The Phoenix One Journals Stories from the dawn of RoadTrip America
October 11, 1998
From Bishop, California, to Virginia City, Nevada
Bishop, California, lies at the north end of the Owens Valley, in between the Sierras and the White Mountains. In 1861, a man named Samuel Bishop drove his cattle into the valley and established headquarters on a creek about three miles southwest of the present town. First the creek, and later the settlement, were named after this early rancher.
Bishop has many claims to fame and much to recommend it as a place to live. For me, however, and I share the view with countless others who associate Highway 395 with journeys into the Sierras, it's a place to get food. It was nice to see Schat's Bakery's parking lot filled with cars, and a line at Mahogany Meats. What's a hike without a loaf of sheepherder's bread, and a pocketful of beef jerky?
We decided to stay overnight, and we found a campground at the north end of town. After we parked, I logged on via cellular telephone to retrieve any e-mail that might have flown our way while we were on the highway.
Among other messages was a missive from resident of Bishop. "Saw your van in Bishop," it read. "I was impressed with your vehicle, saw your URL on its side looked in on your web pages when I got home. I was even more impressed with your story and mission. Thanks for sharing it with me. Have a good trip!" Bob Unkrich was the sender, and Mark shot off a swift reply.
The next morning, around the time we decided we'd hang around another day to soak up a little more of Bishop's friendly ambience, there was a knock at the Phoenix One's door. After convincing Marvin that our caller was unlikely to be a foe, we found none other than Bob Unkrich standing in the sunshine. He lived, as luck would have it, less than half a mile from where we were parked. Before he left, he invited us to visit his studio and art gallery. The next morning we made the short trek on foot.
Bob has been an artist all his life, and, since he retired to Bishop, he's dedicated all his time to painting. Watercolors are his medium of choice, but he recently completed a mural in oils in downtown Bishop. For more about Bob, and to see a selection of his evocative landscapes, click here.
Bidding farewell to Bob, we continued our journey north on Highway 395, pausing for lunch and a walk around Rock Creek Lake. As we neared Convict Lake, Mark caught sight of a sign.
"Whitmore!" he said. "That's the road Bob Unkrich told us about. There are hot springs down there!" The Phoenix One has been trained to brake for hot springs, and a quick right turn took us bouncing over one of dozens of dirt roads that snake across the valley towards the White Mountains.
It wasn't long before our search was rewarded. Not only did the tub we discovered feature clear water and a perfect temperature, it had an unbroken view of two mountain ranges and the valley in between. Oh, and did I mention we had it all to ourselves? Roadtripping gets no better than this. After parboiling to sufficient tenderness, we headed back out to the highway and turned west to Convict Lake.
Convict Lake got its name from an incident that occurred in 1871. A band of desperadoes escaped from the state prison in Carson City, Nevada, and headed south. Pursued by a posse the escapees hid in a canyon at the north end of the lake. The posse leader was killed in the ensuing shootout, and all the bad guys got away. The mountain overlooking the lake was named Mount Morrison after the man who died.
In the winter of 1990, Convict Lake was the site of another shocking incident. Three boys fell through thin ice, and four men died trying to save them. A bronze plaque on the edge of the lake commemorates those who lost their lives in the rescue attempt.
In the morning, as we pulled out of our campsite near the lake, an alarming sound erupted from the front left tire. After taking the wheel off and calling the mechanic who knows the Phoenix One's quirks the best, we discovered that the problem was a simple one. The wheel was loose, and tightening the lug nuts was the only intervention required. Sometimes you have to be grateful for scary sounds. They're a lot better than having your wheel fly off at highway speed.
Having decided to pay a visit to Devils Postpile National Monument, our next destination became Reds Meadow, a divine spot not far from Mammoth Mountain. Little did we know that Reds Meadow boasts natural hot water, too, which has been harnessed to supply a rustic bathhouse. We put this unexpected luxury to immediate use.
Devils Postpile is the artistic result of volcanic action 100,000 years ago and the subsequent work of a glacier. When basalt lava flowed from a vent in the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, it filled the valley to a depth of 400 feet. The lava cracked as it cooled, and the ideal conditions under which the cooling occurred allowed these cracks to form long, multi-faceted, post-like columns. Then, 10,000 years ago a glacier exposed one side of the postpile, a sheer wall sixty feet high.
After visiting Devils Postpile, we wound back out of the valley on the narrow road to Mammoth. Joining Highway 395 once more, we stopped for lunch near Dechambeau Ranch, an establishment that lies on the north side of Mono Lake.
Mark was eager to have dinner in a Basque Restaurant. "I know there's at least one in Gardnerville, Nevada," he said. "Let's try to find it."
As we entered Gardnerville, Mark slowed for a traffic light. Before we had come to a full stop, we both gasped. Two cars, apparently without braking or swerving, collided head-on in the intersection ahead of us. Mark pulled off the road and leapt out of the cab. I dialed 911 on our cellular telephone.
Within seconds, at least ten cars had stopped to render aid, and within minutes, a Nevada Highway patrol car had arrived, followed almost immediately by an independent tow truck. Soon there were fire trucks and rescue units on the scene. Airbags had deployed in one of the vehicles, and the two adults who had been in the front seat had suffered only minor injuries. The baby in the back, who had been strapped into a child seat, was unharmed. The man in the other vehicle, however, had not fared as well. Firefighters had to use "jaws of life" to extricate him from his Jeep, and he was airlifted to a hospital in Reno with multiple injuries. The accident appeared to have been caused by a car running a red light. While that car sailed through the intersection unscathed, the other two collided as they attempted to avoid hitting it.
As we watched the rescue and clean-up unfold around us, we chatted with a man who had witnessed the accident and stayed to help the injured driver. Within an hour, the broken cars had been cleared from the roadway, and Highway 395 was open once more. We drove away impressed with the skill of the firefighters and law enforcement officers who had orchestrated everything.
We also drove away with the name and location of a Basque Restaurant. "JT!" the man we'd chatted with said when we inquired. "It's about a mile and a half up the road. If you get to Sharkey's, you've gone too far."
We found JT without any trouble, and if you'd like to know more about what it's like to dine Basque style (the food never stops), click here.
That night, we paused in Minden, where a truth became evident. We had a mouse on board, a diligent little rodent who was stealing Marvin's dog food a piece at a time and storing it in our clothes closet. Until we found the stash, we'd thought Marvin had an extraordinarily good appetite. After we found it, we worried that he'd gone hungry. The mouse had hoarded quite a pile.
By removing the cache and sealing the cabinet, we hoped to encourage our little hitchhiker to find other accommodations. I think it's worked, and I'm glad. I hated the thought of using a trap on such an enterprising little creature.
And now we're in Virginia City. It's a place chock full of history, and the current residents are every bit as fascinating as the ones who lived here a century ago. Please stop by next week for stories about the town built over the richest gold and silver lode of all, the legendary Comstock.
October 11, 1998