SNOWBOARD PIONEER NORM SAYLER TAKES TIME TO TALK WITH US AT THE DONNER SUMMIT HISTORICAL SOCIETY

 Norm Sayler stands in front of the Donner Summit Historical Society. Photograph by Christopher Langley.

Norm Sayler stands in front of the Donner Summit Historical Society. Photograph by Christopher Langley.

Ski pioneer and entrepreneur Norm Sayler greeted us at the door of the Donner Summit Historical Society, a museum that resembled grandma’s attic more than the Getty in L.A. He is actively friendly and welcoming. It is easy to feel comfortable in the presence of the impish twinkle in his eye and the non-stop sharing of history, experiences and memories of this man who came here in the 1940’s and developed the Donner Ski Resort.

 The library fills a more organized section of the Donner Summit Historical Society. photo by Christopher Langley

The library fills a more organized section of the Donner Summit Historical Society. photo by Christopher Langley

Beverly Lewis, Placer County Film Commissioner and Osceola and my friend, was the person who guided us to Norm. He is a personal friend of hers and after spending two hours with him I can see why. The Historical Society museum is chock full of ski history, signed snowboards, and binder after binder of historical photographs of the area. As we speak, a photograph on eBay on which he is bidding distracts him. He says it is a rare early photo, one he has never seen before.  By the number of binders, albums and photographs organized by subject, and the framed pictures on the walls, Norm has seen a lot of these photographs.

 Donner Summit averages 34 feet of snow annually. DSHS archive photographed by Christopher Langley

Donner Summit averages 34 feet of snow annually. DSHS archive photographed by Christopher Langley

He is proud of his soubriquet of skiing “pioneer.” “One day things were kind of slow at his lift in the early 1980s as he tells it. A guy came along with a snowboard under one arm and a ten-dollar bill in the other. I called down to my lift ticket man and said ‘There’s a guy on his way down there with a board under one arm and a ten dollar bill in the other hand. I don’t want the board but I sure do want the ten spot.’” Snowboarders had been an anathema at most of the ski resorts until then. Too noisy, too easy to learn so no week of paid lessons necessary.  History was made that day at Donner Ski Ranch.

When Highway 80 was put in and opened in 1965, people stopped using Highway 40 as the best way to get to the Tahoe Basin. Things began to change for Sayler and the area. Ski history author Robert Frohlich wrote in the Sacramento Bee on January 24, 2001, “The lively business district between Soda Springs and Donner Lake, with hotels, restaurants and bars, slowly faded leaving the area to 400 year-round residents.”

 A historic picture of the area from DSHS, rephotographed by Christopher Langley.

A historic picture of the area from DSHS, rephotographed by Christopher Langley.

After being President and General Manager of Donner Ski Ranch for 46 years and eventually he sold. Frohlich states, “For Sayler, the car has finally run out of gas. After 40 years of owning one of Tahoe’s little gems, Sayler sold his ski area to a Las Vegas development company, which hopes to develop the property into an alpine-style village.”

Sayler never lacks for opinions and that has always sat well with everyone. He told me that Europe is way ahead of us because we are much environmentally concerned than them. He says this area wouldn’t be nearly as famous if it wasn’t for the Donner party. He see the macabre attraction of cannibalism as attracting people and the word Donner has been tacked on to the summit, the lake and many more historic and modern days places, events and marketing ploys for the area.

 Signed snowboards on display in the Historical Society Museum. Photography by Christopher Langley.

Signed snowboards on display in the Historical Society Museum. Photography by Christopher Langley.

Norm also says that there is no place in California that is better for history than here. Since he sold his place he has worked on preserving history as seen here in this “mom and pop” yet fascinating museum, and his work to make sure Highway 40 was designated a historic highway, and saving the Summit Bridge on Donner Pass in the 1990s.

Other things he pioneered while running his Ski Ranch included mountain biking and supporting telemarkers who were not allowed at other ski resorts. “We were the first to offer night skiing,” he says. “Back in 1958, I string 100-watt lights on the rope tow. It might not have been too sophisticated, but people were out having a ball.”

 Historic skis and equipment fill the second museum next door. A must see. Photo by Christopher Langley.

Historic skis and equipment fill the second museum next door. A must see. Photo by Christopher Langley.

Frohlich points out in his book “Mountain Dreamers: Visionaries of Sierra Nevada Skiing” where Norm has a place of honor along with local ski hero Dave McCoy, Norm “says he was the first to allow disabled skiers an opportunity to play on the ski slopes. He says he was the first to run programs for women and youths, busing children from Sacramento to Donner Ski Resort on the weekends. ‘ It was so popular it got too big for us. I finally handed the program over to a bigger resort.’”

But the morning Osceola and I spent at the Historical Society/ Museum it was Norm himself who was the very best and “living” exhibit.  The stories rolled on and he was a fount of facts, history and especially great funny and entertaining stories. Some were even told at his expense.

 To celebrate hi 80th, Norm received his own panel, one of more than 40 on the 20 Mile Museum. Photo by Christopher Langley.

To celebrate hi 80th, Norm received his own panel, one of more than 40 on the 20 Mile Museum. Photo by Christopher Langley.

He guided us over to his daughter’s ski exhibit that filled several rooms. While new skis and other equipment was for sale what nearly overwhelmed was the history of skiing stored there. It hung from the ceiling and covered all the walls, and many table tops and cabinet surfaces. I’m not a skier but even for me it was fascinating.

Be sure to stop in at the Donner Summit Historical Society at the corner of old Highway 40 (Donner Pass Road) and Soda Springs Road. You might want to check ahead to make sure it will be open and that Norm will be there. He can be reached at (530) 308 9665. He alone is worth the trip. But remember in the winter Donner Pass average in excess of thirty feet of snow annually.

 Be sure to take time to see some or all the panels of the 20 Mile Museum. They are conveniently located. Photo by Christopher Langley

Be sure to take time to see some or all the panels of the 20 Mile Museum. They are conveniently located. Photo by Christopher Langley

 

 

 

 

 

WE CONTINUE ON INTO THE DONNER SUMMIT SNOW SHEDS UNTIL WE REACH A COMMANDING VIEW OF DONNER VALLEY

As we continued on into the next tunnel, it was wetter, darker, icier and longer. The tunnel is illuminated from above in tiny three-foot slits in the cement wall to the left side. These slits look out towards Highway 80 and Highway 40 winding down the hill from Donner Summit.

 Osceola Refetoff photographs a winning image.                   photo by Christopher Lasngley

Osceola Refetoff photographs a winning image.                   photo by Christopher Lasngley

We come to an opening between this and the next tunnel and it is a magnificent view. The wind is cold and coming steadily and also in gusts. I wish I had brought my sweatshirt, which I left back in the car. The clouds are heavy and bode more precipitation. The snow of a couple of days before is rotting in the above freezing temperatures, pouring down the hills all about in miniature water falls, happy to be liberated from the icy chains that had imprisoned them. 

Highway 80 with steady traffic glides through the twists, turns and shallow valleys across the way in an elegant, graceful style. The movement outlines the contours of the land, both scarring it yet signaling its beauty. The ceiling of the next tunnel has water seeps, accentuated by the melting snow. There are deposited salts and mineral in repeated marbled patterns of chocolate browns and ochers. It reminds me of castle walls in Europe although I have only seen pictures of them. The photographer’s struggles to capture these patterns severely tilting his tripod and swiveling his camera upwards is a challenge but worth the effort I predict.

Most of the cement walls have been colored in great swaths of non-pictorial design but the colors remind me of very modern Hispanic art and the mural size remind me of the famous Mexican painters Diego Rivera and Orozco. I am entering an arcane art museum of the people. When we come out again, we see the same altered landscape but from a different perspective. The landscape has been altered by explosives, land moving, and wall construction. We have already seen the famous Chines wall, and I will write more about that next time.

All about us this staunch and sturdy granite peaks, cliffs and piled talus have been challenged. Perhaps these workers held in mind the suffering the Donner party whose name is all about to keep that awful memory before us of how much the pioneers paid in human blood, sweat, tears in some cases flesh.  There are tunnels blasted through solid rock, curvilinear asphalt ribbons ripped into the rough land. Tall power lines arch across the edges and hills, spotted but what I think are microwave towers. There are rock walls, supports and a canter levered bridge across the terrain. Have these engineers, pioneers, highway builders and construction foreman pledged the Donner Party experience would never be repeated here, never again.

Now the sun is shading the land in sliding patches as the storm continues to collect itself. I feel icy wind spitting droplets at me that are getting more and more common.  Osceola is shooting across the valley, just beyond the famous lake.  He is determined to get a winning picture or pictures for the one day annual Shirley Miller Award.

That evening he does just that winning both first place in the Nature category and then best in show the Judges choice for the best photograph in the event.  The photograph is brilliant capturing the view from just beyond the tunnel of the altered landscape of the Donner Summit but still breathtaking in its natural beauty in his infrared exposure.

STORYTELLERS HELP DEFINE PLACE IN THE IMPERIAL VALLEY

BOOK RECOMMENDATION

NOTE: From time to time, I read and recommend books to my readers that continue the discussion happening on this website about the deserts.  I hope you will find these short book reports interesting and helpful.

 By Phillip H. Round; University of New Mexico Press (2008)  ISBN 978-0-8263-4323-

By Phillip H. Round; University of New Mexico Press (2008)  ISBN 978-0-8263-4323-

THE IMPOSSIBLE LAND: Story and Place in the California Imperial Valley

The Imperial Valley of Southern California resists easy definition. In The Impossible Land author Phillip Round writes “Depending on who tells the story, the Imperial Valley in California is a trail of dreams, a cycle of harvests, the hand of God, a heart of fire.” Anyone who has visited The Salton Sea, a body of water created by the rampaging Colorado River just after the turn of the last century, finds now a great challenge to be addressed for the health, economy and wellbeing of the people of Imperial County and all of southern California.

 The Salton Sea on a windy afternoon.   : photo by Christopher Langley

The Salton Sea on a windy afternoon.   : photo by Christopher Langley

A long tradition of telling stories across the world is anchored in place. Round argues convincingly that one way to understand these desert places is through the storytellers who worked there. He begins by exploring three strands of cosmopolitan storytelling in the area. The first from 1901 establishes a desert aesthetic movement in America, exploring the work of John C Van Dyke. Round continues, “The second, which begins about a decade later, mythologizes desert reclamation as a moral imperative of America.” The third strand, he continues, is the story of “human erosion:” dustbowl refugees whose stories were captured by photographer/ writers such as Dorothea Lange.

 Halo bacteria color this pool by the Salton Sea rust red. : photo by Christopher Langley

Halo bacteria color this pool by the Salton Sea rust red. : photo by Christopher Langley

From there chapters explore the stories of Japanese-Americans, Chicano(a)/Mexican and migrating Native Americans. The book concludes with the author raising the question whether this grounding of place through storytellers is just an urban, cosmopolitan conceit of writers and publishers.  He concludes, “I believe there is something to region, but only if one looks at it from the perspective of relation, from both inside and outside, cosmopolitan and local, in an impossible negotiation between implacably real landforms and deeply personal meanings.”

 A dead tree with nests of lesser egrets or cormorants    : photo by Christopher Langley

A dead tree with nests of lesser egrets or cormorants    : photo by Christopher Langley

After visiting the Salton Sea for High & Dry, The Impossible Land helped me make sense of what I had experienced in preparation for writing upcoming dispatches, a story for Palm Springs Life magazine and explaining this area to myself and others.

 Osceola Refetoff photographs the dead tree    :photo by Christopher Langley

Osceola Refetoff photographs the dead tree    :photo by Christopher Langley

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the difficulties of the Imperial Valley better. Phillip Round engages the reader with several storytelling traditions while providing the curious layperson many useful insights into this complex area of many ethnic groups, expansive agricultural enterprises, varied environmental challenges and a giant transitory lake.

C.L.

 One of more than eighty thermal plants at the Salton Sea     :photo by Christopher Langley

One of more than eighty thermal plants at the Salton Sea     :photo by Christopher Langley

A DONNER SUMMIT EXCURSION: THE “GHOST” TUNNEL

High & Dry parked in a somewhat muddy parking area just in front of the famous Tunnel 6, and after looking into the darkened concrete tunnel covered with colorful and passionately executed graffiti, decided to enter. We were near the summit of Donner pass at 7056 feet above sea level.

We had spoken at length with Norm Sayler at the Donner Summit Historical Society, down the road now called Donner Summit Road that was once known as Highway 40, and before that the first transcontinental highway: The Lincoln Highway. Perhaps it is more accurate to say Norm spoke with us as he was a fount of information about everything from the advent of snowboarding for which he deserves most of the credit to the Donner Party. Most have heard of the Donner Party, trapped by one of the snowiest winters on record in this area known as the most snowiest in the United States.

Norm credits the name from this unluckiest of pioneer parties as being the major reason for the interest and the fame of this pass. The word cannibalism is synonymous with Donner. In early November of 1846, once trapped at the pass, the party of 81 emigrants had to winter over. Only 45 survived to reach California; some of these had resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The tunnel was dark, and full of dripping and standing water from a late spring snowstorm. We sauntered in and immediately I thought of every horror picture that had slimy cold-blooded, carnivorous monsters in it ready to jump out at its next victim. This genre is obviously one of my cinematic weaknesses. It was cold and very damp, and as we crept along, the shadows increased in length and darkness.

Along the way ice and snow had flowed into the rectangular vault. We realized that if we weren’t careful, we could easily slip and fall. There was a concrete curb against the ragged rock wall, and we sidled along it. The water and ice glimmered in the weak light. I felt dangerously ill-at-ease with thoughts of cannibals and ghost trains suddenly charging out of the dark. It beat the Haunted House ride at Disneyland all to hell.

The tunnel, built to shield the early trains from becoming bogged down in heavy snows has been abandoned for quite awhile. The timid trains take a new easier route off the pass. As we went along we could see the marks that the Chinese workers had made with mining tools against the granite. Even holes for blasting are still clearly visible. At first they drilled holes, filled them with black powder, tamped them in and after the explosion had to wait for the thick smoke to clear before evaluating what had happened. That slowed work down.

Nitroglycerine was invented in 1846. It produced less thick smoke and broke the rocks in to larger chunks, which were easier to remove by the workers. It also blew up the rock in all directions.  I found one of the rosette patterns burned into the rock, left behind by nitro and ran my hand over it. I could imagine the power of this explosive against the adamantine granite and the work performed by these foreign laborers to create this engineering miracle. They also had to build two “Chinese walls,” but more about that next time.

As we reached the end of this tunnel we walked out into the windy, cold day and looked out into Donner Valley. More tunnels lay ahead, but I paused for awhile to think of all the suffering that had led to this opening of the country to its future, connecting the east and the west. This ghost tunnel has a lot of significance to our national history, our future as a great country, and as a marker to all those who sacrificed in the past to make the present we have today. Our project High & Dry was working where we were high but not dry, yet our project is all about connection as well.

Our visit to Donner Summit was not over though and next time we continue on into the next two tunnels ahead.

C.L.

THE SALTON SEA PELICAN DIE-OFF AWAKENS A YOUNG WOMAN TO HUMAN LOVE

The Book of Dead Birds by Gayle Brandeis

In the novel The Book of Dead Birds, author Gayle Brandeis explores the complex relationship between main character Ava Lo Sing and her Korean mother who survived by prostitution in Korea. Ava struggles to allow herself to love and be loved while living in San Diego. Her mother thinks birds always die when Ava is around. The old woman strangely keeps this history in a scrap book she calls “The Book of Dead Birds.”

When Ava suddenly joins the team working to save thousands of brown pelicans dying of avian botulism at the Salton Sea, she realizes how cut off she has been from human love. Slowly she comes back alive to feeling human emotions.

This novel captures life at the Salton Sea, the mysterious beauty and terrible environmental challenges being inflicted on the birds, fish and mammals. The human struggle to save these giant birds that never make it easy, touches the spirit of the people there and the reader.

I found this novel powerful and engaging, both for the human story of Ava Lo Sing, and for the story of life at this largest yet dying California lake.

The Book of Dead Birds won the 2006 Bellwether Prize for Fiction. The intent of the prize is “to advocate serious literary fiction that addresses issues of social justice, and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.”

C.L.

Visit to Photo LA and exploring the Coachella Valley

Project High & Dry spent a productive four days last week. First, I toured Photo LA with collaborator/ photographer Osceola Refetoff, who had two pictures at two different booths in the show. Then, I attended a challenging panel that included Osceola with two other accomplished photographers: Mark Jay Johnson and Zoe Crosher, moderated by Shana Nys Dambrot. The panel was on art and the aestheticism of activism an important and current theme for artists.

