Sunday, March 30, 2008

Them Thar Hills #3: Ride the High Desert

Mt. Whitney from Lone Pine

One of marriage's many benefits is travel. At least with my marriage. (Other marriages I’ve seen, mmmmm not so much, which may be why I waited so long.) Since Elizabeth and I hitched our wagon, I’ve seen places I’ve only dreamed about, places I thought existed only in flickering shadows on forty-foot walls or from TV tubes.

Places like Lone Pine, California, which we used as a base for a journey to Death Valley we took last weekend. It turned out to be one of the best too-short vacations I’ve ever taken.

After a night in Bishop—a town with a “Move Here!” pull—we arrived in Lone Pine, a remote community of around 2,500 souls that lounges in the high windswept eastern desert about four hours northeast of Los Angeles by car and ten miles of raven-flight from Mt. Whitney, which is the highest point in both the 400-mile wall of mountains called the Sierra Nevadas and the continental U.S. (I’ve touched before on this spectacular world in essays concerning that guaranteed best seller of mine whose progress I’ll be catching you up on, soon).

Lone Pine has a mite less of that “Move Here!” pull. The one-stop town seems a tad poor—a couple of good restaurants, but the bars aren’t much for elbow-bending and the nearest real bookstores are aways back in Bishop. It seems to serve mostly as a way station for Death Valley and the Mt. Whitney Summit.

But, unlike so many small American towns these days, you
can take in a movie on the weekend. Better yet, attend the annual Lone Pine Film Festival. Each year thousands of film buffs make the trip to this faraway town to celebrate the movies. Sounds like a dumb thing to do. Why waste gas and risk a nosebleed and acrophobia for a movie? If you want to get sick, there’s always American Idol.

Here are some of the reasons:
Gunga Din, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Bad Day at Black Rock, Ride Lonesome, The Tall T, Tremors, Gladiator, Star Trek V, Comanche Station, most of the 66 movies that make up the Hopalong Cassidy westerns, plus enough B-westerns to give the Lone Ranger saddle sores. All of these Hollywood productions, and more, were filmed over a period of eighty years in the rugged, haunting hills of round red boulders and rocks that make up the Alabama Hills that rise west of town, under Mt. Whitney. Hollywood loved these hills, along with other locations in the area, professionally, artistically and personally—Barbara Stanwyck (The Violent Men) had her ashes scattered in the wind that blows through this lonely desert when she passed away in 1990.

The Alabama Hills

They say that in outdoor movies, especially Westerns, the land also plays a character in the story. If true, Lone Pine has played such roles as Afghanistan, Texas, New Mexico, Old Mexico, Peru, Argentina, even Kansas. Lone Pine’s performances were as steady and sterling as Morgan Freeman’s and more than once galloped off like The Wild Bunch with whole movies. No Oscars for that kind of acting, though. No Oscars to God for sets and lighting, either.

This Western fan grew to know those weird jumbles of stones and tremendous granite walls like a backyard, but I knew them only through the keyhole of movie theaters and TV screens. Those mediums truly mediate. They fail to prepare you for the experience. The light that filters through movie cameras and film is only a pale stream of the light that’s really there, especially at morning and dusk. (I’ll bet my Canon that Galen Rowell is rolling around on Heaven’s Floor, laughing and pointing at my humble efforts here: “Off to Land Camera Hell with you, Burchfield! Tee hee hee!”)

We rode into town on a perfectly cloudless early Friday afternoon, and headed right into the
Alabama Hills with only the late Dave Holland’s enthusiastic, well-meaning, but thinly-budgeted
On Location in Lone Pine to guide us to some of the locations for some of Hollywood’s best productions. Didn’t get far. Except for Movie Road itself, also marked by a plaque dedicated by Roy Rogers, nothing is signed (though I swear on stacks of Luke Short and Larry McMurtry I know that setting below from some movie somewhere). Spot after spot tugged and nagged at me like a stubborn mule, but the memories refused to gel. Wonder had me in its grasp.

Mr. Scott, C'mon Outta There, Now. . . .

We failed to find the unbelievably named Gene Autry Rock (described with polite tasteful modesty as looking like a cucumber; go back to that link to the film festival . . . at the top . . . yes, that's what it looks like, doesn't it!?). We hiked a nature trail to a small but elegant sandstone arch, took some pictures (I eventually took over 350 in all) and then high-tailed it back to town to explore the recently opened Lone Pine Museum of Film History, set right on Highway 395.

Keyhole to Eternity

Deer in the Alabama Hills

With its narrow focus on one sub-subgenre of Hollywood history, the museum can’t throw a saddle on the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, but the love is there with its big collection of bright shiny pop culture artifacts. Separate exhibits that covered many eras in Lone Pine’s history from silent movies and the singing cowboys to Gladiator and—Elizabeth’s all-time favorite--Tremors. For me, Randolph Scott didn’t get the dedicated exhibit he deserved while Zane Grey seemed to get more than he needed (Arizona, Nevada, and Utah were the famed author's actual hunting grounds) and I was surprised not to find DVDs of Lone Pine movies for sale in the gift store. An old 1941 Buick and some of the other cars, all drove in Lone Pine movies, were very cool.

"No, dear, sorry, we can't take It home . . . stop crying, will you!?"

For fans of well-kept vintage hotels, Lone Pine has one of the best I’ve seen: The Dow Villa went
up in 1924 as Lone Pine’s movie business boomed and has done well ever since as the main bunkhouse for film crews, though nowadays, they don’t come by like they used to. The hotel has since swapped its Hispanic fa├žade for pine shingles, but the interior is warm and elegant. The front desk clerk told me that, unfortunately, no records remain of who stayed in what room before the late 1940s. A plaque outside assures that John Wayne stayed in Room 20 of the newer attached motel—he was here to film a Great Western Bank commercial no less--just before the grass started waving over him in 1977. A mosey by Room 20 brought no tall, drawling ghost to the window—though I spent the next two days walking with a tilted swagger and calling everyone—even Elizabeth—“pilgrim.”

Still, it was fun to guess just who might’ve slept in our small, cozy room: Errol Flynn (busting the bed with every gal in town)? Mr. Grant? Randy? Hoppy? Or even Lee Van Cleef? I can see just him, lying on the bed, grinning like a weasel at the henhouse door, chuckling like a rattler as he plotted the next day’s evil before sinking into the sound sleep of bad guys everywhere.

I slept well, too, heh-heh-heh . . . .

(Changed 4/1/08)