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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Morro Bay - During a Health Crisis and Fire Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter #373: Death Valley Winter Camping 2019 - May 30, 2020


In 2019, Death Valley National Park celebrated its 25th Anniversary - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

Winter Camping in Death Valley National Park

Each year, I visit the Mojave Desert in late fall or early winter. My two favorite spots are the Hole in the Wall Campground in the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park, farther to the north. I go to experience the unrivaled ecosystems and terrain of those wild places. The winter season is a great time to visit the desert. Crowds are small and attractions are often empty or nearly so.

In December 2019, before most of us had ever contemplated the need to stay at home or shelter in place, I headed alone to Death Valley. For four nights, I planned to camp and explore some sites I had not yet seen. This is how it transpired.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019 – The distance from Simi Valley, California to Furnace Creek Campground, Death Valley, California is 280 miles.The Sylmar Cascades are near the end of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, in the San Fernando Valley. - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) Departing the San Fernando Valley, I headed up Interstate I-5 North through the Newhall Pass. From there, I could see the historic Sylmar Cascades, which represent the terminus of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. That system of gravity-fed trenches and pipes transports water to Los Angeles from as far away as Mono Lake, in the eastern Sierra Nevada. On its final leg, powerful pumps raise the water, thus allowing it to take a final plunge down a concrete aeration channel and into the Van Norman Reservoir. From the high country near Mono Lake to Los Angeles, most of Eastern California consists of a parched and thirsty desert.

It took just over five hours for me to reach my destination. In that 280-mile stretch, I crossed the San Andreas, Garlock, Searles Valley and Panamint Valley Fault Zones. In July 2019 alone, the Searles Valley and nearby Ridgecrest, California experienced more than 80,000 earthquakes, including a 6.4 magnitude quake on July 6 of that year. On December 16, 2019, just a few days after my return, Ridgecrest registered a 3.5 magnitude aftershock.

Solar Farms, many owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power cover thousands of acres in the Mojave Desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Along my way, I passed through the high desert community of Mojave. Over the past sixty years, I have traveled this route many times. On this trip, I reminisced about how the vast territory from Mojave, to Ridgecrest was once an almost uninterrupted stretch of desert. In the past decade, much of that formerly untrammeled desert has given way to thousands of acres of passive solar panels. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) owns many of these "solar farms".

In the early 20th century, Los Angeles notoriously bought up the water rights in and around the Owens Valley, north of Ridgecrest. More recently, Los Angeles has given up much of its water rights, but has quietly industrialized huge swaths of the Mojave Desert. These so-called “green energy” projects have disturbed more desert tortoise habitat and denuded more desert greenery than the L.A. Aqueduct ever did.

The vast emptiness of the Panamint Valley, with Telescope Peak above is hard to describe in words - Click for a larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)With Death Valley as my destination, I had a choice of routes. On one hand, I could continue on California Highway 14 (“The Aerospace Highway”). Farther north, that highway becomes U.S. Highway 395. At Olancha (population 39), I could then turn east toward Death Valley. Instead, I elected to travel the more scenic route through Garlock, Searles Valley and the Panamint Valley.

The word “scenic” is wholly inadequate to describe that area. “Surreal” better describes the vistas and terrain. Traveling so quickly from the crowded confines of the San Fernando Valley to the vast emptiness of the Panamint Valley feels like going back a billion years in time. Near Panamint Springs, I turned east on California Route 190 and soon surmounted Towne Pass.

An afternoon view of the Panamint Range, from Towne Pass shows at least five distinct geologic layers - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)While descending the long grade into Stovepipe Wells, a McLaren, a Bentley, two Ferraris and a Lamborghini passed me at speed. The designers at the great automotive houses of Europe never anticipated the whoopdeedoos on Highway 190. After dipping into each swale, the exotic sports cars bottomed-out, with sparks flying. Watching them fly off each successive alluvial hump was dramatic, to say the least.

Once I arrived at the Furnace Creek Campground, it felt like I was at home. In the past three years, I have camped there four or five times, so it has the feel of a local neighborhood. Two nights of dry camping on an asphalt pad, then two nights in a full RV hookup (water, power, and sewer) would make for a unique experience. For my first two days and nights, I had to live by my wits, my solar panels and my portable inverter/generator. Nights were cold and my house batteries ran low. I turned off the furnace (at Furnace Creek) and stayed warm in bed by wearing high tech base-layer garments and sheltering under three blankets.

An early sunset at Furnace Creek Campground, in December 2019 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Wednesday, December 11, 2019 – At Furnace Creek, the mobile phone and data coverage is surprisingly good. A mile away, there might be no signal at all. After staying up late watching YouTube, the quiet of Death Valley (and some earplugs) allowed me to sleep uninterrupted for hours. When I awoke, was it nine o’clock or ten o’clock? I do not know. Coffee and a banana helped ease my transition back into terrestrial life.

As noon approached, the sun warmed my coach and the solar panels recharged my house batteries. Soon, I was charging up my phone, earbuds, Bluetooth speaker and camera, all with the batteries and inverter circuit in my coach. As the sun rose further, I had a steady flow of “solar-power in” and an abundance of “electricity-out”.

In California, December daylight hours are short. From Furnace Creek, the sun appears to set behind the towering Panamint Range by 4:15 PM. Following that, is a long twilight, as the sun still shines up into the limitless sky, but not down on Death Valley. One way to avoid such an early sunset is to visit Zabriskie Point, which is on the east rim of Death Valley. From there, you can watch the sun set behind Telescope Peak. If you do, you will experience a phenomenon like no other. As the sun sets, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity comes into play.

Zabriskie Point at sundown creates a long-duration bending of sunlight - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As with Einstein’s faraway planet, which bends the light from a solar eclipse, the clouds above the Panamint Range bend the light down to each of us who are waiting in the plaza that sits atop Zabriskie Point. There is a redemptive quality to the experience. When the sun hits the perceived horizon, it does not set, but instead creates a parabolic bend of light. The delay of sunset creates a pause in time, which lasts for several minutes. Most days, it is impossible to tell exactly when the sun passes behind the ridge at Telescope Peak.

That concluded “day two” of my visit. At the time, I was still living off frozen food, well packed and enjoyed. It was a few degrees warmer that night, so adjusting blankets and then, turning off the furnace (at Furnace Creek) now made sense. Can you imagine the first Anglo emigrants, spending almost two years, marooned at Furnace Creek? That was 1849, ninety-nine years before my birth.

The Death Valley `49ers had no idea that their hardscrabble camp would one day be replaced by modern travel trailers - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Their forced stay was the ultimate in unexpected self-isolation. It was freezing cold on winter nights and baking hot on summer days. In addition, the ragtag group enjoyed no contact at all with the outside world. As time passed, their situation became more desperate. A full winter and a full summer in the hottest and one of the driest places on Earth took its emotional toll.

Realizing their plight, the scraggly emigrants sent two riders all the way to San Fernando Mission, near Los Angeles. Local ranchers took pity on the riders, giving them three horses and a one-eyed mule to transport supplies back to those who remained at Furnace Creek. Retracing their steps along dry washes and old Indian trails, the rescue party rode one horse to death and abandoned the two others. Upon arrival back in Death Valley, they found only two families, with children had awaited their return. All the other emigrants had departed, trying to find their own way back to civilization. It is unknown how many survived and how many succumbed to the elements in Death Valley and beyond.

The Death Valley`49ers would have passed through the Panamint Valley and the future site of Trona, in the Searles Valley - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)After scraping together what remained of their belongings, the hapless but grateful families boarded their remaining wagons. From there, they faced an arduous 23-day trip across the Mojave Desert. Upon completion of their 250-mile trip to the Santa Clarita Valley, there were no parades or celebrations; only the relief of having survived. Just two years earlier, during the winter of 1846-47, the ill-fated Donner Party, trapped by heavy snow in the nearby Sierra Nevada resorted to cannibalism to survive. Of the Death Valley ‘49ers, only one man is known to have lost his life during their ordeal.

Thursday, December 12, 2019 – On the morning of “day three”, I moved my coach to a “full hookup” site at the campground. The Death Valley ‘49ers, 170 years earlier knew nothing of running water, electrical power, wireless data or propane gas. Using those technologies, I resumed access to all the comforts of contemporary life.

At an estimated age of approximately 2,000 years, Ubehebe Crater, in Death Valley National Park is one of the youngest volcanic explosion sites in the Western United States -  Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) Ubehebe Crater. Actually, there are two craters at the site, but the smaller one gets no credit. Visiting that place is enough to give you the Ubehebes.

It is the second youngest documented site of a major volcanic explosion in California. Although Ubehebe Crater erupted prior to European or American exploration of the area, only the massive eruption of Lassen Peak in the early 20th century was more recent. Ubehebe is approximately 2,000 years old, or so they say. It is a strange site to see, in that its volcanic ash exploded up through ancient seabed sediments. Although it issued forth around the time of Yeshua, it still looks fresh today. If you like your volcanic explosion sites low-risk, this one is relatively safe. If it only explodes every several thousand years, what were the odds that it would explode on the day of my visit?

Near the entrance road to Scotty's Castle, in Death Valley National Park, recent extreme erosion of a large alluvial fan is evident in this photo - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)On the way to the crater complex, I passed the turnoff to Scotty’s Castle, a remote desert mansion built in the Spanish Revival and Mediterranean Revival style. Completed in the early 1930s, the property was the ultimate self-isolation hideaway. Despite its name, Chicago industrialist Albert Mussey Johnson had it built as a getaway for him and his wife. During Mussey’s long absences, front man Walter Scott, known as “Death Valley Scotty” maintained and presided over the castle.

In 2015, the buildings and grounds at Scotty’s Castle experienced severe damage from thunderstorms and flash flooding. Since then, there has been a massive effort by the National Park Service to create new flood control channels and repair damage to the buildings. The road and buildings that comprise Scotty’s Castle will not reopen until at least the fall of 2021.

Compared to fuel stations outside of Death Valley National Park, gasoline and diesel fuel fetch a premium price - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)As I mentioned before, mobile telephone coverage in Death Valley National Park is limited mainly to the Furnace Creek complex. Yet, for reasons unknown, as I passed the entrance road to Scotty’s Castle, I received a call on my mobile telephone. It was a jarring phone message telling me that the IRS was after me for non-payments. Even though I knew that the IRS does not call you to request anything, it induced a brief feeling of panic in me. Then I hung up the phone and ignored what seemed to be a fraud call.

Upon my return, I visited the new “Ranch at Furnace Creek”. After purchasing some expensive diesel fuel for my truck, I headed out for nearby Salt Creek, which features habitat for the rare Desert Pupfish. That afternoon, there were no visible pupfish and no crowds. In fact, I was the only person at the trailhead.

Solitude is the major theme there in December. Unless a U.S. Navy Salt Creek in Death Valley is home to the rare Desert Pupfish - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)jet is thundering across the Panamint Valley or a Harley Davidson is on a nearby highway, the loudest sound you will hear is the ringing in your ears. If you do not think your ears ring, come here to Death Valley. You may experience silence for the first time in your life. There are no lawn mowers or leaf blowers here. If you are lucky, you may hear the rustle of a desert breeze.

Friday, December 13, 2019 – It was another day in Paradise, as we like to say in Death Valley. The local motto is,
“Death Valley - See it BEFORE you die”.

There was not much on my agenda for my fourth day. I could zoom down the road to Badwater (elevation 280 feet below sea level) and see all the sites, or I could enjoy midday in the comfort of my coach. Before 2 PM, I headed out to The Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley operated for only a few years in the late 1880s - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the Harmony Borax Works, only a few miles away. Most 19th Century mines or chemical production facilities in the West lasted only a few years. Towns like nearby Rhyolite emerged, produced ore and faced abandonment, all within a decade.

After the discovery of borax ore closer to the railroad at Mojave, the Harmony works closed down in 1888. For its brief productive era, a team of twenty mules pulled the semi-refined ore across the desert to Mojave. In the 1960s, none other than future U.S. President Ronald Reagan hosted a quasi-documentary television show titled Death Valley Days. The prime advertiser on that show was "20 Mule Team Borax". The main attractions at the old Harmony Borax Works are two original Borax wagons and a matching water-tender. With the arid desert to preserve it, this Two ore wagons and a water tender made up the heavy load pulled by the famed twenty-mule teams of the Harmony Borax Works - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)original rig looked ready for twenty mules to hook up and pull the wagons across the desert.

Leaving the defined pathway at the Borax Works, I ascended a draw and hiked among hillocks of soft sediment. The sandy soil had a crust of clinkers and small rocks, distributed randomly. Likely, they had rained down from various prehistoric volcanic blasts. From the crest of a final hill, I could see the heart of Death Valley. Within my field of vision, there were no roads, buildings or other human made objects. Other than my sandals scraping along the rocks, there were no sounds. I felt like Yeshua, mounting a hill and beholding the Sea of Galilee.

