Monday, January 4, 2010

Pennsylvania Canyon: Into the Canyon

After a long hiatus in this continuing story about Caliente, Meadow Valley Wash, and related places [Caliente series], I'm finally getting back to the fork in the road at the base of the Ella Mountain Lookout. Which way will I be going? I'll turn left, into Pennsylvania Canyon on the road with the warning sign that says "Road Damaged Ahead."
When I dropped over the saddle into the Pennsylvania Canyon drainage on the damaged road to Elgin, I finally did feel like I dropped into another world, a world of lower elevation, of rockier, steeper, sandier, and more washed-out roads, but also a world that was partly in another time zone, another dimension. I dropped farther and farther into the past as I went lower and lower into Pennsylvania Canyon.

I descended into some nether world that was neither here nor there, really. The sand wasn't as sandy or as roily from truck traffic as it had been 30+ years before, and the steep upper part of the road was seemingly steeper. The steep part was most assuredly rockier and had seen only minimal maintenance for at least a few years, possibly several.

The hillsides had been burned by fire, probably twice - once in a fairly distant past after my last visit in June, 1978, and again in some more recent time, perhaps during the last decade.

Pennsylvania Canyon hugs the west edge of the Clover Mountains Wilderness Area (did not exist back then) in the upper and lower parts of the canyon.

The trees I didn't recognize at first - the ones in the upper elevations near the lookout and the saddle - were Ponderosa pines. These were growing alongside sagebrush, manzanita, piñon pine, and Gambel oaks. Rabbit brush was growing primarily in the disturbed area on the side of the road.

The road was, indeed, damaged in places. The photo below shows a washed-out section not far below the upper steep area. The dirt and soil are a chocolaty brown color remembered from long ago.

Below the washout shown in the previous photo, the road is primarily in the wash. That washout, and the re-routing of the road into the wash, happened quite a while back judging by tracks and the general state of erosion. The current route occasionally goes onto the mostly eroded old road, which can be seen in the photo above to the right of the wash road. Much of our 1978 travel in this section may have been on the old road; I don't remember any old washouts.

One band of wild horses ran from my truck approach - a caution I haven't seen in our so-called wild bands in more than 20 years, a caution possibly bred of the poor road condition and the apparent lack of much human traffic in the canyon. One pass up or down the road by a 4-wheeler-type ATV created the only recent tracks I could see.

At 12:20, having started into the canyon at 11:15, I came to this washout in the lower canyon - located here, just north of the central 4400 contour, where the section line parallels a side canyon going off to the east - almost three miles south of the sandy turnoff I had been looking for. The turnoff I didn't find - east of hill 5547 and south of a 5200 contour - would have taken me to Elgin on what used to be the main road. There is one fresh ATV track in this washed out part of the canyon.

After duly examining the washout generated by this side canyon, I turned around to head back toward the Ella Mountain Lookout.

At 12:40, I pulled over and had lunch in the middle of the wash, in the shade of a juniper tree.

I came to the steep and rocky part of the road at about 1:35 pm, having once again missed the sandy turnoff from long ago. I didn't get photos of this steep part when going into the canyon: I was too busy looking for potential turnaround points in case the road suddenly dropped off into nothing. After all, it was supposed to be damaged!

- Where was the road damaged? I saw "Road Damaged Ahead" signs on both the northeast entrance near the lookout and the southwest entrance near Elgin. I think the damage was on the section between the canyon and Elgin, beyond the sandy turnoff I didn't find, though maybe the signs referred to the washed out lower canyon. Really, though, the upper section of the road just below the saddle was enough to give me pause when driving into the canyon. I drove cautiously, all the while considering the possibility of having to back up should there be a washout below me. Would there be a turnaround point ahead? A washout? Theoretically one can back out of anything one can get into, but when going downhill, that theory does not always apply. Gravity helps you while going down; it will hinder you if you try to back up. So I was cautious. I went downhill slowly, straining my eyes while trying to see through and around bushes that nearly blocked my view. -

Coming back out - and on the farthest reaches in, almost eight miles from the lookout and about four miles from Elgin - the heat and rocks and endless nature of the canyon defeated me, made me irritable at roads gone bad: roads poorly maintained for lack of required claim assessment work, roads inverted in their nature by being worse in the upper stretches, and better in the lower, than they had been in the past.

And so, feeling defeated, I left - slowly but surely, using 4WD on lengths of road that didn't need more than 2WD in the past, and using 2WD where 4WD had been required. I left, and looking once again back down the canyon from the last saddle overlook, I did see, finally, that maybe I had just left some in-between world, half here and now, half there and then.

As usual, the road back, at least from the lookout to Caliente - those last 25 miles or so - was shorter on the way out than on the way in, though not necessarily smoother.


Gaelyn said...

These are the kinds of roads that call my name. And it sure can be like driving into a past. Too bad you didn't find the sandy turnoff, but you went ahead bravely. Thank goodness for 4x4 when needed. Such gorgeous country. Thanks for taking us along.

Anonymous said...

Quite the adventure! Do you ever carry a mountain bike in the back of your truck? Not much fun pedaling uphill over loose rocks on a blazing hot day, but over fairly level ground (or downhill) you can make a lot of distance and time, and thumb your nose at any washouts, fallen logs, etc.; and not having to worry about getting high-centered or otherwise stuck lets you enjoy the surroundings a bit more. I find exploring old roads a lot more fun on a bike than in a truck, if the conditions permit.


Silver Fox said...

The sandy turnoff was probably washed out by the 2005 flood. I think the heat was getting to me, also. I don't have AC in my truck.

I had a great ride on a mountain bike down from the top of Mineral Ridge many years back. Usually, I'm going up and down too much (this road would have been a long walk back up). Truth is, I used to do more of the biking, but usually not in the same areas that I was working. A good thing to think about for next summer, though.