No Media For Me On Inauguration Weekend - 2017
During the recent presidential inauguration, I planned to get as far away as possible from all broadcast and online media sources. After reviewing my old blog articles, I decided that the Hole in Wall Campground in the Mojave National Preserve was the place to go. In the lower elevations of the campground, my mobile telephone might access a cell tower somewhere near Needles, California. At the upper reaches, terrestrial signals are weak, with only AM radio and an occasional text message transiting through the ether.
As it happened, my winter camping trip to the desert was epic. In my coach, I had vintage wines, great food and forced-air, propane heating at my fingertips. My electrical power emanated from two 6-volt “golf cart batteries”. Combined, they offered 12-volts of power to my lights and appliances. The system allowed for “deep cycle” usage and quick recovery during recharge. In the campground, as the temperature dipped below 40-degrees, I set the thermostat as high as 71-degrees. As it converts from a liquid to a gaseous state, propane expands by a factor of 270. Even with extensive burning, my ten gallons of propane would suffice for several nights of warmth. As the night progressed, I could have worn shorts and t-shirt inside.
Overnight, I set the temperature at a comfortable 60-degrees. As I slept in luxury, the furnace cycled five or six more times. When I awoke the next morning, it was raining. I pushed a button on the control panel and the electric-powered awning extended fully over the outside door of my coach. After sprinting through a light shower, I retrieved my old Honda EX1000 generator from the bed of my pickup truck. After pouring what we euphemistically call “gasoline” into its integral tank, I prepared to pull the recoil starter.
Over the past decade, the ethanol, or corn alcohol in our domestic fuel supply had twice clogged up the carburetor. Contemporary generators and automobiles have a pressurized fuel system that seals itself from leaks when not in use. My old Honda generator relied on gravity to feed the carburetor, thus there was no automatic shutoff of the fuel supply. As long as there was fuel in the tank, any change in barometric pressure would expand or contract the air in the fuel tank, thus sending a few drops of fuel into the carburetor.
The medical community entreats us not to eat or drink foods that contain corn syrup. Science proved long ago that corn syrup would clog our arteries and lead to diabetes and incipient heart failure. As with corn syrup in the human body, so it is with “corn fuel” in an engine designed for real gasoline. By leaving a small amount of gas in the tank during storage, I had twice gummed-up the carburetor. Each time, the engine failed to start, requiring a costly rebuild. In my case, it took two such episodes to determine that the gas tank on my EX1000 must be empty when placed into storage. By now, it had been more than two years since I had run the generator.
Since my EX1000 uses a conventional carburetor, it needs to be “choked” in order to fire-up and start running. For those who have lived only in the “fuel injection era”, choking means physically limiting the air supply to the engine in order to increase the fuel-to-air ratio. Upon startup, it gives you more “bang for the buck”, as they used to say. After achieving “lift off”, so to speak, one can open the choke incrementally. Once the oil in the crankcase warms up, fully opening the choke allows the engine to run efficiently.
I looked down at the choke-slider from above and behind the unit. From that odd angle, the hieroglyphics indicating that the choke was “open” or “closed” made no sense. After erroneously sliding it to the full-open position, I proceeded to pull on the recoil starter twenty or thirty times, with no success. By then, water was puddling four-inches deep beneath the aft-end of the coach and rain was whipping in my face. Enough was enough. I shoved the EX1000 under the coach and went inside to dry off.
The LED indicators in my coach showed that my “house batteries” were down to one-third of their normal power. Despite having to brave intermittent rain showers, I would dash out every couple of hours and run the engine on my Titan truck. Through an attached cable, the alternator on the Titan’s V-8 engine recharged my coach batteries. By nightfall, it was pouring rain, but the batteries recovered to two-thirds power. Feeling better about my power supply, I went inside, planning to stay there until sunup.
When I sat down at the dinette, the seat of my pants felt wet and cold. In my haste to run the truck engine, I had left my shirttail hanging out of my two-piece rain suit. The shirttail was soaked and so was I. In order to warm up, I had to remove all of my wet clothes and replace them with dry apparel. In the desert cold, one can rapidly succumb to hypothermia. Since I was still on limited battery power, I did not raise the thermostat for warmth. Instead, I relied on my own metabolism to warm my clothes and me. When I sat back down, even the cushions of the dinette were damp. Would my bouts with the cold and the wet ever end?
