Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Furnace Creek, Death Valley, California


Sundown over the Panamint Range from Furnace Creek Campground, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

You Won't Need a Furnace at Furnace Creek in Death Valley


In November 2016, on my first trip to Death Valley National Park, I started with a sundown visit to Zabriskie Point. As darkness gathered on the floor of Death Valley, I located my campsite at the Furnace Creek Campground. The temperature felt warm, but after sunset, it no longer felt amazingly hot. With the doors and windows open on my coach, I was able to move indoors as the evening progressed.
 
Near Furnace Creek Campground, Death Valley National Park, a rare rain shower falls on the Amargosa Range - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The campground itself will look familiar to anyone who has camped in a National Park. You will recognize the layout as a series of loop-roads. Each loop has fifteen or twenty campsites. At Furnace Creek Campground, a recent change in management resulted in the repaving of all its roads and refurbishment of water and restroom facilities. The setting is ancient, yet the campground feels new again. Unobstructed views of both the Amargosa Range and the Panamint Range add drama to the scene.
 
Since the few full-hookup RV-sites were long since reserved, I settled for two nights of dry camping in a dry desert. Luckily, the water supply at Furnace Creek is sufficient for cooking and bathing. The first Anglos to visit Furnace Creek in 1849 barely found sufficient water to survive until their Prior to motor transit, the "Big Wheel" was used to drag large logs from distant mountains to Furnace Creek construction projects - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)rescue in 1850. By the early twentieth century, residents and tourists at the village of Furnace Creek could enjoy potable water piped to the town from artesian springs in the nearby Amargosa Range. Today, groundwater withdrawal and storage tanks support what looks like a thriving oasis, but is actually doomed to return to its dry state at a time uncertain. With such paltry rainfall in Death Valley, groundwater pumping is ultimately unsustainable. Except for rare seasonal flow, what once was a true oasis along Furnace Creek is now mostly a dry wash.

 
Although there is a wide range of tourist services at Furnace Creek, the 2010 U.S. Census pegged the fulltime population as only twenty-four hardy souls. Admittedly, most of the public and private facilities in Furnace Creek are air-conditioned, making life easier for heat-weary visitors and workers. One exception to that is the Native Americans known as the Timbisha Shoshone TribeAccording to Spokesmodel Carrie McCoy, the Death Valley Railroad never made it to Furnace Creek, although Locomotive DVRR2 still stands there at the Borax Museum - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com). As a federally recognized tribe, their small, private enclave adjacent to Furnace Creek appeared to be hot, dusty and dry. What few trees and shrubs that survive the harsh climate provide scant shade or relief from the sweeping winds. Recent data suggest that the Timbisha tribal population in Death Valley is around forty individuals.

 
During my November 2016 visit, there was not a trace of water on the vast salt pan, including the Upper Basin, Middle Basin and Badwater, which lays almost 280-feet below sea level. Furnace Creek, on the other hand, is only 190-feet below sea level. This difference in elevation means that in wet years, water will overflow the Upper Basin, pass through the Middle Basin and form a large, shallow lake at Badwater Basin. Salt, borax and alkali, which dries in Looking from Furnace Creek toward Stovepipe Wells in November 2016, the roadside was ravaged by flooding, but the Death Valley salt flats were dry - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the connecting channels suggests a short-lived, landlocked stream that may flow through Death Valley in the springtime. Upon my return in February 2017, all three basins contained surface water. By April 2017, almost all of the surface water had evaporated or settled into the graben, leaving the salt flats dry and susceptible to wind erosion and vandalism.

 
While visiting Furnace Creek in February 2017, water seemed to be everywhere. The dry lakes were wet. Furnace Creek flowed down its traditional course and water fell from the sky, in the form of rain. Upon arrival, the evidence of flood damage to roads and trails was evident. Orange traffic cones stood guard at many small washouts along Highway 190, leading to Furnace Creek. Nearby Artists Drive, a one-way formerly paved road through spectacular canyon scenery remained washed In February 2017, after an exceptionally rainy winter in Death Valley, crews were busy rebuilding parts of Artists Drive in Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)out. After historic winter rains had swept that road away in many places, workers used heavy machinery to make repairs. During our February visit, only gentle showers passed through Furnace Creek. The showers cleared the air, leaving the scent of moist creosote in an otherwise desolate place.

 
Why was the winter of 2017 so wet in Death Valley? My personal observations may or may not be scientifically correct, but here is my theory. North of Furnace Creek the Panamint Range to the west and the Amargosa Range to the east form a sort of wind tunnel. Between Tin Mountain (8,953 ft. elev.) and Grapevine Peak (8,743 ft. elev.), a cyclonic effect can arise. If little moisture is available, a whirlwind or “dust devil” will rise and sweep toward Furnace Creek and Badwater to the south. If the counter-clockwise wind is strong enough, it can A dry "Dust Devil" rotates counter-clockwise near the Devil's Cornfield in Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)pull moisture from the Eastern Sierra Nevada Range and feed it toward the salt flats of Death Valley.

 
Another contributing factor in rainfall is dust particles. In February, I watched a tall, thin strand of wind shear traveling along the course I already described. As it reached the Middle Basin, it had enough strength to kick up untold amounts of dust from the periphery of the standing water. Soon, we could see a large cloud of dust and rain forming against the eastern slopes of the Panamint Range. Upon our return to the campground, another shower swept from North to South. With the minimal moisture we experienced, only the rock strewn landscape hinted at floodwaters issuing forth from every canyon and wash in Death Valley. The recent winter rains must have been a dangerous, yet remarkable sight.

 
Looking from the Furnace Creek Inn toward Telescope Peak in February 2017, dust from a wind vortex lifted to create rainfall in Death Valley - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)By April 12, 2017, when I again visited Furnace Creek, it was hot and dusty. Again, I dry camped, but this time it was warmer, approaching 100 °F (37.8 °C). With the wind and sand looking to sandblast my truck, I decided to hunker down inside the trailer until the wind abated. Using my cordless vacuum to keep up with the dust in my coach was almost a full time job. If I had opened the door, it might have blown off its hinges, but would surely fill my coach with even more dust. With my afternoon spent inside a hot coach, I began to understand how the original pioneers of 1849 must have felt. Trying to allay both wind and dust, they had nothing more than brush lean-tos to protect them against the onslaught.
 
For me, temperatures above 100 °F (37.8 °C) are uncomfortable. In the heat of summer, many Norwegians visit Death Valley. Considering the cool air in In February 2017, a rare rainstorm clears at sunset, Furnace Creek, Death Valley California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)their home country, Norwegians come to Death Valley in the summer just to feel outdoor heat for the first time in their lives. Whether my Norwegian story is true or not, German, Dutch other Northern Europeans find Death Valley to their liking. No matter what time of year, it is common to hear people speaking various European languages in and around Death Valley National Park. Since older members of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe still speak their native language, you might have the rare opportunity to hear that language spoken at Furnace Creek, as well.

Zabriskie Point in Death Valley - It's not a gap...it's an abyss!

Near sundown at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Zabriskie Point in Death Valley - It's not a gap...it's an abyss!

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park - “How you get there depends on where you're at.”

For most of my life, I avoided Death Valley like the plague. The stories about an ill-fated attempt to reach California by wagon train in 1849 - 1850 created a daunting image. The graben of Death Valley holds the record as the hottest place on Earth, with five consecutive days in 1913 registering 129 °F (54 °C), or above. Annual precipitation at Death Valley averages less than 2.5-inches. Further, its existence as the lowest point of elevation in the United States added to the negative connotations in my mind.

After moon-rise, the Zabriskie Point sign is easier to locate - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Then, in November 2016, I traveled from Las Vegas, through Pahrump, Nevada and on to Death Valley National Park, California. Other than photos and video I had viewed of the area, I had no idea what to expect. What I found upon arrival was reminiscent of a Martian landscape, rather than Earth. Volcanism, erosion and rocky or sandy soil abounded. As distinguished from the face of Mars, there were a few hardy plants and animals, but otherwise, normal life-support seemed unlikely.

Before arriving at my campsite in Furnace Creek, I visited Zabriskie Point. Relatively unknown until the latter 20th century, Zabriskie Point became the prime location and namesake of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 counterculture flick. Filmed in 1969, with music by Pink Floyd and Jerry Garcia, the movie features an incoherent plot, as if the cast and crew were not only blazing in the sun, but also blazing on lysergic acid (LSD). In fact, the often-panned, but now cinematically celebrated film "set the scene" for many other desert trips In the 1970 film, Zabriskie Point, an explosion wipes out a scenic house in the desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)of fame or infamy.

On Oct. 12, 1969, at Barker Ranch, in Death Valley, just north of the San Bernardino County town of Trona, the murder spree of the Charles Manson “family” ended with his arrest. In September 1973, members of the rock band, The Eagles accompanied singer and songwriter Gram Parsons to the place and time of his death in Joshua Tree, California. According to public records, between October 2003 and November 2013, twenty people of lesser fame died in or around Death Valley. On July 6, 2014, hikers in the badlands near Zabriskie Point discovered the body of British actor Dave Legeno, known for his role as werewolf Fenrir Greyback in three of the ‘Harry Potter’ films. Temperatures at the time of Legeno’s death were as much as 123 °F (50.5 °C).

Near sundown, the light at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley reveals the features of the land - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In the film Zabriskie Point, I remember a scene with the male and female stars standing on a tiny pinnacle of land. Filmed at sunset, one can see the Panamint Range looming and glooming in the west. As the stars embrace, the camera revolves around them. Amid clouds of dust, we see lots of skin and writhing bodies. Amidst the whipping wind and the grand vistas at sundown, we see dozens of couples apparently copulating on the hillocks below. After almost fifty years, both film acolytes and the curious continue to trek up the hill to see that famous spot. That tiny pinnacle of film-fame has eroded into dust. Oh, that the faithful shall not trample His grave, too.

In 2004, a flash flood swept across the highway, uprooting and destroying the substantial concrete pit-toilets previously installed in the parking area. After extensive repairs, both then and in 2014, there is now a paved pathway, leading up to a viewing plaza. With its low stone wall, the plaza is about the size of a baseball diamond. Although the once remote place called Zabriskie Point is no longer so remote, the views at sundown are every bit as exciting or sublime, depending on one’s energies at the time.

After visiting Death Valley for the first time, I registered the internet name DVJim.com - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)
On November 10, 2016, my first visit to Zabriskie point occured less than two days after the U.S. election of “He Who Cannot Be Named” (HWCBN). After sunset, I lingered to talk with people from across the United States, and beyond. “Do you think he will open up the national parks and monuments for oil and gas exploration?” one man asked. “No”, I replied. “The U.S. Antiquities Act of 1906, signed by then president Theodore Roosevelt will protect our esteemed parks and monuments from HWCBN and his penchant for Old Energy exploitation”.

On April 27, 2017, HWCBN signed an executive order reviewing and attempting to rollback or eliminate every U.S. national monument created since the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, during the Clinton administration. The final list includes the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and Craters of the Moon in Idaho. Thank you, Mr. HWCBN for protecting our national
Your tax dollars at work... Since the flood of 2004, all Zabriskie Point facilities have been restored - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)heritage.

On an April 2017 visit to Zabriskie Point, I noticed a curious recurring phenomenon. Once again, the sun set through the abysmal gap, framed by the Panamint Range, which is visible west of Zabriskie Point. At sunset, the place darkened like a theater when the lights go down. After staring toward the sun for the final fifteen minutes of daylight, my eyes could not readily adjust to the twilight and approaching darkness. Although the sun still shone for a time on the Amargosa Range to the east, the Zabriskie Point plaza looked like there had been a solar eclipse.

After gazing around the plaza, I snapped a few photos of the sunlight as it receded from the Amargosa Range. As darkness rapidly approached, all visible landforms were in shadow. Since there was nothing more to see, I sauntered down the sinuous pathway that led to the parking lot below. Here is
On a recent visit to Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, Plush Kokopelli vowed to resist the destruction and decay of all U.S. National Parks and Monuments - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the curious part. At the end of each visit, I spotted several photographers carrying long-lens cameras. Each was hoofing it up the pathway to the viewing area. I wanted to say, “It is all over. Don’t even bother going up there. There is nothing more to see”.

If you plan to visit Zabriskie Point and view that famous sunset, do not refer to the official sunset times listed in your almanac or on a weather website. They will list the time of day when the sun slips below the Earth’s horizon, not when it disappears behind the Panamint Range, which may be ten or fifteen minutes earlier.

Each time that I observed a Zabriskie Point sunset, several photographers ran toward the ancient plaza. With the sun already set, one can only hope that they arrived in time to take pictures of the abyss.

Crescent Junction, Utah - A Personal History


Ms. Bobbe Wimmer Kidrick at work in Crescent Junction, ca. 1950 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Let's Go Places and Find New Roads to Crescent Junction, Utah

Recently, I received an email message from Ms. Bobbe Wimmer Kidrick. She wrote, “I read your articles about Crescent Junction, Utah with a great deal of pleasure. My grandfather, Thomas G. Wimmer initiated the homesteading of Crescent Junction. I have pictures of family members, some of the buildings and additional history.”

Bobbe went on, “The history of Crescent Junction really began with the homestead. My grandfather, Thomas G. Wimmer was a diversified businessman (sheepman, river runner and freight hauler) who lived in Green River in the early 1900's. In 1916, he contracted to haul equipment from the railroad to build the copper mine at Big Indian, some fifty miles south of Crescent, in the Lisbon Valley, Utah.”

Thomas Wimmer breaks a new trail to what would become Crescent Junction, ca. 1916 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)“At the time (1915/16), the road didn't go directly from Moab to Crescent. It went north as far as the place then called Valley City. From that central point, the road veered west to Floy (AKA Little Grand) and east to Thompson (now Thompson Springs). Because there was a railroad siding at Crescent (Brendel), he decided it would be easier on his team to go directly north to Crescent. A short time into the operation, he persuaded his two daughters, Laura and Marg to file for a homestead at what is now Crescent Junction.”

“Laura and Marg filed for 160-acres each, and my dad, Ed Wimmer, being too young to file, lived there with them. Ed fell in love with the desert and no matter where he was, he was always ‘going home’. For the required five years, Laura, Marg and Ed lived at the railroad siding known as Brendel, with no road access closer than Thompson, which is six miles to the east. In 1923, after Laura Wimmer, daughter of Thomas Wimmer and homesteader at Crescent Junction - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)living there for the required five years, the two young women received the patents for 160-acres each. They later divided the 320-acres into three parcels of 106 acres each, and deeded the middle parcel to their Dad (Thomas Wimmer). This then was the beginning of Crescent.”

Bobbe said, “I am telling you all this to put it in perspective. Although I was born in Moab, I now live in the Salt Lake area. Here, I will tell my father, Ed Wimmer’s story.”

“Ed Wimmer was born in Salt Lake City in 1900, but spent much of his formative years in Green River, Utah. He grew to love the desert, to the point that no matter where he went throughout his life, he always returned. After graduating from East High in SLC, he married Erma Snyder and they moved to Helper, Utah, where he worked as a Railroad Express Messenger. As such, he was required to carry a gun because he took the mine payroll from Helper to Sunnyside, a distance of thirty-three Marg Wimmer, daughter of Thomas Wimmer and homesteader at Crescent Junction - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)miles. Their oldest child, Bette was born in Helper.”

“The family moved to Los Angeles shortly after Bette was born and Ed worked for Crescent Creamery. Their second child, Bud was born at this time. From there, the growing family moved back to Utah, living in the town of Cliff. At that time, son Duane was born in nearby Fruita, Colorado. Soon thereafter, the family moved again to Los Angeles, where Ed worked in the petroleum industry. Their fourth child, Pat was born at this time.”

“In March of 1932, an earthquake shook Southern California and the country was in the middle of the Depression. After arranging with his brother, Andy to buy calves and start a dairy heard in Utah, the whole family traveled by automobile back to Utah. Even in early April, it was hot in the desert, so they traveled at night for the first two days. Bette remembers Las Vegas as being little more than a small oasis, and certainly no casinos.”

Marg and Ed Wimmer, children of Thomas Wimmer and homesteaders at Crescent Junction - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)“Their journey took them through Mesquite, Nevada, and on to St. George and Cedar City, Utah. They turned east at Cove Fort and then through Price, and eventually to Green River. When a hoped-for ranch in Green River was unavailable, Ed moved the family to Moab in 1934, where he continued to try to make a go of the dairy business. The last child, Bobbe was born there in 1934. Even after moving the family to Roosevelt, the dairy business did not thrive.”

“When the Second World War broke out in 1941, Ed secured a job as a welder in Salt Lake at the Remington Arms plant. Also during that time, he worked in Hawaii as a welder, repairing damage sustained during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  As the War ended, he then returned to Salt Lake, where he started a service station. In 1947, Ed Wimmer headed back to Crescent for what would be the last time. There he established the Crescent Junction Service and Café, which he and Erma owned jointly until his death in 1951. Erma retained ownership of both businesses until 1969, when she turned the service station over to son Pat and the Café over to daughter Bette and her husband, Al Lange.”

