Last weekend Micheal and I traveled up the 395 for the 99th Birthday celebration of Carroll Thomas… and especially to give him the portraits painted by the 818 Artists.
About 2 hours into the road trip there’s a place out in the middle of nowhere that suddenly opens up into a shopping center. You know…the kind of development where the new houses all look the same and are built right next to the road…even though there’s miles of land around. I can’t figured out why anyone would choose to live 10 feet from the highway…but hey, that’s me. I always laugh at the signs with the city name (which I forget) and the slogan “Land of Endless Possibilities”. The first two that come to mind are “heat stroke” and “dusty sandwiches”. Anyway, the destination has a Starbucks which normally means a clean restroom and a liquid snack… so it’s always the first stop.
I packed sandwiches but knew we would be arriving in Olancha for stop #2 and some of their famous fresh jerky. Mike loves the stuff. It’s housed in a old, rundown “used-to-be” gas station but I think it’s kinda charming in it’s own “stickered up” way. The person behind the counter always implores me to try a sample and though I gave up jerky when I gave up meat, I always show them a big, wistful smile while I say “no thank you”.
Next stop (when my liquid snack has been in me long enough) is about an hour farther on up at one of those highway rest stops. At this particular place the wind is usually blowing hard enough to make you walk bent over just to stay upright. It’s the last rest stop before Manzanar, the WWII Japanese Internment Camp so typically there are “history seeking lurkers” camped out on a picnic bench. On any normal trip, it’s me sharing the bathroom with one of them and a misguided squirrel looking for the exit. But on this Saturday, it was me and about 5 chartered buses, all full of Middle and High School teens. The line had already formed from the first bus of arrivals and I groaned very loudly as I got out of the car. I ran to get in front of the rapidly exiting, liquid overloaded, others in the parking lot. I snuck in the side less noticeable to the unobservant or unknowing traveler and found about 10 girls hugging their flat bellies. I heard a loud commotion… more a wailing sound… “I caaaaannnn’t fluuuush the toilet” and then another and another. Since no other adult (and I use the term loosely) was around, I took matters into my own hands…or rather…my feet. I went into one of the stalls and proceeded to show them that with a little patience and tenacity, the wall foot pedal would oblige… and the problem would be taken care of. I proudly heard the wooooshes going off as the intervals of understanding came into their young minds. I left with my head a little higher and the invisible “Flush Master” cape on my back. Some even waved good-bye!
Next stop, Lone Pine…the small town Ansel Adams hung around, taking photgraphs in his early years along with the Japanese Interment Camp. His Lone Pine photograph is one I always remember because he had to stipple out the big “LP” the High School kids carved into the side of the snow capped Sierras. If you ever happen to see it, look closely and sure enough, you’ll see the finely dotted letters. Lone Pine is a beautiful little town of about 1800 folks…most fisherman and hunters. I love it there and they have some really good eats! Might make a great place to retire.
Manzanar is after Lone Pine, a place I’ve sadly driven through many times… and then comes Carroll’s town, Big Pine. Now Big Pine is home to about 1200 people who wave at your car when you drive down through their homes. Yes, they have tract homes…kinda. They also have a beautiful park where the town folk walk their dogs (and kids) and they have antiques, art and weird, cool places. The people are super friendly, many being transplants from another place, like Carroll himself. At each shop I went in, I mentioned I was in town for Carroll’s Birthday. They all knew and loved him but I never got the feeling (like you get from some of the smaller towns) that there were any nosy rosies. This town minds it’s own business, probably because many are transplants, hoping for a quieter life in a beautiful place. I think they lucked out and found it! Another cool place to retire.
After walking the town, we went to Carroll’s Gallery and Helen, his girlfriend of 32 years, with long silver hair and a smile of indeterminably age, greeted us at the door. I told her we were “The People from Huntington Beach” and she lit up another grin. She went to the speaker that apparently connects to their home next door. She told Carroll we were here and he replied “I’ll be there in 10”. Sure enough, 10 minutes later, he emerged in western wear and a fancy bollo tie. Always loved bollo ties. I hadn’t see Carroll in 2 years and even then, it was only the one time, to stop in, chat and buy a painting. He looked exactly the same, maybe a bit thinner, but now sporting an air tube. Without any hesitation, he promptly blamed it on Helen, saying “She thinks she needs to keep me on a leash!”.
Now Helen was in on the surprise, but she hadn’t told Carroll the particulars, just that there was something he would enjoy. We had him sit in his rocker, handing him package by package, until finally he was rendered speechless and I’m betting, with his sharp dry wit, that doesn’t happen often. He looked up at me and said “There must be a place saved in Heaven for you… to go to all this trouble” which in turn, made me speechless. I told him “I’m merely the delivery girl” but I did present him with the photograph I took of him holding his own painting that now hangs in my living room.
He carefully read all the short bios telling him about each artist and I filled in what I could. I gave him posters from the show and told him all about the people that came. All I can say to Shiela, Jamie, Karen and Tak is that you made me a very proud women that day. Of all the things (the many great things) that happened in the short, sweet year my Gallery existed, this presentation to this wonderful man…was by far the best thing of all. Without your talent and effort, it would never have come to be. Thank you from both Carroll and myself.
From there, we were introduced to his Family, all wonderful, colorful people in their own right. His 2 sons donned the same exact “T” chin (which Carroll says is the Family trademark for Thomas). They both have the same wit as their Papa, but funny thing, he has all the hair.
Helen took me on a house tour where I saw many more originals in this talented man’s life work. Beautiful, flowing water colors, intricate oils, amazing, all amazing!
We left after the cake but I do remember Carroll telling me “The first 100 years is the hardest” and I guess he would know. He said he planned on living to 105 and that would be enough to make him content. From everything I saw, I do believe he’ll make it. He is an amazing character and one that I am so very privileged to call friend. If you ever travel on the 395 and you find yourself going through Big Pine…make the stop at the Thomas Gallery. His four new portraits now hang just inside the door along with a photograph… of he and I. 😉