Sunday, May 31, 2009

There's Gold in Them Thar Hills

Nevada City, California
Statue of James Marshall
Replica of Sutter's Mill
This Sourdough had no luck.
How would you like to ride these rails to work everyday?
Empire Mine Workshop
Mine Office
Bourn "Cottage"
The highest bridge in California. Water was to cover most of the concrete piers.
Cape Horn-- Sorry we did not get a pic with a train on it.

We have developed a real case of gold fever being here in California. Most of the towns in the area are old mining towns with Grass Valley, Nevada City and Auburn having well preserved "old towns" that now house shops and restaurants. We visited the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historical Park in Coloma, the site where James Marshall first discovered gold at Sutter's Mill in January 1848. This discovery in the South Fork of the American River resulted in the population increasing from 14,000 to 200,000 as the Forty-Niners rushed here in search of wealth. While few found instant riches, their arrival changed California forever. The site has several original buildings, including Marshall's cabin and a replica of the mill that was destroyed in an 1852 flood. Although James Marshall was the first to discover gold he was never able to turn his discovery into personal wealth and died a poor man. I also took advantage of the chance and tried my hand at panning for gold. I think I had a couple of flakes but they were so small they got away. Oh well, I guess we will have to rely on our pensions since we did not strike it rich. It is hard to imagine what those early gold seekers experienced as they stood in and near flowing streams sifting through rocks and sand in hopes of finding nuggets of gold. Many would spend the day searching and, if they were really lucky, maybe find an ounce. For most, as it was with us, it was a very short lived adventure.

Another important gold site is the Empire Mine State Historical Park near Grass Valley. Empire was a hardrock underground mine that operated from 1850 to 1956 and produced 5.8 million ounces of gold. The main shaft reached a depth of 11,007 feet and 367 miles of tunnels were dug undermining the entire town. The ownership of the mine changed hands several times during its operation but from the 1870's until 1929 under the ownership of the William Bourn family it truly flourished and became the "showplace in mining technology." This was due to the Cornish contribution of a unique system of pumps, operated on steam, which emptied the constant water seepage from the depths of the mine. This provided for increased productivity and underground expansion. Their wealth is reflected in the beautiful "cottage" and surrounding grounds. The mine was forced to shut down by the war production board and, although it reopened, it could never regain its previous wealth because its expenses far exceeded the price of gold which the government had set at $35 per ounce. It closed in 1956 and sat idle until 1975 when the state purchased the site, including the owners' cottage and has preserved it as a historical reminder of the areas gold heritage. Many of the mine's shops and offices are just as they were left and you can peer down the shaft into the mine and only imagine the perils these miners faced. These two places demonstrate how gold played such an important role in the growth of California.

Near Auburn we drove across the highest bridge in California. It was originally built to cross a lake that was going to be formed by damming North and Middle Forks of the American River. The dam project was halted for several reasons, one of which was the fear of an earthquake. Because the dam project was abandoned, the bridge is higher above the river than intended thus making it the highest.

Another engineering marvel in the area is the railroad that was built by the Central Pacific in the 1860's as part of the transcontinental track. From the west they had to go over the Sierra Nevada Mountains with many tunnels and high ledges. Near Colfax is Cape Horn, a high promontory where Chinese laborers were lowered over the cliff in bosom baskets to cut a ledge so powder monkeys could get to the spot to dynamite. The ledge is still used today. We have stayed near the transcontinental railroad many times and we have visited Promontory Point, Utah where they met. It is a project that was well documented by Stephan Ambrose in his book Nothing Like it in the World. Cape Horn is just another example of the great human effort involved in bringing the two coasts together.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

California, Here We Come

A Desert Rainstorm
Big Sand Dune
High Desert and Mountains
The Biggest Little City in the World
Street entertainers and an closed casino.
Wow!!! 40 miles.
Donner Lake
Snow in the mountains. Notice the railroad track.

When we left Pair-A-Dice we drove 385 miles which is more than we have ever done in a day. That turned out to be fifteen miles more than we needed to travel because someone (me) misread the route on Streets and Trips. The trip was all two lane roads through the high desert surrounded by mountains where we passed more roadside brothels than towns. We stayed at the Desert Rose RV Park in Fernley, Nevada. We had planned on staying a week to get through Memorial Day but they would not let us use the Passport or Escapees discount if we paid for a week. So we only stayed six days, got the discount and left on Monday. Sometimes we really don't understand the logic behind how campgrounds decide what to charge. They would rather have a space sit empty than be guaranteed the money. We spent most of the time just chillin but we did clean the motorhome again since we drove through a desert rain storm and because we had used the Dri-Wash, it was real easy to wipe it off.

One day we drove into Reno, "The Biggest Little City in the World." While it is a gambling mecca, it is nothing like Vegas. There are many empty hotels and casinos and a general rundown appearance to the place. There were some street entertainers to enjoy and of course we contributed to the casinos. We also got to watch the Pittsburgh Penguins continue on their march to the Stanley Cup while we ate dinner.

The drive from Fernley over Donner Pass was truly spectacular with snow capped mountains and beautiful blue lakes. Not so beautiful was our introduction to California highways and a sign indicating "Downgrades Next 40 Miles." If the roads are any indication, California is definitely having a budget problem. But, to their credit, they are working on the road. Driving over the pass made us think about what it must have been like when the forty-niners made the trip. What a pleasant change to be among tall pines in the lower Sierras after spending so much time in the desert. We are spending the next week at Dutch Flat RV Park in Gold Run, California (with a Passport discount) while we await a mail drop. The RV park is located in the middle of the "downgrades next 40 miles," so we still have more downhill to look forward to. When we pulled in there was a couple from the Netherlands who were Rick and Terry Traver's neighbors in Benson. Seeing people we have previously met is happening more and more often as we spend more time on the road.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hot Springs and Oasis

The Pool House
The road opens into the oasis.
Blooming flowers in the oasis.
Date Palm Grove

Old Spanish Trail Highway

We decided to extend our stay in Pahrump to do some work on the RV and enjoy some other nearby attractions. I have been trying to fix the mount on one of the slides that I discovered was installed improperly. It has been an on-going project since we were in Rockport and with the Ace hardware being close by we went for the major fix. I think the problem has been solved with so many nuts, bolts and screws put in place we may need to get the rig reweighed. Only time will tell if this fix is the one, but I am more confident with it than the ones I did in the past. One thing we noticed here is even though we are on the other side of the mountain and some 60 miles from Las Vegas the night sky to the east is lit with the glow of the many city lights. After spending so much time away from big cities, the light pollution is really noticeable. The daytime temps here have been in the high 90's and low 100's but it cools down a lot at night. We get to sit outside every evening and have been disappointed we have not seen any UFOs since we are so close to Area 51. There was a news story of something going down south of Vegas a year ago that the military swept in and took away before the sun rose, but we haven't seen anything but planes.

One little side trip was to the Tecopa Hot Springs where we got to soak in the 104 degree mineral water pool. The hot springs pool is run by the county and the site has a large campground that would be a great place to stay during a cooler time of the year. The cost of camping includes admission to the pools. The pool houses (no clothes allowed) were segregated by sex with each having a hot and cool(er) pool. It was uncrowded and the smooth mineral laden water was very relaxing. This is a great stop for those traveling to nearby Death Valley.

That same day we visited the China Ranch Date Farm, a little family run farm in a small Mojave Desert oasis. The last two miles to the farm is a narrow dirt road that descends through a canyon that opens into a sea of green cottenwoods and palm trees. We were surprised to discover that, like apples, dates come in a large variety most of which originated in North Africa and Arabia. We did take a short walk through the grove but opted out of a longer hike on one of their many trails since the temperature had climbed to 116. We did buy a variety pack of dates and enjoyed a cool refreshing date shake. We visited the hot springs and date farm at the suggestion of Sharon and Allan Frey and thank them for that. We weren't quite sure where the heck they were sending us as the search for the date farm took us through the most isolated and barren landscape we have seen. We are really glad we continued because it was quite a suprise when we found it. The ride back to Pahrump was over the Old Spanish Trail Highway, a road so isolated we only saw three vehicles in over forty miles.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Artsy Ghost Town

The Cook Bank
The mercantile stand ready for a new owner to open it for business.
The railroad station is privately owned and is being restore.
The bottle house was restored in 1925 for a movie.
Shouldn't every ghost town have its own bike riding specter.
The Last Supper in the Nevada desert.
A miner and his penguin.
Art you can relax on.

