My final morning in Coso I decide to take a quick side journey up another road since I’d never been. It is close to where I’ve been camping and I can’t resist a road winding into unknown parts. Figured I’d drive until the road got too rough or my brain kicked in with “Okay, that’s quite enough of that. You still have to drive to Los Angeles.”
As luck would have it, I make it no more than a mile when, glancing at the mountains to the west of me I notice two shapes up on one of the slopes too regular to be natural formations. I had seen an unmaintained road branching off on the way in. It looked as though it headed in that direction. I turn around and set off on this new road. It’s rocky with one pretty steep rise out of a wash but nothing the truck can’t handle.
As I crunch my way closer between barrel cacti, I can make out that the objects are indeed wood frame buildings. The glass of their windows is long gone but their walls and roofs seemed in remarkably good condition. As I round the last bend up to the site, I spy a third, smaller building constructed of stone with a tiny wood addition built onto it. The addition’s front door opens onto a splendid view of the entire valley across to the Coso Range rising starkly on the other side, its parched flanks the color of dust.
At the same time I notice a battered old Subaru Forester parked beside the stone cabin.
I park and begin exploring the buildings I’d first spotted. They are three-room bunkhouses originally built to house mine workers as they worked the mine just up the slope.
As I come out of the bunkhouse, I hear a distant voice and, glancing up at the peak above me, I see a figure in a red shirt staring down. I wave; the other person waves back. And then I see the headframe and the tailings of the mine itself below the peak.
This is too compelling to pass up so I begin walking the gently sloping road up toward the mine. Grey sun-parched lumber lies helter skelter about the area as I climb. I peer into two very short prospect holes and eventually arrive at the tower and the main mine shaft. BLM had sealed off access to it since it’s literally a shaft straight down into the earth.
As I’m exploring, a dog comes bounding down from the peak, barking furiously. She’s followed more slowly by her owner, hollering for the dog to behave. The person in red turns out to be a woman in her 60s. She introduces herself as Deborah and the dog dancing around me as Parker. Deborah has a handshake that could bring you to your knees. She’s laconic and apologetic at the same time.
“I don’t have Parker’s leash up here. Wasn’t expecting anyone.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “I’m sure this isn’t exactly a high traffic area. Besides I’m good with animals.”
“Well, that’s closer than she gets to anyone, so…” she eyes Parker with less certainty. Parker who’s still barking two feet from my face.
Parker chooses that moment to lunge at me while she’s barking and bites my elbow. I think it was more of a poorly timed bark than an intentional attack but it sets Deborah off again. “All right! That’s it, missy! Time to get you down the hill and under control.” She turns to me. “Feel free to explore while I take this thing,” she glares at Parker, “ down and get her in her kennel.”
I wander around and take a few more pictures but there’s very little else to see. Deborah’s pace is understandably more leisurely than mine. I find myself chuckling as I listen to her chattering away.
“Whoo, Parker! I made it down and didn’t break anything. C’mon, girl.”
“Get your nose out of that! What you think you’re doing??”
“Do NOT go looking for those rats again!”
Finally, she gets Parker squared away and I make my way back to the main compound. She and I get to chatting. I gather she’s been here for some time - there’s curtains in the wood addition and I see a commode (bucket and toilet seat!) set up in middle section of the stone building.
“Go ahead,” she says. “Look around.”
I peek into the wood addition. The first thing I see is a small table in the center of the room. On it are paint brushes and hundreds of colored pencils.
“You an artist?”
“Nah. I like coloring. I bring my coloring books up here and color while I watch the sun go down,” she tells me. “I was into coloring books before it got all damn trendy.”
“So … you live up here?” I ask.
“I stay up here a lot, take care of the place. Whenever the wind kicks up, I sweep out the bunkhouses, try to keep the place tidy. I live down in Keeler, across the lake from Olancha. Nice, quiet place. Not as quiet as here.” (Keeler, it should be noted, had a population of 66 in a 2010 census…) “I work for the tourism board up in Lone Pine. It’s okay. Not Alaska though, that’s for sure.”
“I used to be a backcountry ranger in Alaska. Got to see all kinds of things. Stuff no one else gets to experience. Mainly with animals. Man, I loved Alaska.”
“What made you leave?”
“Couple things. They were setting up all these fee stations and wanted me to work in one of them. Imagine that. Sitting on your ass all day having to talk to tourists… ‘yessir, we take checks. Best not to pet the bears, that’s right.’ Made it through half a season and couldn’t take it anymore. My place is out in the wild.
“Plus, my boys didn’t want to be up there anymore. Kids…” she sighs. “So we moved back to the lower 48 and here we are.” She pauses and looks out across the valley.
“I bet the night sky from here is amazing,” I say.
She brightens, “It’s great. You see so many shooting stars.”
“I should crash up here sometime. This would be perfect for night photography.”
“You’re welcome up here anytime. Know what I’m waiting for? A big ol’ meteorite to come zooming down into the valley some night. I’d be a rich woman instantaneously.”
“How you fixed for food? I have some left over and I’m headed back to the city if you’d like any of it.”
“You’re very nice but I’m fine. You meet the nicest people in the desert.”
“You do indeed. And now I need to get on back home,” I say.
We shake hands again. She looks up at me. “Was nice talking with you. Come by whenever you want. Be safe out here!”
I drive away grinning furiously, It was the best possible farewell the desert could have given me.