Monday, March 2, 2015

Driving Through the Fear

There were five of us crammed into the 4WD rental that had taken us to Trona, Ballarat, and Surprise Canyon, and we were heading back through Trona to return to the subcompact that we'd driven up from LA.

It had been a long day, and we were all anxious to end it. Riding shotgun, I couldn't stop taking photos of an incredible lenticular cloud hanging low in the sky ahead, rendered orange by the sun as it dipped behind a mountain.

We noticed a small car pulled over to the shoulder, hazards on – which is not so unusual in the desert, but in such a remote area, somebody could really be in trouble.

We saw two people frantically waving their arms, so we slowed down to pull over and see what the trouble was. A Japanese man, out of breath, told us in broken English that they had run out of gas, and that no other cars had passed them by until us. He was understandably worried, and kept asking how far the next gas station was.

We figured it was 15-20 miles away, a 15-20 minute drive on that road, but too far to walk. Our vehicle was too full for him to jump in and ride along, so we engaged him in a line of questioning to determine how bad the situation was.

"Are you completely out of gas? Did the car stop?" I asked.

"Yes, out of gas," he said. "We pulled over."

I was skeptical. "Is the light on?"

"Yes, light is on."

"When did the light go on?"

"Light just turned on."

Suddenly his situation did not seem so dire. "OH," I said, "You're fine then. Just keep driving! You've got enough."

He didn't believe me, but the rest of my companions started chiming in, assuring him that even if he couldn't make it all the way to the gas station, at least he'd get a lot closer, making it a lot easier (and more likely) for someone to help him.

But he was panicked. He was just frozen. The desert can be so scary to people who aren't familiar with it, as soon as that light turned on, he and his lady friend must've thought, "We're going to die out here."

He kept asking us "How far?" and "How long?" and we kept telling him "You're totally OK. You can do it." And we thought we'd convinced him. We thought he believed us.

So we drove away, keeping an eye out for him in our rear view mirror, thinking we'd pull over if we saw his car putter to a stop, proving us wrong. We weren't going to let him perish out there, but we also weren't going to let him completely give up and not even try to make it all the way.

I just couldn't understand how a driver could just pull over as soon as the fuel light went on. Why wouldn't you run it until it's empty? There's usually some reserve still left in the tank when the dashboard lights up, and even when the fuel gauge needle is all the way to empty, it's still not completely empty. You've still got a little bit of that sludge that can make its way through the fuel injection to keep the car running.

And we were headed more or less downhill. He could've coasted. He could've put it in neutral. There were so many things he could've done to make it all the way, but he was paralyzed by his fear. He had accepted certain doom, and saw us as his only hope.

Sure, in a situation like this, anyone would be sweating bullets. But you have to push through the anxiety. You have to drive through the fear until something bad actually happens, if it happens at all.

We felt pretty good as we drove away. We felt like we'd really helped him.

And then, after a little while, we realized he wasn't behind us. The car we thought was his passed us, and kept going past the two gas stations in Trona, the only place to fuel up for miles.

"Oh my God," I said, "What if he took us literally and decided to just keep driving until the car stopped? Instead of stopping for gas first?"

I was half-joking, but given the language barrier, and the absurdity of his reaction to the situation, it seemed possible.

And then our hearts fell, as we realized that he probably never left that spot – that we had probably left him behind. In our best guess, he didn't have the confidence to give it a go and see how far he could get. He followed the advice they give if you're lost – to just stay where you are.

But the thing is, he wasn't lost. He knew exactly where he was, and he knew exactly where he needed to go. He just couldn't move.

We thought about turning back to retrieve him, but it was getting dark and our excursion had already run late. We figured somebody else would stop to help him, maybe give him a ride to the gas station or siphon some petrol from their own tank.

But what if no one else came? Or what if passers-by didn't stop to help those two tourists, who had no business being out there alone, so unprepared for the vast spaces between rest stops?

What if they refused any other help offered to them, crippled by fear and distrust and disbelief, blinded by worry and panic?

Anything that could happen would most certainly be worse than if they had just kept driving. But they chose to stop, before something stopped them.

Who knows how far they could've gotten? They might've made it all the way.

Related Posts:
Running On Empty
A Last Resort
Dancing With the Fear
How Much Farther Does This Go?
Fight or Flight
I Refuse to Worry
Avoiding Worry

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Photo Essay: A Watery Surprise Near Death Valley

When I first stopped in the Death Valley-adjacent ghost town of Ballarat three years ago, I didn't know that it was the gateway to a surprise.

If you drive past the town of Ballarat, past its cemetery, and turn off on Surprise Canyon Road, you reach what's left of Novak's Camp...

...some lower-canyon remains of the mining history of the Panamint Valley...

...and much more accessible than the better-known mining ghost town of Panamint City, a seven-mile hike uphill from Surprise Canyon.

Panamint City, once a lawless town with a red light district, washed away in floods in 1876.

But because it was the site of a successful silver mining operation and trade, wagon roads had been built up the canyon to reach it...

...many of which were still navigable by motorized vehicle until the early 1980s.

Although the Surprise Canyon Wilderness is definitely in the desert...

