History That’s Here But Is About There

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From the grave marker of Joseph Reddeford Walker. Walker was the first to take wagon trains over the Sierra.

A grave overlooking Carquinez Strait, a skyscraper in San Francisco and one writing desk in Martinez, California.

You don’t have to travel the eight or nine hours by car from San Francisco to the Owens Valley to touch its story in the Bay Area. In fact, the history of the Valley is often found in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s simple to see why when you view a map of where people live and where their water comes from.

Imagine a red blob of color over the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Then put a line of blue around the mountain chains in the Rockies of Colorado and the Sierra Nevada in California. Water travels hundreds of miles via mostly human-crafted water-moving systems to the faucet. Like the water, the people, materials and ideas of the West traveled a great distance from their place of origin.

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Alhambra Cemetery, Martinez, California. Also buried here are several of John Muir’s relatives.

First, the grave. Joseph Reddeford Walker, best known as a bellicose mountain man and fur trapper, often accompanied John Charles Frémont on his Western expeditions in the 1840s on behalf of the United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. He found the mountain pass at the southern end of the Owens Valley that now bears his name – one of the easiest ways to cross the Sierra Nevada. A river and a lake also bear his name. Yet the Owens Valley does not, though he knew it better than any of Frémont’s men. I explore one possibility of how the Valley may have been named in my story “Milton and the Grizzly.”

But it’s Walker’s grave marker that seems to imply a feat far more interesting – Camped at Yosemite, November 13, 1833. Though the history is conflicting, Walker may have been the first non-Native American to see Yosemite. But Walker was not a literary type and did not keep a journal as pleasing to read as his contemporaries. His clerk Zenas Leonard from Pennsylvania did keep a daily notation of the party’s movements and it’s clear the group probably traveled through Tuolumne Meadows, though again, historians’ accounts differ. What everyone agrees upon is that Walker did not see Yosemite Valley on that trip.

The skyscraper – when my husband and I moved cross-country in our 1985 Toyota Tercel, which leaked oil all the way from Pennsylvania to California, we had all of our earthly belongings shipped to a Mail Boxes, Etc. store on Bush Street in the Financial District of San Francisco. I didn’t know it at the time, but the building has a direct connection to the Owens Valley.

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The Mills Building is located on Bush and Montgomery Streets in San Francisco

Burnham and Root of Chicago designed the Mills Building, which is one of the very few buildings to have survived the 1906 earthquake. As the sole remaining representative of the Chicago School of architecture in San Francisco, it was   designated a historical landmark with preservation status by the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco.

The connection to my childhood valley is the exterior, which is made of what was then called “Inyo marble,” or dolomite mined from Keeler. Keeler is a strange, wonderful place with a few hardy souls still hanging on despite the closure of the mines and the Carson & Colorado Railroad.

The abandoned Keeler Swim Club

The abandoned Keeler Swim Club

I highly recommend a drive to Keeler, located about 70 miles south of Bishop. Several Hollywood films have been shot nearby, invasive tamarisk lines the ghost-like streets and an empty swim club seems to stand sentry over the recent past, a reminder that life is always in transition.

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John Muir National Historic Site, Second Floor of Muir’s home. Desk belonged to Muir, other items throughout the home are not original furnishings.

The desk – John Muir’s modest wooden writing place, located in what he called his “scribbling den,” is one of two original pieces of furniture that actually belonged to the writer and nature advocate at the John Muir National Historic Site. I stood at a distance from it, prevented from advancing to its place in the den by a barrier and the warning of an alarm protecting the room. I wanted to place my hand on the surface and close my eyes. John Muir does not appear in my book of stories, but every time I travel the Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park on my way to the Eastern Sierra, I think of his influence on my sister and me, on the American idea of national parks and how he so valiantly fought the city of San Francisco over the Hetch Hetchy Valley (which is now dammed and delivers to the city its drinking water).

photoI think Joseph Reddeford Walker would have smiled upon me yesterday. I trespassed, breaking the municipal code of the city of Martinez Police Department, hopping the chain link fence to see his grave for myself. A small quantity of ornery mountain man spirit coursed through my veins, if only for a few minutes.

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