Archive for February, 2018

Death Valley

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

In these days of global warming, I thought I’d visit the hottest place on earth….. (although obviously arranging to do so in winter, rather than summer!). The current record-holder is a 1913 reading in Furnace Creek, California — within Death Valley — where it reached 134.1 degrees F (56.7 degrees C) on July 10th of that year. There was a slightly hotter reading in Libya in 1922, but that was decertified by the World Meteorological Organization a few years ago. Although some folks dispute the Death Valley reading as well, any place that has 154 consecutive days above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C) — as happened in 2001 — gets pretty damn hot!

Salt flats at Badwater basin

I headed over from Owens Lake (see posting below) to catch the sites. Not only is Death Valley the hottest place on earth, it is also the lowest & driest of all the U.S. National Parks. Badwater basin marks the lowest point in North America, at 86 meters (282 ft.) below sea level, and the salt flats there — making the water undrinkable — gave the place its name.

Zabriskie Point is another well-known Death Valley landmark…. & I’m old enough to remember the controversial 1970 movie with the same name. That movie offered a European view of American violence, capitalism (paving the desert with housing developments) and the 1960s counterculture…. made by a highly-regarded Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni. I had never seen it, & decided to check it out — knowing in advance that its young protagonists used Zabriskie Point to do what young protagonists often do in Italian movies. Despite such promising themes; and despite Sam Shepard being listed as a contributing screen writer; and despite an early (un-credited) appearance by Harrison Ford in a prison lockup scene (although I couldn’t find him); and despite the film now having a certain, limited ‘cult’ status…. I’m more inclined to agree with the critic who wrote: “the worst film ever made by a director of genius.”

But I’ll admit that the scenery in it — both the movie & reality — is stunning!

Zabriskie Point

Finally, my thinking about Death Valley has been influenced — like so many other Americans — by Death Valley Days, a TV western (& Ronald Reagan’s last acting gig), that was sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax (a cleanser). The history of collecting & processing borate crystals in Death Valley is somewhat complicated, but two things caught my attention: first, the Harmony Borax Works was an early operation, and its relics are still evident in Furnace Creek (see photo below). It pioneered the use of 20 mule teams to haul the product to the rail junction at Mojave, and that later became a major marketing feature for its successors; and second, not surprisingly, Harmony & other firms had trouble finding recruits to work in the blistering temperatures in Death Valley….. & so they ended up relying upon Chinese laborers. There’s a picture of Chinese workers raking borax from the Valley floor at Harmony in the 1892, and that’s also how nearby China Lake (home of the Rhode Island-sized Naval Air Weapons Station) got its name.

Harmony Borax Works and 20 Mule Team wagons

Owens Valley

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Those are the memorable last lines of the movie Chinatown, a 1974 fictionalized account of the early 1900s ‘California water wars,’ when Los Angeles surreptitiously acquired land and water rights in the Owens Valley (running along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains). The city then built an engineering marvel — a 233-mile aqueduct to take that Owens water down to L.A. William Mulholland, the project’s chief engineer, was called ‘Hollis Mulwray’ in the movie — and was quickly bumped off. In real life, however, he lived a much longer life (79 years), and is best known for being the namesake of L.A.’s Mulholland Drive.

Given recent visits to Southern California and my ‘engineering tourist’ proclivities noted in earlier postings, it’s probably not surprising that I’ve wanted to check things out — & so, in addition to re-watching Chinatown, I picked up a copy of Les Standiford’s Water to the Angels and Marc Reisner’s modern classic Cadillac Desert, and headed over to L.A. on HNC’s semester break.

After stopping at scenic overlooks on Mulholland Drive, I made my way to The Cascades in the San Fernando Valley — a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark marking the aqueduct’s terminus, where 40,000 people gathered in November 1913 to see the initial Owens water flow, and to hear Mulholland’s taciturn remarks: “There it is. Take it.”

The Cascades

Since the Owens Valley is at roughly 4,000 feet in elevation and L.A. is at sea level, one remarkable aspect of the aqueduct is that it didn’t require any pumping. There are mountains in-between, however, so the 233 miles did include 53 miles of tunnels — and where that didn’t work (because of geology or faults), they used monstrous “siphons.” These took the water over the top instead [and strictly speaking, these are now referred to as ‘sag pipes’ or sometimes ‘inverted siphons’]. About twenty miles north of Mojave, several miles off Route 14, is one of the most famous: the Jawbone Siphon, seen in the photos below.

Jawbone Siphon

It’s almost 200 miles from L.A. before you actually enter the Owens Valley, at the site of a much-depleted Owens Lake. The lake lost so much water that it became a major source of air pollution, and the city ultimately spent considerable sums trying to regenerate marshlands. Owens Lake was also the point of departure for a much-anticipated side trip, into Death Valley (noted in the posting above).

The remainder of the Owens Valley was scenic, but Mono Lake — further north, and a later L.A. withdrawal target — was another reminder of the radical impacts of taking so much water. Besides L.A., Cadillac Desert does a great job of showing how the government spent billions & billions of dollars on irrigation projects in the West, creating new farms from borderline scrubland — while paying farmers in the East funds NOT to grow the very same crops.

The valley trip ultimately led north to other tourist destinations: Lake Tahoe, the Comstock Lode & Virginia City mining meccas, and the casinos at Reno. But one other notable site lay deep within Owens Valley itself: Manzanar, the internment site for Japanese-American citizens during World War II. A cemetery there still holds several graves, and is marked by a memorial whose inscription reads: “soul consoling tower.”

Manzanar memorial

And those Chinatown final lines? They really are effective in conveying that feeling of being in a strange & foreign land, where things aren’t always quite what you’d expect — accompanied at the same time by an undeniable world-weariness.