Shallow Thoughts : tags : desert

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 02 Sep 2013

Waking up to Balloons

We recently returned from a quick whirlwind trip through a series of towns in the Four Corners area: the place where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah come together.

[Hot-air balloon landing in the road in Cortez, CO] One highlight: watching hot-air balloons floating across the sky against the backdrop of Mesa Verde in Cortez, CO ... and watching one accidentally land in the middle of the highway in front of our motel (the White Eagle Inn, a charming little place with super nice owners).

Cars stopped on the highway while someone jumped out of the basket and pushed the balloon toward the side of the road. The truck on the left is the chase crew.

(And yes, that's a powerline in the foreground, very close to where the balloon came down.)

[Hot-air balloons in Cortez, CO] The sky was full of balloons, and the hotel was as good a place as any to watch them. Quite a way to start the morning!

Other highlights:

The view of the Rio Grande from the White Rock Overlook with lightning flashing in the background.

[Rio Grande panorama from White Rock, NM Overlook Park] (No lightning in the photo, just a 13-image panorama. Click for a bigger version.)

Dinner at Rancho de Chimayo. I had their famous carne adovada, Dave had a stuffed sopaipilla with green chile, and we shared. And sopaipillas with honey on the side, of course. They're just as good as they were the first time I was there ... was that really a quarter century ago?

All the motels that are using WPA passwords for their wi-fi, instead of stupid browser pages that you have to re-authenticate every time the connection drops. Things are looking up, gradually, for motel wi-fi.

[The working Ivanpah solar collector] Heading back into California, driving past Primm, NV, we checked out the progress on the new solar tower collector being built at old Ivanpah. It's changed a lot since we were there last. It looks like one tower is operational (though its mirror array doesn't appear to extend all the way around yet), while two more towers have mirror arrays but still have covers over the central tower. [All three Ivanpah solar collectors]

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[ 21:15 Sep 02, 2013    More travel | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 06 Apr 2011

Slanted signs on dirt roads -- what do they mean?

I like to travel in out-of-the-way places. On desert back roads, one often encounters mysteries of one sort or another. And the mystery under consideration today is a prosaic one: road signs.

[slanted dirt-road sign] Dirt roads, especially in the desert, seldom have much in the way of signage. You're lucky if you get an occasional signpost with a BLM route number (which invariably isn't marked on any of your maps anyway).

And yet, quite often out on deserted dirt roads, you'll see odd, slanted signs painted yellow with black stripes. No numbers or letters, and not every road has them. What do they mean?

They don't always seem to slant the same way. I've wondered if they might point to underground cables or other hazards -- but there are usually much clearer signs for such things. Sometimes they run along a fence ... but not always.

I've seen them a lot in California, but I'm pretty sure I've seen them in Nevada and maybe in Arizona. I don't think I've seen any in New Mexico.

[slanted dirt-road sign] [slanted dirt-road sign] Sometimes they come in pairs -- and sometimes the pairs are at right angles to one another, or at some other angle entirely.

Sometimes they seem to be aimed primarily at traffic coming from one direction; sometimes they're posted on opposite sides of the same post and clearly meant to be viewed both ways.

Try as I might, I haven't been able to detect any regularly in where the signs appear or which direction they slant.

And I can't figure out how to search the web. How do you search for "slanted sign with strips on dirt roads"? I've tried, but I haven't had much luck. I've found lots of compendia of standard signs for paved roads and construction areas, but nothing that covers off-road symbolism.

[slanted dirt-road sign] I've seen them in the Mojave, in deserts in other states like Arizona and Utah, and even a few along I-5 through the California central valley. They're clearly a widespread phenomenon, not a regional thing.

Of course, there are lots of mysterious dirt road signs besides the slanted ones: I don't know what the little round ones mean either, nor the little houses on thick posts.

Can anyone decode the signs and solve the mystery?

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[ 11:19 Apr 06, 2011    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Wed, 18 Nov 2009

Of Cima, Sand and Melons


Morningstar Mine: Cadillac-smooth down low, but take it slowly higher up.
Not many buildings or mine shafts, but lots of miner trash.