Ed Wimmer, Father of Bobbe Wimmer Kidrick, at Crescent Junction in the summer of 1947 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)“After the War ended, Dad headed back to Crescent. He had very little money but owned a redwood livery barn in the backyard of the house in Salt Lake. After dismantling the barn, Dad, Bud and Duane left Salt Lake with a load of wood and high hopes to begin the building at Crescent Jct. They laid the foundation of Crescent in July of 1947. It was on July 24, that they poured the cement floor. At the time, Dad marked the date in the wet cement writing, ‘Just 100 years after Brigham (Young)’.”

“Mom and Dad gave their all to Crescent and in many respects; they expected the same from the rest of us. Money was always hard to come by, so we made do with what was available. Mom sold the house in Salt Lake. The proceeds went to pay debts incurred by an employee at Dad’s service station on Main Street, Salt Lake. Dad felt honor-bound to clear up everything even though he was not legally responsible. I also found out, years later, that he had cashed savings bonds belonging to me to buy materials for the first building. No matter… it was a family project and we all did what we could. Some of the proceeds from a small curio business I handled during the early Ed and Erma Wimmer at Crescent Junction during construction of the original service station - Click for large image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)1950s also went into the business.”

“Providence has a way of looking out for those who can't or don't look out for themselves. In Crescent, we had been using a Koehler Light Plant for power. Then, just a few months before Dad died, Utah Power & Light built a small sub-station to provide electricity to Crescent. By that time, all the debts from Salt Lake had been paid and there was a growing business with comfortable living quarters. Dad (Ed Wimmer) died in October 1951, but in his fifty-one years, he had done what he set out to do. He made it home to Crescent, and in doing so, took some of us ‘home’ with him.”

“Mom (Erma Wimmer), was often seen as strong willed and opinionated, but over the next eighteen years, those traits would serve her well. Upon dad’s death in 1951, she became sole owner of the business. From 1947 through 1966, Crescent’s water problem was solved by hauling water from Thompson, Crescent Junction, looking south toward Moab, Utah in the 1940s - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)six-miles east. At first, we used a fifty-gallon barrel on the back of a pickup. Later, as need dictated, we graduated to a 1000-gallon tank on a larger truck. A cistern was built and the water dumped into it, to be pumped out as needed.”

“The cistern was in place until 1966, when mom obtained a loan from Utoco (Utah Oil Refining Company), to buy the necessary supplies to build a waterline from Thompson. Pat, with the help of family and friend Tony Pene, walked a Ditch Witch from Thompson to Crescent during 1966 and ‘67. In the resulting trench, they installed the waterline. The loan was paid back through gas sales for the next several years.”

“In the early 1970s, there was a move underway to build Interstate Highway I-70 between Colorado and I-15 in Western Utah. Mom became aware of the fact that the new highway was proposed to go through Grand County. When she discovered that its route would bypass Crescent Junction, about four miles
The original service station at Crescent Junction, Utah, thirty miles north of Moab - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)south of the existing highway between Thompson and Green River, she took action. She approached Archie Hamilton, the project manager, and offered to trade acreage at Crescent for the new project. He accepted her offer and I-70 now runs parallel to the old highway. If built as originally planned, I-70 would have bypassed Crescent Junction, leaving the Wimmer family business high and dry.”

“When Aunt Marg died in 1949, she left her original portion of the Homestead to Dad (Ed Wimmer). Upon his death, under Utah law, the property was intestate. As such, one-third went to Mom (Erma Wimmer) and the remaining Old map of Crescent Junction, Utah, showing the original roads from Floy to Valley City and on to Thompson - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)two-thirds to his five children. By 1955, Bud, Duane, Pat and I were all married. Bud lived in California, Duane in Moab, teaching school, Pat at Crescent, managing the station and my husband Ralph and I lived in various places throughout the country, due to his work. We always kept our mailing address at Crescent and Mom would forward it each week.”

“In 1969 mom got in touch with, Bud, Duane and me, saying that she was considering signing the business over to Pat and Al, in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship. She asked what we all thought about that idea. We all three agreed that it was her right to make the decision. She explained in the letter that she was feeling a certain amount of pressure to make sure the business remained, as it then existed. She did just that and the business remained that way until recent years.”

Ed Wimmer (1900-1951) at work in Crescent Junction, Utah ca.1950 -  Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)“Thomas Wolfe once said ‘You can't go home again’ and largely, he was right. It just all depends on how or what you define as home, I guess. I will never ‘go home again’ physically but I know ‘home’ is there at Crescent Junction.”


Here, I will express my appreciation to Bobbe Wimmer Kidrick. She is one of a few individuals who have both lived and worked at Crescent Junction, Utah. By sharing stories about her extended family and their home in the desert, she has made her “home” come alive.

In 2009, I first mention Crescent Junction in an article titled, “Rediscovering the Old Spanish Trail - Now it's a Freeway”. In 2010, I returned to the area and wrote “Green River to Floy, Utah, via Old Hwy. U.S. 6 & 50”. Later that year, I wrote, “Crescent Junction, Utah - It isn't Brendel Anymore”. In 2011, I wrote about the transfer of uranium mine tailings from Moab to a disposal site near Crescent Junction in, “The ‘Train of Pain’ Travels Thirty Miles from Moab to Crescent Junction”. In 2012, I wrote, “Interstate I-70 from Cove Fort to Crescent Junction, Utah”.

