BODIE, Calif. -- An early-morning wind moaned softly across the desolate landscape, disturbing a door at the Boone Store & Warehouse, causing it to creak on rusty hinges. You'd think someone on a film crew had cued special effects.
But this wasn't movie magic. It was the real live deal. Or the real dead deal. Bodie Ghost Town, a former 19 th-century mining settlement, is preserved in a state of ramshackle decay as a state historic park. You get the sense that everyone just packed up and moved out -- which is pretty much what happened to this boom-and-bust town.
Bodie is one of many treasures found in the wide-open spaces that lie east of the Sierra Nevada along U.S. Highway 395. This is one of the finest road trips in the
Because of high gas prices, Highway 395 suffered a bit of a tourist slump this summer. "I had some cancellations from Southern California travelers," said Frank Montoya, owner of the 81-year-old Winnedumah Hotel in Independence. "But because of the euro (the strength of that currency against the dollar), I've been constantly full for six weeks with Europeans. Gas in their country is $10 a gallon, and we're crying over $4."
As gas prices inch down in Southern California, Highway 395 regains appeal for road-trip vacations, all the more so when fall colors begin to brighten the route.
Along the way, travelers willing to slow down and take little side excursions will find natural wonders, remnants of history both recent and distant, charming highway towns, wildlife and spectacular scenery.
We'll save the
Ride 'em, cowboys
On the outskirts of Lone Pine, at the southern end of 395, the Alabama Hills are a jumble of knobby rock formations at the foot of the towering Sierra. From the time of the silent film era, movie directors correctly concluded that this provided a classic backdrop for stories about the Old West.
Dozens of B Westerns were shot here in the '30 s and '40 s, as well as TV shows in the '50 s, and the Museum of Lone Pine Film History chronicles the legacy before sending visitors into the hills on self-guided driving tours.
Various movie and TV locations can be seen on the driving tour, but the sets are long gone and Movie Road is not paved -- a rough washboard of a dirt track that will shake the teeth out of your head.
Unless you just have to see the rock where Hopalong Cassidy was ambushed or the flats where a wagon train was attacked by Indians in "How the West Was Won," a better strategy might be to stay on the
Throughout your exploration, Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous states at 14,494 feet, will likely be visible to the west.
A silent camp
In 1942, in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals living near the Pacific coast were uprooted from their lives and moved to remote encampments inland, where they were kept under guard throughout World War II. Thus was penned one of the most shameful chapters in U.S. history.
One of the camp sites, Manzanar, hugs Highway 395 between Lone Pine and
Visitors are free to drive the sagebrush-choked grounds and contemplate what life must have been like here. There are long-abandoned gardens and orchards, a cemetery, and a sign for the site of the camp newspaper office -- it fairly drips with irony: the Manzanar Free Press.
A superb film plays regularly in the visitor center, enlivened by many oral histories of former camp occupants. It's also heart-rending to walk among the exhibits and learn of crude dwellings covered with tar paper, leaky ceilings, straw mattresses, little privacy, and constant, dusty winds. (That wind felt like a blowtorch during my August visit.) It can be mortifying when you encounter Japanese tourists in this room.
Many more Manzanar artifacts are on display up the road at the impressive Eastern California Museum in Independence.
Just after dawn in Independence, a full moon was setting behind the serrated peaks of the Sierra. As the sun rose, that flank was fired in hues of pink, light orange and gray. Often on a drive along Highway 395, the scenery can be mesmerizing.
Just south of Big Pine, turnouts have been created so that travelers may pull off to gaze on herds of tule elk, which flourish in these pasture lands. Most can be seen west of the highway, often sticking close to big-wheeled irrigation apparatuses. You won't want to leave the binoculars behind on this trip.
In the White Mountains east of Highway 395, some wonders of the ancient world line up along a ridge top at 10,000 feet. They are bristlecone pines, and their endurance is astonishing.
Many of the trees first poked through the ground 200 years before the Giza pyramids were built in Egypt in 2,500 B.C. The gnarled wood of the trees is extremely dense and high in resin, which makes it impervious to disease and insect infestation.
This is not a quick detour off the highway. A twisting road climbs 6,000 feet in 24 miles, but the mountain landscape is unspoiled, and the summit affords sweeping views across the valley to the Sierras.
Though the U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center at Schulman Grove burned down in a recent fire (the forest was not affected), staff members are on hand to answer questions about the ancient trees. Pace yourself while walking the nature trails, though -- breath tends to be short at 10,000 feet.
In the 1920 s, Los Angeles bought up land and water rights in the Owens Valley and over the intervening years slurped Owens Lake dry. Much farther north, at the eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park, Mono Lake appeared headed for the same fate before activists fought for protections in the early 1980 s. Now the lake is a revival success story, its level having come up 8 1/2 feet in the last 14 years.
