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Chapter #366: Thompson Springs, Utah - History - February 19, 2019


Now abandoned, this wood frame house in Thompson Springs, Utah had a rail car addition tacked on at one time - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Bob Robertson's Boyhood Memories of Thompson Springs, Utah

Some say, “History repeats itself”. In Thompson Springs, Utah, it simply vanishes.

Exiting Interstate I-70 at “Thompson”, as the locals call it, is like entering a time warp. Approaching the town on a desolate two-lane road, it feels like you are entering Thompson in the 1890's. In those days “Old Man Thompson” still ran the lumber mill. These days, there are no more trees to fell. There are no
All the storefronts in Downtown Thompson Springs, Utah now stand abandoned to the weather - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)more Thompson's listed in the phone book. No more steam trains linger at the railroad depot, taking on passengers, coal or water. The nearest passenger station is now miles away, at Green River.

In the past ten years, I have written nine blog articles that mention Thompson or Thompson Springs. I physically revisit the place every year or two. For some reason, Thompson, as a place resonates with me. In 2018, I heard from Mr. Bob Robertson, who was once a resident of Thompson. Since then, Bob has shared with me many details about the history of “Thompson”, as many call the place. Therefore, the rest of this article is in the words of Bob Robertson and his mother, Dorothy (known as Tods).

Bob Robertson (left) and his older sister Maurine pose near their home in Thompson Springs, Utah, circa 1940 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)“Your blog prompted many memories and thoughts about the area I’d like to share, so bear with me as an old man reflects (while he is still able)!

Thompson Springs began its life in 1883 as a station stop on the D&RGW Railroad. A post office was established in 1890, under the name “Thompson’s," named after E.W. Thompson, who lived near the springs and operated a saw mill, to the north, near the Book Cliffs. The town became a community center for the small number of farmers and ranchers who lived in the inhospitable region, and it was a prominent shipping point for cattle that ran in the Book Cliffs area.

The town gained importance with the development of coal mines in Sego Canyon, a few miles north of town. Entrepreneurs built a railroad there in 1911 to connect the mines with the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad at Thompson. The spur line operated until about 1950.

This abandoned miner's rock home used a railroad track for its doorway header - Click for larger image (http://jaqmesmcgillis.com)One added aspect of interest is the actual community of Sego, where the mines were functioning through the 1940s. I remember as a kid in school in Moab, there was a carload of kids driven from Sego to Moab daily to go to school. Education was Grand County's responsibility, until the mines closed around 1948 or 1949. The internet tells of how the community included specific ethnic groups, housed in separate locations in the canyon, which was typical of the times. There was a Japanese section, different European sections, etc. There is very little indication of old home sites now, but there is a cemetery.

It was much like Bingham Canyon Mine in northern Utah, where my wife was born in 1940. Her dad and his brother worked in the mine there during the The Thompson Springs passenger railroad depot was abandoned in 1997 and torn down in 2016 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Second World War, but the uncle was an accountant and her dad drove heavy machinery. Therefore, they had to live in different locations within the canyon.

Construction of Interstate I-70, two miles south of Thompson, drew traffic away from the town, since the former Old Cisco Highway (US-6 & US-50) was no longer maintained. In 1997, the passenger train station closed and moved to Green River, twenty-five miles to the west. The loss of railroad passenger service led to further economic hardship for Thompson Springs.

My Dad (Maury Robertson) ran a gas station in Thompson Springs, beginning in 1935. He lived in a tent with Mom and sister Maurine until they moved the abandoned small one-room Valley City schoolhouse to Thompson, which became their bedroom on their house next to the service station.

A 1935 image of the Robertson Service Station in Thompson Springs featured UTOCO Oil Products beer for sale, inside - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)I was born in 1937. Later, my Mom made the following comments for my own son about my arrival:
“Dear Dan, Your Dad was born when we lived in Thompson. We hadn’t planned to have more children, for Maury was afraid there would be problems of health because of Maurine (Bob’s sister). In addition, we were very poor and living conditions were bad in Thompson. During pregnancy, I got big & miserable with hay fever & also the gnats landed & mixed with my hay fever drink. At that time, Maury had the hired man drive me to Moab two weeks early. The nights in Moab were so hot I about melted – the nights on the desert in Thompson were cool.

