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An Army Reserve Humvee stops for fuel in Barstow, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

From Barstow to Mesquite - A Mojave Desert Adventure
 

In May 2014, I departed Casa Carrie in Simi Valley, California, heading for Mesquite, Nevada. While my ultimate destination was Moab, Utah, Mesquite stood half way along my route. To complete my trip to Moab in only two days, I planned to travel 375 miles each day. When towing a travel trailer, that distance approaches my outside limit for daily travel.

Near Fort Irwin, California, three Army Reservists enjoy a rest break before beginning their training - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After merging on to Interstate I-15 North, my trip to Moab would continue on Interstate I-15 and I-70 almost all the way. Although the archaic speed laws in California require large trucks and autos towing trailers to proceed at no more that fifty-five miles per hour, I find it safer to travel on the Interstate at between sixty and sixty-five mails per hour. Why California does not synchronize the speed between towed vehicles and other traffic is an open question. For as long as I can remember, California has stuck to its slowpoke truck and trailer speed limits. Throughout the Four Corners region, trucks, trailers and autos all have the same speed limits.

On Interstate I-5 North, the high desert cities of Victorville, Barstow and Baker In 2010, gas in Victorville was less than $3.00 per gallon - Click for larger image - (http://jamesmcgilis.com)offer slight relief from the boredom of transiting across the Mojave Desert. In order to save on fuel costs, I usually stop at the Love’s Travel Center in Barstow. Upon arrival, I found a convoy of two U.S. Army Reserve Humvees and a larger transport truck stopped for refueling. In speaking with three of the team members, I discovered that they were traveling to nearby Fort Irwin for two weeks of Reserve training exercises.

On a previous trip to Moab, I had seen a surplus early model Humvee stripped down and converted to off-road use. With no armor at all, the older model Humvees became potential deathtraps during Iraq War combat. The current model Humvees that I saw in Barstow featured heavy steel-plate exteriors, In 1955, the price of gas on Old Route 66 near Barstow was lower still - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)blast-resistant doors and steel armor built into their undercarriages. With no front-end crash protection, and unarmed gun turrets up top, these Army Reserve Humvees looked sleek, but not yet combat ready.

During my fuel stop, I remembered that I was heading for two weeks of fun and adventure in the Four Corners region. For the following two weeks, the reservists would engage in war games and training at the one-thousand square miles of open desert at the nearby National Training Center. With Memorial Day fast approaching, I was happy to have such dedicated and talented individuals training to protect our liberties in the United States and abroad. After I thanked the Los Alamitos, California based reservists for their service, they headed out.

Heading north from Barstow, I soon passed the turn-off to Fort Irwin. By then my new friends from the Army Reserve were entering the gate at the “fort”. Fort Irwin’s name helps tell the story that in 1846, the U.S. Army created a rock fort at nearby Bitter Creek. From there, the U.S. Army Mormon Battalion and others chased supposedly marauding Apache, Shoshone and fugitive Mission Indians from Mission San Gabriel, near Los Angeles. Although some stole horses, guns and food from travelers along the Old Spanish Trail, most Indians in the Mojave Desert exemplified the notion of nomadic loners, seeking no contact with outsiders.

 

Solar plasma formation at Ivanpah Valley, California


Soon, I came upon Ivanpah, California. Ivanpah shares an otherwise desolate valley with Primm, Nevada. There I got my first blinding look at the glint and glare from the new Brightsource Solar Thermal Plant in operation. In May of 2012, I had passed that place during construction of the controversial, three unit active-solar power generating station. At that time, the tops of the three receiving towers were dark, as if shrouded in black cloth.

Tourists stop illegally to take pictures on I-15 at Brightsource-Ivanpah, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)On this visit, I noted that the top sections of each tower shone with white light seemingly as bright as the sun. Shimmering in the air to one side or the other of each receiving tower was what looked like white mist. In reality, the mist was solar plasma, caused by the concentration of light from many mirrors. As operators need more power, they use computers and electrical actuators to change the angle of up to 356,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door. As a result, operators can redirect the reflected sunlight from a focal point in the desert sky to a receiving area at the top of each tower. Since adjacent air temperatures created by the solar plasma are so high, no one yet knows the long-term effects on the desert environment.

