Lone Pine

Dan Schwartz

Y

ou’d think it was the voice of God if you weren’t so used to jet planes. A roar floods the Owens Valley. It folds over itself in waves and eddies. By the time it reaches you, it has already twisted through pockets of atmosphere, ricocheted off granite cliffs, barreled down mountain canyons and stuttered along the desert floor. The basin and range is an

open throat. It chants an indecipherable hymn of geology and combustion. The first time you hear the sky opening up, you’re surprised, scared, impressed. You search the sky for the source, the jet plane, but it has escaped its sound. Then, far from where you’d expect, a flash catches the corner of your eye: warplanes in formation, glinting in the sun like shards of quartz.

 

The Alabama Hills sit in the Owens Valley, just west of Lone Pine, California. They’re hardly hills, but pinnacles of weathered granite that appear to have ruptured through the valley floor like a monstrous spine. In golden contrast with the Sierras towering behind them, these outcrops invite the imagination. You’ll find RV’s and campervans tucked between pillars along Movie Road, where the more established pull-offs were once the sites of old movie sets. In the 1920’s this is where Hollywood began to stage skirmishes between cowboys and Indians. Eventually, the landscape became home to the western film genre. Legends like John Wayne, Tex Ritter, Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry became Lone Pine fixtures. The hills themselves posed as Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona. And while these outcrops became most familiar as the backdrop of our American cowboy mythology, they also played scenic roles in the production of ‘exotic,’ ‘oriental’ landscapes. They were India in Gunga Din (1939). In Baghdad (1949) they were Baghdad. This landscape’s image was uprooted and transposed across continents and cultures, usually representing some ‘uncivilized’ fringe of western expansion. Even scenes from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) were shot here. The armchair American could now roam the world with a six-shooter. A romantic national mythology of cowboys and indians, heroes and outlaws, freedom, adventure and manifest destiny found its imagery in the Alabama Hills.

 

The actual conflicts between natives and settlers had only ‘resolved’ a few decades before the first film crews arrived in the valley. Native Americans have lived in the Owens Valley for at least 10,000 years. Whites showed up a century-and-a-half ago. Settlers’ cattle quickly destroyed the native Paiute food sources, and in 1863, after conflicts broke out, most of the Paiutes were forcibly removed from the valley by the US Cavalry. Though the valley sits in the rain shadow of the Sierras, settlers eventually discovered that mountain streams provided ideal irrigation for successful agriculture, and soon the Owens River was lined with apple and pear farms. Meanwhile, the Cerro Gordo mine near Lake Owens began to flood Los Angeles, 230 miles to the south, with wealth in the form of silver bullion. As this dusty coastal settlement exploded, so did its need for water. LA politicians soon looked to Owens Valley as a source, and in 1913 the controversial Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed. “[The Owens Valley] must unfortunately be disregarded in the view of the infinitely greater interest to be served by putting the water in Los

Angeles,” said President Theodore Roosevelt. By 1928, LA owned 90% of the valley’s water rights. Though it’s part of The Great Basin, a geographical region defined by the fact that its water never drains to any ocean, today most of the valley’s water runs into the Pacific via a great network of legislation, pipes, history, and faucets.

 

A Paiute-Shoshone reservation, established by the City of Los Angeles and the Department of the Interior in 1939, now comprises the southern side of Lone Pine. Drive ten miles north and you’ll find the remains of the Manzanar War Relocation Center. Only a few housing barracks, a guard tower, and a recreation-center-turned-visitor-center remain, but between 1942 and 1945 this camp was a prison to over 11,000 Japanese Americans. They instantly became the majority demographic of Inyo county, though the census records omit their presence. In 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor quickly inflamed an already virulent anti-Japanese sentiment in the American public, and President Franklin Roosevelt soon gave the military permission to remove all civilians of Japanese descent from the West Coast. Most of Manzanar’s prisoners were from LA. Two-thirds of those forcefully imprisoned were legal US citizens. Their crime: history. They were told the relocation was for their own protection and allowed to take only what they could carry. In 1943, while Daredevils of the West was being filmed just a few miles south in the Alabama Hills, political prisoners at Manzanar were receiving Loyalty Questionnaires from the US government. Question 28: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and faithfully defend the US from any and all attack...”

 

Do you hear the stories beginning to echo each other, not in lines or clear-cut arguments, but in waves of turbulence, splashing from ridge to ridge, buzzing in the sand? Consider the names: the seemingly disparate shards of humanity frozen in rock like fools gold. ‘The Alabama Hills,’ named after the CSS Alabama, a Confederate warship. ‘Lone Ranger Canyon,’ and ‘Gene Autry Rock,’ named after famous film scenes. ‘Manzanar,’ Spanish for ‘apple orchard.’ The warplanes that roar through the valley come from the ‘China Lake Naval Weapons Center,’ a base that takes its name from ‘China Lake,’ a dry lake bed where Chinese immigrants harvested borax in the 19th century. ‘Paiute’ was a name early settlers used to refer to the natives of the valley. They called themselves ‘Nün‘wa Paya Hup Ca’a‘ Otuu’mu’ — Coyote's children living in the water ditch — or ‘Numu’-- People. Any history that holds these names in concert will begin to sound like a startling roar.

