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Owens Valley Before Lunch | Owlsheads #4

We arrived at Alabama Hills and started looking for somewhere to call home at 8:30pm on a Saturday night - surely not an ideal time to show up at such a popular location. Tired from our hike to - and through - Military Canyon earlier in the day, the first several spots we checked were occupied, but eventually we found a secluded-enough spot nestled in the rocks and leveled the truck. Fifteen minutes later, we were brushing our teeth and climbing into bed - each of us ready for some well-deserved shut-eye.

The catch - there's always a catch - was that it was fall-back for Daylight Savings, which meant that sunrise would be at 6:00am rather than the 7:00am that it'd been for the majority of the trip. I begrudgingly set my alarm, and then I was out.

Morning in the Alabama Hills is always one of my favorite times. The light - spilling across the sky, but not yet shining directly on the rocky outcroppings - gives the moonscape an ethereal feeling. And then, the Sierras rise majestically in the background.

It's easy to understand why Alabama Hills is so crowded, with views like this.

Not much snow on the Sierras. We need more precipitation!

Nestled into a private - or, relatively private - nook.

Knowing that we had quite a bit to accomplish before leaving the Owens Valley and heading north to Washington - a trip that would take us two full days of driving - I whistled to @mrs.turbodb, who joined me just as the sun broke the horizon, bathing the Sierras in a pink glow.

A few seconds before the sun hit the mountains.

A colorful morning.

The few degrees of sun movement at the horizon always seem to progress more quickly than mid-day, and before long, the entire area was bathed in sunlight. By that time, we were eating the last of our blueberries and packing away the tent for the final time. It'd been a great trip from a tent perspective, no rain or dew meaning that we never had to worry about putting it away wet.

And then, at 6:59am, we pulled out of camp - our earliest morning, by far, of the trip. I figured we could spend an hour or so wandering around some of the more popular sights at Alabama Hills, and then make our way north - making a few stops so @mrs.turbodb could see some of Owens Valley - before hitting Copper Top BBQ in Bishop for lunch.

One of my favorite spots was just a few hundred feet away, so we stopped at Sharks Fin just a couple minutes after leaving camp.

Some day we'll need to climb this one.

One thing I'd never noticed the first time I saw Sharks Fin was that a large, relatively flat slap of granite in front of the rock has four (round) morteros and a metate (the broader, smoother surface) decorating its surface. It's understandable, really, that centuries of civilizations would find this the perfect place to call home.

Kitchen with a view.

From Sharks Fin, we headed north for a mile or so, dust from the road hanging in the calm morning air - to the Arch Loop trail. This is a half-mile loop passing by several arches, the first of which is heart-shaped, and the last of which is the Mobius Arch. It's an easy stroll, with no real elevation gain, and we were lucky enough to have it to ourselves - our early exit from camp meaning that most were just waking up.

Winding through granite outcroppings.

Heart arch.

Mobius Arch, always framing the Sierras to the west.

Better than any TV, for sure.

Many different ways to take in the same arch.

Shadow fun.

Soon enough, we ended up back at the parking area where we'd started, the sun really starting to turn the landscape into day at this point.

The contrast between the orange granite of Alabama Hills, and the white granite of the Sierras, adds to the drama.

The Alabama Hills were named for the CSS Alabama, a Confederate warship deployed during the American Civil War. When news of the ship's exploits reached prospectors in California sympathetic to the Confederates, they named many mining claims after the ship, and the name came to be applied to the entire range. More recently the area has become very popular with the overlanding, RV, and social media communities, prompting the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to begin work on the Alabama Hills Management Plan. This is a great thing in my opinion - if people can't be respectful, stay on trails, pack it out, and not overrun a place, it's only right to try to protect it. I've read through the plan and it seems more than reasonable, with camping limited by permits and several of the "random roads across the landscape," closed.

A place worth protecting.

