When Bobby swung open the door of Jake’s Saloon on a blustering Sunday December afternoon, the other four patrons and the bartender shouted, “Hi, Bobby!” We had been made to feel so comfortable for the entirety of our stay in Lone Pine, and in this moment it was clear to see that hospitality and friendliness was simply a staple of living at the foot of Mt. Whitney. Before the interview with Bobby even started, we knew that this project had to continue.
It all started with a dinner at “The Grill” after a Mt. Whitney late October summit. As we dove into our burgers, sandwiches, fries, and root beers; our server made sure that we were taken care of and incredibly interested in our story. Upon telling him of our one-day summit, he was very impressed and kept asking us more questions. He told us he had hiked Whitney three times, and his excitement on actual engagement with a customer was palpable. He gave us a free cookie and was so grateful for a 20% tip for some of the best service we had ever had. This is where Small Towns to Summits was born – in the simple idea of getting to know the people that give life to the places to which we are drawn.
In the following weeks after the birth of the idea, we figured out exactly how we would make this work. We researched different grants we could apply to in order to fund the project, and discussed how we would be able to crowdfund in order to support our time on the road. We called The Grill more than a few times in order to get into contact with Bobby, and when we were finally able to get him on the phone he was absolutely taken aback and said he would be honored to be interviewed by us.
Returning to Lone Pine almost two months after the conception of Small Towns to Summits, we were ready with our interview guide, shot list, and Mt. Whitney hike planned. The idea is about getting to know the town, the mountains, and the individual subject we interview all in one. We see these three things as complementary and inseparable in attempting to describe how individuals and communities craft their identities in relation to nature. With icy conditions on the road and less than 24 hours total allotted to spend in Lone Pine, we had to ditch the hike and focused our time on getting to know the town and the interviewee. Before heading to The Grill for breakfast, we wandered into the Mt. Whitney Hostel in hopes of printing our interview guide, and ended up meeting another remarkable resident of Lone Pine. We ended up talking to Doug for over an hour about topics ranging from mountaineering Mt. Whitney in the winter to what brought him to move to Lone Pine instead of getting a PhD at UCSD. Had we had more time in Lone Pine, an interview with him would have been so valuable to our project. When we finally have the chance to be working on this full time, our products will include interviews with multiple residents and travelers alike. Our interaction with Doug was further confirmation of the sheer amount of individual stories and narratives there are to be told in each small town.
After eating breakfast at The Grill and confirming our interview with Bobby we headed over to the Lone Pine Film History Museum so we could see how the Alabama Hills have been featured in pretty much every western dating back to the 1920s. Spending time checking out Lone Pine and simply enjoying the town as opposed to squeezing in a hike ended up being beneficial for our project, as this was a taste of what our lives will soon hold.
After his shift at The Grill, Bobby asked if we could meet him at Jake’s Saloon for a drink before the interview. While a more quiet place with better lighting would have improved the quality of the interview, the comfortable setting and laid-back environment led to an easy yet meaningful conversation, which may have been sacrificed in a more formal setting. There is so much personal significance in the fact that when Bobby walked into Jake’s Saloon at 4 o’clock pm on a Sunday, the other four patrons and the bartender immediately shouted “Hi, Bobby!” and asked him how his shift at The Grill had been. This singular moment set the stage for getting to know Lone Pine in Bobby’s own words.
Bobby’s first answer of the interview is just one sign of many that this project needs to continue. After we asked him how he is able to explain the natural draw of the beauty of Mt. Whitney, he swiftly and concisely replied,
“Usually I tell people it’s God’s summer home. And that’s a spiritual statement, not a religious statement.”
After summiting Whitney for the first or second time, we had both struggled to find words to describe what we had just experienced. The beauty of the mountain coupled with the physical stress of climbing it fused into 15 ineffable hours, which Bobby was able to sum up in two quick sentences. He further explained how the Inyos, the native tribe of the Inyo National Forest territory had called the mountain “the dwelling place of the Great Spirit,” showing how this land has spoken to people for as long as we have stumbled upon it.
One essential part of this project is getting to know the individuals that we interview and hearing them tell their story and relationship to the mountains in their own words. In getting to know Bobby and his background more, he told us that,
“Every chance I could get as a kid, I got out of the house. Camping – done. Don’t have to ask me twice.”
