At the coffee bar of Spellbinder Books in Bishop, I asked the man behind the counter about a striking sculpture of two fish arching in opposite directions, one of a dozen pieces on display. To my surprise, he introduced himself as the sculptor and brought his work to the window to show me the alabaster's translucence. Skandar, who goes by his last name only, then talked about the area's emerging art and photography scene.
"Things are looking up," he said. "We've got more art galleries than auto parts stores."
I knew what he meant immediately. My family has taken U.S. 395 north through the Owens Valley at least a half-dozen times, passing through Lone Pine, Independence and Bishop on our way to Mammoth Lakes or Lake Tahoe. Normally we're struck by the eastern Sierra's grandeur and the towns' unvarnished Old West charm, auto parts stores notwithstanding.
Early this month, though, we stopped in the valley instead of merely passing through, and we devoted our attention to something other than the landscape: a blossoming community of artists.
Photographers, painters, sculptors and other artisans have settled along the 60-mile stretch of highway between Lone Pine and Bishop. Most have been drawn by the beauty of the land. About 20 galleries are scattered here — not bad for towns whose combined population barely tops 5,000.
The best known spot is Mountain Light Gallery on Main Street in Bishop. It features the work of Galen and Barbara Rowell, internationally acclaimed nature photographers and adventurers who were killed in August in a plane accident. I admired their stunning pictures, including one capturing the eerie violet glow of a corniced ridge in Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve. Throughout the gallery, the dramatic colors and compositions embodied the essence of the world's wild places.
A clerk pointed to Crossroads Gallery across the street, closed at the time of my visit but open as the showplace of landscape photographer Claude Fiddler since May 9. I also picked up information about a workshop with mountain photographer Vern Clevenger, who opened a gallery May 10 in Bishop.
The Inyo Council for the Arts has a gallery here too, open daily on Main Street. I found more than 40 pieces on display: ceramics, paintings, photographs and woodcarvings priced from $25 to $650, a fraction of what limited edition prints at Mountain Light go for.
Next was Spellbinder Books & Coffee, and from there, at Skandar's suggestion, I walked to Pegasus Gallery on South Street to talk with founder Eva Poole-Gilson. Her rustic gallery, made of weathered wood and tufa, is refurbished inside to accommodate art displays, music performances and poetry readings. Poole-Gilson, a poet, said local artists and fellow gallery owners were designing a map to help art lovers find Bishop's venues.
That walk through town was on a Sunday afternoon. My introduction to the local gallery scene actually had started Friday night, when I had pulled into Lone Pine with my husband, Phil, and sons Andrew, 17, and Tony, 12, after a 3 1/2-hour drive from our Long Beach home.
The Dow Villa Motel looked like all the other lodgings along U.S. 395. Beyond the lobby's stone fireplace, though, we spotted the displays of movie memorabilia. The desk clerk explained that the original Dow Hotel had been built for movie crews who started coming in the 1920s to film amid the spectacular scenery, especially the Alabama Hills west of Lone Pine.
We chose two second-floor rooms with a connecting bathroom ($94 plus tax each night for both units) and a view of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the Lower 48. The accommodations, part of the motel's original wing, were cozy but not frilly, and double-paned windows muffled traffic noise nicely. (For $82 and up, guests can sleep in a newer annex whose rooms have refrigerators and private baths, some with whirlpool tubs.)
Saturday morning the four of us ambled two blocks down the highway (Main Street) to the Bonanza Mexican Restaurant, a diner with gingham curtains, wagon-wheel chandeliers and a Western diorama of bronco busters and chuck wagons in silhouette above the counter.
While Andrew studied and Tony, accompanied by his father, entertained the motel staff by diving into the swimming pool (unheated in winter), I went window-shopping in Lone Pine.
I stopped at the Indian Trading Post to check out the movie star autographs and browsed Yesterday's Furniture and Collectibles and Johnny Vick's Stuff, the kind of unpretentious stores where an undiscovered treasure might lurk. Then I stopped on Main Street at the courtyard of what used to be the Old Lone Pine Hotel, now the home of the chamber of commerce, the Southern Inyo Artisans Guild and crafts shops. The courtyard has evolved from one shop to a bustling complex during the last two years. Proprietors were busy decorating storefronts with seasonal flower garlands, and pots of lavender were everywhere.
My family gathered for lunch at the Pizza Factory. Its slogan, "We toss 'em, they're awesome," summed up our sentiments.
From there we headed up Whitney Portal Road, steep and winding with heart-stopping drop-offs that brought back memories of Humphrey Bogart's mad dash from the law in the 1941 film "High Sierra." Light flickering through fragrant pines settled my nerves at Whitney Portal, the 8,360-foot-high base for hikers headed toward the 14,495-foot summit. Even if you've never dreamed of scaling Mt. Whitney, a short hike up the trail — past streams and sheer rock faces — hints of its allure.
I wanted to see the Eastern California Museum, but the boys hadn't gotten enough mountain air. They dropped me off in Independence, 15 miles north on U.S. 395, and continued west on Market Street toward Onion Valley and popular hikes toward wilderness campsites.
The museum, on North Grant Street, completed an addition in 1999 but still could double in size given the wealth of its collection. I was taken by the photographs of Toyo Miyatake, who captured poignant and disturbing scenes from Manzanar, the World War II relocation center for Japanese Americans. (Manzanar's gatehouses, part of a national historic site, still stand off U.S. 395 between Lone Pine and Independence.) Other displays on Manzanar overflow into an exceptional collection of Paiute and Shoshone basketry.
When I got back into the car, I noticed my sons seemed just as pleased with their excursion as I was with mine. They happily informed me that the road to Onion Valley is steeper and scarier than Whitney Portal Road.
We returned to the Alabama Hills at sunset. My husband put our all-wheel-drive to the test on steep dirt roads. As the light faded, the towering rock outcroppings created a pocket of solitude for the day's final colors.
Back in Lone Pine, we chose Margie's Merry Go Round for dinner. Less than 50 feet in diameter, Margie's was built in the '50s to resemble a carousel. The carnival décor has been replaced with mirror tiles and paneling, and tables are draped in deep red. The dinner — good cuts of meat prepared with fresh vegetables — made a satisfying prelude to a soak in the motel's spa.
We were off to an early start the next day at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains, driving north 40 miles to Big Pine, then east on windy California 168. From 10,000 feet above sea level, we could look across the valley at the Sierra's granite peaks, carved by eons of erosion and radiant with snow. The sight was humbling and exhilarating.
We pulled up to a closed gate (since opened) near Grandview Campground and walked two miles to Schulman Grove, the closer of two ancient bristlecone pine groves with interpretative trails. Somewhere along the Methuselah Trail is the world's oldest known living tree, a bristlecone pine estimated to be 4,700 years old, left unmarked to prevent vandalism.
The trees, twisted and scarred, affirmed nature's will to survive. Later that afternoon during our gallery hopping in Bishop, I was struck by the photographers and artists who seemed equally vital, demonstrating a quest for beauty and the urge to create.