Our last stop was at one of the northern-most arches in the area, and one that I'd camped near the first time I'd visited, some 10 months earlier: Boot Arch. It was fun to hear my companion exclaim that, "It really is a boot!" as we covered the few hundred feet from our parking spot to the proper viewpoint.

A boot-shaped arch in a boot-shaped rock.

And with that, we hopped onto US-395. Our next stop was only a few miles away, and it was one where I knew we could spend all day if we let ourselves: Manzanar - a Japanese Internment Camp from WWII.

A dramatic freeway exit to a dramatic destination.

I think the most respectful way to enter the camp is through the historical entrance, following in the footsteps of those who'd had no choice in the matter.

Double checkpoint.

For anyone unfamiliar, in 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were incarcerated during World War II. And, while much of the camp fell into disrepair after the war, some who'd experienced the oppression first hand began annual pilgrimages to the site in order to raise awareness of this tragic chapter in American history.

Today - unlike first time I'd visited - several of the remaining buildings were open, giving us the opportunity to see - and learn - a bit more about what the people who'd been held here experienced.

Our first stop was at the fire station. Construction crews built the fire station to support fire prevention and protection operations in Manzanar. They completed the central part of the structure in June 1942, and added the wings - serving as fireman dormitories, office space, and truck garages - in October 1942. Some Japanese Americans put personal touches to their work, inscribing dates, names, and phrases in the concrete foundation.

The original fire station was torn down, but volunteers rebuilt this replica.

Situated at the east edge of the camp, the fire station's location was unfavorable. Fire chiefs and inspectors worried about increased response time to fires. They also complained about the slow fire alarm system, which delayed response time up to ten minutes. In 1944, the department requested the purchase of a fire siren, but it "was denied by Washington without further justification."

Despite these setbacks, Japanese American firemen successfully battled 91 fires, averting catastrophe for those incarcerated in Manzanar.

The original truck used at Manzanar.

For the first few months, Manzanar's fire personnel relied on hand tools and a borrowed truck. On July 11, 1942, the Army Corps of Engineers delivered a new Ford engine with a pump capacity of 500 gallons per minute.

After the war, the Bishop Fire Department purchased the Ford and used it for decades. They expanded the bed and added the ladder in the 1950s. The National Park Service acquired it in the 1990s. A second truck used by Lone Pine Fire Department before being transferred to the Keeler Volunteer Fire Department, where it was used for years. They donated it to Manzanar in 2017.

From the fire station, we headed to investigate the buildings that had been closed due to Covid-19 on my prior visit. Replicas of buildings that once made up a part of "Block 14," they allowed visitors a bit of insight into the living conditions of the residents.

Outside, a dirt court allowed for some recreation - though playing basketball in the desert heat must have been quite the experience.

Living quarters. While rather spacious in this photo, eight people would have been packed into a single room when the camp was occupied.

Wooden furniture was largely built on-site.

Each block had a sewing room.

I thought this cook top, oven, toaster was quite ingenious!

Tiny slippers.

Each of the 36 blocks at Manzanar consisted of 14 barracks as well as a laundry, latrine, and mess hall, so after visiting the barracks, we made a quick pass through the remaining buildings.

The women's latrine. Privacy - even here - was non-existent.

The mess hall, where most residents took their meals.

As a woodworker, I enjoyed seeing some of the period, cultural, joinery on the boxes used to store goods. Works of art, really.

An original range.

After touring the buildings, the remainder of the camp is accessible via a self-guided auto tour, where you can stop anywhere along the way to get out and read about various elements of the camp. Our first stop was at an area known as the orchards, a remnant from a time when hundreds of apple, pear, and peach orchards occupied the Manzanar landscape. Romeo Wilder planted these pear trees around 1918, which thrived during years of expert care and have since grown resilient through long decades of neglect. Manzanar's Bartlett and Winter Nellis pears, as well as its prize-winning Winesap and Spitzenburg apples, brought profits to a few, but others' dreams of wealth eventually withered like the trees themselves as water became more valuable than the fruit they produced.

