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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Old U.S. Highway 6 & 50 is no longer maintained through Thompson Springs, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)On that dusty track, I thought about the name, originally called “Thompson”.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 #364: Santa Susana Field Lab Contamination - November 18, 2018


Sixty Years After a Nuclear Core Meltdown, Half a Million Residents Are Still At Risk

In California, the hills are alive, but not with the sound of music. On Thursday, November 8, 2018, a small fire started near the top of Woolsey Canyon Road, in the Simi Hills. The location was on the grounds of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL). Both famous and infamous, the facility once owned by the Rocketdyne Corporation, was used for development and testing of liquid fueled rocket motors from 1949 to 2006.

This pyrocumulus cloud arose from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory near Simi Valley, California on November 9, 2018 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The Atomics International division of North American Aviation once used a separate and dedicated portion of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory to build and operate the first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States. The Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) was an experimental nuclear reactor that operated at the site from 1957 to 1964. It was the first commercial power plant in the world to experience a core meltdown. The reactors located on the grounds of SSFL had no containment structures. During a series of events, thousands of pounds of radioactive nucleotides dispersed into the ground and air.

In 1996, The Boeing Company became the primary owner and operator of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, which it later closed. Today, more than 150,000 people live within 5 miles (8 km) of the facility, and at least half a million people live within 10 miles (16 km). As of 2018, the Boeing remains as Smoke rises over the closed Highway 118 in Simi Valley as hills near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory during the Peak Fire, November 11, 2018 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the site owner, with NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) liable for several parcels within the larger facility. On August 2, 2005, Pratt & Whitney purchased Boeing's Rocketdyne division, but declined to acquire SSFL as part of the sale.

In 2005, wildfires swept through northern Los Angeles County and parts of Ventura County. The fires consumed most of the dry brush throughout the Simi Hills where the SSFL is located. Since that fire, allegations have emerged that vast quantities of on-site nuclear and chemical contamination vaporized into the air. More recently, Los Angeles County firefighters assigned to SSFL during that fire received medical testing to see if they ingested or inhaled any harmful doses while protecting the facility.

As seen from the corner of Cochran Street and 1st Street in Simi Valley the Simi Hills were ablaze on November 9, 2018 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The small fire that broke out at the SSFL in the afternoon of November 8, 2018 was sadly reminiscent of the 1959 meltdown and the 2005 wildfire. Ground crews from Los Angeles City and County raced up the long and winding Woolsey Canyon. Upon arrival, they found a scorched and inoperable Southern California Edison (SCE) electrical transformer near the point of origin. The resulting brushfire had raced off the property to the south and west.
The Alpha, Bravo and possibly the Coca rocket test stands received substantial damage during the recent Woolsey Fire.

On the first afternoon of the fire, the ridges of the Simi Hills, including areas near the former nuclear reactor sites were fully involved in flames. The Los Angeles County Fire Department dispatched its two “Super Scooper” firefighting airplanes. After dropping their 1,600 gallons of water, the pair of “flying boat amphibious aircraft” headed for Castaic Lake, near Santa Clarita. There, at airspeeds approaching 100 mph, each plane took only twelve seconds to scoop up a new load of water and The Canadian "Super Scooper" firefighting aircraft can drop 1,650 gallons of water on a wildfire - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)return to the fire scene. At least six times, before darkness curtailed their activities, the two airplanes attempted to douse the spreading wildfire. With Santa Ana Winds gusting to 70 mph, it was a valiant, yet futile endeavor.

By Friday, November 10, 2018, the flames had swept through portions of Thousand Oaks, Westlake, Agoura Hills, Calabasas and Bell Canyon. most of that territory was downwind of the SSFL. By nightfall on that second night, the flames had reached Malibou Lake and the City of Malibu. Only the Pacific Ocean stopped the further spread of flames.

Over the next few days, the unexplained small fire at SSFL had grown to almost 100,000 acres and burned almost 500 homes. At 98,000 acres and still climbing, the Woolsey Fire had consumed well over eighty percent of the Santa Monica National Recreation Area. On two separate parcels of private property near Agoura Hills, three lives were lost during the fire. From our vantage Vast areas within the Santa Susana Field Laboratory near Simi Valley, California burned for up to three days in November 2018 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)point, on the north side of Simi Valley, we observed two nights of active flames. On the third day, we could still see wispy smoke emanating from near the fire’s point of origin. With Santa Ana winds still gusting to 60 mph, the smoke plume traveled south and east, away from our home.

On Sunday, November 11, 2018, we watched on local television as a DC-10 air tanker and numerous helicopters dropped water and fire retardant on the slopes above Malibu Canyon. Since spot fires can occur up to half a mile from active flames, we had stationed our travel trailer at our home in Simi Valley. Although there had been no active fire near our storage yard in Simi Valley, if one coach were to catch fire at that yard, hundreds of recreational vehicles could have burned.

