My love affair with desert landscapes continues. I love the desert at all times of year, but after a large El Niño rain, the desert is especially magical. So I found myself in Death Valley, or as close as I could get given that every flower follower in the Southwest had booked accommodations before me. The nearest I could book was a hotel in Lone Pine, over an hour away. It turned out to be a fortuitous. What I gave up by not being able to stay in Death Valley: the opportunity to get to key points by sunrise and to photograph the night sky. What I gained: evenings in a charming Eastern Sierra town.
Lone Pine is best known as a portal to Mount Whitney or a resupply point for hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail. For me, the main attraction was Lone Pine’s fame as a major location for Hollywood movies. In fact, you must visit the Museum of Western Film History to see just how many films — from serials in the Twenties such as Hopalong Cassidy to modern films such as Iron Man — were filmed in the nearby Alabama Hills or using the dramatic backdrop of the Eastern Sierras.
I should note that there are a few hotels in Lone Pine — mostly on the outskirts of town. Don’t succumb to them. You want to be right in the middle of this four block town. And the best option is the Dow Villa Hotel and Motel. The motel section is Four Star rated by AAA. But the better option is the hotel itself, which was where John Wayne, the Cisco Kid and many stars stayed while filming nearby. Sure, the 1920s era hotel has small rooms, some with shared bathrooms, but why would you sacrifice authenticity for amenities? Besides, the Dow Villa Hotel has a wonderful common room, with fireplace and decorated with autographed pictures of classic stars who stayed there, where you can relax, read from the sharing library and meet fellow guests. At the Film History Museum, I even saw scenes where the Dow Hotel stood in for a saloon or a shootout location. No Triple A rating can top that!
But as charming as Lone Pine is, I was here for Death Valley. Which I quickly learned from various visitors’ centers is an offensive name to the Native Americans who have lived here for thousands of years. The Timbisha Shoshone will tell you that the so called Death Valley is a place of plentiful water and food, if you only know where to look and if you gather both with a sense of conservation, as the Timbisha do and have done for a thousand years. In fact, the tribe knows the area by the name Timbisha which refers to the sacred red pigment they gathered from the Panamint Hills. For years, the Timbisha have fought to return to their native homeland. They won a court battle that allowed them to place a settlement next to Furnace Creek, which, unfortunately, now includes the faux Western RV park, campground and golf course which is the main in-park accommodations. Take my advice: skip Furnace Creek Ranch and head down the dirt road just before it to the small Timbisha reservation — a collection of trailer homes and a tribal office perched defiantly near Furnace Creek. I did and had an excellent lunch of fry bread while talking with a tribal elder about the Timbisha way of life. After an hour there, I was definitely on Team Timbisha.
After my second day viewing the Super Bloom, I spent another interesting evening in Lone Pine. Of course, one of the benefits of traveling alone is that you tend to meet more people. Sometimes that’s for good, sometimes, not so good. At the Hotel, in the aforementioned common room, there was a very dotty old lady who seemed to date from those early Western serials. She spoke about having lived at the Dow Hotel for awhile, so I immediately spun a story in my mind about her being a forgotten extra from Westerns who never really got out of Lone Pine. However, I fled from her strange rambling conversation to the only restaurant in town with a full cocktail bar: The Seasons Restaurant. There I met, over Martinis, two men that I immediately pegged as a Gay couple. However, as the conversation continued, and each talked about their wives and how they met at desert locations once a year for a vacation with each other, I revised my backstory for them to that of a Brokeback Mountain closeted couple of would-be cowboys. Well, whatever they were, they gave me some great reading suggestions including Craig Childs and nearby author and feminist Mary Austin who lived up the road while writing The Land of Little Rain.
All in all, a fantastic visit to Death Valley. An even more eventful introduction to the Eastern Sierras — a place to which I will definitely return.