The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

The fifth in a series of occasional posts about tripping along U.S. Highway 395.

Bridgeport is our home base for three days and two nights. We’re keeping it simple. In a town as small as Bridgeport, with few businesses, and some of those closed for the season, the choices are nominal. So keep it simple, baby.

Dinner on the first night is leftovers that we brought from the previous night’s dinner at home. Cora and I aren’t about throwing away food so we packed it in the cooler to be heated up in the microwave. There’s a small communal dining area with a microwave in the Cain House where we’re staying. We heat up the leftovers and suddenly it doesn’t smell quite as good as it did the first time. In fact, it might be as rank as nuked leftover fish (something that’s a mortal sin in the workplace lunchroom). Luckily we’re the only ones in the dining room when the stink bomb goes off. I imagine the next guest in will be wondering who stashed a dead body in the dining room.

There are two drive-in fat vats in Bridgeport. A place called The Barn, is burgers, Mexican and the usual selection of dairy desserts. Jolly Kone is burgers and dairy.

There are a couple of sit down places in Bridgeport, The Rhino Bar and Grill, and The Bridgeport Inn. Like I said, we’re keeping it simple so we stick with The Barn both nights.

The Bridgeport Inn advertises itself, in a neon ECV sign, as a Clamper hangout. What exactly is a clamper? That’s a good question, and I’m not certain that I’m qualified to explain. I’m not certain that anyone is qualified to explain, unless that person is a bona fide Clamper. I mention the Clampers because out here in Gold Rush Country, the Clampers are something of an institution.

According to the website Mountain Charlie 1850 (link here), “E. Clampus Vitus (ECV) is both a Historical and Fraternal organization.”

Now, there are fraternal organizations and then there’s ECV. While the Elks, the Moose and the Lions take themselves seriously, maybe to the point of tedium, ECV seems to have its fraternal tongue tucked firmly in its organizational cheek. ECV has two mottos. The first is “Credo quia absurdum.” If you’ve kept up with your Latin, then you know that this means, “I believe because it is absurd.”

The second motto is “Per caritate viduaribus orphanibusque, sed prime viduaribus.” For those whose Latin is a little rusty, this means, “Protect the widows and orphans, especially the widows.” I’m not quite sure why the widows get preference. When the motto was first proposed maybe the widow in question was young and comely. Who’s to say. Ask a Clamper.

Like any self respecting fraternal organization, ECV has its own hierarchy. If one achieves the honor of becoming a chapter president then that esteemed individual is known officially as the Noble Grand Humbug. The sergeant-at-arms bears the exalted title of Damfool Doorkeeper

Mountain Charlie explains that the order was founded during the days of the California Gold Rush. Apparently the early history is a bit muddy because, according to Mountain Charlie, “The early meetings of E Clampus Vitus in the California gold fields were devoted so completely to drinking and carousing that none of the Clampers was ever in any condition to keep minutes, let alone remember what had happened the next day!”

California is liberally dotted with historical markers. Most of them have been placed by the state or by counties. Occasionally one can stumble upon a marker that was placed by the Clampers. Many of the ECV markers commemorate sites that the state either overlooked or may have rejected for not having been a family friendly institution. You know, like saloons and cat houses. If the commemorated site is still a working saloon then one might stumble over, rather than just upon, the marker.

If you’ve ever haunted a dive bar in California, particularly in the Mother Lode Country, and particularly one that sports an ECV or a Clampers Drink Here sign, then you’ve likely had the honor of meeting a Clamper. If the barstool next to you was occupied by a fellow wearing a red miner’s shirt and a black hat then you’ve certainly met an honest to God, Clamper.

Some years back, when I was a Civil War reenactor (I want to make it clear that I “fought” on the Union side), our group held an event in Murphys, an old mining town located in California’s Gold Country. Between the battles, which were staged for public consumption, a small group of Clampers performed an “anvil tossing.” Call it, the halftime show (Rihanna was probably already booked elsewhere that day).

Mountain Charlie describes anvil tossing as something of a celebration of Gold Rush history. He writes, “When called upon, the local Blacksmith would place one anvil on top of another with a small charge of black powder in between. When the powder’s fuse was touched off by a long red-hot iron rod, the resulting explosion would send the upper anvil flying into the air, and the deafening sound would echo through the remote camps in the hills and canyons alerting everyone of a mine cave-in, fire, or other danger. It was also used to summon the miners to celebrate such events as weddings, the 4th of July, or that a new ECV ‘Poor Blind Candidate’ had been found, and a solemn Clamper initiation ceremony was about to begin.”

