BAKER, Calif. — Imagine riding a bus 340 miles across open desert and through rugged mountains to play a high school football or basketball game or run in a track meet.
It happens every time Lee Vining and Baker Valley high schools compete. It's a two-day, 680-mile round trip, with the players staying overnight in motels.
Teams representing the four members of the Hi-Lo League travel greater distances than any others in California--maybe in all the 48 contiguous states.
Only high school sports teams in Alaska travel as far, hundreds of miles by the Alaska Ferry System and aboard airplanes for regular league games.
For the Baker Valley High School Braves, it's 250 miles to play the Owens Valley Cubs in Independence and 150 miles--the shortest trip--to face the Immanuel Christian Crusaders at Ridgecrest, the other two schools in the league.
Hi-Lo League schools are small. Owens Valley has 32 students, Baker has 45, Lee Vining has 51 and Immanuel Christian has 99.
The eight-man football teams play each other twice each.
Baker, the tiny Interstate 15 town 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles and 90 miles southwest of Las Vegas, and Ridgecrest are desert communities. Independence and Lee Vining are mountain towns.
Terrain and climate often have a great deal to do with the outcome of the games.
"We're hot-weather players," said Steve Edinborough, a junior who plays center and defensive tackle for Baker Valley in the heart of the Mojave Desert, a few miles south of Death Valley. "We play football in 110- to 120-degree temperatures and don't mind at all. We're accustomed to the heat.
"Playing football in our helmets and uniforms with the sun beating down unmercifully is like taking a shower in our own sweat."
Added Luther Cowley, a junior who plays end: "It's like being in an oven."
Senior guard Shawn Setter said: "The high-country boys hate playing football in Baker. We have a big advantage over them in the heat."
But when the Baker athletes play at Lee Vining, the eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park at an elevation of 6,780 feet, they often play in sub-freezing weather and snow.
"It never snows in Baker," said Jarrod Lewwe, a junior tackle. "It's hard for us to breathe at times at Lee Vining's high elevation. When we play in Lee Vining, they have the advantage."
Most Hi-Lo League games are high-scoring affairs, and if a football team takes a lead of 45 points or more, league rules call for the the game to be stopped.
Last year, Baker moved ahead of Lee Vining by 46 points in the second quarter and the game was, accordingly, called. All that way for not even half a game. Still, it was nothing new. Two years ago, Lee Vining defeated Baker when it ran up a 45-point lead in the third quarter.
This year, 16 boys are on the Baker football team. Last year there were only 10. Six years ago, Baker had to skip the football season because the school did not have enough players to field a team--an eight-man team.
"As far as we know, Baker Valley School District, covering 3,500 square miles of desert, is geographically the largest school district in the state," said John Searcy, 59, district superintendent and principal of four schools--Baker Valley Elementary, Middle and High School and Mountain Pass Elementary School.
"We have 100 students kindergarten through sixth grade, 40 students seventh through ninth grade, and 35 students 10th through 12th grade. Our sports program includes 45 kids in ninth through 12th grades," Searcy said.
Baker Valley High also competes with two non-league Nevada schools in sports, Beatty High 100 miles to the north and Faith Lutheran in Las Vegas.
Students are bused to the Baker schools from 60 to 100 miles away. Some parents drive their children as much as 40 miles to the nearest bus stop and are paid 35 cents a mile in lieu of transportation.
The students are sons and daughters of miners, ranchers, U.S. Bureau of Land Management personnel, California Highway Patrol, Caltrans, and service industry workers at Baker and places along Interstate 15.
Bill Tulk, 53, is Baker Valley's football, basketball and track coach. He also teaches five science classes and is a school bus driver, and has been working his three jobs since 1978.
He lives in Apple Valley, 100 miles from Baker. He leaves home every day before sunup and picks up students on the way to school. Average class size is 10 students but Tulk has 20 in his biggest class. He has only one in his smallest class, though, physics.
He is paid separately for his jobs, his various checks totaling $48,600 a year.
Although there are only 45 high school students at Baker, most are active in some sport and many of the boys go out for all three sports, football, basketball and track.
Senior George Pineda, for example, plays wide receiver and defensive end on the football team, is a guard on the basketball team and runs the mile in track.