Mono Lake–Part 2

Rebecca woke me up early the next morning when she opened the curtains of the motel room and literally gasped–the view of a snowy wonderland with Mono Lake at its center was literally breathtaking.  But first we had to take care of some business:  fixing the kaput rear licese plate lights, lest we attract further harrassment from the cops.  We got ready and went across the street to the auto shop at the Shell station.  I replaced the left light.  Then I started the truck, switched the lights on, and went to the back to make sure it worked.  Lo and behold–what a shocker–the right one worked.  That means the dumbass cop the night before lied to me about the lights being out.  And so it went from a standard case of bullshit harrassment to one predicated on false pretexes.  Another bogus traffic stop.  Kind of like the one in Illinois a couple months before that resulted in an illegal search and seizure, and my facing a likely sentence of 12 years in jail, or a plea deal of 7 years  (  Now I really felt like slamming the scumbag power-drunk cop’s bloated seedless melon head in my truck door until it resembled an on-stage Gallagher stunt see, especially “Sledge-O-Matic”).  Cest la vie.  When you give someone that kind of power, and you subtract any semblence of accountability, what do you expect?  As I recently wrote, not ALL cops are bad PEOPLE–but ALL COPS ARE BAD.

We moved on.  Driving the 5 miles south of Lee Vining on Highway 395 to the road that leads out to the south short of Mono Lake, we were compelled to stop a number of times for photographs of the awe-inspiring scenery.  Steep mountains that seem to rise out of nowhere straight up, often upwards of a couple miles.  Stunning geology:  jagged peaks, endlessly fascinting rock formations, all of it blanketed in blinding white snow.  For example:

Being nudged right against the eastern escarpment of the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains, it’s hard not to stop every couple miles to take it all in.  Or to keep your eyes on the road, for that matter.  A frequent exclamation on this trip from my fiance was “Jan!  Stay in your goddamn lane!”  Luckily there are few other cars out there, especially during winter.

Soon we parked and hiked down to the South Tufa Area of Mono Lake.  It is truly a spectacularly unique place.  Mono Lake is one of the largest lakes in the west with 72 miles of shoreline, and a 760,000 year-old remnant of a once much larger lake thought to be some 6 million years old, making it one of the oldest in North America.  Its water is twice as salty as the ocean, and ten times as alkaline.  What that essentially means is that it’s filled with the elements that make up table salt and baking soda.  A remarkably fecund ecosystem like nowhere else on Earth has formed there as a result of certain ecological and social factors, which I will discuss at length in a subsequent post.  Mono Lake has many lessons to teach us, if only we would look closely, and learn how to listen.

We walked the shoreline, ringed by dozens of bizarre and stunning Tufa towers.  These are formed when calcium-rich springs bubble up from the underwater sand, congregating and hardening.  Over thousands of years, they become huge and complex architectural wonders, each and every one taking on individual shapes and forms.  Some of the exposed towers are twenty, even thirty feet tall.  Many of their nooks and crannies are filled with snow during this time of the year, making them even more beautiful.  Here’s the kicker:  We would naturally be able to see none of them.  But starting in the 1920s, the city of Los Angeles began diverting water from the six streams and creeks feeding into Mono Lake, its only source of replenishment from the water lost to evaporation.  Its level has dropped by approximately HALF, exposing these magnificent towers.  But the problem, and it’s a big motherfuckin’ problem, is that freshwater from the streams no longer kept the already very high level of saltiniess of the lake in check.  The future of this gorgeous place was and still is jeopardized.  And for what?  To keep palm trees blooming in the southern California desert, to keep golf courses green and backyard pools filled.  But again, this post will focus primarily on our trip.  After the travelogue posts, I will go in depth about the ecological issues of the lake.

As I do everytime I come here, I stepped up to the shore and took a handful of the water, sucked it into my mouth.  It’s like simultaneously tasting super-salty ocean water and licking the top of a 9-volt battery–the alkalinity.  Rebecca put on her high rubber boots and walked out ten yards into the lake.  Our wonderful American Bulldog-Pit Bull mix Rikki joined her, taking a little lap of the water herself–then getting a look of disgust on her face, like she’d just been tricked into eating a piece of banana.

A quick note–you might think (as I did for some time) that the lake’s name is pronounced “MAH-no,” but it’s actually “MOW-no,” a Yokut Native American word apparently meaning “fly-eater.”  I’ll explain why that makes huge sense later, in Part 4 of this series.

Aside from the tufa towers, there’s tons to see at Mono Lake.  In fact, though it is famous largely for the tufa, I’m willing to bet that I would be just as enamored of it–perhaps even moreso–if I saw it a hundred years ago, before the death march of industrial civilization (syphilization) arrived to do what it does better than anything; namely destroy nature, slaughter beauty (that includes Native Americans), and in so doing ensure that if it continues for much longer the entire planet will be unlivable for  most life, including humans.