At the time, we reenactors dismissed the the Clampers as a bunch of fucking lunatics but in retrospect who were we to talk? We were running around on an open field, playing 19th century army while wearing wool suits on a 90 degree summer day.

Say what you will about the Clampers, they take California history seriously, and manage to convey it in a fun, lighthearted and often self-deprecating way. It’s not a bad way to teach people some interesting, and sometimes trivial, facts about the history of California.

***

Before we go on a trip, I ask Cora to list some of the things she wants to see and do. She hands me the list and then I try to do my best to grant the wish list. I’m the travel genie, only without the turban and the funny shoes, and if I emerge from anything it’s more likely a whiskey bottle than a magic lamp. On this trip she’s jotted down the Chemung Mine and the town of Masonic.

Having never heard of either, I ask the proprietor/concierge/part time housekeeper/ landscaper of The Silver Maple Inn about the mine and the town. She tells me that the mine is accessible on a washboard dirt road but continuing on to Masonic might be dicey in a sedan.

***

We’re off to the Chemung Mine. The dirt road isn’t as long or as coarse as the road to Bodie. Still I’m not happy with it and I’m wishing I had a four wheeler with more comfortable clearance.

Sometimes “when the going gets tough,” I follow the advice of the old saying and “get going.” Other times I just say, “Forget it, let’s turn the fuck around.” Our teeth are about to rattle out of our skulls from the ragged road, and I’m just about to abort the mission, when I look off to the front right and spot the tell tale headframe of an old mine. A few minutes later I’m looking for a place to park. A place to park? This isn’t the mall on Christmas Eve, I’m a few hundred feet from an abandoned mine in the middle of nowhere. Park the car – any damn where.

Headframe of the Chemung Mine

I park in an open space just down the hill from the shells of the old mine. The dominant structure at these old mining sites is the wooden headframe. Sitting over the shaft, the headframe is equipped with a rope and pulley system that allows for the raising and lowering of equipment and personnel into the mine.

Wheels and drive shaft in the headframe

The buildings are composed mostly of wood, some of them aged to a burnished mahogany color. There are also some buildings made of tin. The rusted carcasses of two long deceased vehicles sit on the grounds. The elements and vandals have picked these bodies clean. The hulks are pitted with bullet holes.

The Chemung Mine opened circa 1909 near the small town of Masonic about 2.5 miles distant. The mine gave up an estimated one million dollars in gold and a smaller amount of silver. The operation was often beset by financial troubles but It still outlasted most of the other mines in the area by ten years. The mine shut down in 1938 and the twenty miners who were working the site were sent packing.

In the 1950’s a prospector by the name of Elton Heinemeier tried his luck in the old shafts but his efforts at mining bore out the old adage that if you pursue something without a monetary return then it’s called a hobby. After a few years of hobbying, Elton moved on and left the mine to the elements.

An old wreck like Chemung isn’t worth a damn if it doesn’t hold a tale or two about ghosts. Chemung is said to be haunted by the spirits of miners. Looking at the beer cans and all the bullet holes in the cars and tin walls my guess is that the place is haunted on Friday nights by teenagers and assorted yahoos who venture up to the old mine to drink, plink with their 22’s and make out. It’s doubtful that any nighttime moans that echo through the old hulks are coming from the tortured spirits of dead miners. Unquestionably there are spirits to be found among the ruins at night, and their names are Jägermeister, Wild Turkey, Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. Any moans are likely to emanate from the occasional couple who, after communing with the aforementioned spirits, decide to partake in some naughty business under the high desert skies.

A shaft opening. A few feet inside, the entrance is boarded up.

As I wander around the old relic I make sure to watch my footing before putting down any significant weight. As we poke around, I remark to Cora that I’m surprised that the place isn’t fenced off. It looks like an ideal place to have an accident.

Mill wheel

***

I’m out with my camera early the next morning, another cold one. I could put on Spotify for company but I usually eschew playlists in favor of local radio. Out here in the high desert the reception is spotty and the channel selections are few. Scanning the band mostly results in dead air, static, and about three country/western stations.

The musical interlude gets off to an unpromising start. It’s a song called, Jesus, Girls and Cold Beer. I’ll give Roger Fournier credit, he manages to get most of the required CW music elements in; church, beer, pickup trucks, whiskey, prayer, girls, cowboys, and a King James Bible. He did leave out guns, dogs and broken hearts but you can only squeeze in so much in two and half minutes.