The "new" service station at Crescent Junction in the early 1950s, which forms the core of development still standing today - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Also in 2012, I wrote, “Brendel, Utah - Still Moving Around on the Map”. When Bobbe Wimmer Kidrick’s niece, Lani (Lee Anne Lange Asay) wrote to me with some pictures of Crescent Junction, I published, “A Resident of Crescent Junction, Utah Tells the History of the Place”. In 2014, when the Grand County Council made plans to defile the Sego Canyon Indian Rockart site near Thompson Springs, I wrote “Grand County Council Plans to Desecrate Sego Canyon’s Ancient Indian Heritage Site”.

If you find yourself traveling past Crescent Junction, Utah on I-70, be sure to stop at Papa Joe's Stop & Go for gas and refreshments. If you do, you will see firsthand the place homesteaded by the Wimmer family a century ago. You may also notice that in Crescent Junction, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Friday, February 17, 2017

NTSB Final Report on the 2015 Metrolink Oxnard Collision Omits Elements of "Probable Cause"


The Los Angeles Times edition featuring the deadly Oxnard Metrolink Collision of February 24, 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

NTSB Final Report on the 2015 Metrolink Oxnard Collision Omits Elements of "Probable Cause"

From the National Transportation Safety Board - Highway Accident Brief (Final Report), dated December 15, 2016:

“On Tuesday, February 24, 2015, in the predawn hours, Metrolink commuter train No. 102, operated by Amtrak, was en route from Oxnard, in Ventura County, California, to Los Angeles. As the train approached the South Rice Avenue grade crossing (near Oxnard) about 5:44 a.m., it collided with a 2005 Ford F450 service truck towing a two-axle utility trailer.”

The Metrolink cabcar in which Senior Engineer Glenn Steele and a student engineer were riding at the time of the deadly collision in February 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Probable Cause (According to the NTSB):

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the Oxnard, California, crash was the truck driver mistakenly turning onto the railroad right-of-way due to acute fatigue and unfamiliarity with the area.

The NTSB does not assign fault or blame for an accident or incident (probable cause only); rather, as specified by NTSB regulation, accident/incident investigations are fact-finding proceedings with no formal issues and no adverse parties… and are not conducted for the purpose of determining the rights or liabilities of any person.”


Having studied the Oxnard Metrolink collision of February 24, 2015 since its occurrence, I felt that the conclusions of NTSB Final Report omitted key facts. After analysis and reconstruction of the events leading up to the Metrolink Oxnard, my conclusions regarding the probable causes of the accident are as follows:

Memorial crosses attest to previous fatalities at the Fifth Street and Rice Avenue grade crossing where Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele lost his life - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)1. An inattentive and sleep-deprived utility truck driver turned his rig on to the tracks, leading to the collision.
2. An inattentive and sleep-deprived train crew failed to see or respond to lights on or near the tracks in sufficient time to stop the train.
3. Train Number 102 contained one older coach that did not incorporate current crash energy management (CEM) systems, leading to catastrophic failure of both its couplers.
4. The highway grade crossing had experienced twenty-one prior accidents, including one in which a driver had turned on to the tracks, resulting in a train collision.


Following is the official NTSB document list:

1. NTSB Launches Go-Team to Grade Crossing Accident in Oxnard, CA (February 24, 2015)
2. Preliminary Report Highway HWY15MH006, Executive Summary (March 19, 2015)
3. NTSB Opens Docket for 2015 Metrolink Accident (August 29, 2016)
4. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) “Final Report” on the 2015 Oxnard Metrolink Accident: Train and Truck Crash on Railroad Right-of-Way and Subsequent Fire (December 15, 2016)  PDF File

Beginning in April 2015, I published a series of blog articles that directly addressed or touched upon the February 24, 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision. In chronological order, they are:

The poorly marked and poorly maintained grade crossing at Fifth Street and Rice Avenue where the fatal Metrolink collision occurred in February 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)1.  Metrolink Oxnard Train Collision Report - April 29, 2015
2.  Deadly Crude Oil Trains Coming Soon - April 30, 2015
3.  Metrolink Train Crash, A Personal Story - June 30, 2015
4.  5th & Rice - A Deadly Railroad Crossing - July 23, 2015
5.  The Glenn Steele Memorial Overpass - July 24, 2015
6.  Metrolink to Spend $338 Million - September 2, 2015
7.  Metrolink Anti-Derailment Blade Failure - Sept. 6, 2015
8.  BNSF Locomotives on Metrolink Trains - October 1, 2015
9.  "Google Pop Car" - Rail Safety Plan - Nov. 18, 2015
10. Ventura County Rail Deaths Scandal - Dec. 4, 2015
11. Agencies Ignore Rail Safety Issues - March 16, 2016
12. Metrolink Ignores Mismatched Brakes - March 25, 2016
13. Ventura County, CA - Rail Safety 2016 - April 11, 2016
14. Ventura County - Deadly Rail Collision - May 2, 2016
15. It's Time to Audit Metrolink Operations - May 15, 2016
16. Metrolink - Meager Track Maintenance - July 6, 2016


The mechanical couplers on the old Bombardier coach (right) were a mismatch to the Rotem coach (left), resulting in complete failure of both Bombardier couplers in the February 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)To supplement the sixteen articles listed above, I also created a website at, www.5thandRice.com.. It compiles several of the articles listed above. The intent of the website is to highlight the dangers at the intersection and grade crossing at Fifth Street and Rice Avenue, Oxnard, California. That is where the deadly 2015 Metrolink collision took place.

How did I arrive at my own findings of probable cause?

First, I reviewed all official NTSB documents, including the 163 support documents released on August 29, 2016. Since the NTSB Final Report found that the utility truck driver embodied all probable causes of the Oxnard accident, I bypassed that evidence. Beyond the issues with the driver, Jose Sanchez Ramirez, I searched for other factors contributing to the actual collision.

