Nestled along the eastern Sierra range from southern California near the Mojave Desert, crossing into and out of Nevada, skirting the eastern edge of California, into the high desert of Oregon, and crossing the Columbia River bordering Washington State on up to the Canada/US dividing line, Highway 395 has long provided a natural pathway for the migration of birds, animals, and Native Americans. The length of this last sentence intentionally expresses the magnitude of this highway’s lengthiness.

Over the slow march of time marked in millions of years, the earth’s crust shifted up from what was once a vast inland sea, pushing the Sierras magnificently into giant folds and peaks creating the lowest and highest point in North America in close proximity: Mt. Whitney at 14,495 feet, 85 miles northwest of Badwater; Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level. Global temperatures changed from tropical palm trees and crocodiles in the Arctic and a predominately subtropical America to climate zones forcing animal migrations approximately 15,000,000 to 11,000,000 years ago.

Mono Lake, which formed 760,000 years ago along the 395 route in Central California, is an amazing bird sanctuary and oasis as well as being the heart of development drama in the early 20th century. The lake, having no outlet and with the assistance of mid-twentieth-century water diversion by Los Angeles, halved the volume of fresh water accrued over the centuries and doubled its alkalinity. Protections eventually were legislated, yet a silver lining to this tragic story of development over environmentalism lies in this very alkalinity, which is a source of food for 300 species of birds in the form of alkali flies and brine shrimp. 40,000 to 65,000 gulls breed in this nutrition-rich environment amidst the cacophony of seemingly chaotic bird calls and socialization.

One such example of discovering the hidden tracks and traces of bird migrations over eons is the Wilson’s Phalarope,

which finds sustenance in and around Mono Lake. Deep genetic and evolutionary seasonal impulses drive these birds on a feeding frenzy and at a mystical point in the change of the seasons, they all set out on a 3,000-mile, three-day, non-stop flight to South America. If you’re like me, you’ll reach for your calculator and do the math: 3,000 miles divided by 36 hours equals 83 miles per hour, non-stop, following some embedded mental map ingrained in evolution, magnetic lines of force, and sun and star alignments. Our fantastic Phalaropes have expanded our Highway 395 into an aerial highway of three dimensions in space that we only hope to someday easily achieve without the complications and complexities of our “modern” day travel.

In part two of Highway 395 we will explore the role of this route as the great track-way. Click the follow button on the lower right.