Ashram and Keeler Party (Oct 27th)

Pete assured me that this would be a relatively easy day, a fairly short ride with about 5 miles of dirt. We hit the road, heading toward the sierras.

Eventually we reached the turnoff and it was just… sand.  Oh great. My arch-nemesis.

I crept along slowly, “landing gear” extended in some of the particularly hairy parts. For a while it was fine, but then the road started getting more steep. The incline by itself wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the camber of the road, slanting off towards a cliff. I didn’t take any photos, because momentum was a necessary component of most of this route, and stopping didn’t feel like a safe idea at the best of times.

At one point I took the low route when I should have taken the high one, and my bike started digging into the sand. I rocked forward and back, trying to keep it up and keep going, but it was a lost cause by that point. I ended up backing up onto slightly more solid ground and going the other way instead. “The other way” was a very narrow strip of dirt with tree branches to smack me, which made me nervous.

Eventually we made it to the top of the hill, an area I will generously call a “parking area”. I gladly stripped out of my heavy gear and changed into my toe shoes.  I cable locked everything to the bike – not that I expected to see anyone this far out of the way, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.

We started up the trail to the Ashram. The first part was really steep! Nip stopped now and then to gather pine nuts, pointing out the hundreds of cones littering the ground and offering us a few nuts. He was also a bit of a showoff, walking backwards and talking to us along the way.

We stopped from time to time to rehydrate and enjoy the views. And boy, were the views worth it.

I loved the trees, clinging to life. I wonder how long this one’s been there?

As the trail crept upwards through the sandy terrain, winding around manzanita bushes and hugging the side of the mountain, we discussed the people who built this path, shoring up the sand with rocks to prevent erosion, and hauling up all the materials they’d need to build the Ashram. They must have been pretty devoted to their cause!

A bit over an hour later, we arrived at a stream, coursing its way down the side of the mountain and cascading down cliffs to the valley below.

We balanced on the log and crossed over the water, finding a completely different environment on the other side. In the shade of the mountain, fed by the stream, deciduous trees flourished and carpeted the ground with their leaves, eventually forming soil. Small, delicate grasses found a niche here. It was a sharp contrast to the arid, sandy dust we’d just come through.

Not long after, we found the Ashram itself.

“The history of this remarkable building can be traced back to 1928, when Franklin Merrell-Wolff and his wife Sherifa first visited the area west of Lone Pine, California. Here stands Mount Whitney, which at the time was the tallest peak in the United States. The couple had been told by an Indian philosopher that the spiritual center of a country was close to its highest point of elevation, and for this reason they sought a nearby location to work on several writing projects. Starting at the legendary Olivas Ranch, Wolff and his wife packed their typewriters and camping supplies onto burros and hiked up to Hunter’s Camp, a flat area at the base of Mount Whitney. The pair set up camp near a waterfall on Lone Pine Creek, and spent the next two months contemplating and writing.

Later that year, Franklin and Sherifa Merrell-Wolff founded the Assembly of Man, an educational institution with a generally theosophical orientation. As part of this work, the couple decided to start a summer school near the area they had camped the previous summer. Wolff made inquiries to the U.S. Forest Service about a special use permit for the school, and was informed that in order to receive authorization for such an operation in the High Sierra Primitive Area, the Assembly would be obliged to erect some sort of permanent structure. Moreover, he was notified that building permits for the Hunter’s Camp area were not available. Accordingly, Wolff explored the next canyon south for a suitable site, and found a spot high in a beautiful piñon pine forest surrounded by two branches of a clear, cold creek. The founders of the Assembly of Man decided that the remote and quiet wilderness of Tuttle Creek Canyon would provide the ideal atmosphere for their summer school.

Wolff and the members of the Assembly of Man received permission from the Forest Service to operate a summer school on Tuttle Creek in 1929, and the next year work began on leveling a site for a structure. Wolff handled all of the dynamite used to blast a flat area, and as rock began piling up, he got the idea to use it in the construction of the building. The structure was laid out roughly along the four cardinal points of the compass, and built in the shape of a balanced cross to symbolize the principle of equilibrium.

Building materials such as lumber and cement were initially brought to the site on the backs of burros from Olivas Ranch, and the site was approached from the north side of the canyon. Later, Wolff cleared an access road on the south side of the canyon, which could accommodate a tractor pulling a flatbed trailer. Wolff and his students would spend the next twenty summers working on the ashram, spending their days engaged in hard labor and their evenings with music and study around a campfire. The group also held formal services at the site, with Wolff and Sherifa officiating.” – Tuttle Creek Ashram

We explored the structure. It was pretty impressive! Very solid. It looked like other visitors used it from time to time. Were they strangers, like us, or part of the Wolff pack?

