Saturday, April 26, 2008

Owlshead Mountains & Mt. Washington

I've made an armchair expedition today, with the help of Google given the fact that oil prices, a heat wave, my often remarked sun sensitivity, probably a four-hour drive one-way, no vehicle worthy of the trek, and lack of cash all prevent me from venturing to these barren expanses myself. But, as when I was a teenager, poring over maps of San Bernardino County's deserts eccentrically inspired my imagination. We form, I read, a deep attachment to a spot that we saw, maybe only on an outing, as a child, and no matter the mundane reality, this setting lingers in our soul.

Wandering with the help of photos on the Net (see below for two of the area I write about now) and charts makes it a wonderful way to vicariously roam while saving the toll on Mother Earth. Maybe too it's her way of warning us that our footprints, carbon or tread, have left too many paths that time cannot erode, and that we need to cut back our manifest destinies so as to ensure our survival in more humble manner? Or, as many jeeps and 4WD's will still pummel the desert floor despite my own retreat from that fray, will my stance matter? As with recycling, you do pause when so many around you toss into the trash next to you what a few more steps urges you to dispose and renew. But, the green part of me hopes that more people pause before their thoughtless behavior endangers our future. This may be the upside to energy costs, although I doubt if many Indians or Chinese, let alone most of my neighbors, care much about Earth Day. Perhaps more of us will be vacationing this cyber-friendly way as fuel rises, incomes stagnate, and roadtrips for many of us become luxuries rather than impulses? Wasn't it in "Soylent Green" where the man dies as he sees on the big screen panoramas of a natural world long despoiled?

Maps always spark my dreams of travel away from the smog that comes with such urban destruction. I too long for escape-- even a lazy stick-in-the-mud who longs to retire not to the oasis but the fog. I loved Mojave placenames left by miners and railroaders. And, as I like owls, here's the best of all: "the curious twin basins on the southwest edge of Death Valley, which appear to form the eyes and face of an owl, gave rise to their current name, the Owlshead Mountains." (Richard Lingenfelter, "Death Valley & The Amargosa": 83).

Intrigued by the owl shapes, I have tried to find a suitable image of the aerial terrain that allows me to pinpoint the avian features projected by wishful men upon indifferent shrugs of tectonic nature. There's places with this name in (at least) New York, West Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Nova Scotia. Google Maps does not help much for California; there's no image I can find on-line of the sketch that christened the Owlsheads that Lingenfelter reproduces in his history on pg. 84. That survey done in 1856 and published the next year would be the first for the newish state of California establishing its borders with Nevada-- in hindsight all the more necessary given the Comstock Lode sparked a rush in 1859. Claims would soon matter much to another new rival state.

The map done by William Denton's crew chops up the owl image since any level ground's erased of features. More about that in a moment. The topographical-like maps I can locate show, oddly, "Owl's Head" immediately north of a double ring of "eyes" that to me look more like twin orbs. Not so much a couple of basins to me as a pair of circular peaks. Perhaps the lack of mapping accounts for present-day border disputes and another century's realities of the importance of deserts for more than gold. Back neatly, in a recursive hell that brings the wheel spinning back to apocalyptic prophets and pious assassins from another continent's pitiless buttes. Coincidentally, where we also find oil-- spinning into the RVs and dune buggies that crawl about the grit and dust today. Yesterday a hulking pick-up cut me off as I tried to enter a treacherous and poorly signed freeway onramp. The back of the glittering black truck had an enormous sticker: "Glamis." It's the endangered sand dunes near the Chocolate (another great title) Mountains in the Imperial Valley, which attract heaps of emissions, stink, and trash. That's only the drivers. Apropos, there's an "Owlshead Mountains Aerial Bombardment" facility listed, at the lowest end of the Panamints at the southwest corner of the National Park, north of the Marine base at Ft. Irwin where tanks prepare for combat in another arid latitude of dust and grit across the globe.

About the place, well, it's desolate. The Panamints seem quite barren, and early travellers recount how they rose to eleven thousand feet above a depression, in more ways than one, nearly three hundred feet below sea level. The exaggerated contrast, heightened by the snow that sat on the top of Telescope Peak and the two-thousand foot fingers of stone called The Minarets, must have disheartened many lost pioneers. But, as the photographs credited below also show, in the snatches of spring that the area enjoys, wildflowers soften the plains and ease the glare. A "vision quest" (I wonder what the Shoshone and Paiute there think of such pilgrims) has been logged on the Net as one man's encounter with the area, Off-roaders share their trails-- the map link gives a NGS map of the one-way road into the area; the military apparently controls the rest of the region, although part of the Owlsheads have recently been added to the park. Not that far away, news last month of investigations at Manson's '69 hideout (pre-infamy) at Barker Ranch in the canyon and possible leads for more bodies buried out there in the empty lands raises the specter of madness that accompanied so many taletellers who left this place, or pretended to have entered it! Saltpeter, it appears, firing up greenish spontaneously at night on the floor of Death Valley, is to blame.

So, not only New Agers but insane messiahs seem to have a short shelf-life left out here in unforgiving territory. Surveyors in 1856-57 drew optimistic "township lines" that showed farming or ranching plots-- I suppose wherever the ground was flat enough. Why? The maps were not at fault, but if you look at them, you see they leave numbered squares across any place where no elevation's highlighted. Even the owl is half-drawn. The rest of his head's a tidy grid on featureless white. A developer's dream, and a mapper's profit, but an explorer's shortchange and a government's defrauding. The cartographers were paid by how many of these wide acres they subdivided. Similar to the robber barons today who buy untouched hills, draw up plans for housing tracts in pristine open space, and then sell the land at inflated values to the nature conservancies that we taxpayers foot the bill for.

Lingenfelter explains that this practice led to suspicion of these maps. Salt flats, sand dunes, and mountainsides "so steep and rugged a man could hardly climb up them." Same problem today where I live near the lower slope of Mt. Washington (all of 800 feet!). There are "paper streets" on older maps of the neighborhood for homes and roads that would have to defy gravity, but unfortunately we have technology today able to cantilever and blast our way vertically, like goats.

Although the bulldozer replaced dynamite (a recent invention around the mid-nineteenth century, I suppose, by Alfred Nobel). So, at least until for me the welcome collapse of the housing bubble, it became not only feasible but, given inflation affordable, for speculators to tear up vertical rocky outcrops and wrench holes deep enough to plunk concrete blocks with windows. Three of these monoliths (one on a triple lot at thrice the size) have been erected around me the past three years, so I have reason for frustration.

To ease my edge, I can look at these photographs. Q.T. Luong, whose pinkish Panamint Range vista I included on this blog last week, here has another shot with flowers:Butte and Owlshead Mountains. Ron Niebrugge has his shot that I post, looking south, and perhaps I conjure owlish eyes on the foothills, of Hairy Desert Sunflower and Owlshead Mountains, from Ashford Mill, Death Valley. TrekNow has a good map of the general road, but the more fanciful viewer cannot make out the underlying roll of the birdland well. Map of Owlshead Mountain Trail. Finally, an article from BioEd Online: "Owl's Ears Map the World"

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