Dorothy and Maury Robertson (parents of Maurine and Bob Robertson) sit for a portrait in 1942 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)When Bob was born, my Dad (Cap Maxwell) drove out to Thompson to tell Maury & he was so tickled with a boy that he told the truth. Maury thought it was a girl all the way to Moab, for he did not think Dad would tell the truth. Cap was a great tease. We argued about what to name the boy. I wanted Vincent Clark & Maury wanted Jim after his father. We already had one Jim in the family. Maurine came to the hospital & said let us name him Bobby & so that was it.

He had a rough upbringing with the hired men that we had at the station in Thompson. Collin Loveridge used to throw him in the air so high I’d nearly flip & Albert Brown, who was a big “roughy” used to get him up in the morning & feed him & let me sleep in. When Bob would not eat his toast for me Albert said, “Oh, I put sugar & Jelly on it, he likes it.”


This abandoned storefront once served as a grocery store in Thompson Springs, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)My Uncle Curt (Dad's brother and business partner in Moab tacked that old schoolhouse onto a storefront that old Doc Williams bought. It became living quarters for my folks, moving Mom & Dad and sister Maurine out of the tent. That was where I got my start. The two-pump service station has the name labeled on the front "Robertson Service," It’s kind of hard to make out in the picture. The brand was Utoco (Utah Oil Co.). Dad also drove the gas truck servicing the towns in the area, Cisco, Moab, Monticello, Blanding, and Bluff).”

Since I-70 became the main east/west route across Utah, lost are locations and memories of road trips from Moab to Grand Junction, Colorado or Price, Utah. Crescent Junction became the first stop after the interstate opened. Then as kids, going west, there was the thrill of the cold-water geyser at Woodside. Traveling east, after Thompson came Cisco, Harley Dome, and then Fruita.

This vintage bumper tag once advertised the now defunct cold-water Roadside Geyser in Woodside, Utah - Click for larger image (htp://jamesmcgillis.com)Valley City was home to enough people at some point to warrant a small schoolhouse (that became our home in Thompson Springs, as mentioned earlier). This is where we would drive from Moab in the winter to ice skate on the Valley City reservoir. It was not much of a spot for skating, but to us kids, it was great.

At age 21, Maurine Robertson (1930-1953) was named Grand County, Utah Queen of the Rodeo - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Sis (Maurine Robertson), who was born with a congenital heart defect, died in 1953, during my sophomore year in high school. She had lived twenty-three good years and had brought much joy and happiness to all who knew her. Two years earlier, she had been crowned Rodeo Queen and received much deserved recognition for the beautiful person she was.”


In 1955, Bob Robertson went on to graduate from Grand County High School in Moab. In 1961, after earning a BS Electrical Engineering at the University Of Utah, he joined the “U.S. Space Program” before it even had a name. After
active military time at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico and Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, Bob launched a distinguished career in electronics and Author Bob Robertson and his sister, Maurine in 1952 - Click for full Robertson family portrait (http://jamesmcgillis.com)engineering.

While working for such premier corporations as Intel, Fairchild, AC Spark Plug, Astrodata, Standard Microsystems, Mini-circuits and Motorola, Bob and his family lived in Singapore, Indonesia and Russia. After a later stint teaching at Great Basin College, in Elko, Nevada, Bob moved to Boise, Idaho, where he retired working for Micron Technology. He and his wife (grandparents of twenty-two) now live comfortably in northern Idaho.

Although he has not visited Thompson recently, Bob Robertson's recollections of bygone locations and events in the old ranching and railroad town are as sharp as ever. Thank you, Bob Robertson for sharing your personal history with us all.

This is Part 2 of the Thompson Springs Story. To read Part 1, “Thompson Springs, Utah - From Boom Town to Ghost Town”, please click “Here”. To read Part 3, "Sego Canyon - Land of the Ancients", please click "Here".

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By James McGillis at 03:23 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter #365: Visit Historic Thompson Springs, Utah - January 18, 2019


Along old Highway 6 & 50, an abandoned home stands in Thompson Springs, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Thompson Springs, Utah - From Boom Town to Ghost Town

In May 2008, when I made my first visit to Thompson Springs, Utah, I had no idea what to expect. Before that, I had never heard of the place. While in Moab that year, someone had suggested that I visit the old Indian Rock Art panels in nearby Sego Canyon. After wending my way from Moab, north on U.S. Highway 191, I referred to my Utah Atlas & Gazetteer. By following a few simple turns, I soon connected to an unpaved strip of dirt named Valley City Road. According to my map, that road ran on a diagonal, straight to Thompson Springs.

