- and having done some research on the area, I didn't anticipate any real surprises.
The Mojave Desert is defined by dust. The fine grit in the air is a fixture. It settles on all surfaces, and leaves the faint taste of salt when traversing the many chemical flats that stretch across the lowest regions. But as we began the ascent to Grandview campground east of Bishop, it became clear this was a special place. The air cleared to reveal a pristine and stark beauty.
The White Mountains stretch alongside the Sierra Nevada's. The 2 ranges were generated at a similar time, but while the action exposed bare metamorphic granite in the sierras, in the Whites a complex mixture of metamorphic, volcanic, and sedimentary rock was pushed upward. The complexity of the rock is most evident as one reaches the domain of the ancient bristlecone pine forests (at around 10,000 feet), where the patient, slow growing Bristlecones and Limber Pines labor in the whitish, nutrient poor dolomite soils, while more aggressive sagebrush dominates the more fertile red soils. Wherever one is in the soft hills and peaks of the White Mountains, one sees the deftly sculpted, snow dusted granite of the Sierras to the west. The Sierras provide a precipitation shadow for the Whites. The extreme dryness, along with the sharp incline [White Mountain Peak almost matches Mount Whitney's height, despite the much smaller footprint of the eastern range], provides a stark study of survival and evolution. The University of California maintains 3 research facilities in the White Mountain Range and nearby Owens Valley; Caltech, one.
Striking is the delineation in flora among the elevation belts. Creosote and coyote brush dot the nearby desert floor. Soft lush green sagebrush crowds the ground on the lower elevations, giving way to pinion pines, evenly spaced on the red volcanic stone ground covering. Soon, one spots the lovely Limber Pine, with its perfectly textured yellow trunk and cylindrical radiating branches. They are limber indeed, we discovered by pulling on it.
At about 8,000 feet, where other vegetation falters in the poor soil, one finally spots the remarkable Ancient Bristlecone Pines. These are the oldest living organisms known on the planet. With its dense muscular trunk, in parts missing its dark fibrous covering, the Bristlecone stands resolute, immovable. In the poor soil, branches are extraneous. The same goes for any new growth, save the once-in-7-year needle renewal visible on the occasional branch. In the sparsely covered Whites, the constant light wind seems to travel a long way. Occasionally the wind is strong, turning cold at night. My sleeping bag, rated for 40 degrees F, didn't quite cut it. I spent the better part of the cold early morning listening to the soft sounds of the wind and the occasional bird.
On Saturday we drove up to the Crooked Creek Research Center, where we will be based for the workshop. The road that turns off to WMRS is quite rocky and uneven, and the last few miles are a slow bumpy ride. The facility sprawls across the center of a large flat at 10,150 feet. It is surrounded by soft high peaks on all sides. The solid log buildings that house the spacious dorms, labs, common room, and kitchen are charming. They were rescued when a western-themed mall on downtown Los Angeles' St. Paul Street [near the Brewery arts center and lofts] was dismantled in the 1980's. We met the groundskeeper and cook, Tim. Tim worked for 20 years as a ranger in the forest service. A self-taught naturalist, he is knowledgeable about the environs, and receptive to the interests Brett and I expressed. When we visited, a group of geography students and a couple of individual environmental researchers were in residence.
After taking a look around, we hiked to a nearby peak to make some notes for our interpretive demonstrations, and to check out the view. Media artists are dilettantes, evident in our hiking ability. Between asthma, scoliosis, and altitude sickness, respectively, Brett, myself, and Paula went up the sharp 625-foot ascent in fits and starts. But one acclimates to the thin air. The shortness of breath and mental fuzziness seem to subside fairly quickly.
The light has an unusual clarity. As in the desert, the fragile flora commands attention. On the way down I spotted a single orange wildflower, a cheerful succulent, which bounced in the light wind. Other things of note were the cat-sized yellow belly marmots, which peaked out from rocks with black-masked faces, and a variety of chipmunks and squirrels. A lone mustang, known by the staff for his solitary habits and named for a nearby canyon, grazed nearby as we ascended.