Side by side in eastern California lie a desert valley of long summers and two snow-capped mountain ranges of long winters . . . The Sierra Nevada borders this valley on the west. To the east rises another steep-fronted mountain block, the White-Inyo Mountains. The highest peaks of both ranges stand well over 14,000 feet. Two miles below them lies a 90-mile long, trough-shaped valley – our Deepest Valley, for nowhere in the Americas is such a valley bounded on both sides by such towering peaks.
The Deepest Valley is a land of much wonder and mystery. It also holds tales of great tenacity and courage.
If you barely glance at the valley as you whiz through, it may strike you as bleak and barren. But if you take the time to see and to hear, you may find it has silence and order and space and a regal beauty. It teems with life; you need but know how to look for it.
– Genny Smith, Deepest Valley: Guide to Owens Valley, its roadsides and mountain trails.
She’ll never be as well-known as John Muir, but Californian author and conservationist Genny Smith, who died March 4th, deserves equal if not greater accolades. “Genny wasn’t a big woman,” The Sheet staff reporter Mike Bodine wrote March 9, “but she halted an entire road from being built.” Genny led a group, starting in the 1950s, to stop the construction of what was then called the Minaret Summit Highway, a road that local boosters in the Central Valley desired to improve accessibility and commerce with “rich markets to the East,” according to the National Park Service, whose Devil’s Postpile National Monument would have been negatively impacted. But it never saw the light of day. Genny and others opposed the road for 27 years. Her letter-writing campaign got all the way to the top. California’s Secretary of Resources Norman “Ike” Livermore Jr. agreed that the highway would have harmed soil, vegetation, fish and wildlife. Then in 1972 “then-Governor Ronald Reagan announced after a pack trip through Middle Fork Valley, that the road would not be built,” wrote Bodine.
But it’s Genny’s books that seem to contain a fuller picture of her humanity – her gentle encouragement to get outside and learn something new, her generosity in sharing all she could. Take her guidebooks in hand and she will not only give you good directions on how to find a roadside delight like a volcanic crater, an Ice Age lake or the path of a glacier’s journey, but she’ll let you in on what you’re looking at, with accessible, friendly language to bring every reptile, rock, granite peak, fish, mammal and ancient tree to life. Genny’s writing has a point of view, too: “Long ago John Muir and his friends advocated that the Sierra not be remade in the image of the Alps, with tramways, highways, railroads and resorts throughout the mountains, but that some of the Sierra remain a unique American wilderness . . . we need wild places not only for ourselves but because wild things are on this earth along with us.” Though full of scientific and cultural information, most of Genny’s writing simply promotes exploration and messing around: “Desert wandering is great fun. You need not go far, the open country invites you to go every direction your fancy pleases; landmarks keep you from becoming lost.”
She reminds us that everywhere we look is evidence of the long-ago, such as the folding of land with rocks as old as 600 million years, as well as the more recent Ice Age remnant lakes. Genny revered the Valley and its people, even the difficult history of the subjugation of Native Americans, the water wars between the Valley and the city of Los Angeles, or the the Manzanar War Relocation camp where 10,000 Japanese Americans and legal Japanese residents were falsely accused of disloyalty and betrayal and imprisoned during World War II.
I used Genny’s books like bibles while writing my short story collection Cover This Country Like Snow. You almost don’t require a map with Genny in the car. Peggy Gray’s illustrations are so well-done you can pull off the side of Highway 395 and pick out each peak, learning the origin of their names. Genny included the most distinguished biologists, geologists, climatologists and other researchers in her books and when the editions needed updating, she partnered with talented editors that ensured the accuracy and enjoyability of these pithy, but not weighted down volumes. Light enough for a backpack, Genny’s books are musts any time we visit the Owens Valley.
I met Genny a couple of years ago at an event on the shores of Mono Lake. She sat in the shade of a tent where a celebration of the Public Trust Doctrine was taking place. I thanked her for her books and asked her about her writing practice. She replied that her poor health prevented her from writing any longer. I was so moved by that, for I know the pain that comes over me when I do not write. It’s unfair, I thought, such a great writer unable to undertake her craft any longer. I told Genny about my own work and how challenging it all is, but how necessary it was to my well-being. She understood. I wanted her to continue leading me, guiding me with her optimistic writing that seems to exhort us all to do what you can, this is ours to love and live upon, fight for these things we care about, our brother creatures, both plant and animal and assume responsibility for their welfare.
Genny knew her life was compromised, she could no longer hike, drive or walk very well on her own. She looked me in the eye and said, “It’s up to you to write now.” I didn’t want to take the helm from her then and don’t feel right assuming it now.
What I will do, what we can all do – let’s share her enthusiasm, let’s take her advice:
“Try sitting on your bumper sometime, your car backed up against the wall of the Sierra, taking in a full circle of incredible country, and you may begin to feel the magic.” Genny’s absolutely right, it’s so vast a view, you will never forget.
Read more about and by the amazing Genny: