October 13 and 14, 2003
Led by John Page, more or less
Reported by Nan Savage, John Page, Bob Jaussaud, and Warren Alksnis
Part 1: Nan's Story
As the new member of the group, I write this trip report from the “newcomer’s perspective.” John Page and I met at the Sand Canyon Denny’s. Caravanning, we stopped at the BLM ranger station to eat and for me to load up on back roads books. The manual mailed out by the DEX to newcomers is exceedingly well written and helpful; I read it twice. During the drive, I asked John about the history of the Desert Explorers. We arrived in Lone Pine where the annual film festival was in progress; at the arts and crafts fair we talked to a photographer whose works I especially admired. The festival, with a western theme, runs vintage films, attracts western actors and fans.
That night we met Bob and Marilyn Martin, Allan and Ding Wicker, Robert Floth and Dan Rands, Vicki Hill and Dave McFarland, Bill Cook and Ron Link, and Gordon Lohan at Tinemaha Creek Campground. The only excitement consisted of a late night visit by a raccoon which two of us who were lucky enough to be up at 2 a.m. saw. In the morning we stopped off in Big Pine and met Bob and Sue Jaussand and Miguel Aguliar at the end of town. We drove to Eureka Sand Dunes where we met Warren Alksnis. Our couple from Switzerland, Matt Thoma and Mirjam, whose hobby is exploring back roads in the western United States, joined us; their knowledge was often the most extensive in the group. My new Subaru, an all-wheel drive vehicle, encountered the most difficult stretch of the trip at an incline of boulders into Dedeckera Canyon. It was steep. Thank goodness for John’s skill plus his confidence that knowledge can make up for vehicle brawn. He instructed me as to which boulder to climb over and at what angle. When it was my turn, I said a prayer and went forward. Surprisingly, my car felt strong - I had power and clearance. I almost ran John down once, but stopped short of the top when I got a bit nervous at my good fortune. Several men pushed the Subaru from the back, providing “man”-ual 4-wheel drive; I made it up easily. How exciting! Everyone cheered, and I began to realize that much of the group had been taking bets, not on whether the Subaru would succeed, but rather on how extensive the damage would be!
We drove on through Death Valley, which is a beautiful land with many colors and serene aridity. The more I see of it, the more I love the desert. We lunched near Steel Pass where we saw several small panels of petroglyphs. The Jaussauds ran ahead to find the infamous marble bath, a mystery point on the map for years. They found a bathtub buried in the ground filled with hundreds of brilliant blue marbles. We all took turns having our photographs taken in hilarious poses.
After much laughter, we headed out again on a detour road, solved Warren Alksnis’ flat tire, and arrived at Palm Spring in time to set up camp before dark. An impromptu potluck brought out wonderful dishes, great company, and of course, Ding’s always-popular stir-fry. After dinner, some soaked in the hot springs (temperature of the water, 96-110 degrees, depending on the outside weather) under the night stars and an almost full moon.
In the morning we went down to the lower hot springs for a look-see. We saw more than we expected; a mellow nudist community has arranged the camp with simple, but efficient amenities. Warren found a replacement tire and checked out. At the McElvoy Canyon turnoff the Martins, Wickers, and our Switzerland friends checked out. We hiked to McElvoy Falls. Along the walls of the canyon grew profuse maiden-hair fern, massive maiden-hair fern - I can’t get one plant to grow in the city, and here it grows in abundance. After lunch in the shade of one of the larger vehicles at the arrastre in Hunter Canyon, the group split into smaller groups for various destinations. The Jaussauds, Dave and Vicki, Gordon, and John Page turned to run the Lippencott Mine Road, see the Racetrack, and spend the night on Hunter Mountain. Traveling back to pavement via Saline Valley Road through Grapevine Canyon to Highway 190, we ran into Matt and Mirjam, who pointed out a lone desert burro and told us tales of having spotted an old military plane crash. More good-byes and the end of a great trip. Thank you, John!
Part 2: John's Story
After we stopped at the Lippencott turnoff of Saline Valley Road to say goodbye to Nan Savage, Bill Cook and Ron Link, and Mike Aguilar, the Fearless Six (Sue and Bob Jaussaud, Vicki Hill and Dave McFarland, Gordon Lohan, and John Page) took deep breaths and headed for the dreaded Lippencott Mine Road which the Death Valley website described as:
High clearance 4WD with experienced drivers highly recommended. Connects the Racetrack Road with Saline Valley. Very steep, narrow, winding, and rough with cliff edge washouts. Maintained only to 4WD standards. Uphill traffic has right of way. In the lower part there is a very narrow section that is difficult for wide vehicles. Subject to closure after washouts from heavy rains.
It turned out that the description was absolutely correct: the road was quite rough, there were a couple of tight turns near the bottom, and it was steep, narrow, and winding, with some easily-avoided washouts. No big deal! Some downhill traffic would have made it a lot more interesting.
We talked about exploring the Lippencott lead mine but decided that we had a way to go to our unknown campsite somewhere on Hunter Mountain and we were running out of daylight.
We did, however, stop at the Racetrack where squirrels Dave and Bob scurried off to check out the nearest rock floating on the laguna seca. After wrangling them back into their vehicles and heading toward Teakettle Junction, I was surprised to hear Warren Alksnis on my CB. He was somewhere on Hunter Mountain, having gotten a spare tire at the Lower Spring from Lizard Lee and had made the climb from the west. We were in intermittent contact until I got to Ulida Flat, where I lost him after hearing that he was somewhere near the Quackenbush Mine.
We continued toward the Quackenbush Mine, still trying to raise Warren. When we finally did get to the mine, it was near dark and we decided to pitch camp right there.
We shared leftovers and quesadillas for a fine dinner.It was a pleasant evening and, being Ottless, we had enough wood on board for a modest campfire that lasted until we turned in.
We left a CB turned on and tried, unsuccessfully, to raise Warren a few times on Tuesday night and again on Wednesday morning.
On Tuesday night we had made a wrong turn into a short dead-end at the Sunbelt Mine, which we decided to explore before we continued home. The mine had the obligatory abandoned truck and collapsed cabin and some other interesting stuff. Right up the draw was a thick patch of wild roses with abundant rose-hips that were harvested by Vicki and Sue.
Then we took the main road (parts of which were not shown on my Garmin GPS) to a turnoff that the couples took to a lunch spot, while Gordon and I elected to skip lunch and continue home.
Part 3: Bob's Story
When Juan (John Page) suddenly left us leaderless at the top of Hunter Mountain, we were on our way into the historic Hunter Cabin, which may date to the early 1870's. The cabin was possibly built by William Lyle Hunter, a Confederate officer who came west in 1865 and established a ranch on Lee Flat, where he grazed 50 mules used to haul supplies in and out of Cerro Gordo.
We had planned to have lunch at the cabin, but were beaten to the only spot by a National Park Service work crew. They were building a fence around the cabin to keep cattle out. From them, we learned that the cabin had reverted back to Park Service ownership due to the ineptness of the surveyor. To make a long story short, the cabin was not built on the land claimed, so both were lost. Interestingly, this is the same thing that happened to Johnson at Scotty's Castle. His mistake was hiring the same surveyor.
After being treated to home made cookies from one of the Park Service beauties, we moved west a few miles for our lunch under the Junipers, then headed down the mountain and across Lee Flat. We had reservations to stay in the Belshaw cabin at Cerro Gordo, but our day had not yet yielded its' most interesting event.
Crossing Lee Flat, we decided to check out the Bonham Mine in the canyon north of Cerro Gordo. We worked our way up a road that was all but made impassable by the rains of last spring. Almost to the mine site, we rounded a corner to discover a miserable looking soul stumbling toward us in only a soiled white robe with his arms raised in the air. He was camped in the middle of the road and his 2wd!!! Jeep Cherokee, just ahead of him, was marooned on a platform of large rocks. He had been stranded there 5 days! Seems he'd made a very wrong turn on his way into the Saline Valley. I said "NO" when he asked if we were looking for him and Sue kindly added "BUT WE'RE HERE!".
