Last Saturday night I sat enraptured in a cozy South Lake Tahoe cabin, listening to a member of the Ninety-Nines (an international organization for women pilots) reminisce about Barbara Rowell. Barbara learned to fly to fulfill her dream of freedom, expression and self-exploration. As the spouse and business partner of famous climber, explorer and photographer Galen Rowell, Barbara had a front seat view of back roads, wilderness, rare plants, enigmatic animals and ancient human settlements that very few people ever see. Yet perhaps she wanted to do something for herself on her own terms, not Galen’s.
I first became aware of Galen Rowell through National Geographic articles. His photograph Rainbow Over the Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, 1981 (below) imprinted upon me as though I were a young bird. Years later, browsing in a bookstore after college graduation, I came upon it in one of Rowell’s color calendars. But there was more. I screeched with delight and gestured to my then-boyfriend Joe. I was practically jumping up and down. “Look, it’s Bishop! This is where I grew up!” The calendar contained a couple of photographs featuring the Eastern Sierra and the Owens Valley. The biography printed on the back of the calendar noted the couple lived in Bishop. I had no idea! After fruitful careers traipsing all over the planet to shoot exotic locales and cultures, I soon learned that Barbara and Galen had found home.
Until that point, hardly a soul I met in college or early in my career in Washington, D.C. had ever heard of Bishop. Even when I moved back to California to the Bay Area coastal community of Pacifica, most people only knew Tahoe. Bishop and the Owens Valley seemed like a fantastic secret that only my family and childhood friends shared. Yet here was famous adventure photographer Galen Rowell’s Fall Sunrise on the High Sierra Over the Owens Valley and Old Wagon Beneath Mount Tom and Snow Bent Aspen Trunks, South Fork of Bishop Creek Canyon. Bishop Creek Canyon! The hamlet where I lived in an A-frame house from the time I was six months old seemed like too small an outpost to be recognized by such a big-time artist!
Galen Rowell put the Owens Valley on the map and back in my heart, for shortly thereafter I began writing my book, Cover This Country Like Snow And Other Stories. A new generation of rock climbers and outdoor enthusiasts would follow Galen’s lead to the valley. As a result, Main Street in Bishop is now home to several backpacking, climbing, mountaineering and travel equipment stores.
Months after I discovered Rowell’s photographs of my beloved Owens Valley and the Eastern side of the Sierra, Galen and Barbara died in 2002 in a plane crash at Bishop’s Eastern Sierra Regional Airport (Barbara was not the pilot). Though I did not know the couple, I was devastated by the tragic loss to the conservation and environmental movement. I felt somehow that my hometown had let Galen and Barbara down, that the runway, or perhaps the rural darkness, had betrayed them.
Galen wrote “I’ve known all along that more of what I am seeking in the wilds is right here in my home state of California than anywhere else on earth. But … I couldn’t say it with authority until I had all those journeys to Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan, China, South America, Antarctica, and Alaska behind me (Galen Rowell: A Retrospective, Sierra Club Books, 2006).”
Like Barbara, most women pilots seek to prove something to themselves by learning to fly. For me, flying is about possibility and power. Whether the power of the engine, the power of nature below or the power of the mind to overcome fear, aviating is as important to me as my Owens Valley. About three years ago I flew from Death Valley over the Inyo Range into the Owens Valley. My instructor Maria helped me land in Bishop. As I climbed out of the cockpit I immediately turned my face up to Mount Tom, which was entirely covered in a sheath of glittering white marble snow. Though I had taken countless pictures of that majestic peak, it still took my breath away. I am certain Barbara and Galen felt the same way.