Monday, October 20, 2014

To Bodie and Beyond!

Writing this nearly three weeks later is bittersweet. The trip is fading from remembered reality to memory, but blogging is recalling it to present mind. I sit and look at the photos and I can again smell the dust, feel the sun on the back of my neck, the woodgrain under my hand.

So. We didn't check to see if we could have Mono Cone milkshakes for breakfast - that would have been just plain silly - but ate the last of our Schat's Energy Bread (we commend it: tastes good and keeps well!) and a handful of dried apricots with coffee, packed everything into the car, and headed north on 395 for the road to Bodie. As you may have noted, we don't often spend an entire day hammering out the miles; although it's great fun, provided there's road music on the radio, sitting in the car with the landscape rolling past like a projected film is no way to learn about a place. Several people had told me that Bodie was worth a visit, and they were right. We arrived early, before the park opened, in time for the flag raising ceremony. I know Europeans who are slightly unnerved by the frequency of flags and flag-raisings in the US - they see it as an indication of the strength of 'my country right or wrong' that has proved problematic - but while I understand their views, I also see it as symbolising something that most of Europe has put to one side, loyalty to a nation-state. At least I wasn't the only person taking a photo.

Bodie (also Wikipedia) is a gold rush ghost town, now a California State Park. Beginning as a mining camp c. 1859, although several mining companies worked the ores, little was produced until a new lode was discovered in 1876. By 1879 up to 7000 people lived in Bodie, in a town that extended nearly a mile west of what is now the park entrance.

This is A's panorama of the remaining buildings, looking east from the highest point visitors are permitted to reach. 

With luck this is the Google Earth satellite view (wait for it… :-)

View Larger Map

Look beyond the roads that Google marks and names, and you can see the lines of many more. The surviving buildings, while extremely picturesque, don't give a good idea of what this town was like in its heyday. Wikipedia has a photo c. 1890, showing the area where the surviving buildings now stand, and the mines on the hillside beyond it. Click for bigger, it's worth it.

I'd hoped to climb higher on that hill, but it's fenced off for the safety of visitors. Given the density of mine workings, perhaps it's just as well. Look closely at the area around Bodie on the satellite image, and the extent of the mining becomes evident: this was a busy, busy landscape in the late 19th century. The tranquility of the park makes it hard to imagine the place as it was.

The buildings in good condition house park workers; others are left as they were when abandoned or (we suspect) artfully restored to what the interpretive specialists thought appropriate. We eyed relative amounts of dust and differential fading on labels analytically, because we're like that. No photos, though.
Rust-reds and browns in strikingly beautiful contrast to the glowing blue sky.

There's very little interpretation, even in the Visitors' Centre. We had a reasonable understanding of the  mining and refining process; we wanted more, and much more detailed information, but the display cabinets were full of artefacts of the period: clothing, glassware, ledgers. Attempting to instill empathy for those who lived here, rather than information about why they were here and how they earned their living. We bought Bodie "the mines are looking well"  for the information we wanted (it's a lot cheaper in Bodie!).

Bodie sits on a plateau nearly 8500' above sea level. It's high desert, tied with Barrow, Alaska as the US locality with the most nights below freezing. Look at those buildings again.

Timber, plaster and lathe if they were lucky. Single pane glass windows (one of the surviving houses has a conservatory about 2' deep built onto the house; with scarcely room for a chair, even though it's now filled with shelving and a random assortment of bottles, it looked more to us like an attempt to trap warmth for the sitting room). Life here was hard. Until 1881, when a railroad was built from Mono Lake, everything - timber, fuel, food, booze, mining equipment, timber and more timber - was hauled in by road, and the gold - c. US$34 million was shipped out. We wondered how large and beautiful the forests around Mono Lake were, in the days before the Gold Rush. We wondered where the water supply was; there's a creek, but it runs right below the mine works, where cyanide was used to extract gold from the crushed ore. We really wondered whether anyone had analysed the creek sediments recently … but whatever is in there, it's not harming anyone now. 