Jackass Canyon:

Too much deep sand for us -- we gave up and turned around.

Aiken Mine Road:

A lovely beginner 4WD road: scenic and weird, from slightly challenging rocky basalt to deep (but not dangerously so) sand.

Morningstar Mine

Our first goal of the morning was Morningstar Mine, a set of abandoned mines in the northern part of the preserve.

Two wide, smooth dirt roads leave paved Morningstar Mine Rd to climb the alluvial fan, but the quality of the roads gradually deteriorate over the short distance to the mines.

Morningstar Mine turns out to be a private, going concern, fenced off with NO TRESSPASSING signs. But there are plenty of older, abandoned mines nearby. Very few buildings or mine shafts, but lots of rusting cans and other trash. Really, not much to see, and Dave was in a hurry to move on, so we did.

The Contentious Memorial

Down on Cima Road near the Teutonia Peak trailhead, I wanted to see the famous WWII monument, about which a Supreme Court case is currently raging. (The monument is a cross, a religous symbol, which federal law says should not be supported by government funds or stand on government land.)

I couldn't find anything on the web that gave the location of the monument, so we had to look for it. It turns out that it's easily spotted from the road, atop one of the granite outcrops on the north side of the road, just east of the Teutonia Peak trailhead. (Or see the GPS waypoint file linked at the end of this article.)

In fact, we'd almost certainly seen it before, and shrugged it off as another of those weird inexplicable things you see in the Mojave. The upper part of the cross is currently covered with a box, so it looks like a small sign that says nothing. Several people have put up small flags nearby.

Jackass Canyon -- not to be

The next goal was Jackass Canyon, down in the south part of the preserve west of Kelso.

For quite a while the road is in great shape, hard packed and not badly washboarded. There are lots of curious red anthill-like formations right in the road that turned out to be built not of sand but of some sort of dried plant matter. (Did I mention the curious things you see in the Mojave?)

But then the road descends into a wash full of deep sand with occasional buried rocks. After smacking our undercarriage a couple of times on hidden obstacles while fishtailing around in the sand, we decided retreat was the better part of valor. We'll try Jackass Canyon from the south some time -- maybe it's easier from that direction.

Mojave Rd from 17-Mile Pt to Aiken Mine Rd

Returning to Kelbaker Road, we proceeded a few miles west to 17-Mile Point, where we'd exited the Mojave Road a few days ago, and turned north to complete a section of the Mojave Rd. we hadn't done yet. From Kelbaker to Aiken Mine, the road is quite sandy, with lots of fishtailing, but not a problem for the Rav.

Aiken Mine Rd

[Aiken Mine]

This was our second time on Aiken Mine Rd, one of our favorite routes in the preserve.

The lower section of Aiken Mine, from the paved road to the lava tube, is brutally washboarded, like most park dirt roads that get a lot of 2WD traffic.

We didn't stop at the lava tube today, since we'd explored it fairly thoroughly the last time (it's lovely, and provided several of my favorite desktop wallpaper images) but continued straight past it into the basalt.

The ascent from the lower lava fields up to Aiken Mine is weird and wonderful. The road is entirely basalt cinders (Aiken mine is a cinder mine located on a large cinder cone), a mixture of black and red and a little white sand here and there. It's like driving on Mars. The ascent is steep and slightly slippery, but it looks scarier than it is -- there's really no danger here for anything with reasonable clearance, and although 4WD is probably helpful I doubt it's required. The mine, an active cinder mine, is at the top, along with some hiking trails up one of the cinder cones.

Past Aiken, the road descends into the Joshua tree forest on the side of Cima Dome, supposedly the densest Joshua tree forest in the world. ("In the world" should be viewed in light of the fact that Joshua trees don't really exist anywhere outside the Mojave desert of California and Nevada.) More fishtailing in deep sand with a high center groove. The Rav4 never bottomed, but this is definitely not a road to take a 2WD street car of normal ride height.

