Winter 2013-14 Mojave Lake

29 Jan 2013

Traveling

Today, I leave Quartzite with a mix of feelings. This is the longest I’ve ever stayed in one spot. It’s the longest I’ve ever stayed without Karin. It has become a kind of de-facto “home”, but I’m ready for other adventures. I’m eager and un-dismayed as I travel out I-10 to the west and turn right up CA95 northbound.

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This is a much more scenic section of road than AZ95, 20 miles east (but a bit longer too). It occasionally flirts with the Colorado River, and then scurries away again.

The highway engineers didn’t spend a lot of money gouging out the land; the road pretty much follows the terrain. This results in a dip-and-swell pathway that undulates across the broad plain sloping down to the Colorado. The low areas are, of course, drainages, which serve as flash flood corridors during the rare heavy rainfall. To keep the roadway working, there are these protective aprons on the downstream side of every “valley”.

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A ways up CA95, Wilson Road announces its “river crossing”. Here, an unassuming farm road bridges the river with no fanfare or signage, just a banal guardrail and some phone poles. The mighty Colorado, which carved out the fabulous Grand Canyon, and whose roaring rapids have cost hundreds of lives and still challenge today’s adventurers – – this river docilely flows like an irrigation canal, under a plain overpass, with scarcely a ripple, past ordinary farm and field. Some local guy drives by while I’m taking the picture, and looks at me a bit quizzically. Dumb tourist.

Lost and Found in Needles

The town of Needles is roughly halfway between Quartzite and Las Vegas, and rather than zip on by, I decide to see what gas costs, and maybe find a spot to eat lunch. Historically, I’ve found Needles to have really pricey gas, so I’m watching carefully, noting that I paid (in Arizona with a lesser gas tax) 3.15 for my last fill. Off of CA95 as it crosses I-40, holy crap but there’s a Chevron station proudly advertising 4.47 !!!!! This nearly 50% increase qualifies as a fiscal obscenity.

Since I still have over ½ tank and only 100 miles or so to Vegas, I pass on by, and elect to take the business route and check out the town a little bit. I’m navigating from memory, and I (mistakenly) head in the direction of Bullhead City (when I really want to go to Searchlight). Unbeknownst to me, this has me wandering in and out of Arizona, California, and Nevada all within a few miles driving. So, blandly, I turn a corner and find, not only a Mobile with 3.59 gas (zounds!!), but a local taqueria which turns out to have absolutely superb carnitas tacos (and huge to boot).

With rotund belly, I chug away from my gas/food stop and head out to Bullhead City. I am nearly tearing a shoulder ligament patting myself on the back for my wise decision and good fortune. As I proudly proceed, I pass over a large irrigation canal (which was actually the Colorado and the AZ border). On the far side is an Arco station selling gas for 2.95. This cannot be. I realize that prices like this are only to be found in Arizona, that I’ve crossed its border, and that (gee, Mr. Wizard) I’m actually NOT headed toward Searchlight, Nevada.

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One of the things about towing a toad is that you don’t get to make those multi-point turns in the middle of the roadway. A U-turn is the only option, and it’s not okay to think you can make one and then discover you can’t. If you make such a mistake, you must stop all traffic on the road you chose, while you get out and disconnect the toad, then drive both vehicles to the side of the road. This can be really challenging when you have two people to work the problem. When you’re traveling alone, you just REALLY don’t want to get caught this way.

So, I drive up the road until there’s a generously wide area to make the U-turn. Then, casually looking for I-40 signs to get me back to CA95, I motor back through Needles. Somewhere, I unknowingly miss a turn, and I end up at the far edge of a residential neighborhood staring an 8-foot clearance sign in the face (Howie is 12 feet tall). Fortunately, I find a dirt driveway, vacant lot, farm field maintenance road, and another dirt driveway, all of which delivers us back to the wrong road, in the opposite direction. We manage to find I-40, and eventually CA95 toward Searchlight.