A quick inventory of his camp revealed that he still had food and water, but he did not seem totally coherent and was very unsteady on his feet. Assessing the situation, we decided it was best to try and get him out ourselves rather than waste time going for help. We cleared enough rocks so that I could maneuver my truck along side his Jeep to jump start his dead battery. Vastly relieved when his vehicle started, we cleared more rocks from the road for a turn around. With Dave at the wheel of his Jeep, I eased him off the rocks with a tow strap. We quickly struck his camp, put him in the passenger seat of his Jeep, and headed out. Vicki led the way in Dave's truck, Dave drove Buffalo Bob's Jeep with him in it, and Sue and I played sweep. We traveled all the way to pavement in this arrangement.
Buffalo Bob recovered amazingly on the trip out. It was apparent that, while stranded and alone, he had made peace with the idea that he was going to die where he was stuck. We all agreed that, in the condition we had found him, he would not have lasted long. The journal he had been keeping evidently was meant to be a few last words for his loved ones. It took the trip out for him to finally accept the idea that he was truly returning to the real world. When we reached pavement, he seemed recovered to the point that we felt comfortable in letting him go on his way.
Vicki, Dave, Sue and I turned around and headed back across Lee Flat toward Cerro Gordo. We arrived just before dark and watched the beautiful sunset from the deck of the Cerro Gordo Belshaw House with a bottle of "Two Buck Chuck".
Part 4: Warren's Story
On Tuesday morning, several of us went down to the Saline lower springs and waited for the rest of the group to appear.
Allan pointed out that spares were available to replace my cut tire, so after thinking about it, I went over to the campground host (Lizard Lee) and got a spare. Lizard has been a campground host at the lower springs for 8 years. He lives there year around and organizes the volunteer work. His only source of income is putting on spares. Looks like he does some patrolling around the springs. The NPS has given him a small Isuzu with the NPS logo on the side.
A friend at the Big Pine gas station brings him tires that are usable. He found a tire my size in his pile of about 30 tires, washed off the dirt (inside and out) and put it on my rim. When I asked for spin balancing, he gave me a dirty look. He charged $ 20 for the tire and $ 5 for the mounting. Part of the deal was that I had to take out my cut tire.
I left the hot springs about noon. Not being able to find the main group, I continued down the Saline Valley Road (what a place for the AC to stop working) and Hunter Mountain Road to Tea Kettle Junction where I waited for your group till about one hour before dark. Driving back on the Hunter Mountain Road, which parallels the Racetrack Road, I was able to reach you several times on the radio. You came in especially clear as I was climbing up Hunter Mountain, but I lost you when I got to the top (flat) part of Hunter Mountain. Coming in, I saw only one campground, so I continued to it before it got dark. Apparently you had camped the night near Quackenbush Mine which was a good choice since the campground on the hill was already occupied. That would have been a big problem for the group, but it wasn’t for me as I can pull off anywhere where it’s reasonably flat.
Next morning, I went early to Lone Pine, dumped the tire, gassed up, bought some food and back to Saline Valley Hot Springs. I actually passed you and Gordon coming out on the Saline Valley Road about noon. At the springs I ran into several Desert Explorers, including the heir to the Sears’ fortune and a retired Catholic Californian who had moved to Goldfield, NV (David Pope).
I returned home on Sunday, Oct 19, stopping at Lone Pine, Bishop, (ran the picket lines at Von’s several times), Bridgeport, Travertine (more soaking) and crossing the Sierra on Sonora Pass. The fall colors were very beautiful. The trip finished off my shocks, so I’m getting 4 new shocks along with a new tire. When I find my pressure gauges, I’ll check the AC.
I’m trading my Tacoma in for a Subaru and I’m signing up for all Bob Jaussaud’s and Bob Martin’s trips next year. GET YOUR TOWING GEAR READY GUYS!
Thanks for another great trip.