Friday, December 28, 2007

The Petroglyphs Of Fallon, Nevada

Like ghost towns, petroglyph sites are outdoor history museums. Technically, there are two types of Native American rock art sites: petroglyphs, which are scraped or scratched into the surface of a rock, and pictographs, which are painted onto rock. Petroglyphs are more common because they were easier to make and more durable. Dark basaltic rock (a product of lava flows from volcanoes) was a favorite surface for petroglyph artists, and most of the sites are near current or ancient water sources.

There’s a lot of fanciful hooey circulating about petroglyphs, but the bottom line is that we really have no idea what the symbols mean nor do we know why they were created. Some feel they had some sort of spiritual or religious significance (perhaps to record hallucinations experienced during “vision quests”) while others say they were used to mark tribal land boundaries, record battles, indicate hunting areas, etc. Many of these “explanations” are detailed and superficially convincing, but all are nothing more than subjective interpretations; asking what petroglyphs mean is like asking what the Mona Lisa is smiling about. Personally, I suspect many are the equivalent of contemporary graffiti, namely random scribblings made by bored people with nothing better to do.

Fallon, Nevada is about 400 miles north of Las Vegas and 60 miles southeast of Reno. I originally visited there to do research for my book Top Secret Tourism; the petroglyphs were just a bonus. Fallon is a dumpy little town that serves as the seat of Churchill county (the county courthouse is a rambling two-story wood structure resembling a New England bed-and-breakfast) and as the location of Fallon Naval Air Station, the new home of the “Top Gun” fighter pilot school immortalized in the movie Top Gun.

While Fallon is located in arid central Nevada, there are some surprisingly green patches around it-----in fact, some high-grade hay is grown there. That’s because Fallon has areas of abundant groundwater, including several flowing springs. The petroglyph site is located near such springs, and the petroglyphs are found on several dozen rocks scattered around the springs.

As you might suspect from a desert-dwelling people, rattlesnakes are a common motif at Fallon. Note the broad, triangular head of the snake figure at left below; that head shape indicates a pit viper, and "rattlers" are the only pit vipers in the Great Basin desert:

But other figures are less easy to interpret. Yes, there are snake figures on some of the rocks below, but your guess is as good as mine as to what the other images are supposed to represent:

In the background of the photo below is Fallon Naval Air Station, the current home of the "Top Gun" school. The petroglyph figure looks like a ghost or phantom. Consider that the star of Top Gun, Tom Cruise, adheres to a religion which holds that all human suffering is caused by invisible entities which attach themselves to humans, and such entities live underground and are released through volcanic eruptions (that's why those copies of Dianetics always have an erupting volcano on the cover). The Fallon petroglyphs are on basaltic rocks from an ancient volcanic eruption; did the petroglyph-maker manage to glimpse of one of those entities and record his experience on rock? Suppose the movie Top Gun had been made in the 1990s, and Tom Cruise had to go to Fallon for filming. Further suppose he had glimpsed the petroglyph below. Would he have fled Fallon in terror?? Would he have come to his senses, realized his religion was congealed gibberish, and as a result still be happily married today to Nicole Kidman???

Those are the sorts of thoughts that go through my head when I'm visiting a place in The Great Empty of the American west.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Ghost Town Of Llano California, Or, The Perils Of Unrestrained Idealism

Most ghost towns are the result of capitalism at work. But Llano, CA is the result of taking Karl Marx seriously. It's located on California state highway 138 about 20 miles east of Palmdale; it can also be reached by taking the highway 138 exit off Interstate 15 north of San Bernardino.

Llano was founded in 1915 by Job Harriman, a prominent Los Angeles lawyer and avowed socialist. He acquired the land for Llano with the intent of proving the socialist model of living was viable. Residents purchased "shares" of Llano and were paid $4 per day for their labor; however, transactions between residents were on paper instead of in cash. In very short order, the residents had opened a hotel, a library, a printing shop, a community dining hall, and housing (including barracks-style accommodations for unmarried residents). To feed the residents and generate income from the outside world, land was farmed, a dairy was established, and a steam laundry, a cannery, a rug-making plant, and a soap factory were opened. There were also team sports and dances for the residents.