There's a reconstituted mine headworks by the parking lot, and elsewhere a small junkyard of abandoned equipment. We wandered around it, admiring it 

and trying to identify all the bits. Eventually we realised it was nearly 1130, time to leave. 
I hesitate to confess the next bit, but it is part of the story … 
I'd brought my favourite trainers on this trip. They'd pounded the London pavements for many miles, seen many parts of Scotland, they'd carried me to almost all the SOARs (Spin-Off Autumn Retreats) I'd attended. I walked around Sunriver in them every morning in 2009 and in 2012 they were blackened by volcanic ash at 8000' in the Sierra Nevada, then (with extra thick wool socks) washed clean in the early snows at Tahoe. They were very old now, soles wearing through. I'd bought replacements in San Francisco and wore the new shoes in Yosemite and Death Valley, but I'd been unable to bring myself to just dump the old ones unceremoniously in a bin. I could have buried them somewhere, leaving a memorial to puzzle future archaeologists (Ritual! Clearly Ritual!), but that seemed like pollution. Sitting in the car waiting for A., it occurred to me that this was the place, it was somehow fitting to leave them and the memories here, in a ghost town. Whispering apologies to the Park Service who will have had to truck them out of the park, I took the battered shoes out of the suitcase and, (sad but true) with tears in my eyes, said farewell and placed them carefully in the bin. End of an era.

And then we drove back down the road. 
There is a spectacular view of the Sierra Nevada from the highest point of the road.

Lower down there are some patches of grazeable greenery near the road.

There were sheep, and (look closely)
A donkey. We speculated on the reason for a donkey. You can, too.
And then we reached 395 and we drove, or rather I drove, and A. navigated, which means far fewer photos. In fact I am somewhat horrified to discover, none. I was certain I'd taken some where we stopped for lunch on the roadside  but I can't find them in iPhoto, which leaves me wondering whether the gnome was on strike for some reason.  I can show you where we stopped (wait for it :-)

View Larger Map

Click 'view larger map' Isn't technology wonderful?

At Carson City we turned left onto 'Nevada State Route 431', aka Mount Rose Highway. This is one of the best routes to admire the steep east slope of the Sierra Nevada - it hairpins straight up from the basin floor at Carson City to Mount Rose summit, at 8900'. There are some stunning views from the road, and we had ample time to enjoy them in the traffic queuing for one-way flow due to re-surfacing work. 
And then we were queuing through Incline Village and Kings Beach, deciding that no matter how lovely the houses, we weren't buying anything on a slope that steep in an earthquake zone. West on 80 and we're going down, down, down the seemingly endless gentle western slope of the Sierra. We turned north on 174, headed for a good friend's house which was exactly where it was supposed to be, although the road to get there was, um, interesting. If you've been there, you know exactly what I mean. I did a lot of talking to the car toward the end of the trip, and pointed out to myself that the bridge was absolutely no different to a vehicle inspection ramp and I take pride in driving my own car onto those. A. was vastly amused. Either he talks to himself silently or he doesn't have to talk himself into things at all. 

Flowing downhill on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada felt like what it was: saying farewell to the mountains. I generally like travelling west; west and north are the 'good' directions, the ones that promise adventure, but we were all too aware that our time here was running out. Although we'd encounter some more unexpected adventures before it ended …

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The beginning of the end.

All good things must come to an end, or we'd have nothing against which to compare them. But we were distinctly melancholy as we packed our bags into the car and headed out the next morning. After so long driving south, ever south, driving north made it very clear that the end of the adventure was inevitable.

We'd waffled all evening and part of the morning about today's route. North, yes, as we were to stay with a friend just west of Lake Tahoe tomorrow night, but through Nevada or California? If Nevada, how far? Cut back into California south of Mono or north of Mono? As navigator, the decision was mine, and I made it as the sign for Hwy 374 through Daylight Pass to Beatty, Nevada came into view. "Turn right here", I said.

The road heads east up the slope of sediment shed by the Funeral Mountains, part of the Amargosa Range. These are Cambrian quartzites, much older than the colourful Tertiary deposits of the Black Mountains just south of Furnace Creek: 

I've embedded a satellite view here. 

