THE DIVORCE TRAIL
A Race through the High Sierras
California's charismatic oceanside Route 1 can divert attention from the unsung 395 swinging inland from Los Angeles through the High Sierras to Reno. This passes America's highest and lowest points, the planet's oldest living things, the best Western movie locations, ghosts of the Californian gold rush and massive wilderness.
Hollywood to Reno? After the Chisholm Trail this is the Divorce Trail. But now no one knows that from the thirties Reno was the Divorce Capital of the world. Hollywood to Reno for the quickie divorce then to Vegas for the next wedding.
Divorcees-in-waiting canoodled with hunky wranglers on divorce ranches in Reno, long before divorces came discounted at Walmart. In Reno Veritas.
Thirty years ago Gram Parsons picked up my guitar and converted me like many to Country music. Three years later he overdosed and died in the Joshua Tree Inn.
Before his body got to the family plot it was stolen and incinerated by a granite skull in the National Park surrounded by the beseeching limbs of Joshua trees.
Skirting the unlovely LA metroplex, my son Mat and I went on a pilgrimage to Gram's last resting place, his old psychedelic playground. Random piles of pink monzogranite boulders were rolled into the desert on a giant's whim. Spectral Joshua Trees' contorted limbs were most fantastical silhouetted against the red sunset glow over the jagged skyline, spread-eagled Indian spirits. A coyote watched us silently as we peered at cholla cactuses, snowy white halos at the foot of a Joshua tree.
Today of all days Joshua Tree Inn was closed, thwarting our pilgrimage. Undeterred, we played Grievous Angel and cleansed by Gram's dark isolation, turned north for the great highway to separation through the High Sierras.
First more desert. The Mojave is big, brutal and 104º. Racks of roadside letterboxes mean crazies out there in the barren scrub. An adobe dome stands hippiely proud amid poor houses and shells of old cars. We pass Feral Road and Cactus Jack Road snaking into a desolate landscape called Wonder Valley. A wonder anyone lived there. At Amboy we hit Route 66. Roy's Motel has a classic road sign, an overpriced diner and expensive gas station. The owner, ornery from broiling too long in the desert, took an immediate dislike to us and turned off the petrol, claiming not to have the key to turn it back on. Our next gas station was fifty miles away, we were running on empty, but he couldn't find that key anywhere.
"Y'could go the other way, only thirty miles" he chuckled, adding another sixty desert miles to our itinerary. We ignored him and made it through. One stretch of desert road was the Boulevard of Dreams, crossing the Zzyzx intersection. Never got to Zzyzx, a spring out in the parched wilderness, erstwhile home to Shoshone Indians and a radio preacher. After a long haul through the Mojave we discovered The Mad Greek near Baker, an unlikely desert doner oasis, a kebab lover's classic mirage. Great kebabs though, anda break from the ferocious heat, now 110º.
None of this god-forsaken heat prepared us for the inferno of Death Valley. A lethal cult classic for horror movie fans, Death Valley does not disappoint. Angry mountains are lacerated and tainted with putrescent hues. Diseased fissured cliffs are volcanic belchings from the Flatulene Era, with visceral lava runs like Zabriskie Point. Colours are more dead than alive. No pastels here, just the darkness of the grave. This landscape spews straight out of the cauldron, roasted, and blackened, bilious basaltic vomit.
The magma feels very close. Welcome to the badlands, hot and hostile. No wonder it suited Charles Manson. Avoid July, the hottest time. We didn't. It was 119ºF in the non-existent shade. Down at Badwater, 280 feet below sea level, the god-forsaken heat is crushing. Wondrously perverse, nature has created a snail that simmers in Badwater's corrosive saline pond. So when life smacks you down think of the Badwater Snail in its harsh salty hellhole. Things could be worse.
We pondered the Badwater Snail as we ground to a halt, engine boiling and brakes melting, the smell of caramelised plastic in the infernal air.With fifty miles and two mountain ranges to climb to get out we kept as cool as possible at 119º, kicked a few rocks, cursed and waited for the sun to sink. We limped through Furnace Creek .Further along a ghostly tsunami of dust swept across the valley floor, plumes of smoke from the fires of hell.
