Archive for March, 2022


Power organizations exert control over the output of creative lives.  While that power stultifies, it also fulfills a legitimate purpose.  It protects an innocent public from bad actors who might pawn off poor work and endanger the end users of their intellectual product.  There are always two sides to this quandary.  This one takes place in Mono Lake country.

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Mono Lake is a saline soda lake in Mono County, California, formed at least 760,000 years ago as a terminal lake in an endorheic basin. The lack of an outlet causes high levels of salts to accumulate in the lake. These salts also make the lake water alkaline. This desert lake has an unusually productive ecosystem based on brine shrimp that thrive in its waters, and provides critical habitat for two million annual migratory birds that feed on the shrimp and alkali flies.  The most unusual feature of Mono Lake are its dramatic tufa towers emerging from the surface. These rock towers form when underwater springs rich in calcium mix with the waters of the lake, which are rich in carbonates.   (Wikipedia)

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When my husband Larry and I blew into Mono County, California in the spring of 1977, our only option was to punt.  His father had changed his mind about inviting us to build a home on the lakefront property Larry and his brother would one day inherit.  We didn’t, however, give up on Lee Vining and its fantastic environs.  It was that unique location that had called to us with such clarity.

The family-owned property was a chunk of the Mono Lake shoreline bristling with tufa towers and underlayed with salt flats that offered an endless source of mineral crystals available for harvesting and marketing.  The Duker clan had bottled and sold the salt for many years and enjoyed its health enhancing benefits and reliable profits.  It routinely performed miraculous feats of physical healing.  I have found nothing so soothing to my irascible nasal pharynx.  One of our best friends claimed that after he was told to report to the hospital for amputation of a gangrenous foot, he instead spent an entire summer ritually soaking it in Mono Lake, 2 ½ times saltier than the ocean.  His foot completely healed.  Long a professional skier and tour guide, he was able to return to his important and necessary career.  The US FDA always looked askance at Mono Lake salt.  Since it is apparently innocuous, nobody is likely to sue anybody, but since there is no big money to be made, nobody is likely to investigate the science behind its ameliorative affect.

The entire lake and surround has since been reclassified under eminent domain and gleefully ingested by governmental organizations, but in 1977 it was still very much a private entity.  Larry’s dear but crotchety old man, Martin Duker, had for many summers parked his pickup camper on the property and enjoyed the clear briny sea air, at 6785’ elevation, on the shore of California’s prettiest salt lake.

The location transmogrified everything it encountered.  Even the local Indian bands, offshoots of the Paiute tribe, that gathered to populate that indigenous habitat, became themselves an oddity.  They camped at agreed upon times of the year along the lakeshore, harvesting the larvae of the flies that populated the salty flats, and collected the nuts of the many pinion pines that grow heartily throughout the area.  There wasn’t much else to eat except an occasional rabbit, chipmunk, or pronghorn antelope, slow enough to get caught.  Maybe it was the limited and peaceful diet that urged the Natives toward a gentle attitude of acceptance of White Man’s law.

By the time we arrived, most of the fly eaters had been absorbed into the dominant population, working for LA Department of Water and Power (DWP), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), or just squatting extra-legally on BLM managed tracts of public land in army surplus tents, teepees being passé even among indigenous cultures.  Interactions were colorful.  Our favorite example was Cecil.  He got around by limping along the highway, feigning incapacity.  As soon as we would pull over to ask where he was headed, he would shove his Army issue metal crutches under one arm, punctuate the moment with an exuberant war whoop, and sprint for our Land Cruiser.  We didn’t mind.  It was a charming prevarication.  His opportunities were limited, and we appreciated how hard it is to control out-of-control circumstances.  He was always good for a yarn or two, knew most of the local history, and gladly shared it.  I was sad to hear years later that after one hitchhike into Lee Vining to get liquored up, he succumbed to a nap underneath a parked car and froze to death.

Even as the location had dictated the evolution of local indigenes, so it worked its will on Larry and me.  He took his new BS degree in Industrial Arts recently earned from North Texas State University to the local building department, was pressed into service as a Mono County Building Inspector, and began to earn an almost decent income.  I was bored and confused about what to do without tech employment, and not wanting to stagnate into a resentful domesticity.  So, when a knock on the door announced the wife of a local architect, I agreed to see if they could do what they promised— teach me how to design buildings. 

With our three sons, Dale (19), Lane (14), and Kurt (3), Larry and I stumbled onto a colorful old house just around the shoreline from the Duker enclave.  We decided to give it a try.  The house, slapped together by a local eccentric named Pat Kelly, nestled among the tufa formations, and was bereft of electricity.  A gasoline generator provided direct current for whatever was cunningly wired to run when the engine was chugging, punctuated by occasional backfires.  Otherwise the site was powerless and mercifully silent.  We approved the independent lifestyle the home stood for.  A propane refrigerator kept things cold; a wood stove kept things warm—at least warm enough.