Lake Mohave

(How do you know whether to use a J or an H to spell Mojave/Mohave?) Lake Mead, as most people know, was created by Hoover Dam. Lake Mohave (less well known) was created by Davis Dam. Both of them used to be just sections of the Colorado River. Mohave is down southeast of Las Vegas, and is not heavily populated or visited, although it does have its heavy seasons. I figured, with the summer heat, winter would be a high season. Wrong.

I turn right off the busy NV95 out of Searchlight, headed toward Cottonwood Cove. About a mile east of town, aliens from another galaxy unleash the Kryptotron Annihilraytor – – this powerful beam eradicates all human life by turning bodies into air. There is no person, vehicle, or human presence of any kind evident in the next 14 miles. The entrance station is mute and closed.

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Farther on, a ranger station has two vehicles outside, but no signs of life. I knock on the door, and a burly 6’2” Ranger answers and asks if he can help me. I ask him how he survived the death ray. Well, no, actually I ask him for local information, which he cheerfully provides. He clearly is unaware that all human life except the two of us has been extinguished.

I get a map from the Ranger, and also information that the high season is summer. I’m confused about this, because I thought people avoided being outside in the southern Nevada summer. But apparently there is a population of crazy types (the Ranger rolls his eyes with the telling) who make his life adventurous mid-year. In fact, when I’m asking him about “ranger stuff”, he offers that his installation is not really a Ranger Station (despite map markings), but that it’s really “law enforcement”. He’s basically an NPS cop keeping the rowdies in line.

Out of Touch

There are a lot of choices to stay in this area, but most are out on dirt roads which are questionable for Howie. It’s late in the day, and the rec-area campground costs my senior self only $5, so I park for the night. Ralph and I will explore other opportunities tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the campground host (136 sites, 5 campers to take care of) lets me know that “one or two bars” of cell phone coverage are available if I just walk that path, climb that hill, cross my fingers and hold my tongue right. I try all these things, and I manage to get a minimal phone call into Karin to tell her why she can’t reach me for a couple of days.

It’s evening-time, and the low sun is reddening the sky above the marina’s twinkling lights. Winds have died off, the water is calm, and the ordinary scene becomes remarkable for a few minutes’ twilight.

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30 January 2013

 

Exploration

After a leisurely breakfast, and long, relaxed chat with Bill, the camp host, Ralph and I take off for parts unknown. We have a crummy black/white grainy map, which shows roads not depicted on the Benchmark pages, and some of the roads look interesting.

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On the way out of camp, a pedestrian starts across the road, and I wait. It’s a brown tarantula, a plain homely cousin of the flamboyant Mexican Redleg that we all shriek at in the horror movies. For all you arachnophobes, let me assure you that tarantulas are among the most primitive, and benign, of poisonous spiders. They have very mild venom, and their fangs, although larger than a house cat’s claws, are not even hollow, but simply grooved. They must be severely provoked to give a human a bite. Other spiders of the world can create a (human) response anywhere from a red spot to a corpse. Ask some Australians about spiders in their country, scary. But here – – they look worse than they really are.

Anyway, it takes Mr. Furry about two minutes to cross the road, and I am enjoying it. Neither of us are in a hurry.

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Ralph rolls nimbly over several of the back-country roads. Cottonwood Cove was named by an early Colorado River explorer – – the cottonwoods were all later burned for steamboat firewood, or drowned by the dammed river. Today, the only non-desert plants were ones I left behind at the (irrigated) campground. Out here, besides the ubiquitous mesquite, sage, and such standard desert fare, there are prickly pear, barrel cactus, and cholla.

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Here’s a closeup of the previously-mentioned spines on the barrel cactus. These are unbelievably sharp; they make a sewing needle seem like a dull butter knife. If you inadvertently bang up against a spine, it will go into your flesh ½ inch before you even begin to feel it. Nurses who give shots should get syringes made with hollow versions of these spines; you’d never know you had an injection.