Closer to Stovepipe Wells we found rollers of fine desert sand whipped up into rippling dunes by hot south winds scooping down from the mountains. While we waited for the dark we explored the dunes' fantastic shifting sands where Star Wars and Beau Geste had sweated before us. The van was wounded and we had to nurse it out. No question of going to the mining ghost town Rhyolite or the Moorish madness of Scotty's Castle.
The night air was cooler as we wound gingerly out of the valley across the dark Panamint Mountains. I saw shooting stars through the warm winds. By the time we got to the Owens Valley over the mountains an electrical storm was crackling around us.We got to Olancha by ten and found the Rustic Motel.
"They said it useta be called Bates Motel. Filmed some film here." Eva, in a gingham shift and sandals with white ankle socks, knew how to make folks feel welcome late at night. Under the No Pets sign her chihuahua Taco made my leg very welcome.
Next morning, talking of life in Bakersfield, home of Country legend Buck Owens, Eva's trailer trash son Doyce, wild burning eyes and thrashing arms, reminisced warmly about happy schooldays. "Yep, Buck Owens, see, we used to beat up his son Buddy, my brother and I, used ta beat the shit outta him.It was great."
A cloud of unknowing descended. Mat tugged at my sleeve nervously. We drove off past a sign "This Is God's Country - So Don't Drive Through It Like Hell".
Now we were on the 395, the Divorce trail. After the midnight flit from Death Valley we saw the Sierra Nevada for the first time. The valley floor is still desert. After a brief flowering with settlers in the 19th century, Los Angeles siphoned the water away. The road runs two miles deep between fourteen thousand feet mountain ranges. To the west the spiky towering Sierras, speckled with alpine meadows and glacial lakes. Opposite, the barren desiccated White and Inyo Mountains.
Lone Pine is a joy. A small outlandish range of pink granite lies on the edge of the slopes of Mt Whitney and the Sierras. These are the photogenic Alabama Hills. We're in the movies again for this is where Westerns from Roy Rogers to "How The West Was Won" were filmed until things got cheaper overseas and spaghetti westerns whistled in. Now, looking down escape canyons that led to the gang's hideout, standing high on a lookout rock, I felt the familiarity in my bones. There was something reassuring about these landscapes. Almost forgotten, subconscious childhood dreamscapes, they were old friends. This was Hollywood's True West. Rawhide. John Wayne, Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger rode, Gene Autry crooned, Bogart holed up in the High Sierra. It was even the Khyber Pass in "Gunga Din". In the Indian Trading Post in town names are scored round the door - Gary Cooper, Virginia Mayo, Richard Boone.
"He was drunk all the time" said Cheryl Perez, "except when Mrs Boone came up to Lone Pine. But drunk or sober he was always a gentleman. "No divorce news there. The rest of the town is full of movie memorabilia and all-American diners. I ate meatloaf in the Merry-Go-Round, a thankfully non-moving carousel. Every October a Lone Pine film festival celebrates Westerns. One day I'll go.
The valley opens out. Roads twist into the Sierras reaching trails that climb high into the backcountry. Big Pine is a crossroads between alpine glaciers and the desiccated bristlecones, the World's Oldest Living Things. These gnarled stumps, one of them four thousand eight hundred years old and still growing, alive before Giza's Great Pyramid, ancient before Buddha or Confucius walked the earth, called us in vain.
Yesterday's near-mortal car meltdown in Death Valley put all thoughts of climbing ten thousand feet up the roasting White Mountains from our minds. Over the road an Antique Hotel was packed with old farm implements from the fertile days - a plough, water pumps, carts, windmills, road signs and two immaculate Model T Fords, a 1914 going for $10,500. Cheap. Instead for a dollar I got an obsidian arrowhead.
