Convict Lake

Convict Lake, flanked by Mt. Morrison and Laurel Mountain, mirrors the scene. (Susan Spano)

My brother, John, tried to sleep during the boring part of the three-hour trip from Los Angeles to Convict Lake in the Eastern Sierra.

Fortunately, I was driving. Besides, I don't think there's a boring part, especially once you get on U.S. 395 in the Owens Valley.
FOR THE RECORD:
Convict Lake: An Oct. 2 article about a trip to Convict Lake, Calif., in the Eastern Sierra reported the drive time from Los Angeles as three hours. It takes about five hours or more to get there. —



To keep him awake, I recounted some of our past misadventures in the great outdoors.

Remember when we ran out of food backpacking across the Haleakala crater on Maui?

Whose idea was it to take a motor boat up Lake Powell in a snowstorm?

Weren't you driving when we ruptured our gas tank trying to find the village of El Tibor in western Mexico?

After that last one, we took to calling wilderness travel disasters El Tibors, and frankly, it wouldn't be a trip with John unless we nearly had one. He likes to cut it close; I like to talk about it.

I pointed as we passed the turnoff for the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake, where John likes to inspect paleo-Indian petroglyphs in the Coso Mountains, and California 190 leads east across the Panamint Valley, a scenic route beloved by desert rats like my brother. At the northern end of the Owens Valley, we stopped at Spellbinder Books & Coffee in Bishop, where John's daughter, Sarah, spent a year working for the Eastern Sierra Land Trust.

What does my family see in the Owens Valley?

John puts it in a word: contrast.

To the west lies the ice-veined, forest-clad High Sierra; to the east are more mountains, but completely different, denuded, metallic, starved for water. You couldn't find a better geography lesson in a textbook, which means something to Spanos because our mother was a geography teacher. Or maybe the valley's glaring contrasts speak to everyone of fundamental oppositions that rule human life: happiness, sadness; love, hate; good, evil.

Deep, no? Of course, all I really wanted from a two-night getaway at the north end of the Owens Valley was dinner at the Convict Lake Resort, an enclave of cabins on the eastern slope of the Sierra with a marina, stable and restaurant widely considered the best in the area, drawing diners from nearby Mammoth Lakes and beyond.

The name — recalling an incident in 1871 when six escaped prisoners from the Nevada State Penitentiary in Carson City holed up at the lake and shot it out with a posse — sounds unsavory. But owner Brian Balarsky, a San Diego accountant turned mountain man, later told me that fine cuisine has been part of the Convict Lake picture since 1939 when its first proprietor got a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to operate.

It was dark by the time we arrived, got our key at the general store and moved into one of the older cabins, big enough to sleep four. It was furnished simply but well-equipped with a TV and DVD player, Internet access, blow dryer, coffee maker and microwave — popcorn, gratis. I especially liked the air freshener, a pine, sage and wood-fire scent that came from no aerosol can.

Then we headed for the restaurant, which has a rustic open fireplace and roomy booths, gussied up by candlelight, elegant white napery and glistening wine glasses. The menu followed suit, featuring hearty classics with a Continental twist such as duck in a sauce of blueberry juice, orange zest and Grand Marnier.

"Fire away," said the waitress when she arrived with her pad. For a starter, we split a generous three-mushroom medley, followed by a steak for John and the duck for me. I ordered a bottle of Amity Pinot Noir, and we got a show with dessert as the waitress wheeled over a cart and made bananas Foster tableside. It was a fine, filling meal, for which we paid about $100, not including the wine. The next night we had pizza for dinner in the adjoining sports bar.

It can be disappointing to reach a destination after dark. The reward comes the next morning when it's as if a curtain parted, showing you why you came. To get the full effect, I got up with the fishermen who chase rainbow trout at the lake, bought a cup of coffee in the general store and wandered along the creek where folks in RVs and tents were still asleep.

When the blacktopped road ended, I looked up and saw the lake, wedged into a crack between sheer, scree-sided Mt. Morrison (12,268 feet) and Laurel Mountain (11,812 feet), casting perfect, upside-down images of themselves in the glassy water.

Starting from the tidy marina it's an easy two-mile walk around Convict Lake. White evening primrose was blooming, and fish were jumping. With a desert sun climbing over the valley, it started to get hot, making me wonder whether the lake —140 feet deep at an altitude of 7,850 feet — would be too cold for swimming.

By the time I got back to the cabin, my brother was rustling around and hungry. We drove about 10 miles to Mammoth Lakes for a full complement of bacon and eggs at the Good Life Café, fueling my brother's wanderlust for the rest of the day.

First, we took the Jeep up a maze of rocky dirt roads to Tobacco Flat, where there's a fine Convict Lake overlook. Then we drove Benton Crossing Road over volcanic tablelands, with John pointing toward the gorge of the Owens River, which emerges from its chasm to cross to the eastern side of the valley, once lined by a narrow gauge railroad that serviced gold mines in the stark, lonely White-Inyo Mountains. Now the railway bed is roughly followed by U.S. 6 where we turned south, passing through cattle ranches in the irrigated Chalfant Valley. On the way back to Bishop, we stopped at Erick Schat's Bakkerÿ to buy a loaf of Original Sheepherder Bread, baked according to a recipe copyrighted in 1938.

There was time after that to go canoeing, a lazy paddle across shadows cast in Convict Lake by banks of slow-moving clouds. I put my hand in the water, determining that there wasn't enough polar bear in me to take a swim, while John did most of the paddling.

We didn't talk much. We didn't need to in a place like Convict Lake.

Besides, I had no reason to rag on my brother, because we hadn't run out of gas, gotten lost or broken an axle. Amazing. No El Tibors.

I briefly thought about tipping the boat.

travel@latimes.com