At long last, I have revised my Owens Valley Driving Guide for the drupal-ized varnelis.net site. Lots of new images abound. Many of these appear from time to time in the flikr stream on the left side of my home page.
Today we are accustomed to the idea that the city’s reach is all-pervasive. Telecommunications and high technology penetrate everywhere, agriculture is industrialized, and widespread tourism together with unceasing migration have undone traditional settlement patterns. The most remote corners – national parks, Antarctica, the Himalayas – exist not in opposition to the urban but rather remain their natural only through special dispensation from the city. Crisscrossed by infrastructural grids – water, power, scientific research, and tourism – deployed to serve the needs of urban life, nature is as thoroughly visited, studied, and reshaped as the urban.
This guide visits California’s Owens River Valley as a case study for understanding the reach of the city and the reshaping of nature. This forgotten land has made possible the massive growth of Los Angeles, even though it lies hundreds of miles away. In popular history, the Owens River Valley was an idyllic California Eden, a bountiful farming region under the eastern Sierras, until Los Angeles stole the flow of the river to fill its aqueduct. Passions over water still run high in the”ÀÜValley but as this guide demonstrates, water is only one of a series of infrastructures overlaying its terrain. Between the Sierras and the White Mountains water, power, and a myriad forms of tourism intersect with a sublime landscape, at once beautiful and toxic, natural and reshaped by man.
We have no record of the natural state for the Owens River Valley. Its indigenous peoples, the Paiutes, redirected river water into channels to irrigate their crops. After a bloody war, white settlers extended these systems, turning the more typical desert scrub of the Valley into heavily irrigated farmland. Had this state endured, the Owens River Valley likely would have turned into a landscape of industrialized agriculture similar to California’s present day Central Valley. The redirection of Owens River water to Los Angeles, the concurrent purchase of much of the land in the Valley by the city – L. A. is the largest landowner there – and the establishment of national park boundaries to protect the watershed all forced the territory toward an artificially enforced wildness.
Only some seven miles wide, the Valley is bounded by the 14,000 foot high east face of the Sierras on the west – among them Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower forty-eight states – and by the 14,000 foot high White Mountains on the other. The result is the deepest valley in the United States, indeed, one of the deepest on Earth. In this unique scenery are some of California’s best spots for hiking, fishing, skiing, and mountain climbing. Today tourism brings the people of the city to the Valley.
The guide is arranged from north to south, centered on the only road that unites the region, US highway 395. It covers the area from just below the Valley, through the Valley’s four towns, then up the volcanic tablelands to Mono Lake. We begin just south of the Owens River Valley, near the town of Pearsonville, 180 miles north of Los Angeles, at the Inyo County line.
This project, which took some five years to complete, is based on a driving guide I put originally together for my course at SCI-Arc, the Infrastructural City. A book, done in collaboration with the Center for Land Use Interpretation was published in 2004. You may download a pdf of this book or purchase it at their on-line shop.