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Chapter #383: The Four Corners Region - Part 5 - August 30, 2021


Some California wildfire smoke obscures the background in this October 2020 image of Kanab, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

From a Flat Tire in Kanab to The Stratosphere in Las Vegas

After an uneventful trip from Page, Arizona to Kanab, Utah, I set up camp at the venerable Kanab RV Corral. By booking early, I was able to enjoy the bucolic charm of old Kanab. Since I first stayed at the RV Corral in 2006, tourist facilities in the City of Kanab have expanded exponentially. New hotels and RV Parks seem to sprout up every year. Even so, the population of Kanab now stands at only 4,636.

To the east of the city, the Grand Plateau RV Resort features eighty RV spaces and fifteen cabins. Nearby, Red Canyon Cabins features approximately fifty-five individual cabins, which wrap around the Kanab Quality Inn. Upon my arrival at the Kanab RV Corral, I learned that there was not a single unreserved RV
Once a private residence, the iconic Parry Lodge in Kanab, Utah shows the town as it once was - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)space in Kanab that night. Not ironically, the Kanab Creek aquifer draws on the same watershed that feed the Colorado River and Lake Mead downstream. As the eastern gateway to Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, Kanab now appears dominated by developers and hoteliers. Each new facility uses untold amounts of water.

While in Kanab, I visited the historic Parry Lodge, first built as a private home in 1892. In 1930, the Parry brothers, converted the large property into a Hollywood movie support destination, complete with motel and luxury hotel accommodations. In 2021, with decreased revenue and an increased cost of operation, the property closed during the depths of the health crisis. As of August 2021, the historic lodge is again open for business.

Western actor Joel McCrea is on of many who shot movies in Kanab, Utah and stayed at the historic Parry Lodge - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Although tourists could not enter during my visit, I could peer down the driveway and see “Randolph Scott’s Room”, which was the first door along an otherwise deserted driveway. John Wayne’s room was farther down the driveway. Out front, there were memorial plaques honoring various Western movie heroes of the 20th century, including Ronald Reagan and Joel McCrea. On August 14, 2003, the complex became a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. While I was strolling the grounds, a woman told me about a nearby historical movie site.

Intrigued, I drove up along Kanab Creek to the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Remembering it as a small outpost of animal care in 2006, I was amazed to see a huge ranch and campus designed to care for everything from horses to raptors. Since I did not have a tour reservation, I stuck to the dirt road and went up canyon. Near the upper reaches of the facility, I discovered an One lucky rescue horse occupies the historic barn and movie set at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)historical red barn. Other than a new roof, the barn looked just as it did for over a century. During that time, the wooden structure had served as both a horse barn and a Hollywood Western movie location. From the woman in town, I had learned that none other than the late, great George “Gabby” Hayes had filmed there.

On the morning of May 26, I prepared for the 207-mile trip from Kanab to Las Vegas, Nevada. While checking my RV tires, I realized that my left-rear tire was woefully low on pressure. Although I could not see it then, a steel screw had punctured the tread. After a failed attempt to pump up the tire, I decided to roll my rig slowly to the Ramsay Towing & Service Center, just up the highway. There, the nice woman behind the counter said it would be a minimum two hour wait for service. I decided to roll slowly down the back streets of Kanab to the nearby Best Tire and Wheel The picturesque RV space where I discovered a flat tire before departure from Kanab, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Shop. There, a tired voice from the back of the shop told me that he had appointments stacked up and more customers expected soon. He suggested that I try Hatch Automotive, just across the highway.

At the rustic Hatch Automotive garage, an older gentleman (Dr. Livingston, I presume) stood inside, wearing a sparkling clean set of clothes. As I waited for him to finish a conversation, I noticed a tire-busting machine in the corner of the garage. It looked like it had last seen service twenty years prior. When the gentleman turned to me, he almost chuckled at my request for assistance. He pointed to the depths of the garage and said that a young man who was up to his elbows in grease was the only person who did any work around there. It was then that I realized that Hatch Automotive was probably a hobby for that retired gentleman. “I guess I’ll just fix it myself”, I said. “That would be a good idea”, the gentleman replied.

