Mojave Journal

A desert rat’s Mojave Desert a dv e n t u r e s v in the great

By Gordon Clark

CLICK ON CHAPTER TITLES BELOW

THE DAO OF BACKROADS

Mojave Journal DESERT BLOOMS THE HUNTER MOUNTAIN WIND STORIES BARE CROSSING IN THE SALINE HIGH NOON IN BALLARAT BUTTE VALLEY’S ROOM WITH A VIEW SNOW IN DEATH VALLEY FLETCH TWEED, ONYX MINER DIRTY SOCK SPRING GORDO’S KNOB THE KIT FOX FROM LITTLE COW HOLE MTN. DIONE, QUEEN OF TECOPA CLARA & JAKE AND THE T&T T&T BAGGAGE SHED, TECOPA THE MISSING MOJAVE RIVER BUSTED DOWN IN JACKASS CANYON BAKER, POP. 350

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Mojave Journal

The Dao of Backroads

Eastern Ramparts of the Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine

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he word ‘timbisha’ refers to a red material found in the Black Mountains not far from our tribal village at Furnace Creek. Our ancestors, the Old Ones, used this material, called ochre in English. They would use it like paint on their faces, to protect them and heal them. The Old Ones believed that this material, ‘timbisha’, strengthened their spirituality. Our people, the Timbisha, are named after this material and so is our valley. The term ‘Death Valley’ is unfortunate. We refrain from talking about death. Instead, we refer to “one who it has happened to.” Even more importantly, this is a place about life. It is a powerful and spiritual valley that has healing powers and the spirituality of the valley is passed on to our people. Our people have always lived here. The Creator, Appü, placed us here at the beginning of time. This valley, and the surrounding places that the Old Ones frequented, is ‘tüpippüh’, our Homeland. The Timbisha Homeland includes the valley and the nearby mountains, valleys, flats, meadows, and springs. Pauline Estevez Tribal Chair, Timbisha Shoshone 1999

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Mojave Journal High up on the scree, overlooking the West Side Road of Death Valley and, far to the north, a few lights glowing dimly in the December darkness from Furnace Creek Inn. This morning I came in to Death Valley by the south end for a change. I stopped at the crossroads called Baker on Highway 15, about 30 miles east of Barstow. (This was long before The World’s Tallest Thermometer or the Bun Boy Restaurant sprouted there like scrub grass after a spring shower.) Stopped to get an idea of road conditions for a dirt road that my map shows taking off from the highway and ranging northward through the desert to Tecopa Hot Springs. “Oh, honey, you take Route 127 (she pronounced it ‘Root’) to get to Death Valley,” said the proprietor of the Baker General Store. Honey-colored hair and lots of it, piled high. A weathered face, not yet weaterbeaten. Looked to me like she spent a good many years out here on the edge of the Mojave. I replied that I really wanted to try the dirt road that my map says is just up the highway a bit. “Why?” she asked. “127’s scenic.” She wasn’t at all clear why I wanted to take the back way in. I explained that the road I had in mind goes over a fairly high pass. Was I likely to find snow? “I don’t know anything about that road. Now, to get to 127, just go up about a block and turn left,” she advised me. I smiled, thanked her, and left. Seeing a gas station across the street, I pulled in to top off and perhaps get better info. A short, wiry-looking grease monkey of indeterminate middle-age managed the pumps. He, more than she, reflected the sun, the scrub, and the winds of the great Mojave. I asked about the road. “Well, it’s in good shape. ‘Course it’s been snowin’ up there but that’s no problem for a fourwheel drive,” he said with a gap-toothed grin, eying my rig. A shock of grayish hair spilled out from under his grease-stained ball cap. Twenty miles east from Baker, I pull off Highway 15 and head north on what my map assures me is Kingston Road, so-named for 7,323-foot Kingston Peak to the northeast. The road heads almost due north into a wide, empty, gradual sloping valley. The road is paved with asphalt made from the local red earth, but I figure the pavement will end soon enough. It does, when the pavement turns into rough gravel at a shot-up metal sign that says “Next Services 72 Miles.” I can see perhaps 10 miles up the valley, with not a vehicle in sight. I am blissed! A new discovery. This is why I didn’t want to take Root 127. Because everybody else goes that way. That’s what I didn’t tell the lady at the general store. * * *

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Mojave Journal “What do you do when you go to the desert?” people ask in some bewilderment. Do? Let me tell you what I do. Today I sit in a cool green grotto formed by water seeping from the sheer face of a 30-foot rock escarpment, vaporizing into a fine spray, and collecting again as a stream at the base of the wall. The year-round spring nourishes a dazzling arboretum of mosses, flowers, rushes, ferns, willows, junipers, reeds, and grasses. Birds and butterflies flit from one bush to the ext. The canyon is tight here. The stream keeps it moist and luxurious, yet disappears into the sand where the canyon opens into the wider valley floor.

Desert Blooms

Centuries of erosion have carved this grotto. Here the air is cool and fresh; out there on the flats it is pushing 80° even on this December afternoon. The narrowness of the canyon spares this haunting oasis from the harshness of the desert’s summer sun. I am reminded of Hawaii, with its breathtaking lushness. Desert? Yes. The Saline Valley. Another time. I sit alone on a high rock outcropping looking westward to the Argus Range and beyond it the mighty Sierra Nevada. The sun is setting in an inspiring blaze of pinks, yellows, and oranges. Winter twilight is short; the evening air is quickly turning brisk. Then the real show begins!

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Mojave Journal The snow-laden eastern slopes of the Sierra begin to lighten, bathed in muted shades of the same pinks and yellows that I had just seen in the sky. Slowly, so that I don’t notice it at first, then more and more distinct. I am so awestruck I can hardly breathe. Alpinglow! I can’t see the sun anymore. It is setting somewhere way out over the Pacific. As it does, it projects its final color palette onto the bottom of a massive formation of cumulus clouds parked over the Sierra. The clouds reflect the light downward onto the mountain tops, to give me one of the most stunning spectacles I’ve ever seen while in the desert. The effect lasts no more than eight or ten minutes. Then the colors wink out, and are gone, like a soft sigh. I don’t move. I don’t want to let go of the magic. I have never seen alpinglow before, or since. This is the desert. Or this: Sitting on a point along the road leading to the high mountain redoubt of Cerro Gordo, I have a commanding view of the dry flats of Owens Lake nearly two thousand feet below me. I am mesmerized as I watch half a dozen salt spouts spinning their way across the dry lakebed, pushed by the winds boiling down out of the Sierra on the far side of the valley. Never before have I seen this spectacle. Wow. Later, out on the flats, I make a new discovery. What I thought was salt actually is a form of talc. Imagine! Talcum powder dust devils! Yup, it’s the desert. A buddy and I are making our way over to the Grapevine Canyon Jeep road, having turned off Route 190 near Darwin. We stop at Lee Flat, a high desert valley dotted with Joshua-trees. These evergreens are the largest of the yuccas, growing into ghoulish, impossible shapes. The tallest tower over 30 feet and spread out just as wide. They grow only in a narrow elevation range of 3800 to 4200 feet in the high deserts of California and Arizona and around Jerusalem in Israel. It is said that early Mormon pioneers named them after Joshua, the Biblical patriarch, standing with his arms uplifted to Heaven. We stop to chat with a horse wrangler named Ken Layne, “from up El Dorado way.” I ask him about the ‘Road Closed’ sign. “They put those signs up to keep the dingbats out,” he says with a sly grin. He looks to be about 50, wearing a huge black cowboy hat. He could have stepped right out of a Marlboro commercial.

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Mojave Journal “Cars have gone through today,” he says. “County truck went through a while ago. It rained out here in October [three months ago] and they’re fixing the road. But you’ll get through in your rig if you know what you’re doing.” A big part of the excitement of the desert is the sheer challenge of it. Driving can be a challenge. Staying cool – or warm – can be a big challenge. Doing what I need to do to make sure we get back out again, in one piece. Now that’s a challenge. This, too, is the desert. Camping on the edge of a great salt playa under a full winter moon, the dry lake stretches out for several miles before me. I am barefoot, alternately walking and trotting across the flats in ecstatic abandon. I let my toes feel every nuance of the surface, the dips, the dry watercourses, the small lumps of saline tuffa, sidestepping around the occasional low, stickery plant life. I watch intently for any other animal life that might be about. I see none. This is very much the desert, in the very heart of the great Mojave. This is why I go to the desert. I first came to the desert for a weeklong sojourn in late December of 1981. Then it was merely a question of weather. Where could I go camping, I wondered, that was less than a day’s drive from the San Francisco Bay Area and yet relatively warm? Looking at the map, I picked Death Valley. For this baby child, raised in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains of Washington State, the desert was a whole new world. Never had I spent time in a landscape so primal, so devoid of the familiar, yet so fascinating. The sights, smells, and sounds were all new to me, to be eagerly pursued. The vistas yawning before me fairly begged to be explored, and I gladly obliged. On those first few trips, exploration and adventure were the point of the exercise. I traveled every paved and unpaved road in Death Valley, stopping at every historical marker and guidepost. From Artist’s Drive to Zabriskie Point, I did it pretty much by the numbers, beginning with the wonderful Furnace Creek Ranch at the center of Death Valley. To this day, if I’m within half a day’s drive of the Ranch, it’s worth the trip there just to buy a 5-lb bag of their delicious Deglet Noor dates. Death Valley proper has much to recommend it, especially during the daytime temperateness of winter or during the surprising blooming of desert flowers in April or May. Take time at the Long Camp where the Bennet-Arcane party of Forty-niners nearly came to grief, to really appreciate their struggle to survive. Definitely get to Scotty’s Castle; if you’re lucky you be treated to a recital on the old player pipe organ. The one-way Titus Canyon Road is a special delight, and be sure to explore – really explore – the dunes out near Stovepipe Wells. Check out Ubehebe Crater at one end of the valley and Badwater at the other. And when you get to Badwater (at –279.8 feet below sea level, considered the lowest point in the USA), take

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Mojave Journal the time to walk the two miles or so northwest to the true lowest point. Check out the “salt petals” there, six-foot wide salt formations caused by expansion in the desert crust. Sit there a while. It can be a life-changing experience. It also is 2.8 feet lower than the marked site along the highway.

Salt Petals at Badwater

At first I figured Death Valley is the desert. It is, of course, but it’s only a small part of the vast Mojave, though certainly the most famous and the most visited. The desert is much more than Death Valley, with its rangers, regulations, and recreational vehicles by the hundreds. The new National Park is a sprawling 3.3 million or so acres, but the mighty Mojave Desert dwarfs even that, stretching through three states in a vast arc from southeast Oregon, down through southeast California to the Colorado River, and clear across Nevada. . . and still it is the smallest of the three major deserts in North America. The more I traveled the Mojave, the further afield I got, exploring in ever-widening circles away from the (relative) bustle of Death Valley. And the more I drove the back roads, the more I came to appreciate the excitement of a Jeep trail running out as far as I could see across some impossibly wide valley with not another vehicle visible. Along with the sheer adventure of it all, I began to appreciate the spiritual cleansing afforded me by my time in the desert. Each trip brings new understandings of myself. As the desert becomes more and more familiar to me, so do I. It is a place of rejuvenation and healing. It is where I go to seek my Self, and I never fail to find it, in some new and hitherto undiscovered way. For me, this is a far cry from my work life, spent in uniform gray cubicles, a small wheel in the grinding cogs of a huge multibillion-dollar corporation. Somehow we Americans have

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Mojave Journal evolved lives isolated away from Nature, away from rocks and trees and water, away from the night sky and the constellations. Few of us can read the clouds the way our forefathers did, or name a constellation other than the Big Dipper; even fewer of us can identify more than three or four kinds of trees living around us. And worse, we have a hard time explaining to our kids what we do for eight or ten or twelve hours a day. All that changes for me when I get out to the open desert. It is said the Inuit people of Northern Canada have 14 words to describe snow. I once sat in the jungle in Costa Rica and identified 18 distinct shades of green, and gave them names (Gordo’s Green, Lemon Green, Ambrosia Green). Out here in the Mojave, there needs to be at least 18 words just to describe the color of sand, from golden straw to dark sienna. We need a dozen words to capture the shades of ochre in the barren, volcanic mountains. And another dozen and a half to describe the feel of desert rocks under foot or in your hand. I have come to appreciate the infinite capacity of Nature to startle, amaze, and even amuse us. It is far more than the beauty (though that often leaves me breathless) or the adventure (which satisfies some of my deepest longings) or the solitude ( I ). It is easiest for me to see it here in the great Mojave Desert. Perhaps it is because out here, expansive vistas that sweep for miles coexist with tiny mouse prints in the sand. Evidence of humankind goes back at least 12,000 years, when early hunters and gatherers roamed the edges of a large lake we now call Death Valley. The Shoshone and Piute Indians migrated into the great basin sometime after 1000 A.D., yet the land they occupied may have been thrust up out of the primordial ooze back in Pre-Cambrian times. These massive movements of land and water are juxtaposed with events that happen – and are over – in just a few minutes, like alpinglow. In this seeming paradox, I find a great wonder, acceptance, solace, and serenity. And I usually find mySelf. It is in the desert that I most keenly feel the evident harmony and order in nature as a whole, and my place in it. Nature functions precisely as it should, and all around me that simple fact is easy to see. Here the book of Time is open. The years are writ huge here, when we have the eyes and wit to see them. Return to Contents

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Mojave Journal

The Hunter Mountain Wind Stories

Aguereberry Point, Wildrose Canyon

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n hour before sunset; I am sitting on a rocky overlook high above the Saline Valley, just off the Hunter Mountain Jeep trail. The air is crisp and cool. It is one of those remarkable early spring afternoons in the high desert, a sweet time as the sun settles lower on the horizon. The incandescent light of midday gives way to the warm glow of late afternoon, putting a burnish to the rocks and mountains. I sense the pace of the desert quickening as evening comes on. Overhead a pair of hawks catches the wind from behind me and glides out over the Saline Valley far below and to the northwest. The hawks call to each other. Another pair comes over the ridge, calling to their mates before following them down the thermals. Now comes a lone hawk, calling, flying fast to catch up to his brethren. After the hawks disappear into the vast reaches of sky over the Saline, I listen intently to the wind. It tells me stories. I hear the click of Pete Aguereberry’s pickaxe, digging for silver at his Eureka Mine, miles to the south of here. He was one of the few hardscrabble miners who consistently pulled a little money from his mining, and he did it off and on for over forty years. 01/21/11 10

Mojave Journal I hear laughter, men’s laughter, and the sound of a full barroom at Skiddoo. Rough men handing over their hard-earned wages to the barkeep for some whistle-wetter. The money didn’t last long in that town. For that matter, the town didn’t last long, either. The wind changes direction now, carrying the raucous story of Panamint City, high up Surprise Canyon, where hundreds of thousands of dollars of silver was shipped out unguarded in cubes one foot on a side. The owners knew there were plenty of would-be thieves around, but they also knew nobody could make off with these 400-pound beauties, which were valued then at $6200 each, or $2.2 million today. The wind brings another story, the bray of a lone jackass and of Shorty Harris. His is a highpitched cackle of glee. No doubt he’s just hoodwinked another miner out of his grubstake. Shorty was like that, the wind says, a single-blanket jackass prospector who probably made more money selling worthless claims than mining good ones. And boy, did he have some good ones: Rhyolite, Harrisburg, and others. A freshet picks up, bringing another story. What’s that? Oh, here’s the sound of another prospector. This is the sound of Walter Scott, mining the bank account of his good friend Albert Johnson to build the Death Valley Ranch, better known as Scotty’s Castle. I can almost hear Scotty now, regaling early desert visitors with totally fictitious tales of vast gold strikes the precise location of which he must, of course, keep secret. I listen hard to the wind. It brings the sound of mines being worked at Darwin, almost visible 30 miles to the south. Machine mining. Large pits. Hard work, and hard men working. Darwin. Dustin and I came in the back way six years ago, up Darwin Wash, driving a sports car over a road never intended for one. The mine was still operating then, as was the general store. Both are dead now, although the post office is new and a couple dozen retirees still live nearby. The miners’ shacks, though, are empty. A new ghost town. A cross-breeze tells another story, a twisted story, a sad and depressing and ultimately unfathomable story, a story of gristly murder and accidental discovery. It whispers a name in my ear: “Charles Manson, Charles Manson.” It tells me how he and the Manson “family” killed seven people in Los Angeles, then holed up in an abandoned ranch house far up Goler Wash, 40 miles northeast of here. Of how they were jailed by the local sheriff for a destroying some county road equipment, but held when the magnitude of their violent crimes became known. Another story borne by the wind, this one coming up out of the Panamint Valley. A quieter story, of the Timbisha Shoshones summering in Wild Rose Canyon far from the July heat of the desert floor. Timbisha: their name for the red ocher found on the flanks of Mount Jackson, east of here. The man the Whites later called Indian George lived in Wild Rose Canyon, as Shoshones had for untold generations. He was a boy when he saw his first White people. They were stuck in Death Valley and dying for lack of food and water, which must have confused him, for he and his people knew both were nearby.

