Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Things You Find In the Field: World's Worst Road?

A road not taken.
Its beginning located here in Google Maps.
Back in 2009, MOH and I were heading up this road in search of a particular "world's worst road," when it turned out we were on very old access road, which soon petered out into the creosote.
Continuation of the road not taken, with destination canyon off in the distance below the faintly pinkish exposure just right of center.
We were heading up toward a road that went up a long canyon, which began at the top of the alluvial fan in the distance. I wanted to drive the canyon road to remind myself about good roads and bad roads. The canyon road, being entirely passable by almost anyone in a high-clearance 4WD vehicle, was merely tedious and quirky at its entrance into the canyon from the top of the alluvial fan. Giant rocks, embedded in the fan, stuck out here and there, almost always precisely in the wrong place. The rock placement, along with considerable rutting of the road on its downhill side, made severe scraping of differentials and other low-hanging parts and lines moderately likely, even highly possible.

I was first led up the canyon by a prospector/submitter/promoter, who wanted to show me some claims of his (or his company's), which were south up the long canyon road, then west beyond some steep or somewhat precarious switchbacks, and then farther west on the other side of the mountain ridgeline. I don't remember our driving arrangements, but I do know that I always prefer to go into the field in my own vehicle (or a company vehicle if one is available), and that, as far as I can remember, I have never been escorted by prospectors onto their claims without me driving my own truck behind them.

An Aside: Prospectors—who are not geologists but are people who may make a living or add to their regular living by staking and leasing mining claims to exploration and mining companies, their regular living often being related to ranching, possibly to small market or gas station ownership, perhaps to small or large equipment operation (think cat operator), or perhaps including or primarily being related to retirement income of some sort, and which can be related to any other type of occupation including real estate—are often men, but I have known or met at least two non-geologist prospectors who were women.

I don't, BTW, consider myself a prospector, although my work can require me to conduct prospector-like activities, which, as a professional, I call exploration. The (IMHO) erroneous labeling of trained persons with geology or other related earth science degrees as prospectors, came up on Twitter recently. I reject any assertion that professional explorationists can be called "prospectors"—except as a colloquialism—and reserve the term for that used-to-be large, used-to-be ubiquitious (in Nevada, and perhaps in southern California, although a Mojave or otherwise California version of a true prospector is hard to come by: the Mojave version is, in my experience, more likely to be a scam artist), and used-to-be crucial (to the mining industry) contingent of non–geo-type individuals found out and about throughout the backcountry, banging on rocks or panning for gold, staking and maintaining their claims.

Back to Roads: There are numerous roads here and there in the west, and especially in the Mojave Desert of southern California, that could perhaps qualify for submission to the world's-worst-road competition. In that competition, I'd consider only roads that are theoretically passable, even if one might have become stuck while driving said road. (Getting stuck can result both from driver error or misjudgment and from nasty or terrible road conditions.) Some roads are impassable (or nearly impassable) for short periods of time—after flash floods or during winter snows or spring melts. These roads could be submitted to the world's-worst-road competition using their condition during their passable (or nearly, but not quite, impassable) periods. For the competition, I might develop different categories of "worst," including (1) steep, hairy overhangs, (2) rocks, possibly in more than one category, (3) mud you can get through, but you wish you had never made the attempt, (4) narrow, unlikely passages, including those through tall, thick, and aggressive brush, overhanging willows, or jutting junipers, (5) other narrow, sometimes harrowing or at least challenging passageways through slot canyons and holes-in-the-wall, and (6) essentially one-way routes through canyons or over mountains that don't allow chances for pulling over or turning around if one happens to meet another vehicle or a suddenly impassable section. Oh, and then there are the endless and endlessly variable wash roads where you have to "drive like a river."

Many roads in the Mojave were, when I drove them with some frequency, long and rocky, and we drove them at breakneck speeds of 5 to 15 miles an hour. Back then, 10 mph equaled Warp 1. It was always considered good to reach and exceed Warp 1; attaining Warp 2 (20 mph) would push a Mojave road into the merely average category instead of keeping it hopelessly and endlessly stuck in the bad. Dodging the often small but always persistent rocks on flat to barely sloped alluvial-fan ground in attempts to get into named and unnamed canyons and, from there, to get farther uphill to prospects or areas of interest was a tedious and frustrating procedure. A two-mile length of rocky alluvial fan road could take 1 to 4 hours of travel time.

In the canyons and up in the mountains of southern California, roads sometimes deteriorated rapidly, with giant rocks jumping out, trying to high center your truck or to sideswipe your doors or side panels. I can, offhand, only think of three roads in Nevada that rivaled the average road in the Mojave for its rocks and high centering capabilities. Both of these Nevada roads were navigable with use of considerable 4WD skill; one road resulted in a truck side dent when driven by someone with less skill than I (or with less concentration devoted to their driving).

Nevertheless, I have been stuck in the Mojave more than once (and in Nevada several times, often because of mud). One time, while working for Former Mining Company, my field assistant and I were up some road in the Turtle Moutains, around some corner that I nearly had to back around when leaving, and we came to a narrow, very rocky juncture where the road was almost eroded by a small side drainage. I tried to go around on the high side, which, on the second, third, or fourth attempt, resulted in a major high centering episode wherein only two wheels remained on the ground. We carefully built a road under one or both of the in-air wheels. (Sometimes it's good to tie your vehicle off to any large rock or tree (ha!) that happens to be available.) Then we backed down to a turnaround point—after walking up to, sampling, and sketch mapping the higher prospects we had been trying to reach. Careful examination of the getting-stuck point convinced me that truly artful four-wheeling would have rendered the rocky point passable, but neither of us wanted to make another attempt.

Various views of the location in question can be seen below.

Air photo view from TNM 2.0 Viewer.
Topographic map vew from TNM 2.0 Viewer.

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