Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Owens Valley Time Machine

The thaw is beginning in the high Sierra and I couldn't wait any longer to get out of San Diego. I was riddled with broad based anxiety the days before the trip which presented itself as a dilemma on which side of the Sierra to head to. Josh talked me down and reminded me of the simplicity and peace we find on Highway 395, so we settled on an eastern adventure. A day or two before we left I did a google search for archaeological sites in the Owens Valley and came up with a survey from 1969 that was focused on Paiute hunting sites. When I use these old surveys it takes me a while to reduce the narratives into map coordinates, and with only a short time before we hit the road we ended up doing most of our translation in the car. I ditched work early and we loaded up, arriving to a very windy Owens Valley around 8pm. We stayed at a motel in Lone Pine and as soon as the sun came up we popped out of bed excited to greet the day.

We got some coffee at the Lone Pine Cafe and cruised around the Alabama Hills toward the mountains as far as we could get before hitting locked gates. Our path took us ever northward and we searched out the first archaeological site on our list. 

On the side of Highway 395 there was supposed to be a series of petroglyphs and hunting blinds on a small butte. We turned off the highway toward the butte but were met with a gate. I was disappointed that we may not be able to access the area but Josh jumped out of the truck and found there was no lock nor a no trespassing sign so we figured it was intended to keep cattle in and not us out. Josh finally got the latch loose and swung it open and I cruised in toward a pile of volcanic boulders.

We went our separate ways as we often do when exploring and started to climb the hill. I passed a few rock circles that were mentioned in the survey and knew we were in the right place. I eventually came upon a small rock shelter with two very faded petroglyphs and my heart raced. "I found one!' I hollered to Josh and sat down to inspect it. The anthropomorphic figures were nearly gone, reclaimed by the desert varnish. The extent of the fading indicates the glyphs are very, very old and with no education in the field I can only speculate based on the information of other sites nearby that these are probably about 5000 years old, but don't quote me on that, I don't know for sure. Once I found the first set it was like my eyes adjusted and suddenly I could see everything; art and obsidian chips materialized out of the rocks and dirt and my mind was blown at every turn. I saw the butte in a new way and recalled a part of the survey which explained that rock art in hunting sites was oriented for the animals view, meaning it was facing the direction the animals would be traveling. This was intended either to attract or distract them which made hunting easier.  Since this butte is so small, the survey said it was likely hunters would be tucked into the rocks ready to strike while others below yelled at the animals playing to their instinctual drive to climb to the safety of the highest point in the vicinity. As I looked out across the plain I could hear the sounds of hoots and hollers of people long gone and suddenly rock stacks that I thought were haphazard became well constructed hunting blinds and boulders with notches worn out of the center became cross-hairs. What a difference in viewing a hunting site over a dwelling site! Since I don't hunt it was like I used a new part of my brain to understand what I was seeing and I couldn't take anything for granted, I really had to focus on how things related to each other.

I've posted two photos of these petroglyphs since they are so faded, one is the original and the other I've kicked up the contrast to hopefully make it more visible.





After poking around the hill for a couple of hours we packed it in and headed breakfast at Schatt's Bakery.

After breakfast we did some exploring around Bishop and headed up toward Aspendell on S.R. 168. We've never been up this way and even though the road closed just after the little town, we were still super excited to be in the big mountains. We weren't planning to do a big jaunt but we couldn't help ourselves and ended up walking the road to Lake Sabrina. We chatted with a couple of snowshoers and even got in a little postholing of our own, along with bitchin' snow reflection sunburns on our faces. It's just magic out here! The Sierra fills me with awe and if I'm honest, a little fear! 

Just a little bit of snow still.

We stood on the dam at Lake Sabrina and watched as the owners of the boat launch prepped for the opening of fishing season. Everywhere we went on this trip the energy was high as locals set about repainting signs and shoveling snow in preparation for the summer season.

We continued our northbound adventure and attempted to find a rockart site on the Volcanic Tablelands. We followed a terribly rutted dirt road for a long time looking for a way to access the top of the bluff. By the time we arrived to a junction in the road we felt like we'd left our kidneys in the back seat from all the bouncing and decided to re-attempt from another direction after we'd recovered. We merged back onto highway 395 and continued north to see what else was going on in the Sierra.
The largest gopher snake I've ever seen!

Of course, no trip to the Eastern Sierra would be complete without a stop off at Convict Lake. This area is so gorgeous and takes such little effort to get to, you just can't pass it up. I ate some lunch by the lake and Josh took a group photo for a family who was on vacation and it was just a really wonderful stop.

Continuing north, we stopped in Mammoth to check out the snow levels and see if we could make it to the Minaret view point. Having never been here when there was snow I didn't realize how dumb that thought was until we made it to the ski lifts and realized there was at least 6 feet of snow over the road. Even the hotel we stayed in while on the PCT was inaccessible via this route! We ended up watching a couple sled around one of the lakes for a while but  being the nerdy introverts that we are, Mammoth is always a bit too crowded with hip people for us, so we opted to continue on toward a less packed June Lake to spend the night.