On our return from Death Valley we came across a couple of unusual and interesting things in the ghost town of Rhyolite. Rhyolite, one of Nevada's last great gold rush towns, was founded in 1905 and saw its population soar to about 16,000 and then, after the gold quickly played out, drop to 611 by the 1910 census. This short lived city had a railroad station, stock exchange, electric street lights and many large buildings whose remains still stand today. One of the most unique buildings is the bottle house that was constructed of 51,000 bottles, most of which were Anheuser-Busch beer bottles. In the same area is the Goldwell Open Air Museum that started in 1984 with the creation of the ghostly sculpture of the Last Supper by Belgium artist Albert Szukalski. Since then, six additional works have been added to the site. Once again we find that you never really know what you will encounter on the road.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Death Valley (Aptly Named)

Colorful Rocks, Mountains and Valley
We are below sea level, but where is the sea?? Wagons from a 20 mule team.
Oasis from afar and up close.
A couple of hardy flowers.
Scotty's Castle with a cross marking his grave on the hill at the right. On the left is an unfinished courtyard behind the castle.
Original Furnishings

We are now at the Pair-A-Dice Escapees Co-Op in Pahrump, Nevada. Because we arrived late Monday evening, after wanting eight hours while having the motorhome serviced in North Las Vegas, we boondocked the first night. This was a first for us and we were concerned about the heat but it was much cooler here than in Vegas so it was fine.

We took advantage of a not so hot day (102) and went into California to Death Valley National Park. Being here brought back memories of the old TV Western series Death Valley Days and the shows sponsor, 20 Mule Team Borax. The borax was mined in some of the 6000 to 10,000 mines for a large variety of minerals that are now abandoned within the park. The three-wagon trains hauled 24 tons of ore in two of the wagons and fresh water in the third on a 165 mile, ten day trip to the railroad using a team of 18 mules and two horses. This is a place with a very harsh climate that gets less than two inches of rain a year and where the temperature once reached a US record of 134 degrees. While surrounded by mountains, it is also the lowest spot in the United States at 282 feet below sea level in Badwater Basin. Other then diving into the waves at the beach this is the first time we have ever been below zero elevation. The land is beautiful in a surreal way with the various minerals in the rocks creating a large variety of color while a few hearty plants dot the landscape. That said, as we approached the Furnace Creek area we could see the tall green palms and other trees that are watered by the underground aquifer in this oasis. After enjoying the vista at Zabriskie Point we took a short hike up Golden Canyon for an up close view of the land.

Another must see in the park is Death Valley Ranch, better known as Scotty's Castle. This Spanish style vacation home, built in the 1920's for Albert and Bessie Johnson, is maintained exactly as it was when they lived there, from the furniture and dishes right down to Bessie's clothes hanging in the closet. Johnson, who was an engineer, used all the latest technology including a refrigerator, solar water heater and designed a hydro-electric power system for the home which was not connected to the grid until the 1960's. A large room built for entertaining has a theater pipe organ which we got to hear on the tour. There are parts of the property that were never finished, including the swimming pool, because of a land dispute that took seven years to settle. This put them into the middle of the Great Depression and the Johnson's were not quite as wealthy as they once were, thus bringing a halt to finishing the great estate. It is amazing to be driving through the stark barren land and come upon this beautiful home in Grapevine Canyon. While the tour of the house is worthwhile and very interesting it is the story of Albert and Scotty's long lasting friendship that provides the intrigue. Albert was a wealthy conservative businessman from a Quaker family in Ohio and Walter "Death Valley Scotty" Scott was born in Kentucky and lived the life of a cowboy including 12 years with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He worked on mule trains and became a con man when he began selling shares in his nonexistent gold mine to investors back East. One of the investors was Albert Johnson who travelled to Death Valley and discovered the deception. Albert enjoyed the company of Scotty so much that he forgave him and made him the caretaker of the property and house he built. Since it was only a vacation home for the Johnsons, Scotty began telling everyone it was his castle, thus the name. Scotty is buried on the hill overlooking the castle and Death Valley. As we where leaving the park we were rewarded with the sight of a desert icon as a coyote ambled across the road. We had a great time here but it is a place with a lot more to see when the temperatures are not triple digits.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Hoover Dam and approach road.
Water intake towers and the beginning of Lake Mead.
The white shows the high water mark from 1983, the only time water went into the diverging tunnels so it would not flow over the dam. There is a good picture on the dam web site of the water rushing out the bottom.
Looking down at the Colorado River.
The new bypass bridge.
In the tunnel.
Turbine Room
Lake Mead
Sherri and Mike on their way to San Fran.

