Home > Galen’s Articles > Outdoor Photographer • June, 2001
My Favorite Place on Earth
by Galen Rowell

Last January, Barbara and I took the second most radical plunge of my career. The first was to sell a small auto business in 1972 for barely enough to jump off the end of the pier and see if I could stay afloat long enough to make a living at photography. This one involved selling our home in the San Francisco Bay Area where I’ve lived all my life, moving our permanent residence to an acre on the outskirts of Bishop in the Eastern Sierra, and buying the town’s 15,600-sq-ft historic bank building at the main intersection of U.S. 395 and Highway 168 that leads up into the mountains. We have turned the bottom floor into a second Mountain Light Gallery and photo workshop facility, while keeping our original gallery and stock agency in Emeryville fully operational.

Friends in the city think we’re crazy, while friends in Bishop wonder why we didn’t see the light sooner. I did, exactly half a century ago, when my parents took me on a life-changing journey into this deepest valley in America the summer I turned eleven. But I didn’t know what to do with that light until I became a seasoned photographer.

I’d often camped in Yosemite with my family before that first trip into the Owens Valley in 1951 over Tioga Pass on a one-lane wagon road. The night before hiking into what would later become the Ansel Adams Wilderness, we spread our sleeping bags in the sagebrush.

I awoke to an apparition. High overhead, a crimson glow unlike anything I’d seen in nature crowned a storybook row of snowcapped peaks. It would have been futile to photograph it in black and white with the Baby Brownie box camera that I’d won for soliciting Berkeley Gazette subscriptions. Back at school that fall, the other kids listened wide-eyed to my tales of cowboys leading pack mules into the wilds where we spent two weeks on a Sierra Club outing, but their eyes glazed over when I tried to describe the color of alpenglow on snow as seen from high desert.

For the next decade, my family returned to the Owens Valley to go on other Sierra Club annual outings. The motto of those trips was “Life begins at 10,000 feet,” referring to the open landscape and simplified world around timberline, where tidy meadows were dotted with wildflowers and clean boulders and trees were stunted into unique art forms.

After I took up nature photography, I spent much of my adult life searching out similar life zones and magical light and form on all seven continents and both poles, always comparing each new place to the High Sierra. It was there that I first entered what biologists call the Arctic/Alpine life zone, despite the California summer beneath my feet, when I passed beyond timberline to climb a Sierra peak. Our camps were just below in the life zone named “Hudsonian” because it matches the climate and vegetation of Hudson Bay at the northern tree line. The same zones that occur at higher latitudes surrounding the poles are also found at higher altitudes around the world.

I had been on more than a dozen expeditions to the Himalaya, often with unlimited National Geographic film budgets, by 1986 when eighty of my best photos were published in Mountain Light. Just two were from Nepal and only six from Tibet. Yosemite had seven, and the Eastern Sierra twenty-three.

The Sierra Nevada from Yosemite south became the center of my personal universe from the late fifties to the mid-seventies. I spent at least two weekends a month climbing, exploring, and photographing this most superlative terrain in every season. Within an hour’s drive of Bishop, the Owens Valley has more diverse photo opportunities than anywhere else I’ve been on Earth. Many people have never heard of the Owens Valley, even though they are familiar with superb photographs taken there and may have even driven through it themselves on the way to Mono Lake, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, or Tioga Pass into Yosemite.

Unlike Yosemite, the Owens Valley is not within a national park or preserve, but it has far less crowding and at least equal preservation. Early in the 20th century, Los Angeles bought up 96 percent of the valley floor for water rights and built a 300-mile aqueduct. Thus the uncontrolled sprawl that allowed Fresno and Bakersfield to devastate the valley floor on the other side of the Sierra can’t happen. Private land is at a premium, but access by foot to LA Department of Water and Power wildlands remains wide open.

At 3,600, Bishop is the huge valley’s largest town, set in high desert at 4,000 feet beneath 14,246-foot White Mountain Peak to the east and several glacier-draped 14,000ers in the Palisade Range of the Sierra to the west. Within an hour’s drive is the highest peak in the contiguous states (14,495-foot Mt. Whitney), the world’s oldest living thing (a 4,700-year-old bristlecone pine), and more than a dozen roadheads over 9,000 feet with trails leading into the John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon or Sequoia National Parks. Huge boulders within a few minutes of town have become a Mecca for rock climbers from all over the world.

So why didn’t I move to my favorite place on Earth sooner? I tried and failed shortly after I was divorced in the late 1970s. Spending a winter in a cabin at 6,500 feet above Bishop in those days before fax, e-mail, or Federal Express cut my stock photo income in half. The post office was a 40-mile round trip. Flights to lectures or assignments required more time driving out of the area to a major airport than I had previously spent driving into the area from Berkeley, where airports were close by. I gave up my dream of living in the mountains, got married to Barbara in 1981, and created an ever-expanding stock photo and gallery business in the city.

Since Barbara bought a Cessna 206 in 1984 and San Francisco Bay Area traffic has become the worst in the nation, it hasn’t escaped us that it now takes more time to drive across the bay in rush hour than to fly from Oakland to Bishop. Last year, we bought a second home in Bishop and began commuting by air two or three times a month. One day we were at the recently renamed Mammoth-Yosemite Airport when an American Airlines 757 dropped out of the sky. After a low approach toward the impossibly short and narrow runway, the proving flight pulled up just before touching down. Destination flights from Dallas and Chicago will begin after a $28 million airport expansion later this year, with flights from LAX and SFO soon to follow.

Intrawest, which recently bought Mammoth Mountain, is pumping $100 million into the old volcano and guaranteeing 55 percent flight occupancy to American for five years. Will this Aspenize Mammoth? Not to the extent that some dread and others relish. Within a five-hour drive of Los Angeles, Mammoth will never attain the exclusivity of Aspen or Jackson Hole, yet real estate is escalating and service workers are already looking for housing 30 minutes south in Bishop.

By spending at least two-thirds time in the Eastern Sierra and one-third in Emeryville, we’re taking a major business gamble, but waking up 240 sunny mornings a year to that crimson apparition on the heights makes it worth it, and then some.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer
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