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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".

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


Chapter #365: Visit Historic Thompson Springs, Utah - January 18, 2019


Along old Highway 6 & 50, an abandoned home stands in Thompson Springs, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

Thompson Springs, Utah - From Boom Town to Ghost Town

In May 2008, when I made my first visit to Thompson Springs, Utah, I had no idea what to expect. Before that, I had never heard of the place. While in Moab that year, someone had suggested that I visit the old Indian Rock Art panels in nearby Sego Canyon. After wending my way from Moab, north on U.S. Highway 191, I referred to my Utah Atlas & Gazetteer. By following a few simple turns, I soon connected to an unpaved strip of dirt named Valley City Road. According to my map, that road ran on a diagonal, straight to Thompson Springs.

Old U.S. Highway 6 & 50 is no longer maintained through Thompson Springs, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)On that dusty track, I thought about the name, originally called “Thompson”. Someone later added the word “Springs” to the official place name. The 1961 book, “Five Hundred Utah Place Names”, has no mention of either Thompson or Thompson Springs. Although almost every source now labels it as Thompson Springs, the locals in Grand County have shortened the moniker to “Thompson”. For the sake of brevity, I shall henceforth call the place Thompson.

Indeed, Thompson had once been a thriving town, located on old Highway U.S. 6 & 50. In the first half of the twentieth century, the town featured a hotel, a motel, a diner, a grocery store, several filling stations and a passenger railroad depot. Up past the ancient rock art in Sego Canyon ran a standard gauge railroad, which serviced a low-grade coalmine at its terminus. In the days of steam locomotives, the fresh water springs at Thompson created a In the early 20th century, Thompson Springs was a mandatory water stop for the steam locomotives of the time - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)mandatory stopping place for all trains traveling along the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad mainline. By the 1970s, diesel-electric locomotives had replaced steam power, making a water-stop in Thompson irrelevant.

Simultaneously, the newly completed Interstate I-70 bypassed Thompson entirely. The old Highway 6 & 50, while skirting the southern edge of the Book Cliffs, had bisected Thompson. On its stretch between Green River and Cisco, the new route for I-70 lay several miles to the south. The widowed owner of the Crescent Junction service station had lobbied hard to have the new highway to pass adjacent to her business. In deference to her desires, the chief highway engineer at the time changed the final I-70 route to suit her needs. That Crescent Junction gas station still stands today, now known as Papa Joe’s Stop & Go.

For the first half of the 20th century a railroad was used to transfer coal from Sego Canyon, in the Book Cliffs to Thompson Springs, Utah - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)The realigning of I-70 that far north necessitated a major road-cut just west of Crescent Junction. Eastbound from Crescent Junction, highway engineers saw no way to include Thompson in their plans. As was the story with many towns built along earlier highways and rail lines, running the interstate through Thompson would have destroyed the place. Instead, they skirted Thompson, thus creating an eastbound route with an unexpected descending curve. The softhearted chief engineer had foregone a more logical and less difficult route in deference to the owner of one small business in Crescent Junction.

After the complete bypass of Thompson, only a single new service station was visible from the interstate highway. Although a highway interchange allowed By 2018, the closed Silver Grill at Thompson Springs displayed broken windows and other signs of vandalism - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)access to Thompson from both eastbound and westbound I-70, few travelers visited the town. For almost forty years, from around 1970 until the Moab tourism boom beginning in 2010, Thompson continued to wither and die.

In recent years, the Desert Moon Hotel and RV Park and the Ballard RV Park and Cabins have sprung back to life. The Ballard RV Park stands on a site that housed hundreds of trailer homes during the construction of the interstate highway. Recently refurbished, the Ballard now houses many seasonal workers recently “priced out” of Moab, thirty-eight miles away. As the new working class suburb for Moab, the Ballard rarely has a seasonal vacancy for overnight travelers.

The road north from Thompson Springs to Sego Canyon first crosses Old Highway 6 & 50, and then the Union Pacific Railroad before entering the canyon - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Despite the success of the Desert Moon and the Ballard, by 2015 no other publically identified businesses functioned in Thompson. The Thompson Motel, The old brick-front Silver Grill and the railroad depot had all shut down for good. One of the few functioning landmarks was the namesake Thompson Springs waterworks. There, local residents and trucks from the nearby Utah Department of Transportation yard could fill their water tanks. Other than the gas station and minimart located near I-70, there were few signs of economic vitality.

By 2018, after extensive damage by vandals, the Union Pacific Railroad had torn down its defunct passenger rail depot. One after another, as abandoned homes or businesses became a danger to the public, they disappeared, An old Lake Powell pontoon boat serves as a dwelling in Thompson Springs, Utah. Note the stovepipe and water slide - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)seemingly without a trace. Within the town, the last census indicates that thirty-nine hardy souls dwell in the alternating heat and cold of the desert. Other sources claim up to ninety-three people reside in Thompson.

Recently, a landlocked pontoon boat somehow made its way from Lake Powell to Thompson, where it sits up on blocks. With its waterslide still intact and a stovepipe running up the side of the cabin, I wondered if it was a remote retreat or someone’s permanent home. Could this be the beginning of a new housing boom in Thompson?

Despite sporadic signs of life, Thompson appears to be transitioning to ghost town status. In the past decade, many former landmarks have disappeared. Each time I visit Thompson, I try to take pictures of the remaining structures.
When local residents spot a visitor in Thompson Springs, Utah, they come running - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Upon my next visit, there will surely be fewer of them still standing.

This is Part 1 of the Thompson Springs Story. In Part Two, Bob Robertson, a native of the area born in 1937 reminisces about his childhood in Thompson and Grand County, Utah.

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By James McGillis at 02:47 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter #362: Titus Canyon and Titanothere Canyon - April 24, 2018


Titanothere and Titus Canyons combine to make the toughest driving experience in Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In the Depths of Titus Canyon, Cosmic Rays Reveal Themselves

In November 2016, I made my first trip to Death Valley National Park. While there, I visited many of the most famous sites in the park. After visiting Zabriskie Point at sundown, I camped at the Furnace Creek Campground for several nights. At the Furness Creek Visitors Center, I purchased a large format book, titled “Death Valley – Hottest Place on Earth”, by author Roger Naylor.

After returning home, I read that book from cover to cover, looking for new places to visit on subsequent trips. Although there are too many fascinating places to chronicle here, one place in particular struck my fancy. Touted as the only legitimate four-wheel drive road in Death Valley National Park, that place is Titus Canyon.

My Nissan Titan XD, on Daylight Pass, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In May 2017, I bought the perfect vehicle to take on the dirt, gravel and bare rock surfaces that comprise the twenty-eight mile Titus Canyon Road. That vehicle is a Nissan Titan XD, lifted six-inches and powered by a Cummins Turbo-Diesel engine. In December 2017, I camped again at Furnace Creek Campground and made a day trip to Titus Canyon.

To reach the start of the one-way Titus Canyon Road, I first drove eleven miles north on California 190. At the Aptly named Beatty Junction, I turned right on Beatty Road, which is a shortcut to Daylight Pass and to Beatty, Nevada, beyond. After enjoying the multivarious geography of Daylight Pass, I crossed the Nevada State Line, where the highway designation is Nevada 374. That section, from Beatty Junction to the turn-off at Titus Canyon Road was about twenty-three miles.

From Nevada 374, this is the sign for the turnoff to Titus Canyon Road - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)By the time I achieved the summit at Daylight Pass, daylight itself appeared to be in short supply. I elected to skip the extra four-mile trip to Beatty, and the nearby ghost town of Rhyolite. About four miles shy of Beatty; I almost overshot the signed turnoff for Titus Canyon. After turning around, I headed west on the one-way Titus Canyon Road. At first, the landscape of the surrounding Amargosa Valley consisted mostly of sagebrush. If you go this way, the initial stretch of gravel road will rattle your bones like one monotonous washboard.

After the mind-numbing washboard section, a sweeping turn to the south marks the beginning of your ascent. There, at one of the few wide spots in the road, I stopped to talk with three adventure motorcyclists that had recently passed me on the washboard section. With the suspension systems on their bikes pressed to the limit by the terrain, they were already feeling the stress of Titus Canyon Road. After an amiable conversation, the three riders traveled on ahead of me.

At the end of the washboard section, Titus Canyon Road begins the climb toward Red Pass - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)During that stop, I discovered that I had dropped my mobile telephone somewhere along the way. Unable to find it, I began to fear that it had flipped out of my truck near the beginning of the road. Since I have a Bluetooth hookup for the phone in my truck, I decided to call home, using the voice-activated system. To my amazement, there was cell phone coverage in that remote location. I spoke with Carrie McCoy, telling her that at least I knew the phone was in the truck.

