May 01, 2017

Photo Essay: A Decaying Rest Stop For Thirsty Adventurers

When I got shooed away from the old 76 gas station in the ghost town of Grant, CA nearly six years ago by Chris, the man who owned it and the building across the street, I didn't expect to be spending much more time there at any point in the future.

circa 2011

But California has a way of circling back on you.

So there I was again this weekend, trying to piece together what exactly had brought me back to the former Airflite Cafe—in this forsaken former town, whose population has been tellingly omitted from the street sign that marks its boundary.

It's hard to know exactly where Grant begins and ends, though, now that it's been removed from all maps and gobbled up by the neighboring town of Olancha (founded as Olanche).

Olancha at least has a population of a hundred or two and a working post office that's been continuously operating since 1870. And, by U.S. standards, if you've still got a post office, then you're still a town.

The Old Sportsman's Cafe, however, no longer feeds hungry travelers on their way up or down Highway 395, heading to or away from the Eastern Sierra resort areas.

In fact, this entire area was once considered a "sportsman's paradise" for fishing and hunting—as recently as the 1950s.

But now most people just pass Olancha and Grant by on their way to Lone Pine or environs farther north to go angling or skiing or whatnot.

They might, as I did, stop for lunch at Ranch House Cafe—which is the former Farmhouse Cafe, also formerly known as Dick's Cafe. (If nothing else, it's worth it to see their taxidermy collection.)

They might even stop by the historical marker of Michael (also reported as "Minnard") H. Farley's stamp mill site from the 1860s—but probably only if they're headed south.

from the collection of Rich McCutchan

Not many of even the most intrepid of today's travelers would actually choose to spend the night in the area of Olancha formerly known as Grant... the Ranch Motel and Cabins, with its makeshift sign that covers up the fact that this was once known as the J.G. Motel.

At the foot of the Sierra Mountains, it's the former playground of John Grant, who was known for building the aqueduct that carried water out of the Owens Valley and into LA.

An avid sportsman himself, he aimed to provide resort-quality accommodations at a reasonable price to folks intrigued by the area between high peaks (like Mount Whitney) and low basins (like Badwater in Death Valley).

That included operating a small airfield in the back of his property to ferry travelers quickly to and from the local pack station up the mountain. (Rumor has it that Howard Hughes liked to frequent here.)

You can still see the airfield, though you're not likely to spot any planes there.

But the Ranch Motel's history goes back farther beyond Grant and the hotel and town he named after himself.

According to management, the property was established at the turn of the 20th century, its previous lives including a farm, a ranch, and a dude ranch before it became a motel in the 1940s.

It's hard to tell which of the buildings are occupied, and which have been abandoned. To me, that's part of its charm.

And while others might not be brave enough to spend the night Olancha, many Southern Californians have tasted its crisp, granite-filtered spring water without even knowing it. Crystal Geyser draws and bottles some of its water supply from Olancha Peak—the same water you can drink from the tap and wash your hair in at The Ranch Motel.

After sleeping two nights and waking two mornings in Grant / Olancha, I'm just now starting to catch on to how much I missed of it when I first pulled off the side of the road to take photos of the peeling paint on a seemingly abandoned gas station.

Out here, of all places, there's a garden of "junk art" sculptures created by Israeli-born, German-raised artist Jael Hoffman—including one rusted hitchhiker who's worth making a detour for.

The sun sets behind them, the rugged landscape disappearing into the shadows... you wonder how far off the beaten path you could possibly go, and what else might emerge out of the ground here.

Related Posts:
Celebrating the LA Aqueduct Centennial at The Cascades
Photo Essay: Saving Sculptures from the Scrapyard
Photo Essay: Noah's Art

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