We varied our route toward June Lake with a stop off at Oh Ridge and took in the views while checking out an old survey marker. 

This trip was intended to be a birthday celebration for Josh so we got a fancy hotel room at the Eagle Creek Resort and had a nice dinner at the restaurant. The mountains surrounding the resort were like a sieve and waterfalls gushed from every nook and cranny.  It was a super relaxing night and we woke to rain the next morning.

We kind of flip-flopped on whether to stay another night, but after a yummy diner style breakfast in Lee Vining and a stop off at a gated Tioga Pass road, we opted to head back south and resume our archaeological survey.

...Open, Open, Open, Open...

We took the long way back to Bishop via Highway 6 and we both could feel archaeological vibes as we traveled through the boulder filled terrain. Silly us though, failed to consult the survey and passed several sites that we could have explored. Oh well, next time! There is just endless areas to explore out here!

While searching for a site near Bishop I found myself unable to quell my curiosity and followed a road as it climbed up a large draw and eventually wound through a narrow canyon to the Pine Creek Pack Station. The storm we had earlier in the morning was being pushed out by strong winds and it gave an eerie vibe to the steep, mine pocked landscape. 

 We spent a long time checking out the hills with binoculars and couldn't resist hiking into a massive canyon we later learned was named Sheelite Couliour. Now, when I say this canyon is massive, I'm not exaggerating; There are two rock climbers on this sheer wall and I've circled them to give you some scale. 

My mind balked at the sheer magnitude of this place and I just had to stand there for a long time, mouth agape, brain in overdrive trying to make sense of it all.

After a nice chat with a woman from the Glacier National Park area we made our way back to the truck to pinpoint our next archaeological site. We narrowed down its location and took a rough road through lava fields to gain access to it. We made our way to a beautiful riparian area and walked an old road turned trail at the bottom of cliffs comprised of volcanic boulders.

We were looking for a site called "bloody hands" which is supposed to be a series of human and animal prints painted in red paint on the walls of a boulder cave. Right off the bat, Josh spotted a cave and we climbed up to inspect it. We shimmied inside, one after the other, hoping not to step on any snakes and trying to avoid woodrat nests and spider webs. We didn't see any visible pictographs inside and D-stretch didn't show any faded images either, but there was some evidence of old fires.

We continued down the canyon a bit and Josh spotted a pictograph on a boulder about 20 feet above us. Our senses were instantly heightened and we started poking around in the reeds and brush looking for other signs of ancient inhabitants.

In between the cave and the first petroglyph, and only from an elevated vantage point between the two, did we spot a ridiculously bright and large petroglyph panel on a boulder nestled in brush. 
"No way!" I gasped, 
"That can't be real" Josh replied. 
We made our way down to its level and inspected it. Neither of us believed what we were seeing, it was too pristine and bright to be legit, right?! We both tentatively discounted it but were still super interested and continued hiking down the trail discussing how intense the boulder was and the area in general. Lizards and birds shimmied through the brush and the wind tousled the reeds making loud shuffling noises that kept us on the look out for predatory animals in our periphery. After about a half mile of cruising we noticed the day was waning and since we didn't see any other easily accessible signs of occupation we returned the way we'd come to find our own shelter for the night. 

When we settled into our hotel room hours later, we cracked open the Survey and found we had, in fact, discovered a legit petroglyph site. Maybe not the one we thought we were going to find, but being the only petroglyph in the Owens Valley with a border around it meant it was a very special site indeed!

On the final day of our trip we cruised out to the Volcanic Tablelands to poke around.  

We rock hopped over loose pumice, crawled through caves and under rock overhangs looking into crevasses and poking at things with sticks before finally topping out on to a plain that seemed to stretch on endlessly, only allowing elevation variations to recede into canyons but not rise, as if the sky was a glacier wedged between the Sierra and the Whites.

I was possessed with the urge to walk across the vast mesa and as I followed that impulse interesting things rose out of the red earth with every step. First, I found a large display of mountain lion scat, followed by tracks and soon I stumbled upon a full carcass of either a mule deer or elk, I'm not sure which. I looked up from the ground to find Josh so I could show him the carcass and realized I had walked a mile or so away from the canyon we were exploring. Oops! I knew my voice wouldn't carry that far so I walked back to find him and when I arrived I found he had discovered bones too. He showed me a small skull and several miscellaneous bones at the top of the canyon and I showed him my photo of the carcass. He said he wanted to see the skeleton for himself so we headed back in the direction I had just come. We walked around for a long time but the earth must have pulled the bones inside and I never found it again. While we didn't find that carcass, Josh found a different set of bones from a deer and I was impressed with how active this landscape is. It looked as if nothing could survive out here, but like a wise PCT'er once told me, if there are signs of death it means there is an abundance of life and that is always a good thing. 

We said our goodbyes to Bishop and headed south, looking for a large hunting site. I took a network of dirt roads while Josh read me the description over and over and we searched the terrain for something that matched the narrative: "amidst a group of four malapais knolls..."