On another day the four of us took a tour of Hoover Dam which was built in the 1930's to create Lake Mead in the southern end of the Grand Canyon on the border between Arizona and Nevada. The 726 foot dam was built from 1931 to 1936 with fresh concrete being poured 363 days a year. To cool the concrete that will take 100 years to completely dry, refrigerated pipes were laid in each pour and a huge ice plant was built to pump cooling liquid through the concrete. Today the water from the 110 mile long, 495 foot deep lake uses 17 turbines to produce electricity for over 1.5 million homes in the Southwest. The tour includes a movie on the construction, a 500 foot ride down an elevator and a walk through the rough cut tunnels to the Nevada turbine room. There is an exhibit room with dioramas and displays on the construction and workers who built this engineering marvel. Walking across the dam gives you great views of the lake, currently 60 feet below normal, on one side and several hundred feet down to the Colorado River on the other. You also get excellent looks at the new bridge being built to take all public traffic off the dam.

We had a great time in Vegas and it was wonderful to spend some time with Mike and Sherri. We were so busy enjoying all the sights we did not even get to play euchre before we put them on the plane to San Francisco for the next leg of their Western adventure. From here we are going to the Escapees RV park in Pahrump and then heading to the coast in Northern California, Oregon and Washington. We have reservations in Vancouver, BC at the end of July to hook up with my brother Rick and sister-in-law Denise. While in the Northwest we will stop and see Nanc's brother Dave and his family. Our only other confirmed plan is to go on the Escapees HOP to the Rose Parade with Richard and Valerie Frayer at the end of December.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Skywalk -- Going Over the Edge

Wild horse among the Joshua trees.
Fourteen miles of rough, dusty dirt road.
The Sharps and Tidballs on Eagle Point at Grand Canyon West. Notice who is standing in front.
The Skywalk jetting out over the canyon with the river below.
WE DID IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Tipi and Hopi Hogan
Navajo Sweat Lodge
Narrow path to Guano Point.
Colorado River from Guano Point.
Grand Canyon View

While Mike and Sherri were here we drove 125 miles to Grand Canyon West in the Hualapai Nation to see the canyon. Along the way we drove through a Joshua tree forest near Dolan Springs where these unusual desert plants, members of the lily family, can grow to 40 feet. In the middle of the forest we came upon a herd of wild horses. It was like something out of an old Western movie with very few people then coming upon these beautiful horses among the trees. The next leg of the trip was also like an old Western as we drove 14 miles of dusty dirty road through the desert before reaching the paved road in the reservation. We arrived at Grand Canyon West where they have constructed the Skywalk, a glass bottom bridge, that projects 70 feet out over the canyon 4000 feet below. Sherri was very reluctant to walk on the bridge over the rim so we only bought three tickets at the welcome center. We all boarded the bus for the short ride to the canyon rim and Skywalk. Before going on the Skywalk, Mike, Nanc and I looked over the edge as Sheri held back trying to decide what to do. Finally, she decided if she was going to get a good view the bridge was the way to go so she bought a ticket. We all donned our cloth booties and ventured over the edge. What a thrill stepping onto the glass and looking down at the floor of the canyon so far below. This stop includes an Indian village showing various homes, from tipis used by nomadic tribes to permanent hogans built by the Navajo and Hopi, as well as, performances of music and dance by the Hualapai. Next we were transported to Guano Point where the panoramic view was equal to anything we had seen at the South Rim. Grand Canyon West is a beautiful and easy drive from Las Vegas and, as Sherri will tell you, well worth the cost of admission.