 

And consider the rocks themselves. The Alabama Hills formed during the same geologic period and are composed of the same granite as the Sierra Nevada mountains that bury them in shadow every evening, yet these two landforms couldn’t appear more different. The hills are lumpy, blunt spires. The mountains are snow-capped, sharp, and tower 10,000 feet over the valley floor. A fault line is to blame. Five million years ago, tectonic forces split the immense body of granite, dropping the Owens Valley, while the Sierras rose to the west. Another dislocation, though this one beyond the scale of social prejudice, nation building, Hollywood myth or wartime panic. And yet what is a landscape, but history in the flesh? Millions of years of geologic force set the perfect stage for the classic westerns and created a water table that eventually bled into our modern history of racial displacement, empire building and water wars; histories that glare in stark juxtaposition under the desert sun.

 

Again you’re squinting at the sky, looking for the jet plane. The great roar folds over and over like a crashing wave, as it funnels down canyons, spills over ridge sides. You’re dizzy, looking for a source with so many voices. Then you spot it. The plane is unremarkable, a dull grey speck. It doesn’t deserve all the sound it makes, spoiling a picturesque valley. But in truth, it’s not simply an engine you hear. It’s an engine in the throat of young mountains. You’re hearing the Hollywood promise of adventure, heroism and justice ricochet off cliff sides and reservation walls. You’re hearing the roar of military-industrial history, the absurd relationships between supersonic flight and plate tectonics. You’re hearing thousands of distinct timelines, fictional, prejudiced, forgotten and honored, arriving all at once, as the landscape explains itself. Because the same geology that invited the native petroglyphs and the white settlers, also invited the airbase. The same rhetoric that filled our westerns, fueled our wars. And the same war that built Manzanar, invented the jet engine. So, while you’re startled by the intrusion pulsing through your clear desert sky, those who live here don’t lift their eyes, because the roar is only natural. 

Dan Schwartz is an artist, writer and musician currently located in Oakland, CA. He explores material vitalism and urban ecology through his installation project, 'The Local Museum of Recent History,' and is currently seeking publication for his first novel. He plays drums in Whiskerman. 

You’d think it was the voice of God if you weren’t so used to jet planes. A roar floods the Owens Valley. It folds over itself in waves and eddies. By the time it reaches you, it has already twisted through pockets of atmosphere, ricocheted off granite cliffs, barreled down mountain canyons and stuttered along the desert floor. The basin and range is an open throat. It chants an indecipherable hymn of geology and combustion. The first time you hear the sky opening up, you’re surprised, scared, impressed. You search the sky for the source, the jet plane, but it has escaped it’s sound. Then, far from where you’d expect, a flash catches the corner of your eye: warplanes in formation, glinting in the sun like shards of quartz.

The Alabama Hills sit in the Owens Valley, just west of Lone Pine, California. They’re hardly hills, but pinnacles of weathered granite that appear to have ruptured through the valley floor like a monstrous spine. In golden contrast with the Sierras towering behind them, these outcrops invite the imagination. You’ll find RV’s and camper vans tucked between pillars along Movie Road, where the more established pull-offs were once the sites of old movie sets. In the 1920’s this is where Hollywood began to stage skirmishes between cowboys and Indians. Eventually the landscape became home to the western film genre. Legends like John Wayne, Tex Ritter, Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry became Lone Pine fixtures. The hills themselves posed as Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona. And while these outcrops became most familiar as the backdrop of our American cowboy mythology, they also played scenic roles in the production of ‘exotic,’ ‘oriental’ landscapes. They were India in G unga Din (1939). In Baghdad (1949) they were Baghdad. This landscape’s image was uprooted and transposed across continents and cultures, usually representing some ‘uncivilized’ fringe of western expansion. Even scenes from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) were shot here. The armchair American could now roam the world with a six shooter. A romantic national mythology of cowboys and indians, heroes and outlaws, freedom, adventure and manifest destiny found its imagery in the Alabama Hills.

The actual conflicts between natives and settlers had only ‘resolved’ a few decades before the first film crews arrived in the valley. Native Americans have lived in the Owens Valley for at least 10,000 years. Whites showed up a century-and-a-half ago. Settlers’ cattle quickly destroyed the native Paiute food sources, and in 1863, after conflicts broke out, most of the Paiutes were forcibly removed from the valley by the US Cavalry. Though the valley sits in the rain shadow of the Sierras, settlers eventually discovered that mountain streams provided ideal irrigation for successful agriculture, and soon the Owens River was lined with apple and pear farms. Meanwhile, the Cerro Gordo mine near Lake Owens began to flood Los Angeles, 230 miles to the south, with wealth in the form of silver bullion. As this dusty coastal settlement exploded, so did its need for water. LA politicians soon looked to Owens Valley as a source, and in 1913 the controversial Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed. “[The Owens Valley] must unfortunately be disregarded in the view of the infinitely greater interest to be served by putting the water in Los

Angeles,” said President Theodore Roosevelt. By 1928, LA owned 90% of the valley’s water rights. Though it’s part of The Great Basin, a geographical region defined by the fact that its water never drains to any ocean, today most of the valley’s water runs into the Pacific via a great network of legislation, pipes, history and faucets.

A Paiute-Shoshone reservation, established by the City of Los Angeles and the Department of the Interior in 1939, now comprises the southern side of Lone Pine. Drive ten miles north and you’ll find the remains of the Manzanar War Relocation Center. Only a few housing barracks, a well maintained guard tower and a recreation-center-turned-visitor-center remain, but between 1942 and 1945 this camp was a prison to over 11,000 Japanese Americans. They instantly became the majority demographic of Inyo county, though the census records omit their presence. In 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor quickly inflamed an already virulent anti-Japanese sentiment in the American public, and President Franklin Roosevelt soon gave the military permission to remove all civilians of Japanese descent from the West Coast. Most of Manzanar’s prisoners were from LA. Two-thirds of those forcefully imprisoned were legal US citizens. Their crime: history. They were told the relocation was for their own protection and allowed to take only what they could carry. In 1943, while D aredevils of the West was being filmed just a few miles south in the Alabama Hills, political prisoners at Manzanar were receiving Loyalty Questionnaires from the US government. Question 28: “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and faithfully defend the US from any and all attack...”

Do you hear the stories beginning to echo each other, not in lines or clear-cut arguments, but in waves of turbulence, splashing from ridge to ridge, buzzing in the sand? Consider the names: the seemingly disparate shards of humanity frozen in rock like fools gold. ‘The Alabama Hills,’ named after the CSS Alabama, a Confederate war ship. ‘Lone Ranger Canyon,’ and ‘Gene Autry Rock,’ named after famous film scenes. ‘Manzanar,’ Spanish for ‘apple orchard.’ The warplanes that roar through the valley come from the ‘China Lake Naval Weapons Center,’ a base that takes its name from ‘China Lake,’ a dry lake bed where Chinese immigrants harvested borax in the 19th century. ‘Paiute’ was a name early settlers used to refer to the natives of the valley. They called themselves ‘Nün‘wa Paya Hup Ca’a‘ Otuu’mu’--C oyote's children living in the water ditch --or ‘Numu’-- People . Any history that holds these names in concert will sound like a startling roar.

And consider the rocks themselves. The Alabama Hills formed during the same geologic period and are composed of the same granite as the Sierra Nevada mountains that bury them in shadow every evening, yet these two landforms couldn’t appear more different. The hills are lumpy, blunt spires. The mountains are snow-capped, sharp, and tower 10,000 feet over the valley floor. A fault line is to blame. Five million years ago, tectonic forces split the immense body of granite, dropping the Owens Valley, while the Sierras rose to the west. Another dislocation, though this one beyond the scale of social prejudice, nation building, Hollywood myth or wartime panic. And yet what is a landscape, but history in the flesh? Millions of years of geologic force set the perfect stage for the classic westerns and created a water table that

eventually bled into our modern history of racial displacement, empire building and water wars; histories that glare in stark juxtaposition under the desert sun.

Again you’re squinting at the sky, looking for the jet plane. The great roar folds over and over like a crashing wave, as it funnels down canyons, spills over ridge sides. You’re dizzy, looking for a source with so many voices. Then you spot it. The plane is unremarkable, a dull grey speck. It doesn’t deserve all the sound it makes, spoiling a picturesque valley. But in truth, it’s not simply an engine you hear. It’s an engine in the throat of young mountains. You’re hearing the Hollywood promise of adventure, heroism and justice ricochet off cliff sides and reservation walls. You’re hearing the roar of military-industrial history, the absurd relationships between supersonic flight and plate tectonics. You’re hearing thousands of distinct timelines, fictional, prejudiced, forgotten and honored, arriving all at once, as the landscape explains itself. Because the same geology that invited the native petroglyphs and the white settlers, also invited the airbase. The same rhetoric that filled our westerns, fueled our wars. And the same war that built Manzanar, invented the jet engine. So, while you’re startled by the intrusion pulsing through your clear desert sky, those who live here don’t lift their eyes, because the roar is only natural.