The different colours of the gravels in the fan are a function of how long ago they were deposited. The older they are, the darker, as over time the rocks acquire what is known as desert polish, a smooth upper surface polished by windblown dust, and desert varnish or desert lacquer: windblown clay embedded in exposed surfaces attracts manganese and iron particles to develop a shiny dark coating. As you look at the satellite view, you can see how paler, more recent flows cut through the darker, older flow surfaces. We stopped to admire the rocks, both those on the ground and those rising from it. There were cacti(!) as well as rocks on the ground. 

The wind scours finer, lighter sediments away, leaving the rocks to become pavement. It's a nice firm surface to walk on, but do so carefully as it's the result of decades or centuries of erosion.

I spent some time trying to take a photo that would capture my thoughts, but in the end resorted to words.
Texture and lack of texture totally engages my eyes and brain. Fractal texture of mountains, fractured rock against glowing blue sky smoother than the smoothest ice, a new standard for untextured. Achingly beautiful, orange-brown rocks etched against the contrasting blue, bluer, bluest sky. Hard. Crisp cut edges. Painfully sharp. Not an easy place, water does not gently smooth away roughness and imperfections: it erupts, scours, rips, cuts. The mountains resist. This is a land of conflict between elements. 

And we looked back wishfully, wistfully. The pale patch in the centre of the valley is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes; beyond them on the left is Tucki Mountain and Mosaic Canyon at the northern end of the Panamint Range, behind them and to the right are the Inyo Mountains.

But the road called, promising more to see and think about. As it climbed, it ran through and across areas where floods must be frequent (the palest areas nearest the hills): graders have created berms to protect the road, with tamarisk to hold the rocks in place. There was no sign to mark the summit of the pass, but the road began to descend, and on the first curve we passed one of the really hard men of the road: a solitary cyclist travelling west, brown leather skin over sinew and bone, eyes on the road, slowly but steadily making his way uphill. He must have left Beatty hours before. We've seen a few over the last couple of days. Most wearing billed caps with cloth flaps to keep the sun off their necks rather than helmets, all with that whipcord and wire look of long distance, long time riders.

We cruised downhill across the Amargosa valley and the many minor streams feeding the Amargosa River, which makes a u-turn west at the southern end of its valley to flow north into Death Valley. Beatty felt like a classic North American small town, but a couple of cars with roughly-applied spray paint camouflage left us feeling uncomfortable. Instead of suburbs there's a trailer park (big stationary house trailers), something we'd seen a lot of recently. Cheap housing, but must be like ovens on hot days (some have the frames for awnings over the entire trailer). 

At Beatty we joined Hwy 95, our friend for most of the rest of the day. This is a different landscape, softer. The elements have had much longer to attack these mountains: their skeletons emerge from rolling hills constructed of the sediments eroded from them. But it's still geologically active: there are cinder cones, and the occasional lush greenery beside the road relies on hot spring flows. Elsewhere: sage bushes (I don't know which kind), dirt and scattered grasses, mile upon mile of it. High desert. We're at 3-4,000' feet above sea level.

Sage is sage green; creosote bush aka greasewood has bright yellow flowers and is very well adapted to survival in dry environments.

I love it. We love it. 

95 north of Beatty. Zen landscape, the eyes relax. Soft greens, creams, distant mountains softened by age. 
Vast expanse of sage green flowing up the gentle hillslopes. Cream, green, endless shades of blue in haze softening the brown distance. Restful. Just as boredom approaches, so does a cinder cone, offering fractal detail to engross the eyes.

I want to live here in the dry lands for a season or four, a year or three. I want to know what it feels like to wake early for hard work in the cool of the morning, then retreat like a snail into its shell as the heat builds. To see rain not as a cold grey nuisance, but as a rare, dangerous but desirable event. To watch clouds drift across the vaulted sky in all its shades of blue. To find out when, and how, I cease to cherish the vastness and the searching sunlight and perhaps come to hate these spaces for separating me from shops, the sound of running water and dappled sunlight through green leaves.

Over Goldfield Summit (6,021') and down into Goldfield itself. 

From 1906-1910 this was the largest city in Nevada, but ever-deeper mining grew too expensive, the town's population decreased. The buildings remained until 1923, when a disastrous fire completely destroyed about 25 blocks of the city. I know this because we stopped here to stretch our legs,

and ended up talking to the proprietor. As the price of gold has rocketed in recent years the mines are coming back to life, and more are planned: Hwy 95 itself is scheduled for fast-track diversion to allow access to a new find. We left with a delightful walking tour of the town prepared by the Goldfield Historical Society, a road map of Nevada (I'd been working from the California map and guesses), and best of all, two Goldfield shot glasses. We drank a toast to Mr. Davarpanah from them last week, and hope to do so for many years to come. I liked Goldfield. Not beautiful or scenic itself, but an honest little town set in a beautiful landscape.

Bottle houses grew out of the need for housing in an area where there was no timber, while saloons produced a plentiful supply of bottles. This is one of only four that survived the 1923 fire in Goldfield.

On, across sagebrush with distant mountains until Hasbrouck Peak announced imminent Tonopah, where we stopped for lunch. 

Endless variations on a theme, but we're not bored yet.

Just north of Tonopah on Hwy 6 a white tower shimmered in the distance with something peculiar at its base.

A. guessed it was a solar thermal plant, and Google proved him right. And then the road curved west around Lone Mountain and we saw the Sierra Nevada again. They'd had snow since we left, surely? We pulled over near a tiny cinder cone that offered slightly better views.

At the top I found a selection of pellets full of small mammal bones, regurgitated by some large bird of prey (this is how they get rid of the bones and fur of the animals they eat). If the pellets are soaked until they soften, the contents can be identified from skulls and teeth. Great fun! but I left it for someone else to enjoy.

Then, decision time. Continue west on Hwy 6 with time to explore Mono Lake before a night in Lee Vining, or north on our old friend Hwy 95 to Hawthorne and a longer route? We love a road trip, we liked the landscape: we drove north. 

The mountains grew nearer: we must be near Hawthorne. Our new Nevada map mentioned 'Hawthorne Army Ammunition Plant', which may explain road signs forbidding trucks laden with explosives from stopping overnight in the little towns we've passed. It certainly does explain the vast array of small bunkers, each a significant distance from its neighbours, each surrounded by a ditch and berm to protect it from adjacent explosions, or reduce the effect of its explosion. Scary to contemplate working there.

Fill with gas and out on 359, climbing the skirts of the mountains, then southwest along a large valley until the road begins to twist and I shout "STOP! Piñon pines!" Poor A. But I was right, they were, and it was extremely satisfying to see yet another thing I've wanted to see for decades, even though the only nuts we could find on the trees were ancient bug-eaten shells full of frass.

Up a bit more, into the trees and then down again out of the trees into sage and creosote bush. Ever-widening gaps between the trees showed glints of light: sunlight on Mono Lake. 

Just as I'd planned (ha!), we'd arrived with time to spare to visit Black Point. Thirteen thousand years ago this volcano erupted under a much larger Mono Lake up to 900' deep, fed by meltwater from glaciers on the surrounding mountains. The pressure of the water forced the lava and cinders to become wide, flat cone, and may have influenced the formation of the peculiar fissures found in the summit. It may be the only fully exposed 'underwater' volcano on earth. A gravel road led to a dirt road, which led to a small parking area and sign between the hillside and the lake.

The hill is only about 500' high and it was late afternoon, not too hot, so we opted for a waterbottle instead of hydration packs, and a handful of energy bars in case of emergency, and followed the largest of the trails of footprints in the dark loose soil. It soon morphed into an interlacing of smaller paths, all heading uphill, so we chose our own route over the false summits, always aiming for the highest point. Here the dense layers of tuff (compressed ash) stood proud above the softer ashes and offered spectacular views over the Mono Lake basin. Almost at our feet were white deposits of tufa leading out to Negit Island, the darker of the two islands, a volcanic cone probably less than 2000 years old. Beyond it is Paoha Island, 

and beyond that, the remainder of the Mono-Inyo Craters, although we can't see all of them. 