As we spoke, I noticed the sun continuing its winter slink toward the horizon. In deep ravines, such as Titus Canyon, the visible sun can set quite early. Not wanting to complete my trip in the dark, I abandoned my phone-search and traveled on. Without access to the camera on my phone, I had only my Sony
Three adventure motorcycle riders pause on the ascent in Titanothere Canyon, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)A6000 camera, with its telephoto lens attached. The road was too dusty to change lenses, so I eschewed any close-ups of nearby rock formations, opting instead for a longer, narrower perspective.

If you venture on, you will encounter an ill-defined area called Titanothere Canyon. The name Titanothere Canyon derives from the 1933 discovery there of a massive fossil skull. It was of a long extinct hooved animal, dating back to the Oligocene Period, over 32 million years ago. If the ancient Titanothere had hooves, did it share any other characteristics with early mammalian species? Perusing online images of its skull, you will see aspects that evoke a lizard, a wild boar or a camel, and even a dash of rhinoceros.

A motorcyclist begins the difficult ascent through Titanothere Canyon, heading for Red Pass - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Regardless of its genetic heritage, the top of a rocky pass, eroded into impossibly steep slopes seemed an unusual place to find a hooved animal. Although camels are the kings of sandy desert travel, they could not have negotiated the unforgiving terrain of what is now Titanothere Canyon. Something big must have changes since those namesake beasts had roamed here. In the area, igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks are jumbled and tumbled all around. A series of epic geological uplifts had transformed this place in less than 35 million years. In geologic terms, just a blink of the eye separates us in time from the last Titanothere.

Back on the road, the switchbacks are numerous, the terrain is steep and corners are tight. In some places, you cannot see where your wheels will land, so most drivers hug the inside radius of the turns. As a result, there are deep
A Jeep Wrangler Rubicon easily surmounts Redd Pass on the Titus Canyon Road, Death Valley National Park (http://jamesmcgillis.com)ruts cut along the inner track of some corners. If your vehicle’s suspension survives the first unexpected hit, it is prudent to slow to a crawl on the many gouged-out turns to follow.

According to most publications and the Death Valley Visitor’s Center, any “high-clearance vehicle” should be able to negotiate the Titus Canyon Road. What they do not tell you is that this can be a grueling trip for a novice driver or if you are in a marginal vehicle. Authorities should designate this as a “Rough Road”, with a strong suggestion toward four-wheel drive capability. Because of both weathering and its popularity, the Titanothere Canyon section of the road is rapidly deteriorating. If your vehicle is questionable, I suggest renting a Jeep Wrangler four-wheel drive vehicle in Death Valley. This road begs for a “locked and loaded” Jeep Wrangler, and nothing less.

Deep In Titus Canyon is the ghost town of Leadfield, California - Click for larger image (htp://jamesmcgillis.com)About thirteen miles into the drive, within Titanothere Canyon, sweeping views and steep drop-offs will vie for the driver’s attention. If a drop-off wins, you and your passengers will die, so keep your hands on the wheel, your eyes upon the road and slow down. If you survive the switchbacks of Titanothere Canyon, your reward will be in the cresting the summit at Red Pass. The first-time visitor is encouraged to stop and look back at the perilous climb just completed. You might ask yourself, “If that was the first half of the road, what more could it possibly have to offer
?

Then, if you turn and look toward where your wheels are about to take you, you will encounter an astounding view. On my visit, I stood agape as the afternoon sun illuminated a landscape that fell away toward a darkening canyon. Looking down, I could see something flickering on the dirt road, far below. After a few moments, I realized that the tiny objects attracting my attention were the three motorcycle riders I had met earlier, near the beginning of the road. The Robert Frost inside me, blurted out, “I have miles to go before I sleep”.

If not for the mining-scam of Leadfield, the Titus Canyon Road might never have been built - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The more famous Titus Canyon (to follow) has an equally ominous history. The name honors Morris Titus, who, in 1906, left nearby Rhyolite with a prospecting party. When water ran short, Titus struck out on his own to find more, but never returned to the party. It is an historical tale repeated anew several times each year in Death Valley National Park.

The usual scenario includes a solo hiker taking off for a jaunt in the desert. Water soon runs out and the hiker tries to make it back to civilization before succumbing to heat and dehydration. Sometimes the hiker lives to tell the tale, but many others rapidly succumb, to be found as buzzard bait by a later search party. The lesson is to never hike alone, avoid the midday sun and take more water than you could ever need. Consider wearing a hydration pack, since a small bottle of water is insufficient.