After dark, it became colder still, so I wore three layers on my torso and pajamas beneath my jeans. On my feet were two pairs of socks and warm slippers. In order to save battery power, I used portable lights and even kept the radio off. Television was not an option. Normally I stay up until at least midnight, but it was so cold and dismal that I went to bed around 10 PM. Soon after getting in bed, I spilled a small portion of white wine on the bed sheets. In order to stay dry, I had to leave my previously warm spot and resettle on the opposite side of the bed.
As I lay listening to the rain and wind, the only other sound was the blower on the furnace, which was cycling on and off. Each time the furnace relighted, I would turn it down a degree or two, hoping to conserve battery power. By midnight, I had turned it down to about 52-degrees. Two days later, I discovered an air-gap where the slide-out meets the chassis of the coach. That small air gap had the same effect as leaving a door ajar. With the high winds that night, it felt like a fan was blowing cold air into the coach.
As I slept fitfully, the wind and the rain battered the outside of my coach. After the weather front passed through at 1 AM, the wind began gusting to over forty miles per hour. During previous camping trips, I had always put a “four-by-four” piece of wood under each of the leveling glides on the coach. Since the motorized leveling system on my current coach is so easy to use, I had become complacent. Instead of placing a solid piece of wood beneath each glide, I had lowered them directly on to the wet desert sand.
The “full-room slide out” was fully extended, thus cantilevering a lot of weight over the open desert. As the winds picked up, the coach would heal like a sailboat under sail. In reality, the coach did not move much, but it felt unstable and ready to blow over. My lucky stroke was that the pickup truck was upwind, helping break some of the wind forces. Also, the aerodynamic front end of the coach faced into the wind.
Whether it is our voting choices or our camping practices, sometimes we humans act against our self-interest. If I had not been obsessed with saving battery power, I would have used the motorized system to retract the slide-out into the coach. Rocking in my unstable cradle that night, I recalled that if the house batteries dipped below 11.5-volts, the hardwired carbon monoxide alarm would start wailing. Worse yet, the alarm would not stop until the batteries were sufficiently recharged. By the time I remembered that, it was freezing outside, so I did not venture out and run the truck engine.
The potential for a wailing alarm was more powerful than my fear that the coach would overturn, so I left the slide-out extended. With four-inches of water pooled beneath the rear leveling glides, that was not a wise idea. In the end, everything stayed upright. Still, for the better part of three hours, it felt like I was inside the tornado from The Wizard of Oz. After 3 AM, the furnace stopped cycling and the wind gusts seemed to abate, or maybe I passed out, with a pillow over my head.
When I awoke, the sun shown above the low horizon to the east. As its rays struck the back window of the coach, the air inside slowly rose toward 55-degrees. Although the warming trend was encouraging, in order to feel comfortable, I needed more heat. Then, I remembered that a group of campers had spent the night in tents, down at the windiest, coldest part of the campground. How were they feeling that frigid morning, I wondered? After dressing as warmly as I could, I stepped out and walked toward my truck.
On a whim, I dragged the old Honda EX1000 generator out from beneath the coach, “choked it” and then pulled the rope. It fired-up on the first pull. The EX1000 employs some old technology, including what amounts to a small motorcycle engine mated to a 1000-watt generator. Even when warm, it emits pollutants far above a current-generation “CARB Compliant” generator. With gloved hands, I plugged the power cord from the coach into the 120-volt electrical receptacle on the generator. Within 40-minutes, the coach was warm and toasty and the batteries registered two-thirds full. The price I paid for old technology that morning was to inhale exhaust gasses at my otherwise pristine desert campsite.
In order to avoid the exhaust, I explored the bounds of my rustic campsite, including the bed of my pickup truck. There, in a crate that carried my unused four-by-fours was half an inch of solid ice. Since my indoor/outdoor thermometer went missing, I can only assume that it got down to about 25-degrees overnight. Still, as the sun rose and the wind abated, the air warmed to about 45-degrees. Upon further inspection, my trailer tires were showing unusual wear, so I needed to buy new ones before returning home.
After two eventful nights at my desert camp, I headed for Needles, about fifty miles away. On my first trip to the Hole in the Wall Campground, eleven years ago, I had experienced a slow leak in one of my tires. After pumping it up above normal pressure, I hoped to get fifty-miles of travel before it deflated. Then, I had the choice of traveling cross-country on dirt roads to the town of Baker or heading to Needles and purchase new tires there. Good sense prevailed, so I had navigated paved roads and Interstate I-40 to Desert View Mobil, located on the old Needles Highway. Back then, I assumed that buying trailer tires in the desert would be akin to throwing money down a rat hole. Were they not just waiting for a desperate soul like me to fall into their money trap?
