Chapter #378: Mammoth Lakes, Summer 2020 - January 5, 2021

Mammoth Mountain as seen from the east, at Deadman Creek, Mono County, California - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

Mammoth Mountain and Mammoth Lakes are Beautiful, but in a Seismically Active Zone

As most people know, over the past few decades, weather patterns in California have tended toward drought. In addition, the wildfire season extends from at least July until November. One of the hardest hit areas, regarding smoke impact is the Sierra Nevada. Fires tend to start on the western slopes of the Sierra, while prevailing winds blow the smoke to the east. That phenomenon can cover the prime recreation areas of Yosemite, Inyo and Mono Counties for weeks or even months at a time.

Global pandemic or not, huge crowds descended on the Town of Mammoth Lakes and all the surrounding area for the Fourth of July holiday 2020. Young athletes came to town by the hundreds, expecting to enjoy clean air and high altitude training. Many are disappointed by the lung-searing smoke that soon covered the area for much of the summer. With only two supermarkets in town, even staying safe while buying food can be a daunting task. In order to beat the crowds and smoke, we planned our annual visit to Mammoth Lakes for late June. With any luck, the air would still be clear and the holiday crowds would not yet be in town.

On June 27, 2020, Carrie and I arrived at the Mammoth Mountain RV Park for a four-night stay. With a trip distance from Simi Valley of exactly 300 miles, towing our new fifth wheel required over six hours of travel time. With an elevation at the RV Park of over 7,500 feet, we knew it would take a day or two to acclimate. For most of the first day, we stayed in camp, enjoying the fresh air and breezy weather. Neighbors in RV parks like to talk. In this case, our maskless neighbor approached too close for my comfort. Even outdoors, no one knows how far virus particles can travel on the wind.

In June 2020, we were all learning about airborne viruses, social distancing and the value of wearing a mask in public. Tiny Inyo County, with a full-time population of around 11,000 had registered only a few cases of the dreaded Covid-19 virus. Many people still thought there were “safe zones”, where the virus could not reach. Having studied the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918, I knew better. Still, many people walked around both the campgrounds and the town in large groups. Many shunned masks altogether.

On our second day, we drove up Main Street and through the largely deserted Town of Mammoth Lakes. Turning right on Minaret Road, we could see crowds of people retrieving take-out orders from inside the Mammoth Brewing Company. In order to enjoy their meal, most customers stayed crowded on the nearby outdoor benches. To me it looked like a dangerous petri-dish of potential infection. Several weeks after the July Fourth holiday, the infection rate in Mono County spiked for the first time. Virus testing During most of our stay at Mammoth Lakes, we stayed in camp and enjoyed clear clean air in June 2020 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)determined that infected restaurant and other food workers drove those numbers up. Apparently, mountain air does not provide immunity from viral infections.

As of January 2020, Mono County is under a regional "stay at home" order, thus prohibiting short overnight stays for recreational purposes. Although condominium owners may visit and stay in their own units, they cannot rent them out on the formerly lucrative short-term rental market. Keep in mind that many recent condo owners purchased their units based on the concept that short-term rentals could pay their mortgage. If the "stay at home" order continues for both the winter and summer seasons of 2021, expect a wave of condominium foreclosures to follow.

Continuing our excursion up Minaret Road, we passed the Mammoth Scenic Loop, which is neither “scenic”, nor a “loop”. After a significant earthquake swarm in the early 1980’s, the road was initially designed and built as the “Mammoth Lakes Volcanic Escape Route”. Escape what, you might ask? The Northeastern flank of Mammoth Mountain, as seen from upper Minaret Road - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Escape a potential phreatic eruption or toxic gas ejection, if Mammoth Mountain were to erupt. Real estate and business interests soon squashed the “Escape Route” moniker, preferring to promote the obscure and misleading “Scenic Loop”. After the 1980’s, despite the ongoing seismic risk, thousands of condominiums and second homes appeared all over the town of Mammoth Lakes. As seismicity declined, real estate prices rose to unprecedented heights.

If you shop for real estate in Mammoth Lakes, do not expect your agent or broker to mention the Long Valley Caldera. According to Wikipedia, “Long Valley Caldera is a depression in eastern California that is adjacent to Mammoth Mountain. The valley is one of the Earth's largest calderas, measuring about 20 miles long, 11 miles wide, and up to 3,000 feet deep”. According to experts on the subject, the caldera contains 240 cubic miles of magma. If asked about the threat, most locals will shrug and say that the eruption that created the caldera, was 760,000 years ago.

