T011 2005 California

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Death Valley surprised us. It sure wasn’t what we expected. We felt much like the prospectors of the 1800’s did as they poked around discovering new sites and wonders as they looked for treasure. Like prospectors of old we moved up and down the narrow valley floor making a few discoveries and then branched into the surrounding mountains to do most of our prospecting. Our treasure: memories, photos, and a few words on paper are a bit easier to carry than the gold, silver, borax, and in one case a unique place to live.

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Scotty’s grave rests near the edge of a hill with an encompassing view of Scotty’s Castle below. We paid our respects to this unique prospector who found his riches buried in the pockets of others. We enjoyed the view and then started back down the hill to tour the Castle. Behind the hill neatly piled stacks of what appeared to be railroad ties marched down the valley floor and disappeared around the edge of the hill. Later on the tour we learned that the Johnsons, the actual owners of Scotty’s Castle, had purchased 20 miles of defunct railroad track, had the ties pulled up and shipped to the castle and stacked behind the hill for use as firewood in their many fireplaces. Upstairs the tour provided a feel for living in a very large unique home. The underground tour through the basement and mechanical rooms gave great insight as to what is required to live in the desert in luxury. Wet drapes hung in front of fans sent cooling air up through floor vents. Electricity came from a water-powered generator with a huge battery backup system. The uncompleted swimming pool, small lake actually, gave a feel for the scale for which the Johnsons planned on living in the desert. Bill, our guide was every bit the character that Scotty might have been. His well worn and aged leather hat had a few burn holes earned as it fanned campfires over its forty year history. He added, “The hat is great for shooing kids, women and horses.”

Just the name, Ubehebe, was enough to draw us to investigate. We bumped up the narrow road late in the afternoon just in time to watch the sun put the ancient volcano crater’s west wall in shadow. Colors deepened and changed as we hiked the few miles around the crater rim watching the rim shadow cross the floor and begin working its way up the east wall. The low sun angle accentuated clouds of volcanic dust floating into the air with each step.

Each evening we’d follow the flashlight’s pool of light over to the visitors’ center to attend the ranger talk and slide show. Death Valley came to life as rangers filled in details about the history and character of the valley.

It was an extreme test, but now we know our fillings are sound. We’d tried to shake them loose by running the Trek up an extreme washboard road to the mountain edge. From there we walked up Titus Canyon for a few miles soaking up the flavor of the mountains. The 4X4 recommended road extends on another twenty or so miles through the mountains to the ghost towns of Leadfield and then Rhyolite just outside the park back in Nevada.

Another route took us to Rhyolite, now just outlines of streets in the desert accented with partial remains and a few building shells of the once substantial town. The old train station standing forlorn and fenced off for its own protection seemed in remarkably good condition and very out of place surrounded by the faint reminders of a town. The ghost town came complete with its own odd character. Showing up in a faded shirt and jeans held up by a huge set of suspenders he looked like he’d been part of town. He explained he and his wife were snow birders getting out of damp and cold of Oregon. They spend winters in Rhyolite living in the 5th wheel we could see. In perfect character with the town he filled us in on the rise and fall of Rhyolite.

In person the borax wagon is huge. It still waits in front of the borax mill on the Death Valley floor for the long gone miners to fill it and add a second wagon followed by a water wagon for the mules. Then when all was ready the mule team, usually 18 mules and 2 horses, were hitched up and the “20-mule-team” headed out hauling borax over a hundred miles to the rail head and the name, Twenty-Mule-Team Borax, onto America’s grocery shelves.

Using the Trek as our exploration vehicle made many aspects of dry camping for the nine days we were in Death Valley a bit easier. Every few days we’d just stop at the dump station to empty tanks and take on water before heading out to explore. While driving the engine recharges the house batteries so it wasn’t necessary to run the generator too much. Rangers assign sites so it’s not necessary to leave things out to hold the site when off exploring. Upon returning it was easy to back in since each site was very wide and basically level so leveling was done in seconds. The Death Valley gas station sold propane so we didn’t worry about cold nights and running out of propane.

We were at the Badlands, 282 feet below sea level. Oddly the vast salt flat looks like a huge ice rink. Looking west it was hard to comprehend the mountains were 12,000 feet high. The mountains at our back had one tiny feature making their height immaterial; up the side of the mountain there’s a very small sign reading: SEA LEVEL.

The trail through the rocks at Mojave National Park had a unique feature. In a number of places large iron rings had been placed to assist climbing the vertical volcanic rocks. Since the drops were only 8-10 feet the rings provided more of a sense of adventure rather than a feeling of danger. Once we’d completed the rock trail, all that was left was open desert trails that didn’t appeal so we pushed on.

A logo painted on the roadway flashed by; gone before it registered as to exactly what it was. Now on the alert we caught the next one–a shield with 66 inside. We were riding along the fabled Route 66 and from the road condition it was the original two-lane highway. Route 66 now only exists in memories. Since it’s no longer a US highway most states have renumbered it, but like California identify it in some way to help people looking for a nostalgic trip find sections that haven’t become part of the Interstate.

Street signs started showing up at what looked like dirt roads going off into the desert just outside of Twenty-nine Palms, CA. Off down the roads were occasional modest houses with no evidence of power or water utilities but evidence that some used solar power and some had water storage tanks. The regular spacing of the side roads and the street signs at the intersection with the highway spiked our curiosity. Later a park ranger filled us in about the five acre land grants veterans were given to live in the area. Many she explained hauled in their water.

With our odd introduction we didn’t hold high expectations for finding goodies for our Christmas Day dinner. The grocery store proved it was best not to prejudge. Prominently displayed in the meat case was a beautiful prime rib just the right size for dinner and leftovers. As a bonus we found Wi-Fi access while sitting in the grocery store parking lot.

The snap in the quiet of the evening was startling. One of the mousetraps riding under the sofa had tripped. I got the flashlight and lifted the fabric edge to retrieve our catch and jumped back. Staring back was a pair of very alive beady eyes belonging to a wood rat. It had a trapped leg. A pair of tongs allowed retrieval without fear of getting bit and the rat became history. Minutes later a second trap snapped. This time it was a mouse. Total count for the night: one rat and four mice. The next day we relocated to a different site and were not bothered by furry creatures again.

In spite of our mouse incident we enjoyed Joshua Tree National Park. The campground is accurately named Jumbo Rocks. Huge boulders, some 50 feet and more high, randomly stacked surrounded campsites shoehorned in around them. The surrounding rocks seem to beckon you to climb and at the same time generate a comfortable snuggled in feeling.

Moving early so we could be sure of a space to fit the Trek and still leave the road open we arrived at the Key’s Ranch gate. Twenty minutes later the ranger showed up. We were the only people touring. For two hours we had a guided expert tour of a unique piece of Americana–a ranch and mining family enterprise spanning from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. Our ranger guide had spent time with the now grown kids and had many insights to what life was like.

Having sampled Jumbo Rocks we now headed for our reserved campsite at Indian Cove campground in Joshua Tree. The reservation made sure we had a spot as Christmas crowds started arriving. Coming in we’d spotted climbers so off we went to watch people scaling rocks on Christmas Eve. Early Christmas morning we were off doing our own rock climbing, not for sport but for better cell phone reception. The connection was great and as we talked with family we watched the sun climb over the mountains and slowly pull back the mountain range shadow from the plain below.

Jim and Jan, fellow Trek owners stopped by to wish us a Merry Christmas. We’d first met at Death Valley discovered we have similar interests and enjoyed each other’s company. They have their house up for sale and will shortly start living aboard a Trek ful ltime.

The view outside–bright sun, cacti, desert sand and huge sandstone rocks sure isn’t the winter scenes we’d grown up with. Inside, however, the Santa counted cross-stitch Ruth had made and a few other Christmas decorations she’d added triggered memories of Christmas past. The wonderful smells as the prime rib cooked intensified the memories. We sat down and enjoyed our Christmas dinner remembering family, friends and unique places where we’ve shared and enjoyed this very special day.

Starting east, putting sun visors down in the morning quickly became a requirement. We’d reached our westward high point and turned to start our migration back. We crossed over the Colorado River for the fourth and last time on this trip as we entered Arizona.

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