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Chapter #381: The Four Corners Region - Part 3 - August 3, 2021


In August 2015, The Wahweap Marina in Lake Powell was riding high in its bay - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

Saving The Colorado River - Are We Doing Too Little, Too Late?

On Monday, May 24, 2021, I departed Monument Valley for Kanab, Utah, via Page, Arizona. The weather was clear, with only a light breeze. Page, Arizona owes its current existence to the nearby Glen Canyon Dam and its reservoir, inaptly named “Lake Powell”. Loved by power boaters but decried by environmentalists since its completion in the mid-1960s, both the dam and the “lake” are anachronistic constructs of 20th century groupthink. To justify its initial construction, dam advocates and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) had touted the proposed dam as a flood control mechanism.

Later, those running the dam’s As water levels continued to fall, by May 2021, Wahweap Marina stretched from bank to bank across its bay - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)electrical generators switched to promoting its ability to produce electricity from a supposedly renewable resource. Current lake levels would suggest otherwise. By 2023, the hydro-power intake structures will stand above the projected lake level. In other words, the dam will likely create no hydro-power at all.

As of 2021, drought and structural overdrawing of Colorado River water supplies have made a mockery of the Glen Canyon Dam and its rapidly shrinking reservoir. The Upper Colorado River Basin is in such extreme drought that the prospects of a catastrophic flood are near zero. As for the power boaters, most of their launch ramps now look like ski jumps, with a long drop-offs to the rocks below. The lake itself is so much smaller, snags, unseen sandbars and lack of beaches for camping make the boating experience more hazardous each year. Shorelines of quicksand and Looking as if they stepped out of an earlier century, two your girls run and play at Wahweap Overlook at Lake Powell, Arizona. Missing from the mesa in the background is the recently dismantled Navajo Generating Station - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)gravel bars not seen in over fifty years will consume the unwary. Lake Powell is fast approaching its all-time low water mark and is unlikely to rebound in the next decade or two.

In November 2019, the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) near Page, Arizona ceased operations. If anyone thought that Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell were cynical constructs of 20th century infrastructure, they should study the development and ultimate demise of the coal fired NGS. Owned by the Salt River Project, the largest public utility in the State of Arizona, the main purpose of NGS was to create electricity to pump Colorado River water over five mountain ranges to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona.

The abandoned coal silos at Shonto, Arizona once stoked the Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)To power the three huge furnaces at NGS, miners extracted and shipped coal from the Black Mesa Complex, near Kayenta, Arizona. Black Mesa lies above what used to be the largest aquifer in the Navajo Nation. Contemporaneous with the NGS, unscrupulous power brokers had tapped that aquifer to send a slurry of coal to a now defunct power plant at Laughlin, Nevada. Peabody Coal and its successor corporations operated the Black Mesa Mine on contract to the Navajo Nation. In exchange for some transitory jobs and revenue, the Navajo received a strip-mined mesa and the despoilment of their precious water resources. As a concession to the Navajo, the mine offered free coal for home heating each year. Since many Navajo households have no electricity, the foul and deadly coal was their only heat source during the winter. To add insult to injury, the Navajo had to line up with their personal pickup trucks and trailers to cart off the "free coal".

The old aquifer at Cow Springs, Arizona is now dry, which was a consequence of strip mining at nearby Black Mesa, Arizona - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Although the mine and the NGS did provide some jobs for Navajo tribal members, the true legacy of the NGS was polluted groundwater and air throughout the Four Corners Region. For over forty years, visitors to the nearby Grand Canyon often looked down on a smokey pit, not the natural wonder they came to see. At one time, the NGS was the largest producer of airborne nitrogen oxide in the United States. Only far cheaper electricity provided by natural gas and renewable sources doomed the NGS.

When Arizona won a larger share of Colorado River water in federal lawsuits during the 1960s, the largest user of water in Southern Arizona was agriculture. Pima cotton got its name from Pima County, where Tucson now boasts a population of over one million residents. In the days when cotton was king, Phoenix, Arizona had a population of under 600,000. Today, Greater The now defunct Navajo Generating Station at Page, Arizona was once the largest single nitrogen oxide emitter in the continental U.S. - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Phoenix has a population of 4.485 million. As agriculture subsided, the vast and thirsty megalopolis of Phoenix/Tucson grew in its place.

