California Spirits Up Toward the Sierras

The hills along Highway 46 are a straw brown in late September, speckled with the tough green of the live oak.  These days the vineyards have expanded eastward from Paso Robles, claiming more wine out of what was once cattle ranch country.  It’s the kind of beauty easterners don’t always understand.  They marvel at the grapevines, but look puzzled at the seemingly dead grass of the rolling hills.  The height of summer back beyond the coast in central California can have the same effect on plant life as the winters back east.  Early morning and evenings are pleasant, but midday is the time to retreat to deep shade or air conditioning.  Native grasses go dormant and turn brown, without the luxury of snow to entomb the pallor of seasonal death.

My friend Dow and I have been on this highway before.  Central coast people take it to reach the Central Valley and Highway 5, which pretty much commands the breadth of California, via the valley, up past Redding and into Oregon.  I’ve taken a few road trips with Dow.  He is a good friend, kind of an older brother to me.  But without the admonishing advice that usually accompanies big brothers.  Dow had lost his father recently and part of his inheritance was a cabin on Lake Huntington in the Sierra Nevadas.  Although others had been partners in the cabin it was up to Dow to close it for the winter season.  He asked me if I wanted to go, do a little hiking, swim in the lake and just be in amongst the Lodgepole and Jeffrey Pine, and the granite domes that peel off layers of stone like great expanding onions in that invisible space called geologic time.  There are not too many Californians who will pass up a chance to spend a few days in the Sierras.  California road trips tend to blend the traveler’s personal reflections into the greater body of historical spirits the landscape holds, in ways staying at home does not do.  They are great memorials, if that is the experience you need.

Memorials are for those that have passed.  For anyone who knows a little California history the Sierras are full of passed spirits.  The ghosts of indians, of settlers stuck on the passes, gold miners, loggers, loners and anyone who required a dose of bitter season in a rugged landscape.  Even before a road trip reaches the Sierras, ghosts will make themselves known.

Highway 46 has ghosts.  In the Diablo Mountains on the eastern side of the Cholame Valley there were many legends of old massacres passed amongst the mestizos during Mexican rule.  Another phantom has been sighted in more recent times, what locals have called the Ghost Driver of Polonia Pass.  The story was, like some demon speed racer, it terrorized anyone unlucky enough to be on that part of the highway at odd hours of the day or night.  As it was, us simple road pilgrims were going to veer off on Highway 41 going northeast before we ever got to Polonia Pass.  Of course, if you don’t know the infamy of Highway 46, this apparition is one of many attributed to the ghost of James Dean.  He met his tragic end right at the intersection of Highway 41 and 466, what is now called the 46.  The actual sight is somewhere in the farm fields since they re-positioned the intersection.  This place is called Cholame (the last syllable pronounced like lamb), which is a Chumash word meaning “beautiful one”.  The long shadows of the hills just before dusk, gives the area a mysteries beauty that must have attracted the Yokuts to build their burial mounds that used to exist along the 466 before they were plowed under.  We were passing the intersection at dusk, the time when vehicles float by and perceptions of distance become distorted.  We were incidentally following the route the other driver in the accident, Mr. Turnupseed, was taking in his 1950 Ford Tudor.  We were casually passing through at a moderate speed, as both of us, being half way between birth and death, were long past the urge of speeding youth.

Of all my friends Dow is most similar to James Dean.  I’ve heard a few amongst our mutual friends comment that Dow is the more bohemian, free living one amongst us.  They both lost loved ones before their time, had difficulties in their relationships with their fathers and engaged in the arts for their self-expression.  James Dean’s loss came early in life.  His mother died while the family lived in California when he was only nine.  His father sent him alone back to Indiana to live with his aunt and uncle.  It must have been a lonely and frightening trip on the train for a nine year old with his mother’s coffin in the baggage car.  After growing up in Indiana he finally moved back to Santa Monica and lived with his father for a short time.  His father was not to keen on Jimmy’s interests in drama and theater.  He begrudgingly did help pay for his son’s tuition for a drama degree, so the relationship was not completely at odds.

