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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Death Valley the Hard Way

Striped Butte, Death Valley National Park

It sounds like the start of a joke: 

"So, a Tacoma, an Xterra, a Unimog and a Ford F250 all meet in the desert..." 

The plan was to enter Death Valley taking the hardest route we had attempted to date: Mengel Pass. Our friends had driven this route before, but we had never attempted it because we usually travel alone. Since we were accompanied this time we weren't as worried about getting stranded if something happened. Our buddies would be there to:

a.) laugh at our ineptitude, then
b.) help get us out of a jam if we got into one.

(I have no doubt that would have been the order of things but thankfully we made it through in one piece. Pretty much, anyway.)

When I first read about Mengel Pass all I could think was how much that sounded like Josef Mengele, not exactly a calming comparison. Our Backcountry Adventures book's description was peppered with unhealthy phrases like: "large boulders", "shelf drop offs", "high clearance and experienced drivers required", and "flash floods sometimes make the route impassible". This was definitely not music to my ears, being a Nervous Nelly when it comes to driving on rough roads.
At the top of the Slate Range, looking out toward the Panamint Mountains
Our drive over the Slate Range roughly followed
the route taken by the Manly Party (click and
read the sign for info)
The valley looked so tame from above; turned out it was paved
with bowling ball sized boulders that were a pain to navigate.

We started out in Trona, driving over the Slate Range on BLM land, taking the general route of the Manly party (the ones who saved the ill-fated settlers who gave Death Valley it's name) ending up at the foot of the Panamint Range. Here there is a crevice in the cliffs of the mountains just wide enough for vehicles to pass through: Goler Wash.

The entrance to Goler Wash

It's pretty impressive, and beautiful in a desert-y way. The rocky mountains are mostly bare and practically vertical. Once in a while you turn a corner and there are cotton top cactus clinging to the cliffs that tower hundreds of feet over your head. When the wash opens up there are old cabins and mines to explore. Springs flow out of crevices in the rocks here and there and though we didn't see any, there are often bighorn sheep and wild burros in the area.

A wall of cotton topped cactus in the canyon.
The Unimog squeezes through the pass

This part of the trail was easy. The road was loose gravel with a few larger rocks thrown in often enough to where you wouldn't want to stop paying attention. The road climbs steadily upward, and it's so distractingly pretty with enough mining remnants and interesting views it (almost) makes you forget what's coming. We reached the turnoff to Mengel Pass and the road immediately made a steep incline to the top of a knoll overlooking a huge valley. Not Death Valley (that was over one more set of hills) but Butte Valley, named for the gorgeous striped butte that stands in the middle of it, imaginatively named Striped Butte.

Miner's cabin, Goler Wash
Anyway, to get to this gorgeous valley, you have to travel over what can only be very loosely described as a road. It's littered with big boulders, smaller big boulders and openings only large enough to fit the vehicle if you hold your breath (why does that help? I don't know, but I do it and it helps ok?).  It's really more like what you'd imagine a riverbed in Yosemite would look like if it ran dry.

Even though the Unimog is a larger vehicle, it had the advantage over our truck. It's got much higher clearance and a shorter wheel base, enabling it to easily traverse uneven terrain. We, on the other hand, had to pick our way through very slowly, sometimes stopping to stack rocks in between the boulders so we wouldn't end up teeter-tottering on our transfer case. It was slow, it was painful, and at one point we slid a little, scraping the steps that are mounted just under the driver's side door. That was acceptable to us, much better than putting a big dent in the body and possibly not being able to open and close the door properly. We made it, and our friends may have chuckled a bit, but they were nice enough to do it when we weren't watching.

The Unimog makes quick work of the rough "road" as we lurk behind the corner. (Photo credit: Craig and Rasa Fuller)

At this point, we had to get out and plot a course. We were the lowest vehicle of the bunch, with the added disadvantage of being the longest wheel base. There were a few spots we had to rearrange rocks to bridge the wider gaps.
(Photo credit: Craig and Rasa Fuller)
Sometimes spotting involves complicated dance moves.
(Photo credit: Craig and Rasa Fuller)
Victorious! We all made it through with (barely) a scratch.
(Photo credit: Craig and Rasa Fuller)
By the time we reached Butte Valley the sun was starting to set. We had spoken with another guy  over the radio who told us there weren't any other groups out here and in fact, the Geologist's Cabin was empty. Just what we were hoping to hear.

