Mount Tom is the Owens Valley’s pyramid at Giza – stout, impressive and so massive it takes on a spiritual power. During the day Mount Tom is our aunt, uncle, mother, father, sister and brother. At twilight, as the pink silver light of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains lines the peaks against the horizon, Mount Tom becomes grandmother and grandfather, and in our dreams protects and strengthens us for the day to come.
The summit is atop a broad symmetrical triangle shape pleasing to the eye and a convenient landmark for motorists driving north and south along Highway 395 as well as general and commercial aviation pilots navigating this special part of California. For my sister Carol and me, Mount Tom served as any locale, anywhere in the world. We transformed Mount Tom and its neighbors from California to China’s Himalayas or Europe’s Alps, pretending to make a brave ascent and hunt for our dinner, two intrepid explorers whose Barbie dolls lay helter-skelter on the grass. From the safety and comfort of our Bishop home, we stuffed our backpacks with snacks and blankets and begged Mom and Dad to erect our tent near the tiny creek that coursed through the yard. All during our serious preparations, Mount Tom gazed silently on, matronly and benevolent, a willing participant in our fantastic narratives. Mount Tom greeted us each morning and winked every night as we tucked into bed. My sister drew Mount Tom constantly in her kindergarten classroom and Mom would post her pictures on the refrigerator. My best friend Tracy and I pedaled our bikes toward Mount Tom and returned home, away from Mount Tom. We played on the jungle gyms of our elementary school, Mount Tom in the distance.
On our yearly trips to the Owens Valley, my husband Joe and I can’t stop ourselves from snapping photo after photo from every possible view in an attempt to represent in pixels what is so evident to our eyes. Mount Tom looks serene and elegant, yet also unforgiving and uncompromising at more than 13,600 feet.
I struggle to describe why this place is so vital to my identity, yet it is undeniable that Mount Tom has a hold on me. On a recent commercial flight I flew right over Mount Tom; my heart soared as if I was reuniting with a cherished loved one and I teared up as the Airbus passed over the summit. I ached and rejoiced at the same time. Mount Tom touches something deep.
It is inevitable that Mount Tom and the land below are settings in two of my short stories. One takes place during the period of conflict between pioneer settlers and Paiute and Mono bands of Native Americans, about 1860, the other story is set during the Valley’s tense water rights negotiations with the city of Los Angeles in the early 1930s. Some of my readers suggest that places like Mount Tom take on the qualities of characters in my stories; but I am uncomfortable with the concept of landscape as a character on equal footing with human characters. The constants in the Owens Valley landscape – be they sheer height, mass, the sounds of water on granite slabs, the colors of aspens in Autumn – appear to mediate the far more capricious and selfish history of the people living in their shadow. They seem morally superior to mere beings who only live between 70 and 90 years, and, in some rare cases, 100 years.
Perhaps I do view the landscape as a character in my stories, but more of a specter, myth, spirit or collection of gods. Or as one big god, so grand it defies characterization. We apply words, feelings and thoughts to what we see and experience in nature, but we barely scrape the surface of the ancient knowledge and wisdom that these places seem to impart. Yet we recognize the aesthetic salves that nature provides for our daily wounds.
Mount Tom’s appearance modulates throughout the seasons, from raw and vulnerable in the summer to frosted and fortified in the winter. At its base Mount Tom gently slopes toward a small town called Round Valley that retains some remnants of its ranching and farming heritage. Dad used to point to its patches of green and tell me that the entire Owens Valley used to be as productive. As a kid I found it hard to imagine such a dry place could be so colorful and full of orchards bearing fruit. I did not have enough maturity or knowledge to understand the relationship between water and my hometown.
My family moved to East County San Diego right after my 13th birthday. I couldn’t wait to get out of the small town of Bishop and go to high school where the number of student clubs, sports and creative outlets seemed endless. I saw my horizons broadening, my opportunities to apply and secure admission to college accelerated.
What I did not know then is how that mountain and the Owens River descending through the deep valley would stay with me and grow into a supernatural character of my own making. Mount Tom is inexplicably tied to my past, my today and the time of this night’s dreaming and tomorrow’s hope. Mount Tom is the future of my family and the family of humanity that needs nature even as it misplaces the bond with mountain, stream and tree that was forged in our ancestors’ hearts.
Lucky for all of us, that which we misplace can easily be found again. What could be more magnificent?