The melon patch

[Coyote melons]

At some point, the road forks and the left fork seems to be the main one -- but it's a sham. The left fork is actually a power line maintenance road that cuts across to I-15. (We knew this because we'd gotten caught by it the last time, followed the power lines then eventually figured it out and cut back to the more interesting Aiken Mine Rd.)

A few miles afer the powerline fork the road passes a water tank and corral, goes back into sandy Joshua tree forest for a while, then comes out at a strange clearing. What's strange about it? It's a patch of coyote melons. These delicious looking, softball-sized melons apparently grow wild in the Mojave -- but I've never seen them anywhere but this spot. They're apparently all but inedible by humans ... but something eats them, because you can see broken, emptied and dessicated melon rinds lying everywhere.

Did I mention "strange things you see in the Mojave"? Coming on a melon patch in the middle of the desert is one of the things I love about this place.

Alas, the melon patch is almost at the end of the road. Not long after it,, there's a house (I hear one of the rangers lives there) and an intersection, and the road suddenly turns posh for its last mile or two to paved Cima Road.

Photos and GPS Logs

Photos Track log, Waypoints

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[ 10:34 Nov 18, 2009    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 14 Nov 2009

Castle Peaks and Hart: California's Ozymandius


Castle Peaks hiking corridor: A rocky road with a couple of tricky sandy gulches takes you to a hike along a wash leading to gorgeous views of basalt and breccia and eventually the Castle Peaks, ragged spires that look like volcanic necks.

Hart Mine: A smooth, easy road takes you to an abandoned town site and a collossal open-pit mine.

Castle Peaks hiking corridor

[Castle Peaks, Mojave]

Our goal on Tuesday was the "Castle Peaks Hiking Corridor". The Trails Illustrated map showed a side road leading northwest from Walking Box Ranch Rd and eventually petering out to become a hiking trail that went, if not actually to Castle Peaks, at least close enough to get a good look.

Castle Peaks are the rugged spikes you see from I-15 between Mountain Pass and Primm, jutting into the skyline and giving the New York Mountains their appearance of skyscrapers which must be the reason for the range's name. They're eroded fins of eroded Miocene volcanics, surrounded by Precambian metamorphic rocks.

Walking Box Ranch Rd is easy to find off Nipton Rd -- not only is it a prominent, wide dirt road but there's even a road sign, a few miles after the eastern end of the Wee Thump Joshua Tree wilderness (on the north side of Nipton Rd). I'd like to explore Wee Thump and its impressive Joshua trees some day.

The road is good, open and well graded, notwithstanding the humorous "Road not maintained" sign you encounter a few miles in. The side roads follow the map well enough, so it wasn't too difficult to identify the Castle Peaks turn-off. It's a 4-way intersection, not 3-way as shown on the map.

The Castle Peaks road is much narrower and alternates between sandy stretches and dirt. Mostly it's nothing difficult, but the rocky sections are slow going (first gear), there's a high center rut and you cross a couple of washes that make you stop and think about the right line. There are also a couple of sections where the road splits and the higher fork leads to a washed-out chasm, so proceed with due caution.

Eventually the road deteriorated and we parked and continued on foot, along the road and eventually through the gate that marks the Wilderness area boundary. After that the trail crosses through an area of basalt breccia -- the northwestern limit of the "malpais" lava area concentrated around Malpais Springs.

The icy wind dissuaded us from trying to go all the way to Castle Peaks (the trail doesn't go there anyway) but we did get a good view of them as well as nice views of Joshua trees and the malpais.

After our hike, we retraced our steps and crossed over along smooth, good roads to the deserted Hart townsite.

Hart Site: Ozymandius in the Mojave

[Ghost town: Hart townsite] Hart was a mining town established in 1907. At its peak it had five hotels, 8 saloons, a newspaper and about 400 residents. And today, what you can see of the town is ... a lot of rusted cans.

That's all. No buildings. No walls. But I guess when Hart's residents departed, they left their trash behind, and scattered among the yucca and creosote you can find collections of rusted cans and a few glass bottles darkening in the desert sun.