In other words, do not worry about toxic carbon dioxide CO2  gas discharging from the South Side Fumarole just above the town. Carbon dioxide is about 1.5 times the weight of air, which makes it heavier. If released into the atmosphere it will seek to concentrate at lower elevations. Despite cascading waves of CO2 emanating from the fumarole, the USGS claims that the
An apparent blast of Co2 gas descends Mammoth Mountain in June 2020 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Horseshoe Lake tree-kill area is caused solely by CO2 flowing up from the ground. Other than warning visitors not to walk their dogs into depressions or to lie down in the Horseshoe lake area, the ongoing asphyxiation risk to humans and animals is accepted as “normal”.

Continuing up the road, we arrived at the parking area for what used to be “Chairlift #2”. As with most landmark names recognizable from the early days of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, the old “double chair” was replaced with a mega chairlift named “Stump Alley Express”. In late June, there was not a trace of snow near the parking area, but there was plenty of weather activity. As we approached on Minaret Road, a huge cloud of volcanic ash and dust descended the mountain and across the road. With my vehicle window open, the tiny shards of glass and volcanic dust filled the interior and pitted the front window.

Mammoth Mountain, as seen from the smoky peak in 2015 is subject to both wildfire smoke and toxic gas emissions coming directly from the mountain - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)In all, three waves or vortices of volcanic dust descended the mountain and across the road. At that time, I did not know that the Mammoth Mountain Fumarole was almost directly above our location. Therefor, I did not realize that we may have witnessed a CO2 gas emission from the mountain. As the toxic gas descended the slope, it mixed with the air, kicking up even more dust and volcanic glass particles. After seeing how violent a relatively small gas emission from the fumarole could be, I pondered what an actual pyroclastic flow from Mammoth Mountain might look like. Unless preceded by smaller "warning events", a larger eruption would leave no time to search for the “Volcanic Escape Route”, let alone a “Scenic Loop” leading to supposed safety at Highway 395. In past years, smoke from fires and elevated CO2 levels had made us gasp for breath at Mammoth Lakes. Luckily, this time the volcanic dust cloud passed by without too much damage. To see a short video of the incident, click HERE.

Carrie McCoy at the Minaret Vista Point in June 2020 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Not stopping at the Main Lodge, we continued up Minaret Road to the Minaret Vista Entrance Station. The ranger informed us that the Devil’s Postpile National Monument was filled, so we looped around and ascended the San Joaquin Jeep Road, also known as Lookout Point Road. At the top of that short road was a parking area and a stone platform appropriately named Minaret Vista. Eschewing the confusion of unmasked people mounting the stairway to the vista point, we walked to the edge of the parking area and took in the view.

To the southwest was the imposing sight of Mammoth Mountain, elevation 11,053 feet. Beyond the valley created by the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, and dominating the western horizon were “The Minarets”. Although the jagged, saw tooth range features several named peaks, most people prefer to lump them altogether as if they were a single entity. Even in late June, many of the steep canyons were filled with ice and snow. After dodging several more maskless individuals in the parking area, we drove back to the RV Park.

Erosion around the two Inyo Craters is dramatic. Here, part of the pipe-rail safety fence hangs in thin air - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)The following day, we retraced our route up Minaret Road, but this time we took the “Volcanic Escape Route” to Highway 395. About halfway up the "Loop" and a half mile off the road are the Inyo Craters. By some estimates, the twin craters sprang forth in the mid-14th century. Due to excess mineralization and possible CO2 intrusion, the lake in the larger of the two craters is a milky turquoise blue. Hiking maps of the area published in the 1980's show the craters as being dry, so their small lakes are among the youngest permanent water features in the Sierra Nevada.

After proceeding north for less than two miles on Highway 395, and just short of Obsidian Dome, we turned northeast on to Owens River Road. Soon, the pavement ended, and we were on a gravel road. Somewhere along that road Deadman Creek became the Owens River. As the river meandered through a broad, flat valley, it also picked up the name Dry Creek. In the confusion of names and myriad creeks, it was easy to lose our way. After passing the local landfill, we missed the left turn at Owens River Road. Thus, our new road was Hot Creek Hatchery Road, also known as Whitmore Tubs Road. As you might guess, with all these conflicting names, a detailed local map is recommended.

Obsidian Dome is a volcanic upthrust of recent geological origins. It is so similar to a moonscape that it has been featured in several science fiction movies - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Arriving at the paved Benton Crossing Road, we headed northeast to Benton Crossing itself. There Brown’s Owens River Campground sits next to the myriad creeks that comprise the upper reaches of the Owens River. Realizing that we were getting farther away from our own campsite, we headed back on Benton Crossing Road, which thankfully does not change names before its dead-end next to the Green Church and Highway 395. Unseen along Benton Crossing Road are many nearby hot springs. There are no signs along the road to tell you where they are. So many of the hot springs had been trashed over the years, all roadside signage was removed. Only those with local knowledge or a topographical map can find most of them today.

From our reentry on to Highway 395 North, we passed the “Mammoth Yosemite Airport”, which is near Mammoth but thirty-five miles from the Yosemite Tioga Road Entrance Station. To me, the “Mammoth Yosemite Airport” moniker is a deceptive renaming of the old Mammoth Mountain The Upper Owens River Valley is like a high altitude prairie, with only a handful of ranches to break up the landscape - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Airport. Airports, like any physical object can exist in only one place. In 1997, local politicians in Mammoth Lakes tried to turn the windswept and dangerous Mammoth Airport into a destination hotel and condominium complex. The only problem was that the city forgot to do any formal environmental impact study. When environmentalists and the state of California sued the city, saying that a "world class airport" and massive condo village would bring unwanted and unsustainable development to the remote area. The judge agreed. His decision forced the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to rescind the exclusive, binding hotel development deal.

After the FAA rescinded its prior approval of the grandiose airport expansion plans, the developer sued the City of Mammoth Lakes and won a $43 million judgment. That action caused one of the largest municipal bankruptcies up to that time. If you catch my drift, the political, business and real estate A rare and endangered Sage Grouse crosses the Owens River Road near Benton Crossing in Inyo County, California - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)interests in Mammoth Lakes have a long history of obscuring legal, seismic and weather facts, often to suit their own financial needs. In fact, after a $29 million final agreement, the Town of Mammoth Lakes plans to "develop" its way out of the $2 million annual payments agreed to with the spurned airport developer. By continuing to over-develop every possible buildable site in Mammoth Lakes, the city plans to tax its way back to prosperity. Now, even a stay at the local RV Park comes with a daily hotel tax.

Since the founding of Mammoth Lakes in 1877, as a “gold mining town”, the boom and bust cycles of Mono County have been obvious. By 1879, less than two years since the first gold strike, the available gold and silver veins ran out. As usual, those who came late to the gold fever at Mammoth Lakes were Lake Mamie (pictured) and Lake Mary - Click for larger image - are two favorites of the anglers, fishing from small rafts in the summer months (https://jamesmcgillis.com)left holding useless claims to nonexistent minerals. Thus occurred the first of many real estate busts in Mammoth Lakes history.

Although the area is beautiful, its remoteness puts it at the end of logistical and telecommunications supply lines. Whether from Reno to the North or Los Angeles to the south, one strong seismic event or a massive snowstorm can isolate the city for days, if not weeks. To enjoy an idyllic summer vacation in June, I will happily take my chances at Mammoth Lakes. Even so, living there for more than a few days each year is beyond what I would care to risk, either financially or physically.

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By James McGillis at 01:41 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link

Chapter #377: Morro Bay, CA - Fire Season 2020 - December 17, 2020

Morro Rock, chipped away and hauled away to make breakwaters up and down California still stands as the largest monolith on the California coast - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Morro Bay - During a Health Crisis and Fire Season

In mid-August 2020, we took our annual RV trip to Morro Bay, California. Having stayed at the Morro Dunes RV Park many times before, we knew to make our reservations eleven months in advance. For the entire summer, Morro Bay is a wildly popular vacation destination. With so many travelers escaping the heat of the nearby San Joaquin Valley, all the large RV sites are booked many months in advance.

Jim McGillis and Carrie McCoy standing before a smokey sky at Morro Bay, summer 2020 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)This year was even worse. A week prior to our arrival, a dry-lightning storm of unprecedented size and ferocity had swept up California’s Central Coast and across the San Francisco Bay Area. Fires burning in coastal and inland California had created a vortex of smoke that covered almost the entire state. In the weeks and even months to follow, smoke repeatedly drifted out to sea and then back onshore, as if controlled by a tidal force.

When we arrived at the RV Park, there was a smoky haze in the air. Being optimistic, we decided that it was no worse than what we had recently experienced at home in Simi Valley, California. From any perspective, breathing foul air is not a pleasant or healthy pastime. Encountering both poor air quality and an unprecedented pandemic, our vacation on the Central Coast felt risky at best.

Given the circumstances, we decided to curtail strenuous activities. Instead, we elected to enjoy the relative peace and quiet of our campsite and the nearby beach. While at camp, we were comfortable sitting
outside without masks. Soon, that became problematic, as neighbors and dog-walkers wanted to stop and chat. If we had no masks nearby, it Our Cougar fifth wheel in a shaded spot at the Morro Dunes RV Park, in Morro Bay, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)became a question of how far virus particles might travel in the open air. Was it a risk to talk to someone standing ten or fifteen feet away?

