Cruising down U.S. 395, arguably
the state's most spectacular route,
to ghost towns, granite peaks, and
incongruous lobster taquitos
It's said that to find the West in California, you go east.
Counterintuitive maybe and a bit Zen in its retro-geography. But when a buddy and I decide to break from the California of palm trees and beaches, we heed this advice and set out on a classic road trip to the Eastern Sierra lakes, high desert expanses, ghost towns, and small settlements along U.S. 395.
South from Lake Tahoe, we follow State 89 and drop nearly 3,000 feet from 8,314-foot Monitor Pass to the 395 junction. The highway twists through the stark canyon carved by the West Walker River before emerging into the broad Bridgeport Valley. Snowcapped peaks tower over a verdant meadow where cattle graze along meandering creeks. Move over, Montana: California's got its own Big Sky Country.
Towns on 395 share some common traits. Grand public buildings that hint at bygone civic aspirations come with the territory. In Bridgeport, it's the Mono County Courthouse
, a restored 1880 Italianate structure still in use. Then there's the hanging neon trout sign, a veritable 395 art form. Bridgeport's light-up version marks Ken's Sporting Goods
, where a sidewalk freezer displays local catches. We peek in and glimpse browns and rainbows, all identified by date, weight, bait, stream, and angler.
You won't find fish—neon or living—in Bodie
, the country's best-preserved ghost town and now a California state park. Bodie boomed after gold was discovered; 10,000 people lived here by 1879. Today, the operative term in Bodie is "arrested decay." That is, this town, once described as "a sea of sin, lashed by the tempests of lust and passion," is pretty much as it was when its last residents departed. No phony gunfights or cotton candy here. Just remnants of the past, whether it's the winged radiator cap from a Maxwell car or a calendar that insists it's March 1906 forever.
Outside Bodie, lightning zigzags above the horizon and thunder bounces across the hills. Ominous to be sure. But less intent on catching and releasing trout than catching the light and releasing the shutter, we're inspired by the weather to test our chops against the photographic legends who captured this part of California—from Ansel Adams to the late Galen Rowell (a stop at Rowell's Mountain Light Gallery
in Bishop is a 395 highlight).