Pat Kelly had found a hollow tufa tower and set up a toy wood stove inside where on the occasion of pleasant weather he tufa-camped.  It was the only tower with a stovepipe.  Lane, a confirmed romantic, moved his bedroom furniture right in and set up housekeeping.  All went well until he awoke nose to nose with a creature he didn’t recognize.  He moved back into the house at sunrise.  In the town of Lee Vining, he took Mono High School by storm, became a star running back on the football team, later moving to starting Quarterback and then Team Captain.  During his junior year he auditioned and won lead in the school play, but in spite of all that notoriety, he followed Dale back to West Virginia to matriculate as a Mountaineer.

In Mono County Dale got a job with June Mountain Ski Resort where he groomed the slopes with Thiokol Snow Cats.  Later he signed on with Cal Trans (California Department of Transportation), driving their monster snow movers.  They let him take the high-country-snow-specific driving test even though he was blind in one eye, so as not to fault their system for handicap discrimination.  The test consisted of negotiating an oversized truck through an orange cone array under the critical eye of Cal Trans certified experts.  They were sure he would fail it, since depth perception requires two good eyes.  But he aced the test, outscoring the other applicants, overturning not a single cone, and was hired on the spot, but after a while he missed West Virginia and headed back to country roads and mountain mommas.

Kurt, supremely confident, adored his preschool teacher, but became the first kid in Lee Vining ever to flunk kindergarten.  He, with a great deal of patient forbearance, explained to his kinder-mentor that he intended to be a race car driver, and as it follows, would not be needing all that adding and subtracting stuff, much less those a’s and b’s and c’s.  I was confident the future would sort all that out.  It did. 

We loved our scenic views of the lake and respected its changing weather patterns.  One morning we were horrified to witness emergency crews recovering four unfortunate drowning victims who had ventured out onto the lake during questionable weather.  The rescue equipment moved slowly and respectfully past the Kelly house, bearing the bodies to their stricken relatives.  The victim’s boat had capsized, and there was nothing left to do but grieve and console.  “Careful” became our operative code—our watchword.

I began commuting to Bridgeport, Mono’s county seat, to work for the architect who had invested in three professional drawing tables to outfit his attic office.  Since I knew the rudiments of technical drawing, thanks to Carnegie Mellon, and could do axonometric as well as perspective spreads, there was hope we might do some serious work.  Mono County was a down-to-basics kind of place, and certified though he was, Rufus Hale didn’t do the whole architectural package.  There was little market for it.  Local building contractors wanted only a good plan-set and any necessary calculations, in order to win project approved from the Building Department up in Bridgeport.  He gave them what they wanted.  He was a Registered Professional Architect, so his stamp was all the “legal” that was needed for the Department to certify his plans.  It was a good place to learn how to live by the pencil, one sheet at a time.

The Hales taught me, as I figured out how to scribe a standard plan set.  Making like a sponge, I learned what I needed to, interviewing the clients—mostly building contractors— and serving their individual needs.  As soon as I could do the work, the Hales let me.  I enjoyed the creative work, and the beautiful scenery laid out along the daily commute from Lee Vining to Bridgeport.  That took me across Conway summit at 8143 feet, the highest point on US Route 395.  It is truly God’s country.  The Indians called it the place where the Great Spirit dwells.  The beauty was all the religion I needed.  Every trip was a prayer.

It could have gone on that way forever, but Mrs. Hale began repeatedly showing up with bruises,  black eyes that she tried to cover with makeup, and odd hitches in her gait.  I asked her if she needed help, and she broke into tears.  Rufus, it turned out, in spite of the “his and hers” underwear blessed by the local certified Mormon official, that was supposed to purify marital thoughts, was venting his existential frustration on the body of his beloved spouse.  It was a remote location, where I was enclosed eight hours every day with a big man who had a problem with his temper, and his wife whom he was beating.  I was frightened for her, and also for myself, having never subjected myself to testicular violence.  Both my husbands could yell, but never raised a hand against me.  They knew that would never play.  When I explained my fears to Mrs. Hale and apologized to her for having to move on, she pleaded with tears plying down her cheeks, “Please don’t leave me alone with him.”  What could I say but no?  I urged her to consider that it was past time for her also to depart, and I was out of there.