My Final Report” uses the NTSB Final Report as its basis. First, I stripped out most of the information regarding the driver. Then, I filled in the blanks in the NTSB Final Report, inserting relevant text from other NTSB documents. My personal notes and comments are in red typeface. My intent was to create a narrative, using only public records as my source. In reorganizing the evidence, I begin with Precrash Events, and then move on to Crash and Postcrash Events. They are as follows:

As of December 2016, both the roadway and the markings at the Fifth Street and Rice Avenue grade crossing had deteriorated to a condition worse than when the Oxnard Metrolink collision occurred in February 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)1. Truck Driver Activities (abbreviated)
2. Train Crew Activities (including student engineer interview)
3. Video File (a second-by-second recreation of the collision)
4. Train Wreckage (including documentation regarding the mismatched train set)
5. Railroad and Roadway Infrastructure (including postcrash infrastructure deterioration since the 2015 collision)

Since “My Final Report” draws from resources with widely varying formats, please accept my apologies for any formatting issues. If you read the full narrative, it becomes obvious that probable cause includes more than a utility truck driver making a wrong turn in the darkness. In order to determine “probable cause”, we must evaluate other factors. In order to understand how and why this avoidable accident happened, we need to evaluate the utility truck driver, the train crew, the mismatched train set and existing conditions at the highway grade crossing.



No Media For Me On Inauguration Weekend - 2017


Plush Kokopelli joined me for two nights of winter camping in the Mojave National Preserve - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

No Media For Me On Inauguration Weekend - 2017

During the recent presidential inauguration, I planned to get as far away as possible from all broadcast and online media sources. After reviewing my old blog articles, I decided that the Hole in Wall Campground in the Mojave National Preserve was the place to go. In the lower elevations of the campground, my mobile telephone might access a cell tower somewhere near Needles, California. At the upper reaches, terrestrial signals are weak, with only AM radio and an occasional text message transiting through the ether.

Black Canyon Road completes the last ten miles to Hole In The Wall Campground, Mojave National Preserve, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As it happened, my winter camping trip to the desert was epic. In my coach, I had vintage wines, great food and forced-air, propane heating at my fingertips. My electrical power emanated from two 6-volt “golf cart batteries”. Combined, they offered 12-volts of power to my lights and appliances. The system allowed for “deep cycle” usage and quick recovery during recharge. In the campground, as the temperature dipped below 40-degrees, I set the thermostat as high as 71-degrees. As it converts from a liquid to a gaseous state, propane expands by a factor of 270. Even with extensive burning, my ten gallons of propane would suffice for several nights of warmth. As the night progressed, I could have worn shorts and t-shirt inside.

Overnight, I set the temperature at a comfortable 60-degrees. As I slept in luxury, the furnace cycled five or six more times. When I awoke the next morning, it was raining. I pushed a button on the control panel and the electric-powered awning extended fully over the outside Arrival at Hole In The Wall Campground, Mojave National Preserve - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)door of my coach. After sprinting through a light shower, I retrieved my old Honda EX1000 generator from the bed of my pickup truck. After pouring what we euphemistically call “gasoline” into its integral tank, I prepared to pull the recoil starter.

Over the past decade, the ethanol, or corn alcohol in our domestic fuel supply had twice clogged up the carburetor. Contemporary generators and automobiles have a pressurized fuel system that seals itself from leaks when not in use. My old Honda generator relied on gravity to feed the carburetor, thus there was no automatic shutoff of the fuel supply. As long as there was fuel in the tank, any change in barometric pressure would expand or contract the air in the fuel tank, thus sending a few drops of fuel into the carburetor.

The medical community entreats us not to eat or drink foods that contain corn syrup. Science After a cold night in the Mojave Desert, my Honda EX1000 generator failed to start - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)proved long ago that corn syrup would clog our arteries and lead to diabetes and incipient heart failure. As with corn syrup in the human body, so it is with “corn fuel” in an engine designed for real gasoline. By leaving a small amount of gas in the tank during storage, I had twice gummed-up the carburetor. Each time, the engine failed to start, requiring a costly rebuild. In my case, it took two such episodes to determine that the gas tank on my EX1000 must be empty when placed into storage. By now, it had been more than two years since I had run the generator.

Since my EX1000 uses a conventional carburetor, it needs to be “choked” in order to fire-up and start running. For those who have lived only in the “fuel injection era”, choking means physically limiting the air supply to the engine in order to increase the fuel-to-air ratio. Upon startup, it gives you more “bang for the buck”, as they used to say. After achieving “lift off”, so to speak, one can open the choke incrementally. Once the oil in the crankcase warms up, fully opening the choke allows the engine to run efficiently.

My Springdale travel trailer at Hole In The Wall Campground, Mojave National Preserve - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)I looked down at the choke-slider from above and behind the unit. From that odd angle, the hieroglyphics indicating that the choke was “open” or “closed” made no sense. After erroneously sliding it to the full-open position, I proceeded to pull on the recoil starter twenty or thirty times, with no success. By then, water was puddling four-inches deep beneath the aft-end of the coach and rain was whipping in my face. Enough was enough. I shoved the EX1000 under the coach and went inside to dry off.

The LED indicators in my coach showed that my “house batteries” were down to one-third of their normal power. Despite having to brave intermittent rain showers, I would dash out every couple of hours and run the engine on my Titan truck. Through an attached cable, the alternator on the Titan’s V-8 engine recharged my coach batteries. By nightfall, it was pouring rain, but the batteries recovered to two-thirds power. Feeling better about my power supply, I went inside, "The Other" prepared for a long, cold night in the Mojave Desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)planning to stay there until sunup.