It's sobering. What happened to all the buildings? Where are those hotels and saloons and hundreds of houses? Apparently if you search long enough, you can find a few tiny segments of walls -- but mostly, this boom town has crumbled into nothingness. And trash.

It reminds me of Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ozymandius:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away

There's no shattered visage -- just a plaque giving the history of the town, the expansive pit mine nearby, and the garbage quietly rusting away in the lone and level sands.

[Panorama of Hart Mine]

Photos and GPS log:

Track log

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[ 14:03 Nov 14, 2009    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry | ]

Fri, 06 Nov 2009

Probing the Limits of a Rav4 on Clark Mountain

[Clark Mountain]


Clark Mountain, Yates Well to Colosseum Gorge: Lovely, scenic roads with a few slow sections.

Clark Mountain, West: Punishing, rocky, technical roads: a first-gear crawl with lots of stopping to plan routes and move rocks around.

The plan

Just west of Primm and north of Yates Well lies a small, disconnected piece of Mojave National Preserve called Clark Mountain.

A year or two ago, Dave and I tried to explore Clark Mountain. Exiting I-15 at Cima Road, we headed northwest and looked for a small unmarked road heading east into the park. But we missed the right road and ended up on a rocky, tedious power-line road. Eventually we took a side road heading toward the mountain and ended up in a maze of unmarked roads, eventually coming to a four-way intersection with a sign:

Public by-pass route

Unfortunately, one of the three roads dead-ended in a "Private property: KEEP OUT" sign while the other two looked too technical to attempt so late in the afternoon. So we slunk back to the powerline road and turned right, toward Primm.

This year, we attacked Clark Mountain from the other side.

Old Ivanpah

[ruins at old Ivanpah] [Dave inspects the mysterious Ivanpah hole] We started from Yates Well Rd, the first I-15 exit south of Primm. Right toward the golf course, then first left toward the mountain. Our first project was to find old Ivanpah.

Ivanpah is an abandoned town over in the main part of Mojave Preserve -- but historical records show that it was moved there from an earlier location over on the slopes of Clark.

Just inside the NPS boundary, there's a network of small dirt roads forking off to the left. We parked and walked around, and eventually found the Ivanpah site: a few standing rock walls, a watering trough, a mysterious hole in the ground with a fence around it ("Private property, KEEP OUT") and a collection of ancient rusted and flattened iron cans as well as more modern shotgun shells.

Colosseum Gorge

[Colosseum mine] [Pyrite?]

Beyond Old Ivanpah, the road threads its way up along Colosseum Gorge, named after the spectacular open-pit mine near the top of the pass. The mine's steeply terraced walls do put one in mind of a vast spectator arena; but the only show today was the quiet pool at the bottom, the only spectators the two of us and a trio of ravens.

There's a network of interesting looking roads below the mine. Some lead up to Clark while others explore the grassy meadow below. A couple in a Landrover (the only other vehicle we saw all day) was crawling along one of the mountain roads.

[confusing Greens Well Rd sign]

Continuing on from the mine, we found the road occasionally rocky, but easy. At the bottom was an intersection with a sign aimed westward:

Public by-pass route
We'd made the connection! We'd been so close on our previous trip -- if only we'd known.

Clark Mountain, West

The rest of the journey would be easy! Just turn left at the right place and head south along the west face of Clark to the paved road, avoiding that awful rocky powerline road which had so sapped our energy and our time on the previous trip.

[Turn-off, with desert willow]

The turn-off (shown at left) is easy to miss: a fork to the left, up a steep incline, then an immediate right (fortunately shown on our Trails Illustrated map). We drove right past the left at first thinking it couldn't be the one, but as we saw our route bending right and down toward the powerline now visible in the distance, we knew we'd missed it and went back.

We climbed out of desert willow into a Joshua tree forest with a beautiful view of the valley to the north. And then the road got rocky. Just as rocky as it had been on the powerline road -- but this time it hummocked up over hills and down into washes, so the going was much more technical.

