Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Pictographs At Ayers Rock, California

Petroglyphs are native American rock art scratched into rock (usually volcanic basalt) with stone tools, whereas pictographs are painted onto rock surfaces using naturally occurring pigments from plants, muds, etc., and natural straw and grasses as "paintbrushes." Because pictographs are more vulnerable to rain, humidity, and wind than petroglyphs, fewer survive today. One of the best preserved sites I've visited is Ayers Rock in the northern regions of California's Mojave Desert. It's east of Coso Junction on California highway 395, and is reached by a convoluted series of graded dirt roads. Exact directions can be obtained from a Bureau of Land Management office or at the combination service station/Taco Bell in Coso Junction; there's a large Cal Trans rest area just before the exit for Coso Junction. When I did this visit in 2000, the roads were suitable for passenger cars with careful driving but I think a high clearance vehicle would be a wiser choice. The distance from Coso Junction to the site is about eight miles.

There is a crudely graded dirt parking area for Ayers Rock, with a trail of about three-quarters of a mile to the site. The parking area is marked with the sign below, which gives various admonishments for visitors:

While the trail to the rock is faint------the shifting sands make a more permanently-worn trail difficult to create----the rock itself is clearly visible from the trailhead and impossible to miss. Unless you're visiting in mid-winter on a day when the temperature doesn't push past 60, I suggest carrying a snake stick or walking very carefully, taking note of the trail ahead and the areas adjacent to the trail. I took these photos on a day when the temperature was about 80, and spotted four sidewinder rattlesnakes near the trail, including one that zipped across the trail about ten feet ahead of me!

So what did I get for my courageous decision to risk death by the hand of venomous serpents somewhere in the desert hinterlands of the American Southwest? Well, I got see some really cool, surreal pictographs like the ones below:

I've tried to figure out what the image below is supposed to be; my first guess is that it is a scorpion, although it also looks quasi-human. Those zany Native Americans!

At the rear of Ayers Rock is a small, cave-like tunnel that would be adequate to shelter one person from the sun, wind, and the little rain that fell in this area. The sides appear streaked with smoke film, and I suppose fires were lit here for cooking (roasted sidewinder rattlesnake??) or for warmth on winter nights (the elevation here is slightly over 4000 feet, and freezing temperatures are common on mid-winter nights). It's easy to picture a native shaman or medicine man in here, depriving himself of food and water, smoking the vaguely psychedelic native tobacco, all to induce the hallucinations recorded in the pictographs. That's what archaeologists say, at any rate; I have a sneaking suspicion all lot of rock art was just random scrawling and doodling, much like contemporary "tagging" graffiti:

The surrounding area of Ayers Rock is littered with numerous obsidian chips, leftovers from the numerous lava flows. Obsidian was widely used by Native Americans in the Southwest for arrowheads, knives, animal skinning tools, and other applications where a strong rock that could hold a sharp edge was required. It is known that native peoples from as far away as eastern Utah traveled to this area to trade for obsidian gathered by the native peoples of the Coso Junction. As a result, many of the petroglyphs and pictographs found in this region are a mishmash of symbols representing various cultures of the natives of the Southwest.

Who knows. . . . . . . . maybe in future millennia people will visit ruins in abandoned, desolate lower Manhattan, ponder the strange symbols on a religious relic known as a "trading board," and ponder yes, this is where primitives of the distant past gathered to engage in a mystical ceremony known as "trading heating oil futures". . . . . . . .

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Thoughts About Shortwave Radio

I have trouble sleeping through the night these days (it’s normal for late Stage IV cancer patients). I often find myself awake two or three times during the night, sometimes for more than an hour. Until I get sleepy again, I grab the Eton E5 portable shortwave radio I keep on my nightstand, put on headphones so I won’t disturb Di, and tune around to see what I can hear.

Why do I do that instead of, for example, listening to my iPod?

Since 1963, I’ve been obsessed with snagging all manner of “non-standard” radio signals. Those include AM and FM broadcast stations from hundreds and thousands of miles away, shortwave broadcasts from foreign countries, communications from ships and airplanes traveling around the globe, military transmissions, ham radio operators-----if it can be tuned on a shortwave radio receiver, I want to hear it. I’ve owned over three dozen different shortwave radios (some of which cost over $1000), numerous accessories (like antenna tuners and audio filters), and specialized antennas (like amplified loops for receiving distant AM band stations). I’ve belonged to numerous radio listening clubs. The first books I wrote were about shortwave listening.

Again, why?? What is it that keeps me searching the airwaves for something distant and unusual?

Part of it is pure nostalgia. Unless you were of sentient age in 1963, you can’t imagine how constricted the flow of information was and how distant the rest of the world seemed back then. The internet was just a theoretical concept and communications satellites were in their infancy. Video of events in foreign nations had to be flown into the United States for broadcast, and magazines and newspapers from outside the United States took weeks to arrive via ship mail. Trying to be aware of the outside world back then was frustrating, like trying to figure out what was going on in a room by peeking through the keyhole.

I wrote in the introduction to my Shortwave Listening Guidebook that I considered my first shortwave radio to be a “magic box.” And indeed it was. Strange languages and exotic music gushed from the speaker of my simple Hallicrafters radio. Cities like Moscow, London, Quito, Melbourne, and Tokyo were in my bedroom with me. I eavesdropped on ship-to-shore telephone calls and communications from airplanes flying routes across the Atlantic. And there were also the dits and dahs of Morse code, the “beedle-beedle” of radioteletype stations, and all sorts of other bewildering noises. I even found myself entranced by station WWV, then in Maryland, and its precise time signals, one beep exactly each second.

When I got my first shortwave radio, it was like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when the movie abruptly changes from black and white to color; the world suddenly seemed smaller and more real to me. I couldn’t visit all those distant foreign places, but they could visit me. And I still get that feeling after 45 years of shortwave. Even though my world is media saturated, with the internet and 150 TV channels available to me, there remains something special about connecting to a distant place via shortwave radio.

Another attraction is the “DXing” aspect of radio. DXing is the art of trying to receive rarely-heard stations on various frequencies. To those not interested in DXing, this must seem like a ridiculous activity, and I suppose it is. But I get a feeling of accomplishment bordering on exhilaration when I manage to identify a weak, unusual radio signal through heavy interference. Maybe the best analogy I can make is to fishing. You never know what’s going to happen when you cast a line into the water, and you never what you’ll hear when you turn the dial of a shortwave radio. Whenever I hear a faint signal barely above the background noise, I am almost forced to stop and try to identify it. It’s as if the station is keeping a secret from me----its identity----and I want to learn that secret. To solve the mystery, I have to battle fading, interference, noise, and distortion. My shortwave radio becomes like a musical instrument in my hands. By manipulating its tuning knob and controls, I can coax weak signals to become more intelligible and, when the gods of the ionosphere cooperate, those faint signals will yield their secrets to me and I am briefly, almost mystically, connected to some distant place. My desire for connections to distant places was probably my biggest motivation for getting a ham radio license.

And when I speak of the “secrets” of shortwave, I often mean it literally instead of metaphorically. I have always been fascinated with unusual and “outlaw” radio stations, such as “pirate” and clandestine radio broadcasters, covert government and military communications, and coded message to espionage agents. The latter were known as “numbers stations” because the messages, usually read by a woman, were in groups of four of five digits. I heard these in English, Spanish, German, and other languages all over the shortwave bands; the signals endlessly fascinated me. When the first pirate----stations operating illegally without a government license----shortwave radio stations took to the air in the late 1970s, they immediately grabbed my attention and I still stumble across them late on Friday and Saturday nights. My fascination with “shortwave secrets” led to my current interest in all types of government secrets, as reflected in my last two books, Inside the Shadow Government and Top Secret Tourism.

However, the era of shortwave radio and DXing is drawing to an end. The internet and communications satellites now carry a lot of the communications that once went via shortwave, and many nations have discontinued shortwave broadcasts entirely. Nations such as Colombia and the Dominican Republic once had numerous active shortwave stations but now only a fraction remain active. While this saddens me in many ways, I also realize the internet and communications satellites have exponentially increased access to information from foreign sources; I can hear far more foreign radio stations via internet audio streaming than I ever could via shortwave radio. Frankly, there’s no need to own a shortwave radio today in order to hear radio stations from around the United States and the world. This upsets some other shortwave fans. One group of them denies the reality of what is happening----to them, the internet is just some passing fad----while another group of listeners raises quasi-survivalist fears of “internet interdiction” by a future American government, leaving the lucky owners of shortwave radios as the only ones able to get information without government censorship. (Sadly, I think many of the latter are actually serious in their belief.)

But I’m less concerned about the possibility of a fascist American state than I am about the possibility there is something interesting zipping through the airwaves and I'm not hearing it. That’s why I keep that Eton E5 within reach at night. The E5 is the sort of shortwave radio I could only dream about four decades ago-----about the size of a paperback book, digital frequency readout, sensitivity and selectivity equivalent to Drake and Hammarlund radios of that era-----and costs only $125 today. Holding it, I have the whole world in one hand. I really wish I could have had something like three or four decades ago, back when there was so much more interesting stuff to hear. But I'm glad I have it now.

I suppose I never did answer why I have been so fascinated by shortwave radio for so long, and that's because I really don't know myself. All I know is that it's a big part of my life, and no one can understand me without understanding the role it has played, and continues to play, in my life.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Great Comic Book Ads From The 1950s

I was able to read before I started school, and for that I thank comic books. My parents allowed me to buy as many as I wanted, and were always willing to tell me what a word meant. As I result, I could read at a third grade level on my first day of school.

But it was the ads in those 1950s comic books that have stuck with me in the 50+ years since that golden era. Kids today don't read comics----comics are now the refuge of twentysomething guys without girlfriends-----and the ads are for high-end video games, cars (!!), and similar adult-oriented products. And this is a pity.

Take the ad for the product below. Back in 1958, a teacher seeing a student with this item would simply confiscate it and the student would suffer a few minutes of post-school detention. Not today-----the local S.W.A.T. team would probably be summoned and the incident would be broadcast worldwide on CNN, with Congressional hearings surely to follow:

I was never much into violence, so instead of a hand grenade I preferred to use Mesmerism to get my way, especially when I could buy a neat little aid like this:

One of the leading purveyors of merchandise in 1950s comic books was an outfit called Honor House Products. Look at the full page ad below; how could a six year old boy not fail to be enthralled by the prospect of owning such worldly delights?? I can only conclude that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones must have seen this same ad and ordered that neat ring to the left of the ordering form:

There was a surprising amount of homoerotic imagery in 1950s comics ads. Of course, I never paid any attention to ads like the one below. Nope, not me, pal!

Today's comic books fill unsold ad space with bland public service "ads" exhorting kids to practice tolerance, protect the environment, and similar touchy-feely goop. But five decades ago, we instead received detailed instruction on how to kick the shit out of other kids. I definitely think we had it better back then:

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Delamar, Nevada

In 1893. John Delamar struck gold at the current site of the ghost town named for him, Delamar. This desolate spot is in east-central Nevada off Highway 93, about 17 miles west of Caliente, NV; it's not too far from the border with Utah. It's reached by a signed dirt road off Highway 93. The first ten miles of the dirt road are fairly smooth, but the final two miles are steep, sandy, and require a high clearance 4WD vehicle (or did when I visited back in 2003). I suppose one could hike the remaining two miles, but I wouldn't recommend it!

By 1897, Delamar was the leading producer of gold in Nevada. it boasted a population of 3000 along with a post office, several businesses (including saloons and a hotel), and a combination theater/opera house. There is no large-scale source of water near Delamar, and as a result water had to be carried in by mule wagons from a stream 12 miles away. Other supplies had to be transported from a railhead in Milford, Utah, which was over 150 miles away. Because water was so scarce, "dry mining" techniques were used which produced clouds of fine dust in the mines. Many miners and other residents died from lung diseases, and Delamar became known as "the widowmaker." But because wages were high for the time (over $3 a day!), there were plenty of young men willing to take their chances in the mines.

Delamar died an abrupt death in 1909 when the veins of gold ore suddenly tapped out. This setback was compounded by a disastrous fire which destroyed the wooden buildings in town and the wooden roofs on the stone buildings. Delamar was deserted a year later.

The main things left in Delamar are stone walls and foundations, as you can see in the following photos:

I understand the structure below is what remains of the theater/opera house. It only takes a little imagination to visualize how it must've looked in the past, complete with full stone walls and a wooden roof:

The view below is from a hillside above Delamar and looks down on the town site. It gives you an idea of how isolated this place is (there's no cell phone service out here!) and how grim life must've been there when the mines were in operation:

Delamar is privately owned and access to the site can be restricted at any time, so I don't know if it is still possible to visit. It takes about three hours to reach Delamar from Las Vegas, but I found it well worth the trip. It combines the remoteness, the stark beauty, and the history that so infatuates me when it comes to ghost towns of the American west.