It was a beer morning as the next song was something called Crushin’ It, which is a paean to the many ways you can crush an empty aluminum beer can. I snap off the radio and it occurs to me that somewhere Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings are whirling in their graves.

***

Back to the motel, check out, pick up Cora and we’re headed south on 395 towards Lone Pine. We take some side roads just for the hell of it and make some stops along the way. We take a side road west to June Lake where we stop for a lunch break of sandwiches and fruit. There are a few small resorts in the area where one can stay in a cabin, maybe rent a boat for the day or go on hikes or day trips.

***

We make a brief stop at Mono Lake and walk one of the interpretive trails. The ancient lake is peaceful and as smooth and clean as glass. The limestone formations called tufa towers that rise up out of the lake give the visitor the feeling of being in another world.

There are no fish in the lake but it is home to trillions of brine shrimp. The lake is a temporary home for millions of migratory shorebirds and waterfowl and provides a residence for over 300 species of songbirds and raptors. The lake is home to one of America’s largest California Gull rookeries.

Mono Lake

Tufa towers of Mono Lake

One morning I got away before sunrise to photograph Mono Lake

***

We stop at Lee Vining, the eastern gateway to Yosemite, to get gas. Sixty-five dollars to fill up a Hyundai Sonata. I hope to see some Christmas Cards from the CEOs and major shareholders of the oil companies.

***

It’s an ever changing panorama. One minute we’re traveling past a dry rocky flatland, made bright with the yellow blossoms of sagebrush and the next we’re rolling past a verdant forest. Farms and ranches add some variety and every now and then we catch a glimpse of autumnal glory, where groves of aspens, gaudy in yellows and oranges, line the course of a distant waterway.

***

Bishop, with a population of 3800, is the largest town we’ll see along Highway 395. Bishop was born to feed the miners in the mining camps. In 1861, Samuel Addison Bishop settled in this area of the Owens Valley with 600 head of cattle and 50 horses, having completing a 51 day cattle drive. Bishop would provide beef for the Aurora Mining District, 80 miles to the north.

Fifteen miles later, we pass through the small town of Big Pine. The only feature of note is a giant billboard, Saturday is God’s Sabbath, Changed By The Anti-Christ.

Independence, population 349. There’s room at the inn at Ray’s Den Motel. I turn to Cora, “By the looks of the joint, I’m not surprised.” We pass a taco truck or two, Shoe City, and a restaurant with the interesting name, Still Life Cafe. Just outside of town we pass a disheveled hitchhiker sporting a University of Southern California t-shirt. I’m guessing that if the garment wasn’t purchased at a thrift store, then somewhere there’s a disappointed set of parents.

We’re just eight minutes from the main destination of the day’s journey, Manzanar, a place that represents a stain on the history of the nation.

7 thoughts on “The U.S. 395 Chronicles: Chemung and Points South

  1. Toonsarah says:

    A great read as always 🙂 I was interested to learn about the Clampers – if I see ECV anywhere on future visits (we’re hoping to be somewhere in that region next year), I’ll know what it means. Great to see Mono Lake, which remains one of our most talked about and fondly remembered sights of our long ago CA road trip! And those aspens are just stunning 😮

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Sarah,
      Thank you so much for the kind words. It just so happens that there’s a Clamper monument in a little tavern in nearby Crockett. During prohibition it was a speakeasy where drinks were served in a basement. If you happen to be near the Bay Area during your visit please feel free to let me know.
      Paul

  2. I’m bookmarking your US 395 chronicles, Paul. A spring road trip in 2024 is in the planning stages and hopefully we’ll often be following your tire tracks. It will be my assumption that those tracks will not be as deep as the ruts we encounter daily in the dirt road we live on. “Mud Season” is distinctive and unlike the other four we celebrate here in Vermont. 🙂 Stewart PS: Thanks for the guide!

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Stewart,
      I’m glad that my writing has inspired a trip. Hopefully the weather in 2023/2024 won’t be as wild and unusual as we’ve been having this year. I’m afraid that anyone planning that trip this spring would likely be dealing with road closures, snow and possible flooding. Some of the ski areas are planning to stay open through July.
      Thank you for reading and commenting.
      Paul

      1. On the flip side, it a great year for desert bloom!

  3. Chris says:

    This is terrific, Paul. Eloquent, evocative and downright funny. And of course your photography is gorgeous. The whole thing just pops to life.

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you so much, Chris. Much appreciated.
      Paul

Would love to hear from you

%d bloggers like this: