Chapter #360: Return of the Moab Burro Crane - November 15, 2017

Moab Jim and Plush Kokopelli at the closed entry to Arches National Park in October 2013 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Return of the Incredible Shrinking Moab Burro Crane

In the spring of 2013, I made one of my many visits to Moab, Utah. The shutdown of the federal government and national parks was still five months away. Arches National Park was open and visitation was climbing. As I approached the main entrance at Arches, hundreds of vehicles waited for entry. Bypassing the turnoff, I drove north on U.S. Highway 191, toward the airport and Crescent Junction, beyond.

With no respect for Moab history, highway crews destroyed this traditional signage near Moab in 2013 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As I approached the turnoff to Dead Horse Point and Canyonlands National Park, I noticed an interesting piece of equipment, parked on a railroad siding. The siding was part of the Potash Branch, which is the rail line from Brendel to Potash. That rail line also carries radioactive, contaminated soil from the infamous Moab Pile to a disposal site at Brendel, near Crescent Junction, Utah. After turning on to State Highway 313, I stopped at a barren, windblown area adjacent to the Seven Mile siding.

Resting on the siding, along with its tender car, was a Union Pacific Railroad Model 40 Burro Crane (#BC-47). The Burro Crane is a “maintenance of way” (MOW) vehicle that is self-propelled, and able to lift and move railroad
track and materials. With sufficient supplies on its tender car, a small “road gang” can actually build a rail line as the Burro Crane extends the tracks The Union Pacific Railroad BC-47 Moab Burro Crane, as it appeared at Seven Mile in 2013 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)ahead of itself.

With its steel doors and security panels closed, the Burro Crane looked lonely and deserted. That is the thing about Burro Cranes, with their quaint name and anthropomorphic looks. One almost immediately ascribes a personality and other life forces to this mechanical contraption. Although the area was deserted and desolate, I could picture the Moab Burro, as I named it, waiting for nightfall and then scooting up and down the Potash Branch as it pleased.

After taking a few pictures of the Moab Burro, the Seven Mile sign and the La Sal Range to the east, I climbed back in my truck and drove toward Moab. The Moab Burro Crane disappeared from the rail siding at Seven Mile before 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Upon returning home, I began researching the rich history of the Burro Crane. Built in Chicago by the Cullen Friestadt Company, there were many twentieth century iterations of the Burro Crane. Like a 1950's Chevy, the Model 40 Burro Crane was the classic of all Burro Cranes. It was compact, featured a diesel engine, was easy to maneuver and had tremendous lifting capacity.

Later, I was fortunate to meet Frank J. Cullen, the last family member to run the Cullen Friestadt Company as a private business. I like to call Frank J. Cullen “The Father of the Burro Crane”. After researching the Burro Crane online, I compiled all of that history and published it at www.BurroCrane.com. In addition to the official history of the Burro Crane, I also enlisted Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone to help tell the Moab Burro story.

in 2017, Plush Kokopelli hovers near the Seven Mile sign, searching for the Moab Burro Crane - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After standing alone on the rail siding at Seven Mile for several years, the Moab Burro had become a fixture of the landscape and a landmark to those who knew it. It even appeared on Google Maps satellite photos of that era. Although the Moab Burro still appeared on Google Maps as of late 2017, the Burro Crane itself went missing by 2015, never to return. Since Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone love a good mystery, I asked them to help find the missing Moab Burro.

Some say that the dynamic duo found the Moab Burro, but that radioactivity from the passing Train of Pain had caused a dimensional shift around it. In October 2017, The Other (a shadowy figure) drove with Plush Kokopelli back to Seven Mile. There, they searched for the Moab Burro and Coney the Traffic Cone, who had both gone missing. Did both the Moab Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone waiting for the Moab Burro Crane Crane in October 2017 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Burro and Coney shrink so small that they became invisible? That was what Plush Kokopelli and The Other hoped to discover.

Upon arrival at Seven Mile, The Other carried Plush Kokopelli to the railroad tracks. Neither Coney nor the Moab Burro was visible. Soon, Plush Kokopelli floated up like a drone, overlooking the scene. As he landed on the tracks, the Moab Burro reappeared, right next to him. Soon, Coney the Traffic Cone reappeared, as well. Neither of them seemed to notice that the Moab Burro had transmogrified from a large piece of railroad equipment to the size of a toy.

To Coney the Traffic Cone and Plush Kokopelli, the Moab Burro looked as big and powerful as ever. Now, let us see if we can get the Union Pacific Railroad
Plush Kokopelli is reunited with the now diminutive Moab Burro Crane in October 2017 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)to reconstitute the Moab Burro back to its original size. If the full-sized Moab Burro were to reappear at Seven Mile, that would be magic.

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Chapter #359: Moab - Desert Rocks Festival 2011 - September 6, 2017

Who am I? The lost history of Desert Rocks revealed - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Lost History: The Desert Rocks Music Festival in Moab, Utah

On Memorial Day Weekend 2011, I was in Moab, Utah. After a brief economic slowdown in 2008 – 2010, everything in Grand County was booming again. Organized and ad hoc activities tend to peak on Memorial Day, making it the busiest time of year. On that weekend, 20,000 vehicles per day passed through Moab on US Highway 191. Campgrounds were full and all the usual tourist spots were packed. For me, it was time to get out of Downtown Moab and see something new and different.

That new thing was my attendance at the 2011 Desert Rocks Music Festival, celebrating its seventh anniversary at Area BFE. Located thirteen miles south of Moab, on Highway 191, Area BFE is a 320-acre off-road recreational area. For that long weekend, it transformed into a camping and partying venue, In the shadow of the La Sal Range, near Moab, Utah, Desert.Rocks 2011 was the final classic music festival of its kind - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)featuring live music on three outdoor stages. Although I was decades older than the average-attendee, it sounded like fun to me.

Since the Desert Rocks Festival ran around the clock for three days, Saturday afternoon seemed like a good time to visit. That way, I could scope out the event and plan my return for the headliner acts that night. At the trailer that served as a check-in point for performers and press, I showed my “Moablive.com” business card and obtained a press pass for that day and night. I promised to write a blog article about the event. In this article, I shall keep my promise to the promoters of Desert Rocks 2011, then known as DesertRocks.org.

The Desert.Rocks Music Festival near Moab, Utah featured two main stages - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The venue consisted of a natural amphitheater, which sloped down toward two main stages. Around the upper rim of the amphitheater, there was room for concertgoers to relax on blankets, while the more ardent fans could stand a few yards from the main stage. Food trucks and vendors completed the large circle, with easy access to tie-dyed clothing, organic food and coffee for a dollar. Beyond the music venue were art installations and many campers, who had pitched tents among the boulders and throughout the pinion and juniper forests.

When my friend, Jim Farrell and I arrived, there was a young woman playing solo acoustic guitar and singing. She was playing from a third stage, which was uphill and closer to the main entrance. With gentle amplification and her sweet voice wafting through the air, I was pleased to hear a message of peace A lovely young woman plays acoustic guitar at Desert.Rocks 2011and love all around me. The whole festival looked and sounded like my kind of place.

At that time, Jim Farrell owned the Moab Rim Campark. Without overreacting, Jim commented that one of the picnic tables at the venue had been “lifted” from his RV Park and brought to the festival grounds. As we mused on who had absconded with the bench and transported it thirteen miles to Area BFE, we experienced another surprise.

Without warning, a young woman emerged from a clothing vendor booth. Her hair was up, her makeup was fresh and she was smiling at us. She wore a chiffon skirt and a handmade necklace. Beyond that, she was topless. Jim Farrell, who is one of the pillars of Moab society, was speechless. As a photojournalist, I asked if I could take her picture. “Of course”, she replied. After smiling for a couple of snapshots, the young woman disappeared back Proving that angels really do come to Earth, this celestial being briefly visited at Desert.Rocks 2011 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)from where she came.

Jim and I decided it was time for lunch. Almost immediately, we found
Justin Dietrick, preparing organic soups, sandwiches and wraps in his RV, which he had converted into a mobile kitchen. His business went by the name, “Yonder Mountain Sandwiches”, or YOMOS, which seemed wholly appropriate for this location, in the middle of nowhere. The organic wraps we selected were perfect. We ate nearby, on the previously stolen picnic bench, enjoying our lunch.

It was a hot afternoon, So Jim and I decided to retreat to the air-conditioned confines of our respective abodes. In my case, that meant taking a nap in my travel trailer and spiritually preparing to return to Desert Rocks after sundown. Justin Dietrick of legendary Yonder Mountain Sandwiches at Desert.Rocks 2011 - Click for larger imaqge (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After a nap, a shower and donning some fresh clothes, I quaffed a glass of wine and then headed down the highway to Area BFE.

Upon arrival, I flashed my Desert Rocks wristband and received directions to a secondary parking lot, half a mile down a dirt road. The darkness and lack of traffic directions created disorientation among the throng of drivers. Ultimately, consciousness returned and we all managed to park in rows, so as not to block ingress and egress to the festival. Even though most of us were stumbling around in the dark, people were friendly and helped each other find the music venue, which glowed in the distance, over a hill.

Growing up in Southern California in the 1960s, I did not attend the San Francisco “Summer of Love”, Monterey Pop or Woodstock, whatever that was.
These two hitchhikers are credited with inventing the website name 'Desert.Rocks' at the festival in 2011 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Here I was, in my sixties, attending my first music festival. Around me in the parking area were people who had driven or even hitchhiked to attend Desert Rocks. Two young women, who had hitchhiked for days, had utilized a cardboard sign that read, “Desert.Rocks”. That sign inspired me to purchase the internet name, “www.desert.rocks”.

Although I could not get a good picture of any fire-spinners, they seemed to be standing on every large boulder. Holding double-ended torches, five or six feet long, they were content to stand and offer spinning flames as a backdrop to the entire festival. No one paid them to stand for hours on end, spinning their fire. It was just what they had come to do.

This joyous and beautiful fan was fully present at the Desert.Rocks Music Festival at Moab, Utah in 2011 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Inside the venue, there were art installations in yurts, teepees and many other shelters. There was no additional admission charge to go inside and see strobe lights bouncing off pans of colored oil or an artificial celestial scene projected on the inside of a yurt. For those who had consumed magic mushrooms or other hallucinogenic compounds, it probably appeared quite normal. I decided to go feel the music.

After a group performed rockabilly classics on the second stage, everyone’s attention turned to the main stage. This is where my story gets strange. With no printed lineup of bands available, I do not remember who the headline band was. Soon, they took the stage and performed a great rock & roll set that lasted for over an hour. The lead guitarist looked like Yeshua, but with enough curly hair for three people. He sang and played his heart out, as did A mystery band headlined Saturday night at Desert.Rocks 2011his three bandmates. As the crowd packed in close to the stage, the band entranced its fans with that performance. The whole concert was great. Looking back, six years later, I have no idea who that band was. Maybe someone can send an email with the band’s name. I would love to give them credit.

Although the festival would go on all night, it was time for me to rest on clean sheets and a comfortable bed, back at my RV. By the next morning, a dust storm covered all of Grand County, including Area BFE. Having spent some time Behind the Rocks, covering the 24-Hours of Moab Bicycle Race, I knew the festivalgoers would have sand in their hair and grit between their teeth. I left the final day of Desert Rocks 2011 to the young people. Instead, I went down to the Colorado River to watch the spring flood, as it cut into the toxic Moab Pile.

The Desert.Rocks idyllic campground of 2011, became Desert Sand Storm during the Desert Rocks 2012 'festival of consciousness' in Green River, 2012 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)While preparing to write this article, I researched Desert Rocks 2012… and beyond. Because Desert Rocks had outgrown Area BFE, the promoters moved the 2012 festival fifty miles north, to Green River, Utah. There, at Jenkstar Ranch, the promotional team planned a “consciousness festival”. As with the past Desert Rocks Festivals, there would be visual artists, art installations, a poetry slam, health-food vendors and performance art, all in a three-dimensional time-space reality (3DTSR).

Although I did not attend, quotes from Desert Rocks 2012 include the following: Party’s over, dude—but it’s for the best. Once one of Utah’s biggest outdoor-camping party events, Desert Rocks Festival is now a celebration of consciousness. “It means so much to me that I’m not just throwing a party in Desert Rocks 2012 in Green River, Utah was billed as a 'Transformation of Consciousness', which is a lot to expect from a music festival in the desert - Click for large image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the desert anymore,” festival founder John Ripley Corkery said. “I’m [now] putting on an event that can help people change how they live. I was a little depressed that we’re not back in Moab, but once we lined everything up, all of a sudden it started to have very serious meaning. I feel like there was some higher purpose for us to move to Green River,” Corkery said.

After the 2012 Desert Rocks event, Austen Diamond, columnist for the Salt Lake City Weekly said, “Desert Rocks might be one of the best experiences that I probably won't ever do again. Drum circles, hula-hoops and hippies everywhere. Nearby Green River Beach was the only way to avoid the beginning of an all-consuming dust storm at the festival, which was nearly empty by noon. We had a comfortable view from the car as we try to salvage our camp from being destroyed. We then drank lots of tequila in other cars.”

With an able staff, security was never a problem at Desert.Rocks 2011 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Diamond went on to say, “A collective, 1,000-person group hug knelt in the dirt before the main stage to ‘send energy into the universe’ at the ‘Consciousness Ceremony’ Friday night. Led by Desert Rocks festival founder John Corkery and executive producer Ron Johnson, the crowd began a low, resonant hum - similar to ‘om’ -, which rose in volume and pitch to a massive orgy of animal howls. That essentially sums up the eighth-annual festival: setting a decent intention, which then turned primal.”

