2010 Trip Report - Panamint Mountains Butte Valley
Panamint Mountains , Butte Valley
May 22-23, 2010
Leader, Emmett Harder
By Vicki Hill
After reading Emmett Harder's book, ”These Canyon’s are Full of Ghosts, the Last of the Death Valley Prospectors”, last year, I couldn't wait to see the area's he described in the Striped Butte Valley. When he and his wife, Ruth, announced at a meeting, months ago, that they were offering a trip, I was the first to sign up. Being limited to 10 vehicles meant I had to act quickly!
Almost everyone camped in or moteled in Shoshone the night of the 21st. In the morning we lined up with nine trucks, all assorted Toyotas and Jeeps. Besides the Harder's, we had Dave McFarland and me, Bob and Sue Jaussaud, Bob and Nancy Dodds, Mal and Jean Roode, and son Scott, Ron Lipari and Mike Volmert, Bob Younger, and Glen Shaw - a fine group of traveling companions.
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We left Shoshone promptly at the appointed time of 8:00 a.m. We caravanned down Jubilee Pass admiring the fabulous views of Death Valley ahead. Emmett kept up a running commentary on the CB regarding people and places in and around the valley that he knew, including the searches for the unfortunate missing Germans whose remains were finally found after 13 years. He showed us the wash where they turned up and made the mistakes that cost them their lives.
Our first stop was at Ashford Mills for a rest stop and where we were joined at 9:00 by Desert Explorers members, Matt Thoma and Mirjam Leeman from Switzerland. They were driving their Nissan truck (our 10th vehicle) that they keep in storage nearby so they are ready to hit the trail as soon as possible on the many trips they make to our desert. They are very knowledgeable about our history and all things “dirt”. With a short stop on lower Warm Springs Road to air down the tires and admire the Desert Five Spot blooming, we drove up to the Talc Mine Camp. Sitting in the shade next to the empty swimming pool, we enjoyed our lunch and more stories, including ones of Louise Grantham. She was the owner of the Talc mine and one of the few women involved in mining. She employed many men to extract the talc which was used for many things besides baby powder. It's an ingredient in paint, clay bodies and make-up. The mine operated for over 30 years until she sold it in the early 70’s. The Talc Mine camp buildings are intact and used occasionally by those who want to get out of the weather. The pool is kept drained and the trees are trimmed. On a little rise between the camp and the road there was a stamp-mill, steam engine and an arrastre for crushing ore that was used by the gold miners in the area. Much of this machinery is still in place, rusting slowly away. The stones used to crush the ore are still sitting where they were left. Soon we left the area to get to the famous Striped Butte, which is a geologic monument sitting in the middle of the valley for all to see. Its tilted bands of colored sandstone (actually ancient ocean floor) are beautiful and awesome the first time you see them. Along the way we were treated to a display of sages that were blooming in profusion with rose, blue and lavender blooms. The cacti were starting to flower and many of the grasses. We were surrounded by color as the day started to fade and clouds came up.
With a stop at the Geologist's Cabin, we met a nice man who was very interested in Emmett and bought a copy of his book - autographed, of course. Then we traveled a short distance to the site of our camp. Hidden from view before you drive up the road, it was a surprise to see two cabins, trees, an outhouse and shed sitting there. This is called Greater View, which is also known as Mengel's Camp and later, Stella's Camp.
The cabins were open and some of us went in to explore while Emmett walked over a small hill to check out Russell's Camp, which was already occupied for the night.
The custom these days in the desert is to leave your cabin unlocked and when you arrive, if you want to stay, there is a flagpole to hoist up the flag of choice. Usually it is the American flag, but I've also seen the skull and crossbones flying at times.
A sign inside said to please stay no longer than 4 days and give others a chance. There was a nice wood stove, windows that opened and running water in the sink! We were in heaven. We set up camp quickly and started a fire in the stove during happy hour.
