Text and photos by
July 26, 1987
This World Section – San Francisco Chronicle
White Mountain Road
I was headed up to Crooked Creek Station to visit Bob Bettinger, but the smooth-faced ranger at the foot of White Mountain Road had his doubts. Bettinger is an archeologist and professor at the University of California at Davis who has spent five summers tramping the alpine reaches of the Whites, painstakingly unearthing the highest prehistoric villages in the country. “Come for the Fourth of July,” he’d told me on the phone. “We always head up to Barcroft Station and spend the afternoon drinking beer.”
I knew that Barcroft Station, at over 12,000 feet, might offer the highest Independence Day picnic in the land. Although I did not know that the staff at Barcroft was preparing baked beaver for the next day’s festivities, and was laying a giant bonfire of railroad ties soaked in old diesel oil. But the forest service guy wasn’t sure I’d make the party, and wanted to know if the Great Gray Van sported four-wheel drive. “No, but she’s tough and I’ve got good tires,” I replied. “Well, you’re going to need ’em,” he said, sending me on my way as if I were an incautious child.
In fact, White Mountain Road is smoothly paved to about 9,000 feet. Beyond that, the road is gravel and falls apart as it climbs, as though atmospheric pressure were somehow needed to hold its rocks in place. Most people drive up here to see the groves of ancient bristlecone pines, or to park at the locked gate below Barcroft Station and hike the trail to White Mountain Peak, which at 14,426 feet is the highest in the range. In its upper reaches, the road seems to climb up the very spine of the Whites, through open alpine meadows and sagebrush flats. Around every turn is another sweeping vista—down the road to the next peak, or to the west, across the mile-deep ditch of the Owens Valley to the abrupt Sierra scarp. It is dry country, and high and windy and open. By the time I pick my way carefully up the road and into the dusty yard at Crooked Creek Station, I am parched, giddy with the altitude and possessed of a single question: Why would prehistoric people ever have struggled out of the sheltered valleys to live at these heights? It is a question that has intrigued Bob Bettinger for half a dozen years.
Bettinger, who is still in his 30s, seems young to be an archeological guru. A tightly-built, broadly casual man, he carries an air of the ’60s about him, his hair curling above his collar, his moustache today kept temporary company by two days’ growth of beard. He dresses in jeans and battered hiking boots, and ties a cowboy kerchief around his neck against the sun. I have beaten him to Crooked Creek Station by an hour and have had a chance to shower and sit around with some of his graduate students before he troops in from a dig. This is the third summer Bettinger has run an archeology field school in the Whites. This year he has nine graduate assistants—paid and volunteer—and 18 undergraduates from as far away as Nova Scotia, who pay $100 a week for the privilege of bending over a shovel in the thin air and blazing sun.
Crooked Creek Station is nestled in the crotch of two hills at more than 10,000 feet. There are a main building with kitchen and dining facilities, several trailers used for sleeping and research, and a small circle of white vinyl tents on wooden platforms. Like the station up at Barcroft, Crooked Creek was built by the Navy shortly after World War II. The University of California, which had been operating the sites for the Navy, assumed ownership some years later, and now both facilities are part of the university’s White Mountain Research Station. Over the years the sites have been used not only by archeologists but by botanists, zoologists and astrophysicists, and particularly by physiologists studying the effects of high altitude on the human body.
Much of this research has involved animals, as Bettinger had reason to note in 1983, when he stumbled on the skull of a monkey—a ring-tailed macaque—that had escaped the research center up at Barcroft some years before, seeking bananas or a better life. Unfortunately, Bettinger didn’t understand at first glance that it was a monkey skull, jumping immediately to a worst-case conclusion. He had always assumed that the Indians who roamed these mountains carried the bodies of their dead back to the villages of the Owens Valley for burial. Native Americans are understandably touchy about Anglo archeologists rummaging among the bones of their ancestors, and archeological digs have been shut down on the discovery of human remains. Bettinger was greatly relieved when he gave the skull a second look and began to understand what had happened.
At 7 in the morning on the Fourth of July, Bettinger and I, along with a teaching assistant and the 18 students, pile into a pair of matching blue Chevy Suburbans and bounce up the White Mountain road to a meadowed crest. Bettinger is a natural teacher; small questions switch him on for long, intricate answers. As we drive, he calls out the names of the flowers (scattered and few in this dry year) and discourses on local geology, on how the naked white dolomite barrens alternate with a more fertile limestone, which is dressed in grassy meadows and sage. Everywhere at this elevation, the meadows are alive with marmots, fat rodents with grizzled yellow backs, the size of overfed house cats but low to the ground like most tunneling creatures. Later, up at Barcroft, I note that all motor vehicles are left with their hoods gaping open, and am told that otherwise the marmots will climb into the dark engine compartments and chew the neoprene hoses to little crumbs.
We leave the vehicles at the crest and clomp downhill toward the west, to the site of a 500-year-old aboriginal village called Pressure Drop, named for Toots and the Maytals’ reggae classic, when the site was first excavated in 1983. Bettinger is a strong hiker and strides out ahead, the students trailing behind in an ever-dissolving line. On most days, these students would be divided into groups, assigned to a graduate assistant, and sent off to one of four current digs. But it is traditional for Bettinger to teach archeological mapping on the morning of the Fourth. At Pressure Drop, he pulls compasses, measuring rods and a portable transit from a big pack and prepares to show the students how the tools are used.