Artists tend to immerse themselves in a few different mediums.  My friend Dow’s art forms lean toward music and the visual, but it’s apparent he too could have become an actor.  He will casually mimic characters accents from movies with a startlingly good impression.  But being a reckless rebel is not a similarity they share.  Even James Dean’s reputation is layered with considerate proportions of myth.  Although he was famously difficult to work with, there were times in his formative New York City years when he was harshly criticized by acting coaches, swallowed his pride and continued learning the craft from these mentors.

That reckless speed racer character may reflect more of something from my youth.  Passing through Cholame on a road trip we had a view of this place, with its phantom moment in time, looking down through the eyes of a more mature age.  When your slowly clocking your way through your forties, the idea of racing down a straight stretch of San Luis Obispo back country road in a silver Porsche Spyder with a racing number on the side, to see how fast she will go, sounds ridiculous.  Even Paul Newman, who they say still hit the track in his eighties, probably didn’t try topping them out on Connecticut highways.  But when I was at the age Dean died, I was racing around in a turbo charged red Dodge pushing the envelope at inappropriate times.  Fairmont, Indiana, where Dean grew up, is not too different from the town I was raised in.  The town is right off highway 69 between Detroit and Indianapolis, two auto meccas of America.  It’s out in these cornfield towns with great stretches of straight flat highway that car culture thrived.  Where I grew up, a little town right outside Detroit, at least one parent worked in the auto industry and it seemed every young boys dream was to own a supped up Mustang or Trans Am.  My fascination with cars and fast driving eventually waned, but not before having a few chances to endanger my own life.

During the time of Dean’s accident a family had reported their Pontiac was run off the road on the 46 before Polonia Pass.  Dean and his passenger, his mechanic Rolf, were passing another car and had miscalculated the distance of an oncoming car.  At the moment of possible impact enough swerving occurred so that at one moment there were 3 cars abreast of each other on the same spot of highway.  One of the daughters in the family claims to have looked out the window of the Pontiac at the same moment and saw both passengers of the topless Porsche in dark sunglasses grinning from ear to ear.  Though this story may have a touch of the apocryphal myth to it, I can remember a similar bit of recklessness in my youth.  I recall an afternoon in Michigan driving down a long flat stretch of road along side the Pebble Creek Golf Course and a fallow cornfield.  With my turbo I was into passing drivers I deemed too slow.  I veered into the opposing lane and saw the oncoming car in the left lane was a distant speck.  I stepped on the gas, began to pass and suddenly I see an oncoming car 50 yards in front of me.  Somehow miraculously the oncoming car swerved enough so that at one moment 3 cars were abreast on the same spot of two-lane highway.  No accident occurred, so I continued on down the road.  Like most sport car owners I enjoyed speeding through dangerous curves.  And the only part I can still remember from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” was the bit of driving advise Dean Moriarty gives to Sal Paradise about how a skilled driver calculates the proper speed before hitting a curve, but never touches the brake when going through it.   I suppose what saved my life and many a daredevil driver was the luck to walk away from a few accidents relatively unscathed.  After a couple wrecks where I saw there could have been the potential for fatalities, I became much more cautious.  This is in fact what James Dean’s Uncle Marcus, who raised him in Indiana, said never occurred to Jimmy.  When Dean was racing around on his motorcycle at 15 he never once took a spill.

We veered off the 46 in the settling dusk and moved out of the San Andres Fault Zone.  A rift valley some proponents of the paranormal consider a kind of Bermuda Triangle of California.  That intersection just past Cholame sits right on top of it.  We never did see the Ghost Driver of Polonia Pass.  Perhaps we were a week premature.  On the anniversary of his death, September 30th,  a road rally occurs and the faithful make the trip he took from San Fernando, over the Grapevine, past Bakersfield and then heading west on the 46.  They stop at all the stops he made.  Most of them don’t exist as they once were; a gas station that’s now a flower shop, a barren field where once was Tip’s Diner at Castiac Junction.  Blackwell’s Corner where he made his last stop on the corner of the 46 and the 33 is still there.  It is a different building, but you can still buy an apple, like Dean did.  For these pilgrims it’s a kind of Via Dolorosa of their rebel messiah.  They stop and pay reverence to all the Stations of the Spyder.  We were searching other spirits further east up in the mountains, so had to bid adieu to phantoms of Hollywood dream wrecks.

