Cedarville is east of Alturas and west of Gerlach, on the way to Black Rock City.

Sent: Thursday, August 01, 2002 8:01 PM
Subject: a loop related to the road to Burningman

From a road trip in 1989.

Cedarville is east of Alturas and west of Gerlach, on the way to Black Rock City.

By far the best food was a few hundred miles north, in the town of Cedarville, in the Surprise Valley, just across the mountains from Alturas, at a place called the Country Hearth, where a woman and her young daughter are probably trying too hard to make a go of one of the most thankless jobs in the world. My explanation for the place is a fantasy that her husband got smashed under a tractor or somesuch horrible agricultural eventuality, and the community is giving them a chance to stay. We got at least a $15 meal for $6.

Her prices were undoubtedly dictated by the economics of the community, and I still feel guilty about not tipping them at 100%. Most of the people in there were over 60 years old and they were sitting around 3 tables shoved together. It felt like we had dropped in on the weekly town meeting. When we got there, it was already winding down, but the conversation was fascinating. They were talking about the financial returns available from ranching. These were people with many hundreds, even thousands of acres in cultivation. From what we had seen driving up their valley earlier in the morning, it was aptly named the Surprise Valley, as it was clearly an unexpected, magical oasis surrounded by steep rocky mountains and alkali deserts, but it seemed to us that it was being seriously wasted growing meat-cows.

They were speculating that a very well financed, energetic operation with a lot of experience might be able to make a 5% annual return on their investment, but not one of them admitted having done better than 3% at any point in their lifelong careers, and a few admitted they were running about 2% most of the time. After their party broke up, I walked over and sat down next to Mr. Johnson, the one old guy who remained at the table. I asked him how long he'd lived in the valley, which turned out to be 80 years, since he'd turned 8, and I spent the next 45 minutes steering the stream of stories just enough to make sure I found out about some of the places we'd seen. The best story he told me came from a question about the brick warehouse building across the street.

(photo: Old South cotton warehouse in Cedarville)

Seems that at the end of WWI, an itinerant brick-layer showed up in town. He knew how to make bricks, and apparently, the materials were available and there was plenty of wood, so he'd built him a kiln, and started to make bricks. Once he'd made enough bricks, he started to lay up a few buildings. Bricklaying is something that one man can do, and you can see the results of your labor at the end of the day. He attracted quite a bit of attention, in an unpretentious sort of way. And in time, nearly everybody in town ended up working for him at one point in their life or another. In fact, it became sort of a "right of passage" for young men coming back into the community, after the war. As a result, all the little towns up and down the valley, and all the way across the mountains to Alturas got nice brick buildings which Carter says look a lot like the old cotton warehouses and other "official" buildings in the deep south. One day, a Federal Marshall drove in to town, and arrested him. For years, he had been deducting payroll taxes from the men who worked for him, and he'd never given a cent of it to the government. No one in town ever saw him again.


The gold miners who used to be scattered around in the mountains to the south and east of surprise Valley had not fared much better than the ranchers, few mines having produced over $100,000 in their entire histories. Which takes us back to Mammoth, an old mining town that finally struck it rich 40 years ago, when they put in a big ski-lift there. In over 40 years of mining, the efforts of hundreds of men had failed to wring more than $200,000 out of the ground there. Now, $200,000 probably won't buy a 2 bedroom condo anywhere near the shuttle routes. In the gathering darkness of the night-before, we had stumbled on the "Old Mammoth", a little shred of Tom Ninkovitch's Invisible California. Now, in the harsh light of day, we could see the future.

The town of Mammoth is growing so much too fast that it could well serve as a textbook model for urban planning in the 1990's. You expect to see lots of freshly built and almost completed condos the size of small apartment complexes, like you see in any rich, fast- growing urban area. But in Mammoth, you also find new turn-key single-corporation 250 unit planned community developments, with large tennis courts, a shopping center and possibly even a golf- course, inside. In Mammoth, where a small buildable lot, suitable for a chalet, near water and power lines, costs between $28,500 and $100,000 cash, this sort of big-time development is going on in every place level enough to operate a grader, including the very sub-alpine meadows that are the primary source of the area's beauty. I took a picture out the window of the car, of a huge earth-moving dumpbed semitruck with a 60' box, filled to overflowing with freshly uprooted, spectacularly gnarley pine trees thousands of years old, on their way to the dump. For me, this picture reflects The essence of Californication.

( photo: californication in Mammoth)

People in the Northwest don't have a good mental image of the geography of eastern California. It isn't at all like Eastern Washington, where the mountains just sort of fizzle out gradually, as you head east. Down here, in the area around Bishop, the Sierra Nevada ends very abruptly, almost "cliffing out" into a flat north- south valley at the 4,000' level, but then the foothills of another range, running parallel to the Sierra, and almost as tall, begin within a few miles.

We had found our guidebook at the one good outdoor-store in Merced. One of the areas it offered us, that we clearly had to go see, was the Bristlecone Pine forest a few miles north of Death Valley, in the White Mountains, east of Bishop. This forest is full of trees in the neighborhood of 4000 years old. It is being mined, slowly, by a community of scientists, parasitic creatures who bore half- inch diameter holes thru the living areas of the trees with special carbon-steel plug-cutters which extract pencil-size cores that run all the way thru the middle of the tree. These cores, which provide a complete timeline for the past 4000 years of history, are then used to calibrate the radio-carbon dating procedures which determine the age of human artifacts. Not long ago, one of these scientists broke his auger off inside the tree then and still believed to be the oldest living thing in the world, and in his impatience to find its exact age, cut it down with a chainsaw to count its rings and see exactly how old it was.

There is not a lot I can say about the trees themselves. It seems that every single one of them has been singled out for destruction at least once, at one time or another, and was fatally blasted out of the ground by some enormous bolt of lightning. Only they refuse to die! A tiny thread of bark will still connect the tree to a fragment of an uncooked root, and the tree will spend the next few hundred years rebuilding itself, only to be struck again. And again. And Again.

(photo: bristlecone)

You can see time laid out before you as never before. A 4000 year old tree predates any written human history, but they do not feel "old" so much as they feel "ancient", a distinction I am not sure I've ever understood before. The feeling of their life-force is very powerful. The bleached and barren limbs twist and arch against the sky and the naked roots seem to writhe down the rocky slopes. But the ground around them is covered with rivers of pine- cones, like glaciers flowing out of the coast mountains in SE Alaska. We arrived a little bit late in the morning for the "magic" golden light of dawn, having stopped to watch the sunrise at the Sierra Crest overlook, where there is a little stone-work monument set about 100' off the road. It has a crude lens-less spotting-scope on it, made from a length of galvanized waterpipe with a pointer attached, that lines up with names on a plaque. The plaque names all the peaks along this 50 mile stretch of the high Sierra, spread out in front of you, right across the valley.

The only other person in the Schulman Grove was just putting away his large-format camera when we arrived, having spent the night in his truck in the trailhead parking lot, instead of at the campground 5 miles down the mountain. I wish we had spent all day in the Bristlecones, instead of returning to check out Mammoth.

ASIDE: The best place to have breakfast in the area is Ben's, across from the big Chevron station in Bishop. We learned about it from some very nice local people, who we met as we were leaving the Schulman Grove. They had spent the night above Westgard Pass, watching for the eclipse. Ben's is a very "down-home" place, full of overweight locals and grizzly-looking truckers. They have outside restrooms and a breakfast special that isn't on the menu, but is listed on a little card on the table, that's probably the 2nd best indoors meal we found anyplace on the entire trip.

By far the best food was a few hundred miles north, in the town of Cedarville, in the Surprise Valley, just across the mountains from Alturas, at a place called the Country Hearth, where a woman and her young daughter are probably trying too hard to make a go of one of the most thankless jobs in the world.
©Joe Breskin November 2000
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