The Gypsy Carpenters drove north up the Owens Valley of California on our way to Jack’s house. Burt had a an idea or two about where we might stop. We headed off the beaten trail and found ourselves late in the afternoon at a place with no room for our rig. Benton Hot Springs is a fine looking hot spring getaway. It’s developed but you get your own tub at your campsite. If you can pull in. We couldn’t. You’d think that would be in the guide book but it wasn’t so let me say it here. RVs do not fit at Benson Hot Springs.
So there we were on thin ribbon of road at 8000′ in the Sierras. Four years ago at this exact time of year we were trapped in the Sierras by a fall snow storm. We drove through the gathering dusk and finally landed at a pull out near Mono Mill just above Mono Lake near Lee Vining, California. My last bit of internet said we could expect 13 degrees F that night. Uffdah. No snow on the horizon but that’s some serious cold. Our new Mr. Heater and CO2 monitor were put to work. .It was an uncomfortable night but everyone and our pipes survived.
In the morning we visited Mono Lake. I had not stopped to visit Mono Lake since a 1985 visit to Yosemite. Burt, California native, had never stopped. So we each wandered our own way for an hour. Burt and I habitually walk apart but within sight of each other. I think we see more stuff that way. It’s quieter and we cover more ground. I found a hot spring. Bathing is forbidden at the Navy Beach hot spring so it was perfect. No pressure for me to get in. I also found a salt covered dead bird that looked as though it died mid under arm preening.
The Mono Lake visitor center was already closed for the season so we did not get to learn much about the area. Mono is pronounced Moh-no. It’s famous for its tufa outcrops which I mistakenly thought were pillars of salt. These white piles are actually stone deposits from thousands of years ago. The tufa pillars were formed when the water was much deeper way back when. In the big scheme Mona Lake’s water is very low now but recently it was much lower. Most of the incoming water was diverted for the coastal cities but in the 70s they realized birds really needed Mono Lake and they started putting the water back in. The current surface is about 40′ lower than before they started diverting but much higher than its lowest amount.
We did not spend much time. We were within a few hours of Jack’s house and we wanted to arrive before dark. There was one more hot spring between us and him. We went. It had no room for RVs unless we paid for a campsite. This place had private showers and a public soaking pool but we did not want a camp site. Burt famously said, “Are you sure you don’t want a shower?” I famously said, “No, I’ll take one at your dad’s.” So we ate lunch on teh side of the road and then continued on our way.
That afternoon we arrived at Jack’s with an hour of sunlight to spare. We were only 2 days later than we expected and earlier than we’d planned when we got off the Rio Grande. The eyeball emergency had given our schedule a big boost forward.
There’s a song Burt used to regularly sing called South Coast. It’s not often heard now but has been covered many times in the last fifty years. Arlo Guthrie and the Kingston Brothers and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Burt are some of the singers you might have heard take their turn on this haunting story and well matched melody. The story is set back when this land was Spain. As such there are references to things most of us have long forgotten about or never knew including the town mentioned in the chorus, a town called Jolon. The J is pronounced like an H. Hoe-Lone.
Here we are nestled in the hills very near the south coast of the song. Jolon isn’t too far away. Or what was Jolon. Burt dragged his memory for the song and we sang it and pondered why it has slipped away from our regular repertoire. Because I couldn’t play well in Gm when we hit the road and lost the rest of the band. As Burt and I contemplated bringing the tune back to the Gypsy Carpenters, the boys hatched a plan to visit Jolon and a nearby Spanish mission. Burt and Barry like history. Barry likes to drive. A road trip idea was born. Laura and I decided we’d look for birds if we got to board with the historic drive.
Yesterday four humans and two dogs covered the land of the song. We saw the actual South Coast, the remains of Jolon, and the Spanish Mission of San Antonio de Padua. There was even a barranca. Unlike the song’s characters who used a horse named Buck (spoiler alert: Don’t ride a horse named Buck.) we traveled in a late model sedan. Most of the area is now the property of the U.S. Army. A vast amount of land remains undeveloped and nearly in the natural state you would have seen if you were traveling in the era of Spanish rule. Father Junipero Serra picked a great place to found one of his many missions. This was the third mission in California. It fell into ruin after Mexico separated from Spain and took the missions from the Catholic church. There were no private takers and so the mission was neglected. It fell down. After a stretch of time this land was taken from Mexico by the U.S. So the ownership history looks something like this: Spain (via Catholic Church), Mexico, U.S. While under the U.S., William Randolph Hearst bought vast swaths of California, including this entire area. Hearst lost most of it and then the Army took over. The mission was given back to the Catholics by the U.S. government. The church rebuilt the mission. The rebuilt mission today needs a $15 million renovation because of seismic codes. That’s a lot of money to rebuild what is essentially a replica. Not my problem.