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, I read that a number of native birds had perished in the solar flux at Ivanpah. Some experts hypothesize that prolonged focusing of eyes on the solar receiving towers could burn our retinas. I thought to myself, “Shouldn’t that be illegal?” One thing is for sure; you will no longer The Brightsource solar thermal plant at Ivanpah Valley, California is probably the first and last of its type to be built in the U.S. - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)see a Desert Tortoise basking in Ivanpah Valley’s desert sun. After 15,000 years of human cohabitation with the Desert Tortoise, politicians decided that the terrapins must go elsewhere, all in the name of “renewable energy”. Using the double-speak of Mega Solar; they had to “destroy the desert in order to renew it”.

As my rig descended the grade into the Ivanpah Valley, I kept my speed below sixty miles per hour. Thinking that I might get a good photo of the towers, I lowered the side window on my vehicle. Although the ambient temperature that day was about 90 °F (32 °C), heat radiating from the solar thermal generators was palpable on my skin. The feeling reminded me of the rays that emanate from a parabolic electric heater. With its vast array of mirrors and three thermal collecting towers, I discovered that Brightsource Primm had a “heat island” effect far greater than even its massive size suggested. The good news is that without the previously available multi-How much power from Brightsource-Ivanpah goes to power the Luxor Las Vegas Hotel?billion dollar loan guarantees and tax rebates, no further solar thermal generating plants like Brightsource Primm will see the light of day.

After that surreal experience, I proceeded past the lure of Primm’s several casinos, driving north toward Las Vegas, Nevada. My goal was to reach Mesquite Nevada, ninety miles north of Las Vegas before dark. With that in mind, my visit to Las Vegas would consist of a “drive by” on I-15 North. After almost two decades of expansion in Las Vegas, I-15 has reached the limits of its right-of-way. With six or eight lanes in each direction at the southern end of The Strip, the road and its connectors can carry a tremendous volume of traffic. Ironically, when a driver reaches North Las Vegas, there is usually a traffic snarl. There, highway planners provided too few lanes to handle the through-traffic heading out of Las Vegas to the north, east and west.

The Luxor Hotel Las Vegas glows in the reflection of afternoon sunlight - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Near the southern end of The Strip, the Luxor Las Vegas Hotel is visible from the I-15 freeway. In a ghostly repeat of what I had just seen at Ivanpah, the Luxor’s thirty-story tall pyramid reflected golden hues of sunlight off its mirrored glass surface. Originally built in the early 1990s, the Luxor received a makeover in 2008. In a classic case of Old Energy thinking, MGM Resorts International failed to take advantage of New Energy. Rather than retrofitting the Luxor pyramid with photovoltaic solar panels, they opted for the “golden glow” effect of solar reflective glass. With business as usual in Las Vegas, appearances trumped energy efficiency and common sense. I wondered how much electrical energy from Brightsource Ivanpah might be powering air conditioners at the Luxor.
This Ford Ranger SUV is outfitted as a Nevada Highway Patrol, State Trooper vehicle, as seen near U.S. Highway 93, north of Las Vegas - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)
About twenty miles north of Las Vegas, I exited I-15 North at U.S. Highway 93, also called the Great Basin Highway. If the Ivanpah Valley is California’s version of the new Industrial Desert, the area north of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and south of the Moapa River Indian Reservation is a no man’s land dedicated to the Old Industrial Desert. Despite hosting a large photovoltaic panel array to the west, an open pit mine adjacent to I-15 and the natural gas fired Harry Allen Generating Station dominate the landscape. Adding environmental insult to injury, a nearby chemical loading depot disperses clouds of white powder and dust across that desolate valley.

Interstate I-15 Exit 112 leads to Bunkerville, south of Mesquite, Nevada - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)A truck stop in the desert attracts all kinds of people and vehicles. Other than the convenience of yet another Love’s Travel Center, I would not consider stopping in such a ravaged environment. From a person who converted his pickup truck to look like a can of Monster Energy Drink to a severely overloaded Nissan Titan pickup, I stood agape at the unusual scene.

Prior to my departure, I spotted a Nevada Highway Patrol (NHP) vehicle exiting the parking lot. Other than some low-slung lights on its roof and official markings on its sides, the vehicle looked like any contemporary Ford Ranger SUV. In order to identify the occupant as clearly as possible, the words “Highway Patrol” and “State Trooper” blazed across the front fenders and doors of the dark blue vehicle. In a nod to mobile communications, “Dial *NHP” occupied each rear quarter panel.