The Geologist's Cabin sits on a knoll overlooking Butte Valley

Geologist's Cabin was built by, well, a geologist of sorts. An old miner nicknamed Panamint Russ built the cabin and also a rock cistern for the spring nearby. He is said to have discovered, then promptly lost, the location of a very high-grade claim while prospecting in the valley in 1925. The guy might not have had much talent as a cartographer, but he had mad skills when it came to cabin building. And we were very thankful it was uninhabited that night, because the wind was screaming and the desert doesn't offer up much shelter. We all found the flattest spot we could behind the cabin to set up our tents/campers, then brought our stoves, water and coolers in out of the wind.

This plaque is embedded in the front stoop of the cabin. 
It reads: "Welcome. In the spirit of the Old West, please leave it better than you found it."
I think that spirit should apply to life in general, don't you?

The cabin is one of those rare public buildings that is taken care of by the public. The shelves inside are stocked with everything you might need; canned food, beer, firewood, even that aloe vera sunburn gel that I regret to say, we've needed more than once on trips to the desert. There's a sink, a water container, a countertop, a huge stone fireplace, and a big wooden table and chairs that look like they came out of your grandma's dining room. A small solar panel on the roof keeps a battery charged with enough juice to run the lamp for an hour or so. It was all amazingly free of rodent poo, considering it sits in the middle of the desert full of kangaroo rats. (Disclosure if you go: there is a general hantavirus warning for all of the cabins in the park. To date, none of our party has succumbed, but consider yourself warned.) The cabin rules, which are listed on a handwritten note over the fireplace tucked behind a folded American flag, are as follows:
  • Leave the place as you found it. If you use something, replace it.
  • Do not leave any food item that mice can chew into.
  • Build the fire at the very back of the fireplace or it will fill the cabin with smoke.
  • If the flag is raised, that means it's occupied by the Park Service, even if no one is home when you arrive.
There was a wooden outhouse out back as well, which was a welcome break from hiking in search of a bushy enough bush to hide behind, a tough thing to do in a place that gets 2.3 inches of rain a year. 

Cocktail hour out of the wind, with the perfect view of Striped Butte out the cabin window. (Ryan claims that tortilla chips and salsa are the mainstay of the human diet; he can be seen here in his natural habitat.)
Warming up by the fire
We built a nice fire and cooked dinner together in the cabin, staying up until past 10:00pm*(!) glad to be out of the wind and cold for the night.

(*10:00pm was a record for us on this trip. The desert has a reputation for heat and sun, and though it was pleasant most of the time during the day, this was February. After the sun goes down, especially at altitude, it gets downright cold. Sitting around in nylon camp chairs with the wind whistling under your butt somehow makes going to bed early very attractive.)

After a windy night (thank you Four Wheel Camper, we had it so much better than our poor friends in roof top tents) the morning brought sun and another beautiful view of Striped Butte in the valley below.
Striped Butte in the morning sun.

We packed up and drove down past the Butte, stopping here and there to take a picture and count our lug nuts (this part of the road had some major washboarding). A few miles out of the valley we stopped to check out Warm Spring Canyon, the site of an old talc mine. There are still some impressive mine shafts and mining equipment up there, along with numerous cabins and even a swimming pool that apparently was kept full by the warm springs until 1999. Sadly, it's empty now.

It was a great place to explore, and even had an established campsite or two nearby. The cabins looked like a group came by and used them occasionally; we found evidence of a possible long running poker game in one room. A case of beer, a table and chairs, and a boxed set of poker chips were sitting in a nice screened porch area on one end of the building.

We hiked up the hill behind the cabins to the source of the spring (Warm Spring, who names these things?). Warm water spilled out of a crack in the rocks, filling a little pool that was large enough to take a dip if you hunkered down into it. Not as good as a swimming pool, but it would have been fun if we had more time there.

Kitchen area of one of the Warm Spring cabins.

Looking out the door of the main cabin.
The now empty swimming pool overlooks Warm Spring Canyon. 
Wouldn't it be cool if this was still full of water?

The spring: a high-tech water system (rusty pipe, center) siphons some of the water off for the cabins below.

Warm Spring pool, on the hillside above the cabins.
The talc mine entrance. Seemed to us there was still plenty of talc to be had in the area, judging by all the white stuff lying around.
Looking down to the cabin from the spring above.
It was a long drive out to Death Valley proper. Warm Spring Canyon road meets up with West Side road, a popular gravel road that is open to regular passenger cars (usually). This being an unusually rainy year, West Side Road was closed to traffic that day. Fortunately for us, the park service had left the gates unlocked, so we were able to sneak out onto Badwater Road, closing the gate behind us to keep some unsuspecting tourist from getting mired down in the muck. The Amargosa River, normally a dry riverbed that crosses the road, was flowing up to six inches deep that day, creating enough mud to suck an unsuspecting rental car down to the hubs.

Looking down on Death Valley toward Badwater Road, the salt flats shining white in the sun.

The entire off-road portion of this trip was about 50 miles. Be aware of your fuel consumption; it's always a good idea to have spare fuel and an extra spare tire. Sharp rocks, big boulders, heat (depending on the time of year) and flash floods are all possibilities in the back country so it pays to be prepared. There are no services (not even cell service for most of the way) and help would be many hours and dollars away.

It was a fun trip, and we recapped the adventure over a late lunch at the Forty-Niner Cafe in Furnace Creek Village. (If you decide to do this, be sure to check you're credit limit; the sandwiches averaged $20.00 each. Fortunately they were huge; Mark and I ended up having the other half of mine for breakfast later in the trip.)
From left: Rasa, Craig, LeeWhay, Ryan, me, Mark and Andrew.
A better crew we couldn't ask for.

Next stop: Saline Valley, Lippincott Pass and the Racetrack.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Trona Pinnacles, Ballarat and a Downed Plane

Trona Pinnacles, backdrop for a quite a few movie and television series episodes. It's other-worldly scenes lend themselves particularly well to black and white photography.

We took a week off in early February to do a little exploring with friends. Tired of the dreary endless rain that seems to be the hallmark of Northern California 2017, we were looking for a little sun on our faces and warmth for our bones. Since our friends were traveling from Santa Barbara, Phoenix and Las Vegas, they were perfectly fine with meeting up closer to their neck of the woods.

We took off before dawn on a Saturday morning, eager to get through the Bay Area before the rest of our 7 million neighbors woke up. For the most part, we were rewarded with open freeways and beautiful views of the skyline in the morning light. I always thought big cities would be so much prettier without the people. Does that make me antisocial? Probably, but I can live with it.

Heading into the Trona Pinnacles.

We met up with our friends at the entrance to Trona Pinnacles, a geologic oddity in out-of-the-way Searles Lake basin. Our friend Ryan had a favorite campsite picked out among the weird tufa spires that make up the Pinnacles.
Our campsite among the tufa spires.

The spires, towers and tombstones of Trona Pinnacles are made of calcium carbonate, and formed anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 years ago when this valley was part of an inland sea. They now stand at the southern end of the dry lakebed slowly crumbling under the hot sun and dusty wind, with the occasional rainstorm turning it into a muddy mess. It's a haunting but strangely alluring place to visit.

Spires from one side of our camp cast shadows on the other.

Two towers, with the Panamint Mountain range in the distance.

One of the tufa peaks up close.
They are gnarly old things that crumble to the touch. There are signs begging people not to climb on them to preserve their features for others, so if you go, don't do it. Plus, it's just not safe.

An old railroad spur line that used to serve the Trona Mine. Nowadays the cars sit rusting on the track, victims of modern day trucking no doubt.

Sunset on the pinnacles.
The next day we drove down the road to Trona, a small mining town that's still in full swing pulling salt, soda ash, and other minerals out of the dry lakebed. In it's heyday it was a company town, it's stores accepting company scrip for groceries and other items. Now most of it's workers live in nearby Ridgecrest, a large city that also caters to the families of nearby military bases. (We stopped in Ridgecrest for gas on the way in and talked with a retiree, who bragged that not only were they getting a Walmart Super Store, but they just had the grand opening of their THIRD Starbucks. They're on the map people!) Nowadays the town of Trona is pretty quiet. We met a character at the gas station who invited us down the road to view his artwork, sculptures made entirely out of palm tree trunks. He admitted is was "very unique." Our only regret was we were running late meeting up with our friends and didn't have time to judge for ourselves.

Our friends Ryan and LeeWhay roll into Ballarat in their Unimog, an old NATO ambulance they've converted into a camper.

The official sign of Ballarat.
Our next stop was Ballarat, an old ghost town that's recently been inhabited by a few rough and tumble souls who watch over the "Freedom Zone." Every Easter weekend Ballarat hosts a Freedom Days celebration, during which there is only one rule: what you chose to do can't hurt anyone (else). The guys in our party were intrigued; the women weren't quite so enthusiastic. (By the way, if you decide to go, I read an account of one such event where 200 people contracted Hepatitis A from the water there. Probably want to pack your own in.)

The Ballarat General Store, where the soda is cold and the advice flows freely.

Seldom Seen Slim, the most famous resident of the Ballarat Cemetery.
A creepy cupid is part of the charm.

Seldom Seen Slim's plot, Panamint range looming in the background.

Purportedly Charles Manson's graffiti inside the Ballarat Jail house and morgue.
One of Ballarat's claims to fame is Charles Manson's truck. Old Chuck was found hiding out in a ranch house in the mountains above Ballarat. After his arrest, his truck was hauled down the canyon and put on blocks. It sits as a testament to the dogged detective work of a pissed off National Parks employee, whose backhoe was stolen by vandals that turned out to be Manson's gang. He tracked them to the ranch house and called in the FBI to help nab them.

Craig, our intrepid aviation archeologist friend, wanted to check out an airplane crash site in the vicinity he was researching. As I may have mentioned in past blog posts, Craig is our go-to guy for off road exploration in little traveled places. Propelled by Google Earth research, tips from fellow aviation enthusiasts and declassified military accounts, he notes GPS points of interest and when we're within 50 miles of one of them, leads us on aeronautical hunting expeditions. We are an enthusiastic (if undisciplined) group and Craig has to corral us on occasion when we get distracted by unusual plants or the awesome views that can be seen from desert plateaus. He puts up with us because the more eyes on the ground, the more likely it is we'll find evidence of a crash site. We must be good luck for him, because we found it with minimal effort.

Craig points at the impact crater and explains what all the bits and pieces used to be; you'll have to contact him if you want the details. My mind is apparently not meant to retain any type of technical data only described in numbers and letters. 

The debris field
Part of the landing gear

...and pieces.

A titanium part, as noted by the multi-colored patina left by the fiery impact.

It's a fascinating hobby for us, and a serious endeavor for Craig and his business Aviation & Archaeological Investigation Research. We were happy to help, and the two mile hike up and down the side of the mountain made for a well earned cocktail/snack hour that evening.

Weird cloud formations over the mountains had us wondering what the weather would do the next day.

The old mining canyon we camped in that night also happened to be a mecca of burro activity. During the gold rush, miners used burros to haul material around the mountains. When the mine petered out or the miner just plain gave up, the animals would be set loose. Despite the harsh environment, they have thrived and for some reason there was a huge concentration of them up this particular canyon. Well into the night, we could hear them calling to one another in that peculiar cartoonish way they have. The opening sequence of that old TV show Hee Haw with the animated donkey? Exactly how they sound. We dubbed the valley Burro Burough, as it didn't have a discernible name that we could find on our maps.

Three burros are curious to know what all the racket was as our convoy of four vehicles clattered over the rough road.

Next stop: Goler Wash, Mengel Pass and Striped Butte in Death Valley National Park