Posted on June 25, 2014
I drove down to little Lone Pine, population 2000, one last time yesterday. The one shady parking place on the main street was available, hallelujah. I got out of the car and stood for a moment in the shade, wondering what it is that makes this unassuming town so compelling. It certainly isn’t the town itself, although the tiny library is right up there on my list of favorites. It certainly isn’t Lone Pine’s main claim to fame, the Movie Museum, although it was fun to reminisce about all the westerns that were shot right here, movies that I watched down at Times Square back in the 50s. It isn’t any of the restaurants scattered along the four or five blocks of the main street, though they all serve good solid unpretentious food. It certainly isn’t the one grocery store, “famous for our meats;” I studied that meat counter and could find no basis for such a claim. There is one curious thing about the town: there isn’t a single art gallery or hand-made jewelry store to be found. Unusual. No creative people here? Is it a staid conservative town? (Not Kathy, the librarian, that’s for sure).
As I stood there in the shade it suddenly came to me. It isn’t the town at all, it’s that the town just happens to be right at the crossroads of four Big Things.
To the west stand the mighty Sierra Nevadas, the craggy peaks cutting through the clouds. I’m camped seven miles straight up from here, and Mt. Whitney itself greets me each morning as the light from the rising sun across the valley starts at its peak and flows slowly downward to Earth.
To the east stand the rounded, warm-colored White Mountains. They don’t get much press, though they’re as tall as the Sierras and downright voluptuous during rosy sunsets. No-one pays much attention to them during the day, but come sunset their soft beauty is irresistible.
To the south the floor of the valley is chalky white. There used to be a lake here, a huge lake, fed by the crystal-clear waters rushing down from the Sierras. Where did the water go? To LA, that’s where. Battles were fought, deals were made, laws were passed, canals were built, and in no time the water disappeared. I can’t pretend to understand the complexities facing us about water distribution. Maybe taking that water away from this sparsely populated valley and giving it to the thirsty people of LA was a good decision. Maybe not. From my campground I’ve been looking down at that dry white powder covering the valley, and what I’ve been seeing is our arrogance and sense of entitlement, writ large: we are the most important beings on this earth and therefore our thirst, our needs, are dominant. What happened to the thousands, maybe billions of plants, birds, animals, insects, all the living beings that lived for eons by that lake? Did they get a vote? Where did they go? Did anyone give them a helping relocating hand?
Lastly, to the north. This is the hardest of all. Now all you can see is acres and acres of wild high desert with a stellar museum standing in the middle. But for three years, 1942 to 1945, it was Manzanar, a War Relocation Center, where 11,000 Japanese Americans, over two thirds of them U.S. citizens, were rounded up and imprisoned in crowded barracks, with one bare light bulb per family. It was our very own government, in fact President Roosevelt himself, who ordered them there after Pearl Harbor. In a scene in the film the museum shows, made up of actual news reel clips, we see FBI agents, looking like FBI agents in old 40s thrillers, walking stiffly in their suits and fedoras down to the docks of some little coastal California town and nabbing all the Japanese American fishermen as they come in at the end of the day with their catch. They are ordered to get their families and get on the bus. No time to pack anything, no time for goodbyes. They are told that this is being done for their protection. As one woman says in the film: “We believed them until we got there and saw the chain-link fence and the eight guard towers with men holding machine guns, pointed not at the outside world to protect us, but at us.”
Walking through that museum I was first overcome by all the horror, but gradually, learning more, what started filling me with excitement was the way the inmates lived for those three years. I felt the human spirit soaring higher than Mt. Whitney and was humbled and amazed. They made their barracks homey, making furniture from whatever bits and pieces they could find; they hung curtains; they decorated their walls. They made gardens, flowers and vegetables; in fact, they grew so many vegetables that they gave the extra to the people of Lone Pine, carried out past the chain link fence by the guards; they made shady places for the children to play and small parks for everyone to enjoy. All this with the machine guns aimed at them.
I left my shady spot and walked over to the air-conditioned library to use the wi-fi and to say good-bye to Kathy. As I sat there reading my emails I listened, once again, as she gave her attention so patiently and respectfully to everyone who came in. They all seem to want to talk to her, some more interestingly than others, some downright hard to make sense of. Her kindness and gentle humor never waver. The town of Lone Pine should elect her Woman of the Year every single year.