Bishop at the top of the Valley is Mule Capital of the World. From the beginning everything had to be packed into the mountains by mule train. Mules were essential. Murals on a bank wall acknowledge their debt. One shows a 22-mule team hauling a 50-ton turbine. Round town other murals show railroad days and shoot-outs. The town's tribute to their wilderness and gold rush heritage is their Mule Days in May, quirky rodeos with mule chariot races, mule dressage and mule packing competitions. I took to mule worship easily. We both got Mule Days buckles, stuffed ourselves full of meat at Bar-B-Q Bill's and visited the excellent Paiute-Shoshone museum. The other native American phenomenon built on sovereign native land is the Paiute Palace Casino, where at last they take the white man's money hand over fist. Vacationers can hit the saddle and go horse trekking, mule packing even tracking wild mustangs.
Mat and I went down to a photo gallery to find Bishop mule shots. The gallery was full of sensitive artistic pictures of mountains. A precious outdoorsman with an early Kevin Keegan haircut wearing shorts and extreme 3-season sandals took exception to our philistine mule-like demand for mule-related pictures and lectured us about God's own wilderness out there. "It's not just mules you know." His saintliness barely hid his contempt "Yes yes we know about that, I'm the President of the Nude Mountaineering Society, but where's the fucking mule pictures?" He had lived and trekked in the HimAH-layas for ten years, teaching mountain craft and ecology.His name was Skandar.
"No, Persian for Alexander. It is my chosen name not my given name."
"Really? My name's Hank.Celtic for Bollocks."
We didn't get the pictures.
Mammoth, in the heart of the Long Valley Caldera, is a dormant volcano, sitting on magma barely three miles down. Full of thermal springs, Mammoth is the most likely volcano to blow.But disaster is unlikely and Rangers are reassuring. Don't worry, Los Angeles is far more dangerous.
By this time I had one thing on my mind. Obsidian Dome just up the road. I've been obsessed with obsidian ever since I found several cultures invested this black volcanic glass with deep ritual significance. I had my Paiute arrowhead. The Aztecs used obsidian for black concave mirrors to catch the sun god's rays and for their sacrificial dagger blades. I had never seen obsidian in its natural state so took Mat for a ritual climb up Obsidian Dome in the forest just off 395.The Dome is a 500 foot high volcanic slagheap with glassy black boulders and dark shiny cliff faces, the top of the mushroom that squirted out of the earth. Unprepossessing perhaps and unlovely to some but climbing up there was walking on a black glass moon, once again unexpected and once more out of this world.
Which is exactly what Mono Lake is. Weird enough for Mark Twain with its bizarre Tufas, towering white hoodoo fingers poking out of its salty
alkaline waters, it was "California's Dead Sea". Seagulls breed and birds flock to Mono to gorge on abundant brine shrimp and alkali flies. Mmm, nice. Further north at ten thousand feet on high sagebrush desert, thirteen winding miles from 395 is a nugget - Bodie, the preserved remains of a gold rush town. $750 million dollars of gold and silver poured out. Ten thousand people poured in. Isolated and wild, high up in the back of beyond, it was infamously wicked, "a sea of sin lashed by the tempests of lust and passion". A girl wrote down "Goodbye God. I'm going to Bodie."
With sixty bars, daily gunfights, opium dens in Chinatown, and the red-light Virgin Alley with "soiled doves" like Madame Moustache and the Beautiful Doll working in cribs to ease the miners' pain and purses, preachers fought a losing battle. Harsh winters with 100mph winds and 40° below, stopped no one's gold fever - "looking for the elephant".
Part of Bodie remains in arrested decay. Stories stroll along empty dirt streets and scratch through dusty windows of weathered wooden hotels, schoolhouses, rooming houses, assay offices, even Dog-Face George's house alone in the windswept sagebrush. Brooding over them from Bodie Bluff is the grey stamp mill where rocks were crushed and precious metals extracted. Go and understand the elephant fever. Extraordinary.
The view on the way back down takes in a brilliant panorama across Mono Lake, the great Caldera and the Sierra Nevada. The best.
We never made it to Reno. Didn't need a divorce and my eyes had already seen too much. We left 395 at Tioga Pass, crossing into Yosemite to get my boy home. And that's another story But you might like to complete the circle and go back to Los Angeles down Route 1 along the Pacific coast, a wondrous contrast.
©Hank Wangford 10 August 2001
top of page