The most impressive ruins at Llano are of the hotel. Here you can see the support pillars and the fireplace/chimney in the middle:

There are no complete structures still standing at Llano, although there are numerous walls , as the two photos below illustrate:

You can find some interesting building foundations at Llano. The one below is not residential, but I'm stumped as to what it was. Note the "partitions" at the right:

Today's lefties are really into being environmentally conscious, but that wasn't the case at Llano. The area is littered with rusting cans, bottles, and other waste. (But remember-----today's trash is tomorrow's historical artifacts, so don't use trash cans and ensure employment for future archaeologists!)

Llano was faced with a host of problems, such as a lack of enough water for farming. But the biggest obstacle was human nature. I located an article in the May, 1963 issue of Desert magazine that had an interview with Tony Vacik, who lived in Llano. "Some people will just not cooperate," he said. "Fourteen comrades would be assigned to a project, and probably four of them would do all the work." In other words, the residents of Llano figured out something in 1917 that the leaders of the USSR wouldn't find out until 1991, namely that socialism can never work because it is contrary to the harsh realities of human nature.

By 1917, Harriman abandoned the Llano experiment but not his faith in socialism. He bought land in Louisiana and established Newllano, supposedly an improved model drawing upon the lessons of the failure of Llano. Newllano lasted until 1920, when a dispirited Harriman admitted defeat and returned to Los Angeles. Newllano morphed into New Llano, LA, and still is around today as a typical, for-profit community.

The Ghost Town Of Leadfield, California, Or, The Perils Of Unrestrained Greed

Leadfield, CA, is inside Death Valley National Park and requires a high clearance 4WD vehicle to visit. The turn-off for the road to the site is located on Highway 374, about three miles west of the turn-off for the ghost town of Rhyolite, NV. The Leadfield turn-off will be identified as "Titus Canyon Drive," and will be a dirt road on the right as you drive west. Titus Canyon Drive is one-way; it is 16 miles to the site of Leadfield and another 12 miles beyond that until Titus Canyon Drive intersects with California state highway 190 on the floor of Death Valley.

Leadfield was a fraud. In the early twentieth century, mining stocks were like internet stocks today----they held the promise of instant riches if a mine brought in lots of high-grade ore. A man name Charles Julian determined an easier way to riches was to sell stock instead of mining. He formed a company called Western Lead to supposedly mine rich deposits of lead in the hills around Leadfield; Leadfield was to be the center of a booming mining district. Julian even went so far as to "seed" the hills around Leadfield with high-grade lead ore to fool the gullible (or greedy); he even organized a visit to the Leadfield site in May, 1926 that attracted over 1000 people. Julian managed to attracted 340 investors in his company along with purchasers of real estate in Leadfield; he supposedly pocketed over $900,000 and then vanished. The hapless investors/residents of Leadfield soon realized they had been bilked, and by late 1927 the town site had been completely abandoned.

The National Park Service has erected a sign at the entrance to the Leadfield site:

The main buildings left standing in Leadfield are corrugated steel; the dry climate in Death Valley has prevented rust and they are still in good shape:

Here's a look inside one of the buildings. Be careful if you visit Leadfield; as I discovered, the remaining buildings are favorite places for rattlesnakes to hide from the Death Valley sun!

There are also a couple of rock structures remaining in Leadfield:

Charles Julian pulled off similar scams in Arizona and Oklahoma before fleeing to China in 1933 to avoid prosecution. But he was the target of a robbery soon after his arrival, losing the steamer trunk filled with American currency he hoped would sustain him in exile. Destitute and living on the streets, he committed suicide in Shanghai in 1934. Leadfield remains a perverse memorial to that con man.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Lassen Peak In California

Lassen Peak is located over 200 miles north of the San Francisco Bay region, up where California starts turning into Baja Oregon. I had always wanted to visit it since I was a kid and came across a book with a photo of it taken during its 1915 eruption. The sight of the huge mushroom cloud of ash from its summit----looking very much like an atom bomb cloud----made a big impression on me. And in 1999 I finally visited, and climbed, Lassen.

Lassen Peak is not that high (only 10,457 feet) nor is it a technically challenging climb. What makes it interesting is that it is the southernmost Cascade volcano and was active from 1914 to 1920, with 1915 being the peak year. The highlight then was a violent, Mount St. Helens-style blast, complete with a searing pyroclastic flow toward the north. Fortunately, the area was unpopulated and there was no loss of life. Lassen Peak is now part of Lassen Volcanic National Park, a region of steam vents, lava flows, boiling mud pits, and cinder cones. It's a miniature version of Yellowstone.

Even though I climbed Lassen in the last week of July, there was still a lot of snow in the high country of the park, as this photo of Helen Lake shows:

Lassen Peak itself had a few snow patches, as you can see in the photo below taken from the road to the summit trailhead. Like all Cascade volcanoes, it has a bluish-gray color (unlike the black color of Hawaiian volcanoes). That's because the magma source for them is the subduction of part of the Pacific plate under the North American plate; Lassen Peak is literally made from melted and recycled sections of the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The lava is light and crumbly, more like sand than rock:

The climb itself was uneventful, with the trail to the summit being a little less than three miles. There were a few snowy patches that made me wish I had brought my ice ax and crampons----especially on the descent-----but slow, careful steps (and a blessedly light day pack) let me make it without any real problems. The summit high point is some congealed lava extruded from the main vent; here I am atop that lava:

I took the photo below looking down from the summit rocks; note one of my boots in the lower part of the photo:

Here's a summit view looking toward the west. The nice person at the left took the summit photo of me, and I took one for her. The summit area was a popular place to be that morning, as I counted 15 people during the 20 minutes I was at the top.

Here's a view toward the north; you can see Mount Shasta about 50 miles away. I later drove up to the town of Mount Shasta for a "recon" of the mountain (sadly, I never attempted to climb it). The town of Mount Shasta is full of weirdass New Age types (much like Sedona, AZ) and I'll have to post about my visit there in the future:

Even if you're not interested in climbing the mountain, the park has a lot of interesting stuff to see, like the steam vents below. It's obvious a lot of activity is still going on underground, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if there is a future volcanic eruption in the area:

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Ghost Town Of Rhyolite, Nevada

A little over a century ago, Rhyolite was the second largest city in Nevada behind Reno. Today it is an impressive set of ruins near the eastern (Nevada) entrance to Death Valley National Park. It's located about four miles west of a sleazy, decrepit, speed trap of a town known as Beatty, Nevada, and can be reached by following Highway 374 west from there. Beatty is about 150 miles north of Las Vegas on Highway 95. It is reached by a well-maintained, clearly marked road off Highway 374.

Rhyolite first sprang into being in 1904 when gold was discovered in the hills overlooking the town site. Growth was explosive; by 1907, over 6000 people lived on Rhyolite. In its heyday, it had telephone and electric service, several substantial stone and concrete structures, a magnificent train station, a school, numerous stores, a newspaper, and even a hospital with surgical facilities. But in 1908 the production of the gold mines began a sharp decline, and soon it was obvious the gold vein was "played out." Miners and merchants began to leave town. By 1910, the town had to shut off street lights because of a lack of funds, in 1911, its newspaper ceased publication. On September 15, 1919, the post office closed and the 1920 census counted only 14 remaining residents. They left soon afterwards, and Rhyolite began to fade back into the desert.

The train station is the most impressive structure still standing in Rhyolite, and is protected from vandalism and scavenging by a high fence. A broken-down caboose is in back, but the iron railroad bed is long gone:

Another impressive structure is the ruins of the bank building. As you can see, scavengers (the human kind) have stripped this one down to the walls. Note the reinforced vault area in the middle:

This is a very cool "false front" building and stone foundations. The capstone at the top is dated 1906 and identifies it as the "Porter Building," which was a general store:

The Rhyolite school building was designed to accommodate all students from elementary to high school. Because of the town's rapid population decline, it operated only from 1906 to 1908:

The Rhyolite jail is well-preserved; the heavy iron doors and bars on the windows are fully intact and look as if they could still keep miscreants inside. I've been to Rhyolite in summer----when the temperature routinely tops 110----and have tried to imagine what it must've been like inside that non-air conditioned jail!

Here are the ruins of another bank. You can clearly see the reinforced vault area in this photo:

A few homes in Rhyolite were made of stone and, although long abandoned, still stand:

However, most homes were made of wood and were torn down (so the wood could be re-used elsewhere) when Rhyolite was abandoned. A handful of collapsed homes remain:

In many cases, the only indication that a home once stood at a site is the stone fireplace and chimney:

I think I have visited Rhyolite almost a dozen times; Beatty was the nearest town to Death Valley National Park and I would always stop by Rhyolite when going into Beatty for ice, water, or other supplies while camping in Death Valley. It's not one of my all-time favorite ghost towns because it gets too many visitors----I've only had it "to myself" a couple of times-----but it is impressive for the size and variety of surviving ruins. Rhyolite is also supposedly haunted; I saw it featured on a Travel Channel program called "Mysterious Nevada." Despite once being in Rhyolite all alone at twilight, the only thing remotely scary I have ever seen there were a couple of rattlesnakes.So while I don't think you have to worry about ghosts, you should be careful about where you step and reach when exploring the area.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Better News Than I Expected

I underwent a battery of tests last week, including a CT scan, and today my oncologist shared the good news with me: I have a lymph node in my groin that is apparently cancerous and will need to be removed.

And I wasn't being sarcastic when I termed that "good news." The big mutha I'm concerned about, the inoperable tumor on my liver, hasn't grown at all since July. The lymph node can be removed in an outpatient procedure and the presence of a new cancerous lymph mode is no surprise----I've had four others removed so far. The fact the liver tumor is now quiescent, after its rapid growth in late 2006 and the first half of 2007, means the odds now favor me making it all the way through 2008, and the onset of complications may now be pushed back into the second half of 2008.

At this point, I'll gladly take whatever breaks I can get, and the news today is probably the best Christmas present I'll get this year.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Gilbert Science Toys!

After the USSR launched Sputnik I back in October, 1957, America was in a state of panic. The Russians were in space! And something had to be done to equip young America with the scientific tools they would need to battle the godless Communists!

Okay, so it was all nothing more than one of those goofy manias-----like the current hysteria over global warming-----that periodically seizes the imagination of the American public. But this one had one great benefit for kids like me in the late 1950s and 1960s: there were all sorts of neat science toys available, like those from the A. C. Gilbert Company. I had a lot of Gilbert toys as a kid, and have amassed a respectable collection of them as an adult.

The king of Gilbert science toys was Erector, a series of metal construction toys. I found the beauty below---the Rocket Launcher set----waiting for me under the tree in Christmas, 1959. How could I not be thrilled by all those glistening parts?

A big part of the appeal of Gilbert science toys was their packaging. Look at the exterior of the Rocket Launcher set; see that happy boy launching a missile attack against the Communist menace? That happy boy could be me!

Of course, I had Gilbert chemistry sets. These sets were packed in folding metal packages that displayed impressively on store shelves, as you can see below:

I also had a Gilbert telescope, although my memories of it are not fond; the optics were execrable and almost single-handedly killed my interest in astronomy. I'll never forget my first view of the planet Venus through that telescope; Venus was oval-shaped and had a rainbow pattern on its right side. Bleh. . . . . . . .

I had better results with Gilbert microscopes. To actually see microbes swimming around on a slide was a thrill, and ordinary stuff like table salt and sand grains looked otherworldly under magnification. Microscopes also brought out the latent cruelty in me; many flies and ants lost their lives so I could examine their body parts in detail.

The Gilbert physics set was my least favorite science toy, mainly because the experiments you could do with it just weren't that spectacular. After turning a clear liquid red with another clear liquid with a chemistry set, doing something with a balloon to demonstrate atmospheric pressure seemed really lame. At least the packaging on this set was cool, and featured a rarity for Gilbert: a girl. Oh Billy, you know science! You're so wonderful!!

The set that really got its hooks into me was the Erec-tronic radio and electronics construction set; I can still remember the thrill I got when I built a crystal set radio with it and heard voices and music through the earphone. . . . . . or my first transmitter, and the dots and dashes I was sending being received on the AM radios throughout the house. The set included a punched perfboard with holes for mounting electronic components and wiring; I kept and continued to use that perfboard when I tried to build circuits appearing in Lou Garner's Popular Electronics columns. (And that's why it was very satisfying for me when my first articles started appearing in Popular Electronics back in 1976.)

The A. C. Gilbert Company took its "responsibility" to produce scientifically literate youth very seriously. Most of their toys included a comic titled Science Leads The Way, in which a downtrodden high school keeps losing football games to its arch-rival but manages to mop up the floor with them at a science fair------with the help of Gilbert science toys, of course!

There are still science toys available today, and they make terrific gifts for intellectually curious kids. More important than specific facts about science, they teach kids how to think logically and figure things out for themselves, two skills that will serve them well throughout their lives. I'm lucky my parents gave me science toys at Christmas!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

If He's Serious, Let's Take Him Outside And Bullwhip Some Sense Into Him

Ye shall know them by their iPods, so says the Bible. And, as always, the Good Book is right. Look at my iPod-----right there, between The Knack and Link Wray, is Led Zeppelin. Got all the Zep classics. . . . . Communication Breakdown, Whole Lotta Love, Good Times Bad Times, and, of course, Stairway to Heaven, all encoded at a glorious 256 kbps for my listening pleasure.

I loved Led Zeppelin because their music was what rock and roll was supposed to be: loud and stupid. It was glorious to lay a vinyl copy of Led Zeppelin II on the turntable, crank up the volume to max, and listen until your eardrums bled. It was profoundly anti-intellectual, and that was what made it so much fun: Led Zeppelin was chewing gum for the mind, music to be to stupid to.

And that's why it's so damn funny when an oh-so-serious academic tries to find Great Truth and Cosmic Importance in the music of a band like Led Zeppelin. Andrew Goodwin is professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco (wouldn't you just know it??) who has studied Led Zeppelin in great detail, thought Great Thoughts about them, and, sadly, doesn't realize he's full of shit. How do I know the latter? Because of his essay at Slate about the band that is full of unintentionally hilarious passages like this:

Does "Stairway to Heaven" possess these qualities? Absolutely not. The guitar army, yes, that is there. But this song is not just atypical of Zeppelin's music, it is unique among their epic tracks in that it privileges melodic/lyrical development at the expense of rhythmic exploration and timbral/psychoacoustic experimentation.

I laughed out loud when I read that, and there are several other howlers scattered throughout his piece. In fact, I actually wondered if I wasn't reading some sort of parody, but the piece----and Goodwin----seems to be exactly what it purports to be, namely a serious analysis of the inherently idiotic. I know the academically-inclined always try to find Great Meaning in everything, even the most ridiculous and mundane aspects of life, but Goodwin really goes off the deep end here. I liked Stairway to Heaven not because of its "melodic/lyrical development" but because of Jimmy Page's astonishing guitar playing (or was that the "guitar army"?). And I suspect almost every other Zep fan felt the same.

Maybe Mao had the right idea when he closed China's universities during the Cultural Revolution and sent their professors out to work on the farms. (Such an idea is obviously impractical here because it would disrupt NCAA football and basketball.)