As it occurred, that first visit and twice since, the people at Desert View Mobil have treated me to free refreshments while I waited for a refit with new tires on each successive rig. Having bought three sets of tires at Desert View Mobil, I knew they could do the job. As I rolled to a halt, the manager approached me saying, "You know your tires are shredding?" I said, "That's why I'm here". Before he mounted the new tires, I asked him to check my suspension links, which felt loose and wobbly on the road. No, the tires and suspension components I purchased that day were not free, but my new tires were higher quality than I could buy at any local tire store.
Soon, I had all new bolts, links and bushings on the suspension, plus four new eight-ply tires. Each new “wet-bolt” features a grease fitting and unlike the original nylon bushings, the new ones were solid bronze. In the future, I can lubricate the whole suspension system, mitigating excess tire wear and the loose handling I had previously experienced. Longtime Desert View Mobil mechanic, Ricky Wallace and his compatriot had me back on the road in less than three hours. Before I departed, they provided a free grease-job on my wheel bearings. As I headed for I-40, it felt like I was driving a brand new rig.
While writing this article, I researched “Desert View Mobil” on the internet. One image led me to Yelp, which features mostly negative reviews of millions of businesses. The reviews for Desert View Mobil were true to form. Most Yelp reviewers seem to hate all small businesses. Eighty-percent of the Yelp reviews I read were extremely negative. How could my experience with this particular business be so good while many customers felt swindled, overcharged or defrauded?
As I said, Yelp is a “complainer’s paradise”, so do not expect to see any good news there. Also, remember that you are in the town of Needles, in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Nothing is cheaper in the desert. Next door, at the Dairy Queen, I bought the most expensive milkshake of my life. Desert travel is hard on vehicles, whether they are trailers, motor homes or automobiles. Why else would Desert View Mobil stock tires of almost every size? If you limp in on three wheels, as one vintage Savoy trailer did, do not expect a bargain, but do expect to be back safely on the road in short order. As they say, time is money.
Interstate I-40 has more elevation changes than a roller-coaster. If a tire is going to fail, you can expect it to break apart somewhere near Needles. If you travel at high speed and have neglected routine maintenance, you will require help somewhere near High Desert Mobil. When the staff there points out that your tires are bare and your suspension is shot, do not blame them. Blame yourself for not fixing the problem before leaving home. Besides, they offer a two-year written warranty on parts and labor. Just keep the receipt in your glove box and stop in for a safety check each time you pass by.
When I was rolling again, it was too late to drive the 300-miles home. Instead, I headed down the long grade to Park Moabi, along the Colorado River. Although the County of San Bernardino owns Moabi Regional Park, its concessionaire has renamed it “Pirate’s Cove”. Adjacent to old Route-66 and the Colorado River, the park began life in the 1930s as an itinerant travel camp for Dust Bowl escapees. In prime season, the restaurant now serves around 3000 meals each day. Boats from up and down the river flock to its lagoon. After anchoring, boaters can take a water taxi to the restaurant. If you have the time and money, you can take a float-plane ride, a speedboat ride or connect your RV to a full hookup next to the river.
Not wanting to spend the extra ten dollars for a full hookup, I elected to go with “water and power only”. That meant I would have to access the RV dump in the morning. Still, with the outrageous price of $55 for a full hookup near the Colorado River, saving money seemed appropriate. My decision turned out to be a mistake. Instead of spending the night in quiet seclusion by the river, I ended up camping amidst the biggest, loudest party ever. I camped in an area occupied by hard-drinking party-people, all of whom drove high-powered “quad” off-road vehicles. Once I hooked up the water and power, I retreated to my coach. The “Quiet Hour” of 10 PM came and went. Without fail, every ten minutes, someone would fire up his ORV, just to hear the engine rev.