Saturday, December 14, 2019 – Before noon, I departed Death Valley, heading for home, 280 miles away. In four short days, what did I learn there? I learned Author, Jim McGillis at sundown, at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)that if you feel compressed (or depressed) by the conditions of your human life… the ticking clock, unwanted crowds or the snarl of traffic, then come to Death Valley in December. You might find peace and quiet here. My visit offered me a time and place to rest, rejuvenates and prepare for the unknown events of the coming New Year, 2020.

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By James McGillis at 03:54 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter #366: Thompson Springs, Utah - History - February 19, 2019


Now abandoned, this wood frame house in Thompson Springs, Utah had a rail car addition tacked on at one time - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Bob Robertson's Boyhood Memories of Thompson Springs, Utah

Some say, “History repeats itself”. In Thompson Springs, Utah, it simply vanishes.

Exiting Interstate I-70 at “Thompson”, as the locals call it, is like entering a time warp. Approaching the town on a desolate two-lane road, it feels like you are entering Thompson in the 1890's. In those days “Old Man Thompson” still ran the lumber mill. These days, there are no more trees to fell. There are no
All the storefronts in Downtown Thompson Springs, Utah now stand abandoned to the weather - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)more Thompson's listed in the phone book. No more steam trains linger at the railroad depot, taking on passengers, coal or water. The nearest passenger station is now miles away, at Green River.

In the past ten years, I have written nine blog articles that mention Thompson or Thompson Springs. I physically revisit the place every year or two. For some reason, Thompson, as a place resonates with me. In 2018, I heard from Mr. Bob Robertson, who was once a resident of Thompson. Since then, Bob has shared with me many details about the history of “Thompson”, as many call the place. Therefore, the rest of this article is in the words of Bob Robertson and his mother, Dorothy (known as Tods).

Bob Robertson (left) and his older sister Maurine pose near their home in Thompson Springs, Utah, circa 1940 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)“Your blog prompted many memories and thoughts about the area I’d like to share, so bear with me as an old man reflects (while he is still able)!

Thompson Springs began its life in 1883 as a station stop on the D&RGW Railroad. A post office was established in 1890, under the name “Thompson’s," named after E.W. Thompson, who lived near the springs and operated a saw mill, to the north, near the Book Cliffs. The town became a community center for the small number of farmers and ranchers who lived in the inhospitable region, and it was a prominent shipping point for cattle that ran in the Book Cliffs area.

The town gained importance with the development of coal mines in Sego Canyon, a few miles north of town. Entrepreneurs built a railroad there in 1911 to connect the mines with the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad at Thompson. The spur line operated until about 1950.

This abandoned miner's rock home used a railroad track for its doorway header - Click for larger image (http://jaqmesmcgillis.com)One added aspect of interest is the actual community of Sego, where the mines were functioning through the 1940s. I remember as a kid in school in Moab, there was a carload of kids driven from Sego to Moab daily to go to school. Education was Grand County's responsibility, until the mines closed around 1948 or 1949. The internet tells of how the community included specific ethnic groups, housed in separate locations in the canyon, which was typical of the times. There was a Japanese section, different European sections, etc. There is very little indication of old home sites now, but there is a cemetery.

It was much like Bingham Canyon Mine in northern Utah, where my wife was born in 1940. Her dad and his brother worked in the mine there during the The Thompson Springs passenger railroad depot was abandoned in 1997 and torn down in 2016 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Second World War, but the uncle was an accountant and her dad drove heavy machinery. Therefore, they had to live in different locations within the canyon.

Construction of Interstate I-70, two miles south of Thompson, drew traffic away from the town, since the former Old Cisco Highway (US-6 & US-50) was no longer maintained. In 1997, the passenger train station closed and moved to Green River, twenty-five miles to the west. The loss of railroad passenger service led to further economic hardship for Thompson Springs.

My Dad (Maury Robertson) ran a gas station in Thompson Springs, beginning in 1935. He lived in a tent with Mom and sister Maurine until they moved the abandoned small one-room Valley City schoolhouse to Thompson, which became their bedroom on their house next to the service station.

A 1935 image of the Robertson Service Station in Thompson Springs featured UTOCO Oil Products beer for sale, inside - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)I was born in 1937. Later, my Mom made the following comments for my own son about my arrival:
“Dear Dan, Your Dad was born when we lived in Thompson. We hadn’t planned to have more children, for Maury was afraid there would be problems of health because of Maurine (Bob’s sister). In addition, we were very poor and living conditions were bad in Thompson. During pregnancy, I got big & miserable with hay fever & also the gnats landed & mixed with my hay fever drink. At that time, Maury had the hired man drive me to Moab two weeks early. The nights in Moab were so hot I about melted – the nights on the desert in Thompson were cool.

Dorothy and Maury Robertson (parents of Maurine and Bob Robertson) sit for a portrait in 1942 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)When Bob was born, my Dad (Cap Maxwell) drove out to Thompson to tell Maury & he was so tickled with a boy that he told the truth. Maury thought it was a girl all the way to Moab, for he did not think Dad would tell the truth. Cap was a great tease. We argued about what to name the boy. I wanted Vincent Clark & Maury wanted Jim after his father. We already had one Jim in the family. Maurine came to the hospital & said let us name him Bobby & so that was it.

He had a rough upbringing with the hired men that we had at the station in Thompson. Collin Loveridge used to throw him in the air so high I’d nearly flip & Albert Brown, who was a big “roughy” used to get him up in the morning & feed him & let me sleep in. When Bob would not eat his toast for me Albert said, “Oh, I put sugar & Jelly on it, he likes it.”


This abandoned storefront once served as a grocery store in Thompson Springs, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)My Uncle Curt (Dad's brother and business partner in Moab tacked that old schoolhouse onto a storefront that old Doc Williams bought. It became living quarters for my folks, moving Mom & Dad and sister Maurine out of the tent. That was where I got my start. The two-pump service station has the name labeled on the front "Robertson Service," It’s kind of hard to make out in the picture. The brand was Utoco (Utah Oil Co.). Dad also drove the gas truck servicing the towns in the area, Cisco, Moab, Monticello, Blanding, and Bluff).”

Since I-70 became the main east/west route across Utah, lost are locations and memories of road trips from Moab to Grand Junction, Colorado or Price, Utah. Crescent Junction became the first stop after the interstate opened. Then as kids, going west, there was the thrill of the cold-water geyser at Woodside. Traveling east, after Thompson came Cisco, Harley Dome, and then Fruita.

This vintage bumper tag once advertised the now defunct cold-water Roadside Geyser in Woodside, Utah - Click for larger image (htp://jamesmcgillis.com)Valley City was home to enough people at some point to warrant a small schoolhouse (that became our home in Thompson Springs, as mentioned earlier). This is where we would drive from Moab in the winter to ice skate on the Valley City reservoir. It was not much of a spot for skating, but to us kids, it was great.

At age 21, Maurine Robertson (1930-1953) was named Grand County, Utah Queen of the Rodeo - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Sis (Maurine Robertson), who was born with a congenital heart defect, died in 1953, during my sophomore year in high school. She had lived twenty-three good years and had brought much joy and happiness to all who knew her. Two years earlier, she had been crowned Rodeo Queen and received much deserved recognition for the beautiful person she was.”


In 1955, Bob Robertson went on to graduate from Grand County High School in Moab. In 1961, after earning a BS Electrical Engineering at the University Of Utah, he joined the “U.S. Space Program” before it even had a name. After
active military time at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico and Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, Bob launched a distinguished career in electronics and Author Bob Robertson and his sister, Maurine in 1952 - Click for full Robertson family portrait (http://jamesmcgillis.com)engineering.

While working for such premier corporations as Intel, Fairchild, AC Spark Plug, Astrodata, Standard Microsystems, Mini-circuits and Motorola, Bob and his family lived in Singapore, Indonesia and Russia. After a later stint teaching at Great Basin College, in Elko, Nevada, Bob moved to Boise, Idaho, where he retired working for Micron Technology. He and his wife (grandparents of twenty-two) now live comfortably in northern Idaho.

Although he has not visited Thompson recently, Bob Robertson's recollections of bygone locations and events in the old ranching and railroad town are as sharp as ever. Thank you, Bob Robertson for sharing your personal history with us all.

This is Part 2 of the Thompson Springs Story. To read Part 1, “Thompson Springs, Utah - From Boom Town to Ghost Town”, please click “Here”. To read Part 3, "Sego Canyon - Land of the Ancients", please click "Here".

Email James McGillis
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By James McGillis at 03:23 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link

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http://moabpile.com
http://moabrail.com
http://moabranch.com
http://moabrockart.com
http://moabrv.com
http://moabtime.com
http://moabtruck.com
http://monojim.com
http://old-66.com
http://sewerpac.com




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