To an untrained eye there is not much here: a few circles of stone, a scattering of rocks ground smooth in milling seeds and roots. You would expect to find a village here, Bettinger tells us: in a crotch of land near a spring, sheltered from the northwest wind, with wild rye and other seeds nearby. There is also a striking view off toward the west and the mile-high wall of the Sierra beyond—although there’s no evidence that people settled here in search of such intangibles.
The ancestors of the Indian peoples we now call Paiute have been climbing into the high White Mountains for at least 6,000 years, Bob Bettinger says. First came hunters in pursuit of deer, antelope, mountain sheep and other big game. Then, starting about 1,300 years ago, whole families started coming, spending the summer in small alpine villages. Archeologists have known about the hunters for years, but the discovery of villages came as a great surprise. Alpine resources were too thin to warrant lengthy visits to the high country, archeologists had always supposed. Why should people struggle with cold and wind, sparse firewood and oxygen-stingy air when there was more food on the valley floor? Bettinger now believes that increasing population in eastern California gradually led the Indians to reappraise alpine resources. With more competition for food of all kinds, they were forced to exploit the mountains for more than a high-quality resource like meat-on-the-hoof. And with increased population, a family could make as good a living in relative isolation off alpine roots and seeds as it could elbow to elbow with its neighbors on the more productive valley floor.
From about A.D. 600 until the coming of the whites, loosely allied family groups traveled to the high country each June. They hunted, collected seeds and roots, and lived—from two to half a dozen families per village —in brush shelters built on stone foundations like those at Pressure Drop. In late August or September, they hiked back down the mountains to the pinyon pine belt below 9,000 feet for the pine nut harvest. (As a corollary to his theory of why the Indians pushed up into the mountains, Bettinger believes that the pinyon pine nut—long thought to be a preferred native staple far back into deep prehistory—was in fact a second-choice resource, adopted about the same time people first settled the White Mountain high country and for much the same reason.) Bettinger believes that this pattern held until around 1850, when the alpine villages were abruptly abandoned. By that time, the white man had arrived with disease and bullets, the ultimate solutions to population pressure among the natives.
After lunch and showers, everyone piles into the Suburbans once more and heads up to Barcroft Station. Where Crooked Creek has the thrown-together feel of a summer camp, Barcroft clearly reveals its military ancestry. The main building is a Quonset hut, tucked against the sheltered southeast side of Mount Barcroft. There are also scattered metal outbuildings, a barbecue grill crafted from a split oil drum, half a dozen chairs around a table and a blue surplus jeep with trailer, in which a keg of beer cools in snow shoveled from a nearby drift. A trail passes through here also (a continuation of the road, really), leading farther up the mountain to an observatory, and beyond to yet another UC hut on White Mountain Peak. All afternoon, hikers and bikers on the trail slow down coming through the station, no doubt wondering why all the vehicles have their hoods cocked open as in a used car lot.
I go looking for the beaver and find it in the kitchen, freshly carved by Dan Cutshall, a man in a red Hawaiian shirt, who was also the animal’s cook and captor. The beaver weighed 53 pounds, and Dan trapped him out of the Owens River down around Bishop between Christmas and New Year’s of last year. Beaver meat, I discover, is dark and rich and full of flavor. The tail is the most flavorful part, Dan says, although he no longer eats or serves beaver tail, it being mostly fat.
Besides the big kitchen, the Quonset hut at Barcroft contains sleeping rooms with bunks, a laboratory for visiting scientists, a dining area and, upstairs, a television lounge and game room. The building is heavily insulated, and by the time the sun goes down and the party has been rolling for four or five hours, it is too hot inside and too cold outside, and it seems like a good idea to light the fire. The Barcroft crew have lavished attention on this project. A 15-foot-high, multi-armed wooden structure rises from the fire-bed, each arm lashed with pyrotechnic rockets, which go off with a disappointing fizzle in the oxygen-poor air.
Standing there at the fire, I wonder to myself what material record we are leaving of this party, what later archeologists may make of the great pile of ash the fire will leave, how some carelessly discarded beaver bone will leave them, if only for a moment or two, scratching their heads. Such archeological evidence is important in studying even contemporary cultures, I had read in a paper Bettinger sent me in preparation for my visit. Written accounts cannot necessarily be trusted, he wrote, being “subject to cultural preference and bias.” I wonder about my own written account of these few days—how some future researcher, unearthing it from The Chronicle’s electronic tomb, will judge its truth or falsehood measured against the artifacts of our time. I am afraid that the writing will display a suspect passion, a questionable enthusiasm for lonely roads and sweeping vistas and people who make their living tramping from one dead village to the next in search of some cultural truth. Who could possibly entrust the record of history to a writer like that: so obviously biased, so easily transported by a blazing fire dancing against the mountain dark?
© 2017 William Poole—text and photos
William Poole’s Detour’s feature appeared between June 1987 and December 1990 in the This World section of the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday edition.