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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


  1. That was never Manson or Watsons truck. Their truck was dismantled decades ago.

  2. Makes for a good story though, wouldn’t you say?