SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
August 12, 1963
In eastern California the Sierras carry perpetual winter on their shoulders and hold summer captive in a great valley at their feet. The story of why few men can live there and why thousands go there to play is told on the following pages
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August 12, 1963

Dwarfs In A Giant's World

In eastern California the Sierras carry perpetual winter on their shoulders and hold summer captive in a great valley at their feet. The story of why few men can live there and why thousands go there to play is told on the following pages

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Even now in mid-August the tops of the California Sierras shine with snow, but on the floor of the Owens Valley 9,000 feet below, Toni Morris, the 6-year-old in the picture on the opposite page, fishes in lazy summer. As she sits through the timeless afternoon hoping a brown trout will fall for the gobbet of worm on her hook, she is storing up a variety of impressions of her valley: the many sounds of the cold brook, the mixed smells of sage and meadow, the flash of a trout at her feet and, overhead, the distant image of an eagle riding high in a thermal, scouting the valley floor.

What the eagle sees, and Toni senses, is one of the extraordinary sporting areas in the world. Even by western measure, the Owens Valley is a big place. Its base floor is about 100 miles long and five wide, and there is twice again that area on the alluvial plains, sloping westward to the Sierras and eastward to the White and Inyo mountains. The pleasures offered by the valley are endlessly diverse—hiking, hunting, riding, rockhounding, camping, soaring on great waves of air,'fishing, skiing—and all of these are intensified by two things: the valley's loveliness and its emptiness.

It is a strange and particular fact that although hundreds of thousands of people would like to live in the Owens Valley, few can do so. The year-round climate of the area is not so benign as that of the San Joaquin Valley west of the Sierras, nor its soil as rich, by and large, as that of the man-made gardens of the Imperial Valley to the south, but under ordinary circumstances it would be a fit place for industry and agriculture, capable of employing several hundred thousand people. Without straining a seam, in its side pockets alone the valley could hold half a dozen towns of 25,000. Yet today, while cities east and west suffer from the pains of overpopulation, sending their urban dwellers in search of elbow room, barely 11,000 people live in the Owens Valley.

There is a fundamental reason for the low population of this western paradise: high-priority water. The deep snows of the Sierras afford plenty, but long before the runoff has passed under the feet of fishermen on the valley floor most of it has been spoken for. Toni Morris can hang a worm in the creek, but she is forbidden to swim in it or wade in it, for the water is desperately needed to quench the thirst, wet the toothbrushes and drive the industry of the big, dry city of Los Angeles, 280 miles to the southwest (only in a few private impoundments are swimming and water skiing permitted).

Sixty years ago, wisely anticipating its bustling future, Los Angeles began reaching out, buying riparian land in Owens Valley. In the next 30 years the relationship between the big-city water-seekers and the valley residents was not always mellow. Occasionally the city resorted to hanky-panky in its dealings, and occasionally the valley people resorted to violence, dynamiting the city's aqueduct 15 times, seizing a set of gates once and turning the city's vital sap back onto their dry homeland. The arguments for both sides were valid. The issue was too complex ever to be weighed on the simple scales of justice.

Today, from the crest of the Sierras to the White and Inyo mountains, 98% of the land is public, a patchwork of national forest, federal reserve land and Los Angeles-owned land. Thus, by virtue of smoggy progress elsewhere, most of the valley is a wilderness playground. On private and leased holdings there is still some ranching and mining—vestiges of yesterday—but most of the valley's 11,000 live in small towns such as Bishop that cater almost entirely to the needs of tourists.

By the time the water war ended 30 years ago, many valley people had moved away, and a large part of the present population are migrants from greater Los Angeles, fugitives who have headed for the far hills to escape the jostling, the smog, the clogged freeways, the stifling restrictions and the hopped-up chaos of a big-time town. The move is a reasonable one, but difficult. Before he makes it, each migrant must be sure he can find a home for rent or for sale in the valley, and he must also be sure he has the courage to give up a big-city career and settle for a lesser, different job with a thinner pay envelope.

Eleven years ago Cliff Bayless and his wife Lucille prospered on the eastern fringe of Los Angeles. They had a quarter share in a Cadillac agency, worth about $25,000 a year, and three acres of home ground on a hilltop. But when the city and its smog closed in on them, they moved to the Owens Valley, taking a cut to $10,000 a year and spending their first three years in an apartment over a garage. "In the valley," Mrs. Bayless reports, "our son Rocky could use a BB gun and a slingshot. He could have 40 pigeons, while his cousin back in Glendale could have only 12. When his cousin would come here to visit and it was time to return to Los Angeles, he would run into the hills and hide. We gave up a lot to come here," Mrs. Bayless concludes, "but now we see the sunrise and the stars at night."


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