We set off Friday morning with the Jeep Liberty loaded to its max for a three day trip with the Desert Explorers group from the Mojave River Valley Museum. We would all meet Friday evening in Shoshone, north of Baker. The itinerary sounded interesting and varied, but since this was our first trip with this group we didn't know quite what to expect. On our way to Shoshone we stopped at the little cemetery at the site of Silver Lake. The local sheriff's deputy pulled in behind us and proceeded to tell us about an old cabin near a mine in the Silurian Hills. We took the bait instantly and set off for a nice adventure. On our way we passed the site of Riggs, a station on the old Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. A large can dump, a cement slab, a cistern, the mangled carcass of an old car, and other poignant reminders of an earlier era surfaced as we walked. As we approached the Silurian Hills, the tell tale signs of a mine appeared, and rounding a ridge we found the cabin! Visitors were welcome to spend the night or several days. All that was asked was to sign the log and do what could be done to help preserve this rare treat. The mine itself proved worthy of exploration and some nice quartz crystals turned up. Since gold was mined in that area we presumed that this was also a gold mine.
Back on the pavement, we rolled on up to Shoshone and had an early dinner at the Crowbar. It was here that we met Al, one of the members of the Desert Explorers. Although an older gentleman, he was fit, funny, and up for anything. We gave him the nickname of "Where am I Al" due to his humorous lapses of memory, probably caused by having experienced twice as much as most people! We found the campsite in the picturesque Castles in Clay area and met the two Allans. Our colorful and eminently qualified leaders were Dr. Allan Schoenherr, author of A Natural History of California, and Alan Romspert (henceforth known as Roms) of the California State University Desert Studies Consortium. These two raconteurs were worth their weight in gold! Also joining us around sunset were Sue, Bob and Toby the desert dog. Our personal nickname for Bob became "I've been there Bob" simply because he has literally been everywhere! He and Sue continually provided great background information on virtually any area that anyone mentioned. We set up our tent, explored some of the dugouts, hunted along the Amargosa for pupfish, and generally enjoyed the sunset. The full moon and substantial campfire, coupled with an amazing amount of wine, had everyone in a good mood and ready for tomorrow's adventures.
The rattle of a Diesel truck with a license plate that read DTH VLY woke us up on Saturday morning. It was Ken Lengner, a geologist and author of a marvelous book titled Death Valley's Titus Canyon Area. Ken lives in Shoshone and Allan and Roms had recruited him to be our guide this morning. Adjacent to an old mining area, Ken pointed out to us some amazing tracks. These fossil footprints record the passage of mastodons, horses, camels, dogs, and California lions. The low angle of the sun really helped to bring out the prints. Casts have been taken and can be seen at the museum in Shoshone. From the trackways it was a short hop to the area where the Irish miners dug their homes under a tufa cap and into the side of a wash. This area is now known as Dublin City, and shows just how resourceful the old miners were. Some of the "homes" are quite elaborate and fun to explore. Before leaving us, Ken took us east on Highway 178 for a look at a very complex geologic process that has resulted in a spectacular enigma. A jet black seam bordered by browns and tans seared its way up the road cut. From a distance it looks almost like coal, but it isn't. Up close it almost looks like obsidian , but it isn't quite that, either. What it really is is still open to conjecture. But we all agreed that it was an amazing sight!
As Ken returned to Shoshone, the Desert Explorers headed to China Ranch for a date shake before the trek to the southern Nopah Range and its mines. Roms entertained us at China Ranch by walloping the rather aggressive horse flies and then pointing out interesting anatomical parts such as their proboscis. Our first mine in the Nopahs was the War Eagle. The ore loading structure was in great condition, but it was the tunnel, complete with tracks and lots of machinery in the side tunnels, that captured our fancy. As mine explorers we received low grades. Flashlights had been forgotten, batteries went dead, and Allan complained about the poor light output from his flashlight until he realized he still had his sunglasses on! However, we all had a great time. The Columbia Mine was noteworthy because of the huge old engine with the enormous flywheel that still reigned supreme over the ruins. And then it was on to my favorite, the Noonday Mine. The long ore chute terminated at what was then the track way of the T&T Railroad. Of course that is gone now, but period pictures show the scene as it once was. There were plenty of ruins of timber and stone dwellings, and can and bottle dumps littered the landscape. Several intact bottles were discovered, admired, and returned so that others could have the same experience of bringing history to life. As the sun dropped lower in the sky we circled the mountain and ended up at the backdoor to the War Eagle Mine. Apparently it's possible to follow the tunnels completely through the mountain and come out on the other side! As our group pulled up to the adit, we met a group that had spent three and a half hours trying to find the right combination of tunnels. They blamed their failure to find the through route on the complicated multi-levels found inside the mountain. We set up camp near the tunnel and relaxed with a beautiful sunset, another full moon, a sumptuous meal around a great fire, and, again, a surprising amount of wine! No wonder everyone slept so well!
Sunday morning found our little caravan crawling up toward Tecopa Pass. As we gained elevation the plants became more varied. Yucca, barrel cactus, stag horn cholla and the elusive nolina dotted the landscape. I serenaded Niki with the hastily composed lyrics, "Nothing could be fine-ah than to see a big nolina in the mor or orrr ning!" Thank goodness the windows were up! At one of our stops Roms conducted an olfactory trick or treat session by finding some very smelly plants. We sampled turpentine broom and turpentine brush, both with strong citrus overtones; followed by linear leafed golden bush, with its resinous Christmas tree smell. The rabbitbush along the road was playing host to bees, and Niki captured some nice shots of feral honeybees and solitary carpenter bees loading up on pollen. Just over the summit was Horsethief Springs, an oasis of plants, trees, quail and just about everything else one could imagine. The water was flowing freely as we explored the vandalized cabin and Allan explained the relationship between the datura plant and the sphinx moth. Wow! I sure learned a lot!
After a short descent, we made a right turn onto the Heritage Trail, which follows Kingston Wash back to Highway 127. After a lunch break under the willows we were treated to a spectacular display of dirt throwing by Allan's truck as he hit a patch of soft earth while not in four wheel drive. As the dust settled, he backed up, got the right levers pulled, and with all the wheels working together this time made it through. We all signed the Heritage Trail log. Roms said it all with, "We came, we stank, we left." Coyote Holes seep had a nice flock of quail which took flight as we approached, and Kingston Spring, now devoid of the old ranch house and bunk house which burned down, was still verdant and the hangout of a dainty dragonfly. The final stretch to the highway took us past the can dump at the old T&T station of Valjean. And then it was over.
We lingered to say our goodbyes before switching from dirt to asphalt . The comradeship forged through this adventure made it difficult to go our separate ways. We hope that we can share a campfire again soon. Thanks to all for a memorable experience!