Reputed to be the original bunker at Bunkerville, Nevada - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Back again on I-15 North, I steeled my eyes and made myself ready to stare down any ersatz militiamen I might soon encounter along the highway. Before reaching my destination in Mesquite, I had to transit the area held by gun-toting folks who see rancher Cliven Bundy as their hero. In the aptly named “Bunkerville”, militiamen stand guard over an overgrazed desert where rancher Bundy refuses to pay decades’ worth of cattle grazing fees to the federal government. Apparently, it is lost on his para militarist protectors that if we all paid our fair share of fees and taxes, we could create a sustainable environment and have lower taxes for all.

 

 

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Plush Kokopelli dives for cover at Bunkerville, Nevada


In 2011, the Oasis Hotel Casino Resort welcomed MoabLive.com to Mesquite on their highway sign - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After taking the off ramp to Bunkerville, I lost my way trying to find the place. Given my stand on gun violence, perhaps it is best that I did not meet up with any trigger-happy men dressed in camouflage gear. On my foray into that unfamiliar world, I did find the original Bunkerville bunker. As one might expect, it was a windowless shack with heavy wooden doors. Approaching the bunker cautiously, I called out, “Cliven, Cliven… are you there?” Alas, no one answered.

After my visit to virtual Bunkerville, I proceeded to Mesquite and to the  “Oasis Resort Hotel and Casino RV Park . Only a few years ago, the Oasis Resort had welcomed my arrival with a huge “Welcome MoabLive.com” on their lighted message board. By May 2014, the resort hotel, casino and even the lighted In 2013, the Oasis Hotel Casino Resort met its demise under a wrecking ball - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)tower sign were gone. From my previous visits, I knew that Mesquite has an ongoing reputation for destroying its highway heritage.

I can understand demolishing an obsolete casino, but removing the venerable landmark that was the Oasis sign is just plain dumb. Would Las Vegas tear down its classic 1960’s “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign? In Mesquite’s zeal to become a thoroughly sanitized city in the desert, it has consistently destroyed its once quaint highway history. After viewing the destruction, all I could say was, “Good luck, Mesquite, Nevada”.
 

 

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Author Jim McGillis, at the steel arch bridge, Burro Creek Campground, Arizona - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Winter Camping in the Deserts of Arizona and California

On February 9, 2009, I hooked up my rig and pulled to Quartzsite, AZ, where I would spend the night, prior to a midday appointment in Phoenix, Arizona the next day.  Being two thirds of the way to Phoenix from Simi Valley, CA, makes it a good stopping point on Interstate 10.  As always, I stayed at the bucolic, but efficient Holiday Palms RV Park.  With a reservation guaranteed for late arrival, Quartzsite represented my safe harbor for the night.
 
Although economic realities had diminished the snowbird RV-exodus to the Arizona desert this winter, the town was still alive.  Row upon row of large RV’s lay unwanted and unloved at the temporary dealership lots set up for a crowd that never arrived.  If Quartzsite were not on the interstate, it would have rolled up and blown away this winter.  Still, a quiet night’s sleep in the desert is always a good thing and I enjoyed my brief time there.
 
In the morning, I unhooked the utilities from my Pioneer travel trailer, raised the leveling jacks and drove toward Phoenix under a clear desert sky.  The clear, cold air outside was in stark contrast to my experiences the day and evening before.
Windmill Ranch, Hwy. 93, north of Wikieup, Arizona - Click for larger picture (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
As I left LA, that Monday morning, it was rainy and dark.  Across the LA Basin and until I reached the top of the Banning Pass, it rained.  Then, as if the rain had not yet earned its place in the low desert of California, not a sprinkle fell during my transit to Quartzsite.
 
Once I was in Phoenix, I needed to get to Dr. John Robinson’s office, within Dr. Gino Tutera’s SottoPelle practice in Scottsdale.  With help from my Magellan GPS, I arrived there rested and with time to take a few deep breaths before proceeding.
 
During my tour of the Phoenix freeway system, I noticed large roadside pools of water where I had not seen water before.  At the doctor’s office, water stood in pools throughout the landscaping and along the walkways.  When I commented to the office manager, she indicated that a storm had released drenching rain in Phoenix overnight.  It seems that the storm that I watched disappear in the low desert had rematerialized in Phoenix.
 
Leaving Phoenix on Tuesday afternoon, I traveled northwest on US Highway 93.  Other than one westward jog, where it shares a route with Interstate 40 to Kingman, Arizona, Highway 93 makes a beeline for Las Vegas, NV, 290 miles from Phoenix.  Having departed the Valley of the Sun in the late afternoon, darkness soon overtook me.
Winter snow scene, I-40, east of Kingman, AZ - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Although a long transit on a dark, desert highway might otherwise have been a problem, my prior stays at Burro Creek Campground told me that I had nothing to fear.  When I arrived at Burro Creek after dark, it took a while to find the water-fill, but once my fresh water tank was half full; I found a campsite adjacent to Burro Creek, itself.
 
Although the temperature fell towards freezing, I was safe and warm inside.  My coach is equipped with a forced-air, propane heater and a propane refrigerator/freezer to keep my food fresh.  Since I was dry camping, I used battery power for all other services.  With a quiet night outside and the sound of rushing Burro Creek reaching my ears, I experienced an easy transition from wakefulness to sleep.
 
Wednesday morning, I continued northwest on Highway 93.  I intended to take I-40 West and arrive in Needles, CA that afternoon.  Early in my day’s journey, Highway 93 climbed to higher elevations, displaying snowy mountains on either side of the long valley in which the highway lies.
 
Stopping north of Wikieup, AZ, I discovered separate entrances to Windmill Ranch on either side of the highway.  There, framed by the posts and crossbeam of the ranch entrance were mountains, fresh with winter snow.  Since the highway climbs until reaching a summit near Kingman, AZ, I was interested to see if I might climb above the snowline that day.
Harlem Globetrotters Tour Bus heads toward snowy mountains on I-40 east of Kingman, Arizona - Click for closeup image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
When I stopped for fuel at a travel center on I-40, west of Kingman, snow lay across the ground, although the roadway was dry.  The snowy landscape, juxtaposed with the big rigs entering and leaving the truck stop provided ample contrast for my camera.
 
Leaving the travel center, I descended the long grade towards Kingman.  Along the way, a tour bus zoomed past me at seventy miles per hour.  It was the tour bus for the Harlem Globetrotters, rocketing towards a Las Vegas exhibition match.
 
At Kingman, the two highways diverged, with Highway 93 heading northwest towards Las Vegas.  Interstate 40, which was my route, turned almost due south.  With few roadside attractions on that sixty-five mile strip of arid desert, the trip to Needles became a moving meditation.  Approaching Needles, the interstate turns west and finally north, avoiding mountain ranges and seeking a good river crossing along the way.
Geodesic Sphere House, I-40 at Yucca, south of Kingman, Arizona - Click for closeup image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Near Needles, there are separate bridges across the Colorado River for motor vehicles, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and natural gas transmission pipelines.  A concentration of electrical transmission lines follows this route, as well.  At that crossing, conduits for almost all of our Old Energy and transportation services converge.  The reason for this convergence of services is the topography on either side of the Colorado River. 
 
In 1890, the Santa Fe Railroad built the first bridge across the Colorado River, near Needles.  Since railroad surveyors plan rail lines with minimum elevation changes, the steep and solid riverbanks at Needles helped the railroad reduce both construction and operating costs.  When the railroad bridge was relocated just upstream in 1945, a new Route 66 bridge soon replaced the Old Santa Fe Railroad bridge across the Colorado River, near Needles, California - Click for alternate image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)original railroad bridge.  At that time, the 1916 highway bridge, known as Trails Arch Bridge, was decommissioned for vehicle traffic.  Now used as an oil and gas pipeline bridge, the nearly one hundred year old structure looks like a contemporary industrial icon.  When I-40 replaced Old-66 in the 1960s, a new highway bridge again spanned the river.  Not ironically, the current I-40 bridge occupies the same space that the original railroad bridge did in 1890.
 