The whole area is rife with vegetation, primarily one of the most lovely plants nature has to offer–sagebrush.  It is a minty-green plant, each with dozens of thin stalks that curve upward from the base.  This time of year each stalk ends with a fade into yellow.  This provides a beautiful mosaic of hues, especially when you see hundreds of the plants extending into the distance all around you.  If you rub the leaves between your fingers and smell them, you get that incredibly brisk and soothing green scent of sage, a smell that, no matter where you are, whisks you away to the desert.  It makes me close my eyes and hear peaceful solace, where the only sound is cool wind coming down off the mountains as it makes the leaves whisper sweet little nothings, makes the stalks bob and dance to the slow gentle rhythms of nature.  It’s no surprise that Native Americans used and use (what few of them there are left after the United States genocided them wholesale) burning sage in sacred ceremonies.  At one point, living in the San Francisco Bay area, I got involved with ground support for the brave men and women in Berkeley, California, who were engaged in a several-hundred day treesit in an effort to save an old-growth grove of Coast Live Oak trees from destruction so that UC Berkeley could build a new gym next to its football stadium (the grove was ultimately butchered–see  These trees predated the existence of the university.  The grove was also a Native American burial site, so there were many Ohlone Indians [sic] heavily involved in the campaign.  They burned wadded-up clumps of sage leaves, moving the smoke throughout the street below the grove–culturally believing that burning sage could help keep evil spirits at bay.  Perhaps they should’ve taken the ignited sage into the offices of the University’s decision-makers.  Or better yet, placed the ignited sage bundles on the desks and set those murderous assholes’ offices on fire  🙂

And then there’s the lake itself.  A giant circle of vivid blue.  Site of a profound, intricate, sui generis ecosystem.  A monumental place for birds; it is estimated that 80% of California Gulls are born at Mono Lake.  It is a crucial stopoff point for birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway–this includes 1.6 million Eared Grebes and between 80,000 and 125,000 Wilson’s Phalaropes (source:  Mono Lake Committee at  Waves gently lap at the shoreline, often leaving behind airy piles of what look to be soap suds–that’s the baking soda again.  Then there’s the location:  Two sides towered over by 10,000+ foot Sierra peaks, and the eastern side sitting below the beginning of the peaks of the Great Basin Desert (Mono Lake resides at the western edge of that, the largest desert in the United States).  It’s also surrounded by craters and towering mounds of rock, having been extremely active volcanically in the past.  Two islands sit within Mono Lake:  smaller Negit, a black smudge in the middle of all that blue, colored as such because its origins are volcanic, and larger Paoha, which has eroded badlands and bubblings hot springs on it.  Perhaps Mono Lake is most special for its incredible solitude.  It is so peaceful, so remote and quiet.  Even when people come down to join you near the shore and near the tufa, a hushed sort of respectful silence seems to wash over them.  What a spectacular, stunning place.

Soon we decided to go to nearby Convict Lake, one of my favorite places along the 395.  First Rebecca lay down and made a snow angel–poor thing had managed to live 28 years without ever doing so–in a patch of pure untouched white, surrounded by sagebrush and tufa.  Sweet Rikki lay down right next to her in the cold, providing an adorable moment I was lucky enough to catch on film.  Two angels (metaphorically) lying in the snow.  This riddle begs an answer; I’ll just toss it out there and you all can come up with the answer:  What do you call it when an atheist lies down in the snow and waves her arms and legs??

We drove south, passing through the largest contiguous stand of Jeffrey Pines in the world (source:  Mono Lake Committee).  They are gorgeous trees, with deeply furrowed reddish-brown bark, very similar to Ponderosa Pines, which are in my mind the most beautiful trees I know.  I hope to one day get a tattoo of a ponderosa on one of my calves.  You can see perhaps one of the craziest (or to be more specific two of the craziest) Jeffrey Pines in my Mono Lake–Part 1 entry, the two titans with the fused base, making them seem like one giant tree.

Soon we pulled in to the parking area within steps of Convict Lake.  It is not one of my favorites just for its beauty, but for its history as well.  I believe it was early in the 20th century.  4-6 men escaped from a nearby prison and took refuge at Convict Lake.  The police soon tracked them down and had a shootout.  Several men were killed, on both sides.  The giant peak on the right side of this picture is called Mount Davidson–named after one of the dead sheriffs.  But the convicts–they got the lake named after them.

This time of year, the lake was covered in a thick sheet of ice.  I love  this place because it is surrounded by mind-blowing peaks, with complex rock structures and varied colors.  Here’s a picture of Mt. Davidson up close (move the cursor over a given picture and click on it, you’ll get to see an enlarged version of it):

You can see what I mean.  We would’ve spent more time there.  But the trail that goes out toward the moutains on the north side of the lake was covered in about four feet of snowpack.  I spoke to a very sweet Asian family next to me for some time about the lake and its history, and the 395 in general, giving them tips on great things to see.  I told them about this website as well.  I love the random interactions we can have with people if we’re willing to seem “weird” or perhaps “high.”  Sometimes they can be short, but deeply profound.  I will talk about those consistently here.  Because I try to talk to strangers as much as possible when out in nature.

Soon we hurried the 45 minutes back north to catch sunset at Mono Lake.  But first we stopped in Mammoth Lake, where there is a nice little natural foods store, where we stocked up on healthy snacks.  Next door we got sandwiches from Subway–even though is a chain restaurant, only one step above other fast food joints, and they have tons of disgusting factory-farmed dead animal pieces (Subway–Eat Flesh), they are actually a traveling vegan’s savior.  We went there every day, at Rebecca’s insistence.  She had become suddenly enamored of them.  At least you can get some semblance of a healthy meal, with tons of fruits and veggies.

We got to Mono Lake just in time.  The sunset was glorious, dropping down below the Sierra mountains.  Unfortunately there were only a few clouds in the sky; for a(n amateur) photographer, clouds really make a sunset.  Nonetheless, it was beautiful.  Rebecca wisely reminded me to use my eyes every once in a while instead of experiencing it all through a camera viewfiner with one eye painfully closed.  At least I got a couple nice shots worth posting here.

I actually really like the dim murkiness of this picture, and the tufa reflection in the water.

That capped off a wonderful day.  The next two days of the trip would prove to be even more magical.  Part 3 coming soon.


2 thoughts on “Mono Lake–Part 2

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