A little-known fact about the NGS was its thirst. During its 45-years of operation, it was the single largest consumer of water from Lake Powell. It also used over ten percent of its electrical power generation to transport coal via rail and to pump its cooling water from Lake Powell. Looking back, the NGS stole water from the Navajos and wasted that precious water to power itself and its electric trains. To complete the circle of complicity, Arizona built its current wealth on the false premise of abundant water, pumped from an unsustainable water supply. Like a science fiction monster, the NGS laid waste to water and land while using profligate amounts of energy to power itself. For 45-years, the NGS wasted water, power and environmental resources, all in the name of “progress”.

By 2021 and prior to the major delivery cutbacks to come, Arizona had banked about two years of water supply in shallow desert aquifers. Most of it is near The Navajo Generating Station on a cool day in October 2015, with all three furnaces emitting toxic gases and all six cooling towers wasting untold amounts of Colorado River water - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, west of Phoenix. With the water table so close to the surface, water samples there can register over 80-f degrees. To stave off potential water shortages, construction crews are installing pumps and delivery systems from those aquifers to north Phoenix. For as long as that water bank lasts, Phoenix can continue to pretend that it has an adequate supply of water. When it becomes obvious that supplies will tighten, expect land values in more recent suburbs, like Anthem Arizona to experience a major slump in housing prices. Water may soon become too expensive or scarce to supply all who want it.

When the reservoir downstream from Lake Powell, which is Lake Meade reaches its official drought emergency level in August 2021, Arizona and Nevada will take the deepest cuts in future water deliveries. With unending
A parched view of the Navajo Generating Station in August 2018, with all three furnaces still spewing pollution into the Four Corners Region - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)drought and decreased flows in both the Upper Colorado Basin (Lake Powell) and the Lower Colorado River Basin (Lake Mead), there is no guarantee of sufficient water in either or both basins to supply basic water needs to the 40 million people in the Southwest who depend on it. Although Arizona and Nevada will take the biggest initial cut in water deliveries, the entire region is likely to experience extreme shortages in the next decade.

The history of water politics in the West is one of over optimism and faulty projections. Instead of inaction and dithering as the West dries up and blows away, both the federal government and the states that make up the Colorado River Compact should take bold action.
Each year, Lake Powell losses up to fifteen percent of its volume to evaporation and percolation into its sandstone basin. The ongoing dismantling of the Navajo Generating Station in May 2021 - Click for larger image (htts://jamesmcgillis.com)The USBR should immediately decommission Lake Powell. They should then conduct a controlled release of water from Lake Powell into the Colorado River. When that still substantial volume of water reaches Lake Mead, it will then occupy a smaller geographical “footprint”. Unlike the substantial percolation at Lake Powell, Lake Mead’s granite lined basin will retain much more of its received water.

How would these bold moves affect the Colorado River and its water consumers? First, Page Arizona would decline in population, back to near its size before construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. Power boaters would have to travel to a more viable Lake Mead, farther downstream. As Lake Powell recedes, river runners could once again conduct rafting tours of the actual Glen Canyon. For the first time in over fifty years, hardy tourists could visit the most spectacular ecosystem ever destroyed by a desert reservoir. In time, Glen Canyon would recover, and the “Eden of the Rolling through Kanab, Utah, a scrapper hauls away remnants of the Navajo Generating Station - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Desert” could well become a greater draw than the transitory “lake”. With luck and realistic planning, Phoenix, Las Vegas and even Los Angeles could survive, albeit on a much tighter water budget.

On the bright side, Page Arizona could become both a rafting and a mining center, quarrying desert sandstone for use in xeriscape throughout California, Arizona and Nevada. Personally, I would be happy to repopulate my Southern California front yard with succulents and cacti, interspersed among expanses of “Navajo Sandstone”. As I write this in August 2021, my plan sounds harsh. In 2022 and beyond, it may sound like “too little and too late”.