Once I arrived in Needles, I proceeded to the Desert View Mobil Station, where I had twice bought tires for my trailer.  That second set of tires coincided with complete replacement of the brakes and active suspension linkages on my coach.  With Desert View’s lifetime warrantee, I hoped to get my brakes fixed free.  Not only had one brake stopped operating, loose parts clanged away inside the brake assembly.  When I rolled in, the regular crew was there to greet me.  Before nightfall, they had replaced the faulty brake assembly and diagnosed a separate electrical problem with my trailer brakes.
Gas Prices at Desert View Mobil, Needles, California in Feb. 2009 - Click for image of gas prices in Sept. 2008 (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Once the wheels were back on the trailer, I headed west, up the long grade on the California side of the river.  My destination was the Hole in the Wall Campground at the Mojave National Preserve, campsite for my last night before returning to LA.  Since the campground is twenty miles off the interstate, it takes a while to get there.  As twilight turned to darkness, I arrived at the sparsely occupied campground.
 
In the spring and fall, the campground is busy, with many of the thirty-five campsites occupied.  At an elevation of 4400 feet, with remnants of snowfall still occupying shaded areas, it was a cold 34 degrees f. when I arrived.  Unaware of how cold it might be at that elevation, I had thawed a steak earlier that day.  Unwilling to let my steak go uncooked, I bundled up in a heavy jacket, gloves and muffler before I ventured outside to grill the meat.
 
Once I was back inside for the night, I watched a DVD movie, did some writing on my laptop computer, ran the heater and enjoyed the lights.  Around bedtime, I realized that I had drained at least half of the available electrical current from my house batteries.  “Whoops”, I said to myself.  “I hope there is enough life in the batteries to spin the furnace motor when I need it.” 
 
The next morning, it was cold in the coach.  I checked the monitor panel and found the batteries in a critically low state of charge.  I was too cold to go outside and set up my portable Honda generator, which could easily recharge the batteries.  The only other power source was my Nissan Titan truck.  Braving the elements, I sprinted outside and started the engine.  Soon, electricity flowed from the alternator on the truck to the house batteries.  That allowed me to restart the furnace and warm the coach.
Author Jim McGillis's coach at Hole in the Wall Campground, Mojave Nation Preserve, near the site of the Great Reflector - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Well warmed, with a mug of hot coffee in my gloved hands, I then ventured out to set up and start the Honda generator.  After turning off the truck engine, I retreated inside to make breakfast while the generator recharged the batteries.  In less than an hour, the house batteries were full and operating properly.
 
In a flash of late brilliance, I remembered that a quiet night at Burro Creek's 1,960 foot elevation was not like a deep-freeze night at 4400 feet.  This was especially true after running all of my electrically powered services.  Since electrical systems operate less efficiently at low temperatures, it is a lesson I will recall next time I winter camp in the California desert.
 
On Thursday morning, as the Sun began to warm the air, I ventured out to take pictures of canyons, mesas and mountains shrouded in snow.  Snow typically lasts only a few days in this arid land.  This being the third day since the winter storm, it was indeed a treat to photograph a vast, yet intimate bit of desert.  I felt as if I were going back in time, to epochs long forgotten.  There, I viewed a winter scene, much as it looked before ancient climate changes created my spiritual home, the desert.  As always, The Great Reflector stood guard over all.

Desert snow scene, Hole in the Wall Campground, Mojave National Preserve, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 

Returning from my New Earth, I departed the campground, stopping at the RV dump along the way.  When I opened the valve to release the gray water from its holding tank, nothing happened.  After about fifteen seconds, the gray water, warmed by my recent hot shower, released and dumped down the hose.  Next, I opened the black water valve.  It dumped immediately.  Luckily, the previous owner of my coach had installed a heater on the black water pipe.  That heater had been the unseen energy thief, draining my batteries overnight.  That thief was now a godsend.  If that pipe remained frozen, I would face a long drive home with a full holding tank, which meant both a heavy and noxious issue to deal with later.
 
Travel trailer manufacturers design their coaches for spring, summer and fall camping, not for freezing weather, parked far away from a reliable electrical supply.  By stretching my own limits a bit, I realized that winter camping in the desert is gloriously fun, if different from warm weather camping.  Still, the rare opportunity to travel almost 1000 miles and camp in three different desert sub-climates was, for me, yet another trip of a lifetime.