Old U.S. Highway 6 & 50 is no longer maintained through Thompson Springs, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)On that dusty track, I thought about the name, originally called “Thompson”. Someone later added the word “Springs” to the official place name. The 1961 book, “Five Hundred Utah Place Names”, has no mention of either Thompson or Thompson Springs. Although almost every source now labels it as Thompson Springs, the locals in Grand County have shortened the moniker to “Thompson”. For the sake of brevity, I shall henceforth call the place Thompson.

Indeed, Thompson had once been a thriving town, located on old Highway U.S. 6 & 50. In the first half of the twentieth century, the town featured a hotel, a motel, a diner, a grocery store, several filling stations and a passenger railroad depot. Up past the ancient rock art in Sego Canyon ran a standard gauge railroad, which serviced a low-grade coalmine at its terminus. In the days of steam locomotives, the fresh water springs at Thompson created a In the early 20th century, Thompson Springs was a mandatory water stop for the steam locomotives of the time - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)mandatory stopping place for all trains traveling along the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad mainline. By the 1970s, diesel-electric locomotives had replaced steam power, making a water-stop in Thompson irrelevant.

Simultaneously, the newly completed Interstate I-70 bypassed Thompson entirely. The old Highway 6 & 50, while skirting the southern edge of the Book Cliffs, had bisected Thompson. On its stretch between Green River and Cisco, the new route for I-70 lay several miles to the south. The widowed owner of the Crescent Junction service station had lobbied hard to have the new highway to pass adjacent to her business. In deference to her desires, the chief highway engineer at the time changed the final I-70 route to suit her needs. That Crescent Junction gas station still stands today, now known as Papa Joe’s Stop & Go.

For the first half of the 20th century a railroad was used to transfer coal from Sego Canyon, in the Book Cliffs to Thompson Springs, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The realigning of I-70 that far north necessitated a major road-cut just west of Crescent Junction. Eastbound from Crescent Junction, highway engineers saw no way to include Thompson in their plans. As was the story with many towns built along earlier highways and rail lines, running the interstate through Thompson would have destroyed the place. Instead, they skirted Thompson, thus creating an eastbound route with an unexpected descending curve. The softhearted chief engineer had foregone a more logical and less difficult route in deference to the owner of one small business in Crescent Junction.

After the complete bypass of Thompson, only a single new service station was visible from the interstate highway. Although a highway interchange allowed By 2018, the closed Silver Grill at Thompson Springs displayed broken windows and other signs of vandalism - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)access to Thompson from both eastbound and westbound I-70, few travelers visited the town. For almost forty years, from around 1970 until the Moab tourism boom beginning in 2010, Thompson continued to wither and die.

In recent years, the Desert Moon Hotel and RV Park and the Ballard RV Park and Cabins have sprung back to life. The Ballard RV Park stands on a site that housed hundreds of trailer homes during the construction of the interstate highway. Recently refurbished, the Ballard now houses many seasonal workers recently “priced out” of Moab, thirty-eight miles away. As the new working class suburb for Moab, the Ballard rarely has a seasonal vacancy for overnight travelers.

The road north from Thompson Springs to Sego Canyon first crosses Old Highway 6 & 50, and then the Union Pacific Railroad before entering the canyon - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Despite the success of the Desert Moon and the Ballard, by 2015 no other publically identified businesses functioned in Thompson. The Thompson Motel, The old brick-front Silver Grill and the railroad depot had all shut down for good. One of the few functioning landmarks was the namesake Thompson Springs waterworks. There, local residents and trucks from the nearby Utah Department of Transportation yard could fill their water tanks. Other than the gas station and minimart located near I-70, there were few signs of economic vitality.

By 2018, after extensive damage by vandals, the Union Pacific Railroad had torn down its defunct passenger rail depot. One after another, as abandoned homes or businesses became a danger to the public, they disappeared, An old Lake Powell pontoon boat serves as a dwelling in Thompson Springs, Utah. Note the stovepipe and water slide - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)seemingly without a trace. Within the town, the last census indicates that thirty-nine hardy souls dwell in the alternating heat and cold of the desert. Other sources claim up to ninety-three people reside in Thompson.

Recently, a landlocked pontoon boat somehow made its way from Lake Powell to Thompson, where it sits up on blocks. With its waterslide still intact and a stovepipe running up the side of the cabin, I wondered if it was a remote retreat or someone’s permanent home. Could this be the beginning of a new housing boom in Thompson?