A Los Angeles County Firehawk helicopter descends for a water pickup in Simi Valley, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As of that afternoon, hundreds of thousands of residents downwind of the SSFL remained evacuated or had returned to scenes of destruction and despair. Other than some mental stress watching fires spread live on TV, we remained safe at home. Our hearts go out to those who lost friends, pets, homes and property. Although not every home that burned was a mansion or a faux Tuscan villa and vineyard, a mobile home in a canyon setting can be just as dear. Many of the lower priced dwellings had no fire insurance.

To an eyewitness, it is disconcerting to see how quickly everything you own could go up in flames. As humans, we are at the mercy of wind, weather and nature. Some politicians and some who lost homes blamed land managers or first responders for the scope of destruction. Others recognized that there is risk associated with living adjacent to wildlands. With high winds and embers aloft, there was no way to protect every home. First responders had to change priorities, electing to save as many lives as possible.

This DC-10 tanker aircraft can deliver 12,000 gallons of fire retardant on each pass over the flames - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In Butte County, near Chico, California, almost the entire town of Paradise recently disappeared from the map. Prior to outbreak of the “Camp Fire”, around 27,000 people lived in that area. Almost nothing of the built environment in Paradise or nearby Concow withstood the flames. Over 10,000 structures burned, including homes, schools and the entire downtown district. Scores of people died in their homes, or while trying to escape on foot or in vehicles. As of this writing, nearly one thousand people remain missing.

The scope of these tragedies is hard to comprehend. Where will 27,000 homeless people go? Over twenty-five percent of those displaced were senior citizens, living on fixed or minimal incomes. With cold and rainy weather expected soon, a tent encampment in a Chico, California Walmart parking lot will not provide sufficient shelter. Here in Ventura County, less than one year ago, we lost almost 1000 homes to the Thomas Fire. In late 2017, an The only portion of Leo Carrillo State Beach that was left untouched by fire was the beach itself - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)additional 2,900 homes burned in Santa Rosa, California. As a result, tens of thousands of California residents are now actively seeking shelter.

Over the past ten years, Carrie McCoy and I have visited Malibu many times. One of our favorite restaurants overlooks Zuma Beach and Point Dume. During the Woolsey Fire, many homes near that seaside restaurant burned to the ground. While returning from our various trips to Malibu, we would often traverse Decker Canyon, Encinal Canyon, Mulholland Highway and Kanan Road. Those interconnected roadways snake through myriad canyons and rise over windswept ridgetops. Amidst the huge swaths of chaparral, are homes both lowly and grand. Many of those dwellings now consist of little more than a roadside gate or a mailbox. Our next visit to Malibu will likely include views of destruction not seen for decades, if ever before.

During the Peak Fire in Simi Valley on November 12, 2018, it looked like "business as usual" as firefighters rushed to the wildfire - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In 1980, I lived in Agoura Hills, near the intersection of Kanan Road and U.S. Highway 101. One afternoon, from my hilltop home, I saw a fire ignite on the south side of the freeway. Within minutes, it swept westward along Kanan Road. By nightfall, it reached the same stretches of Malibu that burned again in the Woolsey Fire. That day, almost forty years ago, I learned firsthand that it is not safe to live anywhere in the windswept canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains.

By the early 1990s, the Kanan/Malibu fire had faded into distant memory. The allure of living large, with nature all around was too great. What followed was a population boom in the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountain. When the Woolsey Fire struck, most of those residents had never seen active fire in their area. Living in the Santa Monica Mountains is a speculative investment. If one can afford to take the risk to both property and personal safety, then building
The Erickson Skycrane dumped thousands of gallons of water on the Peak Fire, near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, Simi Valley, California in November 2018 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)or buying there should be a personal choice. Since no property in that area is immune to destructive wildfires, self-insurance and private fire protection should be the rule, not the exception.

Returning to the origins of this most recent and destructive wildfire, the SSFL is now an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) superfund site. To this day, Boeing Company, NASA and the DOE administrate various parts of the property. Although there has been some minor cleanup, there has never been a complete remediation of the nuclear and chemical contamination caused during the second half of the twentieth century. With "scorching" of the remaining rocket test stands in the Woolsey Fire, it remains to be seen if any of that infrastructure is salvageable.

The public never heard a definitive answer regarding the firefighters' exposed to possible contamination during the 2005 wildfire at SSFL. After the Woolsey Fire, the California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) claimed, “There was no discernible radiation in the tested area.” As one of the 500,000
Pretty as a picture, eighty-five percent of the Santa Monica National Recreation Area was burned in November 2018 - Click for large image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)people who reside within ten miles of the radiological and chemical nightmare known as the SSFL, I believe that everyone in the area has the right to know exactly what our environmental exposure was and continues to be.

After the Woolsey Fire, Los Angeles County banned the removal of any fire rubble until completion of toxicity surveys of each affected property. Neither Ventura County nor Los Angeles County has plans to test beyond the SSFL for possible radioactive contamination. It is time for the public and our elected officials to demand nothing less than full testing, cleanup and remediation of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

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By James McGillis at 03:07 PM | Environment | Comments (0) | Link


Chapter #363: Classmate Bob Lovejoy (1948 - 2018) - August 21, 2018


Bob Lovejoy (1948-2018), Burbank High School Class of 1966 - Click for larger image of Bob and his son Clay (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Bob Lovejoy (1948-2018), Burbank High School Class of 1966

There is an inscribed plaque on the wall of a building in Old Chinatown, Santa Barbara, California. Placed by the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, (SBTHP), the plaque reads: In the late 1800’s, ten percent of Santa Barbara’s population was Chinese, who formed a community along the first two blocks of Cañon Perdido Street and parts of Anacapa and Santa Barbara Streets. Flourishing within China Town were grocery stores, import-export businesses, a laundry, Chinese Junk maker, Joss House, herbalists, restaurants and private social clubs with adult entertainment. Chinatown also housed the Nationalist Chinese Party, Koumintang, the Hop Sing Tong, the Chee Kung Tong and the Bing Kong Tong.

A painting of Jimmy's Oriental Gardens, Santa Barbara, California - Click for larger image of a painting by BHS '66 classmate John Klippinger (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Around 1895 the Chung family arrived here, and in 1947 descendant, Jimmy Yee Chung opened "
Jimmy's Oriental Gardens
" on this site. The Chung family is the last to remain in Old Chinatown. Dedicated this 15th day of March 1997.

Few were as excited to find that garden, as was local resident
Bob Lovejoy, who first stumbled upon Jimmy's in 1976 while working nearby. Stepping out of Jimmy’s thirty years later for some fresh air, Lovejoy noticed a "For Lease" sign on the building next door - today home to Handlebar Coffee - and decided that was where he and his son Clay, would realize their long-standing dream of opening a deli.

Classmates Bob Lovejoy, Carrie McCoy, James McGillis, Sharlean Magid and Phil Gieselman await the opening of The Pickle Room in September 2013 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In spring of 2006, they christened it Three Pickles. At that time, Bob and Clay were thrilled that Jimmy's Oriental Gardens was literally steps away. "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," said Bob. Jimmy's Oriental Gardens was a longtime favorite for locals and tourists alike, before closing its doors in 2006, with the retirement of operator Tommy Chung.

As the driving force, Bob Lovejoy vowed to see Jimmy's open once more, serving food and drinks to both the neighborhood and the populous at large. After seven years of diligent efforts, Longtime Jimmy's regular Bob Lovejoy and his son Clay succeeded in remaking the historic bar into
The Pickle Room. In September 2013, several of Bob's Burbank High School Class of 1966 classmates attended the reopening
of the historic establishment. It was a fun and nostalgic afternoon for all. But Regulars, friends and former classmates of Bob Lovejoy attend the opening of Lovejoy's The Pickle Room in September 2013 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)first, Bob hosted an excellent deli lunch at The Three Pickles, next door.

As 4:30 PM approached, classmates and old-timers waited patiently outside for Jimmy's Oriental Gardens to reopen as
The Pickle Room. When the big red doors swung open, the stylishly redecorated room filled immediately with happy patrons. At sunset, Bob Lovejoy, his wife Dawn and son Clay presided over the revelries. "This building deserves it," said Bob, but he also believes in the people making it happen, namely bartender Willy Gilbert
. "Willy is the key to this whole place," Bob told the Santa Barbara Independent.

The chauffeur's hat in a Rolls Royce symbolizes Bob Lovejoy's longstanding service to his Santa Barbara, California community - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Less than five years after achieving his dream of resurrecting his favorite place in Santa Barbara, Bob Lovejoy passed away on July 7, 2018. He had a massive stroke on Friday, July 6. Lynn (Lovejoy) Volgraff (BHS 1965) was with Bob and his family when they took him off life support and he passed away quickly. No pain. "We are all in shock and now the real work will begin since he had two delis, the Three Pickles and the Pickle Room in Santa Barbara". He leaves wife Dawn, son Clay and daughter Athena, along with three grandchildren.

Bob Lovejoy will be missed by all who knew him and thousands more who enjoyed the hospitality and ambiance of both Three Pickles and The Pickle Room. At the newly revived Jimmy's Oriental Gardens in Old Chinatown, Santa Barbara, California, everybody knew Bob's name.

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By James McGillis at 04:42 PM | Current Events | 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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