Except for some confused navigation in Fresno the Central Valley crossing was uneventful.  It was only after we passed Prather, a tiny Sierra foothill town, that the night ghosts of my friend Dow’s memories started to flicker.  He spoke of hitting a cow somewhere past Shaver Lake on the windy roads toward Huntington Lake.  The car had been immobilized and him and a friend had to walk in the dark of night along the mountain road.  Without the moonlight or any city’s light pollution, the planetarium of stars swathing the highland skies is vivid and full, but the immediate space in front of you is pitch as a coalmine.  If you leave it alone it is just fine, but if you fill it full of your imagination it can ripen with the potential of fear.   Beside the wild animals that roam the night, the ghosts of white man’s past are not so thick back in the Sierras.  Occasional cabin fever blossoming into murder or a hunting expedition accident resulting in supposed involuntary manslaughter, these are terrible things, but nothing engaging the supernatural.  It is before the white man’s time, somewhere between the Foothill Pine and the subalpine, Mountain Hemlock that the shaman of the indigenous people exercised their power.  This is when the supernatural ruled the landscape and the shaman allied with the spirit world.  To be sure, the shaman was mostly an agent for healing.  But from time to time malevolent souls would acquire the supernatural experiences to assume shamanistic power.  Even well meaning shamans could find themselves in danger when cures did not take.  When family members died shamans were sometimes blamed.  Another shaman would be employed to exact revenge and the forest would be thick with intrigue and even horror.  These are stories that would rival a Stephen King novel.  I read one book on shamanism amongst the natives of California and one story stayed vivid in my mind of a Sierra shaman who through the employ of a disputing family kidnapped the twin daughters of the opposing family, killed and gutted them, then stuffed their bodies with dry grass to be used as a kind of macabre totem.  Later on during our stay the walking we did at night around the cabin held little fear, but I remember as a kid those scary stories around the campfire often started with stranded motorists walking a deserted road at night.  Like my friend Dow’s experience they would start innocently.  But then the footsteps of the friend walking behind would suddenly disappear.  The evil that would entail was only limited to the story tellers imagination, as well as the listeners suspension of disbelief.  The Sierras are a great place to set such tales.

We arrived at the cabin and after watching Dow clean up the rotted dead rat in front of the refrigerator, I was ready to find a bed pretty quick.  I was quite surprised at how cold it already was in September at 7,500 feet and with no central heating, getting underneath a quilt is really the only way to get warm.  The next morning I had to find a sunny patch that broke through the pines in order to warm up.  Like a lizard I lay for awhile warming my seemingly cold blooded body and viewed the mountain forest all around.  Dow sat on the deck of the cabin and played a John Fahey type finger picked blues on his guitar.  I think it was Sam McGee’s “Knoxville Blues”, a tune I saw him showcase recently at a music festival.  I became absorbed in the music and the scenery.

The Sierras are a marvelous wonder, everything from the grey granite batholiths and domes on the horizon, to the chartreuse-colored lichen that cling to the Lodgepole Pines surrounding the lake.  Out in the wilderness nature presents itself extra large and this Wolf Lichen, as it is called, sprung vibrantly from the bark of the trees.  The chipmunks bounced in the branches and competed with the sound of Dow’s guitar.  They were a chatty bunch, probably some of the loudest racket producing rodents I’ve ever known.  Later when we walked down to the lake Dow stopped at all the little piles of shredded pine cones the chipmunks left and announced another Shinto shrine, as he called them.  We wound down through the bracken fern and climbed a gathering of great granite slabs and boulders on and in the water’s edge.