The Orchards.

Our next stop on the loop was at one of several parks that existed throughout the camp. Originally named Rose Park, and then Pleasure Park, this 1.5-acre space contained meandering paths, waterways, flower gardens and bridges. One resident described it as, "...a lovely land you could not escape from yet almost didn't want to leave." After the camp was abandoned, the high winds of the Owens Valley buried the park under several feet of sand. In 2008, the children and grandchildren of Kuichiro Nishi (an interned resident, and the designer of the park) returned to assist the NPS in uncovering the park that had been a glimmer of hope for those imprisoned here.

The southeast corner of Pleasure Park.

A bridge, built of local cottonwood, in the Japanese style.

Our final stop was at the Manzanar Cemetery. Located outside of the security fence - a simple barbed wire fence surrounding the 540 acre developed space of the camp - it's unclear to me if residents were allowed to visit this cemetery. Today, only a few headstones of the approximately 150 people who died in the camp, remain.

Kanji characters inscribed by Buddhist Reverend Shinjo Nagatomi translate to "soul consoling tower."

And with that, we'd spent nearly two hours solemnly absorbing what we could of this unfortunate chapter of American-Japanese history. For anyone visiting this place, I think the most important thing to take away from it is well captured on the memorial sign now located near the flagpole.

"May the injustices and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism, and economic exploitation never emerge again."

These words are - in my opinion - as relevant now as they've ever been. Our country - our world - must look for ways to reduce conflict and find compromise. To work together and build each other up, rather than picking sides and fighting at every turn. We are all humans, and we need each other.

A reminder - as we left the compound - that leaving wasn't always an option.

Having covered only a few miles since sunrise, our final two stops were half-an-hour north on US-395, in Big Pine. The first was an installation that I've wanted to check out for quite a while - the Owens Valley Radio Observatory.

One of the largest university-operated radio observatories in the world, it was established in 1956 and is owned and operated by Caltech. Additionally, it contains one of the ten - enormous - dish-antenna radiotelescope systems of the Very Long Baseline Array that is operated out of New Mexico and that I'd hoped to visit when we'd run the New Mexico BDR earlier in the year. Needless to say, when we pulled up, I was quite excited.

Note: I've included more information about the radios in the comments below, courtesy of Mike @mk5 and Ken @DVExile.

Dishes everywhere.

Look at the size of the Very Long Baseline Array dish! Every other dish was dwarfed in comparison.

A small bit of the array.

Nearby, a dish that looked to be a smaller version of the VLBA stood off by itself, and had a road leading right to its base.

OMG, it started moving! And OMG, I filmed it crooked!

Watching the dish rotate 180 degrees was certainly a highlight of the visit, and with that, we decided that it was time to go eat lunch. We'd heard lots of good things about Copper Top BBQ, and we'd noticed that there was one in Big Pine - in addition to the one we had previously planned to visit in Bishop. So, we backtracked into town and soon, we were enjoying a meat-laden meal.

Special Tacoma-only parking.

Mmmmm, pork.

Ultimately - and perhaps it was because of what we ordered - we weren't all that impressed. It was tasty for sure, but the full rack of pork ribs seemed a little too smoky, and the pulled pork sandwich could have used a nice dollop of coleslaw to contrast with the sweet meat.

That said, we didn't throw anything away.

And with that, all that was left between us and the end of the trip was an 18-hour drive north. We'd do 8 hours into the evening, and another 10 the next day. Another successful trip in the books!

And we can't wait to get back!


The Whole Story



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  1. Mike @mk5
    Mike @mk5 November 14, 2021

    Seeing the radio telescope made me want to post some more pictures, which I hope I don't come to regret, because...

    The Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) is currently closed to the public, and public tours are suspended until further notice. You may not drive onto the site without permission.

    (Public tours will hopefully resume next year...)

