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Tom Anhalt Goes to the Desert
Ed. Note:Due to the number of pictures on this page, I created thumbnails for them. To see the full size picture, just click on the thumbnail.
Date: Mon, 14 Apr 1997 09:52:33 -0700
After taking the day off on Wednesday to take care of some last minute preparations on the '81 Cherokee, like an oil change and tire rebalancing (Boy, does it run smooth now!) and some shopping, on Thursday morning I met up with my friends Scott (who rode shotgun with me) and Jim, Jim, and Doug (all riding in Doug's '89 FSCB - that's "Full-Size Chevy Blazer") and we hightailed it on out of Santa Barbara and headed east toward Death Valley.
We worked our way downcoast through Ventura and then east into Valencia. From there we made our way through Mojave and then over to the Panamint Valley and the "beautiful" chemical processing town of Trona. Trona is situated on the banks of Searle "Lake" which is really a dry lake bed and there are at least 3 chemical processing plants extracting various chemicals from the lake bed remains and the output of local mining operations. We gassed up in Trona and then made our way to the ghost town of Ballarat. They had an interesting sign outside of Ballarat that talked about the last resident, a guy named "Seldom Seen Slim". The sign also mentioned that the 1908 New York to Paris auto race winner, a Thomas Flyer, had stopped in Ballarat during the race.
This is were the pavement ended. We then headed south through the Panamint Valley towards the "road" heading east into Death Valley National Park called Goler Wash. Luckily, the road south of Ballarat was still being used by a mining operation and so the it had been recently oiled which cut down on the washboarding a lot! Just past the entrance to the active mine site, the road wasn't oiled and the "Washboard from Hell" began. We're talking 3-4 miles of the worst washboard I've ever seen. Since Doug was leading the way, Scott and I dropped back a little bit and tried to find a low speed that would make the washboard somewhat bearable. Wasn't gonna happen. Remembering the Baja "5 or 50 mph" rule I sped up to around 30-35 mph and started to float across the top of the ridges. Not a whole lot smoother, but a little more bearable. Made Scott and I feel like the little vibrating football game guys. Floating across the tops of the washboard also makes the steering a bit squirrely, too. After a little bit, we were coming up fast to the rear of Doug's Blazer and had to slow down. This was not fun. As we slowed down, we managed to go through a series of vibes that I thought was going to break loose every spot weld in the body! I guess this was a washboard road's version of "re-entry". The Jeep was to suffer the effects of this "vibration testing" for the remainder of the trip (more later).
We finally made it to Goler Wash and stopped to have lunch at an abandoned mine site. Crawled around through some of the old operations and generally had a good time.
It now was time to make our way through some of the tougher parts of the road and head toward our destination for the night, Butte Valley. Goler Wash winds it's way east through a narrow canyon. A few miles up we came upon the only really challenging portion of the road where Goler Wash lived up to it's name. Out came the video camera and Doug and I took our turns at negotiating a narrow wash section with some wet boulders. Doug went first in the Blazer and didn't have much problem, although there was a fair amount of tire spinning and rock kicking due to the wet rocks caused by the local spring draining down the middle of the road. I went next in the Cherokee and happened to take a slightly more difficult route (not on purpose, and Doug had kicked out a few of the loose rocks that would have made it easier). A review of the video reveals the Big Jeep getting air under the driver's side front tire in one spot and the rear end compressing over a big drop and coming within an inch of the bottoming on the bumper. I sure am glad I had the extra 3" of lift! One of the Jims was shouting "showoff" and commenting on the fact that I intentionally did it the hard way. I just replied that there is no hard way for an FSJ!
Just after this section, we worked our way up the wash some more and came across another abandoned mining operation. This one didn't look that old and featured...get this...an abandoned Wide Track Cherokee Chief!! It looked to be about a '74 or '75 and had last been registered in '80. It was orange, had a 360 and Quadratrac and was pretty much complete except someone had taken the Chief emblems from the rear quarter panels and the radiator was gone. The body was relatively rust free and didn't seem to have any damage. I guess I know where I can find some Wide-Track fenders if I ever need them.
We made our way further up the wash and passed one of Charlie Manson's old hideouts. We didn't stop to check that place out...too creepy. Eventually, we came upon a sign, out in the middle of nowhere, that stated "Welcome to Death Valley National Park". The road worked it's way through a pass called Mengel Pass which is named after Joseph Mengel, an old miner who was buried there in the 1940s. Mengel pass was the entry to our destination for the evening, Butte Valley, which is named after a 700 ft. butte made of rock layers tipped vertically that's called "Striped Butte"....Right at the pass is the grave of Joseph Mengel. Apparently it's good luck if you add a rock to the monument so we each added one...The extra luck came in handy later.
The other side of the pass led us into the Butte Valley. As we drove along, we passed a couple old cabins that are available for people to stay in, but we didn't stop. Our destination was a bit further along at a place called Anvil Springs and a cabin known as the Geologist's Cabin. We were in luck, the cabin was empty and we unpacked to stay the night.
