Salt of the Earth

“Let’s drink to the hard working people
Let’s think of the lowly of birth
Spare a thought for the rag taggy people
Let’s drink to the salt of the earth”
Salt of the Earth
Rolling Stones
saline valley
For being such a remote and largely unpopulated land, the Inyo region has more than it’s fair share of engineering marvels.  Some of them come with great controversies that have raged for decades while others have faded into obscurity.   A hundred years ago two major projects were completed.  One mountain range bore witness to both of them, The Inyo Range.
To the west of the range it was all about water, an abundant yet variable supply of water.  To the east it was all about salt, in an abundant but finite quantity.  Two vastly different but essential needs in our lives, two vastly different approaches on how to harvest these naturally occurring resources met with the stark realities of the wild country at play. 
high wire act
While the water has been draining away since the first siphon was primed, the salt flows no more.  Hasn’t been a grain of salt moved for decades, not by the old tram at least.  It must have been quite the spectacle to see the tram in operation.  Not that the water systems leaving the Owens Valley aren’t impressive, it’s just the salt tram was a high wire act.
Salt was evaporated from the lake in Saline Valley and loaded into gondola cars at an elevation of 1,100’.  After crossing the flat valley for a mile or two the Saline Valley Salt Works tram rolled up the alluvial fan of Daisy Canyon before climbing in dramatic fashion up to the crest of the range at about 8,500’ in just a few miles.  Two intermediate stations were located along the route leading up to the summit station.  Then in a similarly steep descent the tram dropped down to the Owens Lake near the town of Swansea.  Both the lake and the town have dried up now, little of the old salt works show.
Years ago I visited to the lower Daisy Canyon Station on foot with Pete the Painter and our dogs.  We were astonished at the size of it.  That evening we got flash flooded at the hot tubs in Saline Valley, mud flowed 6” deep throughout camp as we took shelter in the backs of our trucks.  We had his 9-month old daughter with us at the time!  What a mess!
lower station in daisy canyon
Perched on a steep hillside, the first station of the salt tram is very reminiscent of the mid station on Mammoth Mountain’s Panorama Gondola.  The direction of the cable changes here and heads up for a wild crossing of Daisy Canyon. All the materials for this project were hauled in on mules.  What’s really baffling is how they strung the line; a thirteen-mile long cable car is no small undertaking. 
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – “Crazy F#*king Miners!” 
The first Thanksgiving after I bought my first Honda XR650L, I spent a cold weekend riding dirt roads from Rovana to Lone Pine and back with Pete.  He was on his XR600R and we met his wife April at the Best Western in Lone Pine where we spent several days hanging out.  It was Pete’s idea to ride up the Swansea Grade one of the days, a rough jeep trail leading up to the Inyo Crest north of the summit station of the salt tram. 
stuck in a rut
My skill level was not quite up to the task and the bedrock stretch got the best of my balding rear tire and me.  With some teamwork we got my pig over the crux section and it was on to the Burgess Mine.  While it might have only been 10°F on top that day, fortunately it was clear and calm.  By the time we got the summit station we were both really chilled but still spent a lot of time exploring the ruins. 
The road down to Cerro Gordo was nearly as challenging as the climb up Swansea.  We ran into a group of jeeps coming up the steepest section.  The first two jeeps were towing the third one and we didn’t see them until we were committed to the descent.  There was a brief discussion on the best tactic to get everyone past each other and the four wheelers opted to drive around us as we hugged the outer berm of the steep cross-hilled trail.  Three jeeps tied together snuck past us in a delicate dance that was one of the finest bits of 4×4 driving I’ve witnessed.
Imagine how difficult this the trip was one hundred years ago?  Skinning mules or trudging on foot, it must have been a multi day adventure to reach the summit station.  The fact that services were available at the now deserted town of Cerro Gordo certainly helped but those old timers had to build their way over the mountains.  A project of this scope would never get off the ground in today’s world; a giant ball of red tape would hobble any attempts.
the graduate

Every now and then I have an “ah ha!” moment on my motorcycle where something clicks with regard to my riding skills and understanding how to react in certain situations.  One such moment came several months back when I finally got the meaning of the phase “The Clutch is Your Friend” offered as a suggestion to improve my ability on steep, rough terrain.

For the entire year I lived in Lone Pine I had wanted to go back up to the salt tram, but not alone.  Once I started to feel how feathering the clutch in difficult conditions allowed for a finer degree of control and comfort than I knew possible, the tram called me for a solo run.  Jacked up on this newfound ability I made the ride one sunny October day and charged right up it, this time riding the opposite direction.  As I dawdled at the summit station it felt like I had graduated to a new level as a rider. 
summit station

Last winter I came up with a plan to go back out to Saline Valley and collect some salt.  Then back here in the Owens Valley I would catch me a fish.  The final preparation would be a whole roasted salt-crusted dish, a technique used for centuries.  But that will have to wait for another day, as I still haven’t made it back to Saline Valley.  The roads were damaged by flash floods late in the summer and I’ve been tied up with one thing or another.

bass master
The new plan is to ride out there in the spring and use the wood-fired brick oven at the Metabolic Studios IOU Garden in Lone Pine to cook the dish.  They don’t know this at the garden yet but I have time to work out those details as the winter progresses.   Maybe I’ll employ the skills of a fishing guide or fanatic to assist in catching the meal. The real question I have is this – should it be trout or bass? 
It’s too bad all the native fish are on the edge of existence otherwise they might have been an option.  Probably wouldn’t go over too well cooking up a batch of pupfish or speckled dace, besides they’re too small for this method.  That would leave the tui chub as the best option; it has be the top choice over the Owens sucker.  But come on, how appetizing does either of them sound?  Salt-Crusted Whole Roasted Tui Chub served with a Pine Nut Romesco Sauce?  

No, it’s got to be trout or bass, and that will be an interesting story on it’s own.

frozen in time
owens lake view
native species
caretaker’s cabin, summit station

whitney portal across the valley
lower station, daisy canyon
lower station, daisy canyon
desert explorers
wake of the flood
crazy miners