A Sense of Wander

September 21, 2004
Filed under Travel

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One of the things I like about travel – perhaps what I like most, in fact – is discovery. Some travelers do research before they depart, investigating possible destinations, ranking area attractions and planning activities in which they’ll participate once they arrive at their oh-so-perfect locations. Before taking off, they rush to Barnes & Noble to peruse travel books and sniff out which campsites offer the best views, which diners serve the most delicious chicken-fried steak and which lakes will likely provide a tasty trout dinner.

These people can explain the intricacies of the Google Internet search engine the way Wayne Gretzky can ice hockey. To them, maps are religious texts. If they could, they’d have a compass surgically implanted in their forehead. I, conversely, research only the box scores before I depart. “Hmmm, the Yankees are in first place by three games. Looks like I should try ice climbing.” Boy Scouts do not travel this way. If I were in charge, I’d hand out merit badges for improvisation. My favorite kind of clothing is the seat of my pants.

I don’t care about weather reports or the price of tea in China. Preparation seems like cheating to me, since life is a series of curve balls. My response isn’t to sit in the dugout and read the pitcher’s stats and gauge his motion but to stand in the batter’s box and take my best cuts. That said, this philosophy recently left me soaking wet and naked. I had heard there was a tiny town in the middle of nowhere that I needed to see. Since all points in my internal compass point to the middle of nowhere, I set out, not knowing much more than that I was supposed to turn left at the “small green church on Highway 395.”

My destination was about 40 miles away in eastern California, near the Nevada border. Established during the mining boom of the late 1800s, which produced more than $4 million in silver, Benton Hot Springs today sits at the base of the White Mountains as a tribute to the fickleness of fate. I put myself in discovery mode, then immediately felt the adrenaline rush I get when I head down a road I’ve never been on, a recipe for adventure in my book. A few miles south of the town of Mammoth Lakes on 395, I saw the sign for Benton Crossing Road, then turned left at the small green church.

The road jogs east for a short way, then turns right and basically parallels 395 until Crowley Lake forces the road tojump east toward the mountains. While I saw land I was familiar with from a new perspective, I stopped frequently to capture the dramatic beauty on film – the wide valley blanketed in snow, the jagged mountains sawing at the ominous-looking sky. The road soon zipped east, and as it zagged through the foothills and then into the mountains, past windmills that looked as though Don Quixote had already vanquished them, the bicycle-route signs posted every so often impressed me, indications that some people set out on real adventures.

Some day, perhaps. But that fine February day I was more than content to watch the scenery as it turned from high-desert browns to mountains draped in white. Flatness quickly turned to steepness, and straight lines curved, time and again. Then just as quickly, the mountainous, pine-filled terrain gave way to scraggy jumbles of rocky outcroppings. Desperadoes should be hiding from a fast-closing posse in this landscape, I thought. And, appropriately, not long after this western flashback nudged my consciousness, I made a sweeping right and saw below me a snapshot from the past. For a second I saw the scene in sepia tones.

I stopped the truck and read the historical marker, which revealed that the town of Benton Hot Springs has a population of 13-½. A plaque on a boarded-up white building reveals that it originally served as a Wells Fargo Agency and General Store. The large green letters above the porch state that the town was established in 1852. The Old House across the street offers antiques, bric-a-brac and gewgaws. I was half surprised to find someone minding the store. Holly Miller, who greeted me warmly as I entered the Old House, fell so in love with the town when she came to stay at the Inn at Benton Hot Springs a few doors away that two weeks later she became one of those 13-½ residents. She explained that the sign is not a real historical marker but an inside joke.

According to Holly, Buster Bramlette, one of the town’s original founders, liked to say, “You have 12 men on a jury, one judge and half a chance of winning.” Hence a sign was born. Buster’s grandson Bill Bramlette currently owns the town and the surrounding 1,500 acres with his wife, Diane. Diane showed me around the unusual and “not for everybody” inn, and told me that the hot tubs in back are not always frequented by folks encumbered by bathing suits. Minutes before, Holly had shown me the tubs, which are heated by the nearby hot springs, and I had been cursing myself for not being the kind of traveler who plans ahead – makes a checklist, looks at a map, brings his swimming trunks.

Since I wouldn’t be able to spend the night in one of the handful of rustic, no-hookup campsites, each with its own private, sheltered tub, I should at least be able to take in the mountain views while enjoying a peaceful soak in a naturally heated redwood oases, shouldn’t I? It never felt so good to be unprepared.

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