Many of my stories in the Saline Valley Chronicles have been about days gone by. Recollections of good times passed and past. Some things never change (for better or worse) and my most recent trip into the Valley brought that truth home.

Desert dwellers tend to be hoarders. In a corner of the Mojave as remote as Saline Valley, this convention was born of necessity. It is a long way to town and we have often had to make do with what we had. The more we have, perhaps the greater the chance that another man’s junk will turn into a useful item that saves the day. Necessity is also the mother of invention and crafty innovation has often proven to be a marvelous pass-time.

Making do with less

A case in point was a repair we effected in the spring of 1986. Our friend Art (better known as Hard Rock) was trying to leave camp in his FJ40 Landcruiser for his Bunker Hill mill site on the north pass. He could not quite manage to make it out of camp. His Toyota kept stalling out after a few sputters and spurts in whatever direction he tried to point the vehicle. Camp members gathered with beers and ideas to lean over the hood and contemplate and re-mediate the dilemma. Great minds assembled, we determined the carburetor was loading up, which is to say too much gas was being dumped into the engine without the proper mixture of air and fuel. The top of the carburetor was removed, and we discovered that the needle valve that controls the float was missing a necessary spring. (For those without a working knowledge of such fuel systems, please forgive my lack of a long-winded explanation and just take my word for it). How this spring disappeared is anyone’s guess. It was not there, nor should the engine have run in any situation without it, but there we were, and the necessary spring not. No carb kit in camp, no spare carbs for parts. Epiphany time. A Bic lighter was dissembled and the spring under the flint was removed. The perfect size if we could cut it to the proper length. After a few adjustments, Hard Rock successfully made his way down the road toward his mill site and all members of the pit crew resumed their consumption of beers feeling well vindicated in their craft.

It is generally conceded that no one can remember everything one needs upon arriving to camp, but the chances are good that within a distance of fifty yards, someone will have whatever you have forgotten. It just did not work out that way (exactly) in my case on my most recent visit, but I made things work anyway. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, you will get what you need.

Same challenge, different day

One of my camper battery terminals after the fact

With age and treachery, my style of camping has evolved to a level of comfort and technology that perhaps makes my experience vulnerable to the unanticipated weak link in a longer chain. I enjoy a cab-over camper on the back of my truck that can get me out of bad weather and provide certain levels of so-called civilized amenities. Put another way, the best laid plans of mice and men …. etc. As soon as the sun went down, and the solar panels ceased to receive an adequate supply of photons, my battery went flat. A few portable LED lights provided what we needed to cook, and the refrigerator would remain cold enough in December to not require the electrical system to relight the unit. Perhaps the camper battery has gone south on me? The next morning I removed one of the dual vehicle batteries from under the hood of my Dodge and put it in place of the camper battery. I notice the terminals could use some cleaning. I have a terminal cleaning brush and some steel wool. The solder-less connectors on the positive terminal are easy to remove and clean, but the wing nut on the ground terminal is frozen solid and I am sure if I force the issue the corroded terminal will break apart.

Plumbers tape makes for a good collection of make-shift washers

All appears to be well with the new battery and improved terminals, if not improved connectors beneath the wing nut on the ground side. Sun goes down again, and the newer battery goes flat. Repeat emergency steps from Night 1. The next morning, I start asking around if anyone has an extra spare battery terminal with them. Everyone agrees they have extra terminals, and they are all back in respective garages, just like mine. Time to improvise. I carry several tool boxes that contain a bit of this, a bit of that, and some more of the next thing. I think I have a backup. I am sure the corrosion on the solder-less connectors on the ground terminal are the source of my problems. Time to do or die, and I commit to removing the wing nut. Sure enough … SNAP. I have extra 8-gauge wire and connectors. Jumper wire attached to the terminal clamp bolt, another connector to secure the jumper wire to the collection of connectors for the camper system with the aid of a small bolt and nut. Bolt is too small for the head of said bolt to adequately secure the camper connectors, so I need a washer bigger than any on hand. I do have a roll of plumber’s tape. I break off a piece to jury rig the system. Worked like a charm, and problem solved. Beer drinking resumes with satisfaction quotient fully charged along with the battery system.

Turns out the original battery was flat as well as the connections being compromised through some corrosion. I will admit that going into the Valley I thought I might be facing a problem. The vehicle had been sitting for seven months, and we had but a few days between our return from Alaska and our departure for the Valley. I trusted the old Yankee ingenuity to sort things out along the way (based on some prior experience and confidence). When I got back to town, I replaced the battery and the terminals, and all is well under the sun as well as after said sun goes down.

Challenges continue

Getting back to town was another matter altogether. While we were camped at the Springs, we watched an NPS pump truck come in to pump out the outhouse. The NPS-installed vault toilet was full to the point of hardly being able to close the lid on the seat. The following day we packed up our truck and headed out via the south pass. We were doing just fine, making our way up the snow-packed grade to within spitting distance of the top of the pass when who do we run across, but the abandoned pump truck stuck in the middle of the road, apparently unable to proceed. Knowing the pass to have snow, why they did not come equipped with chains is beyond me. It was not their first rodeo. Furthermore, why they did not back their truck up 100 feet to where there is a pull out so that other vehicles could move around them is beyond me. The wife and I get out to look around and determine there is nothing to do but turn around and exit via the North Pass. It will be a long day. Returning to our truck, I find to my dismay I have managed to lock the keys inside the cab. We can see them in the ignition; both doors locked. The spare key has managed to shake loose from its completely secure hiding place under the truck. Jimmying windows is unsuccessful. My wife leans against the side of the truck to steady herself on the ice and snow and the truck begins to slide sideways. Don’t do that! Finally, I successfully jimmy the rear slider-window through the camper slider with a hammer and we are on our way back to the Valley.

And you know what it is full of.

On the Valley floor, I have a recollection of noticing the headlights were not illuminated when we arrived in camp four days earlier. I better check, since we will not get back on the highway before dark. Sure enough, no headlights. We spend a night camped next to the dunes. Not altogether bad, enjoying a quiet camp away from the springs next to a self-contained campfire under a crescent moon and tapestry of stars beneath the wall of the Inyo Mountains. We get an early start the next day. I often trust the Universe to have me in the right place at the right time for the right reason. I am trying to make sense of the last day in that respect.  Our 4WD diesel makes it up through the 7,000-foot snowy pass without issue. While I am at the junction of the Saline Valley Road and the pavement to Big Pine the question may be answered. I turn away two Sprinter vans (2WD of course) who ask about the advisability of travelling into the Valley. Chances are we might have had two passes blocked for who knows how long.

And that was the week that was; reminiscent of so many years that were.

Please feel welcome to add your similar story (there are many out there) to the comment section of this blog and make them a part of the Saline Valley Chronicles.

As you read these humble efforts to transcribe some heritage and history, if you find you have some correction, clarification, or tidbit to add, I encourage you to add a comment at the end of this blog. Contributions will be welcome toward the final project, and all due credit will be given.
Please consider visiting the home page: Saline Valley Chronicles for a complete list of chapters published to date, and an overview of the project.

Saline Valley first inspired me to pursue a more serious engagement with the art of photography. My favorite picks are shared on my Smug Mug Gallery of Saline Valley Art at:

Saline Chronicles directory and overview: