Pulling dol­lars off the wall

The shut­down ham­mered towns in the Owens Val­ley, but one Lone Pine bar owner found some cash within reach

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Louis Sa­h­a­gun Re­port­ing from Bishop, Calif.

This is a time of year that many ru­ral towns in the Owens Val­ley usu­ally cel­e­brate — rodeo and fish­ing sea­son.

Nor­mally, tourists from South­ern Cal­i­for­nia would be swarm­ing into the eastern Sierra Ne­vada range, stream­ing into Old West fa­cades and mak­ing cash reg­is­ters sing.

But the deadly virus that lo­cals have come to call “The Big Weird” has changed all that.

To­day, the towns of Lone Pine, In­de­pen­dence, Big Pine and Bishop are silent ex­cept for the rum­bling of pass­ing trucks on U.S. High­way 395. Nearly ev­ery­thing is closed: tackle shops, art galleries, restau­rants and sa­loons with swing­ing doors.

Two of the big­gest so­cial events of the year — Mule Days and the Cal­i­for­nia high school state rodeo fi­nals — were can­celed. The an­nual rit­ual known as “Fish­mas,” open­ing day for trout fish­ing, was pushed back a month to May 31.

In a land­scape of stunning con­trasts — blue-rib­bon trout streams, mead­ows re

splen­dent with wild iris, cat­tle ranches and desert plains f lanked by lava f lows — there is no camp­ing, no rock climb­ing, and no bag­ging 14,505-foot Mt. Whit­ney, the tallest moun­tain in the con­tigu­ous U.S., be­cause the road that hik­ers use to reach the trail­head is closed.

When it comes to con­tain­ing the coron­avirus, Inyo County is a suc­cess story: 19 cases and one death re­ported in an 18,000square-mile dis­trict that is home to 17,000 peo­ple.

But Inyo County is also a place where that seem­ingly good news threat­ens to up­set the sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween its iso­lated towns and tourism.

“We haven’t had a new case re­ported in 31 days,” said Leslie Chap­man, as­sis­tant county ad­min­is­tra­tor. “But when the econ­omy reopens, our tourists will be com­ing from coron­avirus hot spots.

“That’s scary,” she added, “and weird.”

Inyo is also a place where the con­cept of es­sen­tial busi­ness is, as county Su­per­vi­sor Dan Totheroh put it, “bo­gus.”

“Food, medicine and guns, for ex­am­ple, are clas­si­fied as es­sen­tial,” he said. “So, if you have any of those things in your store, you can re­main open.”

Con­fus­ing guid­ance from of­fi­cials on what counts as safe in towns with economies based al­most en­tirely on tourism has trig­gered com­plaints that the lock­down is not jus­ti­fied in Inyo County. At the same time, busi­ness own­ers are un­der the gun to re­pay the bank loans they took out when it seemed the boom times would never end.

“The painful les­son in all this,” Inyo County Su­per­vi­sor Matt Kings­ley said, “is that we should be di­ver­si­fy­ing be­cause the tourism­based econ­omy is not as sta­ble as we had come to be­lieve over the decades.”

‘But here’s the good part of my story’

The Owens Val­ley is a place where, if there is a com­mon at­ti­tude, it is one of sur­vival.

It re­cently in­spired Sherri New­man to dis­cover an an­swer to her fi­nan­cial prob­lems sta­pled to the walls of Jake’s Saloon, a cen­tury-old hang­out for fish­er­men, ranch­ers, moun­tain climbers, skiers and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists in Lone Pine, a ham­let of 2,200 res­i­dents about 180 miles north of Los An­ge­les.

“The lock­down hit us like a tor­nado,” re­called New­man, 57, who owns the busi­ness with her hus­band. “I felt hope­less and lost, won­der­ing how on Earth we could pay the bills and keep staff on the pay­roll.”

“But here’s the good part of my story,” she added, lean­ing for­ward and plac­ing her hands flat on the bar. “I re­mem­bered the thou­sands of one-dol­lar bills that cus­tomers have sta­pled to the walls over the decades.”

“I asked a few em­ploy­ees and girl­friends to help take them down,” she said with a smile. “It took two full days to fin­ish the job.”

“Split five ways, we each got about $500,” she said. “That in­cludes a woman who had lost two jobs be­cause of the pan­demic, a woman with a mother in hos­pice care, and a mother of three small chil­dren go­ing through a di­vorce. There was also a sin­gle dad who needed the cash.

“Now,” she added, “our goal is to hang on to the place through sum­mer.”