Looking back, as a super-wave of virus infection now sweeps the nation, I would probably have been even more cautious than we were. As Bob Dylan once sang, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”. Now, it is late fall and as Joe Biden says, “We have a long dark winter ahead of us”. Reflecting on my under-reactions at that time, I am now inclined to be even warier of personal interactions and potential viral infection.

On our first full day in Morro Bay, we walked to the beach. Out in the open, we were ready to don our masks whenever a human got within
As the afternoon wore on, smoke from California wildfires again filled the air in Morro Bay - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)fifty feet. Most people were respectful and did the same. Some people, both then and now appear oblivious to the dangers of infection, or even defiant. I read about some people’s perceived restrictions of their “freedom”. To me, freedom includes unfettered free speech, the right to peacefully assemble and the right to seek redress of grievances. Freedom does not include the right to ignore legitimate public health warnings or to infect others with our bad breath.

Later on, we took a driving tour of the waterfront area. There, we were astounded to see hundreds, if not thousands of people dining, drinking and socializing in groups both large and small. Rather than participate in what we knew was risky behavior, we drove to the south end of Morro Bay. There, we enjoyed time sitting together on a bench, while observing
A Biden Works For Iowa poster that I picked up in Nevada - Click for larger Image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the sailboats and paddle boarders. Luckily, Carrie and I get along well with each other and can observe dangerous behavior from a distance, rather than partaking of it ourselves.

During our time in Morro Bay, we enjoyed watching the virtual Democratic National Convention (DNC) on TV. It was as enjoyable as not watching the Republican National Convention (RNC) the prior week. Seeing quick video shots of delegates casting their votes from venues across the nation was interesting. From the advent of motion pictures in the 1920s, the national conventions have always looked the same. They featured star spangled bunting and long, obnoxious political speeches. In this new format, the convention was far more fun. For once, there were no bloviating politicians using their two minutes of fame to command the
Congresswoman Gina Titus casts the Nevada Democratic Convention delegates vote for Joe Biden - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)floor at a packed convention hall.

By the second day, smoke from the Northern California wildfires filled the air. Undaunted, we headed north on California Highway 1 to Harmony, (elevation 175 feet and population 18). In the distant past, Harmony featured a dairy farm and post office. Today, there is a pottery shop in the old milking barn and across what once was the old highway, the Harmony Glassworks stands as an interesting curiosity. If you arrive at the right time, the gas-fired kiln will be roaring and glowing inside like the fiery disk of the sun. Masters and apprentices alike might be shaping molten glass and using a blowpipe to expand each glass vessel into the desired shape.

An artist works with molten glass at the Harmony Glassworks, in Harmony, California - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)On the day of our visit, just to the north of town, an impenetrable wall of smoke hung in the air. While Carrie stayed in the hermetically sealed safety of the truck, I donned my mask and made my way into the Glassworks. After lurching around the shop, almost gasping for breath, I located and purchased a coveted Harmony souvenir t-shirt. Once back in the truck, we fled south to escape the worst of the smoke pall. Arriving back in Morro Bay, the air was still unhealthy, but not deathly, as it had appeared north of Harmony.

Determined to enjoy ourselves, we walked to the beach to observe the sunset. Looking seaward, Morro Rock was to our left and the sun was
setting directly to the West. Zooming in with my camera, I could see a The sun and smoke combined to make a cartoonish image of Donald Trump peeking over the top of a red hot stomach in the sky - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)strand of smoke crossing the disk of the sun. Looking at the images later, I could see that the smoke had filtered the sunlight in an animated way. In one photo, the image a red-orange human stomach appeared on the surface of the sun. In addition, a cartoonish image of Donald Trump appeared to be peaking over the stomach. In another image, the plasma that flows directly from the sun was clearly visible.

After four nights, we were tired of breathing smoke and ready to head south to Ventura County. As we passed through San Luis Obispo, smoke hung like fog in the trees. In Santa Barbara, it was still smoky. By the time we reached home, over three hours from the start, Simi Valley was still a smoky mess. For the next several weeks, unhealthy air became part of our daily lives. Some days were so unhealthful, we did not
The blazing inferno of the glass kiln in Harmony, California looks much like the sun during our smokey visit to Morro Bay - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)venture outside. Now, four months later, the air is clear again, at least by Southern California standards. Still, the combination of fires and high winds made this the smoggiest year in decades.

We already have reservations for a return trip to Morro Bay in the summer of 2021. Let us hope that California does not have another horrendous fire season or a viral pandemic anything like that of 2020. Adding to that ominous air of uncertainty, Morro Dunes RV Park remained closed for the entire month of December 2020.

