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.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Scotty's Castle, except it wasn't

Walter E. Scott was born in Kentucky but made his way west as a young 'un, working as a cowboy as a child, as a helper on the 20-mule team hauling borax from the Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley, and as a trick rider in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. For twelve years he toured Europe and America, gaining experience as a showman, a talent he parlayed into a lucrative career as a teller-of-tall-tales.

The initial investor in Scotty's gold mine in Death Valley was Julian Gerard. In 1902 he bought one-third interest for $1500 after he assayed ore samples that Scotty provided but, alas, the ore came from a Colorado mine where Scotty had once worked. I don't know what happened when Gerard discovered the truth, but whatever it was, it didn't slow Scotty down; he promoted himself on grubstake money, stayed at the best hotels from Los Angeles to New York, left gigantic tips after buying rounds of drinks, and bragged about his mine: "My mine is where the devil himself can't find it. It's in Death Valley in the mountains where no man can ever go - no man but Wallie Scott... I'm worth $1 million to $20 million and it's all there in the mine." Then he would disappear back into the desert.

Three years later Scotty hired a three-car Santa Fe Railroad train that he called the Coyote Special and made the trip from LA to Chicago in just under 45 hours. He said, "We got there so fast nobody had time to sober up." The public loved him (presumably the public that had not invested money), awarding him folk hero status. This trip led to a meeting with an earlier investor, Albert Johnson.

Johnson was the polar opposite of Death Valley Scotty: a quiet, religious man who did not smoke, swear, or drink. He grew up in a wealthy family and made another fortune in the insurance business in Chicago. The meeting in 1905 led to a further investment in Scotty's mine. Johnson visited Scotty in 1906 and 1909 but never managed to see the mine. Even after realizing he's been duped, he continued to provide shelter and food for Scotty, saying, "Whether he has any mine or not I shall have a delightful outing and know I shall come out in much better health for Scotty is a prince of good fellows and a delightful companion." 

Johnson and his wife Bessie decided to build a place to stay. If I understood the tour guide correctly, the castle was built on land that Johnson did not own. It was government land but Johnson thought it was nicer than his own property and construction began. When the "error" was discovered, construction halted until he and the government worked out a swap and this is what became their home in the desert:

It's actually quite nice. Some people loosely compare it to Hearst Castle but it's nowhere near as opulent or over the top.

The house has a central courtyard, maybe designed for cars to be able to drive to the front door, midway down the wing on the left.

Inside the lovely gate, looking to the west, toward the bell tower.

On the wall on the right is this sundial. HH and I overheard a guide tell his group, as he shepherded them into the courtyard, that it works. 

I'm not sure what the significance of Janus is to a sundial.

It's said the devil is in the details, but I think it's beauty, imagination, and whimsy that's in the details. Just look!



here, on the second floor, so the screen over the little window is not for security. As my mother would have said, it's "decoration."

And here. The gate is at some distance from the castle; maybe a service entrance?

The great room of the house has a fireplace on one end and a water wall on the other. The water, unfortunately, was not running. Imagine the sound it would make.

This is a broader view of the same room. I'm not a big fan of overly high ceilings, but I like the gallery and the light, and think that otherwise this is an easy room to be in.

In one of the photos above I pointed out the bell tower. Bessie Johnson learned the musical preferences of her guests and programmed the bells from this machine to play that music as her guests arrived.

Albert Johnson envisioned the room below as his library. You can see that his vision didn't mesh with Bessie's. 

Scotty hired the men who worked on the ranch to be in the basement when he had dinner parties, with the instruction to make the kind of noise that one would associate with digging in a gold mine. Then he would tell his guests that the noise was miners, digging gold even as the guests were having their dinner upstairs.

This upstairs room has a gigantic player organ on one side. As it plays, wide louvers that cover the entire wall behind it open and close in time with the music. A feast for the senses.

This concludes the upstairs portion of our tour.

Meanwhile, in the basement, which includes a quarter mile of tunnels, there are thousands, probably tens of thousands, of tiles that were intended for the swimming pool that never got built. The excavation was made and some bridges and such were built, but the pool never came into being.

Scotty never did own the Castle but it seems Johnson didn't care that he footed the bill for years. As one of the signs in the Visitor Center says, "Johnson was intrigued by the romance of the Wild West and the reality of the desert landscape. In Scotty, he found a colorful Old West character and companion. In the desert he found relief from his back injuries [from a train wreck] and asthma. In Grapevine Canyon, he found an isolated place to build a home away from home, a castle in the desert." 

