a teenager on the way to Yosemite’s Tuolomne Meadows in July, our camp bus pulled into Bishop to stock up before the drive over Tioga Pass. We’d spent the previous night camped somewhere south of town on a sandy alluvial fan where the valley meets the upthrust of the granite peaks. It had been a hot day on Highway 395, but in the shade of the mountains the heat drained away and the night sky filled with more stars than I’d ever seen. I remember lying in my sleeping bag on my back working my hips into the soft sand and thinking it couldn’t get any better than that.

But it did, the next day. At lunch on the shore of Mono Lake the camp director, who was also the cook, brought out big, crusty loaves of Basque-style sheepherder’s bread, a specialty of Bishop’s now-iconic Schat’s Bakkery. The recipe, the very sourdough yeast apparently, came over with Basque shepherds in 1860s. Each boy got a thick hunk of bread, a chunk of cheddar cheese, and a huge red California plum.

The bread was fresh and warm, and we couldn’t get enough. And the plums were so perfectly ripe the skin burst between your lips, and the juice ran all down your chin.

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