Despite sporadic signs of life, Thompson appears to be transitioning to ghost town status. In the past decade, many former landmarks have disappeared. Each time I visit Thompson, I try to take pictures of the remaining structures.
When local residents spot a visitor in Thompson Springs, Utah, they come running - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Upon my next visit, there will surely be fewer of them still standing.

This is Part 1 of the Thompson Springs Story. In Part Two, Bob Robertson, a native of the area born in 1937 reminisces about his childhood in Thompson and Grand County, Utah.

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By James McGillis at 02:47 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter #362: Titus Canyon and Titanothere Canyon - April 24, 2018


Titanothere and Titus Canyons combine to make the toughest driving experience in Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In the Depths of Titus Canyon, Cosmic Rays Reveal Themselves

In November 2016, I made my first trip to Death Valley National Park. While there, I visited many of the most famous sites in the park. After visiting Zabriskie Point at sundown, I camped at the Furnace Creek Campground for several nights. At the Furness Creek Visitors Center, I purchased a large format book, titled “Death Valley – Hottest Place on Earth”, by author Roger Naylor.

After returning home, I read that book from cover to cover, looking for new places to visit on subsequent trips. Although there are too many fascinating places to chronicle here, one place in particular struck my fancy. Touted as the only legitimate four-wheel drive road in Death Valley National Park, that place is Titus Canyon.

My Nissan Titan XD, on Daylight Pass, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In May 2017, I bought the perfect vehicle to take on the dirt, gravel and bare rock surfaces that comprise the twenty-eight mile Titus Canyon Road. That vehicle is a Nissan Titan XD, lifted six-inches and powered by a Cummins Turbo-Diesel engine. In December 2017, I camped again at Furnace Creek Campground and made a daytrip to Titus Canyon.

To reach the start of the one-way Titus Canyon Road, I first drove eleven miles north on California 190. At the Aptly named Beatty Junction, I turned right on Beatty Road, which is a shortcut to Daylight Pass and to Beatty, Nevada, beyond. After enjoying the multivarious geography of Daylight Pass, I crossed the Nevada State Line, where the highway designation is Nevada 374. That section, from Beatty Junction to the turn-off at Titus Canyon Road was about twenty-three miles.

From Nevada 374, this is the sign for the turnoff to Titus Canyon Road - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)By the time I achieved the summit at Daylight Pass, daylight itself appeared to be in short supply. I elected to skip the extra four-mile trip to Beatty, and the nearby ghost town of Rhyolite. About four miles shy of Beatty; I almost overshot the signed turnoff for Titus Canyon. After turning around, I headed west on the one-way Titus Canyon Road. At first, the landscape of the surrounding Amargosa Valley consisted mostly of sagebrush. If you go this way, the initial stretch of gravel road will rattle your bones like one monotonous washboard.

After the mind-numbing washboard section, a sweeping turn to the south marks the beginning of your ascent. There, at one of the few wide spots in the road, I stopped to talk with three adventure motorcyclists that had recently passed me on the washboard section. With the suspension systems on their bikes pressed to the limit by the terrain, they were already feeling the stress of Titus Canyon Road. After an amiable conversation, the three riders traveled on ahead of me.

At the end of the washboard section, Titus Canyon Road begins the climb toward Red Pass - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)During that stop, I discovered that I had dropped my mobile telephone somewhere along the way. Unable to find it, I began to fear that it had flipped out of my truck near the beginning of the road. Since I have a Bluetooth hookup for the phone in my truck, I decided to call home, using the voice-activated system. To my amazement, there was cell phone coverage in that remote location. I spoke with Carrie McCoy, telling her that at least I knew the phone was in the truck.

As we spoke, I noticed the sun continuing its winter slink toward the horizon. In deep ravines, such as Titus Canyon, the visible sun can set quite early. Not wanting to complete my trip in the dark, I abandoned my phone-search and traveled on. Without access to the camera on my phone, I had only my Sony
Three adventure motorcycle riders pause on the ascent in Titanothere Canyon, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)A6000 camera, with its telephoto lens attached. The road was too dusty to change lenses, so I eschewed any close-ups of nearby rock formations, opting instead for a longer, narrower perspective.