Are you a hard-drinking, “hoot & holler” pirate-type, enamored of high-powered off-road vehicles? If so, Pirate's Cove is the place for you. They tout 3200-miles of off-road trails to drive. With high-revving engines all around and a complete lack of respect for "quiet hours", you will experience a freewheeling atmosphere of loud music, engine fumes and smoky campfires. If you enjoy peace, quiet and have respect for your neighbors, stay as far away from Pirate’s Cove as you can. When you check in, they copy your driver’s license, your vehicle insurance certificate and take your credit card for payment. I do not know who can access all that information, but the potential for identity theft is ever-present. For the reasons stated above, I give Pirate’s Cove management a "no stars" review.
Overnight, some prankster opened both the black-water and gray-water valves on my coach. Only the outside cap retained the effluent. The next morning, when I opened the cap at the RV dump, one-hundred gallons of effluent poured out on the desert soil and on me. Someone had already dumped a bucket-load of horse droppings by the Pirate's Cove RV dump, so I did not feel bad about leaving the area as soon as possible. By the time I cleaned up and departed the scene, it was raining.
For the next 300-miles, the rain did not let up. Near sundown, I caught a glimpse of Simi Valley from the pass at Rocky Peak. Upon arrival at my destination, the rain had stopped and my winter camping experience in the desert was complete.
That was how I spent Inauguration Weekend 2017. Do we have a new president? Was there a protest march the next day? Is there an unconstitutional immigrant ban in effect? Is my Medicare heading for a voucher system? Will Congress slash my Social Security benefits? Apparently, a lot can change when one spends a few nights at a "Hole In The Wall" in the Mojave National Preserve.
at 02:56 PM |
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Ride the D&RGW Narrow Gauge Rails with Twentieth Century Railroading Legend, Engineer Steve Connor
In 1965, my father, Dr. Loron N. McGillis and I visited Durango, Colorado. There we rode on the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) to Silverton and back. No longer a freight or ore hauler of any distinction, the narrow gauge steam trains were quaint, yet powerful. During our stopover at Silverton, my father and I photographed the waiting train and visited with its engineer.
In December 2013, while writing about our 1965 excursion, I included an image of our engineer in one of my articles. In the original photo caption, I referred to him as “our unnamed engineer”. When I published his picture, I thought, “Someone must surely know who this man is and will contact me with his name”.
In October 2014, I received an email from Mr. Paul Connor, who is the grandson of our 1965 locomotive engineer, Mr. Steve Connor. Over the course of several emails, I learned more about the Connor name in D&RGW history.
As Paul wrote to me, “I am Steve Connor’s oldest grandson. My father, George Connor worked as a brakeman/conductor for the D&RGW. I spent the first twenty-one years of my career working for the D&RGW and Southern Pacific Railroad. After hiring out at Durango in 1974, I began there as a mechanical laborer/coach cleaner. In 1976, I started as fireman at Durango, and later worked out of Pueblo, Minturn, Alamosa and Grand Junction as a locomotive engineer/fireman. In 1995 I was promoted to Road Foreman of Engines and have held the same job since. After the Union Pacific merger with Southern Pacific, my title became Manager of Operating Practices, working out of Grand Junction.
All told, the Connor family currently has somewhere around one hundred and twenty years of railroading history in western Colorado. I say this because I am not certain of my great grandfather, Richard Connor's hire date. We think he started in the 1800's when the tracks were being laid into Durango.
The youngest of seven siblings, for many years of his career Richard Connor was the section foreman at Hermosa. His oldest brother, Jim, retired as a locomotive engineer at Durango. His brother John was a fireman and was killed in a train wreck in the Animas Canyon in 1921.”
Regarding his grandfather, Paul Connor wrote, “Steve Connor was born in the section house at Hermosa, just north of Durango to Richard and Julia Connor. He hired out around 1923 and retired in 1971 with forty-eight years, but was furloughed for many years during the Great Depression. At times, when they were short of manpower, he made trips on the Rio Grande Southern. As the narrow gauge dried up, he would work at Durango in the summers and work out of Alamosa in the winters. The Alamosa/Durango seniority rosters were combined during those years. I always joked that by the time he was number one in seniority, there would be only one job left on the narrow gauge.
As you might expect, there are a lot of photographs of Steve Connor around but few that are this good. Your father really captured a great deal of his personality and a nice moment in time for me.”
Regarding Steve Connor’s experience, Paul wrote, “The locomotive 478 was my grandfather's favorite of the three used on the Silverton Branch in those years. I am not sure why, but if I had to guess it is because it rode the best, the whistle was not as shrill, and it was then equipped with power reverse (long since removed). Steam engines possess personality in the way they fire, steam, and run. For lack of a better word, I would call them quirks. In the years I worked there, I had no particular favorite of the three. As a fireman or engineer you had to work around each of their personalities.”