Mission San Antonio de Padua is the site of some historically excellent water management. These guys were moving water like the Romans. There’s an interpretive sign acknowledging the early history civil engineering accomplishment near a defunct reservoir. They had a mill works, and tannery and indoor plumbing. The ruins are not quite to the standards of Italy but still interesting. In fact, that reminds me of another similarity to Rome. The roof tiles were taken from the mission to build in another location. That was a big reason the place fell apart. Adobe structures melt rapidly without roofs. So we wandered around and ate lunch and took some pictures. Laura and Barry sat for a formal wedding portrait under the sign commemorating the first marriage in the land of California. That was in 1773. I won’t go down the historical rabbit hole of what was happening on this land before the Spaniards arrived but it seems a little myopic and ignorant to presume marriage began with the Europeans. You may detect some ambivalence about visiting Spanish Missions. You would be correct.
Phone service is spotty out in the middle of this vast military reservation. Kind of surprising but a nice way to bring a flavor of the remoteness at the time of the song. Spotty cell coverage resulted in some minor difficulties and inefficiencies as we tried to find Jolon. It was all sorted out and we saw some bald eagles and a bobcat while we wandered. Jolon was a spot where the stage coach came by. The collapse of the mission and the railroad in the next valley did away with the citizenry. All that remains of Jolon are a road with its name and a building. The nearby hacienda is behind locked army gates and requires a guided tour and reservations.
After Jolon we decided to take a trip through the baranca and over the mountains to the actual coast. Last winter’s massive rain events brought down three parts of the coast highway. There is only one land route in and out for this wild coastline today. Traffic has dropped to a trickle. Our road trip was taking us back in time. The road over was narrow and steep. You could see that hillsides frequently gave way and covered the road in debris. Landslides figure prominently in the song and they are still determining people’s fates today. The barranca (canyon) yawned below as we snaked up into the marine layer. Soon sunny skies were gone and we were immersed in fog. More swooningly stiff curves and we started to drop. Eventually we emerged from the clouds and could see the Pacific Ocean far below. It took an hour to cover 15 miles. The only was home was the way we had come in. No cell, no EMTs, no civilization without passing a rugged mountain range in the fog. We had captured the feeling of the song. Stay safe.
South Coast lyrics by Lillian Ross, music Sam Eskind. Get that story HERE.
My name is Juanano de Castro
My father was a Spanish Grandee
But I won my wife in a card game
To hell with those lords o’er the sea
Well the South Coast is wild coast and lonely
You might win in a game at Jolon
But a lion still rules the Barranca
And a man there is always alone
I played in a card game at Jolon
I played there with an outlaw named Juan
And after I’d taken his money
I staked all against his daughter Dawn
I picked up the ace…l had won her
My heart it was down at my feet
Jumped up to my throat in a hurry
Like a young summer’s day she was sweet
He opened the door to the kitchen
And he called the girl out with a curse
Saying “Take her, Goddamn her, you’ve won her
She’s yours now for better or worse”
Her arms had to tighten around me
As we rode down the hills to the south
Not a word did I hear from her that day
Nor a kiss from her pretty young mouth
But that was a gay happy winter
We carved on a cradle of pine
By the fire in that neat little cabin
And I sang with that gay wife of mine
That night I got hurt in a landslide
Crushed hip and twice broken bone
She saddled her pony like lightning
And rode off for the doctor in Jolon
The lion screamed in the Barranca
Buck, he bolted and he fell on his side
My young wife lay dead in the moonlight
My heart died that night with my bride
Now for the climate change link. The central coast of California is fighting for its economic survival. Bigger, wetter storms this winter destroyed infrastructure all over the state. It very nearly brought down the Oroville dam. The south coast country is practically inaccessible. Segments of road and a bridge have washed away. Repairs will take a massive effort. It makes me wonder where we should be investing. Is it time for this wonderful coast line to revert to nature, like so much of the army base country? Or do we keep doing what we can to build and adjust. I don’t know the answer. I do know we need to know what we are up against and plan accordingly. We need to accept the facts of climate change. In this part of California that means bigger storms, wetter storms. More water in a shorter period of time. And yes, droughts are here to stay, too. Less water over longer periods of time. We need to make decisions on where to invest and how to design using the best information we have. We can adapt. We must.