Archive for January, 2010
To reduce confusion for those of you who haven’t been following my blog for awhile, the most recent posts have been lagging “real time” by at least a couple of months. Consider this to be the first of my Arizona writings for this winter. I’ll be dropping the odd piece in between the travel writings over the next few weeks. It actually seems a little awkward for me to write about past rather than present events. If you’re familiar with my older nature blog, Burning Silo, I wrote almost daily, and most of the posts were about sightings that had occurred within the twenty-four hour span of time between those entries. That schedule gradually disintegrated while I cared for Don during his illness. After his death, I decided to abandon posting to that blog and start something new, which is how Journey to the Center came into being. Its structure was intentionally different. It would be about my travels and nature observations, with posts occurring whenever I had the time or inclination to write, or an available net connection to upload photos to my website. That’s the front story, but there’s more to all of this than meets the eye.
The back story is that several odd things happened during the months when I cared for Don. With each passing day, the time I had available to shoot photos, rapidly diminished. I could no longer spend an hour or two a day roaming the garden and fields at the farm as it became increasingly unsafe for Don to be alone in the house even for a few moments. I never resented the constant demand on my time. I did not want to be anywhere else than at his side during those final difficult weeks. However, as I’ve mentioned, odd things began to happen. I no longer cared much about my photography. Requests for photos for publications would come in by email and it was all I could do to force myself to reply or dig up an image file to send to someone. I know that a few of those requests went unanswered if they seemed too complicated and nit-picky. There were just so many hours in the day, and I had to choose where to allocate my time. The decision wasn’t too difficult.
The other thing that occurred during this time is what I can only describe as the beginning of a very disturbing form of amnesia. In the years leading up to Don’s illness, I knew the scientific and common names of most of the creatures that I photographed. Some names were as familiar as my own – Argiope aurantia, Anatis mali, Erythemis simplicicollis…. well, there were dozens and dozens of them. In the weeks after we began our fight with cancer, those names would gradually be replaced by the names of chemo agents, bones requiring radiation treatments, drugs available under clinical trials, and so on. Gradually, over time, it was as though some strange cloud of selective amnesia descended upon me. I would look at photos of creatures in my nature galleries without being able to recollect the scientific, let alone common names of any of them. It was a very strange and disorienting sensation — one that I have now lived with for close to two years. Even as recently as a month or two ago, I would try to talk about an insect which I could picture well in my mind, but the words would not come. I would struggle to think of the names, but the best that could be managed was a puzzling blank-out that actually triggered an unpleasant twitching sensation in some part of my brain. It was as though some part of my “hard drive” had been disconnected, its USB cable unplugged and dangling in the wind.
Fast forward to a couple of days ago. Standing in a hallway, speaking to a fellow naturalist, the name Argiope aurantia surfaced after a few moments of awkward silence. It was one of those weird Eureka!!! moments. If one name can be remembered, perhaps there is hope for more. In fact, I’ve been attempting to remember more names, and they seem to be *sticking* now — something that did not seem possible until even two weeks ago.
The other thing that has happened is that, little by little, my interest in the natural world is returning. In truth, it was never really *lost*, but unless a spider or bird or javelina practically fell out of the sky, it was difficult for me to care enough to take its photograph. Oh, I made concerted attempts, but they felt half-hearted at best. I was rarely pleased with the photographs, and to some extent, that spark that existed between me and whatever I was photographing, still feels a little weak. But perhaps it will return along with the missing names. I do try to make a good effort, even though it still feels like I’m going through the motions. I hope that will change in time.
A couple of months ago, I was stung by an Arizona Bark Scorpion (Centruroides sculpturatus) during the middle of the night (see two above photos – click on all photos for larger views). The resulting pain was unpleasant, but not intolerable. The event was enough to tweak my interest in scorpions to the point that I purchased an inexpensive UV-LED flashlight so that I can blacklight for them as soon as things warm up a bit. Scorpions glow under the light of a UV lamp, so this seems like an opportunity for some cheap entertainment while I’m here in the southwest. I also bought a very inexpensive motion-activated infrared game camera, and have been setting that up in various locations around the lane and garden. So far, my main captures are Javelinas (see below) and the odd lost tourist turning around in my yard. However, as with so many other aspects of my life, I’m doing what I can in the hope that one thing will lead to another and the spark of interest will grow to be something more.
After leaving Lone Pine, a photographer friend and I followed 136 south past Owens Lake – a vast dry lake bed lying between the Inyo Mountains to the east, and the Sierras to the west. Stopping to tour the small town of Keeler, we shot a few photos of older buildings, then continued on our way to the junction with 190. From there, we made our way east, stopping numerous times to photograph the landscape, building ruins, and quite a few rocks (one of my favourite subjects). Deciding to knock off early, we spent the night at the small RV park and campground at Panamint Springs. Once again, we were the only campers, but just before dusk, a lone motorcyclist pulled in to set up his tent. It was a cool but tolerable night. Splurging on an RV spot, we spent the evening recharging batteries for cameras and other gear, and used the wifi connection to catch up on email to those back home. In the morning, I filled the tank on the van, then turned us south onto Panamint Valley Road. At the Trona-Wildrose Road junction, we turned northeast and began the slow climb into the Panamint Range where the highest peaks in Death Valley are located. I’ve decided to spare you my collection of rock photos and limit this post to the main highlight of our small foray into the Death Valley region.