    The 40-meter dish is the largest at OVRO, and was built in 1968 as a prototype for a planned system of (8) identical antennas at the site. However, the NSF (National Science Foundation, the primary funding source for such research in the US) decided to build the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico instead, a system of more numerous (27) but smaller (25 meter) dishes. That site, as well as the now-sadly-defunct Arecibo dish (also originally NSF funded), are probably the most famous radio telescopes on earth. But although there's only one massive dish at OVRO, it has done a ton of interesting science over the years, and continues to do so to this date. In fact, it has contributed to the field of radio astronomy not only through its direct observations of the heavens, but also by contributing knowledge of large-dish design and performance, and even how they move over the years (settling and plate tectonics).

    It's, like, totally big!

    The 40-meter antenna has performed observations ranging from around 300 MHz up to around 40 Ghz, and there are efforts underway to instrument it for even lower frequencies. If you ever visit the area, even from the end of the public road, you will still get an excellent view of this massive dish. And if you can sit still for a minute, you will realize that it is actually moving around all the time as it constantly observes the universe above. But it doesn't move that quickly... at full speed, a full azimuthal revolution would take nearly half an hour! Its pointing system uses 21-bit encoders, yielding a precision of 0.6 arcseconds.

    The primary contractor for the 40-meter dish was Westinghouse, and as a vintage electronics enthusiast, I absolutely cherish the logo adorning its base:

    This is the actually the second-largest dish I've had the pleasure of seeing (from a ground tour of course -- still hoping for a chance to climb around in one someday!) There's an even-larger dish tucked away in California's deserts, but it is used for something else entirely... And that dish is the 70-meter receiver at Goldstone, part of NASA/JPL's Deep Space Communication Network, which communicates with our space probes throughout the solar system:

    This is a photo from a visit many years ago. It was an epic experience, but certainly the high point was sitting in the control room when they did their daily check-in with one of the Voyager probes. They are both still transmitting data! But now I'm off-topic again, so let's get back to OVRO...

    Also on site are (6) 10-meter dishes for the COMAP (Carbon Monoxide Mapping Array Pathfinder) project, which is performing spectrography to somehow figure out how stars formed in the early universe. They operate around 30 GHz, and although the science is lost on me, I can at least appreciate the beauty and intricacy of the engineering that went into their design and construction.

    There are now six COMAP dishes at OVRO.

    Another experiment underway is the Deep Synoptic Array, a collection of 110, 15-foot dishes performing interferometry to study fast radio bursts, which are extremely short (millisecond-scale) high-power bursts of radio energy, to quote Wikipedia, caused by some high-energy astrophysical process not yet understood. Unlike the larger dishes on site, these ones aren't moved by motors; instead, they scan the skies by virtue of Earth's rotation. The detection circuitry is particularly impressive, achieving a preamp noise level of only 7K, and utilizing RF-over-fiber technology for the interferometry. For the rest of us, that means they did a very good job of designing the system to do good measurements, with what I think is a very modest budget for this type of project.

    I have since had the pleasure of chatting with a scientist working on FRB research, while at a recreational astronomy event. Even as a technologist and space enthusiast, I got lost pretty quickly, but the theme of the conversation was neutron stars, with me periodically exclaiming "wow that's crazy!" And it is indeed crazy to ponder how little we know about the universe, yet much we've learned through astronomical observations, and the totally wacky ways scientists and engineers have devised to let us learn so much so quickly.

    Another set of dishes at OVRO, also within easy viewing from the public road, are for the C-BASS project, which is searching for bass fisheries in outer space. And this is where I have to draw the line -- bass are terrible eating, and I simply don't get the enthusiasm for bass fishing. Why not search for crappie or trout instead??!? But at the end of the day I have to agree with the C-BASS researchers: I've had literally zero luck fishing the waters of the Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierra -- may as well try fishing in space!

    (You can read about the actual scientific intent of C-BASS here.)

    There are a few other experiments underway at OVRO, but I didn't get good photos of their instruments, so you'll have to read about them on your own, or perhaps tag along on a public tour [I]if and when they resume[/I]. Until then, I hope you've enjoyed my mediocre photos and likely falsehood-ridden discussion of the facility. I especially hope that nobody will become inspired to trespass on the site, which for the record, is not how I obtained these photos.

    [B]Footnote[/B]: While it is tempting to criticize the NSF for cancelling and underfunding research projects, especially considering the gut-wrenching collapse of the Arecibo dish last year, readers should realize that primary fault lies not with the NSF, but with our government and elected officials, who have allowed scientific funding to dwindle year after year, at least proportionally to value, for several decades. I'm not saying that Arecibo necessarily should have been saved, but that its collapse very much symbolizes a problematic and deeply alarming decline of US scientific leadership caused by our increasingly shortsighted politics.

    The NSF was created in 1950 as part of a novel model of government-sponsored academic research, which was utterly successful and has since been copied around the world. This unprecedented system of government-sponsored fundamental research, coupled with industry-sponsored development and commercialization, allowed the US to dominate global technology development for the remainder of the 20th century.

    The American Century has drawn to to a close, and technology development now occurs at an increasingly global scale. This is in part a consequence of the tremendous success of the system we built over half a century ago, including the NSF and the NIH, and our principles of open communication and education. But America's ongoing decline from global technological leadership should also resonate as a call for action as we look toward the future. Now more than ever, we can't afford to stop investing in research.

    • Ken @DVExile
      Ken @DVExile November 14, 2021

      Great write up! One correction, if I may, the above antennas aren't for C-BASS but are left over Berkeley-Illinois-Maryland Association (BIMA) antennas from the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA) telescope which use to live up on Cedar Flat from about 2005 to 2015. If you drove up to visit the bristlecone pines back then you would have seen them along with all their friends. They are millimeter wave antennas that can operate at much higher frequencies (shorter wavelengths) than the C-BASS antenna which looks like this:

      Both the BIMA antennas and the C-BASS antenna are about 6m in diameter so similar sized.

      CARMA was decommissioned around 2015 and all the antennas brought back down from Cedar Flats and stored at OVRO before at least some of them went to new homes.

      Now when the evil penny-pinching bastards at NSF cancel something like CARMA always be sure to watch E-Bay because you can score some deals, though shipping costs were a bitch:

      And then, would you believe it, the slacker UPS driver made no attempt at all to tuck it behind the trash cans to hide it from porch pirates. Worse still he just freaking dumped it in the parking lot resulting in many nastygrams from the HOA:

      Anyway, to make a long story short, one 55-gallon drum of lemonade and an appeal to the local Amish finally got the thing raised:

      After all that I'm still only getting freaking two bars with it pointed at the closest tower. AT&T sucks nuts but I'm less than a year into a three-year contract. Oh well.

      (Credit where credit is due, the first photo is from the C-BASS project page and the last three photos were taken by some of my coworkers).

  2. Mighty Dodge Ram
    Mighty Dodge Ram December 8, 2021

    Great TR, as usual. I’ve passed Manzanar several times a year over the past decades on my way to Mammoth Mtn, always remarking that I’ve got to stop and visit. You’re correct, we should remember this sad part of our history now more than ever. On a other note, I unfortunately agree with you re: Copper Top BBQ.

    • turbodb
      turbodb December 10, 2021

      Glad you enjoyed the trip report! Manzanar is definitely a place worth visiting, and I certainly recommend taking the sites/sights in slowly and internalizing (as much as we can, given that is probably impossible to really internalize being interned for most of us) some of what went on there, and how it relates to some of the haste and grease that’s going on in society today.

      Next trip report is coming soon, hope you enjoy it as well. ?

  3. Greg von Buchau
    Greg von Buchau December 8, 2021

    Believe or not Copper Top was voted the number 1 BBQ in the Us. Beats me. I’ve eaten there a few times and have yet to be impressed. Bills BBQ in Bishop (gone but not forgotten) was way better.
    Too bad about the Alabama Hills. Ruined by the masses.

    • turbodb
      turbodb December 10, 2021

      Hopefully with the management plan, Alabama Hills will get back to being a bit Less crowded and therefore more enjoyable. It still is a very beautiful place, with tons of unique formations and lots of history.

      Too bad about bills, I would’ve loved to try that BBQ as well!

      • Dman_100
        Dman_100 December 10, 2021

        We camped there last Thursday and it was not crowded, lots of private sites available, and the folks hundreds of yards away were all quiet. Like it was years ago. But I was there a few months ago on a weekend and gave up trying to find a site. And wouldn’t have wanted to stay even if I had found one.

        • turbodb
          turbodb December 10, 2021

          Welcome over here! ? I think you summed it up pretty well, and really, it's a lot of easily accessible places that are this way - for now at least. Who knows, maybe all this "equipment-laden-camping-with-selfies" will fade into history as folks get back to bars and sporting events and ... We can always hope! And for now, weekday trips. ?

  4. Ron Thompson
    Ron Thompson December 22, 2021

    I love your trip reports and have been following and using them to identify things worth seeing for a couple of years. I made it to Smoke Tree Canyon right around the time you were also in DV, which was a real treat that I wouldn't have even known about if not for you.

    I have one nit-pick. As someone who lives in them, the mountain range you are looking at is called "The Sierra". Never "The Sierras". It's a spanish word meaning "Mountain range", so if you say "Sierras" you are saying "Mountain ranges".

    Cheers and thanks again for the inspiration!

    • turbodb
      turbodb December 22, 2021

      Hi Ron - First off, it brings a smile to my face to hear that you're enjoying the trip reports enough to make it to the Smoke Tree Slots. That's quite the trek and certainly more than I'm sure 99.999% of my readers are willing to go through in order to see some of the places I've been. Surely, I hope it was as enjoyable for you as it was for us when we were there! And, if you did enjoy it, I would suggest two other hikes in the area: Military Canyon (via the trailhead off Harry Wade Road, not via the route we took), and San Lucas Canyon (from the top). Neither of these are slots, but as someone who fancies the cross-country, desert travel of Smoke Tree, I suspect you will like these as well.

      As for the nit pick - I find it quite intriguing! Having grown up in the Bay Area, lived in California until I was 25, and spent nearly every summer from 8-22 in the Northern Sierra (Plumas County), I feel like I've only ever heard the "nickname" "Sierras" used to describe what is perhaps my favorite range in the west! Of course, on receiving your note, I did a bit of searching and reading and you can imagine my surprise to find an entire - internet sized - debate on the topic!

      Of course, with anything like this, there's always the "technically right" answer, and then all the reasoning that supports the alternate form. Of the half-dozen or so that I read, I found this SFGate article to be the most well-balanced and present the clearest picture. Regardless, from here on out, I'll probably try to use the singular rather than the plural, though I'm sure to do both for some time to come.

      Hopefully, you can overlook the spelling, and continue to enjoy the stories! Have fun out there, and maybe someday, we'll run into each other in the wild. ? Cheers!

      • Ron Thompson
        Ron Thompson January 5, 2022

        I definitely want to visit both Military and San Lucas canyons. Additionally it's my goal to eventually take all of the marked backcountry roads on the NPS map. My trips usually involve lots of backcountry roads with 1 or 2 hikes a day.

        The one that's going to give me trouble and may be impassable to my rig (2018 Chevy Colorado ZR2 with OVRLND camper) is the gatekeeper obstacle in upper Echo Canyon. I've driven up to it, but didn't want to risk it so I may just come in from the other side to say it's done! That thing is a beast.

        Thanks again for the inspiration!

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