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Mojave Journal The wind tells other stories, too. Of Fletcher Tweed. Of Carl Mengel, Chris Wicht, and William Lewis Manley. Ballarat, Harrisburg, Cerro Gordo, and Chloride City. Of haunted ships lost in the desert and battered Conestoga wagons burned in the sand. Of thieving scoundrels, earnest pioneers, pious preachers, and some of the toughest people in the West. Of glory holes and iron rails and 20-mule teams pulling their precious cargoes across burning sands and over treacherous mountains. Seldom Seen Slim died out here in 1968. National television covered the funeral. The press called him the last of the jackass prospectors, and I think he was. With him died a chapter in the history of the desert. Sturdy men – and a very few women – who accepted the harshness of desert life, and flourished in it, in their own ways. None died rich. Don’t know if they died happy. Many will not soon be forgotten. Their stories will always be out here, whispered by the wind. Return to Contents

Bare Crossing in the Saline

At The Saline Oasis

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Mojave Journal

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ame in yesterday from the Racetrack. Although it is late December, it was almost balmy up there, enough for an afternoon of walking the sun-dried playa in search of the elusive “moving rocks”. These waist-high rocks supposedly move across the dry lake, as evidenced by faintly indented trails they leave behind. Some say the fierce winter winds are enough to move them when rain slickens the playa surface. We didn’t see any moving rocks or their trails, but did clamber over the remarkable outcropping called The Grandstand near the middle of the vast playa. Later, after a quick and gingerly visit to the nearby Lippincott lead mine, we took the Jeep track down from the Racetrack to the Saline Valley. Down, and how. This road drops about 3000 vertical feet in five miles. Compound low coming down, no room to pass, few turnouts, and thank God no other vehicles coming up. Almost immediately I broke a sweat. The road surface is loose rock and very narrow. I am too scared to more than glance out my side window. I sensed that even a tiny mistake could send us careening a thousand feet down into the canyon. Meanwhile Victoria was taking in the sights and keeping up a running commentary on the spectacular views as we twisted and turned down the face of the mountain. Finally we emerged out on the talus slopes at the south end of the Saline Valley. I parked to catch my breath and peel my fingers off the steering wheel. Victoria glanced over at me and whistled. “Man, your lips are white. What’s wrong?” I told her: That’s the hairiest road I have ever driven! “I’m glad I didn’t know,” she replied softly. “Thanks.” * * * *

From a distance, the Saline looks like most any other Mojave Desert valley. Sand dunes near the center of the valley, formed by crosscurrents of wind whistling down the side canyons and dropping their payload of scoured sand. A large, brackish salt pond glistens at the lowest point, a salt marsh and thicket along one side. The broad valley floor sweeps up to meet the alluvial deposits borne down from the canyons above by countless quick rainsqualls. The slopes are rounded and barren. Did I say barren? Only from a distance does the Saline look barren. Up close, the valley floor is covered with the plant life of the low salt desert. Dark thickets of salt-tolerant scrub mesquite and pickleweed surround the salt playa, with burrobrush and bristlebush, the scrubby blue-gray of sages, a few hardy grasses, and the occasional silver-hued desert holly advancing up the alluvial fans on all sides. And everywhere is the curious creosote bush. 01/21/11 13

Mojave Journal And Oh! The hot springs. Among a certain crowd, these springs are famous. At first, driving across the dusty valley floor, I don’t even notice the greenery around the springs. It was far off in the distance partway up the long baranca [“…the lion stills rules the baranca…”] pouring out of Steele Pass leading over to the Eureka Dune. We come around the salt flats and almost immediately the road plunges through a series of low, loose sand dunes. I drive like crazy to keep from stalling in the sand; frequently we hit our heads on the top of the cab as we bounce and jostle our way forward. All the while great billowing clouds of sand are roiling out from under the truck in all directions. Finally leaving the sand, I put the truck in a lower gear and head up the long gentle slope. Ahead of us in the distance, an oasis seems to rise up out of the sand and rocks. This is no mirage. The road hits Lower Warm Spring first, then Palm Hot Spring half a mile further up. Another couple miles up the road is Upper Warm Spring, left pretty much in a natural state except for a chain-link fence that keeps the burros from overgrazing. This is a languorous, squishybottom pool surrounded by a low thicket, with a fairly constant temperature of about 102°. Most of the action is at the lower two springs. Out of respect, nobody bathes in the 107° source springs. But over the years several cement and rock pools have been built and named by the regulars. There is Volcano Pool, Sunrise Pool, and Wizard Pool, among others. Each is a work of art. A pool for every taste, so to speak, just perfect for washing off the road dust. In the Lower Warm Spring area, there is also a paperback library, plenty of shade trees, a couple outhouses with spectacular desert views, and a lawn watered by the overflow from the springs which in turn waters a pond stocked with coi. For some, this appears to be home. VW vans, trailers with cordwood stacked behind, an old bus that somehow made it down the North Road (far more congenial than the road from Racetrack). For others, annual trips to the springs are in order. Many have been coming here for years. I met one of those old regulars. He was in his mid-sixties, with a robust beer belly and wisps of white hair. He kept a couple of big, mean-looking black dogs chained to the front bumper of his truck. While I talked to him, he was earnestly working at preserving his beer belly. So I was more than a little surprised to find out that he and some buddies did the plumbing and cement work on the largest pool almost 30 years ago. Funny, but he just didn’t seem the type to me. There is even a useable airstrip, provided your plane is very small and your pilot is very courageous. On my first visit here, I watched slack-jawed as a bunch of naked men and women came piling out of the bushes surrounding the lower spring and went trotting off to the airstrip, a good quarter mile away. There I was astonished to see a 4-seater plane sitting among the rocks and scrub, apparently having overshot the runway on landing. Now the pilot 01/21/11 14

Mojave Journal was ready to go home. He had enrolled a squad of volunteers to push the plane back onto the “runway”. They were successful as I watched and off he flew, waving down to the bare-assed crowd waving back. Now it’s New Year’s Eve. My fingers are cold as I write this, and it’s the warmest night we’ve had so far. A hard, fast-moving wind whistles down out of a side canyon. Sitting next to my squaw fire, enjoying a good cigar, I can see other campfires through the sparse trees surrounding the springs. Victoria is still at the pools, regaling water lovers with jokes, stories, and a constant stream-of-consciousness monologue. They love it; periodically I hear peals of laughter. Just before daybreak, New Year’s Day. We are in Sunrise Pool. The sky glows brighter and brighter beyond the eastern horizon, and everyone in the pools feels the anticipation of the first day of the new year. Finally a speck of sun peeks over the hills. We all break into a chorus of “Amazing Grace”. A short time later, a lone Navy fighter jet streaks down the side canyon from the direction of Eureka Valley, just a couple hundred feet off the deck. When the pilot reaches the springs, he pulls up into a vertical climb. We are looking straight up into the exhaust as he climbs out of sight. This aerial display pisses off a lot of people around here, but I love it, and go nuts in the pool. I thank the pilot for this New Year’s wakeup. I was reminded of one of my first trips to the desert. I had camped for the night far out on the open desert near Red Mountain between China Lake and Trona. Awakening at dawn, I was standing in my long johns waiting for my coffee to brew when I spotted a small dark spot far down the valley. Watching intently, I realized it was a jet coming straight toward me. Closer and closer it came, seeming to knock the flowers off the sagebrush. This jet jockey was probably from nearby China Lake Naval Air Station, out for a morning scramble. He passed over me at 500 feet with full throttle and a thunderous roar, rocking his wings in greeting before disappearing over the mountains. I was so blown out I could only jump up and down and scream. After today’s early-morning dip in the pools, we gotta get ready to head back to the Coast. We stop to say goodbye to an interesting group of young student travelers we met here. Two Germans and two Israelis traveling together around the States. Yesterday I pulled their truck out of the sand when one of the Israelis got in over his driving skill. Today he offers us two tiny cups of coffee. I am a little amused by the size of the cups. Then I taste the coffee! This is Arabic coffee, thick and black and sweet, like nothing I ever had before. An hour or so and two more cups later, we are back cleaning up our campsite, speeding around like loons. * * *

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Mojave Journal When I first visited the Saline, it was open land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. As with most areas under BLM control, the springs were pretty much left to care for themselves. Benign neglect, I suppose. I was always impressed at how clean and, well, organized, this place is. Even though there may easily be as many as a hundred people camped in the area during busy holiday times, the thickets around the springs provide some privacy for campsites and the place is always clean. It certainly is maintained at least as well as the dreary, over regulated campgrounds in Death Valley proper. Visitors here are responsible for that. Those who love the springs keep an eye on things here. The occasional raucous drunk is generally dealt with quickly. The pit toilets are periodically re-dug to keep them sanitary. The pools are regularly drained and cleaned. Holidays are nothing short of big family reunions, especially Thanksgiving, when everybody shows up with food to share. It is 75 miles to the nearest pavement, and the rough roads in from north and south prevent most RVs from making the trek, so you won’t hear their infernal generators running into the night to keep the TVs going. Many years ago volunteers formed the Saline Preservation Association (SPA) as a way of communicating with each other about the Springs. Every now and then they send out a wonderfully chatty newsletter with stories about the old days, updates on road conditions, notes on the comings and goings of the regulars, and articles about the politics of the Springs. But now the Saline is in a period of transition. In 1996 it was incorporated into the sprawling, 3.5-million acre Death Valley National Park. The National Park Service is a far cry from the BLM. The Park Service has rules, lots of them. Now, government bureaucrats seem to be in control the future of the Springs. As I write this (winter of 1999), meetings are being held, Public Input Is Sought, and decisions are being made about what to do with the place. The springs, you see, are a huge anomaly in the park system: for one thing, the Springs have a vocal and organized constituency, and for another, the Springs are clothing optional. The energetic folks of SPA have been a major part of this constituency, showing up at public hearings and arguing to keep the Springs the way they are: self-regulating, minimal development, little ranger presence, no fees, and no clothes. Now that last one is a big problem for the Grand Old Park Service. Seems that nowhere else in the Park system is nudity openly permitted. The Department of the Interior (parent organization of the Park Service) does not want to be seen as condoning people running around with their clothes off. I suppose it looks bad when it’s funding time in front of Congress. A new wrinkle is the effort to provide a homeland for the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe. Long a tribe without a reservation, the few Shoshones who still live out here in the desert generally stay in the their tribal village in the Furnace Creek area. The Park Service is proposing to allocate 7500 acres for Tribal use. This includes a small area of the Saline Valley called Indian Ranch, now in private hands a few miles from these springs, plus the Springs

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Mojave Journal themselves. Shoshones say they have used the springs from time beyond memory for their rituals. Today the Tribal Council takes a dim view of public use and nudity here. It is entirely possible some compromise will be reached. I certainly hope so. It would be a travesty to convert this wonderful Springs area into the kind of over-regulated, overorganized, uninspiring campgrounds that populate Death Valley proper. It would be far worse to close it off altogether to public use. * * *

On this visit to the Saline, Victoria and I discovered how much we like desert camping, although in different ways. She says she saw something in me that was new to her: a real pioneer and a sure adventurer. She appreciates how well I took care of her, and never doubted that I would pull us through. And I never saw her so willing to push her limits of comfort, to be in situations that seem so far removed from the warmth and safety of her living room. She is a fun companion, with hardly a complaint. (We now know that she does not so well over long stretches of rough road, so we include frequent stops.) We figured out how to camp together in the desert. We’ll come up together to the Springs. I’ll set her up at the springs. She’ll stay in the pools all day and love it, and I’ll explore the surrounding countryside and love it. I appreciate Victoria even more, for having the courage to accompany me on these trips (when she does) and to let me go by myself (when I do). * * *

Another visit, another friend. Davey and I have stopped by the springs to wash away the road dirt from a solid week of bouncing along the Jeep roads in the surrounding mountains. We’ve had an exquisite time. Every morning we would wake up and decide what outrageous adventure we’d like for the day. And seemingly, it would always happen. Today we drove in before well before sunset and parked on a knoll a mile or so up the fan from the springs. After a great dinner and in the gathering twilight, we slowly walked down the road toward the springs to take a dip. Davey remarked, “The only thing we’re missing now is fireworks.” Not five minutes later, a short, dazzling spray of fireworks exploded in the air over the springs! Someone was setting off a few Roman candles. Just for us! How can it get any better? * * *

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Mojave Journal The last day of the year, the decade, the millennium, is finally here. I sit on a crumbling ledge overlooking a small seepage and wash, up the Steel Pass Road and about even with the turnoff to the undeveloped Upper Hot Springs. And it’s not a wash at all, really; the floor of the wash, if it could be called that, consists of oddly rounded, chalkish mud mounds, at the base of a dark red hill. I note that the ubiquitous desert holly, common everywhere else, does not grow in that red soil. Within my field of vision appears an exquisitely choreographed tableau involving four wild burros. I first spotted them when I crept up to the ledge and sat down. They were perhaps a hundred and fifty yards away, browsing through the low scrub and sages. They didn’t pay much attention to me, although one or another watched me at all times while the others browsed. Suddenly their collective attention shifted to the east. Each stopped browsing, standing stock-still and watching something I couldn’t see past the outcropping of the ledge. Soon four people appeared, walking slowly but not trying to hide. They walked a few paces, stopped and talked quietly among themselves, then moved a few more feet, always closer to the burros. Then, quite nonchalantly, they sat on downed log and one or two pulled out sandwiches and started eating. The burros were intrigued enough to stay where they were, not more than twenty yards now from the humans. For their part, the humans spent many minutes on the log, finishing their lunches. Neither group got closer to the other. The people moved a few steps forward; the burros moved a few steps back. Finally each species moved off in opposite directions, occasionally looking back at the other species. The Saline looks and feels especially redolent today. It’s warm and hazy. Maybe some weather moving in from the West. At almost every glance I see the sand cloud of another vehicle coming in. Far across the valley the Inyo Mountains seem hunched down and waiting. But not waiting for us, and certainly not waiting for our miniscule millennium. These mountains, unfathomably old, heaved up over time from the gooey depths of an even older ocean: they do not concern themselves with triflings such as this human-scaled millennia. Ten millennia or a thousand millennia, either one is an inadequate tool for measuring these rocks, these patterns, these forms. I suppose a thousand years is important to humans mainly because we say it is. The changes that humankind will likely go through over the next 1,000 years will be monumental, mindboggling…but only to us. How will this valley change in that same length of time, if left to the devices of wind, weather, and gravity? Absent the invading hand of man, I believe precious little would be different. A lone black hawk wheels above, dipping to get a closer look at me before heading downwind, and calling a throaty, subdued greeting to me. Howdy back at you, I holler. From this vantage point the springs area looks like a small village, which today it is, with perhaps 500 people and 300 vehicles and 1 airplane. Vehicles range from Colts to lumbering RVs to trucks pulling trailers. And even a covey of Volkswagen Vanagons all parked together. Too cute.

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Mojave Journal But up here, two or three miles from the bustle, mostly I notice the quiet. As late afternoon slowly gives way to early dusk, I regretfully pick my way back down to the camps, following the burro trails. Later. What a surreal evening. Our “new best friends” Kevin and Don cooked up a wonderful meal in a nearby camp and invited us over. Stir fry meat, veggies and rice noodles, with wonderful nuances of flavors, textures, and smells, all served with very un-desert-like panache on China plates with chopsticks. We dined amidst candles and lanterns artfully placed around the campsite. Midway through the meal I doctored a young man from another camp who’d punctured his leg with the tip of his Bowie knife while he and his three college companions were out tattooing themselves using India ink and cactus thorns. The centerpiece of Kevin’s camp is an industrial wok burner. Sounds like a small jet taking off. Brings a quart of water to a rolling boil in under three minutes. After dinner, with the flame turned down, Kevin replaced the wok with a rock. We sat around the burner like a campfire, though it gave out no radiant heat.

Ginseng, My Desert Pup

Now I’m in my own camp again, three hours after sunset on New Years Eve, the “last” one of the 20th century, taking in the night sounds. Over by the Wizard’s trailer, a recorded Johnny Cash is softly crooning. Fireworks erupt periodically into the sky, scaring my little dog Ginseng pissless. He huddles on my lap, under my serape, shaking. People are walking down the road from more distant campsites, heading for a coveted place in the springs. Laughter from various places; occasionally the hacking wheeze of somebody toking too hard on a joint. Somebody just now drove in, looking for a camp spot!! They park next to us. Using the beam from their headlights, they spend a few fruitless minutes trying to clear away rocks. The ground is nothing but a hard-pack gravel bed. Finally they erect their tent on the gravel.

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Mojave Journal Turns out it’s a young couple from Brooklyn. They tell me they decided a while back to spend New Years Eve in Death Valley, although they knew nothing about it. They read about the springs on the ‘Net, and so fashioned a plan to get here without knowing a thing about the conditions here. They flew to Las Vegas, then drove a rented 4WD truck over Cerro Gordo Road (which, at 9,200 feet should have been closed by snow but isn’t yet), down the South pass (which everybody says is terrible after the last washouts), arriving here in the dark and out of gas (hopefully they can get some from the Park Ranger tomorrow). Their supplies consist of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for three days, one bottle of very good champagne, and one sleeping bag for both of them. She’s a jazz singer; he just passed the New York bar exams. They arrived here on faith alone. It’s a great story. I love it, and give them a bunch of our extra food, although nothing they have to cook, since they have no equipment to do so. From somewhere far in the distance, maybe the lower springs, the faint sound of drumming. And from the nearby Wizard’s Pool, untrained voices attempt old rock ‘n roll songs. I figure sooner or later they’ll end up singing “Kum Bay Yah”. Eventually they do. I shudder. Somebody is strumming a guitar in the Vanagon encampment. The card game at the Wizard’s trailer has dissolved into conversation; I hear somebody there discussing their colon one minute, then discussing good cigars the next. I guess I missed the sequeway. The drumming down below gets marginally louder, and I can hear the faint sounds of revelry. Briefly I’m tempted to wander down and join in, but I like the quietude and my small fire too much to leave. Besides, Ginseng is still shivering. And I don’t really know what time it is, since I never carry a watch out here. It is so damn antithetical to the place to be concerned about time down to the second. But eventually I hear a countdown from ten and a few booming fireworks go off, and so the Nineteen Hundreds are gone. At last! I share a bottle of Moet and a joint with the newcomers next door. At least here, the world didn’t end. The ball didn’t drop. The springs did not stop flowing. Orion still rules the Western sky. A night much like any other night out here (except noisier). An auspicious start to 2000. One or two low conversations straggle on into the night. The drums are still going (and will long after I’m asleep, I suspect); the dancers don’t stop. New Years Day, well before dawn. Victoria and I are in the tubs to watch the first day of the new year dawn slowly and majestically down the Inyo Mountains, across the Saline flats, and up the slopes until at last our springs are bathed by the soft morning sun. We welcome the sun. It is a glorious sight to behold through the gently swaying green palm trees of this magical oasis. Return to Contents

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Mojave Journal

High Noon in Ballarat

Abandoned Movie Set, Ballarat

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or several days I have been exploring the Jeep roads in the surrounding mountains. Now I am driving down from Butte Valley, a 3-hour drive, to meet my friend Mark. He is driving in from Santa Cruz, a 10-hour drive.

Days before we had made a pact: “We’ll meet at midafternoon on the 29 th in the old graveyard at Ballarat.” I wasn’t sure he would show up. Nobody else has who’s said they’d meet me here. But Mark…he’s different. He’s an adventurer. If anyone would make it out here, it’s Mark. And if there’s anyone I’d want to meet out here, it’s Mark. By lunch today I was already excited. It’s now early in the afternoon. God, I’m happy when I pull in to Ballarat and spy his dented, beige sedan parked at the graveyard. And there he is, wandering among the old weathered gravesites, pegging rocks at tin cans with a slingshot. * *

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Mojave Journal Seeing Ballarat for the first time, from across the Panamint Valley, I couldn’t tell whether the place was inhabited or not. Seemingly asleep at the base of the Panamint Mountains on the east side of the Valley, the old gold rush town didn’t seem to stir. But I could see several structures and the glint from what I presumed were windows. I left the highway and took the dirt road running out across a long causeway to reach the place. At the moment it seemed a popular hangout, with a dozen or so 4WD vehicles and a couple sedans camped out in the open sage beyond the graveyard. This spot was well known by local Indians because of fresh water at a spring nearby, and used by the ill-fated Jayhawker Party of Argonauts in 1850. In the 1890s a mining camp was established at the springs, now named Post Office Spring. This was the original site of Ballarat. The camp quickly outgrew the area and was relocated to the more suitable land about a quarter-mile to the north. Ballarat, once a shipping point for the busy gold mines up Surprise Canyon, is now indeed a ghost town. The graveyard may be the best-preserved part of the place. Seldom-Seen Slim and Jim Sherlock, miners both, are buried here, along with others now lost to history. Slim’s grave marker reads: "Me lonely? Hell no! I'm half coyote and half wild burro." Slim walked to Ballarat in 1917 and lived there until he died in 1968. In the 1960s, a plan was initiated to bring new life to the town of Ballarat. A corner of the town site was sectioned off as a residential mobile home and trailer park and electrical hookups were installed. The one new building in the place – a general store of sorts – is a remnant of that endeavor. But the venture was a dismal failure and Ballarat sank back to its ghost town status.

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Mojave Journal

The Ballarat Jail

A few of the original adobe buildings can still be seen, though little remains of them. An incongruously new-looking wooden structure turns out to be what’s left of the set of the 1986 movie THE DANGER ZONE. The original set consisted of three wood-framed, Wild West buildings and a "whipping post". One building and the post still stand. Two other movies feature Ballarat, sorta. In TERMINAL VELOCITY (1994), several Cadillacs were dropped from a cargo plane flying above the dry lake in front of Ballarat . . . but the scene supposedly takes place in Arizona. And in the beginning of 1969’s classic EASY RIDER, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride their Harley hogs into Ballarat. They look at Fonda's watch one last time, then Fonda tosses it on the ground and the two head off across Panamint Dry Lake in their cinematic quest to see America. A small wood and adobe shack, relatively unscathed, used to be the town jail. The Ballarat Jail was built in 1899, at a cost of $336.50. This structure served as both the town lock-up and morgue. The first person to utilize the building as a morgue was an engineer named "Ibbings". This unfortunate first-timer from Lone Pine reportedly died after eating a can of spoiled tomatoes. On one visit to Ballarat, I discover the former jail occupied by a couple care-taking the site. They both appear to be on the shady side of 60. They say they used to live over in the area of

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Mojave Journal China Lake where they ran a small garage. The shack is maybe 10’ x 14’, with a leaky tin roof and coffee cans strung together to form a stovepipe. “Does the old fellow who runs the onyx mine still live over there,” I ask, pointing across the Panamint Valley. She: “Fletcher? Yep, he’s still there.” Me: “Then I’m going over to see him tomorrow. I was here a year ago, and I want to see how he’s doing. He was still pretty shaken when I saw him last.” She: “Y’know, you’re the second person to tell me his wife died….” He: “We don’t like to pry around here. What’s going on with people, that’s their business.” She: “…but I’ve talked to him, and he talks as if his wife’s still right there in the house…” He: “You know, he’s got quite an operation going over there. They got several people working.” She: “…but I just don’t know if she’s died or not.” Abruptly turning to his wife, he says, “You get that damn feller taken care of? Got his tire?” Turns out some guy left Ballarat a little earlier, driving out in a rented car with a flat tire. Had no spare, so he planned to drive the 30 miles or so to Trona on the rim. The caretaker told his wife (“The Boss”) to fire up their battered pickup and go after him to give him a lift into town. She caught up with him on the other side of the causeway across the playa. She: “I asked him why he didn’t get help here,” with a wave taking in the half dozen RVs and Jeeps parked in the area. “You know what he told me? He said where he comes from he wouldn’t think of stopping to ask for help, because nobody would help him, and he’d probably get robbed if he stopped.” Me: “Gawd, where’s he come from that’s so bad?” She: “San Jose.” He rolls his eyes and shakes his head. I understand why they live in Ballarat, Pop. 2. * * * *

One old adobe building, now nearly demolished by the elements and vandals, was used as an assay office operated by Fred Grey in the first part of the last century. A few years ago, one could make out the word "HELTER" inscribed on one of the interior walls, a reminder of the infamous Charles Manson's presence in Ballarat in the late 1960s.

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Mojave Journal Charles Manson and his “family” lived up Goler Wash in the old Barker Ranch, less than a dozen miles from here. On the evening of October 12, 1969, Manson and eight others were captured during a law enforcement raid of the ranch. They were arrested on suspicion of vandalizing some county road equipment and were transported to the Inyo County Jail in Independence. It wasn’t until later that officials connected Manson and some of his followers to the ghastly murders of actress Sharon Tate, Rosemary La Bianca, and six others in the hills above Los Angeles. In the raid at the ranch, Manson was discovered hiding in a small cupboard beneath the sink in the bathroom. Although he managed to curl up inside the cupboard, he closed his hair in the cupboard door -- revealing his location to a California Highway Patrol officer. Return to Contents

Butte Valley’s Room with a View

Geologist’s Cabin at Anvil Spring

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A

perfect evening in the Geologist’s Cabin with Mark. The cabin was built by a geologist before the turn of the last century, and so the name. If ever there was a room with a view, this is it. Out the window is the magnificent Striped Butte, catching the last rays of a dying day. The butte gives Butte Valley its name, rising out of the floor of its southern toe just about smack in the center of this broadly sloping high desert plain. Rather than flat-topped like a mesa, as its name would imply, Striped Butte is a triangular mound several hundred feet high. From this side, the east side, the amazing rock is striped with nearly vertical calico bands running top to bottom. The west side of the butte is nearly smooth, reflecting a formerly flat surface. It appears to have been thrust up and tilted by ancient, unknowable geologic forces. It also is a curiosity: clearly a sedimentary formation, it is surrounded on all sides by granite mountains. I stopped by the cabin earlier today after toiling up the old Warm Springs Canyon road from Death Valley. A lone cottonwood tree, the only one for miles, shadows the cabin and guided me in. I wasn’t sure if it was inhabited or not. I saw it last year on a trip with Dustin and Ritchie, but then a truck was parked under the tree so we didn’t go in. Today, I seem to have the valley all to myself. I drove slowly up the little rise to the cabin, parked, and hailed. No response. Tentatively I approached and let myself in through the unlocked wooden door. The cabin was empty, but it looked amazingly well preserved, like it was being lived in. The rock-walled cabin is about dozen feet wide and fifteen or so long. A stone fireplace occupies one end, two large wood-framed windows let in the light. The flat, tar-papered roof appears sound. The whole place is in great shape, complete with that rarity in the desert, unbroken window glass. There’s a chair or two, an ancient set of bed springs, an old but still solid wooden table, and a microwave oven with a hand-lettered sign saying “Mouse-Proof Storage”. The cabin is built next to Anvil Spring, a sweet-water spring. On a shelf above the table I spotted a hardbound journal. I was delighted and amazed to discover that it is a log of entries by passers-by like me. And those who know about the cabin take care of it! Nearly every writing mentions the unsurpassed grandeur of the place, the solitary beauty, or something they’ve done for the cabin. “Brought up some paint and gave a new layer to the outside window frames,” says one entry. “Tar-papered the roof,” says another. Or: “Fixed the busted door hinge.” I left some sodas and firewood as my gift and an entry in the journal.

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Striped Butte, Center Left, from the Geologists Cabin

Continuing on, I drove over Mengel Pass and took the rough 4-wheel track down Goler Wash, named after John Goler, a German-speaking immigrant and part of an ill-fated wagon party that ended up lost in Death Valley in the winter of 1849. Talk about the shortcut from Hell! Apparently Goler and a few others came out this way, leaving a larger party of men, women and children hopelessly stuck and starving in their infamous Long Camp in the middle of Death Valley The story is that Goler may have discovered gold somewhere along here, although he was too far gone to care. He later wrote that he and a companion, having burned their wagons in Death Valley, were searching the wash for a way out and desperate for water. His friend shouted over to him, “See what I have found!” Goler asked if it was water. “No, it is gold!” Goler replied, “I want no gold now. I want water and bread, which gold will not buy in this place. I would not pick it up here. Let us go and see if we can find water or we will soon die.” Goler and his friend didn’t die, and eventually made it out to the village of San Bernardino. Gold was later taken from here, but not by Goler, although more than once he came back in search of it. I headed down to the former gold boomtown of Ballarat, now a ghost town, on the near side of the Panamint Valley, to meet my friend Mark.

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Mojave Journal I found him there, in the graveyard, idly passing the time of day. A beer and a cigar later, we stashed his sagging old Plymouth Mastodon in a side canyon and took my truck back up the way I had just come down, through Mengel Pass. Passed the old Barker Ranch, once the hideout of the murderous Charles Manson and his gang. Stopped to chat with another couple of 4-wheelers partway up Goler Wash. They didn’t know about the cabin; I hoped it would still be unoccupied. Coming up over Mengel Pass, I noticed a thin trail of oil on the road. It got heavier as I drove, until I found a large oil-coated rock in the middle of the road. Somebody probably punched a hole in their oil pan here. Too bad. It surely ruined their day. It is a long way down Goler Wash to go for help. The driver might not have noticed the problem until his engine overheated on the way up to the pass. But there was no vehicle there, so he must have made it out somehow. After an easy recrossing of the Pass, we found the Geologist’s Cabin empty, though somebody had already taken the firewood and sodas I left earlier. Tonight the evening is perfect. A semi-warm fire (plenty of heart, very little heat) in our drafty old fireplace, fueled by stray timbers picked up along the road, barely wards off the evening chill at this 4,500-foot-elevation, but a good cigar and a fine port give the evening a nice glow. While we’re getting into our sleeping bags, Mark entertains a couple mice. He’s given them a chocolate Santa to play with, and they are all over it. The flashlight beam does not faze them; they scurry around our feet and run over our bags. Just what I want to snuggle up with tonight, I think. Just after dawn the next morning, Mark and I are having coffee to shake off the effects of last night’s imbibing when we see several horsemen riding across the sage-covered valley from down the direction of Anvil Canyon. It takes them quite a while but eventually they arrive here at Anvil Springs. Turns out these six or eight men and women are spending five days traveling across the Panamint Range on horseback. Seems to me a great way to see the countryside. We chat with them amiably for some time as they water their horses at the spring. Out here, you have to plan your route carefully if you’re working with livestock. The next water is likely a long day’s ride away. * * * *

The Geologist’s Cabin is not the only “lodging” in Butte Valley, as it turns out. A half-mile south of here is Greater View Spring. Although the spring looks bone-dry now, it’s the site of the old Mormon Cabin built by a Mormon mining party in 1869. That was just two decades after William Manley and John Rogers hiked out of Death Valley (and possibly through this valley) to bring back help for their beleaguered fellow ‘49ers in the Long Camp. Carl Mengel lived at the Mormon Cabin off and on from about 1912 until shortly before he died in 1944. He worked a couple gold claims down Goler Wash and over in Redlands

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Mojave Journal Canyon. I haven’t been in Redlands yet, but am told you can still see the remains of his 3stamp gold mill there. Some called him Peg Leg Mengel, on account of him having to cut off part of his foot when a mine roof caved in on him and pinned his leg under a huge boulder. At least that was his story. He survived the collapse by a good many years, and is buried up the hill from the spring. In 1938, the Federal Writers Project of FDR’s Works Progress Administration published Death Valley: A Guide. In it they describe Carl Mengel, then living at Greater View Spring: “…Carl Mengel [was] once a prospecting partner of Shorty Harris. The view for which the spring is named is eastward, over the Funeral Mountains; it is one of the wide, far-reaching panoramas typical of the Death Valley region. The big cottonwood trees here, 45 years old, are near Mengel's neat, whitewashed stone house, which has 18-inch walls that are rather successful non-conductors of heat and cold. In 1912 Carl Mengel bought the Oro Fino claim in Goler Wash. At that time ore from the mine had to be carried out on mules; while Mengel was trying to find a better trail down to Panamint Valley, he picked up a piece of float in Goler Wash. He panned it by the light of a campfire and found the ore so rich in gold that he stopped looking for an easier trail from his old claim, and went to work on the new one the very next morning. The ore was rich - some of it ran $3500 a ton - but the deposit was small.” The cabin is now known as Stella’s Place. That’s for Stella Andersen, a feisty miner born in 1902, who apparently moved in here after Carl Mengel died and left the place vacant. She is the only woman I’ve heard of among the small legion of pickaxe prospectors. The first time I saw the cabin, tucked into a little draw, I didn’t think much of it. The roof was collapsing, the place was dank and dark, the spring was dry, and mice droppings were everywhere. A singularly uninviting, decaying place. I did not go inside. On revisiting the place ten years later, in December of 2000, the scene was vastly improved. The corrugated tin roof is fixed and securely fastened down with heavy wires, the spring is active, and visitors are encamped inside. They are friendly folk; I met a few of their group on the road to Outlaw Cave a couple miles back. They are staying here over the New Years holiday. They welcomed me in to take a look around. The cabin is one large room, with a kitchen area built against the hill. One window lets in light, but the ceiling is low, giving the place a distinctly cramped feeling. Mice still rule, according to the visitors. A few dozen paces from the cabin is a little rickety outhouse named “Randy”. Amazingly, the interior walls are adorned with many clippings and pictures, some decades old. Stella’s wartime ration books and coupons are stapled to the wall. Her stats are above the door: Stella Andersen Born 2/2/1902 Dixon, Mo. 01/21/11 29

