Friday, September 4, 2009

The Whitney Quest - Day 1, Part 2: Rhyolite to Lone Pine

As we left Rhyolite to head for the old cemetery (mind you, by "old", this is "western old", not "european old"), we decided to stop by the Goldwell Open Air Museum. (photo left of the sculpt entitled "Tribute To Shorty Harris", and on prominent display near the road, draws the attentions of passersby) There were some...interesting sculptures scattered around the 15 acre grounds, and we were intrigued. Little did I know at the time, but Clue Seeker also knew that one of the half dozen Rhyolite caches was located right here. Heh.

The Open Air Museum was started in 1984 by Belgian sculptor Albert Szukalski (1945-2000). He is best known for his life-sized "ghostly" shrouded figures, some of which were on display here, and others which are on display in and around his home town of Antwerp. To make these sculpts, he would wrap live models in fabric soaked in wet plaster, posed them to what he wanted, then refined the drapery. When the plaster set, the model stepped out, leaving a rigid shroud of a figure behind. The final sculpts are then covered in fiberglass to weatherproof them. When we first drove up to Rhyolite we saw a line of ghostly figures off the road, but had no idea what they really were.

We all got out and started exploring the grounds. I was drawn over to a rather colorful couch . I wasn't sure why, since some of the other stuff was more interesting. I guess I figured I'd check out this color-wild couch first (entitled "Sit Here"), and figure out if it was at all comfortable to sit on, then make a sweeping circle around to catch all the other stuff on my way back to the SUV.

As I approached, Jeff also came by, GPS in hand (photo right). I asked, "Is there a cache near here?" He laughed and said, "Right here!". Lo and behold, there was one hidden behind the couch. Heh.

After checking out some of the detail on the couch (photo left: among other things, hidden on the right side of the couch was a Star Trek Starfleet emblem), and doing the group photo thing (illustrating just how not comfortable the couch was), I moved on to the other constructs.

The one that drew my (and everyone else's) attention was the 25' tall "Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada".
You can tell she's tall, but you get no real appreciation for her height until, well, you get right up near her.

She was constructed in 1992 by Hugo Heyrman. He used cinderblocks to represent the pixels he used in his virtual 2-D computer work (yes, computers - and the internet! - existed back in 1992! :-P the abacus and sliderule had just been retired the year before).

I walked over to check out the Lady. I thought the rest of the team was going to follow, but when I got near her, I noticed they were hanging back, too scared of her. Well, fine. I had my powers (see Part 1). I figured I could take her if need.

Walking around her (and yeah, 25' high, out in the open desert, she's tall!), I saw that the back side sported a buttock of cinderblocks. Heh.

After the Lady I wandered over to a row of ghostly figures. This was Szulkalski's rendition of "The Last Supper". I didn't understand at the time how these sculpts had been made (until I found a pamphlet describing the Open Air Museum on our way out). One of my team made a comment about how it looked like someone could stand inside the ghost suits, so....I did!

Bit of a tight fit, though. Musta used a short model.

There were a few other sculpts to check out ("Icara", a spiral wheel thing with no name I saw, a wagon sculpt, etc), but time was pressing and the day getting on mid-afternoon. However, I did slip over to look at one more sculpt: "Ghost Rider". No, I did not try to crawl in.

We piled back in the mobile and headed back down the road, peeling off onto a dirt road a short distance away. Jeff navigating by GPS, Snurt driving. A short time later we saw out in the scrub desert the cemetery, standing out there all by its lonesome.

We pulled up to the front gate. It was obvious that while this is a relatively old cemetery, it does see live people, either of friends/family of the residents within, or visitors such as ourselves. The entrance plaque reads:

1904 - 1912
This enduring bronze is placed here to the blessed memory to those who sleep herein, and to the remembrance of all others who came this way and opened up this great Nevada desert mining world.
By those who cared...
April 1969

The goal of the geocache was to visit (respectfully) three of the gravesites, get some date information from the headstones, plug the info into a formula on the cache page, and recalculate the new coordinates of the cache.

While we were looking around for the requested information, I noticed that some residents were relatively recent admissions to the cemetery (such as Eulah Gregory, who died in 1991). Others had to be from the time the cemetery was first....built? Constructed? Created? Established? Wood slats, weathered blank, marked the head and sometimes feet for those who lay resting. Stuff you see in movies, never real life. And here it was, in real life. Kinda spooky, actually.

The team collectively found all the necessary information, Jeff recalculated the coordinates for the cache (400' away from the cemetery). We bade our farewells to the residents here and set out to find the cache.

Granted, it was another ammo can in the middle of the scrub desert, but the main point of the cache was to bring us to visit the cemetery, which is not on the beaten path most people travel. So that made it cool.

Once we were done with this cache, we were back on the road again. Next stop: Death Valley!

As we drove over the pass, we could see spread out below us in the distance splotches of whiteness. Quite noticeable from the hazy brown and tan tones of the surrounding terrain and mountains.

The great salt pans of Death Valley.

The outside air temperature reading started rising steadily as we drove into the Valley. It was mid-late afternoon, practically the hottest time of day. Last I noticed the temperature reading it was a balmy 114
°F (45°C)

Now, Death Valley can be quite hot. But it also can be quite chilly (today, however, was not one of those days).
Temperatures in the Valley can range from highs around 130°F (54°C) in the summer to lows below 32°F (0°C) in the winter. The National Climatic Data Center reports that temperatures at Furnace Creek reach at least 90°F (32°C) on an average of 189.3 days annually and at least 100°F (38°C) on an average of 138.0 days annually. The highest average temperature is in July at 117°F (47°C), with temperatures of 122°F (50°C) or higher being very common. Note: we are here in the Valley in late August

The highest temperature ever recorded in the United States, according to National Weather Service records, was 134°F (56.7°C) at Furnace Creek (then known as Greenland Ranch) during a sandstorm on July 10, 1913. Freezing temperatures, on the other hand, occur an average of 11.7 days each year. The lowest temperature on record at Furnace Creek Inn is 15°F (-9°C), but nighttime temperatures in summer may only fall to 85°F to 95°F (30°C to 35°C).

