Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Tales of the Mojave: An Intro


I'm going to move into what I hope to be the blog-publication of a few of my old stories, which I began here quite a while ago with several posts that became the Caliente series and other posts that were part of my Finding a Thesis series (which I haven’t finished). I'm not sure how far I'll get into this new project, but it's something I want to start in order to see how my writing has progressed from the first drafts, which I probably began in the late 1990s. I'll no doubt be interspersing this Mojave set of posts with other field notes, road trips, or miscellany like Friday Fault/Fold, etcetera; we'll just have to see how it goes. Also, at this point the old stories have become tied up with some fictional stories or novel I've been playing with. The fictional book or novel doesn’t really have a plot yet, and it also has a lot of completely made-up to deeply modified or wildly intertwined adventures. I'm attempting, here, to remain true to life.

The Mojave

You can check out any time you like,
but you can never leave.[1]

My memory of the Whipple Mountains, where we'll be heading shortly, extends back to 1981, when Allie [2] and I conducted some preliminary geologic reconnaissance (recon) during June for Northern Exploration Company (NEC). It was my first visit to the Mojave Desert of southern California. (I can’t speak for Allie, but I think it was hers, also.)

The Mojave Desert is outlined in red.
Image courtesy USGS, modified from here.
Hell, that's not strictly correct. Looking back carefully, I really can't say that I had never been to the Mojave before 1981—though I do often say that very thing, not usually thinking about the technical boundaries of the Mojave The boundaries, right, largely though not completely faithfully, follow the range of that well-known Mojave denizen, the Joshua tree.

So when did I first visit the Mojave? Well, let me think. Sometime in the late '70s I was in Vegas for an archaeological conference—we had driven all night to get there and had beheld a truly spectacular thunderhead near Tonopah. Before that, I’d seen (and drawn and photographed and summarized) the Charlie Brown Outcrop during the third field trip in Larsen's Geology of Nevada class. On the way down to the Charles Brown Highway, we had camped in the Beatty dump on Thanksgiving night after a particularly mediocre meal at the C-rated Exchange Club. Fortunately for everyone involved, there had been plenty of beer afterward to settle the stomach.70

Beatty is technically just inside the Mojave Desert, and the Charlie Brown Outcrop isn't far from its center. So yes, using almost anyone's definition of that southern desert, I had been there before '81. Nevertheless, I usually think of June, 1981, as my first foray into the area, and indeed it was the first time I had been south of Shoshone on the California side or south of Vegas on the Nevada side...

Our Carryall probably had 4 doors.
Photo credit: CZmarlin.
No wait! Most maps place Baghdad, Arizona, in the Mojave, and I'd been to Baghdad during field camp in '73; that was the place we'd gotten a Carryall stuck in the sand while trying to take a short cut back to Flagstaff. We weren't even supposed to have gone that way, but we'd purposefully drifted to the rear of the caravan and then left the pack. It had taken us an hour to dig out. We had finally made it back to Flag for dinner, only to find that no one had even missed us! The mishap instantly became one of the highlights of field camp, albeit one with apocryphal overtones: We exaggerated our difficulties while building road to get unstuck, we gleefully inflated the story during the two-hour drive back to Flag, and we greatly hyperbolized the event while telling the story over beers later that evening.

This little spate of reminiscing has brought me to the realization that I still don’t always think of the Mojave by its technical definition, and that in 1981 I generally thought of the Mojave as a big hot unknown encompassing the entirety of the southern California desert, or at least the part of it that lies south of the Garlock Fault. Back then I often thought that the SoCal areas north of the Garlock, including the broader Death Valley region, belonged to a kind of never-never land that should really be part of Nevada. I still often think the CA-NV border should run along the crest of the Sierra, though I’m not sure where that line should jog eastward to leave the main bulk of southern California in California, and somehow place Clark County of Nevada in SoCal.[3]  Perhaps the new border would look something like this, with the CA-NV border in white, and the southern CA border in yellow:
Google Earth image with proposed new borders.
Later in my career—later being when I worked at Former Mining Company, AKA Forminco—we, the southern explorationists of Forminco's Western District used the presence of cholla as a key factor when trying to push our district north into Nevada, as far north as the Gilbert mining district in the Monte Cristo Range northwest of Tonopah. The Nevada District had responded with uncharacteristic equanimity and had let us in, mostly because they didn't really want that part of Nevada.
Anyhow, back in the early 80s I liked placing the northern boundary of the Mojave at the Garlock Fault: It made geographic and geologic sense to me at the time, and it affirmed a feeling I had, when driving south across the Garlock, a feeling of dropping off into another, lower land. And as far as I was concerned, the eastern boundary of the Mojave was the Colorado River. My boundaries, however, held as little water as most Mojave washes—for one thing, there really isn't an elevation drop when driving south across the Garlock along U.S. 395 or S.R. 14, and even though there is quite a drop when coming into the Mojave from the west at Tehachapi, one has at that point crossed the southern Sierra Nevada, so a drop is to be expected; and for another thing, the Mojave is really defined as more of an ecologic or biologic-climatologic region than a physiographic region—and I knew that, so I always spoke of the "Mojave Desert of California" when referring broadly to all of the southern California deserts, or even those just south of the Garlock, hoping that the phrase would exonerate my technical sloppiness.[4]
Google Earth image showing part of the western Mojave, a bit of the Garlock Fault (dark blue), and U.S. 395 and S.R. 14. Ignore the road marking for 58; it is inaccurate.
This recon program was completely mine. Prior to that summer, the target areas of grass-roots ventures I'd been involved in had been at least partly chosen by others. I did the research in the spring, generating several targets across the region, from Tehachapi to Barstow to Needles[5], and I decided where to start. We'd begin in a few relatively low areas along the Colorado River—the district boundaries of NEC were such that someone else was in charge of Arizona, so like an aquaphobic saguaro in reverse, I wasn't supposed to cross the Colorado River—and we'd work our ways toward higher elevations, hoping to get ahead of the summer heat.

Because of a delayed start to my recon targeting, it was late in the field season, probably the first of June, when Allie and I finally left Reno to drive as far south as Parker, Arizona. I wondered how long we'd last down there in the heat of early summer; we knew it wasn't the most auspicious time to begin field work in the Mojave, but we hoped we could stick it out and find a property or two to stake.

My first recon program! I was both excited and apprehensive.

To be continued...


[1] Felder, Don, Henley, Don, and Frey, Glen. "Hotel California" (lyrics) perf. by the Eagles. Hotel California (album), Asylum Records, 1976.

[2] Names have been changed.

[3]Northern boundary of Southern California, at Wikipedia.

[4] In reality the Mojave Desert is an ecologic area defined by plants and climate, which extends as far north as Beatty, Nevada, and which doesn't include all of southern California's desert, because some of that area belongs to the Sonoran Desert. Whether the Whipple Mountains is in the Mojave proper seems to depend on who draws the map. These stories will take place mostly in the deserts of southern California, and I'll usually refer to that area as "the Mojave." 

[5] A target area can consist of a whole region (like the Mojave Desert itself), an entire mountain range (like the Whipple Mountains in the eastern Mojave Desert or western Sonora Desert), a large or small mining district (like the Savahia Peak area in the Whipple Mountains), or a smaller area around one old mine or prospect (like the Dollar Bill Mine on the south side of Savahia Peak.).

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