If you venture on, you will encounter an ill-defined area called Titanothere Canyon. The name Titanothere Canyon derives from the 1933 discovery there of a massive fossil skull. It was of a long extinct hooved animal, dating back to the Oligocene Period, over 32 million years ago. If the ancient Titanothere had hooves, did it share any other characteristics with early mammalian species? Perusing online images of its skull, you will see aspects that evoke a lizard, a wild boar or a camel, and even a dash of rhinoceros.

A motorcyclist begins the difficult ascent through Titanothere Canyon, heading for Red Pass - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Regardless of its genetic heritage, the top of a rocky pass, eroded into impossibly steep slopes seemed an unusual place to find a hooved animal. Although camels are the kings of sandy desert travel, they could not have negotiated the unforgiving terrain of what is now Titanothere Canyon. Something big must have changes since those namesake beasts had roamed here. In the area, igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks are jumbled and tumbled all around. A series of epic geological uplifts had transformed this place in less than 35 million years. In geologic terms, just a blink of the eye separates us in time from the last Titanothere.

Back on the road, the switchbacks are numerous, the terrain is steep and corners are tight. In some places, you cannot see where your wheels will land, so most drivers hug the inside radius of the turns. As a result, there are deep
A Jeep Wrangler Rubicon easily surmounts Redd Pass on the Titus Canyon Road, Death Valley National Park (http://jamesmcgillis.com)ruts cut along the inner track of some corners. If your vehicle’s suspension survives the first unexpected hit, it is prudent to slow to a crawl on the many gouged-out turns to follow.

According to most publications and the Death Valley Visitor’s Center, any “high-clearance vehicle” should be able to negotiate the Titus Canyon Road. What they do not tell you is that this can be a grueling trip for a novice driver or if you are in a marginal vehicle. Authorities should designate this as a “Rough Road”, with a strong suggestion toward four-wheel drive capability. Because of both weathering and its popularity, the Titanothere Canyon section of the road is rapidly deteriorating. If your vehicle is questionable, I suggest renting a Jeep Wrangler four-wheel drive vehicle in Death Valley. This road begs for a “locked and loaded” Jeep Wrangler, and nothing less.

Deep In Titus Canyon is the ghost town of Leadfield, California - Click for larger image (htp://jamesmcgillis.com)About thirteen miles into the drive, within Titanothere Canyon, sweeping views and steep drop-offs will vie for the driver’s attention. If a drop-off wins, you and your passengers will die, so keep your hands on the wheel, your eyes upon the road and slow down. If you survive the switchbacks of Titanothere Canyon, your reward will be in the cresting the summit at Red Pass. The first-time visitor is encouraged to stop and look back at the perilous climb just completed. You might ask yourself, “If that was the first half of the road, what more could it possibly have to offer
?

Then, if you turn and look toward where your wheels are about to take you, you will encounter an astounding view. On my visit, I stood agape as the afternoon sun illuminated a landscape that fell away toward a darkening canyon. Looking down, I could see something flickering on the dirt road, far below. After a few moments, I realized that the tiny objects attracting my attention were the three motorcycle riders I had met earlier, near the beginning of the road. The Robert Frost inside me, blurted out, “I have miles to go before I sleep”.

If not for the mining-scam of Leadfield, the Titus Canyon Road might never have been built - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The more famous Titus Canyon (to follow) has an equally ominous history. The name honors Morris Titus, who, in 1906, left nearby Rhyolite with a prospecting party. When water ran short, Titus struck out on his own to find more, but never returned to the party. It is an historical tale repeated anew several times each year in Death Valley National Park.

The usual scenario includes a solo hiker taking off for a jaunt in the desert. Water soon runs out and the hiker tries to make it back to civilization before succumbing to heat and dehydration. Sometimes the hiker lives to tell the tale, but many others rapidly succumb, to be found as buzzard bait by a later search party. The lesson is to never hike alone, avoid the midday sun and take more water than you could ever need. Consider wearing a hydration pack, since a small bottle of water is insufficient.

On Titus Canyon Road, Death Valley National Park, the only surface water is at Klare Springs - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)While humming the lyrics to the rock group America’s, “I went through the desert on a horse with no name”, I drank from my ample water supply. Then, I headed down into the darkening recesses of the Grapevine Mountains and Titus Canyon. Soon, I came to the ruins of Leadfield. It is a former mining town built on the concept that there are hundreds, if not thousands of people willing to bet their lives and fortunes on an unproven mining claim. During the years 1925 and 1926, many fortune seekers succumbed to false advertising and moved to Leadfield. The only lead in Leadfield was used to salt the fake mine tunneled by the town's developer. By February 1927, the post office closed and the town shut down. Only an ersatz tailings pile and the remnants of a few buildings remain.