Mountain lakes are much different then the lakes I’m accustom to in the Midwest.  Back there the lakes are sprawling water wonderlands spreading out across the landscape with so many coves and cattail covered inlets.  Sierra mountain lakes instead are usually narrow, long lakes that fill canyons and steep walled valleys, often with a dam or two at one end.  They are dark blue lakes with a surface that shimmers in the sunlight in contrast to the dark green of the pine that climbs the mountainside.  I could imagine the holiday barge that use to float in the lake in the 1920s to entertain the Huntington Lake Lodge visitors, when the railroad track and later the roads were blasted into the mountain side.  Rowboats pulled it about and it offered a dance floor for the visitors.  We had happily arrived at the lake late in the season, and the skidoos and water skiers that Dow so distained had ceased.  Although we would miss the sound of a dance band fiddle off the lake surface, we didn’t have to listen to roaring motor boats.  Besides I had brought my Native American flute and was hoping to create a call and response to my flute’s echoes off the lake surface myself.  Dow proceeded to splash about in the frigid waters, he has a streak of polar bear DNA in his genes.  I, on the other hand could only wade about a bit, then return to the rocks on the shore, absorb the solar energy and find this kokopelli muse of mine.

I had purchased the flute just the past April at our towns Earth Day festival, but had yet to delve into its tonal qualities.  Or even my ability to play such an instrument.  The great thing about a Native American flute is its modal quality that lends itself to the improvisational nature of musical sound.  There is no strict form of notation or rhythm to follow and the playing of it requires a deep listening, of not only the sounds you are making, but also the sounds of the environment around the player.  It is an instrument made out of the natural world itself.  Mine had been made of mahogany, but the Native Californians fashioned the instrument out of the world around them.  The Chumash of the coast where I live made flutes out of elderberry wood.  Other tribes used tule reeds and the bones of animals like pelicans and deer.  The music played was not just a source of entertainment.  It came from a deeper part of the consciousness and were songs to protect the player or singer from evil spirits, darkness and times of turmoil.  For shamans they were sources of power and music was used to bring together rival tribes into ceremonial events.  Almost everyone learned there own individual song and played or sang it in times of need, as well as in times of good spirit.  I soon discovered a song or two I could harmonize off the lake myself.

Perhaps what I was playing was a mourning song.  I couldn’t help but wonder what memories my friend Dow was reflecting on, here at the lake.  At the funeral memorial for his father, only a few weeks before, Dow’s friend Jon gave a lighthearted eulogy about Dow’s father teaching him to water ski at this very lake.  Dow’s father had required a commitment from Jon that if he was going to do this thing, learn how to water ski, he was going to have to stick with it until he was up on the skis flying about the lake.  There was going to be no backing down.  Although I did not know Dow’s father, I get the sense a facet of his character was this determined, unflinching striver.  Jon seems to have succeeded, even if he had to endure a host of purple water ski bruises on his inner thighs.  I’m sure the lake was filled with many memories of his father.  As it was the Monache, the tribe that lived in this area of the Sierras, often held a mourning ceremony at this time of year.  The widows of the deceased singed their hair short and walked around disheveled until this ceremony could release them from this state.  It was usually held in autumn, as the harvesting of the land provided plenty of food for the gatherers.  I would have been one of the singers and accompanying weepers, often hired from surrounding tribes who performed in this way.  Even though it was a mourning ceremony, the gathering included the distribution of gifts, shaman’s contests to demonstrate their power and the burning of effigies of the deceased to release the mourners from their grief.  At some point Dow left for the cabin as I began to get a true handle on the tones of my instrument.  The lake echoed the calls of my flute and I found myself discovering jazzy rifts that veered from a mournful cry.  I would find out later that this lake has had others mourn at its shores.

