Back from the Desert

Gus’s Fresh Jerky in Olancha, CA

Today, as a major heat wave was sending the desert temperatures as high as 107° Fahrenheit (42º Celsius), Martine and high sped south from Lone Pine to return to Los Angeles by mid-afternoon today. We had expected hot temperatures on the floor of the valley, so all of our major destinations were at an altitude between 7,500 feet (2,286 meters) and 10,500 feet (3,200 meters). It was not unusual for the temperature at these higher locations to be 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than our starting point for the day. In the White Mountains, where we viewed the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, it actually became chilly.

Gus’s Fresh Jerky (shown above) was one of the first stops on our trip. The unpromising building actually had delicious beef jerky and various types of dried fruit, honey, and olives. In fact, we stopped not only on our way up the valley, but also on the return trip.

One of the things one learns while traveling in the California desert is that there is little correspondence between how fancy a building is and the quality of merchandise (or exhibits) within. A store like this in Los Angeles would not be taken seriously. Check out their website, which belies the casual look of their premises.

The Laws Railroad Museum

Gas Station and Jalopy at Laws Railroad Museum

It was January 2010 when Martine and I last drove through the Eastern Sierras. One of our favorite destinations was an outdoor museum of pioneer life in the hamlet of Laws, CA. Four miles northeast of Bishop, Laws was a station on the Carson & Colorado Railroad, which ran from Mound House, NV to Keeler, CA, site of the Cerro Gordo (“Fat Hill”) mines, which produced high grade silver, lead, and zinc. In 1900, the Carson & Colorado was sold to the Southern Pacific where it operated in various forms until around 1960.

Today, the Laws Museum is one of those outdoor museums to which various old local structures were moved, from railroad buildings and residences to various types of businesses. Martine and I plan to pay another visit next week.

One of the Original 19th Century Boxcars of the Old Carson & Colorado Railway

We love the strange desert landscapes of the areas flanked on one side by the steep eastern flank of the Sierra Nevadas on the left and the Inyo and White Mountains on the right. We expect that the Sierras will still be covered with snow because of the record precipitation this last winter.

 

The Living Desert

Mountain Lion at the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert

Not to worry: There was a thick layer of glass between me and that mountain lion. I took this picture ten years ago when I went with Martine to one of my favorite zoos in Southern California, the Living Desert in Palm Desert. (The other one is the small but otherwise perfect Santa Barbara Zoo in the city of the same name.)

This was before my brother and sister-in-law moved to Palm Desert. Martine and I had just done an overnighter, staying at the local Motel 6. J know it wasn’t exactly ten years ago because I can’t see myself visiting the lower desert in the Coachella Valley in the heat of July.

Martine and I will be taking something of a risk visiting the Owens Valley next week, as the daily temperatures are expected to range between 60º and 98º Fahrenheit (16º to 37º Celsius) with the humidity hovering around 20%. The only thing that will make that bearable is that, if it gets too hot, we can always drive to higher latitudes and relax. There are only a few things we want to see in the floor of the valley, but those are all things we’ve seen before.

We will have a large cooler with us filled with block ice and plenty of water, along with a few goodies in case we feel like roughing it at high altitude. After all, for most of our trip, we will be in the shadow of the highest mountain range in the contiguous forty-eight states.

 

Desert Dreamers: Cabot Yerxa 2

Cabot’s Old Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs

Yesterday I wrote about Cabot Yerxa the writer. Today I turn to his Pueblo Museum on Desert View Avenue in Desert Hot Springs, a city a few miles north of Interstate 10 and Palm Springs. Other than the various spa hotels, the Pueblo Museum is the only real tourist attraction in that community. According to the pamphlet handed out at the museum:

Cabot’s vision is alive and realized in his 35-room, 5,000 square foot Pueblo built entirely of found and repurposed materials. Everyone who wants to see first-hand what can be accomplished with the three R’s—reuse, reduce, and recycle—will be in awe as they walk through the museum and home of Cabot.

In addition to the Pueblo itself, there are a number of outbuildings on the grounds, including a trading post, tool house, and meditation garden, to name just a few. The visitor can take a one-hour docent-led tour of the main Pueblo building, and easily spend another hour looking around the complex.