Shortly before Johnson died in 1948, he set up the Gospel Foundation specifically to care for his properties and fund charitable work. Scotty continued to live there and when he died in 1954 he was buried on a hill overlooking the property; the Park Service bought the property from the Foundation in 1970 for $850,000. After the purchase there was no money to also buy the furnishings, so the Gospel Foundation donated them. 

I made the steep hike to see Death Valley Scotty's grave and his shiny nose, which immediately brought to mind.......

.....the grave of Victor Noir, in Pere Lechaise Cemetery in Paris. I don't make the news, folks, I just report it.

Thought of the day:

There's a sucker born every minute. - attributed to P.T. Barnum, but it's not his quote.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sand dances

I know I said Scotty's Castle would be the next one up, but it will be a long-ish post and I can't count on the internet to be available for the time it will take to write it. I've been told that when the Christmas crowd goes home this weekend the internet will be back to normal, and do I have my fingers crossed! This is the first park we've been to where connectivity has been an issue. At Petrified Forest I whinged long enough that the Museum Association installed a booster that took the signal from the Post Office and tossed it out to me, but even before that, I could get decent wifi at the Post Office or Visitor Center. At the North Rim, there was great wifi at the Administration building but at the house we had to install satellite internet which was as slow as it was expensive. At Andersonville and Tumacácori we did fine with our own hotspot. But here? Pffftttt.

Instead of Scotty's Castle, I want to show three photos from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. HH and I went looking for them with a map the other day and whoa! they were where they were supposed to be. We probably looked right at them the first time we drove their way, but missed them altogether because of the blowing sand. 

Saturday was a gorgeous day and the crowds that hog the internet met us at the dunes. Many people, us included, think desert=sand, but less than 1% of Death Valley is covered in sand.

 I think this is my favorite photo of this park so far.

The park's website says these dunes (there are four others listed on the website) are just 100 feet high but cover a vast area, without saying just how much that is. You can get an inkling, though, by seeing how insignificant the people are in these photos. The photo above in particular, taken from a distance, shows someone as a speck near the bottom of the sunlit curve at the far right.

This is an ever-changing show. The wind that comes through this valley constantly resculpts the lines and smooths the footprints. I read somewhere that seeing them by moonlight is a different experience, and I do believe there's a full moon rising.


Thought of the day:

They dined on mince, and slices of quince, 

Which they ate with a runcible spoon; 
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, 
They danced by the light of the moon. 

- Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat

Friday, December 26, 2014

The vastness of place

This post was supposed to be up yesterday - HH will back me up on this - but the internet is a fickle fiend. We have problems almost everywhere we go, and I guess it could be said that it's the price we pay to live in God's big acres, but I love me my internet and it makes me crazy when it's not working better than dial-up or when it's not working at all.

Last weekend we took our first field trip, to an intriguing place called Scotty's Castle, and those photos will be up in the next post if I can get them uploaded. Here, though, are some images of the landscape near us.

I tried walking along the main road for my almost-daily constitutional but there's too much traffic on Highway 190 to make it safe. The park gets a million visitors a year, a figure hard to comprehend when you look out over the vast land and see no one, but they have to come in on one of the roads and 190 is the main drag. I gave up that route after being forced to the uneven, rocky shoulder too many times, and found there's a nice, uphill route right near my house.

We live in the Cow Creek area, which is a few miles from Furnace Creek, where the fancy Furnace Creek Inn is. Above us are the Resource Management offices, the CalTrans maintenance yard, and some employee housing. This photo shows some of the housing on a day the sun finally came out. I stopped to take the photo mostly so I could catch my breath, because even though we're at sea level, it's a mighty hill to climb.

I think these are the Amargosa Range mountains.

To the north are more arroyos, more mountains, more color.

The road continues to go up in a loop through housing. It's a lovely moment when it finally starts its descent and I always think, at that moment, that it's not such a bad climb after all. 

This is on the way down the hill, looking northwest across the salt flats. The flats are miles and miles long; this view is about 25 miles north of Badwater Basin that I wrote about last time. To give an idea of the vastness of this place, look for a whitish speck just below where the blue changes to brown, about halfway between the shrubbery on the left and right. That's a car.

Yesterday we started a drive out to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes but didn't make it. It's not that we got lost, but that we didn't know where we were going. There's a difference. I was sure I'd seen the sign on the road to Scotty's Castle but it had disappeared and after burning about $15 worth of diesel we gave up and went home. It turns out that the dunes are on the road we first went down but backtracked on because we thought it was the wrong road. Oh, cruel irony.