The lake is a bizarre natural feature to begin with, having no outlet to the sea and being loaded with salt and baking soda, the result of runoff from the surrounding hills. Mono Lake's signature features are tufas, otherworldly mineral formations that sprout like knobby towers along the shore. They result from calcium-laden spring water bubbling up from the lake floor and bonding to carbonates to form a type of limestone. Once they break the surface of the lake, they stop growing, but they're pretty spectacular to behold.
There is a rich concentration of tufas on the south shore, many of them visible (and even standing high and dry) because the lake level sank so much over the years. When the sun comes out, they are brilliantly white against the greenish tint of the lake. A path follows the shoreline, providing glimpses of some tufas that are far out in the lake, poking above the surface like pillars of salt.
Out of business
It's so quiet now. There's little hint as to the rollicking boomtown that Bodie was in the 1880 s. As visitors walk the dirt streets today, peering into weathered-wood buildings, they have to use their imagination to conjure up 65 saloons, a red-light district, a Chinatown, bank robberies, stage holdups, commonplace killings, and the root of it all: a yield of nearly $100 million in gold and silver over 80 years.
Dozens of buildings remain at the state historic park, which is 13 miles off Highway 395 near the town of Bridgeport. Through the windows, past tattered curtains, you'll see bottles, wash basins and rusted bed springs that were left behind.
I looked in one distinctive brick building and saw a bar extending along an entire wall. I consulted my guide map. The former post office. Now this was one fun-lovin' town.
A museum, housed in the former IOOF hall, is loaded with artifacts, including miners' lunch pails, a hand-written ledger from a Bodie bank, opium vials from Chinatown and the finery worn by Rosa May in her bordello. Rangers give tours periodically, including of the stamp mill, which is otherwise off limits to visitors.
I thought there might be some colorful stories in the headstones of the cemetery up the hill, but it was quickly apparent that this plot was reserved for respectable members of the Bodie citizenry. Long lost, according to a park brochure, are the graves of Chatto Encinos, killed for raiding Sam Chung's vegetable garden, or Thomas Treloar, shot for dancing with another man's wife, or A.C. Robertson, who tried to thaw out some frozen gunpowder in his oven.
At least their stories live on, woven into the lore of the Eastern Sierra and Highway 395.
IF YOU GO
DRIVING TIPS: Though scenic and rewarding on many levels, Highway 395 can be a treacherous road. Much of the route along the Eastern Sierra is two-lane undivided highway, and it can be unnerving to have oncoming vehicles whistling past you at 70 mph or more, with only a double stripe of yellow paint on the roadway between you and them. On these stretches, it's wise to stay hyper alert, especially in the event someone from the opposite direction is trying to pass and is running out of room. Highway crews have cut a number of parallel swaths to create a route separated by a wide, sagebrush-studded median, and you'll find yourself grateful for these divided stretches. Through towns, watch those speed-limit signs; it's not unusual to have to slow progressively from 65 mph to 25 mph in the space of about a mile.
ALABAMA HILLS: The Lone Pine Museum of Film History is loaded with props and movie posters of the many Westerns and other films shot just west of town in the Alabama Hills. It sells a self-guided driving tour booklet for $2, but that tour is confined to the rough, unpaved roads. A free map that shows other movie sites along paved roads is available at the Interagency Visitors Center at the intersection of Highways 395 and 136. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (till 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday). Admission is $5, free for children age 12 and under. On some afternoons, the museum will screen entire movies shot nearby. (760) 876-9909; www.lonepinefilmhistorymuseum.org.
BODIE: The turnoff to the state historic park is seven miles south of Bridgeport off Highway 395. The first 10 miles of the road are paved; the remaining three miles to the ghost town are dirt. Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. from May through October, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. the remainder of the year. (The road is not plowed, so at times the only way in is on a snowmobile or cross-country skis.) Admission is $3 per adult, $1 for ages 6 to 16. www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=509; (760) 647-6445.
BRISTLECONE PINES: The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, is in the White Mountains east of Big Pine. Schulman Groveis 24 miles from Highway 395 via Route 168 and White Mountain Road. (FYI: You'll gain 6,000 feet in elevation in those 24 miles.) The Visitor Center burned down in a recent fire, but staffers are on hand to impart information about the forest. Entrance fee is $3 for a single adult, $5 per carload. Your receipt provides access to Mono Lake, and vice versa. www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/recreation/bristlecone/index.shtml; (760) 873-2500.
MANZANAR: The national historic site lies along Highway 395 between Lone Pine and Independence. From April through October, it is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; November through March, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. No entrance fee is charged. www.nps.gov.manz; (760) 878-2194.