City Weekly copy editor Kolbie Stonehocker had a memorable time. “Whenever someone found out it was my first-ever music festival, they’d say, ‘Whoa, Desert Rocks is a hell of a festival to be your first.’ Were they ever right! I will never forget you, Desert Rocks,” Stonehocker wrote. “I brought
Whether you attended Desert.Rocks 2011 or 2012, you made history in the desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)home enough sand in my clothes and hair to remember you forever.”

What no one expected was a three-day dust storm so strong that it shredded the campground. Most musicians could not risk ruining their equipment, so music was at a premium. Water supplies in the campground ran dry, with no further replenishment. The only refuge for many attendees was to sit in their cars or leave altogether. In any event, it was the last and final Desert Rocks Festival. If you search the internet for "http://desertrocks.org", it leads to a "403 Forbidden" error message.

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Chapter #358: Moab, UT - Negro Bill Canyon Remains - August 17, 2017

As a compromise, Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone suggest calling the place Bill Canyon - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillisa.com)

In Moab, Pioneer Settler and Cowboy, "Negro Bill" Rides Again

In the Old Testament, the land of Moab, also called “The Far Country”, lay east of the Dead Sea, in what we now call Kerak, Jordan. During the 1855 LDS General Conference in Salt Lake City, forty Mormon men “were called” to establish the Elk Mountain Mission on the banks of the Grand (later, Colorado) River. As memorialized on countless souvenir t-shirts, the “Far Country” would become Moab, Utah in 1902.

Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone lament that even natural areas near Moab are up for sale - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)One goal of the mission was to minister to the indigenous Ute Indians. After the “missionaries” built a stone fort and planted crops, conflict soon arose between the apostles and the Indians. Having built their stone mission in what is now the Matheson Wetlands Preserve, river flooding, a plague of mosquitoes and rotting potatoes characterized the growing season of 1855.

Depending on which version of history you prefer, either the Indians repeatedly raided the mission’s meager food supply or the Mormon men spurned the offering of Ute women as potential brides. Either way, a gunfight ensued, resulting in the death of three missionaries and the wounding of The Colorado Riverway, looking north from Moab toward Negro Bill Canyon - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)others. With their hay and corn stocks burned to the ground, the Elk Mountain Mission decamped. The survivors retreated north, seeking shelter at other Mormon settlements.

For the next twenty-two years, only trappers, traders and the Spirit of Kokopelli visited Moab. No one dared settle there until two pioneers, a Canadian fur trapper named “Frenchie” and a cowboy named Bill Granstaff divided the spoils and resettled the area. Since it was a full generation after the missionary debacle, the two men managed to live in relative harmony with the Ute Indians. Frenchie took the ruins of the Elk Mountain Mission as his home. Bill Granstaff ran cattle and lived in a box canyon three miles north, along the Grand River.

Utah Highway 128 leads from Moab to Negro Bill Canyon, three miles upstream - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Although Frenchie was of Canadian origin, Moab-locals variously identified Bill Granstaff as Black, African American or with the more popular and catchy "N-word" epithet. Years later, the good people of Moab ran Bill out of town, ostensibly for selling liquor to the Ute Indians. As usual, there was an alternate version of Moab history. In the alternate version, the white folks in town trumped up false charges in order to steal Bill’s cattle. Either way, for the next eighty-five years, locals called Bill Granstaff and his canyon home “N-word Bill” and “N-word Bill Canyon”.

This Google Street View photo shows how the Negro Bill Trailhead looked in 2012, prior to the BLM inspired name-change - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)By the 1960s, in deference to the civil rights movement, the canyon where Bill had lived was renamed “Negro Bill Canyon”. Somewhere along the line, writers and historians added the letter “d” to Negro Bill’s name and he became Bill Grandstaff. Later still, around 2010, some high-minded Moab folks decided that Bill’s name was actually “William Grandstaff”. The new, politically correct name made no mention of his racial heritage.

In the 1960s, Moab began preparing for the hoard of tourists to come. As part of that plan, the State of Utah paved Highway 128 from Moab to Cisco. This newly paved highway provided easy access to the Colorado River (formerly the Grand River). Other than some tight turns overlooking the river, the automobile trip from Moab to Cisco, Utah and on to Interstate I-70 became easy. Until the late 1970s, travelers on Highway 128 barely noticed the unsigned and poorly identified “Negro Bill Canyon”. In 1979, an incident involving the “Sagebrush Rebellion” changed all of that.

In 2015, Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone tested a new Moab Bank ATM at Negro Bill Trailhead, near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In this case, the “rebels” included a loose coalition of off-roaders, states’ rights advocates and other radical fringe elements. Among the luminaries who expressed sympathy or support for the rebels were then-Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. The collective ire of these loosely affiliated groups and individuals focused on then-President Jimmy Carter. In his attempts to protect precious natural resources, the rebels accused President Carter of usurping state and local power.

In order to open more land to off-roading and prove their point about states’ rights, a small group of rebels used a bulldozer to cut a new dirt road up Negro Bill Canyon. The hiking trail, which bears his name, leads to both Morning Glory Bridge and the Negro Bill Wilderness Study Area. Although now largely rehabilitated, the remnants of that 1979 road are visible to hikers in the midsection of Negro Bill Canyon.

The old Moab Sign, at the intersection of Highways 191 and 128 in Moab was secretly destroyed one night in 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After the rebels defiled the canyon with their bulldozer, no one knew quite what to do. Over the years, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) gated the trail, paved a small parking lot, installed pit toilets and erected signage identifying the place as the “Negro Bill Trailhead”. By then, participants in the Sagebrush Rebellion had moved their activities to other parts of Utah and the West. Still, with the recent advent of smaller quad-type off-road vehicles, more land has fallen prey to motorized destruction than the Sagebrush Rebels ever imagined possible.

Around 2010, some high-minded residents and politicians in Moab and Grand County, Utah decided to sanitize several historical places and names in the area. The first to go, they decided, was the offensive name, “Negro Bill”. It was demeaning and inappropriate in the twenty-first century, they said. Three times during the next five years, the Grand County Council voted narrowly to keep the name. When they could not eliminate all references to Negro Bill, the
After the Moab Meanies destroyed old Lions Park, Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone conducted a peaceful protest at the site - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)political elite of Moab settled for defiling and destroying old Lions Park, three miles downstream.

Old Lion’s Club Park stood on the spot where the 1855 Elk Mountain Mission first camped on the Moab-side of the Grand River. Stately cottonwood trees that may have shaded the missionaries at their first campground disappeared on March 31, 2015. Along with any vegetation in the park, all of the classic stone and wooden signage around the intersection of Highways 191 and 128 disappeared, as well. In place of the historical wooden signage was a hodgepodge of sanitary looking metal signs.

Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone took it upon themselves to restore the Negro Bill Trailhead to its former glory.Like a plague of rats, the sanitizing of Moab history was on the march, heading upstream toward Negro Bill Canyon. This culminated on September 27, 2016, when the all-knowing BLM Moab Field Office “pulled a fast one”. In the grand tradition of destroying old Lions Park, the BLM made a stealthy move. Overnight, and without warning, the BLM changed out the historical “Negro Bill Trailhead” signage and all the road signs referencing the site. If the motto of the United States is, “In God We Trust”, the motto of the Moab BLM Field Office might be, “The BLM Knows Best”. Two nights later, the new “William Grandstaff Trailhead” signs disappeared. As of this writing, no one knows who or what spirited the new signs away.

Without a vote or any public comment, the Moab Field Office had dealt with the issue directly. In their infinite wisdom, they had relegated Negro Bill and his former canyon home to the dustbin of history. Thank you, Moab Field
After destroying all vegetation at old Lions Park in 2015, the Moab Meanies turned it into a temporary construction yard - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Office for saving us from our own history. Thank you, “Monkey Wrench Gang” for removing and safely storing the new trailhead signs for the edification of future generations. Because of your actions, Moab Field Office and you, the politically correct members of the Grand County Council, we are now closer to the treeless, sanitized history that you crave.

Then, on August 4, 2017, like a thunderbolt from Mt. Olympus, the Utah Committee on Geographic Names voted 8-2 in favor of retaining the name, “Negro Bill Canyon” as its official geographical "place name". Since the BLM controls the trailhead and parking area, they can keep their newly sanitized signage in place, unless the “Monkey Wrench Gang” or some ancient spirit steals them again.

In the late 1980s, ET, the Extraterrestrial appeared on the cliffs just south of Negro Bill Canyon - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The three-mile stretch of Colorado Riverway from Moab to Negro Bill Canyon is of both historical and spiritual significance. In that area, the Spirit of the Ancients is still active, as seen by the image of ET (The Extraterrestrial) recently carved by nature in the sandstone cliffs. In addition, Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone have been active in the area. As seen in the accompanying photographs, everywhere Plush Kokopelli and Coney go, the names on roadside signs spontaneously change. “William Grandstaff Trailhead” reverts to “Negro Bill Trailhead”. Various arches fall, spiritual paths begin and end. According to the signs, a new “Moab Jim Canyon” also appears, just half a mile south of Negro Bill Canyon.

After the Moab BLM Field Office vaporized the history of Negro Bill, many road signs in the area spontaneously changed - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Author’s Note - Although the mischievous Plush Kokopelli and his shy partner, Coney the Traffic Cone were photographed near the scene of the William Grandstaff Trailhead sign-disappearance in September 2016, there is no evidence that either character played a role in that theft. In fact, Plush Kokopelli and Coney were there to install a new Kokopelli Federal Credit Union automated teller machine (ATM) at the trailhead parking lot. All fees collected by that new Moab Bank ATM will be used to install new "Negro Bill Trailhead" signs, should the need arise.

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Chapter #357: Yosemite High Country Devastation - July 23, 2017

In Late June 2017, The venerable Tuolumne Meadows Lodge lay in devastation and disrepair - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Yosemite National Park 2017 Devastation at Tuolumne Meadows

My family history in the Eastern Sierra and Yosemite dates back almost eighty years. In 1938, while on a hiatus from living in prewar Los Angeles, my fraternal grandmother, Dorothy met her second husband John A. McCollum there. At that time, he was helping construct U.S. Highway 395 near Bridgeport, California. They fell in love, were married and for the next fifty years returned to fish for trout in Gardisky Lake and Saddlebag Lake near the Tioga Road. In 1944, my mother, Phyllis married my father, Loron N. McGillis. For their honeymoon, in December of that year, they chose Yosemite Valley.

Loron N. (Duke) McGillis and Phyllis McGillis in Yosemite Valley, December 1944 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In 1959, I got my first taste of Yosemite National Park and nearby Mono County. For several nights, our family of five camped in Yosemite Valley. When we naively set out one morning to climb the Yosemite Falls Trail, we took no water or food. By the time we reached the base of the main falls, we were hot, tired and dehydrated. When my father wisely made the decision to turn back, at infamous Columbia Rock, I refused to move. The lure of the giant waterfall was too strong for me to admit defeat and return to our campsite.

At night, bears would roam the campgrounds, silently looking for food. On our final morning in Yosemite Valley, a neighboring camper showed me where a bear had licked the side window of his old truck. There had been a melon sitting on the front seat, but bears and people were more naïve in those days. Instead of smashing the window and taking the melon, the California Black Bear walked around our sleeping bags and headed back to his or her domain.

The author, James McGillis at Yosemite Falls in June, 1959 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)When we left Yosemite Valley, we drove up Highway 120, heading for Tioga Pass and the town of Lee Vining, California on the far side. Although it was late June, there was still snow in the high country. Two years later, in 1961, construction crews completed the modern version of the Tioga Road, all the way to the eastern entrance of Yosemite Park, at the top of Tioga Pass.

Because the construction season was so short and there was no alternate route, traffic stopped for up to one hour at a time. Traffic would alternate at the construction sites and then everything would close down for an hour or more blasting and grading around Tanaya Lake. As a ten year old, the experience seemed to last forever. Even after the arduous trip over the Tioga Road of old, we motored on. In late afternoon, we arrived in the City of Bishop, California. There, we spent the night at a motel with a swimming pool. To me, it seemed the height of luxury.

John A. (Red) McCollum, Dorothy McCollum, Loron N. (Duke) McGillis and Phyllis McGillis in Los Angeles, ca. 1955 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)From Bishop to our home in Burbank, California was about a three hundred mile trip, featuring desert heat and Sierra Nevada views much of the way. In the late 1950s, most of U.S. Highway 395 was a two-lane road, with only occasional passing lanes or other safe places to pass slower vehicles. To this day, one treacherous stretch of road between Olancha and Cartago remains as it was back in the day. With completion of a four-lane bypass scheduled for 2022, I guarantee every day, some fool will pull out to pass, even though there are twenty vehicles ahead of him.

Since my first visit to Yosemite National Park, it has held a place in my heart, as it did for my parents and grandparents before me. Over the decades, I would often visit Yosemite, driving north on U.S. Highway 99 to Fresno and then northeast on Highway 41. Once inside the national park, the highway becomes the Wawona Road. From Los Angeles to Yosemite Valley was a three hundred mile trip, with lots of San Joaquin Valley heat to endure. From Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows was only sixty miles, but that took another two hours via the Tioga Road. In recent years, I realized it was eight Ted L. McGillis and the author, James McGillis digging out the 1962 Ford near Crowley Lake California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)miles shorter to drive from Los Angeles to Tuolumne Meadows via Highway 395 and then over Tioga Pass. In addition, once you leave Bishop, heading north, you ascend almost immediately into the high country, with its cooler temperatures and scenic views.

After a decade of drought in California, the winter of 2016-2017 brought record-setting snowfall in the Sierra Nevada. With a cool springtime and a late start to summer heat, many Sierra trails and secondary roads remained blocked well into July. After seeing a complete lack of snow atop Mammoth Mountain in August 2016, I wanted to see the Sierra snowpack that remained this summer. In order to avoid July 4th weekend crowds, I planned my trip to end on July 1, 2017.

Spokesmodel Carrie McCoy at Mammoth Mountain in July 2015 - Click for 2017 image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)When I left Los Angeles on June 28, my initial destination was the Mammoth Mountain RV Park. I planned to road test my New Titan XD truck, towing our travel trailer to that location. From there I could venture to Lee Vining and then over the Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows. Over the winter, the meadows had received up to thirty feet of snowpack. In Mammoth Lakes, at an elevation of 7,500 feet, there was no trace of snow. At an elevation of 8966 feet, nearby Lake Mary was still frozen. As is often the case in July, the days were warm and the nights were cool.

After arriving at Mammoth Lakes, I remembered that it takes almost a week to acclimate to the altitude. On Thursday morning, I slept late and did not venture away from my campsite until late afternoon. Wanting to test my four-
New Nissan Titan XD turbo-diesel at Obsidian Dome, near June Lakes, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)wheel drive system, I drove my new truck to Obsidian Dome, just fifteen miles away. One of five volcanic craters in the Mono-Inyo Craters group, I knew that the Obsidian Dome forest trail was challenging but not too daunting for such a big truck.

Looking more like a huge pile of volcanic rocks than a crater, I decided not to hike to the top of the dome. Instead, I drove to a turnout in the woods and enjoyed the solitude of the place. Soon, two other vehicles pulled up to my secluded spot and idled for several minutes before moving on. One might think my spot was the only place to stop in the Eastern Sierra. After the interlopers departed, I noticed that there was still snow a few hundred feet above my location.

The author, Jim McGillis at Mono Lake in late June 2017 - Click for lower lake level in July 2016 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Upon returning to the RV Park, I confirmed that the Tioga Road had indeed opened to traffic on that very day. The next morning, I started out for the historic town of Lee Vining and then up the Tioga Road to Yosemite National Park. While talking on my mobile telephone, I became distracted and missed the Tioga Road turnoff. That was a lucky break, because a trip through Lee Vining on Highway 395 is always a treat. Just north of the town, there are spectacular views of ancient Mono Lake, so I stopped to take pictures.

In all my years of visiting Mono County, I had not seen the lake level so high. This summer, there was more water available to the City of Los Angeles than it could divert. As a result, Lee Vining Creek and other streams in the Mono Lake watershed appeared to disgorge directly into the lake.

Mt. Dana in late June 2017, with snow-pack still clinging - Click for July 2016 image of the same peak, with no snow-pack (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After researching historic water levels at Mono Lake, I determined that the July 7, 2017 elevation of 6380.4 ft. was up 2.1 ft. from the same date the previous year. Even at that, the lake level was forty-seven feet lower than it was in 1919. Today, the City of Los Angeles and the Mono Lake Committee have an agreement regarding diversion and partial refilling of Mono Lake. With its gently sloping shores and shallow depth, even a small rise in water level covers a vast expanse of the original lakebed.

After gazing at Mono Lake, I realized that I had driven right past the Tioga Road Junction. Soon, I turned around and headed back toward Highway 120, also known as the Tioga Road. When I stopped at the service station just off Highway 395, I could see that it was busy. Inside the store and deli, several hundred people milled around and blocked every aisle. Luckily, I had brought my own snacks and did not need to wait in line for food.

A bicyclist stops at Tioga Lake on June 30, 2017 to photograph his bike with the partially frozen Tioga Lake in the background - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Back on the Tioga Road, I used the torque of the Titan XD’s turbo-diesel engine to glide up the steep grade. I was passing slower vehicles and appeared hell-bent to get to the high country. Then, I saw the first of two large lakes visible from the highway. It was full to the brim and the spillway was open. I stopped to see a cascade of water plunging down the rocky slope into Lee Vining Creek. At each subsequent stop, I positioned the truck off-road, so I could and take pictures through the open side window. On the return trip, I would photograph points of interest on the other side of the road. One place I stopped, the Tioga Pass Resort, founded in 1914 was flooded and partially destroyed. That was my first taste of infrastructure destruction in the area. Later, I learned that the resort would not open for the season in 2017.

The Tuolumne Meadows Store, broken and beaten by winter weather, shown on June 30, 2017 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)By the time I reached Tuolumne Meadows, I realized that I had missed the sign for the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, which is located in the woods, to the east of the actual meadows. Strange… I thought. Did they cover or remove the signage? Before long, I arrived at the Tuolumne Meadows Store. I should say… what was left of the store. In the late fall, the store is stripped of its canvas roof. As winter snows fall, they drift and accumulate inside the skeleton of the wooden structure.