This is important information to know when you are visiting the Valley. You want to make sure you always have plenty of water along with you when traveling this region, even if it's "just a short walk" from the car.

Our goal and destination at this point was a geocache called Death Valley, at the Harmony Borax Works. This particular cache was not a physical container, but a special type of virtual known as an earthcache (see the earlier log entry for a description of it, in case you missed it earlier). The requirements were to answer these questions seven, which included, but were not limited to, how far below sea level we were (176'), how many miles of inhospitable terrain did the 20-mule teams have to traverse (165), and at what temperatures will borax not crystalize (120
°+ F). One could internet search some of the information, but not all of it. You had to actually visit and read the information plaques to get the bulk of the info.

The Harmony Borax Works plant was built and began to process borax ore in late 1883/early 1884. At full operation there were 40 men working, producing three tons of borax daily. However, during the summer months, when it was so hot that the processing water could not cool enough to permit the suspended borax to crystallize (temps of 120
°F or greater), the work force moved out of Death Valley to the Amargosa Borax Plant near present-day Tecopa, CA.

Getting the final product to market from the heart of Death Valley was a challenging task. The Harmony operation became famous through the use of "20-mule teams", a romantic image that became the symbol of borax and persists to this day. These 20-mule teams traveled 165 miles from Harmony to Mojave, CA.

20-mule teams consisted of eighteen mules and two horses, attached to two enormous wagons (photo right) carrying 9 metric tons of borax each. The back wheels stood at 7' diameter, with tires made of 1 inch thick iron. The wagons were 16' in length. The third component of the wagons was a water tank wagon, because there was very little drinking water for the mules and horses (and men) on the journey. The tank wagon carried 1200 US gallons of water.

With the mules attached, the entire train was over 180' long. It should be noted in the 6 years of operation, no wagon broke down. Ever.

Today the Harmony Borax Works plant consists of a four-level ruin situated against a hillside (photo left). Around there are remains of buildings, machinery, tanks, piping, etc. In addition to the plant, a nearby townsite (photo rightt) can be seen in the not to far distance.

After touring the remnants of Harmony, we proceeded down the road a bit more to another feature in Death Valley known as the Devil's Golf Course. This was also the site of another Earthcache by the same name, and would be my #2000 cache 'find' (if I couldn't have Mt Whitney as my #2000, the Devil's Golf Course would prove to be a cool one for that landmark).
We arrived to a forbidding landscape. The photos above and below cannot do justice to this area. The terrain looks uneven and 'rocky', but it is more than just uneven. The mounds are also very rigid. At best if you fall, you'll just scrape the hell out of yourself. At worst, you could easily twist an ankle here, even with high-top boots on. Or a mound could collapse beneath you with a hollow cavity, perhaps breaking a leg. Bad News in the Valley!

These mound formations are crystallized salt, leftover deposits from a couple of ancient lakes, and now formed by winds and rain. The Devil's Golf Course sits above the floodplain of Death Valley, so the periodic floods that do occur (such as they are) do not impose a 'leveling' effect on this area, leaving it rugged and difficult to traverse (by contrast, Badwater, the lowest point in Death Valley - and the United States - is a couple tens of feet lower than the Golf Course and is in the Amargosa River floodplain, which subjects it to periodic 'leveling'; we will visit Badwater in more detail later).

Meanwhile, the pinnacles of salt continue to grow here, and are eroded by dust-driven winds and the occasional rains. These weathering processes, coupled with the growing salt crystal pinnacles, give rise to the terrain here. (photos above and to the right).

Looking closely at some of the mounds, one can see unusual formations. We saw a photo of a broken eggshell-like formation, but there were none near where we parked. However, there was this really smoothed out hollow in one of the pinnacles (photo left).

While we were here, one of the team suddenly stated they heard a cracking sound somewhere "out there". We all looked. Was it monsters?? I looked back at the info sign where we parked. It said if you listen carefully, on hot days the salt pinnacles expand and contract, causing a metallic snapping sound. At that point another car drove up and three Japanese tourists got excitedly got out and started talking a mile a minute about the area, pointing fingers all around and taking photos. I moved off into the Golf Course a ways, to get away from the cacophony that had arrived. With ninja-like reflexes I paused, and listened. The only sound I heard was the faint excited babble back at the parking area, the sound of a car driving away, and then just the wind. I stood, losing myself in the landscape...

A few minutes later I heard a sharp k-rack! off to my right. It sounded far away, somewhere out in the salt pan. Another minute later I heard a 'thunk', this time more in front of me, still "out there somewhere". Very cool.

I returned to the car and my team. We piled back into our SUV and turned to leave this wonderous yet forbidding land.

It was getting late in the day as we drove out of Death Valley and over a pass or two to Lone Pine. And given most of us were still on East Coast time, it was several hours later still. Hungry, yes, we were. But, we had to stop and do one more geocache along the way. It was quick, not overly remarkable. And I was reflecting on the geologic history of the Golf Course and gazing up at the few clouds and sun.

We got to Lone Pine a little after dark, after a mildly colorful sunset with the mountains before us. We quickly found the Mt Whitney Hostel, where we would be spending the next couple of nights. We also found a mexican restaurant a few blocks up the street and had dinner there (it was one of the few places still open).

After dinner we retired to the hostel, unloaded our gear, and collapsed. Tomorrow would be a longish day, as Jeff had planned for us an acclimatization hike into Cottonwood Canyon.

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