We found a place that looked as good as any to start our exploration and right off the bat began finding interesting rock features. We split up and explored the hills, naturally regrouping where artifacts began to materialize.

This site was was interesting in that there were layers of history all crowded together. Not only were we finding lithic scatter in the form of obsidian flakes from the Paiute's manufacturing of arrowheads, but there was also signs of cowboy's and miner's residence like this petrified piece of leather that I first thought was a piece of pottery.

The deeper we explored the more signs of occupation arose, including some actual potsherds which were difficult to discern from pieces of volcanic rock in the dirt.

Remembering how the petroglyphs were oriented in the first site we visited, I climbed down from the hills to walk along the base and that is where I found the first panel of desert varnished petroglyphs, once again oriented to be in the eye-line of  migrating game animals.

There was an abundance of hunting blinds and stone circles on the top of the small hills and I imagine if Josh was dressed in earth tones you'd struggle to discern him from the boulders.

Mixed into the lithic scatter were seashells, likely left over from trading with coastal tribes. 

This area is still active cattle grazing land and we found a few cattle bones intermingled with the petroglyph covered boulders.

We started to make our way back to the truck following an old creek drainage and more artifacts appeared with every step. Potsherds, stone tools and discarded arrowheads abounded as if they'd been left there days before. I stopped to inspect them and sat quietly at the edge of a rock circle, Paiute stone tools at my feet, and I could see and hear the men sitting on the rocks next to me, shooting-the- shit and laughing while making arrowheads by the dozen for trading.

 It's hard to explain, but this archaeology stuff has turned my understanding of a basic concept like time on its head. Every site I visit I can see the inhabitants in real time, like I am there with them; the sky is the same shade of blue, the sand is the same consistency in our fingers, the wind blows warm on our skin; the lives they're living are as relevant as my own and we are sharing the same moment. As I sat there I realized that time is not the thing that separates 'us' from 'them', it's our concept of civilization. It's our incessant need to control our surroundings and a deep seated fear born from a lack of faith in Nature. I've come to the conclusion that we're not measuring history in increments of time, but rather, against the depth of our disconnection from the events that transpired there. Perhaps, if we could relate to this way of life it would be the present moment, again.

The day was hot and we were paying the price for setting out on this exploration without water, hats or gear. We just didn't realize how expansive this site was going to be, nor how far down the proverbial rabbit hole we were going to go. In the distance we saw a cave on the side of a hill and made our way toward it in one final push of exploration before we had no choice but to return to the truck. Inside the cave we only found a variety of rat's nests but outside is where the real history was found.

Near the cave entrance Josh found a stone tool that could have carved many of the petroglyphs we saw throughout the day. The archaelogical survey notes that "...a single hammerstone was probably used, and poor marksmanship
resulted in widely flared lines with thousands of misdirected blows." Perhaps this is that hammerstone?
Also, if you look closely at the patina on this rock you can see where it has been discolored and worn from the forefinger and thumb of a Paiute craftsmen. Below the cave we also found a grinding stone with a perfectly ergonomic handle that was smaller than the grinding surface to ensure the user's hand would not disrupt contact with the substrate of a narrow morter hole. 
I feel like it's impossible to hold this stuff and not get super philosophical and I imagined the owner of these tools was Josh or I respectively, in another incarnation and by holding them in our hands we were cosmically linked to our former selves, like stitches in the folded fabric of time.

We also found this interesting shard of stone that looked unlike any other stones in the area. It wasn't until I came home and found myself in the vortex that is youtube that I found this talk by the author of the book I'm reading. Craig Childs showed a similar stone that was used to flake obsidian and not only did I find a common theme between the stone tools at this Owens Valley site and Childs' Pleistocene site, but I also found that I am not alone in my feelings and philosophical musings about the concept of time that seem to arise while in archaeologically significant areas, and that really, REALLY blew my damn mind!

Photo by Craig Childs. I screen captured this for illustrative purposes from a talk about his travels into the American Ice Age -- Paleolithic landscapes from Alaska to Chile to Florida. (link above)

Luckily for me, Josh was there to reign my brain back in and we got a good laugh out of the tail he'd acquired inside the cave. As much as we wanted to stay, we knew it was time to go and got in the truck where we downed a cocktail of lime Gatorade and 7up. This is the same cocktail we drank in towns while on the PCT and when we were in Kennedy Meadows a hiker named Mary Poppins called it "Extreme" and so it's been named ever since.

We were both pretty drained from spending so long in the sun without water and half heartedly sought out another site near Olancha but we were only allowed to enjoy the views since all areas surrounding the road were private property. We waved goodbye to the Eastern Sierra and entered the Mojave desert on our way back to civilization. The closer we came to San Diego the more my anxiety rose and I cried when we crossed into the city limit. Something is going to come of this passion for archaeology, and something has got to change in my living situation as well. I think one will naturally lead to the other, and sooner than later I'll find a place I belong.  More will be revealed and I remain ever observant and willing.


  1. Schatt's Bakery!! I love reading your entries!

  2. Thanks for reading them! Schatt's is the best!!