Upon the hearth, tucked in a corner, I discovered a tiny statue. Shiva?

On one wall hung an owl pendant. It was gorgeous, but it belonged with the Ashram.

A large altar was the only structure in the building. The surface bore these words: “Father, Into thy eternal wisdom, all creative love, and infinite power; I direct my thoughts, give my devotion and manifest my energy; That I may know, love, and serve thee. – Anon”

The view was lovely. I would have wanted a much larger window if this were my project, but the reality of the snowy winters at this high of an elevation was probably more of a deciding factor.

We sat outside and contemplated our navels for a bit. I mentioned an interest of mine, Vipassana meditation, and suggested that they focus on their breath, if they were interested in meditating. We spent a few minutes relaxing this way.

Spying another building nearby, I decided to take a look, and found this creepy shed.

We had noticed that the roofing was… well, missing, leaving most of the wood exposed. Inside the shed I found some roofing tiles which suggested that somebody was (hopefully) replacing it. At least somebody cares about preserving this place!

By this point, we had enough of the Ashram, and began our trek back to the bikes. I gathered some pine nuts along the way. They were surprisingly tasty! They made my fingers sticky and black with sap though, and I ran my hands through the dust to try to keep from sticking to myself. We made far better time on the way down.

Back at the parking area, I geared up and maneuvered my bike to point down the trail we’d come up. I tried to hop on, and the camber got the better of me, sending me slowly flopping over onto my left side. D’oh! I had the bike back up before Pete could get out his camera, and with that indignity behind me, we began our trek back to pavement, Nip leading the way.

This was better in some ways, but worse in others. On the one hand, I didn’t have to worry about being unable to make it up the hill, on the other, I had to control my inertia while being cautious of my brakes in the sand. For the steep parts, the sand was thankfully not bad, and I was careful to mimic the path that Nip was taking, sticking to the high parts of the camber and out of the deeper patches.

Back on pavement, I was thrilled to get out of first gear, and followed Nip through the back roads. He led us to an unusual place called the Alabama Hills.

The rocks looked like something from another planet. Erosion had left many arch shapes and odd, lumpy oval boulders from the ancient volcanic rock covering the landscape. This is a popular movie filming location – everything from old westerns to Star Trek, Tremors and Iron Man has parts shot in this area. There is a movie museum in Lone Pine, but I didn’t get a chance to check it out.

Continuing along, we found this shack, carved into the mountainside. There were a bunch of holes, presumably for ventilation, and we speculated that it was probably used for dynamite storage originally. Nip mentioned that these sorts of places used to be called “hippie holes”, because people lived in them back in the 60s. Seems like it’d be pretty cramped, but free rent at least!

We noticed how late it had become, and Nip decided it was time to hurry! There was a Halloween party in Keeler that he didn’t want to miss! After a brief detour to Nip’s place, he and I rode to Keeler in the setting sunlight. Pete decided that the day had gotten the better of him, and that he’d rather just relax instead. Fair enough!

I didn’t have a costume, and figured that if anyone asked, I was a motorcycle nomad. Nip at least had a skull mask, and after chatting with some people, I found him cutting a rug with some of the local ladies.

There were a surprising number of people for this event, given that Keeler is so small that it isn’t even considered a town. It’s apparently classified as a “census-designated place”, but the whole town (as well as nearby Darwin) seemed to show up. There was quite a spread, people had brought tons of food potluck-style, which took up multiple tables.

I wandered around aimlessly, talking to a few people. I am not much of a social butterfly at the best of times, especially not when I am a stranger, and have almost nothing in common with most folks. I met a few interesting characters. One bearded, crusty-looking mountain man with a large backpack introduced himself as “Paint Your Wagon”, and told us stories of how he’d hiked up from Mexico and had been recently hiking in the Sierras in a snowstorm. He had nearly froze as he misplaced his camp in the low visibility. Another woman, Canyon, lived in nearby Darwin, and described herself as a hiker. “People ask me what I do, you know? And I hike. That’s what I do, who I am, but most people don’t get it.” She’d come back to town after the recent chill had made her hikes a less positive experience. I relayed some of my adventures, to a fairly positive reception, although most people didn’t seem too terribly interested.

I ate, I watched people dancing, and eventually I decided that I’d done about as much talking as I felt like, and decided to take my leave. The ride home was brisk, to say the least, without my liner, and I was grateful when I escaped the wind. I had a good night’s sleep in anticipation of another day of adventure ahead!

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