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Destination: Owens Valley : Into Inyo : Not far from Mt. Whitney, a quirky B&B leads to explorations of Independence

August 27, 1995|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Epstein is a Costa Mesa-based free-lance writer. and

INDEPENDENCE, Calif. — Driving back from a ski trip to Mammoth last winter, I was passing through what appeared to be a one-note town on U.S. 395 when I was suddenly confronted with a beautiful courthouse on one side of the road and, opposite, a beguiling old hotel decked out with twinkle lights.

I stopped to investigate the hotel . . . and stepped into another world. Brahms chamber music was playing, tea service had been set out, the furniture looked cozy and there wasn't a soul around. Amazingly, a sign out front advertised doubles for $45 per night! When my wife, Kathleen, recently suggested that she was badly in need of a weekend away, I knew just the place.

The town was Independence, smack in the middle of the Owens Valley in Inyo County, 14 miles north of Lone Pine, gateway to Mt. Whitney.

The hotel, built in the 1920s, was the Winnedumah, which now calls itself "A Bed and Breakfast Inn," if for no other reason than breakfast is included. We checked in late on a Thursday night in July. When we awoke, we looked west over the rooftops to the Sierra peaks, still snowcapped. In the other direction was the Inyo Range.

Mozart accompanied breakfast: serve-yourself cereal, fruit and bread pudding. We took our tea out into the garden, where proprietor Marvey Chapman was tending to her Aphrodite Rose of Sharon and other flowers. She'd just returned from Hungary, where she visited Liszt's home and heard a Schubert concert in Dvorak Hall. "Everybody here thinks I'm eccentric," Chapman noted.

She recommended a hike in Onion Valley, a short drive west into the Inyo National Forest. Morning church bells pealed as we packed our sandwiches. En route to the trailhead at 9,200 feet, we drove past the home that was writer Mary Austin's from 1868 to 1934, described on a plaque out front as the "little brown house at the end of the village street [in] the town that lies in the hill dimple at the foot of Kearsarge . . ., " a reference to the peak and pass above. The trail took us over snow in several places, snow streaked with pink. We didn't think we were suffering effects of altitude; a hiker coming in the other direction suggested it might be an algae. We stretched out on an immense flat rock on the shore of Lake Gilbert. The warm sun and cool breezes provided the perfect antidote to the 90-degree weather in the valley below. We ate lunch and Kathleen fell asleep, wakened only by the buzzing of a bee.

Back in town by midafternoon, we noticed the Eastern California Museum. The first exhibit inside focused on the War Relocation Center at Manzanar, an internment camp south of town, where Japanese-Americans were forced to live during World War II. There was a replica of the Manzanar sentry watchtower, which had been outfitted with machine guns and searchlights, but also golf clubs used at the Manzanar nine-hole course. Most impressive was a print by camp intern Kiku Meanu with a Sierra peak behind--as beautiful as any Japanese watercolor of Mt. Fuji.

Returning to the hotel, we opened a white Bordeaux we'd brought along and, to the strains of mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, enjoyed it in the decidedly eclectic foyer decorated with Guatemalan weavings and animal bones, a grand piano and an Indiana Jones-like suitcase, books and games.

The doors to unoccupied rooms were open, and we snooped. They were generally modest, but No. 125 was a standout, with floral fabrics, an antique dresser and armchair; you'd share a bathroom Euro-style, however, if the hotel were full. (Rooms with private bath are $10 more.)

Not a whole lot of restaurant action in Independence, and the hotel serves dinner on Saturday night only. So we headed for Lone Pine, site of numerous restaurants, not to mention motels and souvenir shops. Steakhouses are the rule here, and at the one we went to--Seasons--we were surprised to find escargot and seafood on the menu; we ordered both, and the food was very, very fine. Seasons was chock full of French and German tourists.

The next day we passed through Lone Pine again en route to the Alabama Hills and Whitney Portal, trail head for hiking and other activities in the Mt. Whitney area.

Since 1920, hundreds of films and TV episodes featuring such stars as Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Humphrey Bogart have been made along Movie Road in the Alabama Hills. TV shows: "The Lone Ranger" and "Bonanza." Movies: "Gunga Din," "How the West Was Won" and, most appropriately, "High Sierra."

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