Bishop, California: My Favorite Future Ghost Town

Bishop is the kind of town where every shop is named after the person who owns it. Rusty’s Saloon. Schatt’s Bakery. Brock’s Fly-fishing specialists.

I love small towns, especially old ones with incredible vistas and a western flair. If we didn’t always get the itch to leave, or think it might become a dried up ghost town, we might consider settling down here.

Rusty's Saloon

Bishop El Rancho Motel

But before I get into the sad and scary but super interesting and maybe hopeful stuff, let me quickly catch you up on daily life.  Really, it’s been a great month.  Lot’s of good things  happened…

…like a big Easter party at Keogh Campground and Hot Springs with our good friends, Scott and Elizabeth McGuire, and their three awesome kids, Owen, Esha, and June.

Bishop Easter 1

Easter Egg Hunt

This was the first year Soleil could really enjoy the whole Easter Bunny production.  We dyed eggs, hunted them , and ate lots of chocolate–all the more fun because she did it with a bunch of other little rascals.  Thanks for the great memories Scott and Elizabeth, Mark and Sarah, and the rest of our new friends.

Charge: Criminal Cuteness  

Verdict: Guilty

The Line Up

And we spent lots of time outside, exploring rocks and rotting wood, just getting dirty. (On a side note, Soleil is almost half way through her 100 days in the wild, and it’s still only springtime).

Bishop Soleil at The Dreamers

Soleil and Mama

Bishop Sol and Daddy Happy Boulders

And, of course, we climbed.  We hit up the Happy Boulders, the Buttermilks, the Dreamers, and the Catacombs, all of which were absolutely gorgeous, and good training for our upcoming Yosemite adventures.

Tree Highball Buttermilks

Bishop Mama Climbing the Catacombs

Bishop Tree Happy highball

Bishop Stevie Climbing

Bishop Tree climbing

Sol and I went on a bunch of nature walks, too. I got a pamphlet that identified and explained the local flora,  both its edible and medicinal uses, but Sol was less interested in foraging than throwing rocks and sticks into ponds and streams.

Too bad, because I really wanted to eat some ephedra (nature’s speed) and be extra productive. I could have cleaned the house, done next year’s taxes, researched dark matter….

Bishop Rocks in the River

…or at least invented a baby toupee for severe cases of “stroller head.”  Alas, the world will have to wait.

Bishop Soleil Throwing Sticks

Seriously, do you see that bald spot? Let’s just hope it fills in before her first date.

Bishop Soleil by Pond

How could someone not love this town? Even the dump has a scenic backdrop. Being such a small town, Bishop doesn’t have a roadside recycling program, which meant I had to sort stinky trash and drive to the transfer station.  A minor pain in the ass, but it makes me wonder how much waste across the U.S is not being recycled due to inconvenience. I know people in L.A who don’t recycle, and it couldn’t get any easier there.

Bishop Dump

So here comes the sad and scary but super interesting and maybe hopeful stuff….

Keeping our promise to be good tourists in our own country, we complimented our nature adventures with a couple cultural ones, too.  We went to the Paiute Center and the Law’s Train Museum, which gave us a decent history of the area, and a possible glimpse into the future.

The Native Paiute, who call themselves Nuumu, which means ‘people’ in their language,  lived as nomadic, hunters and gatherers in the Owens Valley for thousands of years. They ate deer, fish, and rabbits; ground plants, seeds, and grasses; and, a pinyon nut that they roasted and ate whole, or ground into a flour to make mush.

I took a ton of photos of headdresses, beadwork, ‘gambling’ bones, rabbit pelts, and winter shelters (the rest of the year they slept under the stars), but I will spare you my enthusiasm and focus on the most salient point: they lived sustainably, and we do not. 

I don’t mean to glorify the indigenous. Tree and I visited enough ruins–Palenque in Mexico, Tikal in Guatemala, Copan in Honduras, and the Maoi on Easter Island–to know that many traditional peoples have overused their land and driven themselves to extinction.

Bishop Soleil at The Dreamers

But hunting and gathering societies don’t usually fall into that category; characteristically more egalitarian and always nomadic, they tend not to exploit land, animals or themselves to morbid extremes.  Since they’re always chasing their food supply, and they don’t use beasts of burden, they only produce/own what they need and can carry on their backs–and, yes, that goes children, too. They space out child rearing by approximately 4 years to keep tribal units light and fast. Consequently, as the story goes, since they have a lot less wants and needs than we do, they have much more leisure time to socialize, tell stories, gamble (without money), smoke herb, and enjoy life.

Obviously, modern humans have little in common with our forebears, right?

But guess what. For 99% of human beings’ stay on Earth, we have exclusively been hunters and gatherers. On a relative time scale, agricultural societies have existed only briefly, and urban societies even more briefly. So although we feel so far removed from the hunter and gatherer lifestyle, we might be better designed for it than the one we  live today. If you don’t believe me, look up mental health stats in the U.S: 25% of adults have a mental disorder, with escalating rates of anxiety and depression; 11% of children diagnosed with ADHD. In fact, a recent study suggests that ADHD isn’t a disorder as much it’s an anachronistic strength; the condition would be a boon if we were still hunters and gatherers. 

 Here’s Soleil climbing sacred petroglyphs. Just kidding. I’m not an A-hole. They were only decorations.

Bishop Soleil Climbing Paitue Rock

Richard Nelson, an esteemed anthropologist, talks about the disorientation experienced from having lost our totemic selves, the wild part within us that identifies with the natural world: “Probably no society has been so deeply alienated as ours from the community of nature, has viewed the natural world from a greater distance of mind, has lapsed to a murkier comprehension of its connections with the sustaining environment. Because of this, we are greatly disadvantaged in our efforts to understand the basic human affinity for nonhuman life.” 

The result has been akin to a widespread identity crisis; as a society, we don’t really understand who we are or how to live in a way that honors our needs. We don’t realize how much we need to forge deep connections with wild nature to maintain a healthy balance on both a personal and planetary level. If we did, we wouldn’t need Xanax just to get through the day. We wouldn’t consume resources at cancerous rates, “chopping off the limb on which we’re perched.” We wouldn’t spend most of our time in little boxes, driving little boxes, working in little boxes to make money for big corporate boxes that make mental boxes that we’re stuffed in to, ironically, survive. Clearly, we’ve lost our f’n minds.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” Einstein

If we want to live more sustainably, we first need to change the way we think. Maybe by looking back at societies that lived in harmony with mother nature, we can apply the same principles as well.

I saw three exhibits at the Paiute Center that really stood out to me regarding the contrast between Nuumu cultural ethos and our own.

Exhibit 1:  SUSTAINABILITY- Bow and Arrow

Tree and Bow

Rather than chop down trees to make tools like we would do, the Nuumu hacked a rectangle into the bark, waited a few days for the cut-out to die, and then pulled that piece out. This method of harvesting wood allowed the the tree to survive. Everyone wins.

Exhibit 2:  INTERCONNECTIVITY- Baskets, or Pasukitu (the below description was on a plaque by the exhibit)

Nuumu and Baskets

“Baskets (pasukitu) are a central part of life for Nuumu.  From the beginning of time we have been weaving pasukitu. Some of the specialized pasukitu we weave can be used for:

  • carrying our children
  • cooking pine nuts
  • storing water
  • beating seeds from native grasses
  • winnowing shells from seeds and nuts
  • catching fish
  • and a hundred other uses

In addition to their functionality and beauty, pasukitu are an enduring symbol of life for Nuumu. The shape represents the earth, the womb, and the toni. Each fiber is interwoven with many other fibers, just as our relationships intertwine with those around us; there is great strength in those connections.  It may take an entire lifetime to create a perfect basket, but there are many opportunities to practice along the way.

Bishop Shoshone Baskets

 Exhibit 3: WORK WITHIN THE BOUNDS OF NATURE- Irrigation

Each spring the Nuumu elected a Tuvaiju, or Head Irrigator.  The start of irrigation was declared by the Tuvaiju and approved by tribe members.  Then, around 25 men would help the Tuvaiju build a dam out of sticks, rocks, and brush, and dig ditches into the fields to irrigate native plants that were staples in the Nuumu diet. Since the water was being diverted into the fields, they easily caught fish in the shallow creek beds, most of which they dried out for consumption throughout the year. At harvest, the dam would be destroyed. Each year the Nuumu rotated the section of  land irrigated to protect soil fertility.

So, where are the Nuumu now?  Well kids, the Nuumu I’ve just described no longer exist.  Like almost every other hunter and gatherer society, they were forcibly made to conform to agricultural and industrial society. The Nuumu today live on the rez and battle beasts like disenfranchisement, poverty and alcoholism while fighting to preserve their tribal identity and hobbled culture.

Yup, we totally ruined their way of life.  Here’s what happened…

Bishop Rez Truck

Around 1830, the cattle ranchers started showing up in the Owens River Valley. As time went on, the cattle were destroying the plants and grasses eaten by the Nuumu, so the Nuumu used rocks and bows and arrows to push the cowboys back. But that only lasted a few years until the ranchers came back with an army, and together they killed enough Nuumu to quiet their revolt. Once the ‘indians’ were subdued, the settlers came, followed by the gold miners, which of course led to the construction of the Southern Pacific railway.

Bishop Silver Canyon Saloon and Soleil

By the turn of the century, Bishop, California was an established agricultural land and a booming western town.

Soleil Ghost Town

Bishop Soleil Crossing Tracks

But just around 300 miles south, there was another small town expanding at a rapid rate: my very own hometown of Los Angeles, California.

In 1904, the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, William Mulholland, visited the Owens Valley and saw the river as a potential source of water for his growing city.  A bond issue for the construction of a gravity-flow aqueduct from the Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley (233 miles) was quickly obtained, and the Los Angeles aqueduct was completed in 1913.  By 1932, the city of Los Angeles had bought out 85% of all private property in the Owens Valley to secure the watershed–and everyone that had been on the land was displaced, except the Nuumu, who were still scattered across the DWP’s land, much to their frustration.

Bishop Soleil Big Train
Bishop Soleil the Conductor inside

To deal with what it referred to as “The Indian Problem,” the DWP negotiated a shady deal with the U.S. government. Long story short, the Owens Valley ‘indians’ went from having 67k acres of land in trust to being ‘consolidated’ on 1.391 acres. Even though the 1937 Land Exchange Act (rape) specified that water rights were to be exchanged along with the lands, the LA City Charter would not permit sale or trade of its water rights without the approval of two-thirds of city voters. Needless to say, that’s never happened. Today, these water rights are a central issue of negotiations between the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine Tribes and the city of Los Angeles.

So where are we today with all this?

In a little more than 150 years since Bishop was established, and a little over 100 years since the aqueduct was built, we are facing a national crisis undoubtedly precipitated by this building snowball of exploitation.

You’d have to be living under a rock to not know that California has been in a severe drought for the past 4 years. As of April 1st, this years snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas was the lowest it’s ever been at a mere 6%, following multiple years of sub-level snowfall.  Given that California only has enough water in storage to last the next 12-18 months, Governor Brown has mandated a 25% decrease in water usage, which many cities are contesting.

In Bishop, the agriculture industry has been gone a long time.  All that’s left are some alfalfa fields and cattle. The marsh land is dried up. I overheard some locals outside the hot springs talking about how they’re running out of well water, how their land is indefensible against fire, how old Dan’s hill lit up again but this time they couldn’t save the house, and now the insurance company won’t pay out….

