Because its natural bounty of water is claimed by Los Angeles, the Owens Valley has limited facilities for permanent occupancy. The valley has, nonetheless, a decently large heart and the capacity to absorb a lot of visitors. The streets of the small towns are lined with motels, cafes and sporting goods shops. In a summer week, in any one of the Sierras' steep, long gorges, where creek water, white and raging, tumbles from pool to pool, there may be 1,000 vacationers roughing it or lodging it and another 500 hidden under the aspen and tall pines in the side gullies dug out of the mountain flank by the upper arms of the creek. There is plenty of room on the mountainsides and, except for beer cans wantonly discarded and the distant sound of motor cars huffing and gasping in the thin mountain air, little evidence that a small army of city people has taken over.
The summer visitors come for various reasons, the majority merely escaping their city life to spend a week or two in quest of some lesser Grail, such as the trout that abound, thanks to the beneficence of God and the California Department of Fish and Game. The trout—one species or another—are fished from the Owens River right on the valley floor and from creeks and lakes reaching upward to the 13,000-foot level, where winter never really quits. The trout come in all sizes. In lower lakes there are browns which, being either too stupid or too smart to take a hook, are as long as a man's arm. On opening day this spring at Lake Crowley, a 6,000-acre impoundment on high ground at the north end of the valley, 11,000 fishermen in 3,300 boats took more than 30 tons of trout, any fish under three-quarters of a pound being considered a runt. In the highest glacial lakes, by contrast, the little native golden trout rarely exceed nine inches—but there the angler fishes alone in alpine grandeur. Like the fish, the fishermen run the gamut. At one extreme there are the classicists who kill their fish only with the artificial fly; at the other are those who simply want fish and would just as soon toss a cherry bomb in the water, if it were either legal or productive.
The important thing in such a large playground is that every angler has full option. He can stick to the classic rules laid down on the chalk streams of the old World, or he can use damn-near-anything for bait: fake bugs and real bugs, worms and grasshoppers, marshmallows and cheese, salmon eggs from the Pacific Northwest and fake salmon eggs made in Newport Beach. He can wait for the evening hatch and try to match it, or he can wait in a parked car on the streets of Bishop until the hatchery truck goes by, follow it and take a fish one minute after it has been released in a stream. With the dutiful passion of oldtime Wells Fargo carriers, the California Fish and Game trucks replenish the more heavily fished waters once a week and sometimes twice.
As might be expected, most of the valley's winter visitors are skiers, who move through the towns bound for the Mammoth Lakes area that lies 50 miles beyond. The ski season starts with the first good snow of late fall or early winter, and it continues on and on, through spring and early summer. The bottom of the elaborate skein of lifts at Mammoth Mountain is 8,900 feet, so that by July 1, when the sport is only a memory elsewhere, there are still diehards on the slopes.
At Mammoth the skier is free of the restrictions of the city, but not of the crowds. Weekend attendance sometimes exceeds 3,000, including some who use the slopes and trails as if they were freeways back home. But crowds and collisions are familiar hazards at ski areas everywhere these days, and at Mammoth one can at least find consolation: there is a bonesetter in residence. In the small town of Mammoth a sign proclaims: "E. Victor Gallardo, M.D., Orthopedic and Traumatic Surgery."
Lower down in the valley there are other signs urging the traveler to "Visit Harold's Club in Reno" and to "Get Right with God," an option that should attract either the fisherman or skier, depending on his luck that day. He can have a ball trying to win a bundle, but if the dice and the wheel roll against him and he loses his worldly goods to Harold, he is properly ready to meet his Maker. It is doubtful, though, whether any visitors come with such sober motives. Most of them come to the valley simply to use this world for a short time unfettered, taking a trout with a bait of their own choice or skiing as fast as they want on slopes where there are no slow and fast lanes.