Larry supported my decision and restricted his time as building inspector to nine-to-five, making himself useful to my growing need to learn about construction in the Mono Basin.  He had gained expertise on the job, and was happy to share that know-how.  After hours he worked with me on our one drafting table, and set it up in Kelly’s old attic, centered in a shed dormer that gave plenty of light as it overlooked the back yard.  The fenced and leveled enclosure out back was gigantic, so we made a serious kitchen garden, an opportunity to appreciate what a grown man can do with a shovel.  I drew a plan, bought seeds, located and set seedling plants.  After all those years eating from a West Virginia kitchen garden, I knew how to make the most of California’s fertile topsoil, but couldn’t do it with woman-power alone.  It was a time to celebrate man muscle.  Having made it through our first sierra winter, we settled in to enjoy our first rolling harvest at its bountiful best.  After watching the sun rise, I would scribe lead in the dormer until eleven o’clock, then go out and find whatever looked good to eat and was ripe for the picking.  Bringing it in, I would prep it for pot or wok.  The result was epic.  I had never experienced such freshness, such vibrancy of taste sensation. 

Each evening brought another opportunity to pluck comestibles, often to accompany meat scored from Lee Vining Market where, having certified to provable income, I could say, “Put it on my account.”  It was good to be financially viable again, now states away from engineering jobs that had paid so reliably.  After dinner, Larry and I would climb the stairs to the drawing dormer, and scratch away at our single drafting table.  I drew on the front; he drew on the back.  We each announced intent to erase, so the other could lift pen or pencil before the board commenced shuddering.  With a shared sense of humor, we managed.

I had not thought to continue to draw for income after departing the architect, but several of his clients, having liked my odd-ball approach, followed me to Lee Vining, and I was in business.  I charged only a smidge less for plans than area architects since I had to hire a Registered Professional Engineer at my expense to provide a stamp whenever required by law.  Larry was great at doing engineering calcs, but wasn’t certified to sign them.  Any residential span over 25 feet needed a PE signature and stamp, as did any commercial building.  Larry’s figures were good as gold given his aerospace engineering background, familiarity with local codes, and experience interpreting the Unified Building Code (UBC) that covered anything we might dare to undertake.  But he couldn’t legally sign, and he had no stamp.  I could and did do structural calcs, but took little creative joy in them.  Larry’s were more consistently accurate. 

Bear Engineering—actually a great black-bearded bear of a man who had a magnificent and friendly Black Labrador named “Bear” and an engineering stamp that read  “State of California Registered Professional Engineer “—was just what we needed.  We hired him; we hired his certification.  Whenever a design exceeded 25’ free span, or waxed a bit too bizarre, Bear (the man) would verify all calculations and impress his big round stamp onto the drawing set.  He earned a fee; we were verified as competent—if not registered.  Liabilities were covered all around.  Clients could afford buildings and residences without the steep fees of a Registered Architect doing the whole gamut of the work, most of it essentially beneath his spectacular pay grade.  We got to pet the dog for free.

Much of what an architect would have provided was of course not included.  Clients had to choose their own fixtures, interior materials, finishes, and sources.  With clients who were mostly Licensed Building Contractors, we did only what was needed to get the building legally built.  We served a need.  In an area destined to be ever a frontier, we made construction almost affordable.  I would specify carpet; client would specify type, brand, source, and estimated cost.  I would identify and position a toilet; client would indicate brand, color, etc.  We didn’t offer scale models, architectural renderings, luxury offices, or wining and dining of clients.  We had no liability insurance, whether due to ignorance or poverty, it was a tossup.  We could hardly have afforded it given the reasonable level of our fees.  We must have done a credible job since we were never sued.  At that point in my career, I didn’t know about liability insurance.  I suppose we were what lawyers call “judgment proof.”  We had nothing but each other and love.  Why bother to sue us?  Its effect would be only punitive, netting nothing to the aggrieved.

We called ourselves “High Country Drafting.”  If we had advertised “Engineering” we would have been shut down before week’s end.  We could have named ourselves “High Country Design.”  That would have been legal, but we didn’t want to have to go to court and defend the name, just because people couldn’t agree what “design” means.  As long as we advertised only “Drafting,” we were perfectly legitimate.  What we did wasn’t as important as what we advertised.  Odd and ubiquitous.

After we satisfied several contracts, and saw them translated into viable structures, we could finally afford to establish an office.  We moved into town, into the building now occupied by the Mono Lake Committee, the guardian of all things Mono Lake.  We fixed it up so spiffily, that it was fun every morning to come to the office and open the front door.  We paneled one wall with Peg-Board, and painted it to be a three-dimensional mural, whereupon mountains rose to the heights and snowflakes made of mini-marshmallows fell (glued) onto a painted clear blue sky.  Fluffy white painted clouds floated here and there.  It was pure whimsy.  Then we hung all our drawing implements onto the peg-board, close at hand, ready for use.  Clients loved the display as much as we did, smiling at the blatant creative play it evidenced.  Kurt came to work with us after he finished his kindergarten mornings.  His favorite spot for his afternoon nap was on the floor under my drafting table, snuggled into his best buddy blanket.

