Saturday, 17 May 2014 00:00

The DE gets down and dirty in Trona

October 11 - 13, 2013

By Debbie Miller Marschke

More than 3,000 people turned out for the 72nd annual Trona GemORama, including our group of 13 Desert Explorers: Myself and husband Steve, Bob & Sue Jaussaud, Ron Lipari, Mike Vollmert, Vicki Hill, Daniel Dick & Bobbie Sanchez, and Bruce Barnett with daughter Elizabeth. The Searles Valley Minerals Company opens up their Searles Lake property one weekend a year for rockhounds in October, and it was quite a spectacle. There is actually only one other place that one can collect these minerals in this form – in the Ukraine. People attend from all over the world, and we all heard many languages spoken during the course of our weekend. But the big secret is, it’s really not the minerals that attracts such a big crowd; it’s the larger-than-life, down-and-dirty fun of the hunt that brings the people back for more.

     Steve and I arrived around 12:30 p.m. on Friday, October 11, at the Valley Wells facility 5 miles north of Trona. We staked out an awesome camp site underneath a grove of Athol trees, and within steps of the restroom, potable water, and outdoor public showerhead for rinsing. Friday afternoon was spent relaxing in the perfect desert weather, enjoying camaraderie and of course, happy hour. The Jaussauds were one of the last to arrive, and we had arranged a prank upon Bob when he tried to check into the campground. The amenable camp caretaker Karen worked for the Fire Department, so she had an air of Official Business as she searched Bob’s vehicle and asked him if his vehicle had been on fire. Meanwhile, back in camp, the DE watched, ogled, and giggled hysterically. The prank continued all weekend as Bob became Karen’s favorite camper to hassle! I managed to bake a German Chocolate cake in a Dutch oven in camp which was received with much appreciation.

     Saturday morning we all left camp, ready to rumble, at 7:30 a.m. We arrived in the boomtown of Trona, which was already bustling with people. The DE lined up and parked our vehicles in succession; the event “stack parks” all the attendees in a massive parking lot; first come, first served. Everyone hustled over to get registered for all the events, and then we all walked over to the local Church which was serving a pancake & sausage breakfast for $5.00. I don’t know exactly how many people this church served, but they ran a tight ship and we were impressed. We had time to enjoy our meal and were able to return to our vehicles in ample time. At 9:00 a.m. sharp, the first field trip rolled out: the Mud event. The vehicles were escorted single file onto Searles Lake over a maze of dirt access roads. We arrived at a parking area where the Company had prepared a public collection site for all. Black gloppy piles of mud were heaped up. Everyone parked and made haste to the Mud piles. And then, the crowd of hundreds descended upon the mud and began wallowing in it. Well, uh, that’s how it looked. Hidden within this mud are clusters of large hanksite crystals. To win these prizes, you have to find them in the mud. As Vicki said, “Look at the sea of humanity!” It was literally a sea of butts and elbows in the mud. The scene was mind blowing. It did not take long for all the DEers to join in the madness. This proved to be delightfully fun and messy, which was part of the hilarity. I think the one thing that stood out, though, was that there were as many children here with families as there were serious adult rock hounds. What a refreshing sight to see all those children, collecting minerals! The mud was the great equalizer; everyone had a chance to score a beautiful mineral cluster. It was just as much fun to sit back and be a spectator as it was to actually hunt for the rocks. Absolutely a blast! Daniel’s favorite scene included observing several boys that were so heavy caked with mud, their pants were falling off their rears (they did not care)! Everyone was getting plastered with mud, and everyone was smiling. Once the clusters had been grabbed, a large trough was provided for cleaning. You can not clean any of these minerals with water – they dissolve. Salt/brine solution was provided, which cleaned the rocks and maintained their integrity. Another wonderful fact about attending GemORama; nobody goes home empty-handed. The DE caravanned back to town around 11:30 a.m., everyone with their extracted treasures. We immediately placed our vehicles in the line-up for event #2, The Blow Hole, which began at 2:30 p.m. Everyone left the parked cars, disbursed to have lunch and to enjoy the festivities.