[Rav4 on rocky Clark Mtn West road] [Rav4 on rocky Clark Mtn West road]

It turned out to be by far the most technical road we'd done, involving frequent stops to get out and plan routes and sometimes build ramps so the Rav wouldn't bottom out. On the tricky sections, one person got out and "spotted" while the other drove.

In the end we made it across to paved Kingston Rd with no damage to the Rav. That section only took about two and a half hours, but it felt like five. I guess it was a learning experience, certainly the most technical road we've done -- but in future we'll stay off the west side of Clark Mountain.
(At right: View of Primm and Ivanpah dry lake.) [Primm and Ivanpah Dry Lake]

GPS log:

Track log, Waypoints



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[ 14:44 Nov 06, 2009    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry | ]

Sat, 31 Oct 2009

Crossing Soda Lake on the Mojave Rd


Mojave Rd from Basin to Zzyzyx: Deep sand, confusing navigation.

Mojave Rd from Zzyzyx to 17-Mile Point: Easy and fun (in dry fall weather). Don't count on getting from Mojave to Zzyzyx.

Basin to Zzyzyx

The goal for the first day of this trip involved a slight detour on the way to our hotel: a section of the Mojave Road entering Mojave National Preserve from the south.

[Sign marking Mojave Rd] On most maps, the Mojave Road enters the preserve at Soda Lake, a bit east of Zzyzyx (pronounced Zye-zix, we're told, not Zizzix.) We'd been warned in the past that any hint of rain turns Soda Lake into a slippery, muddy truck-eating quagmire, so it's important to inquire first about conditions before attempting it.

But some study of Google Earth had convinced Dave that there's a road not shown on the maps going from Mojave Rd. across to Zzyzyx. All we had to do was take the Basin Rd. exit off I-15, turn onto Mojave Rd at the big metal signpost, and head north until we hit Soda Lake. If the lake surface looked bad, Zzyzyx would be an easy out.

This section of Mojave Road, it turns out, is a complex braid of dry washes of sand so deep that turning the steering wheel is more a suggestion than a control. That's great fun, as long as you're getting enough traction and not bottoming out. Occasional rock cairns tell you you're on the right track.

... Until you stop seeing cairns. At some point I took the road less braided and ended up driving across sand dunes before the route finally rejoined the Mojave Rd. Fortunately the Rav4 handled the sand very competently, without ever needing its magic center-differential-lock button.

(The GPS with its OpenStreetMap-derived file was no help here -- it didn't show the Mojave Road at all. It is in the OSM database, I found out later, rendered as a red dotted line -- apparently not major enough to make it into the Garmin maps. The nice thing about OSM is that I can fix it!)

Eventually we got back on something resembling a main road, which had turned into whoop-de-doos -- endless irritating hummocks that took patience but no great driving skill as the road skirts along the southern edge of a Wilderness area: no vehicular access. Rasor Rd comes in from I-15 somewhere around here, and the area is popular with ATVers: we saw quite a few groups camping.

Zzyzyx to 17-Mile Point

[Mojave Rd crossing Soda Lake]

Finally we got to Soda Lake. The sandy road turned to smooth hardpack as it entered the lake bed -- by far the best road we'd seen since leaving I-15, and we drove out with no hesitation. We could see deep tracks off to either side of the road -- obviously lots of people experiment, and just as obviously the surface isn't quite as good if you get off the road, but we had no trouble on this dry October day. Before long we saw Zzyzyx off in the distance on our left -- and no road going there. But if the road across the dry lake was this good, why would we want to turn off to Zzyzyx at all?

(Good thing we didn't want to, since we couldn't!)

At the far side of the lake are a couple of steep rises in deep sand -- but nothing too tricky, and much easier than the sandy sections south of the lakebed.

The rest of the trip was just normal dirt-road driving, between the more-scenic-than-their-names-suggest Cowhole and Little Cowhole Mountains, through a small basalt flow (evidence of some nice big bubbles visible in the walls), and finally back onto pavement at Kelbaker Road and north to Primm.

GPS log: Track log, Waypoints

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[ 12:56 Oct 31, 2009    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry | ]