Monday, April 14, 2014

Fossil Falls, Coso

I've mentioned Fossil Falls a few times on the blog. Many of you have undoubtedly driven by the big sign on Hwy 395 while flying northward toward Mammoth, and I can appreciate that most of you didn't have the time or inclination to go explore an unknown patch of desert and had better places to be. This little post is meant to remind you that the place is worth a look. 

Fossil Falls is part of a huge lava flow which, as it cooled, formed three distinct tiers. The walk up to the rim passes through jagged lava fields and ends abruptly at a big drop. This is where the cooling flow piled up on itself. Below the rim is a jagged and polished collection of curvaceous forms, bubbled shapes, and sculpted edges. There are a couple ways to down climb into the first tier of the "falls". This short stretch descends into a widening chasm that feel much like a narrow box canyon, with the rim being 40 or so feet overhead. Walking further "downstream" one descends an easy 4th Class down climb to the lowest level 30 feet below. At this point the canyon widens dramatically and basalt shelves stack up to one's right while on the left growing towers of ferrous basalt form mesas and eroded summits. The floor of this lowest part of the canyon is pure Mojave desert, chamisa and cracked earth.

Scattered throughout the lower canyon are bits and pieces of razor sharp obsidian, evidence of the people who once inhabited the region and shaped their arrowheads, spear points, and knives from the hard, glass-like substance. I'd known there were petroglyphs somewhere in Fossil but had never really searched for them. Jack Elliott, who had accompanied me on this excursion, spotted a single panel cleverly placed on a west facing boulder. Having seen numerous petroglyphs within the Owens Valley I was a bit surprised that there weren't a lot more at Fossil Falls. My experience in the Owens has been that petroglyph sites are often huge, and may contain hundreds of elements. Not so here, but I was happy nonetheless.

Jack has written a post that may be of interest, an overview of the geology and human history of Fossil Falls. (Link)

An hour in Fossil is about all one needs to really explore the place, however there are endless opportunities to frame interesting photos. When you've got the time, take the time. It's an interesting side trip.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Chumash Rock Art: Xiphos Springs

Green is where water flows.
Following up on a hunch sometimes pays off. I once again went out on a limb, exploring one of the Corrizo's numerous canyons in an effort to discover some rock art. The day was warm, almost hot, and I descended into this narrowing slot, skirting small cliffs and side stepping yucca while keeping a wary eye out for snakes, arguing with juniper and manzanita the entire way. Vertical cliffs rose from one side of the lower portion of the canyon, dotted with small caves and undercut with cavernous mouths along it's entire base. Numerous braided animal tracks vectored down each slope of the canyon, headed toward the promise of water. Further down I wiggled into a small clearing with emerald green grasses and shady cottonwoods. Rusty nails pinned old signs to a massive tree, all lettering long since faded. Ancient pipes lay strewn about, rusted so completely as to resemble swiss cheese. I followed a small seep of water up through the grass to a silted spring box. Another old pipe, held together by mineral growths, poured a lazy flow of cool, clear water into the grass below. Sometime later, and a fair distance away from the spring, I discovered an arrowhead. Moments afterward I stumbled upon a single red pictograph unlike any I can recall seeing before. I was immediately reminded of a sword, tip down and about 24 inches in height. It stood alone, profound in it's simplicity. In an adjacent alcove I found twin rows of cupules. Sometimes a hunch pays off. 

Ever run across a crashed weather balloon?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Return to Ayers Rock, Coso Range

Deep in the Coso Range, and well detached from a low mound of boulders, can be found a single chunk of quartz monzonite, alone and aloof. Each aspect of this massive boulder is overhung, each face curving upward from the surrounding desert, reaching for azure skies. The surrounding plain is a vast, open stretch of desert, dotted with chamisa, creosote, and joshua trees. I have spent spent years of my life in such environments and effortlessly feel at home here. The smells, the qualities of the air and the light, the feel of the arid sun on my skin, it all takes me back to places and times I remember fondly. The ground beneath this boulder  is littered with shards of obsidian, evidence of prior people's tool making. Pictographs decorate the northern and southern aspect of the boulder. The latter has a large panel of pigments in red, orange, yellow, and a darker brick hue. Zoomorphs, anthropomorphs, fringes, and ladders share space with two distinct hand prints. One pictograph in particular has always left me with questions, the strange cat/squirrel figure. On the north side of the rock are clearly defined images of big horn sheep, and elk. Beside them is a row of four strange humanoid figures, and around the corner is a large lizard rendered in black. Due to the fact that painted imagery is very rare in the Coso desert, and not nearly as detailed as what can be seen here, there remains some question of who and when these pictographs were painted. One theory is that they were painted by the last weather shaman of the Kawaiisu tribe, Bob "Rabbit" Roberts, who died sometime in the first half of the 20th century. He has been suggested as the artist responsible for several several other sites in the neighboring desert as well. If Ayers is such a case, the dramatic desert setting and the obsidian leavings of "Old Ones" may have inspired such works in him. 

Bob "Rabbit" Roberts, undated.
There are numerous websites detailing Ayers Rock. A little research should point one in the right direction.

Ayers Rock

The strange cat/squirrel mentioned above. Compare this to an equally out of place petroglyph from Olowalu Canyon on Maui (below). Interesting, no?

Olowalu Canyon, Maui.

Obsidian shards, the leavings of tool making (knapping).

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Burro Schmidt, the "Human Mole"

The desert breeds it's own oddities, and the people who left them.
Enter William Henry "Burro" Schmidt. 
Schmidt was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. The year was 1871, and as he grew into a frail and small statured man, six of his brothers and sisters succumbed to tuberculosis. Fearing the same fate, Schmidt left for the hot, dry environs of California, arriving in 1894 at the age of twenty three. He prospected in the mountains of Kern County, eventually filing claims in the desolate El Paso mountains northeast of Mojave, CA. Here he set about his life's work, and here Schmidt's story gets incredibly weird.