     The Searles Valley Minerals plant had free tours, there was a rock & mineral show going on, and lots of exhibits to see. We ran into Ruth & Emmett Harder, and Barbara & Bill Gossett. There really was not enough time to see & do everything during the break. But you have to hand it to the town of Trona, they handle the massive influx of people like champs! Very, very impressive indeed. The afternoon Blow Hole event has a different approach. Essentially, the lake bed is fracked ahead of time using explosives, and the minerals are pumped to the surface suspended in water through a large pipe and sprayed upon the lakebed. The Company did demonstrate how the minerals are brought up in a geyser of water. The Hanksite crystals are sprayed all over the hard-pan lake bed for the attendees to pounce upon – akin to breaking a piñata. Another frenzy of activity! We hunted for hexagonal hanksite crystals with dual terminated ends. Also the more rare and elusive dual pyramidical sulfohalite. These minerals are smaller than the ones we hunted in the Mud Event. Included in the other minerals brought to the surface were other evaporates like halite, which have interesting forms and composition. Actually, you really did not need to recognize the hanksite crystals during this event to have a good time --- just pick up what appeals to you. The Company only charged a nominal fee per car per event, so there was no limit as to how much you collected the entire weekend. Daniel and I were extremely lucky, we both were able to score marvelous huge specimens by and through our assertive nature (we were friendly with the right people). And, again, this event was more fun than I can accurately describe. By the end of the day, we were all tired out. But we had one more bonus coming: The Gossetts arrived in camp, pie in hand, and joined us for a pleasant evening with friends.

     The only event on Sunday was the hunt for Pink Halite. This is the most challenging mineral hunt of the three. The pink halite forms along the perimeter of brine pools, under the crust. You have to walk out on the Searles Lake bed, which is rough , jagged and crunchy. To find the best crystals, one must wade out into the brine, reach underneath the submerged ledges, and feel around for formations. Once a potential specimen is located, it must be harvested by hacking it off the submerged ledge. These crystals are most beautiful, in various shades of pink or white, and have a geometric “picture frame” structure. However, this year the hunt was going to be more problematic, as we were informed ahead of time. Monsoonal rains in late August had corrupted and melted all the crystals. The best information we had was that some crystals may have grown back, but the pickins would be poor this year. Undaunted, (or maybe just looking for any excuse to nose around the Searles property for which we normally don’t have access) our group rolled out at 9:00 a.m. with the armada of hunters. We did not get a choice as to where we hunted – it was the luck of the draw in accordance to where our cars stopped. We did not get a very productive pool of brine. We attacked it anyway, hacking away at our prospects. We had to weave our way around the edges - some of us had on substantial boots, but the brine was deep. Daniel found out that some places were like thin ice - he broke through and found himself almost stuck up to his thighs! No problem, it is all part of this weird adventure at Trona. We did not get any quality pieces of Pink Halite. But I can speak for our group that nobody was disappointed with the entire experience.

     Whenever I drive through Searles Valley, I will see the lake bed with a new perspective. Outwardly, it is barren and unfriendly. But hidden beneath, I will see the buried treasure of beautifully formed salt crystals in my mind’s eye. And I will smile. It is a memory that will last a lifetime.

Wednesday, 05 February 2014 22:49

White Mountains

July 21-22, 2012

By: Jay Lawrence

On Saturday morning, our first surprise was Ted Kalil appearing at our campsite in Big Pine and announcing that everybody but Allan Wicker was already here, having coffee and ready to head for the hills! Sylvia and I had pulled in late the evening before and (ever observant) I hadn't recognized any of their vehicles. Joining Ted was Homer Meek, Mignon Slentz and Nelson Miller. Our daughter Ariel, her husband Nick and eight month old granddaughter Alice had rolled in and set up camp next to us in the wee hours of Friday night. So everybody said hello, Allan showed up and we all signed in, anxious to move out.

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Wednesday, 05 February 2014 22:28

Mapping Old Roads Again

by Neal Johns

This time it was an impromptu three day mapping of the Cooke Mormon Battalion Route (1846-47) near Lordsburg, NM. I kept looking at the weather forecast to see if it was raining so I could cancel out, but blue skies were forecast and seen. The hook was the temperature – colddddd. We were in the area of two famous mountains; Soldier's Farewell and Bessie Rhodes. Bessie was named from an inscription placed on it by one of the troops manning a Heliograph Station on the summit. The Heliograph (a mirror to reflect the sun) was introduced into the area in 1886 to help communications during the Geronimo Campaign. Soldier's Farewell was named after the Butterfield Station of the same name where soldier's turned south on the Janos, Mexico road.