As the afternoon wore on, high canyon walls often shaded my truck. Since the road often faced west, I did experience more sunlight than I expected. As it descended, the road followed the dry streambed within Titus Canyon. Other than while dodging various rock outcroppings, the road seemed permanent enough to travel a bit faster. Then, without warning, I hit a patch of road with standing water and hidden potholes. Some were so deep, they could bend the suspension on any vehicle. That surfacing stream, near Klare Spring, was the only sign of water that I saw on the entire transit.

The female hiker shown here in Lower Titus Canyon had her dog ensconced in a backpack - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As I splashed over the watery moonscape of a road, I came across a young woman, hiking in the opposite direction, up Red Pass. She wore a light parka and a small daypack. Her ruddy face was the color of someone who had spent many days outdoors. I had only enough time to hit the brakes and apologize for splashing water toward her. Then, she was gone. Immediately, I wondered where she was going and how she would survive in the cold night to come. Did she make it out alive, from the canyon where Morris Titus met his demise?

In places, the road cuts through a canyon so steep and narrow, it measures less than twenty feet, from wall to wall. Elsewhere, the canyon broadens out, lining the edges of the road with the rock and boulder remnants of past floods. A satellite view of the area reveals that it has seen eons of erosion, cutting deeply into ancient volcanic flows. Such a bird’s eye view also reveals that miles of roadway could easily disappear in a single large flood.

Some may call it lens-flare, but I believe that cosmic rays can be visible, if photographed in under the right conditions - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)At one point, the sun disappeared behind a small peak, as viewed from the road. Not knowing if I was going to see the sun again before the end of the road, I stopped, backed up and observed the sun as it set again behind the same peak. As it did, I snapped a picture of the sunlight, attenuated by its headlong dip behind the peak. The resulting photo accompanies this article.

When people take pictures of a bright light source, and especially the sun, the orbs and crescents of light, which the camera captures, we calls “lens flares”. That tag is an easy way to explain an otherwise inexplicable phenomenon. How can a camera divide sunlight into discreet elements of different colors, each with its own apparent mass and velocity? My theory is that the camera is capturing in one frame, several different aspects of a fragmenting cosmic ray. As a single ray approaches ground level, its plasma flow may change from a translucent green orb to a green crescent and finally into a red-orange disk, oblate in shape.

Tired from the long, rough ride through Titus Canyon, the adventure motorcyclists recline and rest against the canyon wall - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)There are two sources of cosmic rays on Earth. Some, like the one I photographed, emanate directly from the Sun. Other, higher energy cosmic rays, come to Earth from deep space. As we currently approach the Grand Solar Minimum, the sun still emits cosmic rays toward Earth. As the Earth’s magnetosphere simultaneously erodes toward its lowest level in one thousand years, ground-penetrating cosmic rays are free to hit the Earth with greater frequency and force. Since a single, fragmenting cosmic ray can penetrate the Earth and possibly exit our planet on the opposite side, they are a force of energy for all life to respect.

As the cosmic rays increase in both frequency and strength, they heat up fracture zones, transform-faults and volcanic fissures all over our Earth. The result, as we have recently seen in the Great Rift Valley of Africa and many other areas on the globe, is expansion and uplifting of the Earth’s crust. Similar forces may have turned the benign plateaus and plains roamed by the ancient Titanothere into this, one of the most dramatic geological regions on Earth.

In late afternoon, I found the end of Titus Canyon, where it dumps out into Death Valley National Park, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Near the end of Red Pass, in Titus Canyon, I again encountered the three motorcyclists I had previously seen along the road. They had parked their motorcycles at the edge of the road and now lay reclined against a canyon wall, enjoying the shade of late afternoon. The road had been a test of my own stamina and concentration, so I could only image how tired they were after running all of Titus Canyon Road.

At the lower end of Titus Canyon, the watercourse dumps out its alluvium into the upper reaches of Death Valley. From there, as the sun headed toward the horizon, I safely made my way back to civilization and to my campsite at Furnace Creek, in Death Valley National Park.

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By James McGillis at 05:01 PM | Travel | Comments (0) | Link


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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