Whenever I get somewhere interesting in my travels, I start Googling around to look for information on the local situation in terms of history, geology, and whatnot. With the Internet at our disposal, there just isn't much excuse for seeing places and not knowing what you're looking at. Sometimes this Googling around leads me down a rabbit hole, and I find fascinating things.
Like the Beekeeper of McElvoy Canyon.
I am in the Owens Valley in southeast California, the long valley on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The other, eastern side of Owens Valley is bounded by an almost as impressive array of mountains – the Panamints in the south, the Inyo Mountains in the middle, and the White Mountains up by Bishop. As I look east across the valley (photo at the top of this article) I see the middle of the Inyo Range – Mount Inyo, Keynot Peak, New York Butte – all 10,000 to 11,000 feet high.
They get dusted with snow as the spring Pacific storms blow in just like the Sierras, although as successive mountain ranges take their allotment of moisture there's less and less the further east you go. The Owens Valley got enough moisture to be fertile in spots, until Los Angeles stole all the water in the early 1900s. But east of the Inyos, in the appropriately named Saline Valley, all the moisture has been wrung out of the atmosphere, and the mountain streams go down to the valley floor and just evaporate. The valleys leading eastward from the Inyo peaks drop from 10,000 feet to 1500 feet at the Saline Valley floor in four to six miles – that's a very steep gradient.
The people most fascinated with this stuff are the mountain climbers and hikers who have been exploring this area since the invention of their sports – they don't call it the Sierra Club for nothing. Legendary climbers like Norman Clyde, who had more first ascents than most climbers have total peaks, lived here in the Owens Valley from the 1920s until his death in 1982. His successors have hiked and climbed all over these mountains, so I started looking at the hiker/climber websites for information about the Inyos. They were the people who are literally the boots on the ground that I was interested in. They have the data.
Back in the 1980s, these climbers were pumped to tackle the valleys on the eastern side of the Inyos, despite the challenge inherent in climbing 9000 feet in a few miles. As they went up McElvoy Canyon, however, they began to find strange things. There were several waterfalls, as you would expect… but beside each waterfall, out here in the middle of nowhere, was a meticulously fabricated ladder, two wires with wooden rungs. One of these was 150 feet tall. Not trusting the ladders, the climbers went up the rock surface alongside the waterfalls, and after the canyon leveled out a bit they spotted a stovepipe sticking up out of the vegetation. Following a beautifully made stone path, there was a carefully constructed cabin, jars of staples on the shelves, handmade table and stools, and beekeeping equipment. They found another stash of beekeeping equipment, including a beekeeper's helmet with net, and cases of Mason jars in a mine further up the canyon. Who was this person? What were they doing way up here in the mountains, building ladders and a cabin, and keeping bees?
Curiosity burned particularly bright for one of the climbers, Wendell Moyer. He poked and prodded the local oldtimers, looking for information about the mysterious beekeeper. He questioned the local Jehovah's Witnesses, whose literature was found in the cabin. And finally in 1994 he tracked down Marion Howard, 84 years old, living in an old trailer near Lone Pine, and moving around the valley as the BLM authorities required him to (two weeks maximum in any location). He scrounged stuff to recycle along the 395 highway, still had a stovepipe protruding from the roof of his trailer, and lived life on his own terms. He told Moyer a fascinating story. He was the Beekeeper of McElvoy Canyon.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Marion had served in World War Two and briefly did automotive factory work, but he didn't like the bosses watching him all the time. He just wasn't cut out for an ordinary life – he was a poor fit in postwar America. Sometime in the late 50s or early 60s, he moved west, wintering in Owens Valley and picking strawberries in Oregon in the summer. And then he went up into the hills, building his cabin and living in solitude in McElvoy Canyon. He had two brothers who occasionally visited, but he did all the work. From the mid-60s until about 1980, he was the only resident, hauling everything he needed up the west side of the mountains from Lone Pine in a big duffel bag, on foot, over a 10,000 foot pass, and on to his cabin. In the winter. He just craved solitude, I guess.
In the 1980s someone found a cache of his honey in Mason jars on the east side at the mouth of the canyon, where he had constructed another beautifully built cabin. The roof is gone now, but you can see the craftsmanship. When Wendell Moyer asked Marion why he moved back to civilization, he said it was because he got a pickup truck, and pickup trucks can't go in the mountains. He still had that same yellow truck in 1994.
Marion has to be gone by now, there aren't any contacts with him after 1994. He's not buried anywhere anyone knows about in either California or Pennsylvania, according to FindAGrave. But he was here, and he left his mark on this wild and desolate piece of real estate out here in the desert. To the climbers and hikers, Marion is the George Washington of mountain living – they have placed bronze plaques at his cabins. Although I'm not going to be lugging a pack up a 10,000 foot mountain anytime soon, I feel a kinship with his quest to live life the way he wanted to, far from the civilization he grew up in. Like him, I don't like sitting around with nothing to do – I like to make things to stay busy. And I am very grateful that I stumbled into his story.