Journey to the Edge of California

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We all know nature is healing. But who are its healing properties for in America? (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

The shores of Mono Lake are sandy, salty, still, silent. A peaceful patch of nature where man-made structures aren't visible: houses and buildings, as well as social constructs. When I visited last month, I was removed from the isms that often dictate everyday life, for a brief moment at least.

Mono Lake felt like a new world.

For further evidence that I was on a different planet: the tufa. They're these alien-looking limestone pillars that have grown over years and years and years and years, as freshwater springs beneath the lake's surface combine with the lake's saltwater, making calcium carbonate. There's a gigantic mountain range to the west and a crater just a mile or two to the southeast. Both the valley where the lake sits and the islands that emerge from the lake's water were created by volcanic activity throughout the ages.

I've lived in California for 30 years, and this whole time a totally different world was just a few hours from my crib.

I never thought before to venture out here. I'd look at the map of California and think there was nothing to see in the far eastern part of the state. I'd imagine that it's just rural white folks who probably don't like me. I'd convince myself that exploring nature isn't for Black kids who grew up in the neighborhood. I'd drive loops around Oakland, Richmond and Vallejo, but aside from family trips to Reno or Tahoe, I never ventured to those mountains in the distance.


But I needed to see this world.

A glimpse of the morning sun shown through an O-shaped piece of tufa.
A glimpse of the morning sun shown through an O-shaped piece of tufa. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Algae, birds, shrimp, and these loudly buzzing bugs that have adapted to the nutrient-deficient terrain—alkaline flies—are the noted inhabitants, so says the self-guided tour signs. One sign notes that, in 1941, water was diverted from the lake's tributaries to the Los Angeles aqueduct. This resulted in water levels dropping and exposure of dry-salty terrain, even causing toxic dust storms. In 1994, the State Water Resources Control Board Water started a strategic effort to get the lake's water back to its natural level, a goal still unmet.

The tufa, some reaching 10 to 12 feet high, reminded me of that scene in old movies when a warlord casts a curse on the town’s people, turning them into stone where they stand. I imagined a warrior in one tower's shape. In another I saw something that looked like a llama. I laughed.

My goofy ass woke up 4am to drive about 200 miles to see some rocks. Nerd.

But at least I got a break from the world I know.

The morning sun shines its first light on the Tahoe Basin.
The morning sun shines its first light on the Tahoe Basin. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

This is the first trip in a series of adventures in my Northern California Bucket List series. I started at Mono Lake because of its remote location and its history. It also pushed me out of my comfort zone to travel alone.

In the wee hours, sunlight greeted me in the Tahoe Basin. Nothing like seeing the sun rise over a mountain.

The road led me through the mountains, out of California and into Nevada. Just across the state line, I stopped at a gas station where unleaded fuel was around $3.99 per gallon. Pickup trucks, camouflage clothing and lots of American flags. I knew what world I was in. Getting a full tank in a place where I was the only Black face later proved to be a smart move.

After an hour, passing Topaz Lake and a giant scar in the land where fire had threatened a nearby housing stucture, I reached the Mono Lake Basin overlook. The air at the Mono Lake basin overlook was so fresh, I almost forgot that wildfires were burning a hundred miles away. After running around the south end of the lake for an hour or two—getting familiar with the geological terrain, reading signs, doing some bird watching—I realized that there wasn't much more that I could do. In the end, it's a big pile of stones.

So I left Mono Lake and took the June Lake Loop, a road that goes around Grant Lake, Silver Lake, Gull Lake and June Lake. As I drove past Grant Lake, one of the state's many depleted reservoirs, I pulled over to take a photo of the lake that looked more like a pond.

I picked up my jaw, got back in the car, and hit the road. I was on pace to be home by sunset, which was important to me. I wanted to get out of this world before it got dark.  

What remains of Grant Lake.
What remains of Grant Lake. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

On the trip back I drove through Lee Vining, a town on the western side of Mono Lake, where premium unleaded was $5.69 per gallon. (Told you getting a full tank earlier was a wise decision.) Across the street, I stopped at Mono Cone, a 1950s-esque hot dog and burger joint that offers soft-serve ice cream, and joined the line outside. My Black ass probably wouldn’t have been able to eat here back in the day, I thought to myself. 

And then, standing there in line, nothing was said to me. Not a single interaction, for better or for worse. No friendly hellos, nor odd stares. Nothing. 

The self-imposed thoughts of where I'm supposed to be and preconceived notions about groups of white folks got to me. I jumped back in the car without making a purchase. I'll eat when I get home.  

With the way Black folks have been confined to certain neighborhoods in this country, venturing out into rural spaces can be alarming—almost alien. I didn't want to deal with my underlying fear, and how that fear is rooted in real stories. I just wanted to get back on the other side of the proposed "State of Jefferson" dividing line.

There are actual hot springs in the area, and I didn't even consider stopping to see them. And Bodie—the ghost town I'd heard about—yeah, you know damn well I didn't drive through there.

My mission was complete: I stepped into another world, I saw the rocks, I got uncomfortable. Now I wanted to get home.

The salt water and fresh water of Mono Lake create a blueish green tint.
The salt water and fresh water of Mono Lake create a blueish green tint. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

I drove the speed limit, hands at ten-and-two as I turned curves and watched for sheriffs and highway patrol. My laminated KQED press pass, a license to go places and ask questions, strategically rested in my cup holder in clear view, in case it'd help if I got pulled over.

As I drove through Placerville, a place that just this year removed a noose from the city's logo (but kept the nickname of "hangtown"), I marveled at the charred portions of Eldorado National Forest. People in bright orange and yellow work clothing scaled wooden poles, replacing wires and other infrastructure that wildfires had recently demolished. 

The pine trees on the mountainside were scorched—no needles on their branches, but still standing, looking like a sea of oversized Charlie Brown Christmas trees. I rolled up my window to block the smell of smoke, but couldn't dodge the reminders of racism, a crumbling infrastructure and a changing environment. Ahhh, back to the manmade structures I know so well.

There's so much more to see out there. These are features of the natural world that I can’t even wrap my mind around. A crater? Volcanoes? Massive fires? A prehistoric salt lake thousands of miles up in the mountains where stone towers climb toward the sky?

A piece of tufa that looks like the side profile of a warrior.
A piece of tufa that looks like the side profile of a warrior. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

I needed this trip. I needed the reminder that this place that was stolen from natives about two hundred years ago by folks who claimed that God sent them to spread their beliefs. And we aren't too far removed from that time period.

The structures have advanced. And when I say structures, I mean houses and buildings as well as social constructs. But the elements—the isms—within these structures are as old as the tufa pillars.

Being cognizant of this only makes my internalized oppression scream. It's hard to quiet that voice in my head that's heard all the stories about this land and who has "a right" to it. 


It's enough to have you bogged down in one world; comfortable and complacent with the structures that have been created for us. All the while missing the peace that exists in another world.