Each October 15 for the past three years, I have closed the season while staying at the United Campgrounds of Durango RV Park. In cooperation with the campground, I operate a live webcam that features the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. If a webcam viewer is lucky, they may see the steam train running either north or south through the RV Park.
By October, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad runs only one round-trip train to Silverton each day. During the fall season, the railroad uses mostly their larger 480 Series or K-36 locomotives, so that they can operate a longer single train. By October, it is rare to see a smaller 470 Series or K-28 locomotive, with its lesser tractive power.
Still, if you visit Durango during the summer season, you might have the opportunity to see or ride behind locomotive 478, which was the favorite of twentieth century railroading legend and D&RGW Engineer, the late Steve Connor (d.1974).
at 01:16 PM |
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Goodbye to Old Mesquite, Nevada - It Was Good To Know You
In 2009, I stopped in Mesquite, Nevada. While heading north out of town, I took photos of several old buildings and signs. A town’s architecture and graphics help reveal its history. A common theme involves a once flourishing business now closed. For example, when Interstate I-40 bypassed Seligman, Arizona, the attractions of Old-66 were barely enough to keep Old Seligman alive. With so little business activity generated after its bypass, Seligman froze in time. Therefore, many old buildings and signs in that town remained in situ.
In 1974, after the completion of Interstate I-15 through Mesquite, most new development came in the form of condominiums. The targeted customers were retired people or second-home owners. Today in North Mesquite, large new retirement complexes tend to focus the eye on human made water features, including a series of water-wasting golf courses. With such environmentally wasteful practices in effect, little if any summer-season water flowing in the Virgin River reaches its outlet at Lake Mead.
Prior to the construction of Mesquite's sprawling retirement communities, the same area represented only a small portion of a vast network of arroyos. Partially filled with wind-driven sand, the area was an "alluvial plain in the making". Most people do not think about “upstream” in the desert. Such terms matter only when a major flood hits such a dry area. When thunderstorms linger on nearby Mount Mormon, resulting floods carry enormous flows down those arroyos filled with sand. During, or shortly after an deluge upstream, watercourses shift, overwhelming their banks and inundating previously dry areas.
In the case of the recent condominium development in North Mesquite, everything will probably be OK. However, if we live to see the thousand-year flood, let alone the ten thousand-year flood, all of that could change. If either of those events happens, the ancient erosion field and slide zone that is North Mesquite shall not stand. In terms of proximate risk to property owners, safety and security may depend on one’s sense of time.
Mesquite, Nevada built its reputation on a firm foundation of gambling. Today, viewing it on Google Maps shows us that North Mesquite lies near the foot of a massive paleo flood zone. It does not take a trained geologist to see that ancient debris flows swept “downstream”, temporarily interrupting the Virgin River as it swept across the river and far up on the opposite bank. These desert sands appear to be the terminal deposition of ancient North Mesquite debris flows. It is there, on the east bank that buff colored desert sand intermingles with the dark, volcanic alluvium descending from Virgin Peak and Mount Bangs.
Today, such a flood would have to cross Interstate I-15 and West Mesquite Blvd., inundating most of Old Mesquite. In that scenario, all of Mesquite would remain in peril. The good news is that the ten thousand-year flood only comes every 10,000 years, or so they say. So what are the real odds? If enough people ask, the Casa Blanca Resort and Casino in Mesquite might make book on that question. I now remember my father’s sage advice, which was, “Never build anything in a flood plain”.
Although it lies only ninety miles from Las Vegas, Mesquite has closer ties to St. George, Utah, forty miles north on I-15. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, both Las Vegas and Mesquite were Mormon settlements. They were among a string of towns that grew up along the Old Spanish Trail, leading to Los Angeles. A common denominator among Mormon settlers and their current day counterparts is industriousness. If there is a potential for land development, the business community in Mesquite will soon take advantage of it.
The years 2008 and 2009 represented the depths of the recent recession in Mesquite. Since then, there has been a steady, if slow economic recovery. New condominiums and businesses now present themselves, but current economic activity does not approach the breakneck pace of the early 2000’s. Now enthralled again by new development potential, protection of Mesquite’s historical buildings, signage and its highway heritage languish.
