Christmas in Saline Valley have always been the best holidays in memory. While the world traditionally strains under the pressure of the holidays, Christmas in Saline Valley embodied the very best of tradition and celebration. There is no last minute shopping. There are no parking challenges at the mall. I often had to remind myself it was actually Christmas time.
It doesn’t look a bit like Christmas
I first arrived in Saline Valley on December 5, 1985 at about 5 p.m. at the Lower Warm Springs to spend the next seven years off the grid. I can remember the time and date of my arrival to start a new life far from the cares that are. I had fled from several feet of snow at 9,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies with my little trailer towed behind my Ford Econoline. True luxury compared to my first venture into the valley five years earlier in a 1960 VW bus. From the high country of Colorado to the High Desert of California (though coming from the playground of the Colorado Plateau I thought calling an elevation of 1,000 feet “High Desert” to be rather presumptuous). A few weeks after my arrival I made my first trip to town … a three hour drive down 35 miles of rough dirt road over a 7,000 foot pass into Bishop. I could not understand why I was seeing holiday decorations everywhere. I then remembered that despite the relatively warm temperatures and lack of snow it was December and Christmas was around the corner. There was no media at the Warm Springs camp to drive home the point that it was time to buy and buy and buy some more.
One thing I did buy was an ample supply of Budweiser beer. I chose Bud (not what I would otherwise call beer) because of the holiday theme of the packaging on its case. When I got back to camp, I cut out the best parts of the artwork in the dimensions of a postcard and mailed my friends their “I’m-too-cheap-to-buy-real-Christmas-cards” Christmas card from Saline Valley. They were such a hit that this became an annual tradition.
Traditional Christmas in Saline Valley
The following year typified the very best example of Christmas in Saline Valley. I had made a trip to town and spent the night with friends. It had snowed that night in the high North Pass. I had the rare pleasure of making first tracks in the fresh snow through the Inyo Mountains. “Over the river and through the woods” played in my head as I forged ahead in a magic land of white wonder, snow still falling gently around me. Along the way I stopped and explored the side of the hill for the perfect tree for Camp. Not a big tree, but the perfect shape and size for the quiet corner of the lawn next to the community fire pit.
Arriving with the tree, we drove a spare piece of PVC pipe (essential plumbing repair item at the Springs) into the ground which made the perfect stand for our little friend. The next day our little community of residents and visitors (low numbers as most folks stayed with family at home) set about to decorating the tree with handmade ornamentation. Simple luminaries hung with care were crafted from beer cans (always in plentiful supply and easily restocked) and votive candles. Garlands of popcorn. Someone had pipe cleaners and we made human stick figures that were anatomically correct and ready to celebrate. Whatever was handy and crafty we designed to adorn our tree.
The center piece of camp at Lower Warm Springs always used to be the community fire pit. People would gather regularly for daytime socializing, swapping of jokes, stories and lies, and home spun music and jams. Christmas morning added a measure of magic as residents and visitors mingled between soaking in the hot pools and lounging along the benches at fireside. “In,” Christmas in Saline Valley was always more about the spirit of Christmas than the material marketing and craving associated with the holiday “out” in the world at large. The main activity of the day would be the holiday potluck, where all gathered in community to share the fare and engage in feast and libation. Paul and Jeannie Herrshaft would arrive every year in plenty of time to smoke a turkey. Jeannie was a wonderful cook and always fed the camp during their visits. (She would not even let people do the dish clean up … what a woman!). When they were no longer able to travel “in” Paul turned the smoker over to me and I carried on the tradition for years after in their memory. I still use the smoker to this day.
Camp was never terribly busy or crowded on Christmas Day. There was generally room around the fire pit for everyone and snuggling close helped to keep everyone warm on a cold night. Those who were not around the campfire were probably in one of the hot pools keeping warm easily. In the evening Guitar Frank would remind us how it is Hard to be Humble and trace the family tree that made him his own grandpa. The entertainment would dosey-doe through the evening between musicians and yarn-spinners adding magic and color to God’s little brown acres.
On to the New Year celebrations
As the week progressed headlights would cut their way through the passes and up the Bat Rock Road to camps as people “out” there would turn from family commitments to “other” family ties “in” the Valley. Our campfire circle would become larger and louder as excitement and numbers grew. So much fun to be had and shared. The pressure of Christmas is past for another year … time to take the lid off and let out the steam.
For those who might be around to remember, I have to reminisce on one of the funniest nights I can ever remember. A regular favorite around camp was Kim S., a delightful Japanese lady married to Mike, who we tolerated because he had the unlikely good fortune to have married Kim and brought her to camp with him. (I liked Mike better than many because I understood he was actively seeking out and pushing people’s buttons for the entertainment value of watching them unravel.) There were conjectures that Kim might be a mail-order bride because no woman in their right mind might be inclined to marry Mike and she did not speak English very well. She spoke well enough to be very cute (aside from her physical beauty). The night before New Year’s Eve, and under the influence of copious quantities of cheer (us and her) we decided she might be even cuter armed with a few choice cultural colilloquies. Kim was at the campfire with us while Mike was back in their camp, because we were more fun than Mike. We all certainly were, and in especially rare form as we collectively warmed up toward the big celebration the next night. Decorum prevents me from detailing the particulars of the tutorial. Let it rest that Kim fully embraced her new phraseology, we all laughed harder than I can remember through the night, and Mike packed up his camp, kids, and a very hungover wife the next morning to leave before the real celebrations could inflict any further damage. The guy could dish is out, but he couldn’t take it so close to home. I still love him.
We were all a long time recovering the next day and the New Year’s Eve party got off to a typically late start, but start it did and we made up for lost time. After the traditional potluck community supper we set about to the traditional pot of witches brew. On the side of the fire ring we would place a large cauldron and everyone in camp would bring whatever groggy contribution they cared to donate to the collective demise. In goes the Gallo, the Riunite, the Smirnoff, the whatever along with some fruit juices and slices of fruit but hold the onions please. I supplied the cauldron and found this to be a good opportunity to unload cases of unfinished booze bottles that various visitors had donated to the general cause and my delinquency (aiding to the delinquency of a Major?) throughout the year. What I never told anyone along the way was that the cauldron I provided was the same pot I used all year to clean my socks. What you don’t know wont hurt you, but the witches brew is guaranteed to pretty much kill you.
We would collectively prop up one another around the fire until the countdown to midnight when everyone would leave the camp fire and cross the road to the bonfire. Throughout the year members of the camp would pile up a mountain of brush from trimmings and landscaping around camp and set it to blaze at midnight. Only a year’s worth of clippings and trimmings could hope to be as well lit as we were. On one particular New Year’s Eve I had met a girl and sat with her all night until it was time for the fire. I took my date across the road, the flames soared and the hoots rang out. We embraced in a loving hug, engaged our lips to the anticipated kiss, and we were both so toasted she fell back or I fell on top of her. Let’s say we fell for one another and she smiled saying “No one has ever kissed me like that before.” Twenty-three years later we are still married to each other.
Saline Valley first inspired me to pursue a more serious engagement with the art of photography. My favorite picks are shared on my Smug Mug Gallery of Saline Valley Art at: https://timenspace.smugmug.com/Saline-Valley-Art/
Saline Chronicles directory and overview: https://timenspace.net/saline-valley-chronicles/
As you read these humble efforts to transcribe some heritage and history, if you find you have some correction, clarification, or tidbit to add, I encourage you to add a comment at the end of this blog. Contributions will be welcome toward the final project, and all due credit will be given.
Jill Breedon wrote her own recollection of a Christmas at the Springs some years back which I am happy to add to the collection: