Friday, January 30, 2015

Dante's View

Dante's View is named for the author of the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, who described 9 circles of the Inferno, 7 terraces of Mount Purgatory, and 9 celestial bodies of Paradiso.

In April 1926, some businessmen of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, informed of the touristic attractiveness of Death Valley, were trying to pick the best view of Death Valley. They had nearly chosen Chloride Cliff in the Funeral Mountains north of here when they learned of this place in the Black Mountains. Upon seeing it the group was immediately persuaded and promptly called this point Dante's View.

Exactly which vision of the afterlife was in the minds of the namers of Dante's View is unknown. I can understand it being any of the three: the Valley's Inferno in mid-summer; Purgatory if one comes on foot up the long, winding road with a 15° grade, or Paradiso, for the sublime view.

See what I mean? This has to be the best view of the Valley from anywhere in the park. It's not what I expected a place called Death Valley to look like.

A different view of the salt flats, this elevation shows the patterns of wet and dry.

I looked at this view and looked again. What is that line? Is there a pipeline on the Valley floor? No. Can't be. Then I saw a speck moving along it and realized it's the Badwater Road, the one my boss drove along when he took us to the lowest point in North America.

To the south lie the Owlshead Mountains. The path to the brink is up hill and down dale, looking much steeper than it actually is.

An alluvial fan looks so very different from up top.

This is the road we returned on from the date ranch. I'd never have guessed how different it would be from a mile in the air. I also would never have guessed that my vocabulary would prove to be so inadequate, that I just would not have the words to do justice to these views.


Thought of the day:

At this high moment, ability failed my capacity to describe. - Dante Alighieri

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Not that kind of a date ranch

A few weeks ago HH and I drove a couple of hours to visit a date ranch in Tecopa, California. When I told a friend we had gone, and explained what it was (we are close to Nevada, after all) she seemed just a little disappointed that our destination was so tame. Sigh. The trials of being an adventurer, always having to live up to my wild reputation.

The way into the ranch regressed from a highway to a paved secondary road, to a gravel road, to a dirt track barely one and a half lanes wide, and wound itself down into a canyon with a forty-foot sight line until the next hairpin turn. We wondered what we were getting ourselves into.

Then this view opened in front of us: an oasis in the desert.

This was a brand new experience for me. There are acres of date palms of a couple dozen varieties. The small gift shop has tasting bins of each kind they have for sale and no one was keeping track of how many samples I tried. 

They also sell date shakes. As cold as it was that day, there was no way we were leaving without slurping one down.  A gigantic date cookie somehow made it into our sack; I'm not the one who added it to the pile of goodies we accumulated on the checkout counter.

As the dates ripen on the trees, cloth bags are tied over each cluster to keep the birds off. Imagine this on a moonlit night.

Each variety has a sign like this one. I liked having the information. Did you know that all date palms are the same genus and species, Phoenix Dactyliferia? Did you know that dates produced this kind of yield? Some varieties have more, some have less. Some have a short shelf life because they are very large with a high sugar content, and so ferment easily. I wonder if there's a date wine.

The ranch also grows hybrids that they've developed themselves.

We wandered the orchard, never predicting or even guessing that different colors like these existed in unripe fruit.

These are the oldest trees there, planted around 1920 with seeds from a mail order catalog. About half are males, producing only pollen - each male having enough for several dozen female trees. The females produce more than 10 different types of dates which they collectively call the China Ranch Hybrids.

Here's the last of the season for this cluster.

On our way back home through the park we stopped to watch a pair of coyotes. One trotted off among the brush but the other stayed near the road, watchful. We often hear them at night, yipping outside the house, very close.

It was a fun trip. Our return took us through the southern part of Death Valley, along Badwater Road, with more of the indescribable beauty that is the soul of this place.


Thought of the day:

Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Coyote. Wile E. Coyote, genius.- Wile E. Coyote, To Hare is Human, 1956

Friday, January 16, 2015

A white man's neighborhood

HH and I went to Manzanar National Historic Site last weekend. The Park Service has done an outstanding job here; it would have been worth the drive even without the spectacular scenery along the way.

*With many thanks to the Park Service for all of their interpretive information
being in the public domain. In other words, I freely plagiarized.*
President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, authorizing the Secretary of War to  establish Military Areas and to remove from those areas anyone who might threaten the war effort. Everyone of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast was given just days to decide what to do with their homes, farms, businesses, and other possessions. They were allowed to take with them only what they could carry. By November 1942, 120,000 people were sent to one of ten relocation centers built in remote deserts, plains, and swamps scattered among seven states. About two-thirds of those interned at Manzanar were American citizens by birth. The remainder included many who had lived here for decades but were denied citizenship by law.

The entire site was 6,000 acres; the housing area was 500 acres surrounded by barbed wire and eight guard towers with searchlights and military police patrols. 

By September 1942 more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were housed in 504 barracks like this one. The barracks were organized into 36 blocks. Each of the blocks shared latrines and showers without dividers (privacy), a laundry room, an ironing room, an oil storage tank, and a mess hall. The barracks consisted of four 20x25 foot rooms, each inhabited by any combination (my emphasis) of eight people. Each barracks - not each room - had one hanging light bulb, an oil stove, cots, blankets, and mattresses filled with straw. I saw a photo in the museum that showed internees filling their own mattresses. There was no running water. Walls between the four rooms did not reach the ceiling. The barracks had been hastily built with green wood and blowing sand and intense heat and cold were constant companions.

This is one of the "improved" barracks that came about over time, because it has wall board. Knot holes in the floors were covered with tin can lids until linoleum was installed to keep the sand from blowing in between the floorboards.

This sign marks the original entrance.

All internees passed by the military police sentry and internal police posts at the entrance. They were built by an internee-stonemason in 1942. On the left of the road were the administration buildings. None of them remain.

The former auditorium housed a gymnasium and was used for plays and ceremonies, concerts and lectures. They had dances, talent shows, and movies. It's now the Site's interpretive center with an excellent museum.

Merritt Park was created by internees - a landscape designer, a floriculturist, and workers, in 1943. It had disappeared under several feet of sand over the years but in 2008 it was excavated. The water and plants are no longer there; the stones creating the waterways remain.

The stone is a memorial to those who passed through the gates of Manzanar.

This space was called the 3-4 Garden. It was a mess hall garden, easing the monotony of long mealtime lines. There were more gardens in Blocks 9, 12, and 22, each of which acted as a source of block identity and pride.

The 3-4 Garden was excavated in 1999, along with a mess hall root cellar. The fence, next photo down, was reconstructed.


The obelisk in the cemetery has memorialized not only the 150 internees who died at Manzanar, but also the more than 120,000 confined everywhere during the war. This side of the memorial reads Soul Consoling Tower. Hundreds of artifacts have been left here by those who come for the annual pilgrimage and by other visitors. Small stones are visible on the ledges at the base of the obelisk.

The reverse of the tower reads Erected by the Manzanar Japanese, August 1943.

150 died at Manzanar; 15 were buried here, the rest cremated. Six burials remain today.

The museum is fascinating. I learned a lot, including this horrible history:
Under pressure from the U.S., sixteen Latin American countries interned 8,500 residents of German, Italian, and Japanese descent. Over 3,000 others were deported to the U.S., where they were to be exchanged for U.S. citizens held as prisoners of war. The deportees' passports were confiscated and, upon arriving in the U.S., they were declared illegal immigrants and placed in Department of Justice camps in Texas. The majority of the deportees of Japanese ancestry were eventually sent to Japan either as part of the exchange program or as repatriates after the war.

Of the 2,264 Japanese nationals who were deported from Latin America, eighty percent were from Peru. When the war ended, Peru refused many of those remaining in the U.S. reentry and the U.S. denied their residency requests. In 1952 364 Japanese Peruvians were declared 'permanent legally admitted immigrants' and became eligible for American citizenship.

Manzanar is far away, in terms of distance, but also in terms of the even marginally heightened awareness and sensitivity we say we have today. I'd like to say it couldn't happen again, not on this scale, but I'd be a fool to say it does not still exist in more subtle, insidious ways.

Thought of the day:

When you were a little girl, Madam.....was this the woman you dreamed of becoming? - Andrew Sean Greer, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

Monday, January 12, 2015

I *could* tell you where we hiked

but there's way too much of a fine involved: $5,000 and/or 6 months in jail.

I heard about a signup for an employee hike at the last minute and was able to secure a spot. It was led by a ranger into a canyon that's normally closed because of sensitive artifacts, but a couple of times a year it's open for guided hikes for employees and a couple of times for the public. There are three signs of increasing warning on the way into the canyon. The first warns that the area is closed due to the sensitive materials. The second says it's closed by the Superintendent's order, and lists whatever law applies. And the third tells of the punishment that awaits violators. One of my fellow hikers said he's not much of a rule follower but the fine and/or jail time would make him inclined to change his ways. Because of the risk of vandalism and theft, they really don't want photos of the artifacts posted on social media, so I will show just the spectacular scenery along the way.

The day before the hike was sunny and in the low 70s but, nature being what it is, it was cloudy and freezing cold, like in the 50s!!! when we set out.

This was a rare sight for me, to see precipitation over these mountains, yet Sunday was something even more unexpected: the mountains almost obscured by fog - in the desert -  and clouds hovering at about 100 feet, but no photos of that.

Below is part of our group taking off for the canyon across the alluvial fan. There used to be a road here so the way has been smoothed somewhat; otherwise it's tough, tough hiking. Look at the photo above, beyond the salt flat of the valley but before recognizable mountains begin. The gentle-looking slopes are the fans. Don't they look like black-sand beaches? Smooth and firm? A walk in the park? They are liars. The rocks you see on either side of the path below comprise the general walking conditions if you want to get into canyons around here. I never heard of alluvial fans before, but after being here for less than a month and going on three hikes now, I have a new slogan: I ain't no fan of alluvial fans.

The distance from road to the beginning of the canyons at this part of Death Valley is a mile. I've seen descriptions of other hikes that boil down to three-fourths of the distance being over the fan because it seems there aren't many options for entering canyons that don't involve crossing fans. We were lucky that this hike was only about one-third alluvial fan. All this stuff has eroded and washed down from the mountains and across the valley, to the extent that there is (are?) 9,000 feet of alluvium deposited in the basin of Death Valley.

The geology is astonishing here. On this side of the mountain range, the rocks are a couple million years old (which to me, after being at 225-million-year-old Petrified Forest, rates not much more than a blink) but the mountains immediately behind it are 5 million years old. How can that be? Colliding and shifting tectonic plates.

Someone said that once you get off the fan, it's much easier going. Another liar. Where there aren't ankle-turning rocks there is loose sand or slippery gravel. It really was a hard slog, three and a half miles in with a 1500-foot elevation gain. Of course, the 20- and 30-somethings in the group were skipping along, not even breathing hard, but I'm happy to say that even though I was this far back in the pack I was still in the middle. I do have some pride.

But the views! I wouldn't miss this for five four miles of fan.

These are real colors. How can this be? Same answer. Colliding and shifting plates, with the addition of periods of being underwater, being spewed out by volcanoes, going underwater again, and more being smashed around. I've never seen a sight like this in my life.

This is some of the same small range with the youngsters leading the way to secret places.

Here's my favorite photo of the day. Isn't that something, that abundant life where no one would expect to see living green?

 This one might also be my favorite.

Nothing to do with Death Valley, but for my friend Libby, Oscar Wilde's tomb in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. She was enamored of Victor Noir's well-polished effigy, shown in the Scotty's Castle post but, really, it's nothing compared to all of these lipstick kisses. For you, my friend.

Thought of the day, in reference to fines and jail time:

A crook with a lucrative profession appeared before a judge for sentencing. The judge ordered him to pay a fine of $5,000, whereupon the crook scoffed and said, "That's pocket change!" Without missing a beat the judge told him, "Well, then, reach down into your other pocket and give me 30 days."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Paying the rent

New park, new work. Everywhere I go it's a little different and I'm grateful for that because I have a short attention span.

Before I came here, while I was still at Tumacácori in fact, I was told that I had to have a background check, complete with digital fingerprints recorded, before I could get an RV space assigned and have an ID card issued. This is the first time this has been required and I'm still stumped and somewhat ticked off by it.

The ID card is a smart card that allows access to the NPS network. And where did I have to go to complete the requirement? To Tucson, which was 30 minutes away? Oh, no. I had to go to Sierra Vista, Arizona, 90 minutes away, for a 15-minute appointment. I did this in mid-October and shortly after learned that I would have to go back to Sierra Vista to pick up the card. When I said, are you kidding me?, I was told the card would be sent to my park, meaning Death Valley. Going on three months later, I still don't have my card.

All of this whining is leading up to saying that what I was supposed to do here has changed because I don't have the card. The curator planned for me to finish cataloging a map collection, for which I needed to work on a laptop connected to the network. What he has me working on instead is purely paper-based work: processing a collection of abandoned mine lands records, more traditional archives work than I've done since I left my last paying job in 2010.

A little history: In 1933 President Hoover declared 2 million acres in southern California a National Monument. The push was on to make the area a National Park but because of the extensive mining going on, declaring it a park was a hard sell to Congress. Declaring the place a National Monument did put a temporary halt to prospecting and the filing of new claims, but under a prior agreement, the moratorium lasted for only four months and the monument was again opened to business as usual.

Over time, though, mining technology evolved, allowing large-scale, open pit and strip mining, some of it in highly popular, scenic areas. According to the Park's website, "Gone were the days of the 'single-blanket, jackass prospector' long associated with the romantic west." This eventually led to the Mining in the Parks Act, passed by Congress in 1976, which prohibited the filing of new mining claims, banned open-pit mining, and required the National Park Service to examine the validity of thousands of pre-1976 mining claims. This is where I come in.

This is collections storage, a locked area in the building where I work. Not only are the archives here, but also other collections, some of which I show farther down.  On the left below are boxes of documents; on the right are artifacts from the mines and settlements that were scattered throughout the valley and mountains.

This is looking in the opposite direction. Artwork is stored on wire racks on the left. This area is a fairly recent addition to the archives because a fact of life is that collections grow and space is nearly always an issue.

And here is what I do to pay the rent. The boxes below hold the abandoned mine records: litigation records, where the Park Service took claim holders to court to require them to prove that their claims actually had marketable material; acquisition records, where the Park Service started buying out properties to expand the size of the park; and records of monitoring mine sites to enforce the rules of road- and structure building, mine safety, and rehabilitation of the land after closures

There was a lot of litigation. Right before the Mining in the Parks Act was passed in 1976, there was a flood of claim-staking and many people did it to have a weekend place, basically for free. Requiring everyone to prove the mineral wealth of their property resulted in the loss of their claims, but it took years and caused a lot of bad feelings, as can be imagined. Legitimate claim holders, many of them small mom and pop outfits, also had to go through the expensive process of acquiring expert opinions and legal representation.

This is what I totally hate to see when I open a box. I do a lot of sighing.

My job is to go folder by folder, removing staples and other fasteners, copy whatever writing is on the old folders onto new acid-free ones, photocopy acid-y items onto acid-free paper, rehouse photos, etc. One day I worked my way through folder after folder where every document was two pages that had been stapled together. The next day I didn't have the strength in the hand that wielded the Special Archives Staple Remover to lift a folder out of a box. That was the day I became ambidextrous. Below is a box I'd half finished. It all sounds dead boring, doesn't it? Sometimes. But there's always something that redeems the boredom, somewhere in the box.

Plus, I'm making my way through lots of audio books at the same time I'm accumulating piles of debris. This is one day's take.

At some point, someone will go through the boxes again, using the notes I'm taking on the contents, and write a finding aid, an inventory, that will give the history and background of the collection and list the contents, folder by folder.

Here are some of the fun or interesting things that are in collections storage.

An original 20-Mule team borax poster.

A basket from one of the early native peoples in the area.

One of several models of a mule team pulling wagons loaded with borax.

A wagon wheel. Duh.

Pack saddles.

And again.

I don't know where this came from - a wagon?

More stuff.

Death Valley's curator is also curator for Manzanar, the World War II Japanese internment site. These are items from Manzanar.

A tiny vanity, no more than a couple of feet high.

HH and I are planning a trip to Manzanar this weekend. Stay tuned.

Thought of the day 1:

It comes from a trial transcript about the value of the minerals of a particular mine. John, the witness, is a foreman and a lifetime miner.

Q. Do you of your own knowledge know whether any ore was shipped out of these claims?
A. I pulled that stuff out with a jackass and hand trammed that stuff out of there, 40, 45, 50 cars every day for all summer.
Q. John, I realize that you some times use colorful language, but we are in a court of law.
A. Burro or jackass. If it's a bad name, they better get them out of the Park.

The same witness was asked about the yield.
Q. What type of trucks did they have, John?
A. Gee, mainly Kenworth diesel.
Q. And how big a load could they carry out?
A. How much tonnage?
Q. Yes.
A. You would be surprised if you weigh one there. I think about 90 percent of them get a ticket.
Q. What would an average load be, John, while you were mining the talc?
A. Well, legally carry 25 ton I am pretty sure.

Thought of the day 2:

I'd give my left arm to be ambidextrous. - an old, old cartoon.