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Wednesday, 05 February 2014 21:27

DE LogoNo written story, but take a look at the photos

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Tuesday, 26 March 2019 23:25

CB Radio • Things You Need to Know

by Mike Vollmert

Having a functioning CB radio is mandatory on virtually all DE trips. There are two parts to that statement - having a radio, and having it function! In our travels, we have a few requirements for a CB that are somewhat specific. First, we need to have a unit mounted in a way that it will withstand the bumping and bouncing of offroad travel. Second, we need the unit mounted in such a way that we can reach the microphone and controls - while bumping and bouncing along our backroads and trails. This write-up is about selecting and installing a CB that will, over time, function as reliably as possible and, as much as possible, avoid failure on the trail. Selecting the right CB radio entails a few basic steps - you'll need to choose a radio, an antenna, and figure out the best way to install it.

First and foremost, look at your vehicle - what space do you have to bolt in a radio in a location that is accessible (can you grab the microphone easily? Will it be out of the way with respect to controls on the dash, passengers, etc?) and secure. A unit that bounces around stuffed in between the seat and the center console will, at the most inopportune moment, fail! The issue of space will dictate the size of the radio you can get.

In my FJ Cruiser, I chose a Cobra radio that has almost all of the circuitry in the microphone (there’s a matchbook-sized box that mounts under the dash). I just didn’t have room around the dash where I could fit a larger unit and not have it in the way of something else. It’s a little more expensive, but it saves space. In many vehicles, a unit can easily be mounted under the dash - easy, convenient, secure. I’ve seen them mounted on the headliner, on the top of the dash, on the center console ..... Lots of personal choice involved in this, but it’s a major thing to think about - not good to buy a unit, then go to your vehicle and find you’ve got no convenient place to put it because it’s too big, or the knobs and controls are in the wrong place, or where you thought you’d mount it isn’t going to work because you can’t get power to it or there’s no good way to route the antenna cable. Plan ahead and avoid a headache!

Selecting a radio is basically selecting one with the features you want. At the end of the day, you basically need a radio for communication, without any bells or whistles. They will all pretty much transmit the same distance. By law, a CB can only transmit 4 watts of power, which places it’s range in a fairly small box - pretty much below 10 miles unless you break the law or use a high powered, Single Side Band (SSB) unit. My recommendation - don’t! You don’t need one that scans, or saves multiple channels, or has weather alerts. Unless you really want that functionality, save your money and get one that just lets you talk on a selected channel and is stout enough to withstand the rigors of driving off road.. (My radio has the weather channel feature, and I’ve never, in 10 years, used it).

Here’s a link about various radios (do your own research as well - Google is your friend, but caveat emptor when it comes to reviews!): (Note: I’m not endorsing these guys, and I don’t necessarily suggest purchasing from them, but their website is a good learning resource. And they basically “get” what we do with our radios)

The second consideration is the antenna. First, will you permanently mount it or use a removable unit (magnetic mount, gutter clip, etc.)? It’s way better to have a permanent mount, but for lots of reasons that’s not always possible. On my FJ, I was able to permanently mount an antenna on the rear door hinge using something called a Bandi Mount - which works really well. So far as I know, this mount is specifically made for FJ Cruisers and doesn’t exist for other vehicles. Bob Jaussaud and I rigged a similar set up on Mignon Slenz’s ForeRunner and I did the same on Glen Shaw’s Tacoma by fabricating a similar sort of mount. I try to avoid drilling holes in vehicles and was able to do my entire installation without doing so, but that isn’t always possible. On Mignon’s and Glen’s vehicles, we had to drill holes. I had to compromise on my “drill no holes in the vehicle” policy when I installed my ham radio and I drilled a hole in my roof - but there are some good solutions for that as well! Regardless, get a good antenna, and make sure you can get a reliable, stable, consistent connection to the vehicle - there’s a principle in radio antennas related to something called a ground plane about which Ham Radio guys wax on poetically forever. If you listen to those guys, you’ll absolutely maximize the performance of your radio, but you’ll have copper straps connecting every metal part on your vehicle - axles, body, frame... For an overlanding rig, and especially for CB radio where you’re basically interested in communicating with the other vehicles in your group over relatively short distances (up to 5 miles or so), you’re safe making compromises on the whole issue, but there absolutely needs to be a good, stable mount to the metal of your vehicle.