When I sat down at the dinette, the seat of my pants felt wet and cold. In my haste to run the truck engine, I had left my shirttail hanging out of my two-piece rain suit. The shirttail was soaked and so was I. In order to warm up, I had to remove all of my wet clothes and replace them with dry apparel. In the desert cold, one can rapidly succumb to hypothermia. Since I was still on limited battery power, I did not raise the thermostat for warmth. Instead, I relied on my own metabolism to warm my clothes and me. When I sat back down, even the cushions of the dinette were damp. Would my bouts with the cold and the wet ever end?

After the storm cleared, temperatures in the Mojave Desert dropped to well below freezing - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After dark, it became colder still, so I wore three layers on my torso and pajamas beneath my jeans. On my feet were two pairs of socks and warm slippers. In order to save battery power, I used portable lights and even kept the radio off. Television was not an option. Normally I stay up until at least midnight, but it was so cold and dismal that I went to bed around 10 PM. Soon after getting in bed, I spilled a small portion of white wine on the bed sheets. In order to stay dry, I had to leave my previously warm spot and resettle on the opposite side of the bed.

As I lay listening to the rain and wind, the only other sound was the blower on the furnace, which was cycling on and off. Each time the furnace relighted, I would turn it down a degree or two, hoping to conserve battery power. By midnight, I had turned it down to about 52-degrees. Two days later, I discovered an air-gap where the slide-out meets the chassis of the coach. That small air gap had the same effect as leaving a door ajar. With the high winds that night, it felt like a fan was blowing cold air into the coach.

During the peak of the drought in 2013, The Great Reflector at Hole In The Wall Campground was dry enough to burn - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As I slept fitfully, the wind and the rain battered the outside of my coach. After the weather front passed through at 1 AM, the wind began gusting to over forty miles per hour. During previous camping trips, I had always put a “four-by-four” piece of wood under each of the leveling glides on the coach. Since the motorized leveling system on my current coach is so easy to use, I had become complacent. Instead of placing a solid piece of wood beneath each glide, I had lowered them directly on to the wet desert sand.

The “full-room slide out” was fully extended, thus cantilevering a lot of weight over the open desert. As the winds picked up, the coach would heal like a sailboat under sail. In reality, the coach did not move much, but it felt unstable and ready to blow over. My lucky stroke was that the pickup truck was upwind, helping break some of the wind forces. Also, the aerodynamic On a cold winter morning, The Great Reflector at the Hole In The Wall Campground, Mojave National Preserve - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)front end of the coach faced into the wind.

Whether it is our voting choices or our camping practices, sometimes we humans act against our self-interest. If I had not been obsessed with saving battery power, I would have used the motorized system to retract the slide-out into the coach. Rocking in my unstable cradle that night, I recalled that if the house batteries dipped below 11.5-volts, the hardwired carbon monoxide alarm would start wailing. Worse yet, the alarm would not stop until the batteries were sufficiently recharged. By the time I remembered that, it was freezing outside, so I did not venture out and run the truck engine.

The potential for a wailing alarm was more powerful than my fear that the coach would overturn, so I left the slide-out extended. With four-inches of water pooled beneath the rear leveling glides, that was not a wise idea. In the end, everything stayed upright. Still, for the better part of three hours, it felt like I was inside the tornado from The Wizard of Oz. After 3 It took layers of clothing to resist the cold air at my winter camp in the Mojave National Preserve - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)AM, the furnace stopped cycling and the wind gusts seemed to abate, or maybe I passed out, with a pillow over my head.

When I awoke, the sun shown above the low horizon to the east. As its rays struck the back window of the coach, the air inside slowly rose toward 55-degrees. Although the warming trend was encouraging, in order to feel comfortable, I needed more heat. Then, I remembered that a group of campers had spent the night in tents, down at the windiest, coldest part of the campground. How were they feeling that frigid morning, I wondered? After dressing as warmly as I could, I stepped out and walked toward my truck.

On a whim, I dragged the old Honda EX1000 generator out from beneath the coach, “choked it” and then pulled the rope. It fired-up on the first pull. The EX1000 employs some old technology, including what amounts to a small motorcycle engine mated to a 1000-watt After a stormy night, the sun shown on the snow at Hole In The Wall Campground, Mojave National Preserve - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)generator. Even when warm, it emits pollutants far above a current-generation “CARB Compliant” generator. With gloved hands, I plugged the power cord from the coach into the 120-volt electrical receptacle on the generator. Within 40-minutes, the coach was warm and toasty and the batteries registered two-thirds full. The price I paid for old technology that morning was to inhale exhaust gasses at my otherwise pristine desert campsite.

In order to avoid the exhaust, I explored the bounds of my rustic campsite, including the bed of my pickup truck. There, in a crate that carried my unused four-by-fours was half an inch of solid ice. Since my indoor/outdoor thermometer went missing, I can only assume that it got down to about 25-degrees overnight. Still, as the sun rose and the wind abated, the air warmed to about 45-degrees. Upon further inspection, my trailer tires were showing unusual wear, so I needed to buy new ones before returning home.

On a cold Mojave Desert morning, a roadrunner visited my campsite - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After two eventful nights at my desert camp, I headed for Needles, about fifty miles away. On my first trip to the Hole in the Wall Campground, eleven years ago, I had experienced a slow leak in one of my tires. After pumping it up above normal pressure, I hoped to get fifty-miles of travel before it deflated. Then, I had the choice of traveling cross-country on dirt roads to the town of Baker or heading to Needles and purchase new tires there. Good sense prevailed, so I had navigated paved roads and Interstate I-40 to Desert View Mobil, located on the old Needles Highway. Back then, I assumed that buying trailer tires in the desert would be akin to throwing money down a rat hole. Were they not just waiting for a desperate soul like me to fall into their money trap?

As it occurred, that first visit and twice since, the people at Desert View Mobil have treated me to free refreshments while I waited for a refit with new tires on each successive rig. Having bought three sets of tires at Desert View Mobil, I knew they could do the job. As I rolled to a Interstate I-40, westbound, approaching the Essex Road off-ramp - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)halt, the manager approached me saying, "You know your tires are shredding?" I said, "That's why I'm here". Before he mounted the new tires, I asked him to check my suspension links, which felt loose and wobbly on the road. No, the tires and suspension components I purchased that day were not free, but my new tires were higher quality than I could buy at any local tire store.

Soon, I had all new bolts, links and bushings on the suspension, plus four new eight-ply tires. Each new “wet-bolt” features a grease fitting and unlike the original nylon bushings, the new ones were solid bronze. In the future, I can lubricate the whole suspension system, mitigating excess tire wear and the loose handling I had previously experienced. Longtime Desert View Mobil mechanic, Ricky Wallace and his compatriot had me back on the road in less than three hours. Before I departed, they provided a free grease-job on my wheel bearings. As I headed for I-40, it felt like I was driving a brand new rig.

High Desert Mobil in Needles, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)While writing this article, I researched “Desert View Mobil” on the internet. One image led me to Yelp, which features mostly negative reviews of millions of businesses. The reviews for Desert View Mobil were true to form. Most Yelp reviewers seem to hate all small businesses. Eighty-percent of the Yelp reviews I read were extremely negative. How could my experience with this particular business be so good while many customers felt swindled, overcharged or defrauded?

As I said, Yelp is a “complainer’s paradise”, so do not expect to see any good news there. Also, remember that you are in the town of Needles, in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Nothing is cheaper in the desert. Next door, at the Dairy Queen, I bought the most expensive milkshake of my life. Desert travel is hard on vehicles, whether they are trailers, motor homes or automobiles. Why else would Desert View Mobil stock tires of almost every size? If you limp in on three wheels, as one vintage Savoy trailer did, do not expect a bargain, but do expect to I had new suspension links, wet bolts and bushings, plus four new eight-ply tires installed at Desert View Mobil in Needles, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)be back safely on the road in short order. As they say, time is money.

Interstate I-40 has more elevation changes than a roller-coaster. If a tire is going to fail, you can expect it to break apart somewhere near Needles. If you travel at high speed and have neglected routine maintenance, you will require help somewhere near High Desert Mobil. When the staff there points out that your tires are bare and your suspension is shot, do not blame them. Blame yourself for not fixing the problem before leaving home. Besides, they offer a two-year written warranty on parts and labor. Just keep the receipt in your glove box and stop in for a safety check each time you pass by.

When I was rolling again, it was too late to drive the 300-miles home. Instead, I headed down the long grade to Park Moabi, along the Colorado River. Although the County of San
The price of gasoline at High Desert Mobil in Needles, California from 2008 until 2017 (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Bernardino owns Moabi Regional Park, its concessionaire has renamed it “Pirate’s Cove”. Adjacent to old Route-66 and the Colorado River, the park began life in the 1930s as an itinerant travel camp for Dust Bowl escapees. In prime season, the restaurant now serves around 3000 meals each day. Boats from up and down the river flock to its lagoon. After anchoring, boaters can take a water taxi to the restaurant. If you have the time and money, you can take a float-plane ride, a speedboat ride or connect your RV to a full hookup next to the river.

Not wanting to spend the extra ten dollars for a full hookup, I elected to go with “water and power only”. That meant I would have to access the RV dump in the morning. Still, with the outrageous price of $55 for a full hookup near the Colorado River, saving money seemed appropriate. My decision turned out to be a mistake. Instead of spending the night in quiet seclusion by the river, I ended up camping amidst the biggest, loudest party ever. I camped in an area occupied by hard-drinking party-people, all of whom drove high-powered “quad” off-road vehicles. Once I hooked up the water and power, I retreated to my coach. The “Quiet Hour” of 10 PM came and went. Without fail, every ten minutes, someone would fire up his ORV, just to In quieter days, five-years ago, this classic Twin Beech float-plane visited Moabi Regional Park, near Needles, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)hear the engine rev.

Are you a hard-drinking, “hoot & holler” pirate-type, enamored of high-powered off-road vehicles? If so, Pirate's Cove is the place for you. They tout 3200-miles of off-road trails to drive. With high-revving engines all around and a complete lack of respect for "quiet hours", you will experience a freewheeling atmosphere of loud music, engine fumes and smoky campfires. If you enjoy peace, quiet and have respect for your neighbors, stay as far away from Pirate’s Cove as you can. When you check in, they copy your driver’s license, your vehicle insurance certificate and take your credit card for payment. I do not know who can access all that information, but the potential for identity theft is ever-present. For the reasons stated above, I give Pirate’s Cove management a "no stars" review.

Overnight, some prankster opened both the black-water and gray-water valves on my coach. Only the outside cap retained the effluent. The next morning, when I opened the cap at the RV The "London Jet" passenger boat approaches Moabi Regional Park near Needles, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)dump, one-hundred gallons of effluent poured out on the desert soil and on me. Someone had already dumped a bucket-load of horse droppings by the Pirate's Cove RV dump, so I did not feel bad about leaving the area as soon as possible. By the time I cleaned up and departed the scene, it was raining.

For the next 300-miles, the rain did not let up. Near sundown, I caught a glimpse of Simi Valley from the pass at Rocky Peak. Upon arrival at my destination, the rain had stopped and my winter camping experience in the desert was complete.

That was how I spent Inauguration Weekend 2017. Do we have a new president? Was there a protest march the next day? Is there an unconstitutional immigrant ban in effect? Is my Medicare heading for a voucher system? Will Congress slash my Social Security benefits? Apparently, a lot can change when one spends a few nights at a "Hole In The Wall" in the Mojave National Preserve.