MONO LAKE: Many an unsuspecting northbound traveler, wanting to see the tufas of Mono Lake, has driven to the Forest Service visitor center in Lee Vining, only to learn that the tufa garden on the lake's south shore requires 10 miles of backtracking. Don't let this be you. Turn off Highway 395 onto Route 120 toward Benson. Go five miles to the "South Tufa" turnoff and follow the well-maintained gravel road to the lake shore. The area is a National Forest Scenic Area. Entry fee is $3 per adult, free for ages 15 and under. www.monolake.org/monomap/vc.htm; (760) 647-3044.
QUIRKY EATS AND LODGINGS ALONG 395
BISHOP -- What's with the traffic jam?
Bishop is otherwise pretty sleepy on this Tuesday afternoon, but vehicles have been reduced to a crawl in front of that business up ahead, with cars turning in and out of the parking lot and pedestrians streaming along the sidewalk.
Ah, of course: Erick Schat's Bakkery.
It's been a Highway 395 institution for over half a century, dispensing fresh loaves of bread (including its signature sheepherder), pastries and sandwiches to ravenous travelers. It's a requisite stop for many folks bound home from Mammoth, and even warrants its own traffic light for cars exiting the parking lot.
The uninitiated might see the crowded lot and the line of customers snaking through the place and think that nothing could be worth this fuss. Guess again. The bread is baked on the premises in European stone-hearth ovens. Turkey for the sandwiches is roasted on-site. Put it all together and this is one superb lunch, though the demand for the patio tables out front is extreme.
A lot of travelers grab a full loaf or two to go, because this is the only place to get this bread. The bakery uses no preservatives, so it doesn't ship its products. It's at 763 N. Main St., Bishop; (760) 873-7156; www.erickschatsbakery.com.
Erick Schat's is just one of many funky dining and lodging choices along Highway 395. Other popular lunch spots include the Whoa Nellie Deli in Lee Vining and the Mt. Whitney Restaurant in Lone Pine. As for a room for the night, you'll find historic digs at the Winnedumah Hotel in Independence and the Bridgeport Inn in Bridgeport.
Whoa Nellie Deli: Don't be put off by the fact that this Lee Vining lunch spot is housed in a Mobil gas station (just off Highway 395 on Route 120, the back road to Yosemite). There are some creative selections being whipped up here.
At lunchtime, the menu includes fish tacos with mango salsa, wild buffalo meatloaf, grilled pork tenderloin and a fine grilled salmon salad, as well as an extensive array of barbecued fare. Many guests head for the picnic tables out front that offer views of Mono Lake (just try to ignore the nearby gas pumps).
If you're staying overnight nearby, stop in for such dinner items as Wyoming elk chops, rack of lamb with merlot demi glace and prime rib-eye.
-- (760) 647-1088; www.whoanelliedeli.com.
Mt. Whitney Restaurant: Hearty burgers and cold beer are the lunchtime forte of this roadside eatery. The walls are covered with publicity photos from many of the movie cowboys who combed the nearby Alabama Hills chasing bad guys. The cowboy breakfast is also said to be impressive.
-- 227 S. Main St., Lone Pine; (760) 876-5751.
Winnedumah Hotel: The accommodations might be a bit rustic, but the price is right: $85 a night. The 1927 hotel sits right on the highway in Independence, across from the photogenic Inyo County Courthouse.
It has a broad front patio for monitoring the parade of highway travelers, a big common room just inside the front doors, and a grill and tables out back, so that budget travelers can fix their own dinner.
The rate includes a full breakfast. When the bacon is cooking in the morning, the owner devilishly flips on a fan to send the tantalizing smell down the hallways to the guest rooms.
-- 211 N. Edwards St., Independence; (760) 878-2040; www.winnedumah.com.
Bridgeport Inn: Mark Twain slept here. So says a plaque mounted to a rock out front. The white-clapboard Bridgeport Inn dates to 1877, when it was first a home, then a stagecoach stop, later a hotel.
Owner Bob Peters of Woodland Hills refurbished the rooms a few years back, and they are quite comfortable -- especially when you crack the windows and let in some of Bridgeport's cool, fresh air (the town sits at 6,500 feet).
Of course, any place this old just has to have a ghost story, and in this case it involves sightings of "the White Lady." Bunk, surely. Although when I was settling into my room, after I was sure I'd closed the door, it suddenly opened a couple of feet. I'm guessing it was the breeze and a faulty latch, but that didn't spare me a chill between the shoulder blades.
The Bridgeport Inn has a welcoming bar, a seating area out on the front porch where you can linger with a drink, and a restaurant that does some respectable work at dinner. It's just seven miles north of the turnoff to Bodie State Historic Park.
-- 205 Main St., Bridgeport. Room rates from $99 to $129 in summer high season, variable at other times based on demand. Shared bathrooms available at lower rates. Closed December through February. (760) 932-7380; www.thebridgeportinn.com.