Last night, Dawn and I camped in the day-use only portion of a ruined forest service campground beside a thundering river somewhere off the beaten path below a decrepit dam in the Southern Sierra. The overnight part of the campground was fenced off, padlocked and signed – CLOSED. Curious and inconvenienced, we parked Big Red at the gate, got out and took a stroll thru the grounds to see why the Forest Service had locked us out of our park. The river was running high and strong. All of the river side campsites were under water – eddies swirling around the picnic tables. It looked like the place had been abandoned in 1987 – post apocalyptic. The river boomed; and the park admins skedaddled leaving the place to we wandering vagabonds.
Somewhere upstream there was a dam….there’s always a dam. And this dam – earthen, 70 or 80 feet high with a large basin behind and immaculate spillways and diversions to turbines and things – had a lake behind it. A large shallow lake, exhibiting a bathtub ring around the hills at the old high water mark; it was down about 30 feet. The river is the only outflow from the lake, throttled by the dam. Why was the river booming if the reservoir was only 1/2 full? And why was the reservoir only 1/2 full after California’s wettest winter in years?
Not too surprising for an earthen dam, this one has a bit of a settling problem and is “compromised”. When you add in a geologic fault below it…..well…you get the picture. With a record breaking snowpack, melting at a furious pace, the boys at the valves have all they can do to let the water out fast enough to preserve the dam without flooding the entire Imperial Valley. One little campground flooded is chump change. What seemed a great idea in the 50’s turns out in the twenty-teens to be pretty damn dangerous.
We camped below it. The river full throated and roaring next to us as the dam boffins let ‘er rip much as they dared to bring the lake level down. ‘Twas a spectacular sleep – woken every 10 minutes by the “Whoosh, thump” of the big standing wave to starboard, and lulled back to sleep by the “Hiss, swish, smoosh” rhythm of jillions of gallons of water rushing home to the sea. Every wakeful period illuminated by a young moon and her cohort of sparkling, cold, blue-white stars.
The dam hydrography was cool…..but, better, along this stretch of river there be hot springs – natural, undeveloped, cherished hot springs y’all. It was the springs we came for, as we are somewhat experts. We roamed up and down the river checking out the situation. Two were private and behind locked gates, a third was under the risen river and not useable but the fourth, was just a short hike downstream from the campground. Spirited local denizens had constructed a make-shift rock and sand bag wall trapping the hot water in a pool adjacent to the river.
We arrived on Sunday – our work schedule being completely screwed up compared to all y’alls – and immediately made our way to the pool. It was packed – ten people in the pool, ten more sitting around it. We tip-toed in anyway. We came back later…It was still packed – with a different set of twenty people. It can be difficult with that number of folks in close quarters, but hot springs tend to bring out the best in even the most ungrateful, backwards, annoying, crazy, primitive, idiotic, dogmatic people and tho the conversation sometimes swung into uncomfortable territory all was good in the end. There were old hippies, Latino families, college students, new professors on a lark, dogs, kids, religious fanatics, skiers, climbers, a fascinating young shaman in training, scientists, and a mysterious old oriental fella. We were wanderers, gypsies, travelers and characters – individual, fascinating – shy and beautiful as flowers.
We got up early Monday AM made jet boil coffee on Big Red’s tailgate and traipsed off to the spring. We…..were……alone. We slipped into the pool, the sun still below the ridge, slurped coffee and talked quietly. Steam rose and the mosquitos stayed over the cool water up river – away from us – the river chuckled and burbled just beyond the make-shift pool wall. The birds sang the sun over the ridge, and we lay back in the swirling hot water and felt the gentle warmth of the sun spread from the tops of our heads, across our faces, down our chests as daylight blossomed.
There is a home for you and me – out there. Where the ambitions die, the structures crumble, the authority retreats and the land opens up free. Where we talk philosophy and life around campfires with wanderers, fools, travelers, gypsies, saints and sinners – we seekers. Take heart, we have a home on a new American frontier.