Meanwhile, thanks to modern advancements in irrigation, Los Angeles has grown into the 2nd largest city in the United States, with a sprawling population of nearly 4 million people. California is home to 38 million people, and is the largest agricultural producer in the United States. Farmers can’t water their crops, most of which shouldn’t be grown in a desert to begin with (almonds and rice, really?), yet we’re still watering the golf courses.

As I was walking around the Law’s museum, which is laid out like an old ghost town, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was more a glimpse into the future than the past.

What’s going to happen when the water runs out? Will Bishop be totally uninhabitable, drained completely dry? Where will all the people in the monstrous city of Los Angeles go to? What’s going to happen to our nation’s food supply? How will any of us afford to eat?

Bishop Soleil Walking the Tracks

 And the snowball is just beginning.

Bishop Soleil Old Car 1

Bishop Soleil Saddle

Before I had Soleil, I used to secretly wish for a plague to wipe out the human race.  I know, that’s not very nice of me, but I argued that humans aren’t very nice. Seriously, ask any other species (except dogs, we bred them to like us), and they will tell you that we are selfish douche bags. 

But now, after having held my baby in my arms and been blown away by the natural goodness in her, I realize we’re not all bad. Maybe, we’ve just gone astray. And, maybe if we consciously rewild our psyches, we can find our rightful place in nature again:

Nuumu believe that we are a necessary part of a healthy ecosystem. Native people have been stewards of the land for thousands of the years, and part of the imbalance in Nature today is because Nuumu aren’t gathering, harvesting, weaving, singing, praying, and living in the traditional way.  In order to have a balance within the wildness, it takes Nuumu to ‘weave it all together.’ (borrowed from a plaque at Paiute Center)

Yet, let’s face it, we won’t willingly go back to the way we lived 10,000 years ago; I doubt even today’s Nuumu would live ‘in the traditional way,’ assuming the DWP would ever let them wander their lands. We love our technology–from our trains and aqueducts to our toasters and iPhones–and unless we face a total collapse, we’re not going to give it up.

So if we can’t go back, and we can’t stay the course, we must design a brand new way of living–maybe one that bridges the gap between hunting and gathering, and pizza delivery. Certainly, we need to think sustainably, connect with the wild, and work within the bounds of nature like the Nuumu, but we also need to apply some serious technological ingenuity if we plan to make it out of this mess alive.

Maybe, then, we can ‘weave it all together’ again.

Bishop Soleil Painting

 

Comments

  1. Rewild….. Yes

  2. Awesome, Stevie. If you have not read Cadillac Desert, I emcourgae you to do so. LA swindled the ranchers out of their water as much as the government swindled ceded territorial lands from the Tribes.

  3. Wonderful!

  4. Awesome, awesome post Stevie. I’ve already been sending it to friends.

  5. Nonituyas says:

    Perfect Earth Week post. I wish the whole world could have your heart for the planet, for life, and meaning, and beauty. You are a burnished and brilliant soul, Stevie. Keep on shining.

  6. Ryland, I haven’t read it, but I”ll give it a read. I was totally fascinated by the big snowball of exploitation….white settlers come and take the Nuumu land, LA DWP comes and takes the ranchers (and Nuumu) land and water, all to support mega-cities and limitless population growth, a life way that ultimately is exploiting Earth to morbid extremes. At the same time, we have an opportunity right now to START THE DIALOGUE amongst each other and ask, well how else could we live? Can we design a society not based on principles of exploitation? Could we design a whole new way of living that makes us feel happy and fulfilled and protects our planet? I’d like to think so, but sadly, I don’t really hear the conversation happening enough.

  7. Nancy, I love that word, too 🙂

  8. Thank you Margot, Sara, and Stefan 🙂

  9. Lorraine says:

    Beautifully written and right on! We need people like you in government to help change the way most think. But being published will help a lot too, good luck.
    I love the Bishop area too, and the whole Eastern Sierras, its so spectacular.
    Enjoy your say in Yosemite, also another favorite place.
    Lorraine

  10. There’s this awesome guy on YouTube Genesis Sunfire is his name talking about the best way to beat the system of slavery to food and that is to go liquidarian / breatharian. Great post as always Stevie <3

  11. Thank you for this beautifully and passionately written post. It touched on themes I am currently exploring in my own life. Like you, I have struggled with my relationship with the human race, but I somehow still manage to garner hope from small kindnesses. Thank you for doing your part to bring more light to the growing darkness.

  12. PYT!!!

  13. Two words: Pizza Factory, Bishop

  14. Jacob, damn! We missed that one. I’ll check it out when we go back. Good to hear from you!

  15. <3

  16. Saudade de vcs amiguinhas.

  17. Love the native ways…we are all connected…ubuntu…Just watched Omega Man with Charlton Heston recently…it was a film in 1971 based on the novel I AM LEGEND which Will Smith later starred in for modern audiences…It was one of the original dystopian wasteland stories…humanity wiped out by a germ and the existential crisis over what ultimately caused our downfall…our science, our progress, our greed, our belief that more is always better…seems the industrial age has not taught us anything…as a culture we’ve been talking about these themes for over 50 years….we acknowledge that we are engineering the 6th extinction and still nothing…nothing at all….we’re waiting for an answer that lets us keep our habits and our toys.

  18. Tessa Hill says:

    Beautifully crafted blog, as usual. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking! I loved this line, among others, “since they have a lot less wants and needs than we do, they have much more leisure time.” Brilliant!! Really enjoyed what you’ve shared in this post. Thanks!

    • Thank you, Tessa! I don’t think it was a favorite of many, but I’m really glad that you liked it. It’s quality not quantity, right 😉

  19. Lisa, oooh I’m going to download the book and watch the original flick. Thank you for the tips.

  20. Ok, I couldn’t get through it. I was tired and hungry at the time. Initial reaction, it was a stretch. But I know I wasn’t in the best frame of mind, and I hadn’t made it to the part where you weave it all together; so I’ll give it the time and attention it deserves tonight. I love your writing and I can’t see this being an exception.

  21. In 1967 I worked the summer at Bishop Creek Lodge up on the mountain. Visited last year to see if it had changed. It now has a bar. Check it out if you can.

  22. Corrin, based on the lack of comments, I think your sentiments are shared by most. And, truthfully, I haven’t historically been very good at writing archaeological/environmental kind of posts in a way that grabs my audience. For one, I think I need to make this kind of post shorter, 2) maybe less pessimistic/people hater-ish, 3) weave it together faster…as in right away, and then back into it so the ‘facts’ are more relevant and interesting from the get-go. I think even I got exhausted by the end of writing this post, so I can’t blame the reader. Thank you for your honest love. Can’t wait to see you! xoxoxo

  23. I love your writing too sweetie and am one of your biggest fans but have to agree not my favorite! I worked at the local clinic in bishop for a month! Loved it! Miss you

  24. Anjali, hi honey bunny! Yeah, I think when my longest time supporter tells me it wasn’t a favorite, it’s settled: I could’ve done a little better with that one 😉 Thank you for the honest feedback. I actually learned a lot from the response to the post and will rethink how I approach that kind of material. It was so fascinating, but I just didn’t do it justice. Anyhow, I think of you often and always have you and your boys in my heart. xoxoox

  25. Fantastic post! We have just come back to Vancouver after a 3-month climbing trip in our Sprinter van. Bishop was one of our first stops, back in February. Like you, we fell in love with this little town. I had to laugh about the recycling bit. (We thought we were the only tourists who carried around their recycling like crazy people!) We thought it was odd to take everything to the transfer station, but we’re happy they had something. Then we travelled to other destinations, and quickly realised how GOOD Bishop was for recycling! We regularly received a sideways glance when we inquired about places to take our recycling. This shouldn’t be so out-of-the-ordinary! It looks like we have done similar locations over the past few months. We’ve only been home one week, and we already want to get out there again!!

  26. Anonymous says:

    Love your writing.

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