We had happy hour outside, just to watch Ron Lipari prepare the most wonderful pasta dish I've ever tasted. Apparently, he is a gourmet chef who loves to cook for a crowd. The smell of garlic and onions was driving us crazy. We set up our tables and chairs inside the cabin, which was toasty warm, and shared one of our famous pot luck dinners. This one was wonderful and had the distinction of being the first time it was all vegetarian. That will probably never happen again! There were a variety of salads, pasta and afterwards homemade desserts. It was so cozy no one wanted to leave, so we dragged out the party awhile and told stories, swapped gossip and shared wine. Ruth had 3 friends show up after dinner. What fun!
In the morning we awoke to a soft patter of rain, then suddenly we saw a snowflake or two. As we packed up, everyone laughed about how strange it was, but it wouldn't amount to much. As we drove down Redlands Canyon towards the Harders’ cabin, it started snowing harder. We strained to see the tops of the mountains in front of us where the gold mines were.
Soon we turned into a smaller, steep, short canyon where the cabin was. It is made out of aluminum and has some furniture, but is very small, and we all couldn't fit in at once. It began snowing in earnest while we heard about the researcher who stayed there for 3 weeks, a mountain lion coming through and looking in the window, and other stories. Outside was an old bus (which Emmett had used for a bunkhouse) burned and shot to pieces. Emmett said he had a devil of a time getting it up into Woods canyon. But over the years some misinformed individuals vandalized it, shot it up, and set it on fire thinking that the bus had belonged to Charles Manson.
By the time the snow was sticking to the cactus and covering all of the spider webs in the bushes, we set out to return to the Stone Cabin, which is another name for the Geologist's Cabin. The sun came out while we visited and we told the man staying there thanks for letting 3 other people know that Emmett was in “town”. Sometime after dinner the night before, they had come into our camp looking for the Harders and had his book that they wanted him to sign. We decided that from now on we have to amend our trip descriptions to include "No paparazzi allowed". With Ruth's friends who dropped by, we already had 20 people in the cabin. I don't think we could have squeezed another person in.
Finally, with the day getting late, we set off for the 4-wheel part of our trip, Mengel's Pass. Several of our group were a little worried about the Pass, but after seeing another group go by and one of them get high centered right away, the concern level went up.
Our group got out and built up the road under his truck and the guy went on his way. We all went up and down safely and easily. It was rocky, and there were a couple of tight places. We stopped and added rocks to a steep drop off, and after choosing the line carefully, everyone got down without a problem.
There was quite a bit of water running in the canyon by then and by following it down we came to Goler Wash, with its trees, abundant water, old mining areas and the site of the infamous Barker Ranch, which is also known as the Manson cabin.
We saw that the park service had done a lot of cleanup work and added an interpretive sign which described the accidental fire which destroyed the house in May of last year. Seven years ago I visited when it was still intact and had furniture inside. While we sat and ate our lunch, Emmett told stories of meeting and visiting with the Manson Family on several occasions when he was mining in the area
When it was time to go we said, “Goodbye” to Ruth's friends and headed down to Panamint Valley and the end of our trip in the ghost town of Ballarat. We passed the gigantic gold mine which, until recently, was owned by Canyon Resources. It was originally a pick and shovel mine owned by Harry Briggs, a well-known miner and friend of the Harders. When he sold it, the buyers kept the name ‘Briggs Mine’. Since it was Sunday, the machines and trucks were quiet, but during the week there are shifts constantly working and still getting gold ore out of the mountain. Reportedly there has been over $200,000,000 taken out of the mine.
The sun was going down, so we hurriedly said our goodbyes at the Ballarat store where Rocky Novac greeted us. He stays there taking care of the store and campground. No one else lives there full time that I know of and the buildings are crumbling and melting away back into the desert.
If you want to hear great stories of the old days and mining, Emmett Harder is the man you want to see. He has mined gold, onyx and tungsten during his lifetime and has had incredible adventures all over the desert.
We couldn't thank him enough and wished all a good-bye as we turned north and went to dinner at Panamint Springs with the Jaussauds on our way to further adventures.