Up in the high, dry peaks of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range is where you’d find the world’s most pristine water. But that was long ago, when the rainfall turned into curving streams, when the snowmelt turned into a clear blue lake. Now, no snow falls here, and there is neither a lake, nor water. It has been that way for years.
The Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range is in the South of California, in the Great Basin, where winding foothills lead to flat, barren valleys and inland lakes. I grew up in Bodie, a small mining settlement located next to a forgotten stretch of desert near the crossroads of Highway 395. The year is 1913. I’m living with Grandpa Eckle in the house he built on the edge of lake Owen. That year, there was very little rainfall, and worries of a drought started to escalate.
Grandpa Eckle was a steamship captain and often he would take me out on his steamer and we’d sail across lake Owen and go to Angel Falls. Angel Falls was a waterfall on Rokeby Island, which is where we’d go in high summer. I still recall Angel Falls like it was yesterday; the transparency of the water, how the water sparkled in the sunlight, and how it froze in mid-air.
Grandpa Eckle inherited the steamer from an old army buddy of his, and the minute he got the chance he quit his job in the mines and practically jumped aboard. He seemed to enjoy the new job a lot. All he had to do was load the ore onto the steamer and unload it once they reached the debarkation bay on Rokeby Island’s shore. Then, the ore was put in a cable lift that took it to the smelters. It sounds complicated but it really wasn’t, manual jobs never are. After a short spell, he got promoted to the rank of captain and began steering the steamer. He named it the S.S Hilda, after his wife. I got the impression that the steamer was built to the same dimensions as the Titanic, but I can’t be completely sure. It looked like a miniature model of the Titanic– it had a gigantic rudder, two tall steam engines, a kiln to burn coal, and a poop deck. I used to pretend to be a pirate. I used to duck below the deck to avoid getting blasted by the cannon fire from rival ships. I also used to play Cowboys and Indians, but I was always the Apache. My friend Tommy always wanted to be the cowboy so I just let him be the cowboy. I carried the bow and arrow.
As a young boy, I dreamed about the mountains. I wanted to live up there for two reasons: to escape the heat, and to see what was over the mountains. Most nights, I dreamed that I was some kind of bird gliding over all the land. I would become airborne, like a condor, and I could feel the temperature of the air getting cooler and cooler on my wings the higher I flew, and as I got closer to the snowy peaks, the air would thin out as I flew even higher above the clouds, which casted shadows over the great basin below. Then I could feel the sun’s warmth – and I would be up like a shot. I wouldn’t fall asleep again before morning. I told Grandpa Eckle about the dream I had and he took me out of school one day to go to Rokeby Island, that was my first voyage on the S.S Hilda. I remember that day well. When we were just about to set sail, some teenage runaways climbed inside one of the canoes that was tied to the side of the steamer. They had on bright orange jumpsuits. I didn’t say a thing to Grandpa Eckle about them. Soon after that, more folks wanted to board the S.S Hilda. All kinds of folks came aboard– from hitchhikers to tobacco growers. For twenty years, Grandpa Eckle steered the S.S Hilda. They were the happiest years of my life, but that was long ago. Now, I’ve stayed in this house for so long, I dread to start over. They’d have to bulldoze the house to move me out. Heck, any day now they’ll be coming round to nail an eviction notice on my front door. But no matter- I’ve lived here my entire life, I’ve seen what plenty looks like, and I won’t move from my porch. I won’t go out there – who knows what’s beyond the mountains. It’s definitely not water.
No snow falls here. It melts before it reaches the top of the mountain. Lake Owen turned to steam– it looks like a big dust bowl. Sometimes, I can see Grandpa Eckle appear like a ghost over the old mountain lake. On these occasions, I have to force myself to stop remembering, and I look up at the great blue sky, which is always cloudless and sunny, and wait for rain.