Tough Dentistry

6 Feb

Up the Owens valley in California there is a small town called Independence. The U.S. Cavalry had a fort there. One of the few encounters where the Indian tribes came off best – for a time. A fair amount of activity has happened in this valley lying between the Eastern Sierra range and the smaller Inyo range to the east. Most of the historical evidence of ranchers, miners, Indians, the Japanese internment camp of Manzanar and so on is collected in a two room museum in Independence. Within a circle of a hundred miles are to be found the oldest living things on the planet (bristle cone pines), the largest living things (giant redwoods), the lowest point in the continental United States (Badwater in Death Valley) and the highest (Mount Whitney).

There was a time I regularly drove that route on 395 both for work reasons and pleasure. And I would make a point of stopping at the Museum and reacquainting myself with the memorabilia. There was (and is) one case I would always make a point of viewing. A pair of dentures.

They were not ordinary dentures. They were remarkable. There is an explanatory placard that tells their story. There was some gold to be found in the Inyo range. Nothing as rich as the deposits in the Western foothills of the Sierras – but enough for a handful of prospectors to scratch out a living. The weather can be harsh in winter. And upon occasion a prospector, faced with a snow blocked trail would have to tough it out till spring up there in the hills.

One such prospector, having lost nearly all his teeth, was in desperate straits. He could trap rabbits for food but he could not break down the meat with his gums.

What he did was this- he killed a coyote and hacked out the teeth. He made a rough mould and melted old tooth brush handles. And he rammed the hot mould on to his gums, both upper and lower. With these home made dentures he survived until the snows melted and he could get down to Independence. On hearing the story the town dentist offered to make him a proper pair in return for the coyote teeth. And they sit there in the Museum to this day. What is more and more remarkable to me every time I view them is how astonishingly professional they look. And they provide a reality check to those fantasies of going back in time to those days before anaesthetics and antibiotics. If you’re ever driving on 395, take half an hour to visit. Turn on the street that leads west from the County Courthouse. It’s just 3 blocks.

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