Later in the day we visited the lakes general store, the only one customer serving establishment that seemed to be around.  It even had a produce section, a table with a few wilted greens and some potatoes.  The shoppers, all of two men with beards, looked to be ready for hunting season.  Or maybe they were permanent residents, uncomfortable with the seemingly placid life of Californians closer to sea level.  We did see a few cabins that had been weatherized for year around stay.  On our way out of the store there was a sign nailed to a tree announcing the showing of a film about a plane crash in the lake.  I don’t recall where the film was being shown; it’s not like Huntington Lake has a cinema, or even a place that can handle more then 20 people in one space.  Maybe it would be shown outside up against a large granite boulder for a screen.  Dow had mentioned something about a plane crash in the lake.  It was supposedly a World War II era bomber of some sort.  As we drove around the lake Dow joked it was probably a story blown out of proportion.  Later you might find out it wasn’t a bomber but a smaller military plane or maybe just a Cessna.  I did find out later it truly was a B-24 bomber and six men had died.  She was called the “Exterminator” and was out searching for a previously lost plane and crew.  The Sierras are littered with plane crash sites, with many occurring during World War II.  Many a flight training crew flew a triangular area over Arizona, Nevada and the Sierras of California.  It was on December 6, 1943 that the plane went down on the lake.  Two men were able to parachute to safety but the other six crew members, including Captain William H. Darden, went down in the lake.  It was only in 1955 when the lake was partially drained for dam maintenance that the plane was discovered.  All of the bodies had been perfectly preserved in the frigid waters.  Cold waters I can attest to.  Dow had told me one year his friend Jon had proclaimed he would swim across the lake.  As Dow rowed a boat alongside Jon’s trans lake crossing, he peered down in the murky depths with apprehension.  If I had attempted such a feat, the knowledge that I may be swimming above a watery gravesite would have made for me, a much more terrifying swim.  Though parts of the plane have been recovered much of it is still down there.  There is even a man still convinced he can raise it, ala Clive Cussler, and restore what’s left for a Fresno air museum.  Others believe it should stay where it is, the lake itself a memorial to lost soldiers.  To this day the last survivor still alive that was able to bailout, George Barulic, periodically comes to the lake to pray.

That evening in the cabin I perused an illustrated book about the different geared locomotives that hauled equipment and materials up to the area during the dam construction era.  These were odd looking locomotives I’d never seen before, huge mechanical insect-like things with names like Shays and Climaxes.  With their heavy loads and the steepness of the grade they sometimes were dragged to a speed of 5 or 6 miles an hour.  The hundreds of curves in the rail line limited car size to only 36 feet long.  The San Joaquin and Eastern Railroad Company started building the 56 miles of rail line up to this part of the mountains beginning in 1912.  The railroad company was a subsidiary of the Pacific Light and Power Company, which later would become Southern California Edison.  And the principal owner of stock for the power company was a man named Henry E. Huntington.  As is usually the case the richest men have their names tagged to the structures and altered landscapes they fund, and thus goes with the lake.  The dam at this lake was only one in a series of dams in this part of the Sierras.  All intended to provide electricity for the expanding metropolis of Los Angeles.  Like the harvesting of water from the Owens Valley, L.A.’s tentacles reached far and wide in search of resources to provide its growth.  Surprisingly enough when the electricity was first being generated from this area 78% of it powered the 355 miles of LA Railway, owned of course by Mr. Huntington, and 868 miles of inter urban electric lines.  At one time L.A. had one of the highest used mass transit systems in the nation.  When the rail line was first being built in the mountains the working conditions wouldn’t have been unlike that of a John Henry tale.  Two men teams worked the jack drills to place the dynamite and blast out more rock.  One man held the drill and the other swung the sledgehammer.  When the rail line finally reached Big Creek, the area where the lake is now, the dynamiting continued for the dam’s construction.  Along with the sound of train whistles, explosions echoed through the valley at all hours of the day and night.  By this time holiday goers were already arriving by “bleacher” train car to the newly built Huntington Lake Lodge and along with them the forests were filled with “Sivil Injuneers” and construction stiffs carrying their bindles to sleep on.

The shores around the lake are less populated these days, and were even more so during the late season we were there.  Dow and I took a walk down to the lake after it was dark and the moonless sky displayed the heavenly firmament that is always present when the cities are so far away.  Standing out on the floating docks I swore I saw flickering light on the opposite shore.  It could have been someone night fishing, though Dow told me it is illegal to fish after dark on this lake.  Rational explanation would dictate it was some person, though as far as I knew that part of the shore was uninhabited of any cabins or living areas.  The darkness of the Sierra forests at night can play tricks on the mind.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine the phantom of a long past shaman in search of his tutelary spirit.  To the Monache, the owl was the true mythological shaman and the totemic sponsor of all shamans.  Although most people of the tribe had one or two supernatural experiences in their lives, it was the “acquiring” of many of these experiences that separated a shaman from the rest.  They stressed their body and minds through fasts, the use of emetics and hallucinogenic plant sources.  Most people found these methods too troublesome and let others become shamans.