With the front axle of my RV rolled up on wooden blocks, I was ready to dismount the rear flat tire - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)From there, I slowly rolled my rig to a wide street behind the nearby La Quinta Inn. I remember what a mobile tire-buster once told me near the Arizona border. "You can do it yourself. Just roll one axle up high enough that the second axle lifts its tire off the ground. Then it is as easy as changing a tire on your car". Utilizing various pieces of lumber that I normally use to level my rig, I managed to pull forward on to my makeshift wooden ramp. With the rear axle suspended in the air, I used my trusty lug wrench to remove the offending wheel. Way back in Needles, on the first day of my trip, I had checked my spare tire for proper inflation. Confident that it could do the job, I rolled my spare tire and rearward and then mounted it on the rear axle. Within twenty minutes, I finished by using my trusty torque wrench to cinch down the lug nuts to a proper level. After rolling off my makeshift lumberyard, I was ready to roll. Soon, the stress of looking for nonexistent tire-service in Kanab disappeared. Happy to be moving again, I looked at my watch. My entire tire escapade in Kanab had taken just over one hour. It felt like instant manifestation all over again.

With help from my lug wrench, I was able to put the spare tire on my RV in Kanab, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Across the U.S. there is a shortage of labor, especially in the smaller towns. For the available wages, young people do not want to bust tires or learn automotive repair. If he was paid a fair wage, the 1980's Chevy Dinosaur that the young mechanic was digging into at Hatch Automotive would not be worth the time it took to repair. With a college or a trade school degree, a young person could escape the grease and grime associated with being an underpaid mechanic in Kanab, Utah. A young auto mechanic would be better off taking an unpaid apprenticeship at a Tesla Service Center. At least there is a future in working on electric vehicles. With over 570,000 RVs sold in the past year, there are now tens of thousands more travelers on the road. The lesson I learned on this trip was to depend on myself for minor repairs. If you need a flat tire fixed in Kanab, be prepared to wait most of a day for service. If you need after-hours roadside RV service near Aztec, New Mexico, be prepared for a $500 service call, plus time and one half for any actual repairs. With that, the price to change and fix a flat tire on the road could easily approach $1,000. My new motto is, “Be Prepared. Have a spare.”

At the Las Vegas RV Resort in late May 2021, I found intense heat and inadequate air conditioning in my coach - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)From the snow of Southwestern Colorado to the heat of Las Vegas, my arrival in Nevada was a shock. My fifth wheel has a single air conditioning unit aboard. Until arriving in Las Vegas in late May 2021, I never imagined that I might need a second A/C unit. After a relatively cool first night, I spoke with my neighbor at the Las Vegas RV Resort. He was a specialist in industrial plumbing design and installation. He and his wife had recently arrived in Las Vegas from his Florida home. His main task in Las Vegas was to design and oversee the installation of industrial piping at the former Molycorp Mine (Now called the Mountain Pass Mine), south of Primm, Nevada. Mountain Pass Mine is not an historical mine tucked into a romantic mountain pass. It is a strip mine, pure and simple.

Las Vegas - The land of ultimate excess, as exemplified by the Stratosphere tower near Downtown - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)When he arrived in Las Vegas, my RV neighbor found inadequate Wi-Fi and scorching desert heat. With plans to spend fourteen months in Las Vegas, he needed quick relief. By the time I departed, two days later, he had shade cloth installed on all his exterior windows and a microwave Wi-Fi disk installed atop his access ladder. With high-speed internet, he could view and revise the water, chemical and steam pipes required to restart one of the few rare-earth mineral mines in the United States. Although the Department of Defense had partnered with the mine’s new owners in 2019, decades of neglect and intermittent closures at the mine had left its infrastructure inoperable. Apparently, it was in worse shape than any highway I had recently driven in the Four Corners Region. In essence, the entire mineral processing system at the mine would require a redesign and replacement.