Mojave Journal Died 7/30/1984 Bakersfield, Calif. Her picture adorns one wall. In it she appears to be in her 30s, a proper-looking maiden for the time. It is hard to imagine this young, sweet-looking woman living here on her own for three decades. She must have been one tough broad. I would love to have met her. But I am reminded of Fletch Tweed’s story that she didn’t care for visitors, and often used her shotgun to warn them away. In one clipping on her wall, she talks about how she would like to have a CB radio to keep in touch with her neighbors in the valley and her friends “down below”. Fletch once told me she got her wish, when friends in Trona brought up a full CB hookup so she could communicate with the outside world. She was a rugged miner for years, at least into her early 70s, always working alone and always looking for that elusive gold or silver strike. She left Butte Valley at the age of 75. Nailed to the inside door is her going-away gift to future visitors, a hand-lettered note that says: Be gentle in my little mud house, it is “so fragile”. Please don’t climb on the roof, it will cave in on you. I hope you enjoy yourselves. Thank You Stella Andersen * * * *

Chatting with the visitors here, they tell me of yet another cabin nearby, this one called Russell’s Camp. I am astonished. Half a dozen times exploring through this valley, and I had never discovered it. Geologist’s Cabin: austere, rugged, spectacular view. Stella’s Place: charming, authentic, droopy. Russell’s Camp: sheer poetry and magic. Russell’s Camp occupies a secluded side draw not far from Stella’s Place, completely hidden from the “main” Jeep road. As I drive up to it, I am overcome with a sense of wonder and awe. There are three structures on the hillside, topping a well-built rock wall and shaded by three thriving cottonwoods. I climb out of the truck and Ginseng and I walk the last few yards to the house. Immediately we are greeted by the sound of gurgling water from a thicket of lush green foliage to one side of the first outbuilding. 01/21/11 30

Mojave Journal The next sound makes me turn quickly: the gentle sound of a dinner bell ringing. On approaching closer, however, I discover that I am hearing an old cast-iron skillet hanging by a heavy wire in a tree, with a big old metal kitchen spoon hanging next to it. The breeze is gently banging them together. The next tree is hung with several dozen similar old, rusted utensils and tools, rustling together in the breeze like a wind chime. The trees themselves are in good shape, since they are watered from the spring uphill by a open trough. The middle structure apparently is the main cabin. The door carries a painted sign in bright red letters: Russells Camp All Welcome The door has a latch but no lock. I enter. The first room is a kitchen and dining area, about 12’ by 12’, very light, with a wonderful welcoming energy. It has a cement floor and tin roof with and wooden walls. An old, possibly useable wood cook stove is against one wall, next to a sink with running water from the spring outside. Here, as at Stella’s, clippings, pictures, and old calendars are lacquered to the walls. I pause to read a long and rambling newspaper account of how Panamint Russell personally “lost” a silver vein in these parts and spent the subsequent years looking for it. The article was published in Bakersfield in 1964, and he was living here at the time. I do not know when he left. A note from Panamint Russell welcomes everyone and gives precise instructions to those who would follow on how to care for the three trees out front. I guess it worked; they seem to be in good shape. Amazingly, there is no graffiti and no one appears to have thoughtlessly carved their name on walls or furniture. The second room is a bedroom, with two metal spring beds and an old wooden chair. Travelers occupy this cabin, too; their gear is stowed on the bed, although the cabin is empty at the moment. I am gratified that they apparently feel safe enough to leave their goods here, and I leave it untouched. Third room: the library. A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf holds perhaps 250 paperback books of varying ages, and two old, sagging easy chairs invite a pause and a rest. A solar-heated shower is off this room. The second structure, somewhat larger than the first, appears to be two large bedrooms, with curtains and beds and more gear stowed neatly on each bed. One room has a sign above the door: Honeymoon Suite. Peering through dusty windows in the third building, I see that it holds old tools and scrap.

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Mojave Journal I wander out to the “patio” under the trees, and greet some other visitors arriving. As I leave the place, I look up at the top of the knoll that hides the house from the road. There, right on top, are two old lawn chairs. Surely that must be the best view of Butte Valley at sunset. * * * *

I have now been to this remarkable valley several times. In one sense, each visit is like the first: driving up a dry wash in mounting excitement and anticipation, wondering what the next turn, the next rise will bring, until finally I pop over the pass and the valley spreads out before me. And yet every visit yields different vistas and new adventures. The light in wintertime plays interesting games in this valley. From one direction, the valley seems flat and fairly level. But go out a couple miles and look back, and you discover the valley floor is not flat at all, but sloping one way toward Warm Springs Canyon and the road out to Death Valley, and the other toward Anvil Canyon. Distances seem foreshortened here, so that everything actually is twice as far as my brain thinks it is. This place never fails to charm me. It is sweetness beyond measure to witness the winter afternoon settle serenely, blithely on the naked shoulders of Striped Butte. Return to Contents

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Snow in Death Valley

On the North Death Valley Road

6

:30 p.m. on the antepenultimate day of the year. Been dark for an hour and a half. I’m camped about 12 miles north of Scotty’s Castle, on BLM land forming the north end of Death Valley…and it’s snowing!

Elev. probably 3500 or 3600 feet. I hope the road is passable tomorrow. If not, I’ll go back out through Stove Pipe Wells. Talk about alone, this is alone. As darkness blackens the snow clouds and the campfire lights up the falling flakes, I feel a little afraid. This is on my own. Make it through or fix it. Having just had this thought, I now see somebody driving the road in the dark. They camp about a half mile away. I am pissed at first, but I can’t blame them. This is the only high ground for miles, and nobody would relish getting stuck in a gully-washer if it turns to rain tonight. (Another set of headlights just appeared down the valley. It’ll take them at least half an hour to get here, if they come this far. I groan. There goes the neighborhood.)

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Mojave Journal I was aiming for the Hunter Mountain Jeep trail today, but at 7000 feet, it’s snowed in. That becomes more of a challenge than I want to accept. Another time, perhaps. I was up at the Racetrack yesterday, with its (alleged) moving rocks, which I couldn’t find. Another dead, dried-up lake now covered with four inches of snow. What a sublime, seductive experience to stand in the middle of the Racetrack, walled in by towering peaks freshly dusted with snow. Wind whistling out of the mountains, bitterly cold. The solitude seemed to wrap itself around me like a thick blanket that gives no warmth. And this thought: The strong ones survived out here on their wits, skills, stamina, and cussedness, because they had to, or perish. Part of the irresistible lure of this place for me is that sense that out here you have to keep it together to survive. This is not the place for the faint or the foolish. 7 p.m. now. A solid covering of white outside the truck, obliterating the tracks I made coming in. What an adventure! The tailgate is open and covered with snow; I’m snug in my bag. Next morning: What a glorious morning. The desert is dusted with snow, though not as much as I thought it would be. I woke up twice during the night, once to pee and once to listen to the braying of a nearby feral burro. Up before daybreak to take pictures of the sunrise. Greeted by a piercing, cold wind, which died out as soon as the sun popped over yon hills. Got the coffee going, then took a long walk. There is not a cloud in the sky this morning, and hopefully the changing weather I saw to the north yesterday has abated. Plan to start on the road soon, when the second cup of java is down. Got a lot of driving to do today to get to Tahoe tonight. Besides, I want to be the first person on the road today.

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Mojave Journal

The Road Out

Hit the road out of Death Valley at 8:20 a.m., fairly early by my standards. I’m the first Northbound vehicle since the snow, but for a few miles I’m seeing the tracks of a truck coming south into the valley. Then, over a treacherous but breathtaking pass, single lane, very rocky, notched out of the cliffside. Around wind-swept bluffs and down through narrow, sheer-walled canyons. Over another pass and across the snow-covered north end of Eureka Valley. Similar to the Panamint Valley but narrower, with the great Eureka Dune hulking at the far end. Another range of hills, and – voila! – pavement starts. I follow it for about five miles, then it abruptly ends and it’s back to the rough gravel road again. Just shy of Big Pine on Highway 395, I meet a pickup coming in. At first I am annoyed that I will have to follow somebody else’s wheel tracks for the last five miles, but then I realize with a chuckle that if he’s going to Death Valley, he’s going to follow my tracks for 70 miles. The Sierras are draped in new-fallen snow, the sky is clear, the air is crisp but warm, and the mountains rise up in their ermine-clad glory. What a place. What a day. Return to Contents

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Mojave Journal

Fletch Tweed, Onyx Miner

Fletch, Right, Showing Visitors His Workroom

Fletcher Tweed. Onyx Mine. Trona, Calif. He may be the only miner around here with a business card. He certainly is the only one who also sings opera. And his mine isn’t in Trona, but high on the west slope of the Panamint Valley. An old plywood sign leaning at a precarious angle along the road first aroused my curiosity. In faded letters it said, “Welcome Visitors” Visitors don’t actually see the mine. He’s pretty cagey about its exact location. What visitors do see is his work area and “showroom”. When I walk in to the showroom, I see an older fellow, a bit portly, with thick white hair, dressed in faded dark slacks and what once was a sport coat. He’s not looking too worse for wear considering the ravages of living in the desert. Fletcher and I get to talking. He tells me he’s 76 years old. He’s says he’s been here for more than thirty years, and most likely will die here.

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Mojave Journal He offers to show me around. The workroom is a long shed of corrugated metal, open to the desert sky in places, and piled throughout with samples of his onyx work over the years. Onyx in dozens of shapes and colors and in various stages of completeness, from huge, unworked chunks down to delicate onyx beads, gemstone jewelry, and vases. And it is all for sale. He’s got dishes and bowls. Telephones mounted on onyx bases. Tables topped with beautiful onyx of all patterns. Broken wooden crates spilling out hundreds of onyx blocks, each about the size of a deck of cards. Breathtaking translucent onyx slabs lean against the walls, half an inch thick and as tall as a man. Fletch tells me that many Hollywood mansions and prestigious banks are outfitted with decorative onyx interiors and tables worked right here.

Fletcher Tweed

Now everything is covered with a heavy coating of dust. I get the feeling he just stopped working one day, and left everything to sit. At the far end of the workroom is an upright diamond-tipped circular saw he uses for cutting stone. It’s about eight feet high, and run by a long continuous belt that loops out to a diesel engine sitting several dozen yards up on the hill. “Want to see how this thing works?” he asks. He flips a switch and the diesel engages with a loud snort. The blade begins spinning up at hundreds of rpm, the cutting edge showered by a stream of water.

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Mojave Journal “Watch this,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. With the blade turning at full speed, he places his right hand on it. I gasp. Migawd, this old coot’s crazy and he’s going to kill himself right in front of me. I imagine blood spattering all over. But he’s not, and it doesn’t. He explains to me, as I am sure he has to hundreds of others, that the blade cuts through hard objects such as rocks, but soft objects such as hands ride on the cushion of water. I begin breathing again. I look past him to the wall behind the counter in one corner of the showroom. There are several framed 8x10 glossy photos of the kind Hollywood studios used to put out. One shows Fletch in a tuxedo, obviously on stage. Another shows a striking woman in an Indian costume. Another is of a child, dressed in Wild West gear, sitting astride a horse. A few show the family together. I ask Fletch about the pictures. “That’s my wife.” He points with pride to the woman’s picture. “She was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. College-educated. A geologist. She could read the mountains like other people read a book. Learned it from her dad. He was a government geologist working on Indian lands. That boy was our son.” Turns out Fletch and his family are children of Hollywood. Apart from their life in the Panamints, they had a ranch in the San Fernando Valley. His wife was a Hollywood actress in the 1950s with a successful movie career. Wife and boy often were cast in Western movies, mostly because she was Indian and he was an excellent horseman even as a youngster. She used the stage name Delia Marlo; their son was Robert B. “Buzz” Henry. Fletch was a talented operatic baritone was in his younger days. He says he used the professional name John Fletcher to sing with the Los Angeles Light Opera and several others, and traveled the world with a touring opera company. He told me that at one point in 1958 he was touring with the company while the soon-to-beMrs. Tweed was prospecting in the Panamints. When the tour reached Japan, he received a telegram from her. It said, “Come Home. I Found What We Have Been Looking For.”

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Buzz Henry, Boy Actor

Fletch immediately dropped out of the tour and came home, to find that his wife had discovered a vast onyx deposit half way up the alluvial slopes of the Argus Range in the Panamint Valley. They established a claim. She learned to operate a D6 Caterpillar tractor and used it to build a 2-mile road to the mine, then remove 24 feet of overburden to reveal thousands of tons of beautiful gemstone-quality onyx. Together they built all the structures needed to sustain the mine: roads, water system, factory, showroom, and living quarters. Where are his wife and child now, I ask? “My boy died in a car wreck,” Fletch replies slowly. “He was working with Sam Peckinpah as a second-unit director for ‘The Wild Bunch’. He was forty. My wife died last year.” He stays silent for several moments.

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Mojave Journal

Movie Poster for Fletcher’s Son

Later, I did a little Internet research on Buzz Henry. He began his Holywood career at the tender age of 3, in the film "Little Women" directed by George Cukor and starring Katherine Hepburn. As a child star, he starred in two B-grade Westerns in the early 1940s, Buzzy Rides The Range and Buzzy And The Phantom Pinto. As a teenager, he appeared in the Westerns Heart Of The Rockies with Roy Rogers and The Road To Denver with Lee J. Cobb, and in films with Alfalfa Switzer (The Great Mike), Lash LaRue, Eddie Dean and others. As an adult, Buzz worked as an actor (Von Ryan’s Express and others), a stuntman, and a second unit director. In all, he appeared in 60 films and worked on another three dozen. He also acted in many several TV series including “Stories of the Century", "The Outcast", "Buffalo Bill Jr.", and "The Adventures of Champion.” . Buzz Henry was killed in a motorcycle accident just three weeks after celebrating his 40 th birthday, on Sept. 30, 1971. * * * *

A year later. I’m visiting Fletch again at the Onyx Mine. Luckily, business is slow (!!) today in the showroom. I remembered from my last year that he liked good German beer, so I brought some to share. He is delighted and invites me into his small, sparsely furnished living

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Mojave Journal quarters. We talk for an hour in there. Says he’s going to Norway, his birthplace, in January, but then that’s what he said last year when I stopped by. He’s not doing any rock cutting anymore. Tired out, I think, after 30 years of wrestling stone. Hard to imagine his life out here. Still, it’s not like the old days. Fletch now gets television via a satellite dish, has recorded more than 450 movies, and has several people working the claim for him. He’s got a small fleet of dead Cadillacs parked in the gully behind his house. One works, the rest don’t. He says they make great desert cruisers, all fins and chrome and two tons each. He motors over to Trona about twice a week for supplies and to visit friends. Trona, population 1000. Kerr-McGee company town, the big town in these parts. * 1987. Fletch Tweed is still kicking, but not too high. Said he went through a bout with cancer of the bowels and still isn’t feeling too chipper. “But I’m an old man,” he says. He’s 78. Did you make your trip to Norway, I ask. “Nope. Planning to go in March,” he replies. I suspect he’ll never make it. I doubt he’d leave the Panamint voluntarily for more than a few hours. We talked about the people who live in the area. Did he know the lady who lived up in Butte Valley, near the old Mormon Cabin? “Oh, Stella Andersen. Yeah, she was a fiery old lady.” He chuckles. “You’d likely hear a load of 30.30 shells bouncing off the rocks around you if you came near her place.” * * *

* 1989.

*

*

*

Victoria and I stopped today at the Onyx Mine. The sign welcoming visitors is gone. As we glumly suspect, Fletch Tweed died, August 17 of this year. When I saw him last year he told me he was 78, but it turned out he was only 76 when he died. The pancreatic cancer had spread throughout his insides. The last few months he couldn’t leave his house. Friends cared for him in Trona for his last three weeks. Then he was transferred to a hospital in Bakersfield, where he died three days later. Now he’s buried next to his wife in Trona Cemetery. The plot was free, a gift of the Kerr-McGee Company. We learn of Fletch’s death from Pinky, the executor of the estate. Her son has worked the onyx claim with Fletch since ’85. He got a quarter of the estate. Half the estate – including the 01/21/11 41

Mojave Journal wonderful collection of photos on the showroom wall – went to Fletcher’s granddaughter in Phoenix. “We sure loved him,” Pinky tells us. “Now the BLM shut down the showroom. They say we can’t run a retail outlet from a mining claim.” The big sign out on the paved road is gone now. The sign at the entrance to the mine says “Mine Closed To Public.” Nonetheless, Pinky seemed pleased to have visitors. “I didn’t know him well. But he sure was good to my son.” I didn’t know him well either. But I am grateful I knew him at all. To me he was a bridge between the single-blanket prospectors and today’s industrial mining. Shorty Harris died in 1954 and is buried in Death Valley. Fletch first came to the Panamints the same year. He may never have met Shorty, but he probably knew Seldom-Seen Slim, who died in 1968 and is buried across the Panamint Valley at Ballarat. Fletcher Tweed was never a jackass prospector, but he’s as colorful as any of the lot. He surely was one of God’s most unique works. I’m glad I got to meet him. I feel a deep loss that he’s gone. He is one of the real stories of Death Valley. And so many, many more I wish I could have met: Manley, Mengel, Harris, Scott, Arguereberry. Return to Contents

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Mojave Journal

Dirty Sock Spring

Miner’s Shack

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wens Lake, in the south end of Owens Valley, is named after a gent who became famous as a horse thief in the 1830s. This used to be a real lake, with steamboats plying its waters, saving a 3-day trek north to south. To the southeast is the Argus Range, showing gap-toothed where now the highway cuts through on its way down to Death Valley. The great Sierra Nevada rampart rears up to the west, only the highest peaks showing snow on this spring day. But the lake is mostly dry now, drained by the voracious appetite of Los Angeles for water. The lake is a victim of a tremendous grab for water rights made by Los Angeles Municipal Water & Power, when they bought virtually all of the water that once fed Owens Lake and others along Highway 395. At the southern edge of the dry, wind-swept Owens Lake, not too far from Olancha, is a hot springs. Decades ago this was a commercial hot springs, and I’m sure it had another name. Probably something like Desert Plunge, or someone’s name, or something to do with the incredible view.

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Mojave Journal But now the spring is officially called Dirty Sock Spring, and a fitting name at that. The place fairly reeks of dirty socks and pond scum, though it’s cleaner now than the first time I visited. That was with Dustin, in December of ’85. We’d been tooling through the desert for three or four days in a sports car. Now we needed a place to camp for the night. Pulling off the highway and going down a vague side road, I found the springs by accident in the dark. We were not alone camping at the springs that night. A small, old, travel-worn trailer and battered pickup were parked nearby. I ambled over to talk to the guy. He was a thin, middleaged man from somewhere back in the Midwest. He told us he was broke and on the road. He said he buys doughnuts in town during the day, then at night goes up to a nearby rest stop on Highway 395 to sell them at a profit. Said he’s been doing this for a week or so and making a few bucks. Sure enough, a short while later he clattered off in his pickup, leaving the darkened trailer behind. An icy North wind was blowing straight down the valley. I thought a hot dip sounded pretty refreshing. “Come on, it’ll be fun,” I enthused. Dustin, not yet a teen, was far more dubious but he nevertheless gamely joined me in the pool. In the dark, the clear water near the center of the pool was a warming tonic, at just over 90 degrees. Eventually, though, we had to emerge into the bitter wind, just long enough to toweldry and jump into the car. We didn’t realize until daylight just how dirty the pond was. Dustin and I slept – or tried to sleep -- in the car that night, sitting more or less upright in the two front seats, coiled into our sleeping bags. It was not pleasant, but it was still better than sleeping outside, on the rocks, in the bitter cold. About two hours after we crawled into our bags, the soft sound of the trailer door opening caused me to look over. In the moonlight, I could see a little girl looking around. She appeared to be no more than seven or eight. Apparently deciding the coast was clear, she tentatively stepped out and went behind the trailer to go potty. The image is poignant to me even today. It is a scene reminiscent of the Dust Bowl refugees of the ‘30s. Just these two, father and daughter. Hanging out at Dirty Sock Spring, looking for somewhere better. Today is different. Seventy degrees, with a whisper-soft breeze. 11 a.m. Birds are everywhere in the marsh formed by the warm outflow of the spring. Mostly I can’t see the birds except for the red-winged blackbirds, who all act as guardians of the swamp. But twice now, a sweet chirping song starts up, and is met by a chorus of throaty

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Mojave Journal chirps, sounding for all the world like a chorus of cheers and huzzahs. I must assume it is an accolade for my benign presence here with them. On to Keeler, a little further north up the road. This wonderful little village is a railroad and mining town on the shores of the lake. Except that the railroad, the mines, and the lake have all abandoned the town. In its better days Keeler was the southern terminus of the wonderful narrow-gauge Carson and Colorado Railroad and two remarkable cable tram lines. One tram hauled salt, the other silver. Both were headed for the railroad; both have been dead now for over 70 years. But the railroad, torn up in the 1950’s, still seems to live here. The station now is a residence, but the platform just needs a little sprucing up. Three or four C&C passenger cars have been converted to homes, and a couple old boxcars survive as outbuildings. Even some of the yard shacks are still intact. All the place needs is tracks, trains, trams, and water. The Saline Valley salt tram, with its three hundred buckets swinging from a single cable, was a story of engineering gone awry and money lost, of an entrepreneur back in the ‘teens who decided to mine the abundant pure salt of the Saline playa. He constructed a 13-mile long cable tram running from the playa at 1300 feet, up and over the 9500-foot Inyo Mountains, then down to Swansea at 3600 feet, a couple miles down the road from Keeler. The tram was widely hailed as a technological marvel. Until they fired it up. It turned out the tram was engineered to handle the dry weight of salt. But the salt being pulled from the Saline was wet, so the buckets could only be half filled. Perhaps as a consequence, the tram never made money. It operated fitfully for several years through several owners, but was abandoned for good in the ‘30s. In Keeler, the other cable tram hauled heavy ore down from the fabulous silver mines of Cerro Gordo. This tram made money, and lots of it. The Cerro Gordo mines were a real bonanza for several years. Today, wind whistles through rotting tram towers, and empty buckets hang from rusty cables still straddling the mountains, a testament to high hopes and hard construction. Return to Contents

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Mojave Journal

Gordo’s Knob

Ginseng, My Fellow Traveler

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tand and meet the Sun and accept your gifts, says the prophet. Way before dawn, I catch the first whisper of morning light before it breaks across the magnificent eastern rampart of the mighty Sierra Nevada. From Walker Pass in the south to Mount Whitney in the north, I watch the mountains waiting for sunrise in their quiet, majestic splendor. Two thousand feet below me lies Owens Lake, partially watered by the winter’s runoff. Lone Pine sleeps in the flats at the foot of the mountains beyond the north end of the lake. The air is still and quiet, save for birds looking for breakfast. A few lights still glitter in Olancha, at the south end of the lake on Highway 395.

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Mojave Journal I am nearing 24 hours sitting on Gordo’s Knob, my name for this remarkable place. It is an outcropping on the way to the ghost town of Cerro Gordo, 9,500 feet up the Inyo Mountains. No, I didn’t spend the whole night out on the point, but I didn’t miss much. I thought about sleeping out there, but the cold north wind would have blown me right off that unprotected spot. I did not come here thinking of gifts, from the prophets or otherwise. I arrived here yesterday morning to recover my sense of self-worth after getting fired at work three weeks ago. I came here to lick my wounds and re-create my Self, away from family, friends, and the distractions of life itself. I came out here because, four nights ago in a circle of men who love me, I let out my anger and shame and fear of losing my job. In return, they gave me a powerful reawakening. Get your balls back, said Pablo. All the time that you think about what you should be thinking about is time away from who you are, said Kim. If you can’t shine in that place, get out, said Steve. And from my friend and fellow desert-rat Davey: Go find your wilderness. The desert’s your wilderness. Go out there. I went home that night and threw a few things in the back of the pickup. Early next morning, I began the long drive from the coast to get here, to Gordo’s Knob, one of my favorite places on Earth. I can’t recall ever spending so much time in one place, alone and quiet. It lets me clear out the flumes, undistracted by driving or talking. I am left with my own thoughts My thoughts return over and over again to those men around the campfire. I had forgotten what it’s like to be intensely supported, without blame, or family agendas, or relationship fears, or anything else but love, compassion, and respect. And wisdom. Been-there-done-that wisdom. Up to that point I had felt alone, embarrassed. Too prideful to really talk to anyone about being fired. But what a wakeup call around the campfire. And now, what a treat to spend an entire day and night in this magical place. My senses cannot drink in enough of this stark, magnificent beauty, the vistas that sweep along for miles and miles, and the very real sense that I am the sole occupant of this part of the world. Here I see the raw, elemental glory of God’s universe. And to think: He also gave me the ears, eyes, nose, hands, and feet to feel it and appreciate it. And I do appreciate it. Quietly sitting here, I appreciate the ever-changing light as the sun slowly climbs above the Inyo Mountains behind me, courses overhead and sinks behind the mighty Sierra in front of me, only to start all over again this morning. I appreciate two Red-tailed hawks who have been circling overhead for the better part of an hour. They perform a wonderful ballet. One is circling west to east, the other east to west, both in slow, lazy spirals, all the while calling out. Why do they call? Are they talking to each

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Mojave Journal other, or is it part of their hunting routine, possibly to frighten a potential meal into making a run for it and exposing itself? From this vantage point, the hand of Man is lightly seen, while the hand of God is everywhere. This morning, after a whole day and night here, I finally laid to rest the pain of losing my job. It’s done. It’s over. I’m ready to move on to the next opportunity. This transformation in attitude didn’t happen because I spent all my time replaying the firing and feeling sorry for myself. Rather, I was able to let my mind go. Mostly I just watched the spectacle of Nature and took in the grandeur of this place. Plenty of time to stop thinking about What I Should Be Thinking About, and instead glorying in the moment, for hours and hours. And somehow, in that mysterious way that the desert has, my self-doubt and pain peeled away, layer by layer, until no residue remains. It’s now 9:30 in the morning and time to go back home. I am ready. * * * *

It has been several years since I’ve been up in this high country, and it looks like I won’t make it up to Hidden Valley on this trip. Even though the road is free of snow, a cattle rancher has torn it up laying a water pipe to a stock pen. I’m taking a break about a mile from Grapevine Canyon, the south entrance to Saline Valley. Came through Cerro Gordo yesterday for the first time. Met Isabella there, a some-time caretaker at the old ghost town. She lives there year ‘round, even when the place is snowed in. “The FAA guys keep their Sno-Cat here so I can get out if I need to,” she says, referring to the communications antennas at the highest hill nearby. Isabella is a delightful lady, full of stories of the old days. These days a young couple is privately attempting to renovate the place – all structures, land, equipment, and 37 miles of tunnels. We wandered through the remaining buildings, Isabella and I, with her spinning stories about their history. We started in the original general store, then went through the refurbished 2-story American Hotel, a bunkhouse, and several small cottages. Amazingly, the hotel is open for business, complete with meals served out of a great industrial-sized kitchen, built when the town accommodated more than 4,800 full-time residents. In its heyday in the 1870s, Cerro Gordo was the largest producing silver mine in the state, according to Isabella. The mines here shipped out $73 million to be smelted in Swansea, Wales (because the smelting capacity for this type of ore didn’t exist in the US). “Back then the town had three saloons, but not a single church,” Isabella told me. “The ladies [whores] were brought in from San Francisco and they did a fine business here. Oh, my, they dressed up in all their finery.”

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Mojave Journal The town straddles an 8,500-foot pass at the base of Buena Vista Peak. Everything needed to build it was hauled up a treacherously steep and rugged 12-mile road in mule-drawn wagons, and for a time the silver went down the same way. Isabella said that on the downhill trip, the muleskinners hitched their mules to the back of the wagons to act as brakes. Later, an overhead tram was built to haul the heavy silver ore down to the lakeshore at Keeler. Many of the tram towers still survive, and at one point where the road passes under the tram cable, an empty tram car still hangs a hundred feet above ground. The mines petered out in less than 20 years, and the town followed immediately after. Later, flatlanders dismantled many of the original buildings, hauling the materials down the mountain to become new homes and buildings in Keeler, Lone Pine, and Independence. After a couple hours exploring the ruins, I came back to the truck only to discover one tire was losing air fast. Disgusted, I jacked it up and put on the only spare available, the truck’s original Tempa-Spare. I looked down the road I had just come up. I was going to have to trust this piece-of-shit spare to get me 12 miles back down the hill, then another 25 miles on a paved highway to Lone Pine. Gingerly, v-e-r-r-r-r-y gingerly, I inched my way back down the hill, using compound low to keep my speed down and not wear out the brakes. I knew that if this ridiculous spare blew out on this road, I was screwed. Without mishap, however, I made it to Lone Pine and a good tire store there. Chatting with the mechanic changing the tire, I found he’s lived in Lone Pine most of his life, but knows my Santa Cruz pretty well. He said he had an aunt who lived there until she moved out, just a few hours ahead of the disastrous 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. When I told him where the tire went flat, he just chuckled. “Yup, we get a lot of business off that road.” He smiled. “We’ve even towed cars down from there. People are always surprised at the tow bill, but they don’t realize how tough it is to tow a vehicle down that hill. Then it takes me another two hours to tighten up everything on the truck after that.” Return to Contents

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The Kit Fox From Little Cow Hole Mtn.

Barrel Cactus, Kelbaker Road

A
*

beautiful late spring evening at home in the Santa Cruz Mountains, surrounded by majestic redwoods and tall, imposing firs. I’m enjoying a cigar and the classics on the radio, relaxing from a fulfilling – and tiring – day putting in my vegetable garden. I’m stiff. Not like a few years ago, when I could go all weekend in the garden without pause. The music switches to Franz Lizt’s Mephisto Waltz, that marvelous concoction with Mephistopheles playing a frantic fiddle for Faust. The music swells, then trails off as Faust dances off into the forest with his love. The music takes me back to a very precious time in the Mojave, listening to the same intoxicating piece… * * *

Dusk. I’m at Little Cow Hole Mountain, in the East Mojave. Time for another cigar. A panatela will do nicely. Trouble is I’m gonna run out of cigars before I run out of days. I didn’t plan this very well. See, the real trouble is the scenery. Every time I get to a particularly awesome place, I stop to enjoy it, maybe have something to eat, or take a leak, or just gaze. And, of course, a cigar to

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Mojave Journal mark the occasion. There are so many of those occasions so marked, and it’s only Monday. Sigh. Extra gas I got. Water, oil, plenty of food, even a good brandy. But totally insufficient when it comes to good stogies. Now I’m camped in a miner’s deserted diggings at the base of Little Cow Hole Mountain. Franz Lizt’s Mephisto Waltz is playing on the truck’s tape deck, doors open, resonating through the sage. If we must listen to the distant drone of the ATVs from over the far hills, how much better to hear Lizt echoing off the near mountain walls. I climb a small hill to take in the grandeur of this spot, the sunset, Lizt, and the remarkable dry bed of Soda Lake I crossed earlier today. I spent the better part of today driving the six miles or so across the playa. You see, I had to stop every few hundred yards to check out some new wonder. Walked barefooted on the lakebed, letting my feet feel the desert. Discovered the lake is not totally dry, particularly now in winter. And it’s not totally flat, either. Little channels hold enough water to become muddy, and add unpredictable contours to the seemingly flat surface. Unbelievably, there is plenty of low plant life out there, too. That seems all the more amazing considering the high salt and alkaline content of the lake crust. I’m traveling west-to-east on the Mojave Road, sometimes called Old Government Road, which follows the route of the old Mojave Trail for 138 miles from near Bakersfield to the Colorado River at Needles, Calif. Originally it was a Mohave and Piute Indian trade trail. The U.S. Army appropriated it in the 1850s to move military traffic from Arizona to California. By 1859 the road was expanded to accommodate horse-drawn freight wagons, carrying 3000 a year at its peak. It largely fell into disuse with the advent of railroads and then highways, but was re-mapped in the 1960s as the Mojave Road for 4-wheelers. Little Cow Hole Mountain squats near the eastern shore of Soda Lake. Across the playa I can see a few twinkling lights marking Zzyzx Springs. Originally it was called Soda Springs, on the shore of Soda Sink, one of the few good watering stops along this part of the old trail. Now it is, strictly speaking, off limits to casual visitors. California State University maintains a desert studies station there, but they don’t seem to encourage visitors. The Mojave Road now bypasses Zzyzx by several miles. As usual when I travel the desert, I’ve brought along my talisman stick, a six-foot piece of Arizona yucca decorated with various feathers, beads, and trinkets I’ve picked up on my travels. Topping it is the tanned fur of a coyote head. And as usual, tonight I placed the stick upright in the rocks several paces from my squaw fire. Now I am quietly sitting on the truck tailgate enjoying the twilight. From out of the corner of one eye, I see movement. Slowly turning and looking off into the sagebrush, I spot a Kit fox loping into my camp area. I am stoked. For one thing, these guys are nocturnal, and for another, they are terribly shy, making them very elusive. When

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Mojave Journal cornered, they can be quite irascible. So I am astonished to watch him mosey (yes, he mosied!) up to within a couple feet of me. He slowly checks me out, then the campfire, then sniffs around my ice chest. He seems to be in no particular hurry. I think he’s curious about the smell of Coyote on my staff. The fox circles over to it. He puts his forepaws on the staff, arches his neck, and sniffs at Coyote for a full minute. Then he drops down and walks around the staff, closely watching it the whole time. Tiring of that, or perhaps his curiosity sated, he glances up at me and comes back toward the truck. I don’t move. He checks me out one last time, then lopes off and disappears into the gathering dusk. Vulpes macrotis. This one was probably young, not over 20 inches long, with large upright ears and inquisitive eyes. I know this is a rare visit. People who have lived or worked in the desert for years tell me they have never seen a Kit fox up close. I take his visit to be a good omen. I am blessed. I am doubly blessed when I encounter him again, in an entirely different situation. Four years later. I am participating in an outdoor school in full view of Mt. Shasta in Northern California. The exercise at hand is a guided meditation. We are being guided to seek out our power animal. Now, I always wanted to have a power animal, but was pretty cynical about encountering such a thing. Actually, I’m not even sure what exactly a power animal is all about. In the meditation, we are guided to dive into a deep, dark lake surrounded by the familiar forest that surrounds us here. We are to dive deeply into the water, swim for the bottom, then come up to the surface in a completely different space. We are told we may encounter an animal in this dream space. We are to ask it to show us three sides of itself; if it does, it probably is our power animal. Listening to the guide, I immediately dropped into a deep meditative state. I dove into the lake and went for the bottom. Upon coming to the surface, I discovered I was in a completely different location. It wasn’t the deep forest my body was sitting in; rather, it was a sundrenched range of grasses and low rolling hills. I climbed out of the water, naked, astonished, disoriented. And there, dancing excitedly along the shore, was my friend the Kit fox. “It’s about time you got here,” he yipped, over and over again. “I’m so happy you finally made it.”

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Mojave Journal The fox jumped and leaped around me, tail wagging, touching me with his forepaws. He was gentle and excited at the same time. He jumped and pranced and skittered around me, so much like a little puppy. “You made it, you made it,” he repeated, laughing at my astonishment. “I knew you would. I’ve been waiting for you.” It was the same Kit fox I had seen years earlier near Little Cow Hole Mountain, of that I have no doubt. In the excitement of the moment I forgot to ask it to show three sides of itself, yet I had no doubt -- I knew -- I had found my power animal. Return to Contents

Zzyzx Springs and the Great Soda Sink

Desert Critter

D

awn, early June. Temperature nearing 80° though it is not yet 7 a.m. I am sprawled on my stomach amidst blooming flowers and lush grasses and reeds, staring into a fresh-water pool at the very edge of what early explorers called The Great Soda Sink, that vast, dry, pitiless, parching flat to the east of me.

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Mojave Journal The pool is about as wide as a car and twice as deep. Swaying desert willows shade the pond. This is the home to the tiny Mojave Tui Chub, and it is the only place they live. These minnows are barely two inches long. In two nearby pools live genetically similar – but not identical – chubs. Collectively, the pools are part of Zzyzx Springs. They are the last tiny remnants of the vast lake that once covered this entire sink more than 20,000 years ago. Now that’s survival! Less than 100 yards from here, over the rocks, is Doc Springer’s “castle”. He lasted here barely 20 years, but his influence still permeates the Zzyzx Springs area. In the other direction, a long-abandoned railroad grade can be seen coming down from the Razor Hills. The railroad’s influence is only a whisper now. And long before this area had any white man’s name, ancient Indians used these springs and left their mark with prehistoric artifacts and rock art. Later, the Timbisha Shoshone and Piute knew these mineral springs as a reliable source of water. It was one of many water sources on a long-distance trail from the interior high deserts to the lush coastal valleys. The Army discovered the Indian trail and in the 1850s built it up as a wagon road to move troops to the Coast and the gold fields. A small military outpost was established here, called Hancock’s Redoubt. The next water for eastbound wagoneers is 30 miles from here, across the salt lake and up a dry, grueling climb toward Kelso. The road was later called the Mojave Trail, and survives today as a Jeep road. For twenty years the post slumbered along until the Army moved out. Then in 1908 the Tonopah & Tidewater Railway arrived and Soda Springs became a flag stop on the way to Silver Lake. The T&T stayed for its entire forty plus years. But business at the springs, never particularly robust, declined to nothing a decade or so before the railroad did. Slowly the desert began reclaiming the place. Doc Springer saw the abandoned springs in the mid-1940s and immediately established a “soda mining” claim on 12,000 acres around the springs. He made up “Zzyzx” to be the last word in the English language. But instead of mining the omnipresent soda, he and his wife began building a sprawling health spa. It is said he recruited laborers from skid-row flophouses in Los Angeles, promising to feed and house them and teach them a trade. This he apparently did, all the while creating a near-fiefdom based on his brand of healthy living and healthy eating. Doc Springer’s laborers built the Castle, a handsome 2-storey home, office, and school at the end of Boulevard of Dreams. They built a cookhouse, a meeting hall, a cement works, and a small lake. They even built a studio where Springer recorded taped radio programs selling his brand of health foods and Christian charity. These were broadcast weekly over the border-blasting radio station XERB out of Tijuana. When I was a kid living near Seattle, I’d sit in my room late at night listening to an old tube radio. I could pull in XERB at night because it beamed a 100,000-watt signal straight into the U.S. from a mountaintop just south of the border. Of course, back then I was listening for Wolfman Jack, not Doc Springer.

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Mojave Journal From the outset many considered Springer eccentric and controversial. The U.S. Government came to consider him a trespasser. The BLM took a dim view of Doc Springer because he was operating a spa, not a mine. By the late 1960s it began the process to evict him and close down the spa. The IRS closed in on him for tax evasion and even the California Food and Drug Commission laid out a number of charges against his line of health foods. Most charges were later dropped, and the IRS lost in court, but the BLM soldiered on. Springer and his wife were handcuffed and bodily evicted on April 13, 1974. The U.S. Government continues to this day to try to eradicate the memory of the Springers by removing the name Zzyzx, but the name lingers on. Zzyzx it still is, to most of us interested in the area. After all, there are soda springs and seeps in almost every desert, but there is only one Zzyzx Springs.

Doc Springer’s Place on the Boulevard of Dreams The victors, it is said, write the histories. Nearly everything I’ve read about Dr. Springer has been the “official” version, such as the “information” signs posted out by the main gate. I’d like to hear Doc Springer’s version. Although the BLM was successful in removing the Springers, it didn’t know what to do with an abandoned health spa. Once again the place began falling into ruin, beset by vandals and the unkind desert weather. The renamed Soda Springs slumbered on until it was “discovered” again in 1976.

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Mojave Journal This time a visionary educator saw the value of using the former spa as a learning center. He convinced the BLM’s parent agency to work with a consortium of southern California colleges to form the Desert Studies Center. For over 20 years now, the center has offered weekend and semester courses studying reptiles, birds, insects, geology, and anthropology of the Eastern Mojave. It is one of only two desert studies centers in the American Southwest. * * * *

Bill Presch tenaciously defends the Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx. It’s his baby. He’s a good administrator, watching out for the interests of the DSC. He’s a good teacher, too. Herpetologist. He knows reptiles and he knows the desert. Seems utterly at home here. I spent several delightful days here learning about desert wildlife from him and an associate, Dr. Dean Messer. Their enthusiasm for the desert is infectious. They know their stuff and they have fun doing it. What a learning experience. And I love the curiosity of these guys. What’s the bird? What’s in the next can trap going up the baranca? What’s under this fallen branch of a Joshua tree? Do dead scorpions fluoresce under a black light? (Yes. We tried it in the DSC lab.) Several times I’ve left the desert thinking I hadn’t seen any wildlife. But it is a whole lot more fruitful when you have a little basic understanding of the wild. For sure it will take time and acquaintance to remember the names of the wildlife I encounter. But what I learned was even better. I learned how to look for critters, and where, and when. I learned how best to find scorpions in the desert. There really are quite a lot of them, at least around the springs. On one night walk, we used flashlights to search for them to no effect. But with a hand-held black light, we found they were all around us, glowing a ghostly white in the light. And me in flip-flops! I jumped into the middle of our small circle of people, not wishing a closer encounter. Turns out these bugs, while nasty looking, don’t produce enough toxins to make a human feel much more than sharp discomfort. Other observations: Tarantula Hawk, not a bird but a large, beautiful insect with a shiny black body and deep yellow-orange wings, seen near Owls Head Springs. Horned lizard, can trap area. The can traps are 5-gallon buckets sunk into the ground in a square pattern extending for several hundred yards up the baranca a mile or so from the springs. They are uncovered in the evening, then in the morning we checked to see what fell in during the night. This lizard, about 5” long, lies soft and calm in my hand. A male and a female velvet ant. Actually these are not ants at all, but wasps. The females are highly venomous. The males exist for only a few days, their sole purpose being to impregnate the females. Males are very rare; the insect doctor had never seen one.

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Mojave Journal Chuckwalla, seen on the rocks on the Kelbaker lava flow. They like it hot, and don’t even come out of their holes unless it is over 100° F. Fringe-toed lizards and the larger leopard lizards, nearly a foot long, near the sand dunes. Desert Sienna, with beautiful non-serrated yellow petals, two to a stalk, seen in the Joshua Zone of Kelbaker Road (3800 to 4200 feet elevation). Desert Willow, with its characteristic pale violet blooms on wispy stalks. Beavertail Cactus, a knee-high plant with flat extensions and brilliant cup-shaped vermilion flowers. Return to Contents

Dione, Queen of Tecopa

East of Tecopa Springs, Sunset

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ecopa is nothing but hot springs. Like anywhere else in the desert, if there’s no water, there’s no town. Here we have The Hot Springs, run by Inyo County. And Delight’s Hot Spa, a commercial establishment looking fairly run down at the heels, and a couple other places looking equally dejected. But the uncrowned jewel of the place is Tecopa Desert Pond, less than a mile down an unmarked track running out across the alkaline desert floor. The pond actually is a concrete-lined tank, about six feet on a side. A single inlet pipe from a nearby artesian well brings a small flow of 98° mineral water into the tub. When I arrived, Dione, as she introduced herself, had just drained the tub to give it its weekly cleaning. Sometime remind me to tell you about how I got a wire hanger stuck in the drain hole and tried to pull it out with the truck, but nearly busted the outlet pipe. Thank God I didn’t break open the concrete tank when I put the truck in gear. But that’s another story. Ah, yes, Dione. She kind of clipped the word when she said it, with emphasis on the Di. Deeο n. Dione, she of the radiant smile. Her face was pretty, not beautiful, with a good dose of dissolution and insouciance thrown in. Her hair golden white. After a few pleasantries, she and her man strolled off. Hours later. The sun is shining only on the eastern peaks now, burnishing multihued escarpments and canyons. The tub finally has filled up. Thinking for a quick dip while no one is around, I slide out of my clothes and into the tub. How exquisite. Floating on my back, watching the first stars pop out of the cloudless sky. Up walks Dione. “Mind if I join you?” she asks, even as she drops her sweats and lifts off her plain shirt. Slowly she steps three steps down into the pool. Her body is lithe and slender, with firm breasts and erect nipples that precede her by half an inch. Gently she lowers that luscious body into the 98-degree water. Luxuriously she rolls onto her stomach. Beautiful round buns turn up to me. She’s tan all over. A gorgeous, lickable golden color. I tell her the obvious: what a magical spot this is. (All right, so I didn’t comment on her obvious assets.) She replies: “It’s best when you’re here with your all-time best lover. It’s always best then.” A little later she says languorously, “I took half a hit of acid. These people [at the County springs] are all so uptight. Tighter than a tick.” Then slowly she stands, steps out of the tub to fetch a towel, and begins to dry herself off.

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Mojave Journal “Funny that the tub didn’t fill faster,” she remarks, swishing one cute toe through the water. I tell her I stuffed the rag into the outtake pipe as hard as it would go. To show her, I bend down and try the rag again. She looks at me for a moment as she slips on her sweats, then tousles her hair. “You know, you don’t have to prove you did it right. I’m just surprised, that’s all.” Her tits salute smartly as she raises her arms and pulls the shirt over her head and straightens it out. “Maybe I’ll see you later,” she says. “I may come out again later tonight.” She strolls off down the road into the moonless night. I am awestruck. It had already been a perfect day. Then this blond Queen of Tecopa slides into the water next to me. And exits with the lightest of reminders about behaviors that serve no purpose any longer. And the tease that she might be back. Later: Orion the Hunter and Pleiades rise up over the eastern horizon. What a spot. The entire 180-degree dome of the sky laid out above me, just for me I’m sure. The sky deepens to full black, with every star seeming to pierce a gossamer veil. Shy, almost. An hour later. Until now, it’s been a cloudless sky. I look up. Now clouds have completely extinguished the stars, all but a few low-lying ones. All in under five minutes. I’m rethinking my decision to sleep under the stars. Half an hour later the clouds are gone. Poof. Midnight, end of the year, 1996. But out here, that doesn’t mean much. One year? Big deal, say the rocks across the valley. We’ve been here since the pre-Cambrian era. Before that, we were the mud layers on the floor of an inland sea that used to be here. So you got another year older? Big deal. Seen and heard during the night while in the tub: a shooting star looking as if it had been launched from Las Vegas, that glow beyond the eastern horizon. Young coyote pups yelping across the dunes, eight or ten high, fast "youps" in succession. Sounds like three pups. They go on for five minutes, then get quiet again for perhaps an hour, then they start up again. Probably they yelp when Mother returns with dinner. A satellite going over, blinking regularly. I’ve always said it’s a satellite put up by the USSR. Don’t know if that’s true or not. If it is, then it means the technology outlived the technocrats. And isn’t that the way it is. Like Machu Pichu, that city high in the Andes Mountains, still surviving eons after its builders disappeared. Wonder if this satellite is taking our picture every 55 minutes as it goes over. Hi up there, I shout. The moon finally rising. I have been slowly moving around the tub, taking in each view. When I get back to my starting point, looking due east, the moon has crept above the highest

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Mojave Journal ridge. A half moon, swathed in dark, silky strands of clouds floating before it. It looks like a slow-motion atomic blast, coming up off the Nevada desert floor. Next morning. I’m in the tub again, having practically spent the night there. Two people are walking across the flats toward the tub. I ease back into the water. My clothes are draped across a small wind barrier, out of my reach. “I wonder if anybody’s in it,” I hear an older woman ask. I open my eyes to see Joe Republican Rancher looking down at me. “Yes, there’s somebody in it,” I call out cheerfully. “Are they clothed?” she asks Joe Rancher. By this time she is close enough to see just my head above the slope. She pronounced the last word with two syllables: cloth-ed. “Nope, he’s not,” says Joe Rancher, trying his best to avert his eyes without seeming concerned. But he sounds concerned. Ever eager to please, I offer to put my clothes on. “Oh, no, I don’t want to see,” she blushes and turns away. “We just wanted to look,” she says absently, like a mother would say if she accidentally walked in on her grown son spanking his monkey. Return to Contents

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Clara & Jake and the T&T

T&T Baggage Shed, Tecopa

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nteresting couple, Jake and Clara Mann. Met them in their trailer in Tecopa. Pat Smith at the General Store referred me to Jake. I was asking Pat about the railroad that used to run through here. “I don’t know much about that. Better go see Jake. He’s an old timer around here. He’d know.” I demurred. “Man, I’m on my way out of town. I gotta start heading back to the Coast. I’ll have to see him next time I come through here.” Pat considered this a moment, then replied, “Well, he’s old. Better get to him now while you still have the chance. You don’t know if he’ll be here next year.” I thought about past opportunities missed because it was inconvenient, or because I was scared or tired. Like coming up on Kelso Depot years ago when it was still open, but not going in. And not going in to the tiny general store in Darwin, because it looked dark and scary and tough-looking miners were hanging around outside. And not going in to the old man’s glass-bottle house in Rhyolite because I was too shy to walk up and talk to the guy.

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Mojave Journal So clearly, it wasn’t even a choice this time. It was back down the road to see Jake and Clara. Clara came to her trailer door at my knock. She wore an old, heavy, faded housecoat even though it was midafternoon and quite warm, even in December. I explained that I had a history question, and Pat Smith had sent me up here. Clara said, “C’mon in. Me and Pa are still a bit sick, but come on in.” Clara looks to be a sprightly 70 or so; Jake seems a good deal older and a good deal more spent. But Lord they know their history of the area. Jake first came to Tecopa in 1952, and seems to have traveled all the canyons and hills between Mojave and the White Mountains. He tells of his interactions with the murderous Charles Manson and his followers holed up in Goler Wash on the way to Butte Valley. (“Ol’ Charlie didn’t do them killings. He’s too smart f’r that. He got the others to do it. He’d con anybody into doing anything for him.”) They talk about how Tecopa used to have enough kids to double-shift the primary school down by the general store. Clara pulls out a worn Xerox copy of a 1914 AAA map, pointing out towns and sites long since reclaimed by the blowing sands. The big town then was Silver Lake, a few dozen miles south of here; now it’s not even a whisper. And they tell me about the railroad. As I suspected, it was the Tonopah & Tidewater, which never made it to either Tonopah in Nevada or to the tidewater near Los Angeles. They told me a lot about that n’er do well railroad, who’s grade I had followed coming out of the Silurian Hills a couple days before. Seems that Francis “Borax” Smith built the T&T to replace his 20mule teams coming out of Death Valley. The T&T wandered for 250 miles around the Mojave, from Ludlow to Soda Springs to Tecopa and out to Beatty, Nevada. Jake says it mostly hauled ore, salt, and clay from dozens of local mines, but sometimes carried farepaying passengers as well. Borax made Francis Smith wealthy but his railroad never did. The railroad was completed in 1908. It operated for less than four decades, until the Great Depression and severe flood damage forced its closure. The rails were torn up in 1940. Jake says that even during its heyday, if it ever had one, the T&T was as eccentric and erratic as the remote desert communities it served. At some point I say I hope I’m not intruding on them. “Hell,” Jake chuckles. “We don’t have any more pressing engagements this afternoon than to sit here jawin’.” Return to Contents

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The Missing Mojave River

Amargosa Canyon

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he Mojave River is an oddity, even here in the desert. The river is 50 miles long, but most of that is underground. What little is above ground is right here at the head of Afton Canyon on the edge of the vast Mojave Desert. The river rises to the surface before sinking underground again at the lower end of the canyon half a dozen miles from here. The Old Mojave Road also begins near here, fording the normally dry river next to the Union Pacific train trestle and following the wash down through the canyon. Seven glorious days of desert exploration are spread out in front of me, and I planned to start by driving the first 30 miles or so of the Mojave Road. I arrived this afternoon just in time to watch a tow truck haul a Jeep Wrangler out of the riverbed, water still dribbling out of its cab. “We didn’t get stuck, we flooded,” explained a young lady, looking dejectedly at the truck. A young man stood next to her, his pants wet up to mid-thigh, gained by opening the Jeep door and stepping out. In the last few weeks the river has been swollen by the winter rains. The river now looked to be three feet deep here, making for a rough crossing. 01/21/11 63

Mojave Journal I could sympathize with them. The last time I crossed the river here, I drove down the embankment too fast and splashed water into the carburetor half way across, even though the river was only a foot deep then. It took half an hour for it to dry out before I could drive on. My conclusion this time: pick up the Mojave Road at Rasor junction, a few miles further down the freeway. The river is underground by then. The Mojave Road, sometimes called Old Government Road, follows the route of the old Mojave Trail for 138 miles from near Bakersfield, Calif., to the Colorado River at Needles, Calif. Originally it was a Mohave and Piute Indian trade trail. The U.S. Army appropriated it in the 1850s to move military traffic from Arizona to California. By 1859 the road was expanded to accommodate horse-drawn freight wagons, carrying 3000 a year at its peak. It largely fell into disuse with the advent of first railroads and then highways, but was remapped in the 1960s as the Mojave Road for 4-wheelers. This time I planned to use the road only long enough to cross the amazing dry Soda Lake before branching off onto another 4WD road. I decided to spend the night in the State campground nearby, and tackle the road the next day. As the cool evening settled in, I found a sheltered little campsite, partially hidden by a small copse of brush and scrub trees. Only two of the 30 or so campsites were occupied. A quiet night, to be sure, except for the sounds of the tow truck mechanic and the Jeep driver still drying out engine parts. Dinner of pan-fried trout; desert a good port wine. About 8 in the evening, a gentle 50º, and I am relaxing in the evening solitude. What’s this? A small RV pulled in to the campsite immediately next to me, a scant 20 feet away. Hmm, maybe they didn’t see me over here, since I had only the light of a candle showing. Two men got out to set up the RV and settle in for the evening. Then their generator kicked in. It was loud, obscenely loud. This clearly was not going to work for me. I’ll give it 15 minutes. Quarter of an hour later I marched over to visit my new neighbors. I was steamed. As I approached the RV I began loudly calling out “Hello”. Inside, the two guys apparently were watching TV. They could not hear me shouting. I kept calling out right up to the open door. Finally a face appeared in the doorway. “How long do you plan to run your generator?” I demanded without introduction. “Dunno,” the face responded, slowly. “A while, I guess. Why?” “I’m camped next to you and I’ll tell you that thing is damned loud.” I paused for breath; he bit his upper lip. “And it’s loud all over the camp, it’s not just me,” I threw at him for effect.

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Mojave Journal He looked at me wordlessly, formulating a response. I kept plowing ahead: “If you won’t turn that thing off, I’ll have to leave.” With that, I strode off into the noisy dark. Back at my camp and feeling alternately pissed and foolish, I waited several minutes. No change. The guys were back inside and the generator continued to churn up the night. Fine. I started packing up. This took all of 10 minutes. I got into the truck and fished around for my keys. Oh, here they are. Just as I inserted the key into the ignition, the generator shut off. Silence again. Sitting in my truck, I wondered, should I thank them, or ignore them? I finally got out, said “Thanks, guys” loudly enough that I hoped they would hear it, and felt dumb. I could have handled that in much better, less intrusive. Ruefully I thought about the bumper sticker on my truck: “For Happiness, Cherish Others.” Half an hour later, I’m curled up in my sleeping bag when I heard the two men walking down the road. They were scouting out the remaining unoccupied campsites. Apparently unsatisfied, they returned to the RV, packed up, and drove off into the night. This morning as I pulled out of the campground I saw the RV parked near the tracks and away from the campsites. I’m glad. They picked a solution that probably worked for them, for me, and the rest of the campers, too. Return to Contents

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Busted Down In Jackass Canyon

Home of Coyote Wind

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he wind is full of Coyote today. Sometimes it blusters, sometimes it teases. Sometimes it sounds like men talking, or children laughing, or even someone singing. It makes other sounds, too, like a car or a motorcycle on the road. At one point it sounds like two men arguing, close by my truck. The wind is toying with me. It taunts me and dances with me. It blows cold, then warm. It whispers then it shouts then it whispers again. Maybe it thinks I am not paying attention, but I am. I am paying very close attention. I am paying attention with every sense. I am parked on a rough, empty section of a 4WD road midway between Cow Hole Mountain and Old Dad Mountain, looking west to Soda Lake which I crossed yesterday, its vast whiteness shimmering today in the winter sunlight. Spent last night here, and probably will again tonight. I broke the truck yesterday. While driving across a rocky, dry wash, the right front tire rode up over a large rock, which spun inward, puncturing the oil line to the external oil cooler. Dumped five quarts of good

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Mojave Journal Pennzoil right there on the road. This is as far as this old beauty is going to get under her own power. So here I am, waiting for someone to drive by so I can get a ride to Baker, about 14 miles due north of me. In almost 24 hours I have not seen a single vehicle on this road or the more commonly traveled Old Mojave Road, clearly visible where it crosses Jackass Canyon Road a few miles north of me. I cannot roam far off to explore, because I don’t want to miss a possible ride out of here. So I pass the time by intently investigating my close-in desert surroundings, alternating with sitting or lying somewhere out of the wind, reading or meditating or just watching the slow pace of a desert afternoon. But the wind tries to fool me. Every few minutes it conjures up the sound of a truck crunching along the road. It always works; I pop up to scan the road in both directions with my binoculars. I think the wind is laughing at me. Finally I give up looking for another vehicle, and give in to the Coyote’s game. Just before sunset, Coyote moved on. In the quiet gathering dusk, the hazy orange sun drops quickly behind the far Western hills above Rasor junction. Tomorrow, if I am still here, I will walk to Baker, a busy pit stop on Interstate 15 halfway between Bakersfield and Las Vegas. Tonight I can clearly see the lights of the little crossroads, 14 miles across the flat desert from me. The commercial lights are fronted by a continuous river of headlights pouring out of the Rasor Hills to the west, across Baker Valley, and disappearing from view to the east. Day and night, the string of vehicles does not diminish. Cycles, cars, RVs, trailers, trucks, and buses all rolling up Interstate15 to Las Vegas, two days before New Year’s Eve. I contemplate the blissful irony I find myself in: Thousands of people roaring along the freeway a few miles away and here I sit unable to drive. At least I am well provisioned. I have plenty of food and books, a warm bed, a bottle of port, and a crisp night sky. I realize I am being given a great lesson in flexibility and acceptance. Daybreak comes quick and quiet. Trickster Coyote wind is gone, at least for now. Yesterday I dreaded walking to Baker; today I am ready. I have done my physical and mental preparations. Last night I meditated and prayed about this walk. I asked my spirit guide, the Kit Fox, to grant me perseverance and agility. I thanked the Coyote wind for being here and asked it to go away now. I tried to prepare my mind for anything that might happen. I also had recurring moments of intense fear. It went like this: Ten months ago I had a silent heart attack. Eight months ago I couldn’t walk a block without getting terribly winded. Six months ago I underwent angioplasty. 01/21/11 67

Mojave Journal Two weeks ago I was back in the hospital for a checkup. And now I’m gonna walk across the Mojave how far?????!!!!!!!! I stuffed my pockets with the essentials: raisins, cheese, crackers, nuts, mirror, lighter, knife, map, binoculars, a good book, and my nitroglycerin pills in case I heave over. But best of all, as I am looking through my food box I discover a folded up piece of paper that I hadn’t seen before. It was a note from my beloved:

To My Precious One -May this journey bring you closer to your own heart & path --I await your return. Big love,

Victoria
This is the capper. This is going to be a good day. The temperature is in the upper 50s now, so I shouldn’t need a heavy coat (though I am mindful that desert weather can change abruptly). The cold Coyote wind has moved on to somewhere else in the vast Mojave. Lastly, I wrote a note (below) explaining my predicament to any passersby and left it on the hood of the truck, weighted down by rocks. I fervently hoped someone would come along and give me a lift, although I have not seen any 2-legged life for nearly 41 hours.

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My ‘HELP’ Note

Grabbing a quart of water, I confidently headed down the road. Jackass Canyon Road is a 4WD road running the length of Old Dad Mountain, a long, low, nearly barren mass to my right. The road crosses innumerable dry washes and blow sand but doesn’t seem to gain or lose much overall elevation. At first I walked in the brush parallel to the road. The walking was easier on the sun-baked desert floor than the loose rocks of the road. Then I realized, in a quick flush of embarrassment, that I was trying not to leave visible footprints. That’s my normal mode when I’m in the desert, but this time I needed people to

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Mojave Journal see me. After all, using letters two feet high, I had just scrawled, “H E L P ” in the dirt on the side of my truck. The walking was splendid. The morning was crisp and clear, plenty of night critters had left their tracks in the soft sand along the road, and the horizon beckoned. I set a good, comfortable pace of about three miles an hour, walking almost due North on Jackass Canyon Road. Straight ahead, 14 miles distant, lay Baker. But the desert can play tricks on a person. Distances seem much less than they actually are because there are so few familiar landmarks to use as comparisons. When I studied my map last night, I judged I was three miles south of the junction with the Mojave Road. Nearly two hours later I reached the junction, which meant it was over five miles. My confident 3-mph pace was beginning to slow. The junction was a decision point. I could keep going straight and walk nine miles in to Baker, taking a slightly descending route. Or I could turn east on Mojave Road and head five miles gradually uphill to Seventeen Mile Point. Here the 4WD road meets the nearest paved highway. I could flag down a ride there. If not, then it would be another seven miles on foot to Baker. I turned east. My legs were tired and my right thigh was beginning to cramp. A misstep sent a sharp ache through my left knee, even though I had wrapped it before I left. Seventeen Mile Point didn’t look so far away, but I knew better. The road is straight as a surveyor’s line, plodding steadily uphill from Soda Lake. When the Army used this as a wagon road back in the 1850’s, this 34-mile stretch between Soda Springs and Marl Springs was grueling for horses and men. It took two long days to make the eastbound uphill trek from one watering hole to the next. Seventeen Mile Point was half way. Two ravens flew low over me, no doubt surprised to see a 2-legged out here, with neither burro nor truck. Was this the same pair I saw yesterday, dancing with Coyote wind? My pace slowed even more. I stopped for a rest, water, and raisins, but once I got going again it took several yards of walking to work the stiffness out of my legs. Finally I reached the point of the mountain and stumbled into the first shade I’ve seen in several days. It wasn’t particularly hot – upper 60s – but still I was sweating from the exertion. Gingerly I lowered myself to the ground and sprawled out dog-tired. I was still half a mile shy of the Kelbaker Road, but I didn’t care. I needed a good rest. Finally I heaved myself up and trudged the rest of the way out to the paved road. It was 1 p.m. exactly when I reached the pavement. I’d covered ten miles in four hours. Not bad. I sat down to wait for a northbound vehicle to take me in to Baker. Two SUVs passed in quick succession, not even slowing to get a look. Ten minutes later, a San Bernardino County Sheriff whizzed by going the other direction, saw me, and did a fast U-turn to slide to a stop in front of me. I gave him the whole story and he offered me a ride to town.

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Mojave Journal “People won’t stop for hitch-hikers out in these parts,” he told me. I was gratified for the ride, my first in the back of a police car. The very cramped surroundings left me feeling vaguely guilty. The deputy dropped me off in front of Baker Garage & Discount Parts. It was a large metal building, six service bays, signs advertising “25-Hr Towing”, tune-ups, spare parts, and “Mechanic On Duty” and “Next Time Stop at Baker Garage”. On closer examination, I noticed that several of the bays were blocked by derelict cars, dusty automotive equipment, and a trailer piled high with old rubber that could be called tires only in the most academic sense. A dozen dead cars lined one side of the lot, too tired to move any further, headlights hanging out like eyeballs. A tow truck slouched nearby, hood up, one flat tire. The door marked PARTS DEPT was locked; two of the three windows were boarded up. This did not look good. Then again, the rest of the town didn’t look good, either. Spread out along Baker’s one commercial street are 9 fast-food franchises, 8 gas stations, 4 restaurants, 3 motels, 2 places to buy cheap imported rugs, 1 general store, a joint that sells beef jerky (and clam and octopus jerky), The World’s Tallest Thermometer, and the Baker Garage. I wrote down the phone number of the garage and wandered off down the street to the Mad Greek’s for lunch. Later I called the garage. Disconnected. Glumly, I started walking back up the street. When I passed the garage again I was surprised to see one of the service bay doors open, with a red pickup truck parked there. Coming around the front, I saw three inches of hairy butt crack smiling at me above a pair of sagging jeans. The owner was sprawled across the seat, blowing out the cab with a high-pressure air hose. When he extricated himself from that position, I asked if he was open for business. “Absolutely,” he grinned, showing more potholes than porcelain. I explained my predicament and asked if he could help. “Sure I can help. No problem. We’ll get you fixed up. Just give me a few minutes to work it out.” Then he returned to cleaning out the pickup. For an hour I perched on the back of a partially disassembled truck and read my book while a steady stream of locals and travelers came and went. I began to realize the fundamental truth of the old phrase, “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Finally the mechanic and a friend sauntered over. I told them both my story. Pulling out my topo map of the Mojave, I marked an X where the truck had crapped out. The mechanic and the friend studied the map for a while. A long while. I began to doubt that either knew the area at all.

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Mojave Journal Finally the mechanic looked up and said, “So tell me straight, dude, is it off the pavement?” I was incredulous. That’s what I had been telling him the whole time. That was the whole point of needing a 4WD tow truck. “Yes it’s off the pavement,” I replied, trying to keep a civil tone. “Ten miles off the pavement. Jackass Canyon Road is a four-wheel drive road. You need a four-wheel-drive rig to retrieve my Blazer. Do you have one?” Looking down at his greasy hands, he muttered, “Well my wrecker’s broke in Las Vegas.” His friend said that he didn’t think his dad’s truck could handle the job; I didn’t bother to ask what kind of truck it was. After a moment, the mechanic’s face lightened and he grinned again. “Don’t worry. We do this all the time. I just have to arrange for a truck.” I asked how much this was likely to cost. He wasn’t sure, but at least $150. Which credit cards did he accept, I asked. None, he replied. His credit card machine was broke, too. Now I began to realize this was not going to be a quick snatch out of the desert. I asked about a motel for the night. He recommended the “Polynesian” at the other end of town. He said I should get set up there, then call him. I walked down to the motel, forgetting that his business phone was disconnected. From the outside, the Polynesian looked about in the same condition as the Garage. Fully half the rooms had all their chairs, beds, mattresses, lamps, and night tables stacked out in the parking lot like side-by-side lovers’ quarrels. Old TVs caked with dust; new TVs still in boxes already caked with dust. A remodel, I was told by the desk clerk when I checked in, although it appeared to me that the furnishings had long ago settled into place, wearing the required veneer of sand and tiredness that everything – and everyone – seems to acquire out here. The Polynesian was on the far side of sumptuous. Its looks alone rated a distant second to the motel across the street. But I just couldn’t see myself installed at a place called the Bun Boy Motel, stuck between the busy boulevard and the even busier freeway. On entering my room, I got a quick reminder of a bowling alley. The room had obviously been a double, but now it was a single with a yawning empty place where the second bed used to be. I noticed light switches, lots of them, seemingly placed at random around the room. I checked them all. Two switches didn’t control anything and two lights didn’t work. I tried the porch light on my “semi-private veranda”, but it appeared not to work either. When I looked outside, I saw why. The lamp fixture hung down several inches from the ceiling. A small owl had made a nest among the wires. Standing on a chair, I examined the nest. It was empty. Return to Contents

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Baker, Pop. 350

The View From My Motel Room

T

he view from my second-story veranda was into the courtyard below, home to a swimming pool full of foul green water and a playful puppy busy cavorting with his chew toys and littering the dead grass with his droppings under a sign reading “No Pets Allowed”. While relaxing on the veranda, I noticed that the several friends of the mechanic who had stopped by his shop while I waited all appeared to be semi-permanent residents of the motel. This gave me a chuckle. Of course he would recommend this place. I gave up on the Baker Garage. Working the phone in my room, I found another tow operator in town. Half an hour later their driver picked me up and we headed for Jackass Canyon Road. Andrew, the driver, was a young fellow new to the job. He worked in Baker but lived in Las Vegas, 95 miles away. He worked here, he explained, because of the better wages: $12 an hour.