To be fair, most destruction or neglect of historical buildings and signage in Mesquite happens on private property. Even so, it appears that neither the city nor its business community sees value in saving the town’s historical qualities. For posterity, I shall document three examples of Old Mesquite at its finest.
In 2013, the long defunct Oasis Hotel Casino and Resort disappeared from West Mesquite Boulevard. Around that time, the historical Oasis pole sign disappeared from its prior location near Interstate I-15. New visitors to Mesquite will never know that there once stood the biggest, fanciest and most successful casino resort in town. Other than an aging RV Park now operated by the Casa Blanca Resort Casino and an annex of hotel rooms now converted to timeshares, the Oasis is no more.
Farther east on West Mesquite Blvd. is what remains of Harley’s Garage. In 2009, a sign on the locked front door thanked customers for Harley’s sixty-two years in business. From Harley's graphical pole sign, which almost overhangs the highway; we know that Harley’s Garage once sold radiators and specialized in Ford automobiles. The aging Ford sign, which resides just above an image of a Ford Model-T style radiator, now turns to rust and eventually to dust. The classic “Ford” script, once painted brilliant red on blue, now appears as rust-red on pale blue. At its present rate of decay, full deterioration is only a few years away.
I picture travelers on old U.S. Highway 91 in 1945, experiencing a breakdown near Mesquite, Nevada. No matter how the motorist arrived in Mesquite, Harley’s Garage was ready to replace or repair overstressed radiators, batteries or brakes. Now-outdated internet business listings indicate that Harley's once had a AAA towing franchise. With Las Vegas and St. George scores of miles away across a desert wasteland, we can imagine what a godsend Harley’s Garage and radiator repair shop must have been.
Historically, Mesquite was a ranching and farming community. Despite two historic floods that destroyed the economic vitality of Old Mesquite, several generations of Mesquiters continued to grow crops in the floodplain of the Virgin River. For their part, ranchers in nearby Bunkerville grazed their cattle on a once verdant, open range. Since Old Mesquite’s settlers banded together for sustenance and protection, they required a place to buy, sell and trade their produce and cattle.
On West Mesquite Blvd. stands a contemporary Ranch Market building. Despite looking relatively new and prosperous, by 2009 the Ranch Market stood closed for good. Looking inside, I could see display cases and shopping carts gathering dust behind the glass. Out back, on the same over-sized lot was an old pole barn, weathering and deteriorating in the sun. Later, I learned that the pole barn had once been the original Mesquite Ranch Market.
With a few rough sawn boards still clinging to the its roof, I tried to determine the age of the barn. “The better part of a century”, I thought. A long abandoned electrical service clung to one of its corners. There were broken remnants of an overhead trolley, which once moved hay bales in and out of a now missing hayloft. With no remaining siding, doors, roof shingles or hayloft, only the cross-bracing of its beams keeps the pole barn from its inevitable destruction. In the past five years, an adjacent and a once mighty cottonwood tree has crumbled closer to the ground. With such rapid deterioration, how much longer the original Mesquite Ranch Market will stand is anyone's guess.
The desert environment, with its heat, sun and wind can destroy almost any human made object. Repainting and replacement are constant activities for thriving businesses in a desert economy. Keep it neat, keep it clean and tourists will stop. Let it go and the desert will soon remove the gloss of civilization. There stands North Mesquite, gleaming in the reflected light of its mini-lakes and golf courses. On the other side of town, more often than not, the desert is winning its inevitable, entropic race.
It is here that I say, so long to Old Mesquite. It was good to know you.
at 04:29 PM |
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From Barstow to Mesquite - A Mojave Desert Adventure
In May 2014, I departed Casa Carrie in Simi Valley, California, heading for Mesquite, Nevada. While my ultimate destination was Moab, Utah, Mesquite stood half way along my route. To complete my trip to Moab in only two days, I planned to travel 375 miles each day. When towing a travel trailer, that distance approaches my outside limit for daily travel.
After merging on to Interstate I-15 North, my trip to Moab would continue on Interstate I-15 and I-70 almost all the way. Although the archaic speed laws in California require large trucks and autos towing trailers to proceed at no more that fifty-five miles per hour, I find it safer to travel on the Interstate at between sixty and sixty-five mails per hour. Why California does not synchronize the speed between towed vehicles and other traffic is an open question. For as long as I can remember, California has stuck to its slowpoke truck and trailer speed limits. Throughout the Four Corners region, trucks, trailers and autos all have the same speed limits.