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The cholla (pronounced “choya”) is a spiny cactus with scores of varietal species. This one is the teddy-bear cholla, named for its furry appearance. Nothing could be further from the truth. The teddy-bear cholla, and other chollas as well, have spines which are equipped with microscopically barbed sheaths. You can’t see these even in an extreme macro close-up shot. The spines are made un-removeable by these barbs. Once in, they don’t come out. They break off instead, no matter how carefully you try to pluck them out. This goes for skin, clothing, shoes, even tires sometimes.

clip_image024clip_image026This demonic plant was clearly spawned by the Devil himself; God would never have included it, no matter how much he wished to challenge his creations. It also has the endearing quality of propagation by segment – – pieces of it break off, roll across the ground, and start new plants where they come to rest. That “rolling across the ground” is significant, because anything they roll into in this journey gets – – you guessed it – – stuck. My personal experience with this cactus-from-hell is that the spines simply can never be removed. You just suffer with a constant stabbing until your skin develops a sort of callus around the spine segment. Then, like fingernails, your skin slowly grows out, replacing the outer dead layer. This takes about two weeks before the sensation of having a permanent splinter abates.

Stay away. Be afraid.

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Many of the roads end at the lake. It’s unclear whether camping is officially tolerated here or not (“designated campground” is not defined), since there are fire rings, but no signage. But in any event, the roads are rough and long, quite a workout for Howie. I’m content to visit with Ralph, at least for now.

This road’s end was a brushy shoreline, not particularly picturesque.

Visible beneath the water were old fire rings and tire tracks; the lake’s level fluctuates with climate, water demand, and even fish habitat management. It is fast enough to require adjustment of the marina docks once or twice a day – – and to trap a camper parked too close to the water’s edge.

High above the camp, a 300-foot climb yields one bar of text only. Cell towers are almost 20 miles away in either east or west locations. I send Karin an “I love you” text and head back to Howie for dinner.

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Later, the camp host (lower left in the picture) makes a campfire, nice eucalyptus logs burning merrily, and a few folks gather to chat and chuckle.

Campfires bring out the stories in everyone, and we all have a good time sharing life’s more noteworthy experiences.

With only modest encouragement, I break out the guitar and pluck a few tunes. We all have a good time mixing music and conversation, but eventually the fire can’t keep my fingers warm enough to play anymore.

I keep rotating the Taylor so as not to get one side too much warmer than the other. We all trade a few more anecdotes, and then call it a night.

The stars are not competing with the late-rising moon tonight, and the sky is ink-black from horizon to horizon. Orion beams down on us like brilliant diamonds, and the rest of the sky sparkles as only a dark desert night can do.

Life is good.

31 January 2013

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My next planned port-of-call (family in Las Vegas) has been attacked by the flu bug, and I’m deeply hoping not to contract it. I had the flu about 3 years ago, and I remember the misery still. I still plan to visit, but clearly at arm’s length and trying not to breath the same air. Today, I drive casually around the area, watching my phone for those sought-after telltale bars of antenna activity. I get about halfway to Searchlight, never finding more than 2 bars of anything from the east or the west. On the way, this lofty estate poses against the far ridgeline. He must be able to see to Las Vegas.

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I manage to make a call and check on the plague-house; it’s probably safe to visit, with appropriate precautions (a hermetically sealed bubble would work). So I’m headed there tomorrow.

clip_image042The rest of the day is spent in leisurely exploration and relaxation (I keep reminding myself I’m retired now). I check out the Marina, where the houseboat fleet is ready for the coming season.

Look! it’s a two-lane dock! No, just an old one being replaced by the new.

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Up in the trailer park, the single-wides almost universally have a boat or jet-ski parked under their carport. Must be quite a race-track out there in season – – but for my two days here, I’ve seen not a single boat of any kind on the water.

A late lunch (early dinner?) offers me the opportunity to present photographic proof, that bachelors can (at times) actually take care of themselves – – at least temporarily. Grilled chicken, grilled swiss-cheese quesadilla, Dijon mixed-green salad, and a fine cup of Starbucks (Via) for dessert. Ahhhhh.

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This afternoon, after a strenuous day of marathon relaxation, my usually-stratospheric blood pressure checks in at a zen-like 104/72.

Last Night at Cottonwood

Tonight should be another campfire night, wind permitting. The two (only) guys in camp at this time are from far walks of life, compared to my own social circle (engineers and other misfits). Bill, the camp host, is an ex-firefighter captain, 40 years with Cal Fire in northern California, working all over the place from Los Gatos to Alturas. Used to ride helicopters in and out of Lexington helipad, 5 miles from our house. Rich, in a modest mini-class-C motorhome, hails from New York and then Idaho, with a 40-year background in environmental consultation, mostly for large power companies. Rich used to wear a tyvex suit and help with HAZWOPR (hazardous waste operations) cleanups. He also helped to figure out how power and water companies could remove 18”-thick mussel infestations from inside their 10’-diameter water conduits.

The cool thing about hanging with old farts such as myself is the wealth of experience that comes into even the most casual conversations. Campfire chats are worlds apart from Silicon Valley lunch conversations. For me, it’s a very rich experience, and this evening looks to be a good one as well.

At first, Bill and I are alone, and we relax and rake over some of our pet peeves (mostly having to do with bureaucracy, governments, and liberals) while we dodge the campfire smoke. Later, another camp couple joins us, the fire settles down to a cheery blaze, and the evening continues to deliver its promise. I pull out the Taylor, tune it up, and (my voice is desert-dry and my range a half-tone low) produce some of my best work, if I do say so myself. The audience is sincerely appreciative and I earn my glass of wine.

The couple heads off to their campsite, and Bill and I do one last warming before leaving the fire. Then the ghost shows up again.

 

Fireside Fox

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The ghost had flitted by earlier, but was just one of those glimmers in the peripheral vision. We thought we saw something, a gray shadow the color of the ground, about the size of a cat, spooking past the camp but very close. But we weren’t really sure. Not a whisper of sound issued despite its speed and agility. A chimera in the night.

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Then, when Bill and I are alone, he shows up a little less stealthily, and we watch the pale shadow sneak over to the dog’s bowl looking for treats, then dart back into the blackness. We can barely see him, in close in the dark below the firelight, but there he is, taking a nibble and retreating, then coming back for another look.

This is SO cool, and we watch him for several minutes before I take the chance to try to get a snapshot. Amazingly, the Droid flash doesn’t seem to bother him, and I get several pics (albeit of pretty crummy quality).

Seeing real wildlife up so close, no cages or bars, especially elusive wildlife like a desert fox, is such a special, privileged, charming experience – – it’s difficult to describe the feeling of having received such a very special, exclusive gift.

Did I mention that life is good?

Human Resilience

In my chats with Bill, I learn something of his life besides his career as a fireman. He owned a 160-acre ranch in Oregon, had a loved and loving wife, was healthy, fit, and trim from his ranching and firefighting existence. In the early 2000’s, they were made a 3-million dollar cash offer for the ranch, but they loved it so much they declined. Both of them felt they’d live there to the end of their days.

Sadly, Bill’s dad had lived a horrible, troubled life, in and out of mental institutions. In 2000, after a brief conversation with his dad, Bill told his mother that his dad had become extremely dangerous and that she should absolutely stay away from him. His mom felt that his dad would stay calm and behaved, as long as she was with him. When she went to where he was, he shot her, and then himself. Bill’s family blamed him for not keeping them separated.

A few years later, Bill was bitten by a tick and contracted Lyme’s disease. He was able to survive it, barely, but insurance ran out and so did their savings. They could no longer afford to run or keep the ranch, so they tried to re-engage the big-money offer. But the investor had by then become leery of the real estate market, and deferred.

The ranch was on the market for 4 continually declining years, and was finally sold for a pittance, scarcely more than what was owed on it.

Then, in 2006, with Bill still battling through the recovery from Lyme’s, his dear wife contracted leukemia. She was dead in 4 months. Bill now lives in a 19-foot travel trailer and drives a several-year-old Dodge pickup to pull it around the country. He stays in volunteer locations when he can (free camp site and utilities) and lives on the cheap when he can’t.

I sit by the campfire, listening with a tear in my eye, and I can hardly believe the string of hardships. What’s more, I’ve spent two evenings talking and joking with one of the most happy and contented people I’ve met in quite a while. So I say to Bill, “Man, you’ve had a few pretty big jolts in your life….” by way of purposefully massive understatement. He gives me a little grin and responds simply,

“I’m still here”.

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