We found a lot of ourselves in the nature drawn, wanderlust spirit in Bobby and his responses about how he had always been drawn to the mountains. Because of this lifelong connection to nature, Bobby further expanded on how every day he appreciates living underneath the postcard perfect view of Mt. Whitney, and how important it is that travelers know how the treat the mountain.
As a significant part of the project is us summiting mountains and going on backpacking trips ourselves, it’s important to find interview subjects who are able to share in / explain their own experiences with these trips. As Bobby has summited Mt. Whitney three times himself, in the interview we were able to discuss together the feelings of standing atop that mountain. For him, the feeling is,
“Pretty much consistent – just wow. I’m back to where I need to be.”
We had been able to put our finger on the “just wow” portion, but hearing him say that is was returning to where he was supposed to be struck a chord that hadn’t yet been touched. We continued to talk about how nature speaks to all those who are willing to dedicate the time to listen, and how so many individuals share the experience of being drawn to nature – no matter what their background. For Bobby, nature is described as,
“The common bond. Whether we know that or not is inconsequential, because it’s there.”
For us, it is so fascinating how people with wildly different backgrounds, philosophies, religions, and lives are all able to share the common bond of nature, which Bobby explained perfectly. In specifically discussing Mt. Whitney, he talked about how it is a “holy trek” that unites all those who embark upon it, whether they know it or not.
As a server at The Grill, a restaurant in Lone Pine, Bobby has the unique opportunity to see and talk with people from all over the globe as they travel to Mt. Whitney. The amount of pride he takes in his job is deeply admirable, as he explained that,
“I have the opportunity to serve people who were on a journey. You’re going to be what they remember.”
For us, this was absolutely true. Being served by Bobby at The Grill after summiting Mt. Whitney led to us completely changing our foreseeable future goals and pouring everything into this project. As agreed upon by us and by Bobby, the sweetness of the summit is inconsequential without our time spent in the town. From the Lone Pine Bistro Cafe, to the Mt. Whitney Hostel, to The Grill; every single interaction we have had in Lone Pine has been etched into our memory. A day before we even started hiking, the barista at Lone Pine Bistro made us just a few eggs, something not on the menu, ground coffee personally for us, and made us feel comfortable in getting our work done in the affable environment. Bobby’s experience of living in Lone Pine demonstrates the genuine nature of this friendly attitude, as he told us that,
“I don’t think I’ve had a lock on the front door since I’ve lived in this house, and we’ve had it for like 20 years.”
In his words, this about sums up what it means to be a resident of Lone Pine, CA. Bobby perfectly exemplifies this peaceful and welcoming attitude, as he told as that he lives by the Golden Rule. In treating others as he would like to be treated, he shows respect and interest in every customer and their story, as we experienced firsthand. In telling us how what he loves most about his job, he described that he has the opportunity to make people’s most special moments memorable. We had heard from a few other locals that he often sings for anniversaries or birthdays, and in his words he talks about this as how he has,
“Done my part to make their life a little more special. Well, that’s really cool. What a gift.”
Finally, we asked him what he hoped people’s impression of Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney is when they leave. We chatted a bit about how each person is going to take away something different, and that for every individual he hopes Lone Pine leaves a mark in its own unique way. In diving further into this idea, we walked away with the best quote of the interview. Bobby told us that he wants every person to know that,
“Your accomplishments are just as good, even if different from others. You know, because they’re yours.”
These simple yet powerful words sums up the intention of this project in blending together the mountain, the town, and the individual.
Thanks to Bobby, Small Towns to Summits continues to move full speed ahead. This interview and his follow up was a validation that these stories demand to be told. A couple days after the interview, Bobby sent us a text that read:
“Just had to express just how very special you both made me feel. Knowing how absolutely wonderful it feels to have someone do something out of the ordinary for someone else (as you did for me) speaks exactly to the very reason I do what I do for others. Case in point when I sing for an anniversary or other special occasion at table side and see how that works for others. Well, I think you get where I’m going. Thank you and I sincerely hope that this will be the beginning of a new wonderful and very special friendship.”
This experience deserves a follow up. Having the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the people that we are interviewing, the town as a whole, and the mountain itself is a blessing that has the potential to bring about positive social change if we take advantage of this unique position. We cannot wait to involve all of you as we travel throughout various towns on our route and bring them to life through the voices of those who live there.