When I asked how long that would take, he sighed and said, “They think the mine can be operational in twelve to fourteen months”. After a long pause, he said, “I’m not sure I can get enough skilled pipe-fitters to complete that task in the 120-degree heat of the Mojave Desert”. The former owner of the Mountain Pass Mine was Molycorp, which went bankrupt in 2014. The mine had suffered the same fate as many “green energy” technologies, such as solar panels and Like so many follies in the Nevada desert, the Las Vegas Monorail stands defunct and useless near the Strip - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)lithium-ion batteries. For decades, China had undercut U.S. domestic prices and, in this case, had driven the only major rare-earth minerals mine in America out of business.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense awoke from its slumber and agreed to partially fund the reopening of the Mountain Pass Mine. As we know, if China were to curtail the supply of rare-earth minerals to the U.S., the emerging electrical vehicle (EV) industry would fail almost immediately. The Mountain Pass Mine is located just across the Nevada border, in San Bernardino County, California. As such, every part of the refurbishment project will be subject to review by California state agencies. When he had retrofitted paper mills throughout the Southern U.S., my neighbor told me, the state of jurisdiction would issue one permit for an entire project. California, he said, requires a separate permit for each aspect of design and construction. With California environmental rules and bureaucracy in mind, the reopening of the Mountain Pass Mine in late 2022 sounded like a “pipe dream” to me.

The Little White Chapel in Las Vegas still advertises that both Joan Collins and Michael Jordan were once married there - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)On my layover day in Las Vegas, the air temperature rose to about 105-degrees. On the asphalt pads of the RV Park, the temperature was ten or fifteen degrees higher. The intense heat and my under-powered air conditioner reminded me about a story from Yuma, Arizona. For decades, Yuma was renowned as the hottest city in America. Tired of constantly being the butt of “hot city” jokes, Yuma relocated its official weather station to the center of a well-watered citrus orchard. Almost instantly, Phoenix, Arizona became the hottest city in America, with 169 days each year at 90F degrees or more. As the Colorado River wanes to a trickle, there will be insufficient imported water for cotton farming and cattle ranching in Southern Arizona. Soon after that, we can expect outlawing of the outdoor water-mister systems that make dining or relaxing outdoors in Phoenix possible.

The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility has no no energy storage capability - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)On Friday May 28, I bid my Las Vegas RV Resort neighbor adieu and drove the final 305-miles home to Simi Valley, California. While in Las Vegas, I had spent under $20 to get my Kanab flat tire repaired and ready for redeployment. As luck would have it, my final dash through the Mojave Desert was uneventful. The following week, I visited Simi RV. The parts specialist there had a Dometic refrigerator thermo fuse replacement kit hanging on the rack. The RV refrigerator failure at the beginning of my trip had been an inconvenience, but not a full-scale disaster. Looking back, I had spent $24 for three temporary foam coolers, $30 for two Igloo permanent coolers and $15 for ice, just to keep my food from rotting. Then I spent $168 for the unneeded printed circuit board (PCB), $34 to exchange the PCB for a proper spare. I paid another $212 for a technician in Aztec, New Mexico to fully diagnose the thermo fuse issue. Adding $65 for my new thermo fuse replacement kit brought the grand total for RV refrigerator repairs to over $550.

A mock-up of my RV refrigerator wind deflector on our RV - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)While purchasing my new thermo fuse replacement kit, I told the owner of Simi RV about my refrigerator issue. He said that other owners of some Cougar and Montana model RVs had experienced similar thermo fuse failures. With a lot of research and testing, he had determined that wind created a low-pressure area along the side of the RV. Wind entering the upper vent was making the propane flame burn too hot, thus burning out the thermo fuse. The remedy was to put an aluminum wing or baffle at the leading edge of the refrigerator vent. That would deflect the passing air around the refrigerator unit and keep the flame operating at the proper temperature.

Since my RV is beyond its warranty period, he could fix the problem, but Simi RV had almost a three month wait for service. Instead, we agreed that I would complete my own repair. He gave me an unfinished, bent piece of aluminum, Final installation of my RV refrigerator wind deflector - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)which I customized to my satisfaction, including a black paint job. I installed long screws, which passed through my new creation and into the structure of the upper RV vent. Soon, I shall take another RV trip, which will include a live test of my new baffle.

On the bright side, for $550 I got my RV refrigerator working. For that amount, I also now have the equivalent of an associate degree in RV refrigerator repair. Since I was able to avoid scuttling my annual, two-week visit to the Four Corners Region, I believe it was all well worth the price. After a subsequent RV trip to Morro Bay, California, I am happy to report that my refrigeration issue appears to be solved.

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

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By James McGillis at 03:39 PM | Travel | 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
Email James McGillis
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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 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.

Email James McGillis
Email James McGillis

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

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