My next stop was very familiar – a huge (60-square mile) lake of eerie natural beauty about 30 miles farther south. Mono Lake is a mecca for amateur photographers and I’d come there with a tripod more than once. But this time, in pursuit of adventure, I stripped down to my bathing suit, stepped through the three-foot ring of black flies that buzzed the sides of the lake, walked on the famous tufa formations that look like miniature drip castles, and plunged into the water, which was full of trillions of tiny, red brine shrimp floating in the cool, blue water. As I swam away from shore I noticed that my feet were splashing more than usual -- they were out of the water somehow. And so was my head. For a moment it seemed that my sense of balance had gone awry, but then I remembered the salt. Like the Great Salt Lake, Mono has no outlet and is two-and-a-half times as salty as the ocean. I tried exhaling to see if I could sink, but I couldn’t.
A road has to go somewhere, I figured, so the next day I took an unmarked one just south of Mammoth Mountain (the largest ski area in California) and headed east, directly across the desert. It took me to what looked like an environmental sculpture created by Mad Max: a two-story-high heap of rusted metal that turned out to be the Mono County dump. Jerry Butler, an Irishman in his late 60s, greeted me. He ran the place and lived there alone in a trailer when he wasn’t with his woman, a Paiute Indian. From the chair where he sat for most of the day, he had a view so awesome I expected to see a herd of yaks.
Jerry invited me inside his trailer, where we drank beer and talked for a while beneath a wall covered with pin-ups of naked women. The next day I ended up spending several hours with him, from 3 o’clock in the afternoon to sundown at 8:30. We drove at least 50 miles of dirt roads, Jerry waving his arms and pointing at things and talking about “light” and “colors” and me stopping the car to get out and climb on rocks and generally lurch about like a 2-year-old. We went to a narrow-walled red-rock canyon full of snakes and shadows where he once ran out of gas and had to hike, in the moonlight, 17 miles to the nearest ranch. He showed me an old 19th-century mine shaft and a rock where a miner had sculpted a life-size image of himself, including hat and pickax.
“Look what the bastards done,” Jerry said. The miner’s head and chest were pock-marked with bullet holes.
He took me to rattlesnake den where he used to catch snakes every spring and sell them to brokers from San Francisco, and we spent about an hour at some Indian petroglyphs in the middle of nowhere – four-and-six-and-eight-legged creatures dancing in the twilight as the sun turned the Great Basin fiery red. In the lingering light we drove on dirt roads to visit a friend of his, one of the Basque shepherds in the Basin who work the sheep ranches for five-year stints. But his camp was deserted – just a large flat circle in the scrub and a trash-filled fire pit. “He must just have moved,” Jerry said. “If he’d been here we would have had all the food we could eat. I’ve never known a Basque who didn’t make his own wine, cheese and bread.”
Finally, I turned on my headlights and we headed home, toward the highway in the growing darkness. “I just love showing you all this,” Jerry said. “I love it sooooooo much. Do you know I’m getting such a pleasure being here talking with you? Do you know that?”
“I’m having a good time, too.”
“You’re like me. You like to go out into nature and discover things.”
“Yes, I do.”