Owens Valley, Keeler, CA. It took me a minute to realize I was standing in the middle of a political art installation, prompted, apparently, by decades old venom directed at the Los Angeles Department of Water. A grassy expanse rolled out ahead of us, the snow-covered Sierra Nevada Mountains spectacular in the background. Fair weather cumulus clouds stacked atop the snow in a second fluffy layer while a blue sky chimed over it all. A bunch of rusted junk was strewn around.
There was no particular reason we should have gone through Keeler, California, but it was on Hwy 136, as good a loop as any into Death Valley. Starting from Los Angeles we headed across the Mojave and then up to Lone Pine, our jumping off point into the land of volcanic craters, slot canyons, and singing dunes.
I had planned a quick stop in Keeler, but just because it was supposed to be a quirky, semi-abandoned place. When we pulled into the main gravel drive and got out, Keeler, population 50, had the quiet of other not quite ghost towns, a watchful quiet, unsure of what the outsider would bring, as if the history of the town and its betrayals, booms, busts, were an archaeological imprint, written into the psychic evolution, endangered bird wings in a dried up lake bed telling the story of migration.
Our first stop on the self-guided tour was a house that seemed to host a perpetual antique yard sale. Trash or treasure, you decide, sat out on tables, priced, tagged, and lonely. No one came out when we walked among the display, but there was a pig that reared up in a pen, sharing the space with a homestead dog. Chickens did their thing in another pen. We drove around the town’s perimeter and passed the auto body shop and the church, and then we got to the beach.
A surfboard with the words “Keeler Beach, Camps for Rent” formed the entrance to a fenced in part of the grassy expanse. There was a crumpled airstream and, on closer inspection, an overturned hot tub. Other detritus was splayed around, as if washed up on shore. I thought for a moment this was a quirky place for off the grid snowbirds to park their R.V.’s, like Slab City near the Salton Sea. It was not.
Puzzle piece #1: Keeler Beach sign that read “This Beautiful Setting Courtesy of L.A. Water Dept.”
Puzzle piece #2: Overturned hot tub with no way of ever having been connected, amidst other, water-related junk.
Puzzle piece #3: My memory of map of the area with the infamous Owens Lake smack in the middle
Keeler, California had once been on the Owens Lake with a 300-foot wharf that launched a steamship chugging ore to the town of Cartago. That was in the 1880s. In the 1900s, Keeler was a rail stop for silver, lead, zinc and limestone mining. In the 1920s, just before the Owens River Valley was drained by the city of Los Angeles, it was a town blessed by location, next to a natural turquoise lake, in a pastoral valley irrigated to grow fruit, cattle, and alfalfa. The movie Chinatown shows the intrigue and scheming that went on so that Los Angeles could continue the job of Manifest Destiny in the West, growing and populating, living in a climate that couldn’t sustain the population’s demand. The 1920s alkali dust storms drove many of Keeler’s residents away. In the 1960s the train was stopped. In 1961 the train tracks were pulled up.
But here we were in Keeler amidst the generations that had presumably stayed or maybe moved here for whatever prompts a person to sidestep the mainstream and strike out. We could see where the Owens Lake bed had been, a subdued swath of land that now mainly acted as a red carpet to showcase the celebrity of Mt. Whitney and the other Sierra Nevada Mountains hanging around. You might never know that the Owens Lake had once been a little star itself. Keeler got the double hit—its water was siphoned off and then the railroad post got yanked. What did the railroad company do with the tracks when they ripped them up? And was that necessary?
I recently picked up Marc Reisner’s brilliant book, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. The chapter on the famous Los Angeles water takeover is 50 pages long, a tale of political backstabbing, outright lies and greed. I wonder if it had to be this way. My neighborhood between downtown and Hollywood is filled to bursting with bougainvillea, palm trees, roses, and an excess of citrus left to rot amongst flyers for car washes reopened under new management. Los Angeles is just a city of people trying to live, but its selfish reputation was seared into the geographic memory. Hell, it was seared into the actual memory of real people living right here, behind us, behind rows of crumbling history, on the grassy beach of a sea in memory’s eye.
Where: From Lone Pine, take Hwy 136 towards Death Valley, 13 miles
From Los Angeles: About 3 hours 15 min.