Let me describe this cabin. It was approximately 10'x15' and the walls were made of rocks. On one end was a fireplace built as a part of the wall. Unbelievably, this place is immaculate! Apparently, some regular visitors have taken it upon themselves to periodically add improvements and they have fixed it up to the point that people who stay there feel obligated to leave it in a better condition than when they found it. The place even had a flagpole and a flag (properly folded) waiting on a shelf inside. The only furnishings were a couple of chairs and a table with a CLEAN table cloth. There was even a sink with a drain! People leave supplies and wood and books and magazines for the next people visiting. Inside was a log book where people jot down their impressions and experiences. There were even photocopies of some of the older notebooks that went back 4 or 5 years. Just below the cabin was a running spring which supplied water to the only tree in the valley, a large cottonwood. Looking out the window of the cabin you saw an expansive view of the floor of the valley and looked straight out at the feature the valley was named after, the "Striped Butte". Overall, pretty cool.
Although I had been hearing some new squeaks and clunks up the whole Golar Wash, I didn't bother to check over the Cherokee that night. It seemed that a Gin and Tonic was more appealing than climbing under the rig. I figured it was just some of the new suspension parts that needed to be retightened and would take a look in the morning. We had a great view of the Hale-Bopp Comet that night and basically marveled at the fact we actually would be sleeping indoors with a fire that night. When bedtime came around we just rolled the sleeping bags out on the concrete floor of the cabin and listend to the wind rattle the rope on the flagpole.
The next morning, after breakfast, I went to look over all the suspension parts on the Cherokee. Nothing was loose and I was kind of puzzled about where the noises were coming from. One thing that HAD come loose was the charcoal cannister which had been shaken right out of it's mounting hoop. Well...we went out hiking around the cabin and checked out some of the mining digs right by the cabin. This took all morning and we then headed back to the cabin for lunch. After lunch, we fired up the rigs and drove over a small pass to a back canyon called Wood Canyon which ended up in another mine site whose claim was still being kept current and had an interesting collection of tin shacks and even had a school bus. How they got that bus up that road boggles the mind! I still was hearing the new squeaks but now it also sounded like the fan was hitting the shroud every once in awhile...hmmm. Since I had done some work on the radiator and shroud last week, I thought something had settled. So, back at the cabin I loosened the mounting bolts and readjusted the shroud. We then cooked up dinner and had another great night of shooting the bull and watching Hale-Bopp.
Saturday morning we awoke to another cool sunrise over the valley. I also awoke to it being my birthday! After eating breakfast, we started cleaning up the cabin to leave it in better shape than we had found it and a guy and his two sons drives up and asks if we were planning on staying there that night. We told him we were just leaving and it was all his. Looking through the log books the night before, we came to realize that rarely does a night go by that the cabin isn't occupied. Simply amazing. When we started up the Cherokee to leave, the fan was making all kinds of noise hitting the shroud. This was really wierd. Still thinking that it had something to do with the radiator work I had done, I loosend the mounting bolts and shifted the shroud over so it wouldn't hit and we finally left. After leaving the cabin, we drove the rigs over to the base of the Striped Butte and planned our assault to the summit. After about 45 min., we had climbed the 700 ft. to the top of the butte and found a sealed aluminum can that had sheets of paper in it that people had left, another log book! The view of the valley was incredible. Doug decided to try out his cell phone but didn't think he'd get any service since he had tried it from the cabin with no luck. Unbelievably, the cell phone worked and he gave a call home. It'll be interesting to see what city is listed on the phone bill. After making our way back down the Butte, we climbed back into the rigs and began traversing the floor of the valley which led through a small pass that emptied into Death Valley. I was still hearing the squeaks and stuff that seemed to be coming from the suspension but thought I would take care of them once we got home.
The road out of the valley wasn't anywhere near as difficult as the way we had come in and obviously had suffered a lot more traffic. In fact we passed a group of Ford trucks that was working their way in. There were at least 3 built up Broncos, a brand new Expedition, and a lone CJ-7 in the group. We checked out a couple of talc mines on the way out, and one of them even had a hot spring fed swimming pool! Boy, those miner's really had it rough.
We were about 5 miles from the paved road that goes throught the middle of death valley when all of the sudden the fan starts hitting the shroud again...Arghhh. Checking under the hood, I could see that the fan was within a 1/2 inch of the lower radiator hose. A quick look at the driver's side engine mount showed that the rubber section was being split apart! But why was the engine moving down and to the left? A closer look showed that the engine mounting bracket attached to the block was missing one of the three bolts, the other bolt on the bottom was completely loose and was only being held in by the exhaust pipe, and the top bolt was in the process of loosening up. AHA! That's why the engine was moving down and the mount was being torn apart. Luckily the mount wasn't completely separated. (I found out later that the engine mounting bracket was actually broken). We got out the bottle jack and jacked the engine up so I could get the remaining two bolts tightened back up and then found another bolt that would take the place of the missing one. Once this was all back together and the jack was removed, you couldn't even see that the motor mount was seperating and the engine was being held in place.
Whew! We took it easy over the remaining washboard and the noises I had been hearing all disappeared except for a slight squeaking over big bumps which I think is the two halfs of the rubber mount (where it separated) rubbing together. Once we hit the pavement, Scott and I decided to stay on the pavement and try to make it home that night. So we said goodbye to the Jims and Doug (they were going to camp out another night) and pointed the rig towards home. About 6 hours later, the Cherokee was tucked safely into bed in the driveway and I was feeling very lucky about catching the problem before the motor mount completely gave way. I'm pretty sure the first bolt vibrated out over that initial "Washboard from Hell" and the other two were slowly trying to make their exit. Unbelievably, these bolts didn't have any lock washers on them. I think I need to go over any thing that was touched during the engine replacement that the previous owner paid for. Every problem I've had so far has been related to this botched up job. Anyway, that was the trip...Hope I didn't bore you.
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