Amid the extremes of earthbound beauty east of California’s Sierra range, some eyes are focused on the skies.
The vast, mountainous high-desert landscape of Inyo County — which looks (and actually was) made for epics — boasts a number of superlatives: the tallest peak in the lower 48 states (14,505-foot Mt. Whitney), the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level in Death Valley), and the oldest trees on the planet (5,000-year-old bristlecone pines). But it also lays claims to some major scientific advances — thanks, in part, to its isolation.
“It’s an area that doesn’t have much in the way of human activity,” says astronomer Dr. Mark Hodges of Caltech’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory, a swath of radio telescopes (including one of the largest in the country) that peer into the deep recesses of the universe from just outside the town of Big Pine.
The valley, which sits between the sheer eastern face of the Sierras and the White and Inyo mountain ranges bordering Nevada and is bisected by the Owens River and Highway 395, is sparsely populated and has a staggering wealth of beauty that has attracted everyone from hikers and sightseers, hunters and fishermen, to Hollywood filmmakers. With little in the way of development, and little in the way of radio interference, it’s also been a prime location for scientists to monitor subtler radiations from the heavens since the observatory opened in 1958.
“We made some big advances in looking at cosmic microwave background, radiation from the Big Bang,” says Hodges, peering over the handrail atop the observatory’s 130-foot dish. “We were able to determine that it was smooth to better than one part in half a million,” he says, meaning that the radiation occurs nearly uniformly throughout the universe. This research, from the mid-1980s to the early ’90s, narrowed the range of possible scientific models of the early universe from 70 down to five, according to Hodges. (Further research elsewhere has since refined those discoveries.) Around the same time, the observatory was also able to help the Russian space program track the locations of probes it launched into the atmosphere of Venus. Hodges, who does outreach on behalf of the observatory and leads regular tours, says he’s particularly proud of both accomplishments.
Hodges and his colleagues now use the massive dish to study the centers of distant galaxies, and the dynamics of the supermassive black holes therein. Other telescopes on site look at active regions of our sun, and discover new planets circling distant stars.
If the 14-billion-year age of the universe is the largest scale of time humans have, a 50-century-old tree may be a slightly easier perspective to grasp. A short drive up the road from the radio observatory lies the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, part of the Inyo National Forest. Bristlecone pines, twisted and gnarled, some stained black by fungus, grasp the rocky, dolomitic soil of the White Mountains at 10,000 feet here. Under one’s feet along the trail, the satisfying clatter of slabs of brown and ochre quartzite, melted and fused sandstone belched from the bed of an ancient Great Basin ocean. Adapted to the cold and dry climate, and with little competition in the harsh conditions, bristlecone pines are thought to be the most ancient living trees on Earth. A few miles to the south on Highway 395, a solemn memorial to a modern tragedy. In 1942, with the attack on Pearl Harbor gripping the nation, the U.S. government ordered thousands of Japanese-Americans uprooted and forcibly interned at camps, such as Manzanar, in the shadow of the eastern Sierras. It is now a national historic site and museum, maintaining some of the camp barracks into which internees were crowded, buffeted by the valley’s high winds and dust, enduring alternately freezing and broiling temperatures, forced to sign loyalty statements, and kept under armed guard until World War II ended. A simple stone memorial at the rear of the complex pays tribute to those victims of prejudice and rootless wartime fears.
Further south in the town of Lone Pine, a landscape of wind-carved turrets and archways that would feel right at home in southern Utah, but for the canvas of massive, snow-covered Mt. Whitney and its sister peaks, formed the backdrop for epic westerns. Beginning in 1920 with the silent film “The Roundup” and continuing up to the present with Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” about 400 movies and 1,000 TV commercials were filmed in these Alabama Hills, and another 400 films in the northern part of the county, according to Bob Sigman of the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine. Though now you may be more likely to see rock climbers, campers and RVs in the hills than movie cameras, the film museum is a rich repository of the screen history that captured so many imaginations.
The unexpected origin of the Alabama Hills’ name — after a Confederate merchant raider ship — and the history of Inyo County in the past century, including violent scuffles over local water rights, perhaps echoes into the present, as residents seem to be more wary of the reach of big government than they are of friendly visitors. In fact, some would like to see more travelers out this way, on the other side of the Sierras.
IF YOU GO:
Owens Valley Radio Observatory: The observatory, which opened in 1958, has free public 30-minute tours for the curious and astronomically minded at 1 p.m. on the first Monday of the month (holidays excepted). Just north of Big Pine, follow Highway 168 east to Leighton Lane. www.ovro.caltech.edu
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest: Some of the oldest trees in the world are found along three simple-to-moderate trails in the White Mountains of the Inyo National Forest. Open mid-May through November. Just north of Big Pine, follow Highway 168 east for 13 miles to White Mountain Road, then left for 10 miles to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center, Inyo National Forest. $3 per adult and up to $6 per vehicle.
Manzanar: This national historic site and museum offers a view into one of the darker periods in modern American history: the forced relocation and incarceration of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. The site is open daily, dawn to dusk; check website for visitor center and barracks hours. Highway 395, between Lone Pine and Independence. Free. www.nps.gov/manz
Museum of Western Film History: Film buffs will want to check out this museum dedicated to preserving the history of the hundreds of movies filmed in the eastern Sierra, the Alabama Hills and Death Valley. Open daily from 10 a.m. 701 S. Main St., Lone Pine. $5 admission for adults. www.museumofwesternfilmhistory.org
Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at www.openskylight.blogspot.com.