Just off a stretch of Highway 395, nestled between Yosemite National Park and the perfectly diagonal California/Nevada state line, sits Mono Lake, a large shallow pool of saline water. On a map it looks like someone used an eyedropper to place a single imperfect bead of water on an empty plot of desert. In person it looks like a scene from a science-fiction movie - the concrete colored alkaline sands that make up the shore give it a lunar feel. Dried out vegetation sprouts from the ground sporadically. There is a sulfuric odor that lingers in the air, an attribute of the unique chemical make up of the lake, which includes dissolved sodium salts of chlorides, carbonates and sulfates. And because it's a closed hydrological basin, meaning water can flow in but not out, the only way water exits is through evaporation.
You may recognize Mono Lake from the liner notes of the Pink Floyd album, Wish You Were Here, which features a picture of what appears to be a diver halfway submerged in the water, the tall limestone Tufa columns, that have come to define the lake, protruding in the background. Conceptualized by the late graphic designer, and longtime Pink Floyd collaborator, Storm Thorgerson, the image was originally included on a postcard that could be found in the sleeve of every album when it was released in 1975. Consistent with the lyrics and themes found throughout the album, the imagery was intended to depict absence, and when first released, it was sold black shrink-wrap, effectively causing the cover art to be absent. The theme of absence in the Mono Lake picture was brought to life by the perfectly still water, absent ripples - a splash-less diver - an effect that was actually created by a handstand in the shallow water, rather than a dive.
In 1941, the City of Los Angeles began diverting water from the Mono basin (which feeds Mono Lake) to meet the city's growing needs. This was accomplished by extending the aqueduct that previously existed and stretched as far north as the Owens Valley. By the eighties, the surface area of the lake had been greatly reduced, sparking conservation efforts to restore it to its previous levels, as the lake had historically been home to a productive ecosystem of brine shrimp and black flies that attracted millions of migratory birds each year. The efforts, which were part of a larger dispute referred to as the California Water Wars, proved successful, and through a combination of litigation, legislation and cooperation, the lake level has risen since its historic low in 1982. Despite the improved status, the Mono Lake Committee, a non-profit dedicated to protecting and restoring the Mono Basin, notes that the current level is still well below the pre-diversion levels of 1941.
I would imagine most of the passing traffic and visitors are those coming and going from Yosemite National Park. The Tioga Pass Road, which can be accessed at the foot of the lake, serves as a popular route in and out of the park, carving its way through the Tuolumne Meadows section of Yosemite before connecting to the roads that lead into the valley. After spending three days in the park, I was traveling back to the Reno airport when I noticed the lake, and recalled a woman from the previous night in the lobby of the Wawona Hotel mentioning it. A small parking lot just off highway 395 provides easy access to the lake, where you can put a few dollars in a locked box, follow a path to the shore, and freely roam the area while taking in the unique landscape and terrain.