New York Butte, Pleasant Point


By: Ellen Grau



We don’t get many visitors out my way, so when I heard voices and the sound of shuffling feet over my head, I got up to investigate. I’m usually greeted by some touristy types who are visiting the west for the first time. These guys were different. They had that familiar ruggedness that I am more comfortable with, so I decided to follow their back to their wagon train of trucks to see what they were up to. You see, I am, well, WAS an old timer who used to mine this region. I worked up at Cerro Gordo during the big silver rush. THOSE were the days. Yup, we used to work the mine all week and then dare each other to ride the silver buckets down the mountain and get a little tanked up at the saloon in Keeler. The return trip to Cerro when you’re stumbling down drunk ain’t the easiest thing ta do. Heck, those buckets tip, and that first step is a big one. That’s how I ended up in this quaint little cemetery near highway 136 and Cerro Gordo Road. My name’s Ira, but they call me Scruff, cuz I’m short and get into fist fights at the saloon, and everyone grabs me by the scruff of my shirt.

Enough about me, back to those crazy desert rats who were out here sleeping in the sagebrush. There were about 10 of ‘em. They sounded like the bunkhouse on a work night, if you know what I mean… they were busy snoring away... quite a few of ‘em were. The ones who were still up were busy having a conversation near the fire they had going to warm themselves with. Imagine, people still sitting around a campfire out in the desert! I had seen enough city slickers to blow that thought out of my head, but here they was!

“Well, tomorrow we head up that road to Cerro Gordo, and we take it west towards New York Butte.” I heard ‘em say.

Heck, I had done that a hundred times with old Myrt, that’s my mule, draggin her behind me. We would work the Burgess Mine up that a way. What in the world were these guys up to? They didn’t have any mining gear that I could see. More and more trucks kept coming, but most everyone had gone to bed. I decided to snuggle in with the Grau couple who had that little dog, Bogie. Cute little guy, sort of a miniature sheep dog.

The next mornin one of the guys by the name of Steve Smith gathered everyone around, and they all started introducing themselves. I thought it was weird.. . . a bunch of people who didn’t know each other were headin up to New York Butte, but heck, like I said, I wanted to check out what they were up to. I thought sure I recognized one of them, I think I saw him back in 1940’s with that Chester Versteeg guy. Those guys would climb mountains, just cuz! Said his name was Bill Hauser, I do remember him. Anyway, they all went around the circle sayin their names:

Pat, Dean and Gozer Acheson, Rich Abele, Dennis and Diane Baker, George Baland, Susan and Scott Crandall, Lygeia DeJesus, Ellen, Ron & Bogie Grau, Bill Gray and Keats Hayden, Gail Hanna, Bill Hauser, Henry Heusinkveld, Sue Holloway, Scott, Yvonne Jamison & 2 doggies, Fred Johnson, Teresa Johnson, Cliff Jones, Linda McDermott, Mary Sue Miller and Jim Murphy, Bob Michael, Mary and Rayne Motheral, Ping Pfeffer, Bill Raisner, Ann Marie Schober, Brian Smith, Fred Smith, Steve Smith, Shane Smith, Bill Spreng, Bill Stevens, Larry & Barbee Tidball, David Welboum, Pete Yamagada, and Ron Young. Like I said. . . weird. Next thing I knew everyone was jumpin in their trucks and headin’ up the pass. We all hung on and looked out over the edge of the road. EEEEEHA! Love that road. You can see the whole Sierra Range drivin’ that road. We stopped just above the town of Cerro Gordo. The place looked like a ghost town. Nobody there. Was quite a jumpin place in my day, but now all that was there was the mine, bunkhouse, hotel, Dr. Bellshaw’s house, and the store. Some people got out of their trucks and hopped in with some one else. They also signed some piece of paper while they were there. Darnest thing I ever saw, and then they all hopped in the trucks and took off again! I still can’t figure out what these people are up to.

We skirted around the edge of the ridge, literally. The road was in pretty good shape, me and Myrt used to only have a trail. The views were incredible. The road hugged the side of the hill, and we rolled along single file. When we got to a wider portion of the ridge, the area was kind of a meadow. You could see the Saline Valley off one side and the Owens Valley off the other. We kept right on goin’. Used to take me and Myrt a whole day to get this far. The road then headed down into Furnace Canyon. It’s called that for a reason, in the summer it gets hotter’n Hades down there. Somehow a few trees manage to survive here. We drove amongst them and through a wash for a bit. Then the road began to go up. We were gathered in a grove of junipers. Now we get to a point where everyone stops. The road has a hairpin turn and sits on a pile of shale. The first few trucks have no problem. Then one of them takes the turn too wide and can’t get up the steep incline. I looked over to my right, and there was a shell of another old jeep that didn’t quite make it up this bill. After a few ‘runs at it’ the driver was able to scoot up the hill with the others. Soon everyone was on top, and we now had the gorgeous Inyo/Sierra view again.

Soon the Salt Tram came into view. The road took a slight dip, and we now were driving in a stand of pine trees. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the cabin. It had a brand new roof and porch. Looked great! That 1920’s place still stands after all these years. I looked over at the Tram and could see the huge beams of wood that supported thick steel cable and salt buckets. The Tram was used to haul salt from the Saline Valley over the Inyos to the Owens Valley. There it was loaded into the hopper cars of the little Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge Railroad. Now those guys knew how to run a railroad. I used to hitch rides on top of one of the boxcars. The sound of the steam whistle echoing off the Inyos still brings a tear to my eyes.

Barbie and Larry Tidball decided to stay at the Tram and go on an explore. I could tell ‘em some stories about riding that Salt Tram bucket. Scared the livin’ b doggerhounds out’ a me lookin’ down that gaping canyon up the Saline side. WHEW! The rest of us continued on to the Burgess Mine. We drove just beyond it and pulled up to the base of New York Butte.

We all piled out of our trucks and started putting packs on. I wanted to tap some one on the shoulder and tell them there ain’t no silver in New York, but I figured they wouldn’t listen to me anyway. They all collected at the base of the mountain and then followed that Steve guy up the hill. Ellen put a pack on and stuck that cute little dog in it. I was thinkin of hitchin a ride myself. The other dogs were too big and had to make the trip on their own. Gozer had to turn back, the years had made it too hard for him to continue. He was there in spirit though. I saw a big doggy smile on his face. He went back to the truck with one of the other ladies. I gotta say these gals sure beat the heck outta the old crusty mining broads I used to know. They are in great shape and are pretty nice lookin’, plus they take baths. They don’t smell a bit like old Clementine!

Well, I didn’t have nothin else ta do, so I followed ‘em up the peak. They got on top and celebrated. Their next job was to dig out their lunches and take pictures of each other, that was kinda fun to see. The view of the sierra was incredible from here. Mt. Tom, the Sierra Crest, Mt. Whitney, was all spread out before our very eyes. They took a group photo or two and then started back down. The day was gorgeous, the sun was shining and everyone was moseying down the path.

We got back to the trucks and headed back towards Cerro Gordo. Part of the group was going to do Pleasant Peak, so they took off ahead of everyone else. As the latter group started back, one of the lead trucks got a flat, so everyone pitched in to fix it. In no time the whole group started moving again. We stopped at the Tram, and Steve Smith gave everyone a little history lesson on the Tram location and its contribution to the Saline and Owens Valley’s residents. The Tram never made any money, and probably lost money, but hey, it was a speculator dream. That is what made this area famous, the whole place was built on dreams, from the mines to the tram to Cerro Gordo, Keeler, and the little narrow gauge railroad. Dreams. . . that is what we all live for, and maybe that is what these people were all about. . . dreams and hopes and adventures.

Our adventure along the New York Butte ridge was comin’ to a close. There was to be a celebration at the Saline Valley Road turnoff where they put that old boxcar. My fellow ghost friend, Amos, likes to hang out there. He used to be a fireman on the railroad, which is why he chose to live out (gosh I guess that could be die out) his days and nights in this boxcar. As we joined up with the Pleasant group whose trucks were parked at the base of the peak, a few stragglers were makin’ their way down the peak. They said that approach was a lot steeper than the usual one, whatever that means. They also said it was a lot of fun to hike Pleasant from that direction. These peak baggers are a funny breed. The Pleasant group brought up the rear as we all headed back down the road.

On the last leg of our trip we rounded the bend near Cerro Gordo, encountering the ‘Oh my gawd’ worry that everyone has on this road. Yup. . . another truck coming from the other direction. This road. . for those who have been on it know . . . is a one-lane road. There is no margin for error, no quarter given for a tire off the side.. it will be your last ride. So after a few choice words and some backing up by the one truck. . instead of the group caravan the choice was made for the one truck to pull into a tiny bend in the road. Fortunately for the guy, the bend was on the inside of the hill, so he wasn’t risking the loss of his vehicle, let alone his life. He did, however, get a few scratches on the side of his truck from the rock walls that he was hugging.

At Cerro Gordo the group split up. Some went down the Saline side, and others took two wheel drive people back to their cars near my cemetery. I decided to go visit Amos so rode along with the Grau’s and their dog, Bogie. Bogie and I both hung our heads out the window. Kind of fun if you’ve never done it.

When we got to the party spot, there were more desert rats out there, Loni and Eric Beck, Neal Scott, and another old timer, Randy Bernard. They had already started partying and had a few tables set up by the boxcar in preparation for happy hour. It wasn’t long before the bottles of wine and hors d’oeuvres filled the tables that were being set up. Barbie was busy grilling chicken for everyone. Boy it smelled good! She made a pit and had marinated chicken roasting away on an open fire. I like these desert rats. They know how to party. I had to be careful that no one saw chicken floating in the air, so while everyone was busy up at the tables, I got me a piece from the fire, and so did Amos.

After everyone had eaten a great potluck, they gave out prizes and had a slide show! Ellen brought a generator to run the projector, and Steve gave a great show on the Inyos and the various cabins that they have been fixin up. We all sure had a good time, including Amos!

A few of the folks drifted off to their trucks to go to bed. The old die hards stuck around the campfire and drank wine and told stories. I would have offered a few, but figured they wouldn’t understand or know the fellas I was talkin’ about.

The next mornin’, everyone pulled up stakes and took off. Lots of happy “good-byes” and “let’s do this again soon”. It sure was nice to have some company in the desert. I’m hopin to see these crazy desert rats in the near future. I hung out with Amos for a couple days then headed back to my neck of the woods. It is nice to know there are still adventuresome people out there. Maybe I will see them again soon.

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