Once the antenna is connected to the radio, you’ll want to get someone to tune it. I took my FJ to a guy here locally who sold ham radio and CB radio stuff, and he did it for me for about $20. If you don’t tune the antenna to your setup, you won’t get anywhere near optimal operation, which basically limits your range, sometimes dramatically. On trips, you’ve likely heard radios that don’t come in well, be it transmitting, receiving, or both. Almost guaranteed the issue with those setups is not tuning the antenna and mounting it reliably to the vehicle. Tuning the antenna requires a device called an SWR meter and the knowledge for using it - you can do it (with a little research and either purchasing or borrowing the meter, or, like I did, take the easy route and find someone who does this stuff a lot).

Wherever you mount the antenna, you need a route for the antenna cable that will get the cable from the antenna (on the outside of the vehicle) to the radio (on the inside of the vehicle) without crimping or kinking the wire. Many people run the cable through a door jam, which is basically hoping that opening and closing the door will press the cable into the weatherstripping, but not crimp the cable. I’ve seen it work, and I’ve seen it not work (in fact, we dealt with that very issue with one person on one of Nelson Millers recent trip). If you do choose to route your antenna wire through the door seam, ALWAYS close that door very gently!

Firestik is my recommended antenna, but that’s a basically permanently mounted solution, and it’s a fiberglass antenna - rugged, but not the most distance-oriented type of antenna. The antenna height is a compromise - the taller the better for performance (the ideal CB antenna is 

about 8-¬Ω feet tall), but the shorter the better to avoid whacking branches and such while driving. I have the shorter (36”) Firestik mounted on my rear door hinge - it doesn’t stick all that far above my rig, which definitely compromises how far I can transmit, but it’s never been an issue. Generally, I can transmit about 3 to 5 miles. Also, on my rig, the antenna can be removed with a spring-loaded quick release, leaving only a small nub that the antenna mounts to. (This allows me to put the FJ in my garage. The danger with this setup is if you try to transmit without the antenna mounted, you could conceivably blow the unit, so once again, caveat emptor!).

Here’s a link to Right Channel Radio’s recommendations for antennas:

The third consideration is finances - but in reality, if you get a good radio (not the best, not the worst) and a good antenna, you’re going to be in a rough ballpark cost-wise for any of them. I would only caution against getting an off-brand, “el-cheapo” setup, and you’re only transmitting a couple miles, so you don’t need the “keep in touch with the other coast” single sideband ginormous models! By virtue of what we do, driving where we do, we tend to be on the upper end of the spectrum in terms of vibration and stress on the components, but our need for transmitting long distances is not really a factor. Aim for rugged and reliable, keeping in mind that a solid installation is the first priority.

Finally, power. There are two ways to set up your radio - always on, or only on with the car on. Again, personal preference (mine is only on when the car is on, because with my ADHD I would invariably forget to turn off the radio in the evening, only to have the thing run down my battery overnight! The negative aspect of this solution is whenever we stop, if I turn off the engine I lose radio reception). Either way, finding a good, reliable power source is paramount. For the always-on solution, run the power wire straight to your battery with an inline fuse. For the ignition-on solution, make sure you’re connecting to a circuit with ample amperage to drive your radio, and again, use a fuse on that power line!

For sure, there are low-grade, simpler solutions to adding a CB radio to your vehicle. But keep in mind, taking shortcuts and compromising will invariably result in your radio failing at the most inopportune moments. Losing the ability to communicate, aside from the safety factor, could rob you from the rich conversations that invariably happen while driving through the beautiful, historically rich landscapes we all love to explore. My motto - overbuilt is underrated! The time spent researching the right setup for your vehicle and mounting it securely will result in a dependable, long-lasting communication tool for your desert travels.    ~ Mike   

Monday, 12 February 2018 22:01

What to do with a bunch of tomatillos

Traditional recipe adapted and fiddled with by Jay Lawrence

Anybody who knows me knows I love all things Mexican. My wife, my family, the culture, the country and the food. About this time of the year, I haunt the produce aisle of my favorite ethnic market to search out the ingredients for a  year-end family favorite recipe – roasted tomatillo salsa.

This is a simple recipe, the ingredients are inexpensive and common, and doesn’t take very long to make. Judging by the ‘sad puppy’ eyes on family faces when I don’t make it for Christmas, lots of people like it. Some demand it. There are way too many Desert Explorers to make it for everybody, so here goes:

First you need tomatillos, a weird little fruit that looks like a green tomato with papery leafy wrapper. They’re not even related to tomatoes and taste nothing like them. They’re acidic and tart when eaten raw, but when roasted they take on a whole new life. You’ll need about 1-1/4 pound of them for each quart of salsa you plan to make. In a chain grocery like Ralphs or Vons expect to pay about $1.49 to $2.00 a pound for them. If you head to your local ethnic market, they’re about 50 cents a pound (and usually much better looking and more fresh). Look for the smaller darker ones, about 2” or so in diameter. The big ones are pulpier and don’t have as much flavor. They grow year round but they’re especially nice around year-end.

Next, you’ll need some serrano chiles. Bigger ones, like as long or longer than your middle finger, one or two per quart of salsa. More if you like it spicier. If there are only little ones available just use more.

Also you’ll need some garlic, about eight large cloves per quart, plus some salt. That’s it. Your shopping is done.

Now the fun! Throw the tomatillos into a (clean) sink full of really hot water and let them sit for a while. After they’re not so hot, peel the now-loosened paperish coverings off them and toss them in a bowl. Tomatillos grow on the ground so there will be some dirt involved. How much of that gets into your recipe is up to you.

Next, the roasting. This is where the magic happens... Put the tomatillos into a roasting pan. I like to put them stem side down so they don’t roll around. Put them in the broiler 4-5” inches away from the overhead flame. Leave them 5-8 minutes until they are browned on top with some burnt spots, then pull them out, turn the tomatillos over and do the other side. Take out and leave them to rest and cool. You will notice they have softened and leaked some juice. Do not panic, the charred skin, softened fruit and the gooey juice is the good stuff!

Put the chiles in a pie pan and do the same thing with them. Char and soften. Pay attention here, since roasting a large batch of chilis can give off aromatics that may drive you out of the kitchen with teary eyes in a coughing fit if you overdo it or the  kitchen is not well ventilated. Turn on the fan!

Now the garlic. Smack the (BIG) head(s) of garlic on a countertop with the heel of your hand and throw the cloves into a dry cast iron pan on your stovetop, paper and all. Don’t peel them. Toast them over a medium heat, stirring them around now and then. What you are looking for is well-charred paper shells and softened garlic cloves.

Let everything cool enough so it’s easy to handle and get ready for the blender. Throw 8-9 big garlic cloves, 1-3 charred serranos (pull off the stems),  one tablespoon of salt, about 2/3 cup of tomatillo juice and half a dozen tomatillos into your blender. The skins will peel off the garlic easily if you have charred them enough. Just squeeze ‘em.

Remembering good kitchen practices, cover the blender top with a folded towel. Pulse the blender 4-5 times to get these ‘starter’ items blended and ground up, then add enough tomatillos to make a quart. Pulse some more to break things up, blend it a bit to the consistency you think you want and Presto! You have salsa. My preference is a little on the chunky side, but some folks like it smoother. Either way, pour it into a jar (use a funnel, it’s thick) and throw it into the fridge. It can be eaten immediately, and I recommend tasting as you go.

Really, it is better after a day or two in the fridge. It will thicken up due to the syrupy nature of the tomatillo juice. The flavors get a chance to bloom and blend a bit. Be forewarned that the heat of the chiles will increase after it has sat for a day or two so you might want to start off with 1-2 chiles per quart before you get carried away thinking “gee, this isn’t very spicy” and really surprise yourself. (Interesting side note: in Mexico, when you have eaten too many chiles and really hurt yourself, you are said to be “enchilado.” Literally, “chilied.”)

After you’ve used up all the tomatillos, you will probably have some leftover garlic and chiles. The soft roasted garlic is pretty good spread on toasted french bread with some avocado and salt or some soft brie... just sayin’.

The roasted tomatillo salsa is good for dipping chips, on nachos, on chilaquiles, tacos, scrambled eggs... you get the idea. You can tart it up with diced onions, ciliantro and/or avocado.It will keep in the fridge for a month or more, but if you have a bunch and want to use it up, I recommend pouring it over a browned pork shoulder and letting it cook slowly, covered,  for 3-4 hours in a 275° oven or a crock pot. You won’t be disappointed. ~ Jay