The road to Hollywood, California
This geographical crossroads is a perfect microcosm of California’s natural landscapes, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Hollywood is a regular visitor here. One part of the ranch has been specifically designed for directors looking to ‘cheat’ Africa, with a huge single oak tree clipped into the shape of an acacia. It’s not always an effective ruse: today, the wildflowers are out in force, with spills of purple lupine and bright orange California poppies spreading across the plains, rather ruining the illusion. In the summer, however, the tree’s careful topiary against a backdrop of bleached grass gives an unmistakeable African look – especially when elephants and zebras are brought in, as happened when scenes from the latest Transformers movie were shot here in 2010.
From this traditional ranching land, the road follows the Sierra Nevada Mountains northeast through the baking Mojave Desert to a place where no ranching actually takes place, yet the most famous cowboys of them all have come to strut their stuff.
The Lone Ranger, John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Clint Eastwood have all slung guns, rescued ‘little ladies’ and ridden off into the sunset in the Alabama Hills. These odd, weather-rounded granite formations, huddled between the tiny town of Lone Pine and the snow-dusted peak of Mount Whitney, have played host to over 400 films and television shows – mostly Westerns. So ubiquitous was this setting for cowboy movies in the 1940s and ’50s, that this tiny area has become the definitive Wild West landscape, representing New Mexico, Arizona and the untamed reaches of California itself.
Today, several fans of Rawhide – the 1960s Western television series – have arrived from out of town and are gingerly picking their way on horseback among the rust-coloured rocks. One of the group, a man with a silver ponytail trailing down his back, points out the sites of famous scenes from the programme in hushed tones of profoundest reverence.
According to Kerry Powell, a local resident and founder of the annual Lone Pine Film Festival, fans who come here usually make a bit more noise, playing action-packed games of cowboys and Indians – sometimes in full costume and face paint.
At 74, Kerry negotiates the boulders a little gingerly, but she knows her way around these rocks. As a kid, she would sneak up to where the movies were being filmed and watch the biggest stars of the day, like Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, riding the grassy plains and waging battle in exciting canyon shoot-outs.
Despite the instantly familiar Western terrain, Hollywood has also used these hills as a stand-in for places such as Mexico, Afghanistan and the odd, barren landscapes of alien planets. ‘My favourite was when they filmed the Indian classic Gunga Din here,’ Kerry remarks. ‘We were so thrilled as kids to see those elephants running all over our hills.’
The filming frenzy here died down as the popularity of Westerns waned through the 1960s, though directors still like to shoot on this classic terrain – Quentin Tarantino was in town last month. Locals of a certain age, however, all have a story of when their little town became an outpost of Hollywood – and the rocks have continued to hold their appeal. According to 62-year-old Lovella from the Lone Pine Rock and Gift Shop, the area was just as popular as the kids grew older, when they would hide among the rocks at night and ‘party’. ‘You could see the cop cars coming from a long way away,’ she says with a solemn wink.