I have many fine and important American friends. But I have two that I will call on in the end, who I’m fairly hopeful will survive me, to help me achieve my final request. I want my ashes spread on Mono Lake.
Why? Because I was born in California and I want to return there.
Because the Pacific Ocean is an ocean, and I’ve spent too much time abroad.
Because Mono Lake is the most beautiful, haunted place I know.
I’ve always felt that once over the mountains and into the high desert air, I was free of the city, free of the past. Although I spent a lot of time in the Sierras growing up, this was my domain. No family memory shrouded it.
There’s a smell in the air here, and a shimmer not merely of light, but of being, that defies all description. I’ve been in the Sahara and in the Gobi, and this is more intense to me.
The lake itself, with its towers of tufa and the volcanic craters around conjures visions of other planets. But to turn west is the thing.
This is the vision that broke the hearts and minds of many. If you know where to look for Tioga Pass, you may, just may, pick it out. But if you’d never scaled those heights and were already weary in soul, the sight of the Sierra spine rising in full monolithic monstrosity would do you.
Many of the Lahontan era natives, down to the Paiutes and tribal conservators of Yosemite never crossed these mountains. They stayed either side.
Mono Lake was known amongst the Native Americans of the Great Basin as a place of salt and resting seabirds. They intuited an ocean from the nature of the birds-even though they never saw it. A magnificent deduction.
It was and is also a place of flies-and one of the nicknames for the local tribe was “The Fly Eaters,” for their practice of using the salt from the water to dry meat.
Mono Lake is today in a state of severe environmental crisis. It could go the way of the Caspian Sea and other once vital bodies of water.
But just look how glorious she is. A place of mystery and hardship. A place where people died hoping. A place where some, like the rawhide and trail dust Kit Carson said, “We can do this.”
Kit Carson, for all his toughness was a very small man. How did he get over those big mountains? He wisely listened to Indians from the other side. People who were just as surprised as he was to turn back and look west.
To look east from Mono Lake is to view a lost world. To look west is to see what many thought they saw. When I’m done, burn my heart and spread it like salt in the wind across the water, and then I’ll be home.