Both Dale and Lane managed to inveigle their way into ownership of four-wheel-drive vehicles.  On the occasion of good weather it was delightful to be surprised by a knock on the office door and open it to find the two young men clutching sacks of hamburger fixins wanting to go make lunch at the Tarns.  I would locate Kurt, lock up, and hop in one of their trucks.  A ten minute drive put us on top of the world at Yosemite pass where no matter which way we looked we could see forever.  It never took long to gather wood and stoke a fire.  Burgers sizzled and singed as the fat dribbled into our little fire.  Before long they were perfect.  Captured between sliced buns, each one suffered the unique application of toppings applied to whosever masterpiece it happened to be perfecting.  Thick, tasty, and juicy, they didn’t last long.  We sat together on the bare sod, munching, happy to be there—together.  Reaching back for the memory forty years long past, it is there waiting for me.  As I looked out beyond the crest of the Sierra I knew a quiet assurance: This is surely the apogee of my life.  It was.

We began designing some interesting houses for Lee Vining, June Lake, and Mammoth Lakes, along with the occasional commercial structure.  We even completed a passive solar shopping center for a Carson City contractor.  Bear played a strong hand on that one, having acquired a Nevada certification.  As soon as I departed the twitchy fisted architect, I had more work than I could handle.  I eventually had to lure Larry from his job at the Building Department to work beside me full time at High Country Drafting.

Soon we bought two professional drawing tables equipped with V-Tech Drafting Machines and Bruning electric erasers.  We bit the bullet and invested in a Blue-Ray Blueprint machine and set about providing our own architectural copies to clients ready to apply for a permit or to break ground.  For such renderings we could bill handsomely.  I could never shake the feeling of having just way too much happiness—a good thing—having learned from my Dad that work ought to be play.  Any task that Daddy despised, he redefined.  He turned boring into fun, and however a job could be restructured to achieve that goal was worth any amount of up-front creative sweat effort.  “Most things aren’t impossible,” he insisted, “only lacking imagination, an ingredient which is always in generous supply.” 

It was an exciting time to be knocking about in the building design business.  The magazine Architectural Design featured a now-famous article on double-envelope passive solar design just as we really got rolling.  The concept coupled the house interior with the earth’s stable 55 degree core temperature, hung lots of south-facing glass, provided serious insulation, and allowed natural convection to pump air throughout the construct.  Key to the double-envelope concept is a south facing greenhouse where air heats and rises into the attic.  There it cools and tumbles down the double north wall space where it joins the fifty-five degree insulated under-floor cellar, and trickles up between greenhouse floor slats to stir the greenery and perpetuate the cycle.  Given that formula, any energy exchange must work against the fifty-five degrees, not so much against the less-than-zero-degrees blustering about outside.

We signed up a local pastor, Roger Landon, to provide him and his wife Cindy with a double-envelope solar house plan, to be stick built from scratch by a local contractor.  The residence stands even now in June Lake Meadows, outside look blending with the local flavor of things.  The first winter, the entire four-bedroom home made it through to spring on less than a single cord of firewood.  We stuck slavishly to the construction concept described in the magazine.  It worked!  For several years, designers of many stripes skirmished pro vs con about the relative merits of double-envelope.  Many people claimed it couldn’t work.  Others called it the final best solution.  But it cost a bit more than ordinary construction and never really caught on.  I just smile.  I know it works, but in that initial custom iteration, it wasn’t conducive to mass production.  If I could ever build a custom home for myself, there is only one approach I would take: Double-envelope passive solar!

One idea that I played with but never brought to completion was a double-envelope tiny house that would be mass produced to replace the trailer houses we all love to hate.  I still have my preliminary drawings stored in Kurt’s basement studio.  I called it “Sun Spot.”  Several years after I had to bury it in storage, I heard that a similar tiny house had been introduced in Denmark as government subsidized manufactured housing.  I hope that in some parallel universe I will get to tinker with that concept yet again, with a double-envelope passive solar twist to the Danish.

Eventually a local Mammoth Lakes developer, Reef Siler, decided to try High Country Drafting on a short string of projects.  Larry did Siler I, a good-looking straight-forward cabin design that proved to be easy to build and was super cost-effective.  I did Siler II featuring a corner faceted facade (before New York’s Trump Tower zig-zag was even conceptualized) that won a local newspaper’s “Building Design of the Year Award.”  Mr. Siler set Larry to work on more of his profit intensive multi-construction efforts. He set me to work designing his own personal dream home in the fashionable heart of Mammoth Lakes Village.

He went nuts on his list of requirements.  He wanted five bedrooms, a massive living area to display his taxidermified marlin over an ostentatious fireplace, more-than-enough south-facing glass, and an underground garage that would accommodate work and personal vehicles, plus a dedicated RV pulling a trailered boat.  The whole residence was to have a glass-enclosed elevator running from the bottom level garage to the top level widow’s-walk.  The building lot he settled on required a massive engineered retaining wall that stratosphered the cost of absolutely everything.  I’m not privy to the total of his outlay before he got his occupancy permit, but it must have been a Moby Dick of a number.  I was glad our invoice had already been honored for a job well done.  Bear, too—daddy of the retaining wall—had been to the bank with his High Country Drafting paycheck and returned chuckling.  I heard, years later, that Reef Siler had filed for Federal Bankruptcy protection.  I hope it wasn’t the gargantuan house that did him in.  It’s still pretty, sitting there with all that south-facing glazing, and the glass elevator screaming “Money!”  My pictorial front elevation featured a bronzed eagle landing right on the dramatic apex of the roof’s main gable peak, but I don’t remember if he ever actually installed that prideful detail.  At least I got to savor the idea.

Once at a local construction trade show, a Mammoth Lakes architect came swaggering up to Larry, grabbing his hand and pumping it.  “I’m so glad to meet you,” he growled, lowering the register of his voice to signal a man to man encounter.  “I was highly impressed by that faceted facade you did for Siler II.  You know—the one that won the “Design of the Year Award.”

I smiled, pressed closer, and waited for Larry to give me my share of the glory.

“Why thank you,” Larry acknowledged, preening his pleasure.  “I’m so glad you liked it.”

As the guy meandered away, something inside me died.  I couldn’t bring myself to ask Larry why he took credit for my achievement.  Siler II, after all, was my baby.  Days later, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I dug out my pastels and began turning feelings into images.  By evening, I had portrayed a severed scrotum nailed to a wall with painstakingly convoluted blood vessels, cilia, and gathering contusions.  From it hung, all in living dripping color, several varieties of effluvium.  I named it “Balls to the Wall” and stored it between questionable vellums in the bottom drawer of the flat file.  I don’t know what ever happened to it. 

We rattled around in Mono County, buying a home, completing a goodly number of projects for several years, until interest rates went up and most everybody had to cancel construction contracts.  That brought building to a screeching halt.  There was nothing for it but to go south to LA and find engineering jobs.  Larry went first.  Since we had been away from engineering for several years, he was concerned that he must surely be out of touch, so he decided to seek only a technician position.  It paid poorly, and he wasn’t able to cover our expenses, so I had to sell our home and join him trekking the LA head-hunter circuit.  When I went job-hunting, I took stock of all I had learned and the executive experience I had gained as co-owner, designer, and project manager for High Country Drafting.  I applied for a position as senior engineer/project manager and was able to choose between two competing offers.  I didn’t rub it in, but that chain of events was a killer for Larry.  He never got over that final outcome.  He deserved much, much more.  Later as an entrepreneur with his own building design outfit based in Washington State, he more than made up for that one miss-step.

I tried to share this story with a new friend who had graduated from Harvard’s School of Architectural Engineering, but she proved herself to be only an arm’s length friend.  She didn’t seem to understand how it was possible to do what we did without being padded-cell certified.  It was a different world back then—forty years ago.  I’m deeply thankful we had the chance to give it a go, though it’s hard to translate it into present day understandings of what’s possible—and legal.

One of the dearest people we met in Lee Vining was a crusty old accountant who had had a near-death experience.  Having been pronounced dead, experienced an afterlife, and then suddenly awakening inside a living body, he wanted only to help people who really needed and deserved what he could do for them.  After interest rates went up, and our business income evaporated, we were facing a terrifying turn in our road.  He analyzed our financial position, sorted out our taxes, and helped us stay afloat for several months until our LA jobs could save us.  He wanted no pay—just a bottle of Jim Beam and the satisfaction of helping a couple of “poets” get over a rough spot.  I don’t know why he called us that—something to do with our excessive idealism maybe.  It’s possible he was really an angel, certified by a seraphed Michael.  It’s odd that he thought we were worth the saving, since we weren’t credentialed to do anything certificated at all.  Even so, it’s crazy-wonderful how much fun we had just doing it anyway.

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