Looking north across the low, flat hill, we could see a hollow that might be a fissure. We plunged downhill through the bushes, taking care to make noise to alert anything (snakes) to our passage. It was indeed a fissure. 

The origin of the fissures is unclear, but they are fascinating. Some are relatively shallow, not much more than very large mud cracks. Others are deeper and large enough to walk down with ease, giving good views of the layers of tephra differentiated by differences in the relative amounts of ash, pumice, basalt, and 'country rock' - the granite of the Sierra Nevada batholith - each contains. Strange and thought-provoking to see chunks of that granite here, embedded in the ash. As we entered the shade of the cleft, there were animals: bees were attending the creosote bushes, there were tiny flying things (which explained the spider webs). We emerged and found another fissure, this one much deeper; we found a way down to one end, but looked again at the angle of the sun and decided it was better to head back to the car. 

So we did. As we walked, the shadow of the Sierra mountain wall swallowed us and the air began to cool rapidly. I saw the start of something else I'd wanted to see: wildlife emerging at dusk. We'd note a movement in the brush below us, freeze, and wait: a rabbit. Two rabbits!  Repeat a few minutes later and: jackrabbit! Finally, as we approached the car, a coyote sloped across the road toward the hill. Hide, rabbits.

Back into the car, back down the dirt road, out on the gravel to Hwy 395 and Lee Vining. Where we found beds for the night and Mono Cone. Hamburgers were good, but the first milkshake I've had for decades was beyond good. Especially when enjoyed while reading a book on geology and listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Bliss. A memory to cherish forever.

And the next day we drove north to somewhere west of Lake Tahoe. And other places. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Death Valley after noon: 20 Mule Team Canyon, Dantes View, Zabriskie Point and a parking lot.

So. On this grey, cool and dank (we had a lot of rain yesterday, persistent streaming all-day UK rain, not cataclysmic desert rain) British morning, I am thinking of heat and colourful rocks glowing in the sun under a rich blue sky. 

We ate lunch, looked at the map and speculated on the origin of the sand dunes, which veered into nonsensical assessment of the possibility of buying good souvenir t-shirts in Stovepipe Wells. Lack of data rendered further discussion pointless so we went to Stovepipe Wells to acquire data, a t-shirt each. Then my demands for more! information! NOW!! drove us to seek enlightenment in the new National Parks visitor centre at Furnace Creek. We'd driven through their parking lot first thing in the morning, but sadly it didn't open until 9am. The Centre is worth a visit; it's a good example of modern interpretation, placing as much emphasis on conservation and environmental issues affecting the area, and the displaced local peoples, as on the wildlife and geology. It's the right thing to do, but knowledge of the issues involved does reduce my enjoyment of a site. And they had a geology book!

Then we headed south on 190 for Dantes View. We passed the Furnace Creek Inn, built in an architectural style that left me speechless with dismay, past the parking lot for Zabriskie Point, jammed with buses and cars. A. (who was navigating) said "Take the turn on the right for 20 Mule Team Canyon". So I did. Someone's filmed the drive here (somewhat enhanced), but it really doesn't do justice to the vibrant landscape. I remember the old TV commercials for 'Twenty Mule Team Borax';  this is part of the road they drove from the Borax Works at Furnace Creek to the Mojave railhead.

Not that impressive to start with, but it soon improved.

I pulled off the road and we walked into what was beginning to resemble a warming oven. Not uncomfortably hot, but noticeably warmer than anything I could remember experiencing before. 

It intrigues me that many people (including us) find desolation to be beautiful. Three hundred years ago we'd probably have regarded it as terrifying. Quite literally. Only fertile green and pleasant landscapes thoroughly tamed by man were regarded as attractive. Perhaps our confidence in technology's ability to provide us with food, water, shelter and air conditioning has influenced our views.

Cinder cones visible a little higher on the hills tempted us to walk further.

We started working our way up the gulleys, but soon decided it would be unwise to go further. It was definitely hot; we don't have any experience coping with heat, and we'd left the heavy hydration packs in the car, opting instead for a water bottle in my bag, and that was not enough. Besides which, there were other things to do this afternoon. We admired the fragments of cinder visible on the ground at our feet and headed back to the car, promising ourselves another, longer visit here.

We'll be back. 

On to Dante's View. 190 runs along a valley, the interface between two sets of opposing sediment fans. The road to Dantes View takes us west, gently but steadily uphill across sediment fan gravels.

Past places where it looks as though the road has washed out in the past. Past the site of the Billie Mine, an underground borax mine that for over a decade was the only active mine in Death Valley. It closed in 2005. Past strange gleaming rectangles on a distant hillside (no photo), which the internet says is Ryan. Founded as a boron mining town, became a hotel, may become an educational centre. Past a trailer parking area. The road grows steeper, and I pull over to allow faster cars to pass. We chunter slowly ever upwards and now the road is off the sediment fan and winding through the hills. The hilltops grow nearer, signs warn of a 15% gradient. I pat the dashboard reassuringly: gradient, we can do gradient. Round another bend and I can see the switchbacks. Oh, no. Look at the road, nice solid road, not the drop. Don't look at the way the hillside just disappears to each side of the road, look at the road. Nice road. I talk myself up, all the way to the parking lot at the top of the hill. Once parked, I gingerly approach the front of the car and discover I'm about 6' short of the curb, when I could have sworn I was about to drive off the edge. In my defence it's a very spectacular edge, 5700' above the Badwater basin. 

A. blithely set off for the lower viewpoint, while I chewed a ginger candy and waited for the vertigo to subside. The view is well worth the price. It's stunning on this cloudless day. I can see Telescope Peak and Wildrose peaks in the Panamints across the valley. If I creep closer to the edge I can see down, down, down, the broad track beaten into the mud of the lowest point in the US that we saw last night. No photos, the phone might have slipped from my sweaty little hand.

His panorama of the view:

The road up, viewed from the parking lot. Left me wondering what my problem was, until I drove down it.

Back down the hill and north on 190 discussing what to do now. Zabriskie Point is best viewed at sunset, when the low angle light accentuates the landforms and adds colour, but after seeing how busy it was at midday, sunset seems likely to be sardine time. Not worth the trouble. We opted for a visit now before returning to the ranch.

Panorama strikes again. It works, though.

From 12 to 4 million years ago, the faults that define the Death Valley were particularly active. The Panamint range slipped north and west, allowing the Death Valley basin to slip lower. Volcanoes associated with the movement produced ash and cinders that were deposited in the basin. Beginning about 2-3 million years ago, during each Pleistocene glaciation water filled the basin to become Lake Manly; 22,000 years ago, Death Valley was a lake up to 585' deep and 90 miles long. The colourful landscapes of this part of the Black Mountains – Artist Palette Road, Zabriskie Point, 20 Mule Team Canyon – were created by erosion of the layers of cream, gold and brown ash that sat, compressed, under water until the glaciers and Lake Manly, which relied on their meltwater, disappeared.

Back to the ranch, shower, and dinner (at the bar rather than the restaurant, a good choice). After dinner we skipped dessert and headed out once more. Death Valley is is a first class Dark Sky Park: we wanted to see the stars. But where? A. suggested the parking lot for the Harmony Borax mines as nearest and least bother. The western sky was still gold and blue when we arrived, but it darkened fast.

We lay on our backs on the parking lot, our heads resting on the concrete bay markers, and watched as the stars came out singly, then in groups and then all at once. Sadly the nearly-full moon was exceedingly bright, although I found I could block it with my foot if I held my leg up … just … right … there! The headlights from cars speeding along 190 were an additional distraction. But these were minor things by comparison with the warmth(!) of the tarmac under our backs. The silence, and the joy of watching tiny sparks emerge from the midnight blue sky. We saw satellites, A. saw meteors! We have to go back. We have to do that again.