Schmidt started mining, boring horizontally into a dirt capped mountain deep in the middle of egypt (a 4,400' elevation mound in the El Pasos). In short order he encountered the solid bedrock under the mountain, bullet proof grey Kern granite. He must have encountered a couple veins of gold early on, or at least produced ore that assayed well because he kept at it, tunneling deeper into the mountain.
But Schmidt had a problem, he didn't have a way to get his ore to the nearest smelters. At that time there were no roads by which he could transport the ore to Mojave or Gorlock (20 miles away) where his ore could be processed, and the only route out of the mountains travelled through a treacherous canyon. At this point Schmidt had few options. He had ore with gold in it, but no way to turn that into money. In this light one might understand how these circumstances could have led Schmidt to do what came next. The year was 1906.

At some point, presumably after frustrations with transporting his ore, Schmidt declared that he would continue tunneling straight through the mountain until he reached the other side. In this way he would devise his own bypass to the problem. So that's what he did.

Schmidt must have been a site to behold. He lived alone but for the company of two burros. He recycled the tins from his provisions to resole his shoes. His clothes were patched with burlap sacks. His cabin was a one room shanty with two windows, a door, and a secondhand hand wood burner which served to heat both the room and his food. The shack, which still exists, was insulated on the inside with old newspapers, magazines, cardboard from foodstuffs, and holiday cards, all of which were tacked to the walls and ceiling to keep the heat in and the wind out. Most of these publications still remain in situ, many of which date back to the Great Depression.

Schmidt had no formal training in either prospecting or mine construction. He didn't use any of the standard mining tools of the day, which would have included compressed air drills and jacks. Instead, he used only a pick, a shovel, a 4 pound hammer and a hand drill. On granite. Which is just ridiculous. Later, after the mine and tunnel were underway, he began to use dynamite, again without a lick of experience or training. He came to the conclusion that short fuses save money, and would run out of the mine like the devil rode his heels every time he touched one off. On multiple occasions he showed up at neighboring mine camps injured, indicating he'd either cut the fuse too short or hadn't run fast enough. Probably both. Schmidt was so frugal (a synonym for "broke") that when the cost of kerosine for his single lantern rose, he would continue his work using only one two-cent candle per day. He survived numerous cave-ins during the excavation of his tunnel. Fortunately the shaft ran through solid granite because all indications are that he was too cheap to have purchased the timbers to properly shore up a less stable tunnel. He transported his ore out of the tunnel on his back before getting a wheelbarrow. Eventually he built a rail track and obtained a single ore cart.

In the 1920s a road was constructed through the nearby Last Chance Canyon which allowed an easy, downhill route into the desert. At last Burro Schmidt could safely transport the fruits of his labors. Here's where reality becomes weirder than fiction. Schmidt, in his fifties by this time, and having tested his luck well beyond reasonable limits, should have settled down and started mining like it ought to be done. Nope. What makes Schmidt so perplexing as a human, and legendary in his time, is that he just continued doing what he'd decided he was going to do, digging his tunnel. His is an example where reasoned, rational intent does not conform to logic. Crazy as a soup sandwich.

By the time Schmidt saw daylight at the opposite end of his tunnel he was 67 years old. The year was 1938, and he had worked on his tunnel for 32 years. The tunnel was nearly 2,500 feet in length and he had removed roughly 5,800 tons of granite. As for the tunnel, he never did use it to move ore to Mojave or anywhere else, and upon it's completion he sold the tunnel to another miner, Mike Lee, and moved elsewhere in the El Pasos. He died in 1954 at the age of 83 and is buried nearby in the desert town of Johannesburg. He was quoted as saying, "I never made a damn thing out of it". In a monetary sense that statement may be true, but the irony is that his tunnel, bored through solid granite, will probably outlast many of the other monuments men have created for themselves. Ripley's Believe It Or Not named Schmidt "the Human Mole", and stated of Schmidt's tunnel that it was "the greatest one-man mining achievement in history".

If you just have to see this for yourself, here's the means to do so. One almost certainly needs a high clearance vehicle, and 4-wheel would be best. 
 The tunnel can be reached via CA Rte 14. There is a single sign on the northbound side of the road. A dirt track turns southeast into the desert, and it can feel like a long drive. The area is popular with the OHV crowd so respect them and drive with your lights on. There are many other canyons and mines in the immediate area which we didn't have the time to explore. As for the tunnel, I intend to return and walk it's entire length, just for the sake of having done so.

Evelyn "Tonie" Seger (left). Her husband, Milo Seger, purchased the property (including the tunnel) at a Bakersfield probate court in 1963, sight unseen, for $5,000. After Milo passed, Tonie continued living at the remote desert site, treating visitors and passers by to tours and historical tales of the region. She had a reputation for being the nicest lady. Tonie passed away in that desert place at the age of 95 in 2003.

Walt Bickel, another Depression era miner who's nearby encampment (Bickel Camp) is also open to exploration. There is a collection of old cars, buildings, and mine equipage there. He passed away in 2004.

This placard sits beside the entrance to Schmidt's tunnel.

The view from Tonie's cabin.
The following are photos of Schmidt's one-room shack. Many of the publications and labels he used to insulate the shack remain in place, tacked to the walls and ceiling. In one sense this room is quite the time capsule. For me, seeing just this room was worth the drive.
Schmidt's original one-room shack.

Note the National Recovery Administration logo below the heading. The NRA was one of Roosevelt's most successful programs of the Great Depression.

Boots and business cards.

Tonie Seger's house.