...directly adjacent to Death Valley...

...there has been a surprising amount of water there... evidenced by the abandoned stone-walled pool...

...and its output pipe.

Novak's Camp (back then known as "Chris Wicht Camp") used to be quite an operation, and because of that, Rocky Novak and his father George resisted their camp being absorbed into the designated wilderness area, to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

When Novak's Camp burned down in 2006, the Novaks blamed the BLM, accusing it of arson...

...though wildfires are common in this area.

The BLM obviously denied any nefarious plot to drive the Novaks out, but once their camp was gone, they decided not to rebuild.

They left Surprise Canyon, and moved to Ballarat. When George died in 2011 at the age of 90, his son Rocky (also known as "Rock" and "Roc") became its only official resident, and unofficial "mayor" – the sole caretaker of this dwindling town that once prospered.

After the fire, Surprise Canyon is prospering in an unexpected way:

...industry has given way to nature...

...and the wagon road that passes the stamp mill and the rest of the remains of the lower mining camp...

...has been overtaken by nature, thanks to being closed to off-roading vehicles that once disrupted the soil and scarred the bedrock.

It's hard to imagine that this was ever a road of any sort.

It is way overgrown – requiring quite a bit of bushwhacking, which slows down the climb...

...though the elevation gain as you approach the gorge in the first mile or two is not so severe.

The other thing is, in this desert landscape, this is a very wet canyon, year-round. There is no way to stay dry.

Most of the old wagon road has been overtaken by a creek, and the easiest way to climb the steepest part of the lower canyon is just by sloshing up a waterfall, using its tiers as stairs, being mindful of the slimy green stuff that can cause a slip and fall.

There's a pleasant relief you feel the first time you get your feet wet. It's better to do it early on, because then you don't have to spend your time trying to stay dry. You can just embrace the water flooding in through the top of your boots, the mud squishing under your tread and seeping into cracks and between laces.

But it's an exhausting slog, making the trip all the way up to Panamint City a full day affair, and probably requiring an overnight stay amidst the ruins before taking another day to head back down.

But when you're soggy and exhausted, you know you've really done something.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Ghost Towns of Death Valley
Today's Moment of Clarity: Get Out of the Car

Photo Essay: Randsburg, a Living Ghost Town?

Is it really a ghost town if people still live there?

I get a bit spooked when I'm skulking around a place that's clearly inhabited, even if it's just by a few people.

I guess that explains why I was so comfortable spending the night in Randsburg as one of those residents – and the resulting tour I got the following morning, conducted by Randsburg's man-about-town, Goat...

...and not as a tourist, with three other people new to Randsburg, just passing through on our way to Trona Pinnacles.

Then again, where were those people that live in Randsburg?

At 9:30 in the morning on a Saturday, all the businesses were closed.

And they all looked a bit like those fake storefronts you see at the movie ranches... the painted backdrop Western town that faked out the bad guys in Blazing Saddles.

Does anyone actually live here, besides Goat?

Were they watching us from behind closed doors?

Does anyone ever actually open up shop?

Does time just stand still here?

The town looked unchanged from my last visit three years ago...

...all alone, also on my way to Trona...

...the ghosts remaining buried in the Rand Cemetery...

...where the desert winds sweep by.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Ghost Towns of Death Valley
Photo Essay: Rand Mining District Cemetery
Change of Plans
Photo Essay: The Living Ghost of Yermo

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Photo Essay: A Sanctuary Among Sewage

I am one of those weird people who find tours of municipal facilities and other public works fascinating. (It turns out, I am not alone.)

But what really fascinated me about the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant was where its recycled water went after it was cleaned up:

...through a three-tiered waterfall, into the Japanese garden and man-made lake next door.

This "garden of water and fragrance" has all the elements of a traditional Japanese garden:

...water, rocks, and plants that have been preened and pruned to perfection.

There are also a variety of carved granite lanterns...

...and, of course, the best view of the Tillman Plant's Administration Building, which Trekkies know as Starfleet Academy and make pilgrimages to see.

If there's any question as to the safety of the treated water coming out of the plant, just look at the thriving flowers...

...the flocking birds (like great blue herons, pelicans and cormorants)...

...and the fish (including koi) swimming around in the water, eventually being eaten by the birds.

It is startlingly green there.

In the 1980s, it was a controversial idea to build an industrial facility so close to the LA River headwaters and a wildlife refuge... the plant's recycled resources were devoted to irrigating a beautiful, tranquil sanctuary...

...that would evoke the serenity of traditional Japanese strolling gardens...

...and the traditions of generations of Zen Buddhists...

...with a tea house...

...very few straight lines...

...and, of course, cherry blossoms.

It is said that a stroll through the Tillman Japanese Garden (particularly across the zig-zag bridge) can cleanse a person of any evil spirits.

It's undoubtedly an unusual opportunity for reflection and meditation, where weeping is left for the willows and the peach trees.

For more photos of our adventure, click here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Final Frontier for LA's Wastewater
EVENT: A Sci-Fi Sewage Sanctuary - with Obscura Society LA
Photo Essay: Earth Day at Brooklyn Botanic Garden