U.S. Route 395 spans 1,305 miles from Washington State’s northeast border with Canada to the town of Hesperia, on the periphery of the Mojave Desert just east of Los Angeles. Driving south through the Sierra Nevada range, the final descent is into Owens Valley with North Palisade and Mt Whitney, two of the Sierra’s largest peaks to the right, and the smaller White and Inyo mountain ranges to the left. As the 395 cuts like a river through the core of the valley, towns like Big Pine and Independence become speed-traps where limits drop from 65mph to 35mph in a blink of an eye. It is along this last stretch south of the U.S. 395 that you will find Lone Pine, Ca. with its population of just over 2000 people and a location more than 150 miles from the nearest major city center. This little town is often nothing more than a pit-stop for Southern Californians returning from or on their way to the popular Mammoth ski resort. Yet the valley’s rich tribal history, the infamous California Water Wars, or the town’s proximity to the Alabama Hills and Manzanar, make Lone Pine a destination for those interested in what lies beneath the surface of America’s small towns. It is for these reasons I choose Lone Pine as my first stop on this project.


The morning of the trip I woke early and began an eight hour drive in a car I had rented the day before. I headed out of San Francisco across the Bay Bridge, east along the I-80 to Sacramento and eventually caught highway 50 into the Sierra Nevada. Just south of Lake Tahoe I turned onto the 89 which connected me to the 395. The drive alone made the trip worth it and I couldn’t help but think of how many more long journeys I would be taking over the coming years. How would they compare to the first of this project?

After passing Independence my excitement grew as I finished my last stretch into Lone Pine and to the Dow Hotel. I slowed to a crawl upon entering town and scanned left and right for the Dow’s sign. The original hotel was built in the 1920s and in the late 50s a motel extension that really represents that era was added. I stayed in the main building which in its early years was a favorite of Hollywood stars shooting scenes in the nearby Alabama Hills. Actors from John Wayne to Roy Rogers and Errol Flynn had all called the Dow home for at least a night and it is likely some of these stars once stayed in the same room I did during my short time in Lone Pine. As I took a left into the parking-lot I thought, “this is the perfect first stay for the project; half of the place is steeped in history and half is the classic highway motel so ubiquitous throughout the country and a common representation of the U.S. small town.”


After settling in I grabbed a bite to eat and then began exploring the town with my camera. As I walked along the dusty streets my first impression was that it seemed friendly and quiet, not far from what I expected. Then I began to question myself and what I was doing in Lone Pine. How was I going to just start talking to people, gain their trust, and get them to share their stories? The reality hit me, this was going to be much harder than I imagined. I reassured myself that no matter what luck I would have with meeting locals, at least I could get some photos of the town and the stunning Mt. Whitney to the west.


Covering Lone Pine on foot didn’t take long and after forty minutes or so the heat had me thirsty for a beer. I stopped at the Double L, one of the town’s two bars, both of which sit on Main St (the 395’s temporary name as it passes through town). As I sat sipping on my $6.50 Sculpin IPA and listening to the bartender discuss a Sydney Poitier movie on T.V. with the only other patron, I decided I should move on if I wanted to meet people. I later learned the bartender was the owner, a transplant from the L.A. area that had managed to alienate many of the locals soon after arriving to town. I didn’t get a chance to return there to see if it got any busier but I’m sure I will on my next visit.


Later that night I went to the other bar in town, Jake’s Saloon. It was a bit more inviting with its classic western-style hinged doors and a hodgepodge of décor, including signed dollar bills, random flags, and bathroom-stall style graffiti (which I was told would be soon painted over). Luckily for me the bartender working that night was as welcoming as the place itself and as I sat and downed a beer, I was able to strike up a conversation. His name was Gary and when I visited the next night I mentioned to him that he reminded me a bit of the town’s ambassador, to which he replied one of his two nicknames was “The Mayor”, the other you will have to ask him personally if you find yourself at Jake’s someday. That night I explained the project, what I hoped to gain from being there, and some of my fears about going into a town and trying to chat with strangers. He shared his story, filled me in on some history about the town, and mentioned it might be smart to return the next afternoon to meet the owner Sherri. He explained that during the day some of the older locals made an appearance at Jake’s and might have the stories I was seeking. I went back to the Dow that night already feeling better about trip.


The next morning I woke and walked next door to The Grill for breakfast. I ordered the breakfast sandwich and a coffee from the jovial waitress and she brought me the local newspaper to read while I waited. As I sat and watched the cordial interactions between her and the local patrons I sensed the closeness that I hoped I would see again as I visited more small towns. After breakfast, I jumped into the car to explore.


I started by driving east where I came upon the Lone Pine Pioneer Cemetery founded in 1865. During the town’s early years white settlers backed by U.S. soldiers battled with the local Paiute tribe and their Shoshone and Kawaiisu allies in what is known as the Owens Valley Indian Wars. Officially the war lasted only a few years, ending in 1863 with the relocation of many of the valley’s natives to Fort Tejon; the Lone Pine Pioneer graveyard is proof that the wars extended into the decade as the first to be buried there in 1865 were a Mrs. McGuire and her son, both casualties of the war’s last skirmishes. In addition, some of the town’s founders are buried there including Charley Begole, Johnny Lucas, and Al Johnson, who were also the first men to scale the highest peak in the contiguous U.S., nearby Mt Whitney (14,505’).


Next I drove east into the stunning Alabama Hills where the rock formations jutting out of the earth appear other-worldly. In 1920 The Roundup, a silent western starring Fatty Arbuckle, was the first movie to be filmed in the hills. As the genre became increasingly popular in the following decades, they quickly became a prime location for shooting westerns. The list of movies with scenes filmed in the hills is extensive and even today they are used by directors like Quentin Tarantino who shot some of his 2012 hit Django Unchained there. It’s a wonder that between the films, commercials, and television shows that utilized the Alabama Hills, nearly everyone in this country, and many outside of it, have had a glimpse of their beauty. Later that day I also visited the small but informative Film Museum that has a great photo of a haggard Tarantino which I will have to snap a shot of next time I’m in town.


The last drive of the day was a few miles north along the 395 to the national historic site Manzanar. Once a tiny agricultural community that developed in the early 20th century, it was given its spanish name after the apple orchids which were once plentiful there. As I walked around the site, I would have never guessed anything substantial could have grown on this dry dusty plane sitting at the base of the Sierra, yet before Los Angles siphoned its water supply, farming and ranching were common there. Starting in the early 1900s, an acquisition of land and diversion of water from Owens River to L.A. was led by Frederick Eaton and William Mulholland. Many in the valley fought against Los Angeles’ attempts to take the local water supply in what came to be known as the California Water Wars. The tactics used to acquire and drain the valley were questionable and to this day it is a sensitive subject among locals, something I hope to learn more about when I return. No matter how legitimate or not the process was, the end result is visible upon entering the valley. The big city has sucked the valley dry, and Owens Lake, which was once the final stop of the river that shares its name, has dried up and become an environmental disaster which Los Angles is now trying to rectify.


Interesting as the Water Wars are, my stop to Manzanar was not to see where apples once grew but to learn more about another dark chapter in U.S. history. As the potential for farming dried up across the valley, the town of Manzanar was abandoned by 1930. Just over a decade later, new inhabitants were forced to call the area home. Shortly after the Japanese attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order permitted the creation of military zones that banned selected people from living within them, and the building of camps where those excluded would be relocated. The majority of the victims of Order 9066 were 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in West Coast military zones. Many at Manzanar came from Los Angles, and like others along the coast were given only days to sell off or secure their land and belongings before relocation. Two thirds were born in the U.S. and many of the others had lived in the country for decades. Manzanar was the first of ten camps built, and it housed more than 11,000 people over the three-and-a-half years it was open. Finally by 1945 a Supreme Court ruling forced the closure of the camps and detainees were released, however the damage was done; many had nothing to return to and the government offered no help or restitution. As I traversed the 500 acres that once acted as a prison, chills ran down my spine thinking about life here. Imagine the blazing heat in summer and freezing temps in winter, the harsh winds wiping down from the Sierra and blowing dust into every crevice, trying to normalize daily-life in a concentration camp, all tainted with the fear of not knowing when or if you would ever be allowed to leave. I could almost feel the presence of the 11,000 victims that once called it home.


Having finished my journeys around the area, I returned to town and Jake’s Saloon for a mid-afternoon pint. There I got a chance to meet Sherri, the charming and welcoming owner who herself is a transplant from the L.A. area, but one would never guess from the way she fit into Lone Pine. I chatted a bit with one of the workers brought in for the dust mitigation project at Owens Lake (it seemed there were a number of them in town). Later I grabbed dinner and then returned to Jake’s for a nightcap and to say goodbye to Gary who had replaced Sherri. I left before dawn the next morning feeling content with my short visit, knowing I would return and hoping the connections I made might give me a chance to get a deeper understanding of Lone Pine when I do.


I know this is the very first of many short articles I plan to write for this project. I knew going into Lone Pine that it would be a bit of a pilot, and didn’t put too much pressure on myself to come away with everything. I left feeling content and like my time there was a success. As I sit here writing this today I am thinking about the pending trips I have already planned and how this is all becoming a reality. I can’t imagine the result of all this and I am no longer romantic enough to try and do so with any confidence, but if all I achieve from this project is an opportunity to get closer to this truly unique piece of land, I will feel it is a success. Next trip is Tonopah, Nevada.