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By James McGillis at 05:22 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link

Chapter #376: Camping at Panamint Springs, Part 2 - September 30, 2020

Looking much like a tombstone, This handmade sign shows the way to Darwin, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Panamint Springs Resort and Historic Darwin, California - Pandemic Memories

Saturday May 2, 2020 (Continued from Part 1).

In the late afternoon, I departed Panamint Springs Resort, heading west on California State Route 190. Along the way, I found the unmarked entrance to the Old Toll Road, leading to Darwin Falls. Its entrance was blocked by concrete “Jersey barriers”. Likewise, the entrance to Father Crowley Vista Point had barriers and warning signs. Farther along the highway, I found the turnoff to the old mining town of Darwin, population 43, or perhaps 53.

The official sign at Darwin, California includes its establishment in 1874 and its population, that ranges around fifty souls - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The town, named for the 1860’s pioneer and miner Dr. Erasmus Darwin French reminded me of Bodie, a ghost town farther north. Darwin features many homes, commercial establishments and mining properties, most of which are in various states of decay. When the mining and smelting of lead and silver played out, the town rapidly descended toward ghost town status. Now, many of the buildings are in “arrested decay”, as are the minimally maintained buildings in Bodie.

The Darwin post office opened in 1875 and closed up for a time, starting in 1902. Although closed during my Saturday visit, it still operated in 2020. During my brief visit to Darwin, I saw many old buildings and one barking dog, but not a single human. It reminded me of the Twilight Zone TV episode, when all the people disappeared from a small town. Other than the dog, it seemed to me that there were no other living beings on the planet. In Darwin, I saw no buildings newer than eighty-three years, which is when Highway 127 (now The Post Office at Darwin, California was first established in 1875 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Highway 190) bypassed the city.

The bypass reduced the maximum grade from 19 percent on the Old Toll Road to 7.3 percent, and reduced the number of curves from 245 to 72. For the ten years prior to completion of the bypass, the naturally surfaced toll road to Panamint wound over hills and down steep walled canyons.

My mission that day was to travel the Old Toll Road down the canyon to Darwin Falls. Built in 1925-26, and originally known as the Eichbaum Toll Road, it featured a natural surface roadway, thirty-five mile long and from 15-20 feet wide. Officially named the Death Valley Toll Road, it began in Darwin Wash, east of the town of Darwin. From there it traveled over the Argus Range via Darwin Canyon, across the Panamint Valley, and on to the Stovepipe Wells Resort.

After a false start or two that day, I found a promising track. As with most roads in the area, it rose and fell with the terrain. Soon, I was four wheeling down a long, steep walled canyon. From the looks of the boulder strewn terrain, it was scoured by An old waterworks, located between Darwin and China Garden Spring, along the Old Toll Road to Panamint Springs - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)rushing water during eons of thunderstorms. Somewhere down canyon, I found an old waterworks, now long abandoned. It featured a huge, cast iron water tank and the shell of a wooden garage. The pipes and valves dated to the early twentieth century.

Traveling deeper into the canyon, I came to what appeared to be the end of the road. With so many floods having rearranged the canyon, the actual roadway was hard to discern.  Social roads and dry washes forked off in several directions. With no signage or markings to guide me, I took a wrong turn. Soon, at what seemed like the end of the Earth, I found an oasis called China Garden Spring. It featured many large trees and a dusty SUV parked by the side of the road. The vehicle appeared to be in running condition, with its side windows rolled down. Not wanting to disturb any campers or remaining descendants of the Manson Family, I traveled a bit farther. While preparing to
A 1937  Chevrolet two-door Town Sedan met its demise on the Old Toll Road near Darwin Falls, in Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)turn back toward civilization, I came across another side canyon. From a slight rise, I could see two tents at the oasis I had just passed, but true to form, there were no people or human sounds.

Similar to my previous experience at Minietta Road, I found the wreck of an old car nearby. This one was the shell of a 1930’s Chevrolet. Some chrome still shined back from the snaggle-toothed grill. On it, the word CHEV—ROLET appeared split in half by impact. Comically, the bullet-ridden hulk of the car appeared misshapen and smaller than its original size.  Had the driver made the same mistake I had at the fork in the road, ending up here? Based on its location and despite its battered looks, its vertical, truck-like grill, I assumed it to be a 1935-37 Chevrolet Suburban Carryall, making it one of the earliest examples of that vaunted model. After extensive photo research, I Prior to abandonment in the depths of a canyon in the Argus Range, Death Valley National Park, someone had welded a replacement grill on to this 1937 Chevy sedan - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)determined that it was a 1937 Chevrolet two-door Town Sedan. The vertical chrome grill initially threw me off the trail. Later, I realized that it was a replacement grill, welded into place.

new highway bypass would not to open until late 1937, so in the early summer that year Henry and Mabel drove their Chevy down the Old Toll Road. Earlier that day they had passed through the town of Darwin, buying gasoline at the sole gas station there. Despite the storm clouds and showers in the area, they wanted to make it to Panamint Springs by nightfall. Late in the afternoon, in the depths of the canyon, they took the same wrong turn that I had. While trying to turn around, their car became high-centered on a protruding boulder. Stranded there, they waited for help, but no one arrived. Sundown came early in the depths of the canyon, so they did their best by sheltering in their car. As the last light faded from the canyon walls, they thought they heard a large truck approaching from up canyon. “It could be a tow truck”, Henry said.

As they stepped out on to the road to flag down the truck, a debris flow ten feet high swept them away. “Goodbye, Henry”, Mabel said. “Goodbye, Mabel”, Henry replied. Pummeled and smashed by rocks and water, the wreckage of their Chevy remained high-centered, in that, its final resting place. After the flash flood, Henry and Mabel were nowhere in sight. To this day, all subsequent floods have left their abandoned car high and dry on a small knoll. When I found it, fenders and accessories were located in odd places around the body, as if exploded by dynamite. There were no tires or wheels to remount. Not even a frame was evident under the chassis, so I got back in my truck and retraced my tracks.

The town of Darwin, California looks much as it did when a new state highway bypassed the former mining town in 1937 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Legend has it that eighty-three years later, Henry and Mabel reappeared, overlooking the wreckage of a sports car near Minietta Road.

Retracing routes in the desert is harder than it sounds. Driving down a canyon is easy. Just keep turning downhill at every junction. When returning, upstream, later in the day, everything can look quite different. At two points, I had to follow a hunch and hope I was heading back to Darwin. Obviously, it was not safe for me to venture into the back-country alone without an off-road GPS and a topographical map. Lucky for me, I had made the correct decisions on my return trip. Soon I found myself in empty Darwin, and then headed back to Panamint Springs via the 1937 bypass.

Sunday May 3, 2020

At the general store in Panamint Springs, Gold Medal all purpose flour was $2.29 per pound in May, 2020 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Other than my regular afternoon trip to Minietta Road for a phone call home, I decided to stay at the resort, compile my photos and write this communiqué. When I went into the general store to pay $5.00 for a late checkout on Monday, the counter man looked at me with a funny expression. He handed the money back to me, indicating that paying for a late checkout from an empty campground was not necessary. Since I had my five dollars back, I decided to search the store for something to buy. Wearing my worn-out N-95 mask, I prowled the empty store. Candy cost $2.50 each, which was ten times the quarter dollar I would have paid in my youth.

After a few minutes, I found three one-pound bags of Gold Medal all-purpose flour. At $2.29 each, I could afford two bags and still have some change left over as a tip for the counter man. Speaking through my mask, I told him that markets “in the city” had no flour. He remarked that he had tried to buy flour
A natural stone fire ring prepared for a campfire at Panamint Springs Resort, near Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)in nearby Ridgecrest the previous week, but struck out completely. “Strange”, I said. “I had to come to the desert to buy flour”.

On Sunday morning, some tent campers departed, leaving almost a full bundle of firewood behind. Searching the abandoned fire rings in the campground, I scrounged up a few more pieces of partly burned wood. After dark, I filled my stone fire ring with the plunder and lit my few remaining pieces of paper. The moral to that story is,
if you plan to enjoy a campfire, bring old newspapers or fire-starter. Upon lighting my last scraps of paper, some flakes of the wood started to burn. Soon I had a roaring blaze, which lasted almost two hours.

As the wood burned down to embers, I drew myself closer to the fire. The waxing moon was now almost overhead. When the last flame flickered out, I doused the fire and went inside for the night. Thinking back, I realized it had been fifteen years since I had last made a campfire. From now on, I will bring a bundle of wood and some kindling on every trip. Even though I was
A roaring campfire on my last night isolating at Panamint Springs, near Death Valley National Park in May 2020 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)alone and far away from family and friends, my campfire had made for a peaceful, warm and inspiring moment in the cool desert air.

Monday, May 4, 2020

On Monday, I broke camp and returned to isolation in the civilized world. If I learned anything in Panamint Springs, it was that you could isolate and keep up social distancing while enjoying some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. My adventures included finding enigmatic wrecked cars and communing with the spirits of those who may have died in them.
When you visit the desert, be sure to plan for unforeseen circumstances. If not, you might end up joining Henry and Mabel in the lost dimensions of this universe. Next time I visit, I plan to have detailed maps and an off-road GPS in my kit.

