Monday, March 26, 2012

Ghost towns and helicopters

We are parked at an abandoned mining camp, just outside the park along highway 190 (map), just 20 miles from where we started in Furnace Creek. We have had the place to ourselves more or less since we arrived yesterday afternoon, and it was very dark here last night. At least, after the excitement was over, which I will relate shortly. We have a beautiful view of the Funeral Montains, and even a bit of the snow-capped Panamints toward the mouth of the valley.

It was once again fairly windy yesterday, and we ruminated about spending another night in the park, but we were running low on provisions, and Sunset campground is pretty unappealing. After ten nights we had had our fill, and so we decided to get rolling. Between the wind and the grade to the west, we decided on the eastern departure over 190 to leave the park. That opened up lots of more interesting boondocking options than we would have had in the Panamint Valley.

This was the first such spot, described in our Days End directory. Many boondockers refer to it simply as "The Pads," which is not to be confused with the much more famous (and heavily used) "The Slabs." The directory warned us that the access road looks blocked from 190, by a berm of earth across it, but it is not -- there is room around the berm at one end for a rig to get by. Once past the berm, the roads in The Pads are paved.

Even though we had only gone some 20 miles and less than an hour from our start, the spot was appealing. It was empty save for a pair of guys on a dune buggy they hauled here on a trailer, and they were starting to load back up as we pulled in. It's way more appealing than Sunset campground, with lots of individual sites, patios, fire rings, and a spectacular view. Plus it's free. For the budget-minded, it's an excellent jumping-off spot for a Death Valley visit.

I had actually been planning to spend the night near Ballarat, a different ghost town from a much earlier mining era in the Panamint Valley, before we shifted gears and decided to head east. Stopping here instead at least provided part of the ghost-town vibe. There are more ghost towns in and around Death Valley than currently functioning ones, and one could spend years just exploring them all.

I was curious about the history of this one, which our guide did not provide, so I took a long walk around. What appear from the satellite view to be concrete slab foundations are actually patios and/or carports. The residences were all single-wide trailers, which I would imagine to all have been identical judging from the tie-downs. Each trailer had a concrete patio adjacent, and behind it a concrete square with sewer, water, and electric service connections. All of the electrical wire and fittings and most of the water fittings are gone, scavenged long ago, but the sewer pipes are mostly neatly capped as if they were vacated yesterday.

As tempting as the sewer caps look (not to us, though, as we dumped and filled at the campground before we left), they connect to nothing. Well, not precisely -- they connect to a network of underground mains such as you would find in any suburban neighborhood, and while one manhole off in the weeds was open and partly filled with trash

the ones in the paved roadways still have their covers intact. It's possible they've been welded in place to keep metal scavengers from creating a vehicular hazard.

All well and good, but the sewer lines all run downhill to a treatment plant that hasn't functioned in decades.

We're parked at the opposite, uphill end of town, at what clearly used to be the wellhead for the water system. Nearby is a pair of concrete saddles that once held an enormous rail-tanker-sized propane tank. Two streets over are the remains of the rec center and its swimming pool, now decidedly uninviting.

Whatever spring fed this wellhead is still here, and a stand of reeds near one of the patios suggests it has found a new outlet.

There is some question about whose land this is today; most think it has reverted to the BLM. It's not in the park, which begins across highway 190, and it's patrolled by the Inyo county sheriff's department, who seem to leave respectful boondockers here unhassled. But at one time this was a company town, belonging to Rio Tinto Borax, the 20-mule team people.

As near as I can tell, the place was built circa 1980, after a 1976 act of Congress forced mining operations in Death Valley underground (literally). Shortly afterward, Rio Tinto constructed the Billie Mine, the last operating mine in Death Valley. As part of that effort, they also constructed this housing enclave for their miners, along with another over the hill in Stateline. The miners who lived here called it simply "the 3000-foot level", in part because there is an Elevation 3000' sign just before the entrance on your way up the hill. It might have officially been named the Valley Crest Trailer Park.

It wasn't here very long, as Google Earth historic satellite imagery shows it abandoned by 1994, the earliest image they have for this area. Not surprising, since all mining was halted briefly in Death Valley when it became a National Park in 1994. The Billie Mine eventually resumed more limited operations, and was the last operating mine in the National Park when it closed in 2005. My understanding is that the Park Service has purchased the Billie Mine, ostensibly to keep anyone from re-opening it. (The mining claims in the park pre-date National Park status, and many even pre-date the National Monument created in 1933.)

