Mono Lake, mysterious blue eye of the desert, lies in a shallow basin tipped up against the eastern Sierra Nevada, an ancient puddle shrinking and filling with the pulse of the ice ages. It's embraced by roads on three sides. On the west, running along the foot of the Sierra, is US 395, one of the most beautiful highways in the world in its run along the length of eastern California, but busy with impatient traffic hurrying from LA to Tahoe and Reno.

The other two strips of pavement function less as roads than as boundaries for the lost zone anchored by this odd body of bitter water. California 120 is the route through Yosemite from the population centers of the west, and for all practical purposes it ends at its intersection with 395. Virtually all its traffic turns north or south there, headed for one set of fleshpots or another. Highway 120 joins 395 for a 5-mile jog to the south, then leaves the big highway to strike out along the southern shore of Mono Lake, eastward across the lonely desert toward . . . Benton? The highway is closed in winter (not worth plowing), and in the height of the summer season you can sit on the top of a volcano and easily count the cars headed in that direction. You won't need to take off your shoes to do it.

On the north side of the lake is
California 167, an even more sobering
spectacle, two lanes of not very well
maintained pavement aimed like an
arrow at the heart of the Nevada desert
and dissolving at the horizon in a dance
of heat waves. All you'll find out that
way is sagebrush and Walker Lake,
which if anything is even lonelier and
more unsung than Mono. If you wait for
awhile at the intersection of 167 and 395, looking east into the void, you may see
a tiny bug appear in the distance and
gradually grow to become a car, perhaps
an air-conditioned Cadillac. Its driver will
pull up at the intersection and stop for a
long moment, twiddling knobs and folding unnecessary maps, adjusting the Kleenex
box, blessing the reassuring stream of
SUVs and Airstream trailers on 395,
checking in the rearview mirror to make
sure he still exists. He's a voyager gratefully returned from a blank, essential domain,
one whose lines and curves, like those two
empty roads, seem drawn to the shores of
this lake.
Mono Lake acquired a certain fame in the 70s, despite its homeliness, when a few determined souls noticed that LA was rapidly sucking it dry and set out to put an end to the theft. Their heroic efforts were at least temporarily successful, and the lake level is gradually rising once again, even as the bumper stickers fade and peel. It's easy to focus on this flamboyant gout of blue and ignore the surrounding desert, which has a low-budget look anyway - a subdued palette of browns, blacks, whites, and volcanic grays splashed onto featureless rounded hills. The sudden vision of the lake itself is enough to bring the cameras out, but not enough to make very many people stay longer than it takes to get pie and coffee at Nicely's.


The little town of Lee Vining, which perches on an abandoned bench left over from one of the lake's previous high stands, has a few motels (perfectly respectable), a few restaurants (very homey), a couple of gas stations (you can buy gas there), an RV park (hot showers available for a buck or two), a windswept high school, and if you know where to look, a few blocks of unexceptional modern houses. Not exactly Disney World. Most of the big camping, hunting, and fishing trade operates out of Bishop, an hour to the south; there's skiing nearby (June Lake, Mammoth Lakes, and Tahoe), but at Mono Lake itself there's just this . . . scenery. No emerald meadows and plunging cataracts here, just sagebrush flats, grotesque white towers abandoned by the receding water, and a ring of alkaline mud plastered with swarms of midget flies. No fish, just a lot of creepy little shrimp that only a migratory bird could love. If you try to swim in the lake, you'll float nicely, but turn into a pillar of salt when you dry in the blasting sun. Nobody boats on it.


There are far too many empty vistas - the long, pale slope of the roadless, untraveled east shore, aloof Jeffrey pines peopling the ashy volcanic ridges, a still wall of cumulus ringing the lake in the beastly afternoon heat. The distances kill all motion, and whole days pass when nothing changes but the angle of the light. In the evenings an annoying wind pours down over the lake, whipping the cottonwood leaves in town and filling the basin with the cold breath of the high peaks to the west. Once this rush of air is over, the nights are spookily quiet. Lee Vining's couple of orange streetlights will serve only to remind you that you're nowhere.


The trick is to stay long enough to let the viscosity of the place drag you down to the right speed. For us 90s folks there are too many stars out there, too many silent owls, too many little feet running over your face if you camp out on the desert floor. Too much sky altogether. Sunsets are too long and deliberate, and the roar of plummeting nighthawks will wake you up long before the sun shows its face over the edge of the desert. But you can struggle to the desolate rim of a volcanic crater before the heat of the day hits, listen to the sparrows that pop up in the sagebrush, waste a couple of hours in the late afternoon watching the shapes and colors of the sky slowly alter. That's all Mono Lake has for you. Maybe it's enough.

Copyright © 1997 by Charlie Hibbard. All rights reserved.

Charlie Hibbard is a San Francisco high school teacher and sometime birder, backpacker, and pancake-eater.

Photo: Charlie Hibbard
Map: Adapted from Map Art by Cartesia

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