Editor's Note: Please join us in welcoming Cecile Vargo as DeathValley.com's newest columnist. Many of you know Cecile through her popular and entertaining web site, www.ExploreHistoricCalif.com, and we're proud that she'll be periodically sharing her articles with our readers.
For two days we lived isolated on the mountain, with only a few daring to venture up the Yellow Grade Road while we were there. We soaked up as much loneliness, and old time atmosphere as we could, but sadly had to come back to the real world. The transition from a ghosttown on a mountaintop in the Inyos above Owens Valley caught between the 19th, 20th, and 21st century to the reality of the modern 21st century life in the foothills of the San Gabriels here in Los Angeles is always a hard one. I spend the morning unpacking, and getting settled back in again, but I always try to savor the sweet solitude that I had on the mountain for awhile longer as well.
Visions run through my head of the old town as it is now, and the hours I sat on the front porch of the 1871 hotel with pictures of what it used to be. I can close my eyes and imagine the smoke from the smelters, the dust from mules and wagons, and the ever blowing wind. The hotel in particular, I know intimately. As always, I hear Lulu Wapplehorst and her bridesmaids nervously giggling in the upstairs private room one minute, and another I hear Mortimer Belshaw & Victor Beaudry making celebratory orations on the balcony outside that very same private room. The dormitory rooms, also on the second floor, are always full of men making restless sleep noises, 24/7, in the beds they rent for 12 hours at a time. Downstairs, the old cast iron cookstove that sits well preserved & unused in this century, runs full blast, in the heat of summer and the cold of winter, and the kitchen is always a bustle with meal preparations and serving in the older years. The dining room was most often full, I imagine, with men mostly, satiating their appetites & whetting their whistle, while conversing about their shift in the mine, speculating about their riches or lack of, and talk of their favorite girl at the Waterfall or the Palace.
A thunderstorm and rain hit the mountain the second day we were there, and we watched from the hotel porch as it puddled the parched ground around us in places. The lightening strikes and thunder bounced off the mountains all around us for almost two hours, much like a John Williams concert at the Hollywood Bowl, complete with laser light show. The man generated electricity that brings the comforts of 2006 alive for the few modern citizens of Cerro Gordo & those who choose to visit part time, survived the storm, with only one flash of hesitation, although we were prepared should it go out completely. I shivered at the closeness of some of the strikes, and marveled at the loudness of the growls of thunder that followed, while I watched steady rain drops continue to fall. I imagined miners huddled in tiny tent cabins during similar storms, and wondered what thoughts went through their minds. Did they share my brief fears of fire and flash floods, or did they just ignore it all as common life on the mountaintop and nature doing what it will?
The storm, recent, and past ones throughout the year, brought more wildlife to the mountain than I remember seeing in the past. Before and after the cloudburst, I watched small orange bodied birds playing amongst the few non-native trees that grow outside the hotel kitchen. They sang the same single twirl note that Remi, the cockatiel makes in his cage at my home in Tujunga, over and over again to each other. The two ravens, dubbed Sister & Brother by former caretaker Roxie, patrolled the entire town, cackling and cawing as they flew from one old building to the next, occasionally stopping to perch on one and enjoy the view. A hummingbird or two paused for what nectar it could get from any vegetation that might be blooming. One huge jackrabbit was occasionally seen hopping through the desert brush, and a smaller lied mutilated in Ned Reddy's with a collection of bird feathers, testament that the town cats Alkali and Pearl were doing their job. And one of the two big black lizards I during my previous visit, the one with the tail still intact, scurried down the walls of the American Hotel. A trap caught one mouse in the Belshaw House, but Miss Priss had none to show off this time around. I noted no ground squirrels either.
Between the storm, and wildlife observation, and reminiscing days long before my time, Roger cooked meals, & we ate them in the big kitchen, and I promptly cleaned up the few dishes we had. We used paper plates to save on water, which has always been a precious commodity even today.
I spent some time dusting, as always there is dust and wind to stir more, even if there isn't traffic ancient or modern to do so. Looking through the dust on the museum display cabinet glass was like looking through fog, and the miners artifacts inside them could barely be seen, so I dusted those, though I doubted they would stay clean before the next visitors passed through. The tables and chairs, and the bar in the hotel failed the glove test, too, and had Miss Priss footprints and hair on them, which I dusted away, as well. The chairs were askew where previous guests, or perhaps the resident ghosts had been sitting, so I lined them up straight at each table, and aligned the one vase of dried flowers in the center of the big round one. And I imagined white hotel china, good silver, and cloth napkins at each one with Victorian men and women sitting at each one, perhaps for a special occasion this time, as opposed to a lonely miners meal.
At night we close the hotel, and leave the porch light on to light the town. There was no full moon to do so this time, unlike all of the visits we made last summer. We head to the Belshaw, chat awhile, then early to bed, and the same routine a second day. I began to feel like we were in an old movie, a middle aged couple caretaking a town in it's dying stages instead of in a state of restorative re-use. We would cook and clean, and wait, but few came to enjoy what we had done. The storm and possibility of more probably kept all but an older couple looking for the salt tram, and one of the Owens Dry Lake workers from visiting the remnants of an old mining town perched on the mountaintop. The friendly BLM ranger that looks after the Swansea Salt tram did pause for a visit on his regular weekend route, and local friends of Cerro Gordo joined us for conversation on their way back down the Yellow Grade the last morning, after a night in a restored Cerro Gordo suburb cabin.
That was life on the mountain, real and imagined and something in between during our all too brief stay. Mike arrived Sunday afternoon tired, but happy to be home. We compared notes, he about his son's wedding, and us about the storm, the few visitors, and what the cats did or didn't drag in. Then we packed our bags, and back to 2006. I would have cried, but I knew in 12 days or so I'd be back again and it was a bit easier to head down the Yellow Grade and home this time around, and I my memories are always with me.