This year, over thirty feet of snow accumulated on the concrete floor of the store. We perceive that snow melts vertically, disappearing into the earth without a trace. The reality is that deep, wet Sierra Nevada snow-pack behaves like a slow-motion glacier. As the snow-pack accumulated in the store, it could not melt through the concrete floor, so it pushed sideways, contorted by both the lower reaches of Tuolumne Meadows became a seasonal lake in late June 2017 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)wind and gravity. The result was about ten-years of weathering in only one season. The ends of rafters snapped under the load. Anything left standing looked decrepit and derelict.

Compared to the summer drought of 2016, this year Tuolumne Meadows looked green and lush. There was no remaining snow in the upper meadow, but high water flowed down the Tuolumne River. When I headed west another mile along the Tioga Road, I came to the lower meadow that gives the place its plural name. There, the river had backed up at the entrance of a small canyon, creating a seasonal lake. A later check of Google Maps showed no lake in that location, only a wide spot in the river.

Tuolumne Meadow in summer 2016, devastated by ten years of drought - Click for a greener image in late June 2017 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Traveling back to the east, toward Tioga Pass, I turned right on to the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge Road. At a fork in that road, temporary barriers blocked blocked vehicle access. Parking in the adjacent parking lot, I began a short hike up the closed road. My goal was the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, with its famed tent-cabins, dining hall and general store. With no one else in sight, my hike alternated between hot sun and gentle shade from the pine and fir trees. When I arrived at the lodge parking lot, I saw the first signs of destruction.

During the spring melt, the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River had breached its natural banks and an errant stream had cut through grounds of the lodge. Below, mud, rocks and gravel lay fanned out across the parking lot. Closer to the wood-framed lodge, the new stream had cut a v-shaped channel in the
Spokesmodel Carrie McCoy at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge in summer 2016. Click for a similar view in late June 2017 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)pathway. Although a dozen of the tent cabins had their canvas tops and sides installed, there was no sign of any additional work or work parties.

On August 25, 2016, I had visited the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. By chance, it was the centennial of the U.S. National Parks Service. On that date, the lodge was bustling with activity. Some people sat in the shade, reading, while others had lunch in the dining hall. Hikers and visitors crowded the little store, buying backcountry supplies. Unless one had a prior reservation, no lodging was available. After ten years of drought and insignificant snowfall, the lodge had opened early in 2016.

On the Friday before the July 4th weekend of 2017, the scene was quite different. No other humans were in sight. Almost nothing of the old wooden lodge had received attention. The white-painted structure looked like the
In summer 2016, the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River was merely a trickle at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge - Click for an image from late June 2017 - (http://jamesmcgillis.com)bleached bones of a beached whale. The shed roof in front was broken and falling down. Many of the hand-made trusses that supported the dining hall roof were broken. One dangled over the concrete floor, hanging by a length of old electrical conduit. No one had yet taken a broom to the floor, let alone repaired any of the extensive damage. It appeared that the many layers of flaking white paint were all that held the structure together.

Out back, I had the cascading falls of the Tuolumne River’s Dana Fork all to myself. I could see where the river had jumped its banks and toppled an enormous old tree. Steel lunch tables, where campers had sat reading the previous year lay crumpled and broken by the weight of the winter snow-pack.

The Tioga Pass Resort, founded in 1914, lies broken and destroyed in late June 2017 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)With no one working and the road so recently opened, repair of both the Tuolumne Meadows Store and Lodge appeared to be an overwhelming task. With California experiencing the lowest unemployment figures in a decade, I wondered who would endure the hardship of living in a tent cabin in order to rebuild derelict buildings that might not be repairable. With meager federal government funding for the National Park Service, where would the money come from to repair structures that my parents had first visited seventy-five years ago?

At the old Tuolumne Meadows Service Station, I noted that there were no gas pumps. Where once had been a concrete pad and a service island was a large patch of gravel. Nearby, I photographed an old roadside sign. For motorists heading west to Yosemite Valley, it read, “No Services Next 39 Miles”. The The author, Jim McGillis and his father, Duke McGillis in a tent cabin at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge in summer 2004 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)irony was that there were no motorist services for the seventy-five mile stretch between Lee Vining and Yosemite Valley. As I departed Yosemite National Park, I realized that high country visitors would find no food, fuel, campsites, wilderness permits or lodging any time soon. As with everything else in Yosemite and Mono County this year, unprepared travelers could be in for a rude shock and a very long wait.

Email James McGillis
Email James McGillis

By James McGillis at 05:32 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link

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