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Mojave Journal We drove out in a car hauler with a rugged, battered 4WD pickup strapped on the back platform. Once we got off the pavement of Kelbaker Road, he unloaded the pickup and used it to continue down the Mojave Road and on to Jackass Canyon Road. Andrew assured me he had yanked many a stranded motor home out of the sand with this rig. For some reason I believed him. We arrived at my stricken rig just after sunset. No one had driven by, for my note was still on the hood and my boot prints were untouched. Andrew’s first challenge was to get the lights on his pickup working. Ever resourceful, he wired one light straight to the battery. Using a 20-foot nylon “snatch line”, he connected our trucks and we set off, with me steering the Blazer. My job was to keep the towline taught so I didn’t overrun Andrew’s rig on the downhill stretches. The dry washes were the worst. Andrew would inch his way down one side as I applied the brake to keep the line taught. At the bottom I would be stalled while he crawled up the other side until the line snapped tight, jerking my rig forward. It was tense for both of us. Only later did he tell me this was the first time he had ever towed another truck out using a towline Crawling along at 5 to10 mph, it took us more than half an hour to get back to the Mojave Road. Then it was an easy five miles more to where we left the car hauler at Seventeen Mile Point. Andrew reloaded his rig onto the car hauler, then adjusted the “snatch bar” that would carry my truck by its front wheels. I put the truck in Park while Andrew got the hauler ready. The Blazer’s battery had died, which seemed of no consequence until I tried to shift back to Neutral. No dice. Takes juice. So we had to jump the battery. Andrew didn’t have cables, but I did . . . underneath all my camping gear. We outloaded my truck, jumped the battery, repacked the truck, and secured it to the snatch bar. Four long hours after we started, we were back in Baker, a round trip of just 34 miles. Andrew dropped me off at another mechanic who was still open. It was 8 in the evening of Dec. 30. The mechanic was replacing the alternator on the van of a family driving from Boise to Anaheim. When they finally hit the road again, the mechanic was ready to check my truck. It was nearly 9 o’clock. I discussed my problem and his fees. He said he was ready to start working on it right away, but I told him it had been a long day for both of us and I’d come back in the morning. I walked the mile or so back to my motel room at the Polynesian.. I slid gratefully into bed, but it didn’t warm up. The World’s Tallest Thermometer visible over the treetops from my veranda registered a chilly 47º. The bed seemed to be about the same. I got up, dressed, and crawled back under the covers. Still I was cold. I like a cold bedroom, but not a cold bed. Finally I called the front desk. “Office”, a lady’s crackly voice answered after several rings.

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Mojave Journal “Hi. I’m in room 217,” I stammered. “I know who you are. Watcha need?” she rasped. I told her I needed another blanket or two. She seemed slightly incredulous, but finally agreed to meet me. Where, I asked after an expectant pause. “Right below your room,” she responded, and hung up. Since I was already dressed sans shoes, I went downstairs to wait, barefoot. Ten minutes later, a lady drove up and got out. I told her my bed was colder than an ice cutter’s ass. “Honey, if you’da told me that in July, I’da hugged ya,” she cackled. We went into the storeroom to get bedding. When she flipped on the light, I noticed she seemed on the far side of 60, wearing an overcoat thrown over her nightclothes. “Where did you drive from?” I asked. “The front office,” she replied, pointing to the building not 50 feet away. “I’m too lazy to walk.” Then I noticed that she limped with obvious pain. “That looks like it really hurts to walk,” I said. “Thanks so much for doing this for me.” She was taken aback at first. “Yes, it hurts. And you are very welcome.” She got in her car and drove back to her bed in the rear of the office. * * * *

A beautiful crisp morning. I strolled up to Danny’s garage. My truck was still parked out in front where it had been deposited the night before. All I see of Danny are his legs sticking out from under a late-model Dodge Mastodon. Then one brown, oil-soaked hand and arm appear to vigorously pump a floor jack next to him. Squatting down on the pavement, I see that he’s lowering a gas tank to replace the fuel pump. The driver rolled in this morning on a drive from Camarillo on the Southern California coast, to Wisconsin. The truck developed a fuel problem at the top of Rasor Grade, a dozen miles south and several hundred feet higher on the freeway. Danny: short, bald, built like a desert terrapin, covered in grease and wrinkles, with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. Three hours later he finished the fuel pump and turned his attention to my rig. The aluminum oil lines leading to the external oil cooler are punctured, and I need replacement parts. The

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Mojave Journal nearest parts are in Barstow. It is 68 miles away, the store closes in one hour and 15 minutes and it’s New Years Eve. Danny jumps into his car and tries to fire it up, but it doesn’t kick over right away. He remains calm. He jiggles the key in the ignition, then jumps out to jiggle something under the hood. Another potential customer pulls in. “Tell ‘em to go away,” Danny says to his lady friend as he fusses with the ignition switch. “Tell ‘em I’m closed for the year. Tell ‘em I’ve had my last customer for 2002.” “Naw, don’t tell them that,” he grins. Finally the engine sputtered to life and he roared off down Baker Boulevard, heading for Barstow. * * * *

Every day tens of thousands of people pass by here, motoring on to Las Vegas or Bakersfield or anywhere else that isn’t Baker. Locals and travelers: like oil and water. Mostly the travelers are unaware of Baker the town. While Danny worked on my truck, I took the time to stroll through the tiny town. I walked every street (five of them, I think); it took less than 20 minutes, including a couple photo stops. Baker the town: Besides the commercial street, it consists of three to four dozen homes, mostly trailers and manufactured houses. School with grades 1 through 12, a small San Bernardino county office, a town park with a few swings and a slide and a lot of dead grass. Volunteer fire department, unmanned landing strip. A trailer park, a small Catholic church. A laundromat (the sign says L A D O M A T ). And somewhere out there, one damn good well. Oh, and a privately-operated prison. In this place that gets an inch or less of rain in a good year, everything is stored outside. There are none of the ubiquitous self-storage units here, and no need – everybody uses their back yards or sidewalks. Like the motel remodeling, every project seems in a state of arrested completion. Fast-food trash is everywhere, thrown by customers, blown by the wind, ignored by the locals. The town’s overarching motif seems to be the unlimited supply of vehicles in every possible stage of deterioration. On my motel grounds or next to it: a dead school bus, an aged motor home squatting metal-to-pavement thanks to tires too tired to care any more, a utility truck with a cement block propping up one axle, an ATV with its guts strewn across pavement and grass, a big-rig tractor minus the trailer backed up against the swimming pool fence, a lived-in RV moored to one of the motel units, an ancient cement truck faded to chalky white. On one side of the motel is a mechanic’s shop, distinguished primarily by piles of dead car parts in the back lot. Behind the motel, another mechanic shop, this one piled high with dead or dying construction equipment.

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T & T Adobe Workshed Behind Motel

Down the road, the tow yard displays the detritus of a fast freeway society: cars burned beyond recognition, trucks with engines shoved up into the driver compartment, trailers with gaping holes and sheet metal flapping in the wind, a dead Greyhound bus, passenger cars twisted into inconceivable shapes, and everywhere small mountains of once serviceable tires. Vehicles crawl here to die. I suspect some people do, too. In time the wind sandblasts the paint off every surface and the heat etches deep lines into everything. Wood, metal, flesh – all sag under the constant onslaught of the elements here. Most folks don’t live here to get rich (although it is said the Taco Bell/Chevron franchise pulls in a million a month). Mostly they live here to be away from it all. Of course the locals know each other. Lynn George, the tow operator, tells me she and her husband Ken have lived here 40 years. (No, it’s 39 years, says he. Well at least it will be 40 in 2003, says she. But not till the end of the year, says he. It’s long enough, whatever it’s been, says she.) I had a particular reason to look up Ken and Lynn. Their driver, Andrew, told me they were old-timers here in Baker. I wanted to ask them if they knew Curtis Howe Springer, Baker’s

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Mojave Journal most eccentric resident forty years ago. He took an empty piece of land six miles south of here on the edge of Soda Lake and turned it into a thriving health spa he named Zzyzx Springs. After working on the property for nearly three decades, he was hauled away in handcuffs by the Sheriff. I’ve always wanted to hear the other side of the story, the one not written by government historians. “Y’know, the real reason I stopped by here was that Andrew told me you might have known Doc Springer,” I said, then paused. “Now, I see you’re working, Ken . . . and I’d hate to interrupt . . . if this isn’t a good time . . .” I let the sentence hang there. Ken was idly shuffling through some paperwork on his battered desk, trying hard to look busy. We were in the tow yard office, surrounded outside by wrecks he had scraped off the highway. It was New Years Day, quiet except for the constant drone of cars on the freeway a quarter mile distant. “I’m happy to talk about Doc Springer,” he finally answered without looking up from the papers. Another pause. Finally he looked at me, kind of sideways, and said slowly but firmly, “Old Doc Springer loved people. And they loved him. Period. Some people say that ain’t so, but I know it is.” He laid down the papers, leaned back in his chair, and we talked. Ken and Lynn remember Curtis Springer – remember him fondly, and are very protective of his memory. At some point Andrew (Drew, to his co-workers) sidled up to listen. Why did the BLM, the IRS, the FDA, and the county Sheriff go after him with such tenacity, I asked. Ken began to warm to his subject. He told me Springer had a letter signed by the United States Secretary of the Interior, granting Springer the right to live at Zzyzx Springs in perpetuity. “I know that’s real, because I saw the letter.” I’d like to see the letter myself, I said. “Oh, it’s gone,” Ken replied. “When the government came in to get ‘em, they burned up all his records, you see. He had these underground rabbit hutches – at one time he had thousands of rabbits, see – so he was using these old hutches to store his papers and the government just came in and burned them all up. And with him standing there, too.” The folks in Baker don’t hold much affection for “The Government” of any stripe. Out here, The Government usually is the enemy. Its most common face is the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. The folks living in the Mojave surely do not want to be told what to

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Mojave Journal do, especially by, as Lois says, “a bunch of guys sitting behind desks. I mean they have zeeeero field experience.” Thirty-five years has not dimmed the insult and injury Ken feels The Government heaped on Springer. He speaks earnestly about the good that Springer and his wife did in their three decades at Zzyzx Springs. Ken recounts how Springer always welcomed travelers and townspeople to his Sunday feasts. “He would always give us a loaf of fresh bread, or a bucket of home-made ice cream,” Ken recalls. “I never got any of that bread,” Lynn said in mock peevishness. “You musta ate it before you got home.” At one point she referred to Doc Springer’s guests as “patients”. Ken quickly corrected her. “There were no patients there,” he said with utmost precision. “No patients. Period. Those folks wanted to be there. They loved him. He loved them. End of story.” That, I suspect, is the root of the government’s full-court press to evict the Springers from Zzyzx Springs. The question was: Were they gullible patients, or brainwashed disciples, or voluntary guests? And was Doc Springer (who had a PhD in Religious Studies) practicing medicine without a license? Clearly Ken and Lynn George see Springer the fake doctor as a misunderstood idealist, town benefactor, and persecuted innocent. Just as clearly, the government saw him as a squatter, using his soda-mining permit as an excuse to run a moneymaking, unlicensed health center.

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Zzyzx Springs Truck Body, at Ken George’s Tow Yard

I found out about Lois Clark (no relation to me) from the motel desk clerk, who told me Lois was another Baker old-timer, born in Tecopa Canyon a few dozen miles toward Death Valley from here. Lois Clark, recalling Doc Springer: “He was odd. Not everything he did was right. He wanted to subdivide his land, so he put up signs along the highway and got everybody’s attention. But he had the courage of his convictions, right or wrong. Like his hair-restorer? He was bald. “Elderly people signed over their pension checks to him – he took care of them. Definitely worked outside the system. After he left here, he went to Vegas and enrolled in law school. Don’t know if he passed. “Springer bucked the wrong people. If he’d paid off the politicians, he wouldn’t have been run off.” Lois co-published the Baker Valley News for 20+ years. Her great-grandfather “Dad” Fairbanks founded Baker, selling gasoline to travelers from 55-gallon drums. Uncle Charles Browne was a state senator for many years. 01/21/11 80

Mojave Journal The locals operate at their own speed – seems to work for them – even when the summer heat climbs well into the triple digits. How do people deal with the heat here? Danny explains it this way: “It sometimes gets so hot you just stop thinking about the heat. You just wait for night to come, when it cools down to 120º.” People here wear the summer heat like a badge of honor. With great gusto Ken retells the story of when he ran a gas station in town the day it reached 138º. “Some old guy came in. I told him it was hot enough to fry an egg on the driveway. He bet me a hundred dollars I couldn’t. So I went in to the kitchen, got some oil and an egg and a spatula, and fried that egg up just as nice as you please. And the guy paid up!” It was a well-worn story. And just for the record, the hottest official temperature every recorded in the USA was at Badwater in Death Valley – a paltry 134º. It’s mid-afternoon on News Years Day. I wander back to Danny’s shop and chat with him while he works. This probably added to his hours, but what the heck. During this time, four tow trucks pulled in with crippled vehicles strapped on board, and at least six other cars rolled in more or less under their own power, needing mechanical assistance. Families, couples, singles: each time Danny would stop working on my truck, listen to the stricken supplicants, and direct them to another service or a later day for his services. You have to be resourceful running any business out here in the great Mojave, especially a mechanic, 65 miles from the nearest parts house. At one point a vital clamp, about the size of my wedding ring, popped off my oil cooler line. Danny and I spent the next hour crawling all over the engine and the pavement searching for it. No clamp, no go. We finally found the clamp, and about 5:30 he finished the job. I settled the bill and headed back to the motel for one last night. I planned to go Route 129 to Tecopa Hot Springs tomorrow, in the daylight. I figured to spend the next night there before heading back to the Coast, a 10-hour drive. * * * *

I left Baker this morning with mixed emotions: gratitude, whimsy, relief, with a little nostalgia and fondness thrown in. I was filled with stories and pictures and memories. But I was also glad to hit the pavement again, the open road beckoning and the late morning sun warming the day. Dusk; I am in the mouth of Amargosa Canyon where it empties out onto the flats behind Tecopa. I am sitting next to a small pond ringed by reeds, tamarisks, salt cedar, and covered with cattails. I am treated to an amazing symphony of birdcalls, plus (for the last half hour or so) a distraught local loudly calling for his wandering dog: “Neena, come here boy,” over and over again. Dusk turns to darkness.

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Mojave Journal What a sublime day:  For the first time, finding the graveyard at at the townsite of Silver Lake, its grave markers sandblasted by the wind.  Walking the old T&T grade a few miles into Amargosa Canyon  Putting my face full into the sweet, cool water falling out of the side of an old railroad cut.  Being persistently honest about wanting to pay my long-distance bill at the motel.  Enjoying the coolness under the broad, welcoming canopy of the Athea Tree at Salt Creek, where the BLM has thoughtfully provided a couple of picnic tables.  The soaks at the Tecopa springs, both inside and out.  Sunset in Amargosa Canyon, parked next to a pond, just a few minutes ago.  The distraught local, when I asked if he wanted a beer: “No, don’t think I’ll have a beer, but thank you. Alcohol and I don’t get along well. I haven’t had alcohol for some time now.” When I started this trip, I wanted to: 1. Hike in the desert 2. Drive across Soda Lake 3. Camp where there were no people 4. See some new sights. I certainly got all of that, in spades.

THE END

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