$10 for a large sack of pop­corn

Three months after the pan­demic dark­ened movie the­aters across the na­tion, the 96-year-old Bishop Theatre on Main Street has been trans­formed into a pop­corn to-go restau­rant.

One side of the theater’s old-fash­ioned jut­ting mar­quee keeps spir­its up with a mov­ing mes­sage: “Here for you since 1924 — stay strong, Bishop.” The other side is strictly busi­ness: “Grab and go fresh pop­corn, Thurs­day through Satur­day, 3 to 6 pm.”

Each day, dozens of sup­port­ers line up to ex­change $10 for a large sack of pop­corn as part of an ef­fort to keep the theater from go­ing un­der.

In­side, co-owner Holly Mul­lanix, who started work­ing at the snack bar in 1983, pre­sides over the pop­corn ma­chine that she said

“keeps us in peo­ple’s minds and en­ables us to keep a few em­ploy­ees on the pay­roll.”

“It also helps pay a mort­gage on the prop­erty and re­pay a ma­jor loan taken out to re­model the place,” added Mul­li­nax, nod­ding ap­pre­cia­tively to­ward the lobby’s dark wood pan­el­ing and mar­ble floors and coun­ter­tops.

Un­der emer­gency reg­u­la­tions adopted dur­ing the pan­demic, all nonessen­tial busi­nesses in­clud­ing movie the­aters were or­dered to cease op­er­a­tions. New­man’s side­line is ex­empt, she said, be­cause it pro­vides “an es­sen­tial food sup­ply,” in this case, pop­corn — with but­ter upon re­quest.

The sit­u­a­tion is “weird and not fair to peo­ple like me,” grum­bled Mark McClean, who runs a con­sign­ment shop across the street and was re­cently slapped with an 18-page for­mal warn­ing to close his front doors or risk civil and crim­i­nal en­force­ment ac­tions.

But it’s not just the movie theater, added McClean, 65, lean­ing back in a chair in front of the wide-open doors of his shop, sur­rounded by col­or­ful pa­tri­otic im­agery in­clud­ing wooden pal­lets painted to re­sem­ble Amer­i­can flags. A large store sign that says “Open” dan­gled over his head.

A nearby hard­ware store was en­joy­ing boom­ing sales of gar­den­ing equip­ment and plants, he said. Two doors down, a cam­era store was open for busi­ness.

“If they want to try and ar­rest me, I’m ready,” he said. “As I ex­plained to the po­lice, my shop is closed. But I keep the front doors open be­cause I like fresh air. Or­ders can be made legally on­line, with curb­side de­liv­er­ies han­dled in the al­ley be­hind the shop.”

Im­pact of the lock­down is huge

Squeezed be­tween the Sierra range and the less lofty cof­fee-col­ored White Moun­tains to the east, the towns of the Owens Val­ley have ex­isted as colonies of sorts since the early 1900s, when Los An­ge­les be­gan pump­ing so much lo­cal wa­ter into its aque­duct sys­tem that it be­came im­pos­si­ble for farm­ers and ranch­ers to make a liv­ing. The scheme was dra­ma­tized in the clas­sic 1974 film “Chi­na­town.”

Yet, a re­gional econ­omy took root, and to­day it is heav­ily de­pen­dent on gaso­line, oc­cu­pancy and prop­erty taxes paid by the city and mil­lions of north­bound trav­el­ers along U.S. 395 through­out the year.

The po­ten­tial im­pact of the lock­down on rev­enue gen­er­ated by those taxes is huge in a county where they ac­count for a large por­tion of its dis­cre­tionary rev­enue.

“We’ll get through this,” said Clint Quil­ter, county ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer. “But it’s go­ing to take some belt tight­en­ing.”

Pho­to­graphs by Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

JAKE’S SALOON own­ers For­rest and Sherri New­man chat in­side the Lone Pine bar. “The lock­down hit us like a tor­nado,” said Sherri. “I felt hope­less and lost, won­der­ing how on Earth we could pay the bills.”

SHERRI NEW­MAN and em­ploy­ees took the dol­lars off the walls, but she kept some, in­clud­ing the one com­mem­o­rat­ing the death of her fa­ther.

Pho­to­graphs by Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

THE ROAD to South Lake was closed in early May near Bishop, where the fish­ing sea­son had been post­poned along with tourist dol­lars.

SHERRI NEW­MAN at Jake’s Saloon in Lone Pine. Tak­ing down all those dol­lar bills yielded quite a haul: “Split five ways, we each got about $500,” she said.

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