Shamans were not the only ones with totemic spirits.  All the people of the tribe belonged to a moiety.  The bird moieties were more common.  One might belong to the eagle, roadrunner or dove lineage.  There were intertribal assemblies for ceremonies honoring the different moieties, in which a captive eagle or vulture would be danced over.  I like to think I would have been a member of the eagle lineage, but it is more likely my totem spirit is the bear.  Dow’s lineage may very well be the same.  I have come upon a bear while in the wild more often then any other large wild animal I’ve experienced in the wilderness, with the exception of deer.  It was only a few years before Dow and I took a trip into the northern Sierras.  We had just finished a swim in another mountain lake and were driving down into Oroville when we struck a bear.  Although we were not going fast and the bear bounced a bit off the bumper and fled into the forest, I do worry we injured it at the wrong time.  It would need to recuperate during the critical season moving into autumn, when it needs to feed heartily for the winter season’s hibernation.  Perhaps this occurred because we did not perform the bear dance before we had left.  According to the Monache the people of the bear lineage must perform the dance before the bears holed up for the winter.  It was to be held in September or October and if missed the people of the bear totem might get sick and die.  They were not allowed to eat of the new acorn crop until this ritual was performed.  I would be happy to learn the bear dance if someone could show me a few authentic steps.

One ritual that I’m glad I did not need to experience was the jimsonweed ceremony, that all adolescent boys and girls of the tribe were required to endure.  It was a 6 day ordeal involving the consumption of the Datura plant with all its hallucinogenic properties.  From the recorded experiences that I’ve read, of more latter day imbibers, Datura is a very intense and harsh psychoactive plant – and potentially lethal.  We headed back to the cabin and the only ritual I supposed I performed that night was to tinkle a bit on the keyboards of the piano sitting next to the fireplace.  I can’t help but think on remembering that night, that the flickering light across the lake could have very well been the ghost’s of some lost airmen.  Training flight boys looking for their plane and still anxious to finally get at those Germans and Japanese, for the war effort.

The next day we walked around the lake, sometimes losing the trail, but staying close to the water.   The large granite boulders lay everywhere, like some old abandoned cemetery for giants – the gravestones fallen over and half buried.  In amongst the Lodgepole and Jeffrey pine, the great Pacific Ponderosa pine displayed its mighty dragon skin.  Its bark like the armor of some mythical reptilian beast.  An occasionally we would come upon the old man of the forest, the Incense Cedar.  Of all the trees up here, the cedar belongs most in a fairy tale forest.  With the draping moss and the broken branches, it would be the one to most likely open an eye, move a branch and gobble an orc.  Dow asked me if I knew the name of a common scrub with spiny fruit that grew abundantly.  I couldn’t say for sure, but the word chinquapin kept popping in my head.  These plant names from my botanical enthusiast days still want to sprout up in my mind, when I’m staring at particular plants.  It turns out on checking a plant guide later it was the Bush Chinquapin.  That spiny husk disguising a sweet edible nut the Monache ate.  The Monache made use of most of the plants in this area.  The Manzanita berry yielded a beverage and pinenuts were plentiful.  Of course acorns were a staple, though usually gathered at lower altitudes or acquired through barter with the Yokuts in the Sierra foothills, where the oaks grow.

This area is littered with arrow head points made of obsidian. The obsidian, a type of volcanic glass, was used in so many different ways and can be considered the resource for making the principle sharp edged tool used in all forms of domestic life.  Of course it is a superior hunting tool and tipped many an arrow. The obsidian was gathered by the Northern Paiute of the Owens Valley and from places further east by other tribes.  It was then traded through the Monache into the Central Valley and can be found as far as the coast.  Seashells traveling by trade the other way can be also found in the Great Basin region of the country.  It seems the Monache were a kind of exporter/importer for goods traveling between the coastal and Central Valley tribes and the continents interior tribes.