Cabot built the Pueblo later in his life, starting in the 1940s and continuing for most of his remaining years. Where most architects put together a plan to which they more or less adhere, Cabot did it the other way around. The size of the rooms had more to do with the building materials he had on hand at the time. Many of the windows, doorways, and stairs are unusually narrow or small. He justified his practice by referring to the Venturi Effect, which is usually applied to fluids, but which can also be applied to the movement of cool air in a desert building. In fact, the tour I had last Friday on a hot morning was remarkably cool in this non-air-conditioned structure.

Image of Eagle on Pueblo Wall with Narrow Window

There was no Home Depot or Lowe’s around for Cabot to buy standard windows and doors. Everything was based on found materials, as for instance in the window illustrated below. Usually, comfort on hot days in the desert is achieved by expensive air-conditioning: It is remarkable that Cabot’s Pueblo is actually quite livable. Even in West Los Angeles, where I live in an old uninsulated apartment house, the three windows facing the setting sun can heat the place up to 90º Fahrenheit (35º Celsius) until the middle of the night. Imagine what that would do in the Coachella Valley in August!

Check Out the Crude Bars and Barbed Wire on the Above Window

Although he traveled around the world more than most desert rats, Cabot Yerxa did know the desert from deep personal observation. That’s one of the reasons I am enjoying his book, On the Desert Since 1913.

 

The Deserts of This Earth

Hillside with Cholla Cactus in the Anza-Borrego Desert

California has a number of distinct desert zones, ranging from Death Valley in Inyo County to the Mohave Desert around I-15 and I-40 along the route to Las Vegas and Northern Arizona to the Anza-Borrego Desert east of San Diego. My friend Bill also tells me about the Carrizo Plain National Monument, which also seems to be a desert, one which I have not yet visited. And undoubtedly there are several I am not taking into account.

One thing they all have in common: Don’t go there in the summer if you don’t want to die of discomfort and have your car stranded on some obscure untraveled highway. In the winter, on the other hand, the desert is lovely and beguiling. Do you see those cholla cactuses in the center of the above photo? When the sun shines through their barbed needles, they look positively huggable. But don’t even try! If you brush against cholla spines, they will stick to your skin and your clothing, and you will have the devil’s own time disposing of them.

During the spring, you are likely to see that every inch of the rough desert surface seems to be covered with tiny wildflowers. The efflorescence lasts only a few weeks, and you have to time your visit carefully and call locals to see if it’s happened yet. And it generally happens only after a wet rainy season. We haven’t had many of those lately.

Because California is on the ring of fire, you can occasionally find natural hot springs in which you can bathe. There is one such in Anza-Borrego on County Road S-2 south of Scissors Crossing. To get there, one passes by the old Butterfield Stage Route; and you can even stop at one of the Butterfield Stage stations which has been restored to its 19th century glory.

When it’s too cold to go the beach, consider the desert.

 

Don’t Go Here in August

Ruins of the Bank Building in Rhyolite, Nevada

In January 2008, Martine and I spent a few days in Death Valley. It is a totally fascinating place, surrounded by ghost towns (such as Rhyolite, above) and mining shafts. The fascination wears off somewhat if you should try to visit in the summer, as the rangers tell us that German tourists tend to do. When the thermometer hits 130° Fahrenheit (54° Celsius), tourism is secondary to survival. Crawling up the mountain pass of the Panamint Range, your car will pass several water tanks to replenish the fluid in your radiator. Should you not pay attention to your radiator temperature, you had best just pull over and crawl under your car with several gallons of water, preferably cool—at least to start with.

Death Valley was the site of my first ever camping trip, back in 1979. We made it to Furnace Creek campground after midnight. Too weary to pitch our tents, we just lay our sleeping bags over groundcloths and dropped off, only to be awakened by early by a overactive flock of birds that landed in the campground or circled above our heads. The desert was starkly beautiful, and I fell in love with it from the start.

Ubehebe Crater in the Northern Part of Death Valley

I got an altogether different picture of the desert around 1995. Martine was working at the Twentynine Palms Marine Combat Center as a civilian employee. I would visit her several times during the summer, when it was REALLY, REALLY hot. I had to use an oven mitt to open my car door, lest my hand merge with the handle. I don’t know how Martine stuck it out there as long as she did. Eventually, she quit and moved in with me.

Now my brother lives in the desert, in Palm Desert, to be exact. Of course, he has air conditioning and a swimming pool to take some of the sting out of the climate. But I will likely not visit him until the temperature cools.