In any case, clearly Rio Tinto, or as the subsidiary was known in the 80's, the American Borate Company, constructed a complete camp here, including water and sewage systems, recreation facilities, and 50 or so trailer residences. I even found the remains of what I assume to have been the playground, several sections of concrete pipe that were likely hauled here as part of the sewer and water construction.

Every patio pad now has a makeshift fire ring nearby, and mesquite is plentiful here. I found enough dead and down for a small fire of our own last night, in a hearth made against a low stone wall that may well have been the remains of a structure pre-dating the short-lived trailer park. Here at 3,000' it was a good deal colder in the evening than down in the valley, and while we chose this spot because it was in the lee of a small hill when we arrived, the wind shifted by late afternoon, and after our fire went out, it whipped up to a frenzy and rocked the whole bus for a good couple hours.

The cold and the wind actually drove us inside at twilight, before the fire was done. Wanting to burn what was left down to white ash (part of the dispersed camping ethos), I carefully positioned myself by the window to keep an eye on it. Good thing, because otherwise I would never have noticed the red and blue flashing lights a thousand feet away out on the road.

Hmm, strange -- a law enforcement pickup truck parked with lights blazing, but no other vehicle in sight, so clearly not a traffic stop. We doused our laptops, and whipped out the binoculars. I could make out in the last of the fading light that it was a park ranger, and, indeed, the area across 190 from us is inside the park. And he's just sitting there, right at the turnoff to our little encampment. Perhaps he's seen our fire and wants to have a word with us?

That makes no sense -- why would he not just drive right up to us. And rangers coming to give stern warnings or even citations about improper campfires (although ours was, as far as we could tell, perfectly legal) usually do not do so with their emergency lights on. Something else was afoot.
A few minutes later, another set of flashing lights came up the hill -- an ambulance. There was no siren, nor was it screaming along. It pulled over at the same turnoff, made a complete 180, and parked next to the ranger. Also strange -- were they staging for a response of some sort? Was there perhaps an injured cyclist or someone else over there that we simply could not see in the dark?

Then I heard it. The unmistakable sound of a jet helicopter, flying low over the hills. The chopper continued a half mile down valley, orbited back to the turnoff, nosed into the wind and set down. They were on the ground 20 minutes while the flight nurses prepared and stabilized the patient in the ambulance, then loaded him or her into the bird and started back up. Somewhere during this process a carload of civilians came up the hill and stopped at the scene; we guessed these to be the family. After some words with the flight crew they got back in their car and continued uphill for what we know to be the two and a half hour drive to the hospital in Las Vegas.

It was all so hauntingly familiar, as one of our motorcycle buddies had a bad crash here on one of our pre-Odyssey visits, and we were with him as they loaded him into the ambulance. In that case, they took him down the hill to the Furnace Creek airport to be airlifted to Las Vegas -- I have no idea why this time the chopper landed here rather than there. Perhaps the winds had something to do with it, or maybe they charge by the mile -- our friend's flight cost over $8,000. (He made a full recovery, BTW.)
So that was our evening entertainment. Here we are, boondocking in the middle of nowhere on a dark and windy night, and we get a helicopter evacuation less than a thousand feet from us. If we send a review to Days End we will have to say that it's peaceful, except for the flashing lights and jet helicopters. We do hope the patient will be OK; judging from the speed and demeanor of the personnel it was not a critical trauma case. But here in Death Valley, lots of things that only warrant an ambulance ride in any major metropolitan area become airlifts -- our friend merely broke his foot, although in a very serious way.

In a few minutes we will continue the rest of the way up and over the hill, making the right at Death Valley Junction to state route 127, which will take us down to I-15 at Baker. We will likely stop for the night before getting on the Interstate.


  1. Hello, I have been following you for some time and have enjoyed all your posts. I just try to be quiet, but this was one of the most interesting.
    I love Death Valley.

  2. I've got to agree with Upriverdavid: For some reason, this post really captured the essence of your travels - and has added "Explore Ghost Towns Out West" to my "must-do-someday" list.

  3. Thanks for including the map and coordinates for the GPS.. I marked it on my own map as a good spot!

    Many boondocking spots I read about are kinda tough with a 38ft motorhome. But I know if YOU got in it, WE can get in it too!

    (Our Blog) RVing: Small House... BIG Backyard

  4. Thanks for this. The place is still there 5 years later and was such a nice quiet alternative to the bustling campgrounds inside the park.


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