Movies are my religion and God is my patron.
Suddenly, after more than 50 consecutive nights outdoors in my sleeping bag and 21 days exploring the Mono and Owens Valleys on foot during Walking Water, I face an inner dilemma: is it possible to stay connected and hold on to the magic?Can I continue to be a pilgrim seeing the sacred all around me while moving at a faster pace and exploring the tourism highlights of the Owens Valley?
Long, hot and challenging walking days in the company of celebrated local film historian Chris Langley, at 71 the oldest Walking Water participant, have led to an invitation to visit the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine and tour the nearby Alabama Hills that have been a favourite Hollywood location for almost a century.
No fewer than 700 westerns have been filmed in the wider area, around 150 of them in neighbouring Death Valley, since comic actor ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle came to town to star in the 1920 silent movie, The Round-Up.
My most recent walk had taken me nearly 190 miles (300km) from the source of the headwaters above Mono Lake to the mostly bone-dry Owens Lake, and here I am today in a 4×4 and questioning whether I’m an authentic pilgrim or just another tourist.I recall the wisdom of one of my mentors, spiritual and ecological activist Satish Kumar, the editor of Britain’s Resurgence & Ecologist magazine, who sees life as a sacred journey and the Earth as our sacred home.
His words reverberate in my mind: “Either we can act as tourists and look at the Earth as a source of goods and services for our personal use, or we can become Earth Pilgrims and treat the planet with reverence and gratitude.
“Tourists value the Earth and all her natural riches only in terms of their usefulness to themselves, while pilgrims perceive the planet as sacred and recognise the intrinsic value of all life.”
So how does this equate to what I’m doing today, I wonder?
Chris drives us into the Alabama Hills and I’m immediately in awe of my surroundings. Hollywood could never have scripted anything more dramatic or inspiring. Giant boulders are strewn everywhere and the rock formations are as spectacular as you’ll see anywhere, their backdrop the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. No wonder so many films were made here, and small wonder that it is also a popular setting for TV commercials for the latest new car models from a host of motor manufacturers. It’s breathtaking!Bob Sigman, the museum’s director, has already urged me to invite visitors to treat the area with the utmost respect. He is saddened that in recent times many a huge motorhome has trampled sensitive vegetation, while some visitors have left more than footprints behind, the litter even including babies’ used diapers.
Chris has coined the phrase: “Don’t crush the brush,” and says the Alabama Hills are sacred to the indigenous Native Americans and should be to the rest of us too. “It’s a place of peace and healing for me,” he says, perhaps thinking of his beloved partner of 47 years who passed away earlier this year.
Local author Mary Austin wrote of the Eastern Sierras as a place of 20-mile shadows. When the sun sets over the Sierras their shadows can be seen right across the valley as they inch up the Inyo mountains on the opposite side.
Chris has brought a series of production stills – huge black and white photographs from many iconic films – and we have fun matching up where the scenes were shot. The rocks are so distinctive that it’s often surprisingly easy to make a match, even many decades later.
I stand where celluloid legends like John Wayne, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, his companion Tonto, Hop-a-Long Cassidy, Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart and others have stood. Or might have stood.Are there famous ghosts stalking these canyons, their gunbelts strapped to their waists and six-shooters at the ready?
The Western genre passed its peak long ago, although its essence survives.
And as word spread of the valley and the Sierras as an impressive location, other film makers arrived. The Sierras substituted for the Khyber Pass in the 1936 classic The Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. And locals fondly recall Gunga Din of 1939 as the big budget epic that involved more than 1,000 people. It starred Gary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Scenes from Star Trek V were shot here and in 2008 the Arabian Desert was the setting for Iron Man, based on the Marvel Comics character and featuring Robert Downey Jr, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Chris has often been on hand to assist as he did three years ago with Quentin Tarantino during the filming of Django Unchained. His director’s chair resides in the museum along with the dental surgeon’s wagon.
Touring the museum is a wonderful trip down memory lane. Chris has so much to share and I know so little of early Western movie history, although I enjoy studying exhibits ranging from famous handguns, saddles, a stagecoach and outfits worn by film heroes to huge original posters.
I have fun watching a superb documentary in the museum’s theatre that tells the story of how the sleepy community of Lone Pine became the busiest film location outside of LA for nearly four decades. The film’s slogan is ‘Where the Real West becomes the Reel West’ and it provides a fascinating overview of the history of filming in the area with clips from movies famous and obscure.
Were there any films that portrayed the Native Americans in an honest light, I wonder? And why was it such a male-dominated world, women often only providing the decoration or love interest for male heroics? Chris explains that the Hollywood spin didn’t always honour truth and historical authenticity.
He adds: “It’s always a startling reality for visitors that nothing is real and they only built stuff to last long enough till they had to take it down, or it fell down.”
The glory of the Wild West is mostly myth and legend, he says, occupying a 20-year timeframe in the late 1800s that is characterised by exaggerated romance and violence.Interestingly the movies grew out of Wild West shows staged by the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch of Oklahoma. They depicted the western skills and horsemanship of ranch hands and the local American Indian tribes, ultimately touring throughout the US and many countries overseas. It was a trail of glory as ranch hands became showmen and then took themselves off to Hollywood and the big time as they became famous actors.
Leaving the museum I raise my eyes towards the Alabama Hills and Sierras beyond. Mt Whitney, at 4,421 metres, is the highest point in the land although it looks no taller than some of the towering peaks it rubs shoulders with.
I decide that when I return for next year’s leg of Walking Water, I’d like to camp under the stars here. And, God willing, I’ll explore Mt Whitney with my footsteps being those of a pilgrim, and not a tourist.