High & Dry then spent the next three days in the Coachella Valley meeting with the Mayor of Indio, Glen Miller, editor of The Sun Runner magazine, Steve Brown, and his wife Delphine and finally with fellow artist of the Salton Sea and more, Cristopher Cichocki.

We also photographed a burned palm field belonging to Christ Is Salvation Church of Thermal and an interview with Pastor Reuben Martinez, who through prayer brought the burned palms back to life. A visit to Coachella Valley Historic Museum, exploration of a failed development on Dillon Road and photography at both ends of the day (the “golden” hour) rounded out the work.  Look for "Dispatches" on dates, the experiences of Christ Is Salvation Church and its pastor, and the Date Festival and marketing use of Middle Eastern imagery.

Another busy winter week!

It’s a beautiful day with a weak promise of some rain tonight and tomorrow. The mountains have much snow but the valley has only had one significant rain, less than half an inch. Enough whining about the weather.

It has been a busy week in the Owens Valley. On Monday, January 17 There was a short movie filming most of the day on Main Street Lone Pine. “No Place to Fall” is the story of a troubled soldier returning to his assignment and spending the last day with his girl friend. A casting call hired a half a dozen locals for the morning at the Bonanza Mexican Restaurant and afternoon and evening at the historic Double L Saloon.

On Saturday, January 15 a movie scout for a Dodge Ram commercial was in town and out in the Alabama Hills looking for four specific shots.  He must have found them because the production will be back next week.

Here_ Now Dodge Ram scout Geoff Juckes.jpg

Also on Saturday was a screening of Gunga Din at the Museum of Western Film History, followed by a tour. I took the group to the assembly area at the fort, the Temple pocket, Tantra Pur Village, the suspension rope bridge and the battle grounds at Ruiz Hill. It was a fun day.

Here_now Gunga Din Tour.jpg

Jon Klusmire and I wrote and performed “A Roast of the Best Things in Inyo” for the Inyo Associates dinner Saturday night. Lots of laughs, groans and gasps, but so far no libel law suits.

H_N roast of best things.jpg

I am very proud of the two new dispatches on the Red Hill disturbed cinder landscape at desertdispatches.com. I was saddened to hear that High & Dry’s friend and mine owner Robert Ray perished New Year’s Day in a house fire at Dunmovin Hill.  He was very helpful to our desert explorations and he will be missed.

Tonight we show Salmon Fishing in Yemen, the movie based on this year’s community read book of the same name. I am host and the screening is free at 7 at the film museum.

Excited because tomorrow, Friday January 22, I leave for Chungking Studio and collaborator/photographer Osceola’s panel with moderator Shana Nys Dambrot. Osceola also has pieces in two different booths of the PhotoLA event (see calendar above for more information.) Then we (High & Dry) will be spending three days exploring the Coachella Valley with dispatches and photographic portfolios to follow. Both fun and hard work!

Yep, a blog!

I am a movie fan and film historian so I thought I would borrow the idea from cinema to offer periodic “Coming Attractions” on what I am working on. My writing comes in fits and starts (doesn’t everyone’s?) orchestrated by my will and cyclical work ethic. Here we go with what I am writing at the moment.

December 10, 2015: A new High & Dry Dispatch

Earlier in the year my collaborator, Osceola Refetoff, and I spent two days at the cinder mine located south of Olancha, California. If you have traveled the 395 corridor, chances are you have noticed the cinder cone called “Red Hill.” The mine is nearby.

I have been polishing a dispatch (unnamed at the moment) exploring how the geological history of an area can be read in the landscape, almost like the way you read a book page by page. It is a “volcanic landscape,” with significant eruptions, lava flows and cinder cone eruptions. They happened 400,000 years ago, 100,000 years ago and as late as 10,000 years ago. The writing and photographs capture the complexity and beauty of this stark, tortured land.

It will be followed by a second dispatch exploring the aesthetics of the “altered landscape” in more detail. You will meet mine manager Ben Boyd, who expresses his feelings about the beauty he sees in the land even as (or perhaps because) he is significantly disturbing or “altering it.” What are the aesthetics to use in evaluating the “beauty” of an altered landscape?

The first dispatch will publish on our website next week. I will let you know when it is officially up.

CHL

NOTE: I took these snapshots documenting Osceola Refetoff and I working as High & Dry at Red Hill. These are not the fine art photographs that will be published with the dispatch mentioned above.