Help! My Water Baby Has the Dust Pneumonia Blues

I went to the doctor, and the doctor, said, “My son,
You got that dust pneumony an’ you ain’t got long. –
Woody Guthrie, Dust Pneumonia Blues

California is dry this year, bone dry.  I’ll go so far as to say it’s even worse than the perpetual state of drought that’s been going on for the last 10 years. Many areas have received less rain this past year than any year on record and now that the new year is upon us things have not changed at all.  The state is parched, plain and simple, and will welcome a cool drink of water when the rains (and mountain snows!) finally return.  Being similarly thirsty to take a long ride in a new place I left my skis behind this past weekend, grabbed the bike instead and headed up to the Bishop area to see for myself just how dry the Sierra Nevada is this year.

All it took was one long look at the mountains while rolling into town under moonlight to show me that the snowpack is extremely thin this year.  Granted from a recreational standpoint this bums me out as I’ve been planning a backcountry ski tour this winter and the lack of snow really puts a damper on that activity, but it also doesn’t bode well for the part of the state that I fortunately (or unfortunately, depends on what side of the love-hate relationship bed I wake up on) live in, Southern California.  Down in my part of the state we are completely dependent on outside sources of water, which is frightening.

So since we lack any real source of water, us residents of the southern part of the state (Los Angeles in particular) drain the snowmelt of the Sierra Nevada through the straw of the Owens Valley for every last drop we can steal.  Did I say steal? Yes I did.  When you live in Socal and are water conscious as I am you begin to see every manicured lawn and sparkling, freshly washed car for what it represents and realize that all of that water has to come from someplace, so yes it is stealing on some level.  This is nothing new in the arid southwest as over the years there have been many battles over water rights but the fact remains that the Sierra Nevada is LA’s water baby.

Water baby? What the hell is a water baby?  I came across the term while researching an area known as the Volcanic Tablelands.   The Eastern Sierra is dotted with cinder cones and lava fields and the Tableland is part of a geologic formation known as the Bishop Tuff that rises from the Owens Valley just north of Bishop.  Well from my point of view it rises from Bishop, but in reality, it flowed down from the Long Valley Caldera as the remains of a pyroclastic flow that shot down the sides of whatever volcano that existed near present-day Mammoth Mountain when it blew its top over 700,000 yrs ago.  Oh, and look at the steam rising from Mammoth the next time you go skiing or boarding up there – it’s gonna do it again some day.

Not only are the tablelands a cool geologic formation but they also contain some really interesting petroglyphs that were carved into the rocks during the last 1000 years or so.  A few months ago my wife and I had wandered around in the area looking for them and found a few of the easier to locate areas.

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One set that caught my eye was comprised of hand and footprints.  From what I’ve read they are attributed to the Water Baby, a small human spirit that lived in springs and pools and served to help guide shamans along in their spiritual journeys, among other things.  In some areas water babies are also blamed for luring (by crying like an infant) fishermen to their deaths in some lakes to the north of here.  Interesting stuff. From what I’ve been told there are also numerous pools of water hidden within the Tablelands which ties in nicely with the legend as being a nice place for a water baby to hang out.  Just the sort of image you want stuck in your head when you roll out into the darkness at 4 AM, which is what I did after a few quick hours of sleep.

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Riding off into unfamiliar territory is always a rush, even more so when you do it at night.  A sense of uncertainty heightens every turn in the trail and every stone becomes a stranger.  As you ride every bush becomes a figure, every gust of wind a voice and the eye of every jackrabbit glowing in the light of your headlamp bores deep into your own fragile psyche looking for weak spots.  Even if you aren’t on the lookout for prowling water babies there’s always an odd feeling that’s heightened by lack of sleep and the knowledge that you’ve set a course toward a mountain known as Casa Diablo.  Sure beats sitting at a desk for a living, if only for learning esoteric legends and cool new place names.

A ratty Subaru passed me headed in the opposite direction and while I slowly pedaled through the dust left in its wake I could’ve sworn I heard a child cry out in the darkness.  It was probably just a squeaky suspension bushing or maybe my dry bike chain protesting in the cold air but just in case it was something else I stopped pedaling and halted for a moment, choking back a cough.  Nothing but silence.

I started pedaling again and momentarily turned backward, not to see if anything was following me but to face the sun as it rose over the White Mountains to the east.  OK, I was also looking to see if something was following me but there wasn’t anything but a grand view of the valley.  The rising light of the new day seemed to silence the water babies of the Tablelands, and with it my apprehension of legendary spirits evaporated.

As day broke over the furnace of the deserts to the east the embers of the Devil’s hearth were fanned by the telltale sign of high winds aloft – lenticular clouds forming in the lee of the Sierra Nevada.  Reading the tea leaves of the clouds I knew that while the morning was calm and cool (about 20 degrees), things were about to change.  Of course I’d also read the weather forecast before heading out so I knew I was riding into an approaching windstorm, but let’s leave that out for now – it ruins my outdoor knowledge credibility.

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“Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon” errrrrr “bike light”.  Shakespeare aint got nothin’ on an Eastern Sierra sunrise.  Somewhere my old high school English teacher felt a cold chill run down his back…

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I love this time of day: standing mute while my thoughts merge with the purple mountain majesty and flow upward in a transmutation of cloudforms toward the infinitude of a clear sky.  It’s inspiring.  It’s the kind of moment when sentences like the former actually make sense.  This is why I continue to drag my ass out early in the morning to do this stuff, it’s an addiction.  I crave moments like these deep in my very soul.  Hi, My name is Tom and I’m a sunrise-aholic, I also have a landscape photography habit. The bicycling helps take the edge off.

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After a few hours of slow and sandy climbing I reached the top of the Volcanic Tablelands.  Looking toward Mt Tom in the distance I considered how the intimacy of cycling is so much better than blasting through terrain like this under the power of a motor.  On a bike you become part of the landscape, especially when you climb as slowly as I do.  The wind had begun to pick up so I stopped and brewed a quick cup of coffee to fortify my will to fight the gale on my loaded bike.  From here on I knew the wind would only get worse as the day blossomed.  I was in flavor country, even if my instant coffee tasted like absolute crap.

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I headed across the rolling hills toward Glass Mountain like Tom Joad standing up to social injustice in the Grapes of Wrath: “Takes no nerve to do something, aint nothing else you can do”.  Which is what I did: something. I pedaled. The wind rose and with it the dust diablos began to play.

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“Okies” came to California in the Dust Bowl days looking for a better life, just as I did when I moved here from the East Coast to take a new job.  California has always been the golden land of opportunity and it’s treated me well over the years.  However, lately its luster has grown dull.  Maybe all the dust on the wind is part of the bigger picture that’s telling me to move on from this place and find some greener pastures, ones that don’t need to be irrigated by snowmelt from faraway places.

The wind howled and kicked up more dirt in the far-off valley created by the White Mountains, the forlorn guards of the dusty border with Nevada.  I’m pretty sure Tom Joad was out there, everywhere, watching me as I moved onward.

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As I rode across the open area near the Watterson Divide the wind increased in intensity.  Reaching a ridgeline near 8000ft it literally blew me into the brush beside the road.  I sat in the dust for a second and decided I’d had enough for one day.  I was also running low on water and wasn’t sure where I’d be able to find any more on Glass Mountain as it did not look like an area where water babies would like to hang out.  Changing course, I turned and rode toward Tom’s Place near Lake Crowley.

As I dropped into Owens Gorge the wind intensified.  With the drought conditions we’ve been experiencing the land is parched and I could see each gust arrive with a payload of dirt as it roared across the brown, open landscape until it stabbed my eyes with the vengeance of a pitchfork wielding mob.  The winds of wrath were building and growing heavy, heavy with a shitload of dust from the land.  At one point I was stopped in my tracks for a full minute by choking dust driven by 50-60 mph winds.  I’d never seen anything like it.  For the first time in my life I understood a tiny bit of what had driven so many people on to California back in the 1930’s.

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Arriving at Tom’s Place I sat down with a soda and thought about the lives of all the men and women who have passed through this area since the Dust Bowl.  I thought of the irony of my own migration to California and how I’m thinking of moving on to greener pastures.  Given the events of the day this was perfectly understandable, but the effect of seeing all those license plates on the wall from that era was like a suckerpunch to the head.  Go ahead and punch away, us “Tom’s” are tough (or so we tell ourselves at times like this) and if we need to keep moving on that’s exactly what we’ll do.

A woman who worked in the store asked if I was going to be alright with all of the wind and offered to drive me back down to Bishop.  I politely declined.  Okies are a proud people.  Besides, I had some downhill to ride.

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The next hour was mostly downhill starting with the 9 miles of beautiful, flowing, technical singletrack that comprises Lower Rock Creek trail.  This was my first time riding through here, and though I was on a fully loaded fatbike it was oddly fun (although I did worry about exceeding the maximum allowable weight limit on a few of the bridges that cross the creek as the trail winds through the canyon).  The howling wind had not abated but at least it was at my back.  A snow squall moved through at the higher elevations for a bit and although the Water Baby cried from deep within the creek I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm enough to stop and investigate (though strangely enough I did stop to snap a few photos).  I rode out into the Owens Valley into a soft rain that smelled of Spring.

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I can’t deny that living in California absolutely drives me nuts on certain days: the traffic, the congestion, the crush of humanity and the segment of citizens who trash the state while choosing to be completely oblivious to the natural beauty that surrounds them.  But when it’s right there’s no other place I’d rather be than in California.  Maybe that’s the key?  I need to ride my bike and explore the beautiful areas of the state more thoroughly before moving on to another land of opportunity – hopefully one with a little more water.

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