On Titus Canyon Road, Death Valley National Park, the only surface water is at Klare Springs - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)While humming the lyrics to the rock group America’s, “I went through the desert on a horse with no name”, I drank from my ample water supply. Then, I headed down into the darkening recesses of the Grapevine Mountains and Titus Canyon. Soon, I came to the ruins of Leadfield. It is a former mining town built on the concept that there are hundreds, if not thousands of people willing to bet their lives and fortunes on an unproven mining claim. During the years 1925 and 1926, many fortune seekers succumbed to false advertising and moved to Leadfield. The only lead in Leadfield was used to salt the fake mine tunneled by the town's developer. By February 1927, the post office closed and the town shut down. Only an ersatz tailings pile and the remnants of a few buildings remain.

As the afternoon wore on, high canyon walls often shaded my truck. Since the road often faced west, I did experience more sunlight than I expected. As it descended, the road followed the dry streambed within Titus Canyon. Other than while dodging various rock outcroppings, the road seemed permanent enough to travel a bit faster. Then, without warning, I hit a patch of road with standing water and hidden potholes. Some were so deep, they could bend the suspension on any vehicle. That surfacing stream, near Klare Spring, was the only sign of water that I saw on the entire transit.

The female hiker shown here in Lower Titus Canyon had her dog ensconced in a backpack - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As I splashed over the watery moonscape of a road, I came across a young woman, hiking in the opposite direction, up Red Pass. She wore a light parka and a small daypack. Her ruddy face was the color of someone who had spent many days outdoors. I had only enough time to hit the brakes and apologize for splashing water toward her. Then, she was gone. Immediately, I wondered where she was going and how she would survive in the cold night to come. Did she make it out alive, from the canyon where Morris Titus met his demise?

In places, the road cuts through a canyon so steep and narrow, it measures less than twenty feet, from wall to wall. Elsewhere, the canyon broadens out, lining the edges of the road with the rock and boulder remnants of past floods. A satellite view of the area reveals that it has seen eons of erosion, cutting deeply into ancient volcanic flows. Such a bird’s eye view also reveals that miles of roadway could easily disappear in a single large flood.

Some may call it lens-flare, but I believe that cosmic rays can be visible, if photographed in under the right conditions - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)At one point, the sun disappeared behind a small peak, as viewed from the road. Not knowing if I was going to see the sun again before the end of the road, I stopped, backed up and observed the sun as it set again behind the same peak. As it did, I snapped a picture of the sunlight, attenuated by its headlong dip behind the peak. The resulting photo accompanies this article.

When people take pictures of a bright light source, and especially the sun, the orbs and crescents of light, which the camera captures, we calls “lens flares”. That tag is an easy way to explain an otherwise inexplicable phenomenon. How can a camera divide sunlight into discreet elements of different colors, each with its own apparent mass and velocity? My theory is that the camera is capturing in one frame, several different aspects of a fragmenting cosmic ray. As a single ray approaches ground level, its plasma flow may change from a translucent green orb to a green crescent and finally into a red-orange disk, oblate in shape.

Tired from the long, rough ride through Titus Canyon, the adventure motorcyclists recline and rest against the canyon wall - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)There are two sources of cosmic rays on Earth. Some, like the one I photographed, emanate directly from the Sun. Other, higher energy cosmic rays, come to Earth from deep space. As we currently approach the Grand Solar Minimum, the sun still emits cosmic rays toward Earth. As the Earth’s magnetosphere simultaneously erodes toward its lowest level in one thousand years, ground-penetrating cosmic rays are free to hit the Earth with greater frequency and force. Since a single, fragmenting cosmic ray can penetrate the Earth and possibly exit our planet on the opposite side, they are a force of energy for all life to respect.

As the cosmic rays increase in both frequency and strength, they heat up fracture zones, transform-faults and volcanic fissures all over our Earth. The result, as we have recently seen in the Great Rift Valley of Africa and many other areas on the globe, is expansion and uplifting of the Earth’s crust. Similar forces may have turned the benign plateaus and plains roamed by the ancient Titanothere into this, one of the most dramatic geological regions on Earth.

In late afternoon, I found the end of Titus Canyon, where it dumps out into Death Valley National Park, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Near the end of Red Pass, in Titus Canyon, I again encountered the three motorcyclists I had previously seen along the road. They had parked their motorcycles at the edge of the road and now lay reclined against a canyon wall, enjoying the shade of late afternoon. The road had been a test of my own stamina and concentration, so I could only image how tired they were after running all of Titus Canyon Road.

At the lower end of Titus Canyon, the watercourse dumps out its alluvium into the upper reaches of Death Valley. From there, as the sun headed toward the horizon, I safely made my way back to civilization and to my campsite at Furnace Creek, in Death Valley National Park.

Email James McGillis
Email James McGillis

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