This concludes Part Two of a Two-Part Article. To read Part One, click HERE.

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By James McGillis at 02:59 PM | Mojave Desert | Comments (0) | Link

Chapter #375: Camping at Panamint Springs, Part 1 - September 29, 2020

In the summer, Death Valley often hits 130 f. degrees in the shade - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Camping at Panamint Springs, Death Valley National Park, During a Pandemic

Friday May 1, 2020

My journey felt different this time, from Simi Valley to Death Valley. I had taken that road so many times before. With the National Park itself closed to all but through-traffic, the palpable fear of death hung in the air at Death Valley. To my surprise, the privately owned enclave called Panamint Springs Resort was open.

Ice is available in one of the hottest places on Earth - Panamint Springs, Death Valley - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Panamint Springs is not a resort in the classic sense of the word… no pool, spa or golf course. Up a nearby canyon, the perpetual Darwin Falls feeds a year around supply of fresh water to the small settlement. Included in the resort are a hardscrabble campground, tent cabins, and a few “luxury cabins”. Rounding out the services are an unpaved RV Park, a gas station, restaurant, motel, general store, and a rough airstrip. The place gets its name from the Paiute or Koso word Panümünt, which breaks down to Pa (water) and nïwïnsti (person).

Out here in the vast and unforgiving Mojave Desert, almost any settlement qualifies as a resort. Since I wanted to isolate myself from the cares and worries of a raging pandemic, this seemed like the perfect hideaway for several days and nights. After confirming my reservation, I hooked up my fifth wheel and sallied forth from Simi Valley, California.

Two desert burros walk into the desert, near the Panamint Valley Road, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The portion of my trip from Mojave to the Panamint Valley was mostly uneventful. Knowing that Panamint Springs had no mobile telephone coverage, I stopped to call home from the intersection of Panamint Valley Road and Minietta Road. Having received past text messages there, I knew that there was AT&T 4G-LTE mobile telephone coverage at that location. The location of the cell phone tower that feeds data to that one small spot is a complete mystery.

While making my call, I noticed a small, hand-lettered sign. With two screws holding it to a stake, it read, “Yard Sale Next Sat. 7AM – 3PM”. Minietta is a gravel road, which heads off from the highway toward the southwest. Not far along, it disappears over a low hill. From my location, I saw no buildings, people or other vehicles. Still, the mysterious sign caught my interest. I planned to return on Saturday and check out the yard sale.

A small sign advertised a possible yard sale in the middle of the Mojave Desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Upon arrival at Panamint Springs Resort, I went inside the general store to check in. Inside, the unmasked counter man told me that Friday was barbecued ribs night at the restaurant. After completing my check-in, he invited me to come and enjoy the food and drink. As the blood drained from my face, I smiled from behind my mask and thanked the man. “No way”, I whispered silently, while ducking out the front door.

Looking uphill from the store, I noticed a huge tent pavilion, which served as the outdoor dining area for the restaurant. At that time, all was quiet, with just a few people sipping their drinks and enjoying the expansive view of Panamint Valley. Until well past midnight, I could hear raucous sounds, including hoots and hollers echoing across the otherwise quiet landscape. That night, from the comfort and safety of my camp chair, I heard some serious, alcohol-fueled mingling under the big tent. Apparently, management later Evidence of ancient vulcanism abounds at the Panamint Springs Resort - Click for larger image (htttp://jamesmcgillis.com)changed the dining policies at the resort. As of late September 2020, their website included the following information. “Our restaurant is open for take out everyday for lunch (11:30 am - 2:30 pm) and dinner (5:30 pm - 8:30 pm). We have plenty of available shaded picnic options adjacent to the restaurant for your eating pleasure”.

The rustic campground and RV Park is located just across the highway from the Panamint Springs General Store. There, I found eight or ten RV sites with full hookups. Other than my rig, all of the other sites were empty. Elsewhere in the campground, there were only a handful of tent sites and tent cabins occupied. Over the next few days, a few campers arrived and a few departed. Still, no one spoiled my unobstructed view of the ancient seabed that is now the parched and dry Panamint Valley.

In May 2020, the entirety of Death Valley National Park was closed to visitors - Click for larger image (hhtp://jamesmcgillis.com)Saturday May 2, 2020.

At the national park entrance, a Public Advisory sign declared, “Death Valley National Park CLOSED Until Further Notice”. Through-traffic could transit the park on the main highway, but there were no services open to the public. The counter man at the store had warned me not to go sightseeing in the national park. “Even in the parking lots at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek, they are handing out $1,000 tickets to anyone who lingers”, he said. Within the geographic confines of the national park, only Panamint Springs, a privately owned oasis, was open for business. Without access to the national park, it appeared that I would be a virtual prisoner in a place of my own choosing.

I called home from the intersection of Panamint Valley Road and Minietta Road, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Undaunted, I knew that the phantom yard sale, which I saw advertised on Minietta Road lay outside of the national park boundaries. That afternoon, I navigated The Panamint Valley Road back toward Trona and the Searles Valley. Ten miles east of Panamint Springs I located the turn-off to Minietta Road. There, I sat inside the air-conditioned confines of my truck and called home once again.

After my call, I headed up the dirt and gravel surface of Minietta Road. After surmounting the first set of hills, I paused to survey the lower reaches of Thompson Canyon. Could there be a home with a yard at the end of this dusty track? Alternatively, did the little sign represent some kind of code or a prank? After four-wheeling over dry hills and washes, I spied an ersatz settlement tucked up near the base of the barren mountains.

Unpaved Minietta Road disappears over a knoll and into the depths of the Mojave Desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be a wildcat mining operation consisting of about ten vehicles and various small buildings. I could not see a gate, garage or any sign of welcome. Near there, in 1969, Charlie Manson and his murderous “family” faced arrest at Death Valley’s Barker Ranch. With that in mind, I decided against rolling up unannounced at this foreboding enclave.

From my location in a broad arroyo, various unmarked roads and trails split off in all directions. Not having an atlas or topographical map to consult, I was wary of driving deeper into the unmarked desert. Getting stuck or breaking down out here could be deadly. When the main road turned into a trail, I stopped. There, about twenty yards away were the remains of an automobile. I knew it was an automobile because I could see one wheel and tire still attached. When I approached on foot, I discovered the flipped-over and rusting hulk of what once was a small sports car.

The remains of a small sports car, wrecked many years ago in the lower reaches of Thompson Canyon, near Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Looking around the area, I located two other tires and wheels. One of the whitewall tires featured the embossed words, “JCPenney Aramid Belted Radial”. In later research, I found of an old Desert Sun newspaper advertisement that dated the tire back to circa 1978. There was still some chrome on one of the wheels, but what remained of another tire looked like it had spun apart at very high speed.

What was the story here? Did the wreck happen here on this dusty track? More likely, someone had gotten that car up to high speed on the Panamint Valley Road. If that tire had blown at high speed, the car could have rolled over on its roof. Resting upside down, flat as a pancake, there was no room between the car body and the desert floor for a human to survive. Rather than transport the wreck to the nearest junkyard in Trona, someone may have simply moved it several miles and dumped it in its current location.

After I remounted two of the wheels on the wrecked sports car, it began to look like an automobile again - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After I located two of the detached wheels nearby, I rolled them back to the rusting hulk. Although the fourth wheel was not anywhere in sight, I soon had three wheels resting back on their original wheel hubs. Satisfied that I had turned back the hands of time, I took a few pictures and left the rusting remains for the next visitor to find. I pictured an elderly couple, in a 1937 Chevrolet coming across this wreck in the desert. “Mabel, how do you think those wheels got back on that car?” asked Henry. “Divine providence, I suppose”, Mabel replied.

Returning to the highway, I paused to enjoy the view out my front windshield. Directly across the Panamint Valley was the impressive Panamint Range. Tallest of all was Telescope Peak, elevation 11,043 feet, 11,049 feet or 11,053 feet, depending on which source you consult. Is it possible that the mountain had grown or shrunk by a total of ten feet? The 7.5 magnitude Owens Valley (or Lone Pine) Earthquake of 1872 occurred only fifty miles west of my Snow-capped Telescope Peak, as viewed from the Panamint Valley, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)location. That event generated a fault scarp more than two meters high. Therefore, it is possible that the Telescope Peak did grow or sink by ten feet between official surveys.

Since the base of the mountain is at 1,800 feet elevation, Telescope Peak makes for an imposing sight. Snowstorms in early April had blanketed the upper reaches of the Panamint Range. The angle of repose is so steep there; avalanche-chutes were clearly visible on the upper reaches of the range. The west-facing flank of Telescope Peak featured three avalanche chutes, all of which converged at a single point. It was an awesome and fearful site. No human could survive a climb up that face. If the steep terrain and baking sun did not kill you, the avalanches would.

After ruminating on the effects of geologic time, I drove back toward my campsite, ten miles away.

This concludes Part One of a Two-Part Article. To read Part Two, click HERE.

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By James McGillis at 05:07 PM | Mojave Desert | Comments (0) | Link

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