As we hiked we stopped at a few places along the shoreline.  The granite boulders litter the landscape even into the water’s edge.  We sat amongst the boulders with a few tortured pines growing from cracks in the granite.  They looked like oversized bonsai of the style called fukinagashi – windswept, or ishitsuki – clinging to rock.  There are two pine covered islands in the lake and we could see the one nearest the edge of one of the dams.  Dow said when he was growing up this island had a more mystical aura to it.  From our view it seemed to be sitting on the edge of the world, as the lake seems to end abruptly, not much further past the island, with no seeming land meets water’s edge beyond it.

We eventually reached that dam and found a few people fishing off the edge of it.  The backside is covered with earth and boulders to help protect the concrete from erosion.  A wonderful blue delphinium was blossoming in the backfill.  We toured the end of the lake where the four dams are located.  The largest dam has an impressive intake tower jutting out of the water a few feet from the water’s edge.  Below that tower is the intake tunnel with a diameter of 9 feet.  The tower is probably obsolete anymore as intake is controlled remotely.  Still it had an omniscient and even foreboding presence.  Like it controlled the point at where the lakes very existence is determined.  Before the dams were constructed this area was used by sheep herders in the 1870s.  It had the name Big Creek Flats.  The dam project was the brainstorm of a pioneering civil engineer named John S. Eastwood.  He was not suited for office bureaucracy and spent much of his time in the field.  He combed this part of the Sierras and knew it very well.  The dam project included several dams at various altitudes and drains a 450 square mile watershed.  The water falls 6000 feet through the dam system and at the time of completion was the longest distance between reservoirs and turbines and had the largest generators of its kind.  The project was truly massive at the time.  There are two more lakes, Florence and Edison, at higher altitudes that were also formed by dams built during the same period.  Florence covers a place once called Jack Ass Meadows.  In order to create a tunnel for the water to flow from Florence to Huntington Lake they had to blast out 6 ½ miles of rock and earth below Kaiser Pass.  It was so long a dining car rode down into the tunnel to feed the workers at lunchtime.  The Florence encampment behaved like a small town.  A hog farm was managed to take care of all the organic garbage.  A total of 12,750,000 pounds of ham and bacon was consumed at that encampment.  The work at the Florence dam went on through the winter.  An Alaskan dog team transported goods from Lake Huntington up to the Florence dam project.  As it is, somewhere along the road heading up to Lake Florence is a gravesite for the much loved lead dog, whose name was of course, Babe.  I wonder if the musher’s name was Paul.  Though these mountains are quiet now, the spirits of industry can also be felt lingering along the lakeside and back into the canyons.

The next day was the last day of our mountain sojourn and Dow began in earnest to close the cabin for winter.  We both share an interest in Zen Buddhism, so he tried employing my help in the duties with the exclamation, “We must clean the zendo”.  It is a tradition, in Zen monasteries everywhere, to clean the meditation hall in a more or less ritual way.  I was most happy to comply and as we scrubbed, shut down plumbing, water pipes and shuttered windows and doors, I silently began my farewells to the host of silent spirits, and sometimes loud animals, that had been making my acquaintance here.  The Sierras have a streak of history through my friend’s childhood.  As far as I know this cabin has been in Dow’s family for quite sometime and he has many childhood memories of this place.  Although this part of the Sierras aren’t as famous as Yosemite or the Sequoia region and maybe there aren’t as many ghosts wandering around as there might be at Donner’s Pass or the goldfields, it is a place rich with spirit and beauty.   As for me, I am an immigrant to California and only read about what came before, so that I might glimpse a few shadows of deeper meaning in the places I visit here.  But then again, so were most of the gold seekers, pioneers looking for new land, service men who trained here for war, acting students with ambitions of Hollywood stardom and the dam engineers and concrete pourers of the hydroelectric projects.  Even the ancestors of the Monache must have migrated to this part of the continent at one time or another.  In the end we never know where we might leave a few phantoms of our presence.  The Sierras and her roads up to them, is just as good a place as any.

As we drove down toward the Central Valley my friend Dow winced.  He suddenly remembered he’d forgotten to set the rat traps.  In the eyes of the other cabin owners he might look to be a bit careless.  I think he was just trying to keep the ghost rat population of the Sierra cabins down, or at least postpone it.  Even if that meant an increase in the real rat population.  The rats would get a reprise and Dow’s karma would be minus a few tiny ghosts.

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