Chapter #379: The Four Corners Region - Part 1 - July 7, 2021

The Virgin Orbit mother plane is serviced prior to the successful drop and launch of several satellites at Mojave, California - Click for large image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

Four Corners Part One - Ice Cream Melts in the Desert

On Saturday May 15, 2021 – I traveled 358-miles from Simi Valley, California to the Fort Beale RV Park in Kingman, Arizona. Towing our fifth wheel trailer across the Mojave Desert took longer than the expected six hours. Once I was set up for the night, I opened the refrigerator in my coach, seeking a cold drink. To my surprise, the refrigerator was dark inside, indicating some form of power failure.

Tesla owners facing West, frying their brains with cosmic rays at a Tesla Supercharger station in Needles, California - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)I checked the fuses, circuit breakers and switches in the coach, but the control panel for the fridge remained dark. Since I had packed the unit with two weeks’ worth of frozen and fresh foods, I knew I had a problem. Not wanting to scuttle my trip on the first day, I walked to a nearby Chevron Station and purchased three disposable foam coolers, plus 30-pounds of ice. Back at the coach, I packed ten pounds of ice into the freezer and transferred as much of the fresh food into my coolers as possible. Then it was time to eat some melting ice cream and throw the remainder away.

In the morning, I called a local RV repairman, but he was out of town on another call. He suggested that the printed circuit board (PCB), which is the electronic brains of the unit may have failed. Since I had a non-refundable reservation that night in Flagstaff, Arizona, I could not afford to stay another day in Kingman. On the way out of town, I stopped at After my Dometic refrigerator failure on my RV, my remaining ice cream melted in the desert heat - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)the local Wal-Mart, where I purchased two 48-quart red, white and blue Igloo brand ice chests. In the Wal-Mart parking lot, I transferred my fresh food from the leaky foam coolers to my bright new All-American coolers. At $14.85 each, they would do a more efficient job of keeping my food chilled. I put a fresh bag of ice in the non-working freezer and used the previous night’s ice to flood the ice chests.

With nothing more to do in Kingman, I headed 150-miles east on Interstate I-40. My destination was the Kit Carson RV Park in Flagstaff, Arizona. The Kit Carson RV Park declares itself to be the second oldest continuously operating RV Park in the nation. At 6,900 feet elevation, it is always a rustic and cool stopping point during my regional travel. As with most RV Parks, it is best to make your reservations well in advance. Looking like a city of skyscrapers, My Dinosaur Brand Printed Circuit Board (PCB) soon became a spare on my RV - Click for larger image (https;//jamesmcgillis.com)Many, including Kit Carson now accept reservations only on a prepaid and non-refundable basis.

Still determined to get my refrigerator operating, I called Buddy’s Welding & RV, which happened to be along my route north the following morning. After looking up my Dometic refrigerator model and serial number, the nice person there said that she had the appropriate PCB to complete my repair. On my way to Monument Valley, Arizona, I stopped at Buddy’s and paid $168 for the Dinosaur Electronics brand aftermarket PCB that was to replace my supposedly defunct OEM model.

The outside access panel to my Dometic RV refrigerator looked like a maze of wires, a burner and refrigerant lines - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)After traveling 175-miles to Goulding’s RV Park in Monument Valley, Arizona, I quickly set up for a two-night stay. I then opened the refrigerator access panel on the outside of the coach. Soon, I had the replacement board installed and ready for the final electrical connections. Having carefully marked each wire-lead with a black marking pen, I soon noticed an extra connection wire, without a corresponding terminal on the PCB. It was approaching 4 PM PDT when I called customer service at Dinosaur Electronics Inc. in Lincoln City, Oregon.

After describing my issue to Joe at Dinosaur Electronics, he quickly determined that I had the wrong board. He said it was an easy mistake for the person at Buddy’s to make. In the process of agglomerating Dometic model and serial numbers, a third-party database could not be Due to wind turbulence outside my RV, the thermo-fuse inside my Dometic refrigerator had failed and shut the refrigerator down - Click for larger image (https;//jamesmcgillis.com)relied upon for reliable information. There were simply too many combinations of refrigerator models and PCB numbers for the database to handle. Once it was corrupted, there was no way to straighten the database out. Live and learn, I thought. By then, the last of my ice was melting in my coolers. My freezer would soon thaw completely. Standing there in the hot sun, I felt the pangs of bad luck returning.

It was then that Joe said, “Let us see what we can do. Do you have a multi-meter?” “At home, but not here”, I said. “Wait, Joe, my neighbor here had earlier offered to help”. “OK, reinstall your old board, get the multi-meter and call me back”, said Joe. My RV neighbor at Goulding’s was a veteran of the Alcan Highway to Alaska, so of course he had a multi-meter buried somewhere in his huge Class-A motorhome. Once I had the old board reinstalled and the multi-meter in hand, I called Joe back and said I was ready. First, he asked what make and model number multi-meter I had. He then looked up that information on the internet and said, “That is an old analog meter”.

After an hour working in the desert sunshine, I had my Dometic RV refrigerator operating again, if only temporarily - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Over the next twenty minutes, we checked all the 12-volt and 120-volt connections that converge inside the refrigerator access panel. After all that, Joe said, “It sounds like you have a bad thermo fuse”. Again, my heart sank at the same rate that my remaining ice was melting. “Do you have wire?”, Joe asked. “I just bought 30-feet of it in Kingman”, I said. “Good. Cut a length of wire and strip it at both ends. Then, get out your electrical kit, find a spade-connector and crimp it on to one end of your wire”. By some good fortune, I had an automotive style electrical kit, complete with spare spade-connectors.

“OK, done”, I said. Luckily, I had a wireless headset for my mobile phone, or I never could have balanced the phone, multi-meter and replacement While approaching Monument Valley from the south, this twister was a harbinger of the dust storm I would experience there a week later - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)parts outside of my RV. “Alright, attach the spade connector to the F-5 terminal on the PCB and crimp the other end into the 12-volt terminal block.” After a few more minutes sweating in the afternoon sun, I had the repair completed. “Go inside and see if it lights up”, said Joe. After sprinting inside my rig for the fifth or sixth time, “Still dead”, I reported. “You blew a fuse”, he said. Go to the 12-volt panel in your coach and replace the blown 15-amp fuse”. Luckily, I still had several spare fuses in my kit.

When I plugged the spare fuse into the receptacle, the orange LED on the refrigerator control panel lit up. “You are good to go, for now. The jumper wire is for test purposes only. You need to get it diagnosed and repaired as soon as possible”, said Joe. He had already offered to replace my erroneous Dinosaur Board with the correct model number, so I had Near Monument Valley, a growing twister ripped up the soil and flung it high in the air - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)him ship that to my next stop, in Durango, Colorado. The replacement cost another $34, but at least I would have the correct spare board. Thanking Joe for his amazing service, I signed off and enjoyed the hum of my refrigerator, as it slowly chilled my frozen food. Above air conditioning and running water, refrigeration in the desert is what makes RVing possible.

After two nights in bucolic Monument Valley, I hooked up and headed northeast to Durango, Colorado, 165-miles away. To me, the refrigerator still seemed like a ticking time-bomb, waiting to go off at any moment. Somehow, the jumper-wire repair held, and my fresh and frozen foods were all chilling in the Dometic unit. Although the frozen meats and fish came close to melting, only one hamburger patty melted a bit and then refroze solid to the bottom of the freezer.

Formerly a farm in the Upper Animas Valley in Durango, Colorado, the site is now the United Campgrounds, Durango RV Park - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Arriving at United Campgrounds, Durango in the late afternoon I unhooked for three nights in the picturesque Upper Animas River Valley. Almost a decade prior, I had installed a primitive webcam at the RV Park, but it had failed during the recent health crisis. In October 2020, I was so concerned with health protection that I forgot to bring a $25 replacement webcam to Durango. The old Dell computer system whirred away each day, but no images made their way to the internet. Determined to get the webcam operating, I had planned my entire 1,800-mile round-trip with the focus of replacing that webcam.

For those who do not know, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad first operated in 1882. With a few minor alterations and with some new locomotives from the 1930’s, it still operates today. It is an international tourist attraction that I first rode with my father in 1965. As Venerable Steam Engine 493 enters the Upper Animas Valley in Durango, Colorado - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)it was in the 1880s, the railroad is still the economic lifeblood of Durango, Colorado. The webcam is located adjacent to the tracks, within the United Campgrounds RV Park. For years, people from all over the world have relied on the webcam for a glimpse of the trains running through the RV Park. Unless I could repair the system, all that visitors would see was a frozen image from summer 2020.

Borrowing a stepladder from Tim and Sheri Holt, the owners of the iconic RV Park, I swapped out the old Microsoft webcam for an equally old spare that I had brought from home. When I restarted the 20-year-old Dell tower computer, the system booted up and began firing images to the internet ever six seconds. With all the refrigerator electronics issues I had recently experienced, you can imagine how happy I was to see this old electronic marvel spring back to life.

The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad runs through the United Campgrounds of Durango RV Park - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)On my second day in Durango, a cold rainstorm, including some hail in the evening, swept through the Upper Animas Valley.
Even though it was May 20, the surroundings mountains received fresh snow. I was content to go shopping in Durango for fresh food and to avoid highway traffic. One woman at the City Market declared, “So many people have moved here in the past few years, they don’t even know it can rain here”.

For almost twenty years, the entire Four Corners Region has been in the grip of a long-term drought. It is of a magnitude not seen since the Anasazi, or Pre-Puebloan Indians vacated the region in about 1,200 CE.

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

Email James McGillis
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By James McGillis at 05:02 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link

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 time 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.

Email James McGillis
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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 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 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

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