Walking Woman

A parable of Western restlessness.

  • Images (c) Istock, photo illustration by Shaun C. Gibson

Just outside of Big Pine, on the east side of the Sierras, a shot-pocked sign reads "Owens River." Swallows snap insects out of the air and feed them to nestlings in the mud caves under the bridge. Sage tinges the air. On one side, treeless hills hunch in the sun; on the other, peaks disappear into the sky. The snowcaps look like clouds, only more finely etched.

Descending from Tioga Pass on highway 395, I pull over. Almost a century after Los Angeles built the aqueduct that siphoned all its water to the city, the Owens River is full again. In response to a court order, the mayor turned on the tap in December 2006, hoping that this parched landscape could be brought back to life. This, I have to see.

Some landscapes are so tied to specific writers that you can't pass through without their words coloring the rocks, spilling into the streams. The Owens Valley is haunted by Mary Austin. It's hard to look at these dry mounds without thinking: "There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermillion painted, aspiring to the snow-line." A red-tailed hawk in this country is always "swooping and soaring with the airs of a gentleman adventurer" and the canyons are "scored out by the glacier ploughs of God."

These descriptions are from Land of Little Rain, published in 1903, a book that uncovered the gleam of a place usually dismissed as ugly and barren. Writing about the desert, Austin lovingly charted its water: the creek trickling out of the mountains, cloudbursts, tule swamps, an unexpected blizzard that blinds a wolverine. Even the irrigation ditches are vibrantly alive, edged by willows and European mallow, guarded by men with guns and women with shovels.

When she learned that Los Angeles planned to buy up this water and divert it to the growing metropolis, sucking the Owens Valley dry, Austin protested. She wrote scathing articles for the San Francisco Chronicle, confronted the project's chief engineer in his office, described a thinly disguised Owens River in The Ford, her novel of water rights. In the newspaper, she asked: "Shall the question of domestic water in California be determined by craft and graft and bitterness and long-drawn wasteful struggles, or conducted with rightness and dignity to an equal conclusion?"

The state opted for long-drawn wasteful struggles, topped with a heaping dose of bitterness. The aqueduct opened in 1913, and the river, the community and the ecosystem that Austin had brought to life on the page drained away and turned to dust. Lawsuits, accusations of treachery, and attempts to blow up the aqueduct followed. Austin died in 1934 after decades of a futile fight.

My favorite piece by Austin is a short story, a parable of restlessness called "The Walking Woman." A mysterious figure wanders through the Southwest desert. Her legend grows as she passes through sheep camps and cowboy corrals, appearing suddenly and then moving on. The narrator, a woman herself, claims sympathy with the Walking Woman (or "Mrs. Walker," as she is more formally known). She understands "that nature which wastes its borders with too eager burning" and has "some inkling of the isolating calm of a desire too high to stoop to satisfaction."

When the two finally meet, the Walking Woman talks of unexpected things -- the love of a good man and a nursing baby. Transitory loves: The man leaves, the child dies. The narrator cannot tell if the woman is pretty or ugly, crazy or sane. The Walking Woman is dry and flinty and she offers no glimpse of her internal landscape. Her perseverance is unexplained. And then she walks away. Whenever I would read about the dry riverbed or the dust storms where Owens Lake used to be, I thought of Austin pacing there like the Walking Woman, an unsettled, angry ghost.

Here by Austin's river, four men stand on the bank out of the hot wind, casting for trout. Birds rise in a dense cloud from a tree. In environmental writing, even when you report the most triumphant victory -- a lush valley left intact, a species on the rebound –– the last sentence is always "but there's more work to do, as new threats gather on the horizon." The stories never end; they just go on unspooling.

But sometimes the defeats aren't permanent either, even if it takes a hundred years to undo them. And any victory calls for a measure of glee. A fish breaks the surface of the Owens River; a splash breaks the quiet. I shuck off my shoes and step in. The mud, sparkling with mica, sucks at a toe. It's not a beautiful place: the thick willows and tule reeds crowding the shore, the water green and silty, the pickups kicking up dust on their way to Nevada. But Austin would see its charm. Maybe near a deep spot, where the current builds and the river shows a flash of muscle, she'll unlace her walking boots, dip her feet in, and rest awhile.

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