Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Owens Valley

If you live in California and have done some traveling, you’ve probably gone through the Owns Valley at some point to get to Mammoth, Lone Pine, and Yosemite from the backside.  It stretches up Highway 395 in California on the east of the Sierra Mountains, or more accurately, the 395 sits inside the Owens Valley.  There are some long miles to be had there though.  For instance, you might stop at a gas station somewhere equivalent to the city of Ridgecrest, and then after that, you are in for hours of potentially dull driving.

I have been through the valley many times; my friend Eric and I used to hike the Sierras from the East side.  We climbed peaks such as Mt. Whitney, Mt. Langley, Corsage Pass, and Bishop’s Pass and scrambled through a lot of that Ansel Adams country.  To me, the Owens Valley was always a sort of dead-looking basin which contrasted with the gorgeous Sierras above it.  But the last few times I went through the valley, I started to see interesting patterns in the mountains; long, jagged shoulders or rock the color of black lava, which stretched farther than one would intuitively expect a mountain range to flow.

I also noticed deep riffs in the floor of the valley along the freeway at times, which made me suspect some significant geological events to have taken place in the Owens Valley.  Parts of it look downright primordial. I’ve now come to realize that the Valley itself is just as interesting as the mountains.
The Owens Valley is a graben; a down-dropped block of land between two vertical faults.  This graben was formed by a long series of earthquakes, such as the 1872 Lone Pine earthquake, that moves the graben down and helped raise the Sierra Nevada up.  The graben is in fact much larger than the dept of the valley suggests; gravity studies suggest that 10,000 feet of sedimentary rock mostly fills the graben and that a very steep escarpment is buried under the western length of the valley.  The topmost part of this escarpment is exposed at Alabama Hills. *

Also, from 1942 to 1945, during World War II, the first Japanese American Interment camp operated in the valley at Manzanar near Independence, California.  They have tours of the place, which I plan to go to at some point in the future.

When I drive through the Owners Valley, I also think about what the valley looked like when it was full of water; when it was a flowing river before the California water struggles between local residents and the City of Los Angeles resulted in diversion of the river. But mostly, when I drive though it, I enjoy how vast and wild it looks.  It reminds me that there is still a lot of space out there.