This concludes Part Three of a Five-Part Article. To read Part Four, click HERE. To return to Part One, click HERE

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By James McGillis at 01:47 PM | Colorado River | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter #380: The Four Corners Region - Part 2 - July 30, 2021


Venerable Engine No.493 heads up the Animas Valley under full steam at Durango, Colorado - Click for large image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

Four Corners Part Two - Spring Snow Turns To Dust

On Saturday May 22, 2021, it was time for me to start the long trek home to Simi Valley, California. Since the beginning of the health crisis in 2020, this was the first day of full operations on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. By now, the 2018 coal-cinder sparked “416 Fire” was a fading memory. Up the Animas River Canyon, crews had replaced a 2020 washout of the tracks north of Cascade Station. As I watched, the venerable Engine 493 steamed on by. As with their other locomotives, the railroad had used downtime during the health crisis to convert that locomotive from coal fire to fuel oil.


Watch the Action - The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad 2021

The little helper engine had already chugged up alone. The two locomotives would connect 26-miles up the tracks at Cascade Station. From there to Silverton, the helper engine would then lead the way, adding traction on the
long, steep grades. This type of “double header” may have coincided with the baseball term. For me, it was exciting to see rolling history making its way past our newly installed webcam.

Pop's Truck and RV Center in Aztec, New Mexico - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Tearing myself away from the railroad activities, I connected my fifth wheel to my truck and proceeded forty miles south to Aztec, New Mexico. There, I had a loose appointment with Anthony, a certified RV refrigerator technician at Pop’s Truck and RV Center. Since they close as early as Noon on Saturdays, I planned to get there early. Once and for all, I hoped to have a live, qualified technician diagnose and fix my errant Dometic RV refrigerator. So far, my emergency repair had held, but I was still nervous about a possible second failure. Since it was Saturday, I had to pay time and one-half for the diagnosis and repair. About an hour after arrival, I departed Pop’s, but still sporting the temporary jumper-wire on my refrigerator. Anthony had diagnosed the blown thermo-fuse for me, but he did not have a spare in stock. That bit of education cost me $212.50.

The San Juan National Forest, as seen from Aztec, New Mexico in lat May 2021 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)As I departed for Goulding’s RV Park in Monument Valley, I looked back to the San Juan National Forest near Durango. The slopes glistened with snow from the recent storm, making the scene look more like winter than late May. When I reached Farmington, New Mexico, wind gusts and blowing sand buffeted my rig. As I passed west of Shiprock, New Mexico, a sand and dust storm was growing. Being unfamiliar with that particular route to Kayenta, Arizona I had to trust my GPS to guide me. Luckily, the delineated route was the correct one. With the gathering storm, it became difficult to see any landmarks or even road signs.

The 165-mile trip from Aztec, New Mexico to Monument Valley, Arizona was difficult. Lofted by strong winds, the entire desert landscape appeared to be moving to a new location. Most of my four-hour trip consisted of driving on a Ship Rock, New Mexico becomes enveloped with the dust of a rising regional wind storm - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)highway obscured by blowing sand and dust. Of all my Four Corners Region visits in the past twenty years, I had never seen or felt a dust storm of such size and intensity. Somehow, I made it with only some paint chipped off the hood of my truck. “Nothing that a little touch-up paint won’t fix”, I said to myself. Setting up my campsite at Goulding’s involved ingesting a lot of blowing dust, sand and dirt. By the time I finished and retreated inside, dust was in my eyes, nose, mouth and even my ears. It took hours to wash the fine grit from my mouth.

Looking down the canyon toward Monument Valley itself, I pitied the poor souls staying at the Monument Valley KOA Journey RV Park. All of Monument Valley became enveloped in a dust cloud that extended from ground level to atop the famed Mitten Buttes. The next day, the wind abated, and everything at Monument Valley, as seen from Goulding's RV Park on a clear day - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Goulding’s looked normal again. The only evidence of the great dust storm was one worker who was patiently using a blower to remove dust and dirt off the walkways and building entrances. For campers arriving from the south, there was no sign of the intense storm I had endured less than a day before.

With a juxtaposition of such different realities in so short a time, I felt a kinship with the Spirit of the Ancients, who inhabit that sacred land.


This concludes Part Two of a Five-Part Article. To read Part Three, click HERE. To return to Part One, click HERE
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By James McGillis at 04:43 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link


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.

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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
Email James McGillis

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

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