At around 6,800 feet, the Wildrose charcoal kilns are considered to be the best preserved of their kind in the western states. No doubt, their survival probably has a lot to do with their remote location. They are accessible by car as the road is paved most of the way up, but turns to somewhat bumpy gravel a couple of miles before arriving at the parking lot. From that point onwards, it’s recommended that only higher clearance vehicles should attempt the road on up to the Thorndike and Mahogany Flat campgrounds, and the trail head for Telescope Peak (elev. 11,049 ft). We did drive up to Thorndike (7,400 feet) to take a look around at the campsites, but decided that it was too cold and windy on that day, so spent the night down at the Wildrose campground (4,100 feet).
Although I’d seen photographs of these kilns, I must admit that, as they came into view, I was entirely blown away by their size, shape and state of preservation. Regardless of how one may feel about their significance as industrial artifacts, they are really quite beautiful in a very organic sense – seeming almost like over-sized bee skeps set within a wash of sage and rabbitbrush. Ten in number, they sit arrayed equidistant in a line between the road and the base of the mountain slope. They are made of local rock which has been mortared together. Remnants of the lime kiln, used to make cement for the mortar, may be found a short distance behind the charcoal kilns.
I spent a good hour shooting many photos of the exterior and interior of the kilns from many angles, all the while marveling over the incredible precision of the workmanship. The interpretive signage in the parking lot states that the kilns were designed by Swiss engineers and built by Chinese laborers. They were constructed in the mid-eighteen-seventies in order to produce charcoal which was then used to fuel the silver-lead bullion smelters operated by the Modoc Consolidated Mining Company, located approximately twenty-five miles west in the Argus range.
After some searching around on the net to find further information on the kilns, I believe that much of what I’ve read must originate with a booklet entitled Wildrose Charcoal Kilns by Robert J. Murphy, former superintendent of Death Valley Monument (Death Valley Natural History Association, 1972). Here’s a little of what I’ve learned:
The kilns are approximately 25 1/2 feet high, and 32 feet in diameter. The walls are about 24 inches thick at the bottom, thinning to 12 inches near the top. There have been two major restorations of the kilns – the first by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s, and the second in the early 1970s, when Navajo masons with expertise in working on ruins, came from Arizona to fully restore the stonework. It took 42 cords of wood to fill each of the ten kilns. After a week of burning and a few more days of cooling, each cord would have produced about 45 to 50 bushels of charcoal – or about 2,000 bushels of charcoal per kiln. The charcoal was then moved by wagon by the Cerro Gordo Freighting Company owned by Remi Nadeau. Just a bit of trivia, but from a 2004 newsletter of the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert, I found that Remi Nadeau was a French-Canadian, born in Quebec in 1821. After working in the eastern U.S., he traveled west in 1860 in an attempt to cash in on the gold rush. He started up his Cerro Gordo Freighting Company and became one of the principal operators in eastern California, one reference stating that he operated 80 freight teams. I’ve always found it interesting how much people got around the continent in spite of the slowness of travel in those days.
According to this page from the Remote Nevada website, the ten kilns averaged 3,000 bushels of charcoal per day. This was transported to the above-mentioned Modoc Consolidated Mining Company smelters owned by George Hearst, father of the newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst. At the smelters, the charcoal was used to fire furnaces to produce silver-lead bullion. The kilns appear to have been active between 1876 and 1879, at which time the mines began to run out and became unprofitable. It barely needs to be stated that it required a massive supply of wood to produce charcoal for the mines. It took a team of about 40 woodcutters to keep the kilns supplied with pinyon pine and juniper, cut and carried or skidded from the surrounding area. Talk about environmental impact. It never ceases to amaze what lengths mankind will go to when there’s a buck to be made.
Well, enough about the history. As artifacts, the kilns are beautiful structures. There’s something about them that seems almost monastic. It might be the vaulted ceilings and the acoustics when one is standing inside. It could be the way the golden desert sunlight glows in the arched doorways and the single high opening to the back. It could also have much to do with the secluded location. Somehow, it’s difficult to imagine them jammed full of smouldering pinyon logs. When active, it must have been a busy place, with people loading and unloading wood and charcoal. Now, there is just the sound of wind circulating through the kilns and the occasional echo of a voice or footstep. I must admit to being a somewhat surprised at how little time the visitors who trickled in and out would spend examining the kilns. Most drove up, snapped a few photos of themselves by the front door of a couple of domes closest to the parking lot, jumped back in their vehicles and drove away. While several groups came and went, I wandered slowly in and out of each kiln, examining the workmanship, finding many wonderful stones laid in the mortar, and thoroughly fascinated at how often the air vents along the bottom lined up with a vent on the opposite side of the dome. I have no idea if the pointed stones protruding near the peaks of the domes have any practical purpose, but they add just a touch of whimsy to the overall appearance.
I should make mention of the Wildrose Peak Trail which departs from the parking area for the kilns. It is 4.2 miles one way to the 9,064 foot summit. We didn’t do the hike as dogs are not allowed on trails within Death Valley Monument. On our return from the kilns to the campground, we stopped at the section of pipe mounted next to a sign describing the Skidoo water pipeline. It reads: The Skidoo Pipeline can be seen either north or south of this location. The pipeline, which ran from Birch Spring in Jail Canyon, to the Skidoo millsite 23 miles away, was completed in 1907 at a cost of $250,000. There is some speculation that the slang phrase 23 skidoo may have had its origin in Death Valley:
Death Valley National Park Service interpreters have sometimes given as an explanation that the early 1900s mining town of Skidoo, California required that a water line be dug from the source of water on Telescope Peak to the town – a distance of 23 miles. Most thought it would be easy, but the immensely hard rock along the course made it very difficult; it was eventually accomplished by a determined engineer. The term “23 Skidoo” was then used as a statement of irony, something like “duck soup”: a reference to something ‘apparently easy,’ but actually very difficult.
Whatever, the view down Wildrose Canyon with the Panamint Range beyond is really pretty stunning.