27-Dec-2000 -- 26-Dec-00
Two thousand feet below and 8 miles down a dirt road, a continuous
trickle of headlights inched up and down Highway 395. Downhill
ski-bearing SUVs, looking out of place in this high desert landscape,
were heading north, through Owens' Valley, up to the snow covered slopes
of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that cradle the winter resort of Mammoth
Lakes. Eighteen-wheelers, heading south to feed the appetites of
Southern California, stopped off at the solitary crossroad, the service
station destination of Coso Junction.
My brother Dave's four-wheel drive had taken us about a half mile
further than we had expected based on the trace on the topographical
map. The dirt road started almost immediately out of Coso Junction.
Within a few miles it bumped over two massive yet inconspicuous concrete
veins, two of several which supply Los Angeles with the water that have
made possible the city's rise to sprawling metropolis. The drainage of
the eastern Sierra Nevadas is diverted south and west through this
infamous aqueduct system which was the vision of an extraordinary
engineer named Mulholland.
Climbing away from the aqueduct we crossed through the wash that
drains Portuguese Canyon. Close attention to the details of the map
tipped Dave off to the existence of a structure a few miles up the wash,
at the mouth of the canyon. A side trip the following day revealed an
abandoned homestead which set the mind to speculation. Impossible to
know precisely when it was last inhabited, the remnants of a modest
orchard, structures probably for animals, root cellars and an abandoned
cinder block addition to the dilapidated main one room house made us
wonder about the self reliant, solitary existence someone must have
Rising to a bluff that rode between the washes of Portuguese and Fine
Canyon, the pair of tire tracks, which had diminished to a bare
impression in the sandy dirt, just stopped. With dusk upon us, this
would be the place where we would camp for the night. Despite the
winter season, in the middle of the day, with the sun on your back, you
could eat lunch in a T-shirt; a long sleeved T-shirt. Setting up camp
on the eastern slopes of the southern Sierra Nevadas, in the shadows of
the setting sun, a chill came to the evening air quickly.
Tomorrow we would have to hike, bushwhack and scramble our way two
miles into and 1400 feet up Fine Canyon. The majority of the excursion
would be made easier by following the drainage of the canyon with the
last hundred yards up the steep slope of a tributary wash near the head
of the canyon. Following animal trails along the wash illustrates how so
much of desert life, plant and animal, centers on the springtime waters
that drain over the now dry earth. Our trek would begin in the low dry
scrub and sage of high desert. Punk hairdo-ed joshua trees and obsidian
provide a flair to the beautiful moonscape on earth. The site of the
confluence would put us at the transition zone between high desert and
sub-alpine Sierras with the appearance of Pinon pines and a general
greening of the vegetation.
For the moment however the most important task was putting fresh
batteries in the digital camera and making sure the GPSs were working
and giving us an accurate read on our spot for the night.
Almost a year ago, aimlessly ambling through the internet found me
stumbling upon the Degree Confluence Project. I knew it was something I
wanted to try. Recent gifts of a GPS unit and a digital camera were the
technological acquisitions that cemented the task in my mind. I simply
needed to sell the idea to the right person. Dave's love of maps,
exploring and adventure made him the obvious choice. A family reunion
for the holidays had brought me across the country to visit Dave at his
mountain hideaway at the Pine Mountain Club. N36, W118 was our
The folks headed south to visit friends in LA. Dave and I headed
northeast, through the southern section of California's central valley.
East of Bakersfield, we followed the lower Kern River through the canyon
which cuts across the southern Sierras to Lake Isabella, then over
Walker Pass and down into the flatlands of the Mojave desert before
making the final trek to our base camp.
We awoke with the rising sun. Hiking in the morning for 2 hours, deep
in the wash of the canyon, we walked in shade until we were almost upon
the point. Fortuitously, we landed on the confluence for the only hour
during the day that the low winter sun's rays rose above the mountains
to warm the spot. The view of Owens' valley was spectacular. To say
that we thoroughly photo-documented the view, the site, and the occasion
would be a gross understatement. The cool night out and the efforts of
the day were justly rewarded on the return trip, with a long soak in the
Miracle Springs natural hot springs on the banks of the Kern River.