It was a beautiful, sunshiny day even though wind was howling and buffeting the house, raising sand that nearly obscured the Panamint Mountains later in the day. This photo was shot after we turned around the second time, as beautiful as it was miserable to be out in.

We're going to give it another shot today, armed with - aha!! - a map.

Our kitchen window looks to the west and the first hint I had that the spectacularity below was beginning, a few days ago, was a glow on our neighbors' rigs seen through that window. This made the dreary clouds we experienced for several days almost insignificant.

Thought of the day:
(This refers to Space, as in Sky, Universe, &c., but also aptly describes Death Valley.)
Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long walk down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space. - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Out of one desert and into another

Two friends have noticed a lull in posts here and my big sister has put the fear of God into me about it, so now that I know people actually read cruisingat60, I'll see if I can dredge up more content.

I finished at Tumacácori the first week of December and we hung around Tucson for a week before heading to Death Valley on Sunday. The week in Tucson, which I hoped to be a nice week of rest, wasn't. It wasn't like I was doing heavy lifting, but the little things that had to be attended to before leaving the kind of civilization that has shopping for the kind that does not, like a haircut, flu shot, teeth cleaning, Costco, and cleaning the carpet and upholstery in the house, sucked all extra time away and it felt like we were on the go all week. Plus, I am determined to learn at least 1st grade Spanish, so estudio español, and that can morph from an expected 20-minute online session to an hour without my even noticing it. There is not enough time, that's all there is to it.

We took two days to drive over, stopping outside Kingman for the night before getting on the Joshua Forest Scenic Parkway between Wickenberg and Wikieup, Arizona. According to the link about the Parkway, "Joshua trees are to the Mojave Desert what saguaros are to the Sonoran – huge, perfectly adapted endemic plants that live nowhere else in the world." When I started noticing the plants, before seeing the sign that identified them as Joshua Trees, I thought they were a kind of yucca (also a member of the lily family), and it turns out they are. Mormons gave them their name, seeing in them the Biblical Joshua's arms reaching toward heaven. These remarkable plants can tolerate a temperature range from 30° to 125°. And did I get one single photo? No. Nada.

But here we are. Neither HH nor I had ever been to Death Valley and even with the advance reading we'd done, didn't have much of an idea what to expect. Our first impressions were along the lines of Wow! and Look at that! and haven't much changed, except we're already tired of the overcast but have been assured it won't last. 

The museum curator, who I'll be working for until the end of April, took us on a tour of part of the park yesterday afternoon. The place is huge, 3.4 million acres, so we saw a miniscule portion of it, and jaw-dropping it is.

One spot he took us to is called Badwater, salt flats at 282 feet below sea level that were thought to be the lowest point in the Western hemisphere until a place in Argentina was discovered to be -344 feet.

 This sign is at the entrance to the flats,

and this, below, is looking in the opposite direction. If you look nearly dead center on the hillside you can see a tiny sign with tiny letters that say Sea Level. As small as they look, the letters are about three feet tall. My boss has rock climbing experience and placed the rigging that the actual sign installers used to haul themselves and the equipment upslope. He said it's nothing but a lot of loose rock up there, so once he was done with his part he got off the mountain and hid behind a car.

Walking out on the flats reminded me of walking on slush, but when I picked up a bit of it, it felt like nothing more than damp sand, gritty on my fingers. All along the walkway that shows in the photo below we saw holes, large divots, that people had dug, just to see what was underneath. What? We also noticed large graffiti carved into it, and he said maintenance crews will come out periodically with water and rakes and try to smooth it out,

and that he really doesn't like going out because every time the walkway is wider and longer, caused by people wandering farther and farther out.

Another view to the north.

Then we went to a place called the Devil's Golf Course, more salt deposits but in the form of big chunks extending out to the horizon. This can be treacherous walking. The chunks are hard and irregular, and it would be easy to make a misstep and break a bone. I can't wait to go back out and get more pictures! I'll take crutches.

This is the only one of the closer shots I took that turned out halfway decent. I was surprised by the fibrous-looking growths along the edges and suppose they are more crystals growing. When it rains, some of the salt dissolves but as the water evaporates clean crystals are deposited.

We also drove along Artist's Drive, a loop road among multi-colored rock formations, but were losing the light quickly and didn't stop. There are hikes out from Artist's Drive as well as hundreds of miles of other hikes in the park, so I'll be back, hopefully when the sun makes a regular appearance, but I'll never see it all.

Thought of the day:

Each thing in its way, when true to its own character, is equally beautiful. - Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire