June 24, 2009

How (Un)Civilized!

I'm kind of losing a sense of self-consciousness out here. My hair has sprouted bright white roots and I don't really care, I just prop my sunglasses on top of them. Today I changed my pants in the Barker Dam parking lot in front of a couple families, women and children alike, not daintily like taking off my bra with my shirt still on, but full strip down to underwear and then redress. Earlier this week I wore a short skirt to the nail salon for a pedicure, and when they tried to cover me with a lemon yellow towel, I just said, "Oh please...."

I even say hi to every old, bearded, weathered guy with a hat that I walk by. New Yorkers would be appalled!

It's a funny combination of desolation and society out here, and I'm having a bit of a hard time switching back and forth. Even Joshua Tree Park - which you would think would offer a respite from commerce and industry - features a rich history of settlers' attempts at making the landscape more civilized, namely by building ranches, mills and mines.

Wall Street Stamp Mill

I'd stumbled across some of those abandoned mines on my Cottonwood Springs hike, but Jon had suggested I also check out Wall Street Mill, a protected historic site within the park that features, among other treasures, a largely in-tact stamp mill (for milling gold ore). When I first saw that access to it required another hike, I felt a little daunted (I mean, you can just drive up to stuff in Death Valley!), but after I survived my various hikes over the last week, I was ready for the challenge. After all, I was already on a roll with all my ghost town excursions so far on this trip, why not one that's even more remote?

Fortunately, this hike was accurately listed as "easy."


In addition to the mill itself, which is cordoned off with barbed wire, the trail brings you past a windmill and a couple concrete foundations. In hot pursuit of a half-standing concrete building painted pink, I went off the main trail onto side trails that appear to have been old dirt roads (sort of blocked by a couple of tree stumps), not for mules and wagons, but cars. This historic site wasn't only from the Old West; this was a slice of 20th century industry! Signalling what I can only guess was the end of the Joshua Tree mining era, I saw at least two 1930s cars that had been driven off the side of the road to their final resting place, where they had rusted but, surprisingly, hadn't been invaded by the local wildlife, nor vandalized by hoodlums.

About 300 mines, some even pre-dating the Gold Rush, were built in the area until the 1930s, when concerns about disrupting the wilderness helped designate Joshua Tree as a national monument (and 60 years later, a national park). But few of the businesses built in the wilderness were successful, and many of the ranchers, miners and homesteaders succumbed to the hot, dry desert and fled, leaving behind gravel pits, shafts, and tunnels for bats and explorers like myself.

There's something less depressing about the abandoned mills and mines of Joshua Tree than towns like Amboy or Rice which fell victim to rerouted railroads and new highways diverting traffic away from them. The Joshua Tree settlers gave it a damn good try, and some (including William Keys) actually succeeded. Ultimately, they couldn't fight nature, but they lasted a long time, on some pretty unhabitable lands. No one can blame them for that. Kudos to them for knowing when it's time to leave.

For more info on Joshua Tree National Park's abandoned mines, click here.

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