On Interstate I-5 North, the high desert cities of Victorville, Barstow and Baker offer slight relief from the boredom of transiting across the Mojave Desert. In order to save on fuel costs, I usually stop at the Love’s Travel Center in Barstow. Upon arrival, I found a convoy of two U.S. Army Reserve Humvees and a larger transport truck stopped for refueling. In speaking with three of the team members, I discovered that they were traveling to nearby Fort Irwin for two weeks of Reserve training exercises.
On a previous trip to Moab, I had seen a surplus early model Humvee stripped down and converted to off-road use. With no armor at all, the older model Humvees became potential deathtraps during Iraq War combat. The current model Humvees that I saw in Barstow featured heavy steel-plate exteriors, blast-resistant doors and steel armor built into their undercarriages. With no front-end crash protection, and unarmed gun turrets up top, these Army Reserve Humvees looked sleek, but not yet combat ready.
During my fuel stop, I remembered that I was heading for two weeks of fun and adventure in the Four Corners region. For the following two weeks, the reservists would engage in war games and training at the one-thousand square miles of open desert at the nearby National Training Center. With Memorial Day fast approaching, I was happy to have such dedicated and talented individuals training to protect our liberties in the United States and abroad. After I thanked the Los Alamitos, California based reservists for their service, they headed out.
Heading north from Barstow, I soon passed the turn-off to Fort Irwin. By then my new friends from the Army Reserve were entering the gate at the “fort”. Fort Irwin’s name helps tell the story that in 1846, the U.S. Army created a rock fort at nearby Bitter Creek. From there, the U.S. Army Mormon Battalion and others chased supposedly marauding Apache, Shoshone and fugitive Mission Indians from Mission San Gabriel, near Los Angeles. Although some stole horses, guns and food from travelers along the Old Spanish Trail, most Indians in the Mojave Desert exemplified the notion of nomadic loners, seeking no contact with outsiders.
Solar plasma formation at Ivanpah Valley, California
Soon, I came upon Ivanpah, California. Ivanpah shares an otherwise desolate valley with Primm, Nevada. There I got my first blinding look at the glint and glare from the new Brightsource Solar Thermal Plant in operation. In May of 2012, I had passed that place during construction of the controversial, three unit active-solar power generating station. At that time, the tops of the three receiving towers were dark, as if shrouded in black cloth.
On this visit, I noted that the top sections of each tower shone with white light seemingly as bright as the sun. Shimmering in the air to one side or the other of each receiving tower was what looked like white mist. In reality, the mist was solar plasma, caused by the concentration of light from many mirrors. As operators need more power, they use computers and electrical actuators to change the angle of up to 356,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door. As a result, operators can redirect the reflected sunlight from a focal point in the desert sky to a receiving area at the top of each tower. Since adjacent air temperatures created by the solar plasma are so high, no one yet knows the long-term effects on the desert environment.
In a recent Los Angeles Times article, I read that a number of native birds had perished in the solar flux at Ivanpah. Some experts hypothesize that prolonged focusing of eyes on the solar receiving towers could burn our retinas. I thought to myself, “Shouldn’t that be illegal?” One thing is for sure; you will no longer see a Desert Tortoise basking in Ivanpah Valley’s desert sun. After 15,000 years of human cohabitation with the Desert Tortoise, politicians decided that the terrapins must go elsewhere, all in the name of “renewable energy”. Using the double-speak of Mega Solar; they had to “destroy the desert in order to renew it”.
As my rig descended the grade into the Ivanpah Valley, I kept my speed below sixty miles per hour. Thinking that I might get a good photo of the towers, I lowered the side window on my vehicle. Although the ambient temperature that day was about 90 °F (32 °C), heat radiating from the solar thermal generators was palpable on my skin. The feeling reminded me of the rays that emanate from a parabolic electric heater. With its vast array of mirrors and three thermal collecting towers, I discovered that Brightsource Primm had a “heat island” effect far greater than even its massive size suggested. The good news is that without the previously available multi-billion dollar loan guarantees and tax rebates, no further solar thermal generating plants like Brightsource Primm will see the light of day.
After that surreal experience, I proceeded past the lure of Primm’s several casinos, driving north toward Las Vegas, Nevada. My goal was to reach Mesquite Nevada, ninety miles north of Las Vegas before dark. With that in mind, my visit to Las Vegas would consist of a “drive by” on I-15 North. After almost two decades of expansion in Las Vegas, I-15 has reached the limits of its right-of-way. With six or eight lanes in each direction at the southern end of The Strip, the road and its connectors can carry a tremendous volume of traffic. Ironically, when a driver reaches North Las Vegas, there is usually a traffic snarl. There, highway planners provided too few lanes to handle the through-traffic heading out of Las Vegas to the north, east and west.
Near the southern end of The Strip, the Luxor Las Vegas Hotel is visible from the I-15 freeway. In a ghostly repeat of what I had just seen at Ivanpah, the Luxor’s thirty-story tall pyramid reflected golden hues of sunlight off its mirrored glass surface. Originally built in the early 1990s, the Luxor received a makeover in 2008. In a classic case of Old Energy thinking, MGM Resorts International failed to take advantage of New Energy. Rather than retrofitting the Luxor pyramid with photovoltaic solar panels, they opted for the “golden glow” effect of solar reflective glass. With business as usual in Las Vegas, appearances trumped energy efficiency and common sense. I wondered how much electrical energy from Brightsource Ivanpah might be powering air conditioners at the Luxor.
About twenty miles north of Las Vegas, I exited I-15 North at U.S. Highway 93, also called the Great Basin Highway. If the Ivanpah Valley is California’s version of the new Industrial Desert, the area north of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and south of the Moapa River Indian Reservation is a no man’s land dedicated to the Old Industrial Desert. Despite hosting a large photovoltaic panel array to the west, an open pit mine adjacent to I-15 and the natural gas fired Harry Allen Generating Station dominate the landscape. Adding environmental insult to injury, a nearby chemical loading depot disperses clouds of white powder and dust across that desolate valley.
A truck stop in the desert attracts all kinds of people and vehicles. Other than the convenience of yet another Love’s Travel Center, I would not consider stopping in such a ravaged environment. From a person who converted his pickup truck to look like a can of Monster Energy Drink to a severely overloaded Nissan Titan pickup, I stood agape at the unusual scene.
Prior to my departure, I spotted a Nevada Highway Patrol (NHP) vehicle exiting the parking lot. Other than some low-slung lights on its roof and official markings on its sides, the vehicle looked like any contemporary Ford Ranger SUV. In order to identify the occupant as clearly as possible, the words “Highway Patrol” and “State Trooper” blazed across the front fenders and doors of the dark blue vehicle. In a nod to mobile communications, “Dial *NHP” occupied each rear quarter panel.
Back again on I-15 North, I steeled my eyes and made myself ready to stare down any ersatz militiamen I might soon encounter along the highway. Before reaching my destination in Mesquite, I had to transit the area held by gun-toting folks who see rancher Cliven Bundy as their hero. In the aptly named “Bunkerville”, militiamen stand guard over an overgrazed desert where rancher Bundy refuses to pay decades’ worth of cattle grazing fees to the federal government. Apparently, it is lost on his para militarist protectors that if we all paid our fair share of fees and taxes, we could create a sustainable environment and have lower taxes for all.
Plush Kokopelli dives for cover at Bunkerville, Nevada
After taking the off ramp to Bunkerville, I lost my way trying to find the place. Given my stand on gun violence, perhaps it is best that I did not meet up with any trigger-happy men dressed in camouflage gear. On my foray into that unfamiliar world, I did find the original Bunkerville bunker. As one might expect, it was a windowless shack with heavy wooden doors. Approaching the bunker cautiously, I called out, “Cliven, Cliven… are you there?” Alas, no one answered.
After my visit to virtual Bunkerville, I proceeded to Mesquite and to the “Oasis Resort Hotel and Casino” RV Park . Only a few years ago, the Oasis Resort had welcomed my arrival with a huge “Welcome MoabLive.com” on their lighted message board. By May 2014, the resort hotel, casino and even the lighted tower sign were gone. From my previous visits, I knew that Mesquite has an ongoing reputation for destroying its highway heritage.
I can understand demolishing an obsolete casino, but removing the venerable landmark that was the Oasis sign is just plain dumb. Would Las Vegas tear down its classic 1960’s “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign? In Mesquite’s zeal to become a thoroughly sanitized city in the desert, it has consistently destroyed its once quaint highway history. After viewing the destruction, all I could say was, “Good luck, Mesquite, Nevada”.
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