High & Dry: View From A Hole


Rafael Diaz Grave, Pioneer Cemetery. Infrared Exposure. Mt. Whitney in background far right. Lome Pine, CA. 2013. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.
Rafael Diaz Grave, Pioneer Cemetery. Infrared Exposure. Mt. Whitney in background far right. Lome Pine, CA. 2013. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff document human activity, past and present, in the context of future development.

It is surprising how many people, when choosing a cemetery plot, evaluate the view. In Lone Pine, some people have their heart set on an eternal view of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. I work with the Mt. Whitney Cemetery, so I know this happens.

Lone Pine, on the eastern side of the Sierra, at the cusp of the Mojave and Great Basin deserts, has four cemeteries, five if you count the flu epidemic cemetery of the early 1920s. Keeler and Darwin have their own cemeteries, but the locals pretty much take care of the burials themselves.

People in the area have many thoughts about death. Some have very clear visions of the after-life as life eternal based on their Christian faith. Other people have more general spiritual views and do not consider where and how things they experience will be after death. Others believe in reincarnation and being born in a new body. There are those who take great comfort in knowing they are going back to the earth. Then some have no belief at all in life after death.

For people in the area around Mt. Whitney, the mountains present comfort. The peaks are always there, as if a barrier against the outside world and its evils. People feel the mountain escarpment is there "to hold them up." The Sierra Nevada often looks different from day to day. They are snow-covered or bare, veiled in storm clouds, or decorated with puffy cumulus cotton balls. The mountains are always awe inspiring and beautiful.

Maybe people who are concerned about the view from their hole want bragging rights, as do their heirs. "You can see Mt. Whitney from the plot," they might say, as if it was something significant to brag about.

One time a man who lived most of his life in Saline Valley to the east, spent his last years as an old man in the Owens Valley. When he died, his family wanted him to be buried facing Mt. Whitney. His friends argued he should be buried facing east towards the Inyo Mountains and Saline Valley, which lay beyond. It was an area the dead man had once loved more than anything except women, it was argued.

Because there was growing hostility in the community, the man was buried without anyone being sure which way he faced. Only the undertaker knows, and he isn't saying.

To explore more High & Dry: dispatches from the land of little rain visit desertdispatches.com or the project's Facebook page. We welcome your questions and comments.


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