Friday, December 30, 2011

Chase Bank ATM Stolen and Cleaned Out in Record Time

Chase Bank branch similar to the Laguna Hills Branch where ATM was stolen - Click for larger image (

No Holdups - Chase Bank ATM Stolen and Cleaned Out in Record Time

In May 2008, I published an article titled “Bank Robbery Made Easy”. There, I described a new type of bank robbery that had recently burst upon the scene. Gone were the days of blowing up the safe with dynamite and then getting away on horseback. The new technique involved breaking into the ATM room, behind the scenes. Rather than targeting an old-fashioned brick and mortar bank, the robbers began looking look for bank branches housed within retail strip centers. After cutting through the roof of an adjacent storefront, the robbers could penetrate the demising wall between the suites and gain access to the ATM room. Once they were safe inside, the robbers would disable any security cameras and and alarm systems, and then go to work.

The older MAG 9000 Plasma Cutting Torch - Click for larger image (, in this case, meant cutting through the steel doors that armor the back of most ATMs. After strategically cutting through the armor, the robbers could remove several cassettes, which may collectively hold up to $125,000 in untraceable twenty-dollar bills. After loading the bills into bags, the robbers could retrace their steps and exit the building through the roof of the adjacent business.

For the cutting of steel, an old-fashioned kerosene blowtorch or even an acetylene cutting-torch will not suffice. The armor is too thick and the temperatures generated thereby are too low for adequate cutting. What, aspiring bank robbers ask, should they use to torch an ATM? Never fear, dear bank robbers, because you have unlimited access to the Magnum USA “Sea and Land” or “Blackhawk” labeled cutting torches. As stated in the Magnum USA website, “Consider the advantages in deploying a hand held "particle accelerator in a tube"™ to gain advantage over project initiatives. Operation is uncharacteristically quiet and it cuts like a master of improvisation. Sublimation is the key and our burning process, as it converts metal to a liquid state…”

Customers approach an unprotected exterior ATM at a suburban bank - Click for larger image ( we said in our 2008 article, the (older model) MAG 9000 cutting torch “cuts through an ATM like butter”. Better yet, the unit is Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) approved. In other words, an agency of the federal government officially approves of these tools. It is sad that the Secret Service has not noticed the threat to U.S. currency. The Department of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is too busy cleaning up its gunrunning business to Mexico to focus on this threat. The new model MAG 9003, with 24-volt ignition creates a white-hot flame, yet it is not a firearm. MAG 9003 owners receive no protection under the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right to bear arms. This device is a bank robber’s dream coming true; an unlicensed, self-contained system that can cut steel plate wherever and whenever necessary.

ATM Ram Raid

On Friday December 23, 2011, thieves made a coordinated attack on an ATM at a Chase Bank branch in Laguna Hills, California. Using the cable-winch on a stolen flatbed tow truck, they attempted to wrench the ATM from its moorings. When the cable parted, they went to Plan-B, which consisted of ramming the ATM with the truck. Once they had freed the ATM, they pulled it up on to the flatbed and drove away.

Customers conduct business at an outdoor, exterior ATM that has no crash barriers or other protection - Click for larger image ( to a KABC-TV Los Angeles report, the thieves than drove to a location in nearby Lake Forest, where they “Used a blowtorch to open the machine and remove the cash…” From there, the perpetrators stole another truck and disappeared. As of this writing, the ATM robbers are still at large. If you meet someone in the islands with five-thousand twenty-dollar bills in their possession, it might be our robbers. If our robbers are sitting on an island, Googling this article, they are naive. They should know that IP address are traceable, back to their source. Did I just hear someone in the islands go "Gulp"?

In our previous article, we had some suggestions for the banking community. As we said then, every bank should quickly:
1. Add armor plating to all ATM rooms that share walls with neighboring businesses.
2. Add motion detection, smoke alarms and high-decibel horn alarms to all ATM rooms, thus making any break-in immediately obvious to the bank’s security department and painful to the robbers’ ears.
3. Add an additional armor to the identified weak points on all ATMs.
4. Require handgun type registration in order to purchase any high technology cutting torch (e.g., The MAG 9003).

ATM crash barriers should be designed to stop a Mack Truck - Click for larger image ( our original list, we now add one more suggestion. In front of each exposed ATM, install crash barriers capable of stopping a Mack Truck. Even in the Old West, banks utilized concrete and steel to armor their vaults. With the advent of storefront ATMs and a new class of cutting torch “firearms”, we need storefront safety barriers sufficient to protect both our bank deposits and anyone standing in front of an ATM. If the banking industry does not get serious about ATM security, we predict a future filled with ram raid ATM robberies. Protecting ATMs from theft is not brain surgery. It is more like “Banking 101”.

Email James McGillisEmail James McGillis

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA

Front courtyard at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA - Click for larger image (
Who was Ronald Reagan? My first recollection of him was as the host of the TV anthology series, “Death Valley Days”. In 1967, soon after I began my studies at UCLA, Reagan became governor of California and the defacto head of the University Of California Board Of Regents. Although few governors before or since played such an active role in the governing of the university, Reagan was determined to make his mark.

While the Vietnam War raged, the University of California at Berkeley became “Ground Zero” for opposition, protests and demonstrations. In response to what he perceived as spoiled and unprincipled students and faculty, Reagan forced budget cuts across the entire U.C. system. Around that time, some unprincipled and spoiled demonstrator threw a rock and broke a large window at UCLA's old English Building. Becoming an icon for both sides of the conflict, there were sufficient funds to board-up the hole, yet there was no replacement glass installed during my tenure at UCLA.

  Watch the video, "Air Force One Departs the Reagan Library"

In the years 1967 – 1970, the war raged higher and tensions increased on campuses all across the country. Ronald Reagan, to his great displeasure, hosted one of the last U.C. Regents’ meetings openly held on a U.C. Campus. There, at the UCLA Faculty Center in 1967, Reagan’s attendance brought out one of the largest political demonstrations ever at UCLA. At the time of the meeting, Reagan and the other regents sat behind a glass wall, obscured only by draperies. Outside, unruly students released the parking brakes on several cars and began pushing them around the adjacent parking lot. With only a few campus police on hand, it was all that they could do to prevent mayhem.

Spanish rancho style colonnade at the Reagan Library, Simi Valley, CA - Click for larger image ( the spirit of the day, someone in the crowd of several hundred started a chant. Knowing just how to rile the tradition-bound and conservative Ronald Reagan, the student demonstrators repeatedly chanted, “F*** Ronald Reagan. F*** Ronald Reagan”. The chant was so loud that it was impossible for the governor and the UC Board of Regents to conduct business. After it was evident that they had adjourned and left the building, campus police regained control and dispersed the crowd. Eventually, the events of that day began a spiral of budget cuts and UC fee increases that continues to this day.

Ronald Reagan, like Bob Hope, John Wayne and a host of other establishment actors came to epitomize the far side of the “generation gap” from the one that I represented. I opposed the Vietnam War, the UC faculty salary cuts and student fee increases. My parents were Eisenhower Republicans. They condoned no form of violence in our home. Out of respect for my upbringing and my parents, I observed the UCLA anti-Reagan protest, but other than joining in the chant, I did nothing more that day. With the perspective of time, I feel that Ronald Reagan represented in a courteous way, a set of political beliefs that were unlike my own. If we students had not breeched the decorum that Reagan expected in his life, would the budget cuts have been as deep and would the fee increases have been as steep?

Jim McGillis, with Ronald Reagan at the Reagan Library, Simi Valley, CA - Click for larger image ( that Ronald Reagan is gone from the scene of life, he lives on in many memories. Some ardent followers see him as the conservative messiah, while for others he was the bane of both the environmental and peace movements. Did Reagan’s funding of the “Peacekeeper”, the multiple-warhead, independently targeted intercontinental ballistic MX-Missile help end, or did it extend the Cold War?

At inception, I felt that the International Space Station (ISS) was yet another Reagan make-work project for the military industrial complex. Although that may have been its original impetus, I have come to believe that with its $160 billion+ in federal government funding, that the ISS was a good investment after all. Keeping an active manned space program keeps our engineering and planning skills sharp. In any event, Ronald Reagan’s funding of both the Peacekeeper and ISS projects takes him into the ranks of the biggest spending presidents in U.S. history. Who says that the government did not create jobs or stimulate the economy, even if it was for questionable purposes?

  Watch the video, "The White House in Miniature"

In December 2010, I made my first visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Although I did not agree with many of his policies or decisions as either governor or president, I hold no ill feelings for the man. Under the circumstances of the times, he did the best he knew how to do. As I approached the library on foot, I let bygones be bygones. Regardless of my previous feelings about Ronald Reagan, there was enough attraction for me to visit his library, museum and final resting place.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, as seen from Reagan's crypt - Click for larger image ( a traditional Spanish style courtyard at its entrance, and strong touches of California ranch architecture in both its finish and details, I found it a handsome building in a beautiful setting. Sitting at the brow of a hill the site has a commanding view of high chaparral in the Los Padres National Forest. On a clear day, one can also see the Pacific Ocean, near Ventura. Despite the close proximity of cities such as Simi Valley and Moorpark, the view is only slightly changed from what it must have been during the nineteenth century Spanish Rancho era. With Ronald Reagan's love of the ranching lifestyle, this site reflects the man in his most favorable light.

In a remote, yet picturesque corner of the grounds is the Ronald Reagan Crypt. Its inscribed comments are brief, mentioning little more than the bare facts of his life. The Presidential Seal, rendered as a brass plaque is its only adornment. With its spectacular view of Ventura County both around and below, who could stand on that spot and harbor hostility toward the man, or anything else, for that matter?

Presidential Seal as affixed the the Ronald Reagan crypt at his presidential library in Simi Valley, CA - Click for larger image ( was the holiday season at the Reagan Library. Poinsettias adorned the courtyard. Inside, Christmas trees representing each decade of the republic were on display. The gift shop was abuzz, selling Ronald Reagan and other patriotic souvenirs. Except among the omnipresent security force, there was a festive mood throughout the museum.

Other than the spectacular view, the second most amazing feature at the Ronald Reagan Library is Air Force One. Trucked to the site in pieces, and then assembled to look like new, it stands on pedestals in a custom-designed pavilion. In front of the airplane is a picture window large enough for the plan to fly through, unimpeded. Of course, there is the issue of getting the plane up to speed in such a short distance. Through the wonders of stop-action video-capture, you can watch a YouTube video of Air Force One Departing the Ronald Reagan Library on a clear afternoon.

The old Rocketdyne Peacekeeper MX-Missle engine test-stands, as viewed from the parking lot of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA - Click for larger image ( watching Air Force One take off, we visited the Christmas tree display area. There, stood a series of trees, each decorated to represent a decade since 1776. Near the display of Christmas trees stood John and Jan Zweifel’s White House in miniature. At one-foot-to-one-inch scale, the model is sixty feet in length. The Zweifels and a select group of volunteers put over 500,000 hours of labor into creating their masterpiece. Our YouTube video, The White House in miniature starts with a gingerbread White House in the lobby of the Library and proceeds with a snowy-night Christmas tour of the presidential mansion.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was dedicated in 1991. In 1994, as he felt the slow release of Alzheimer’s disease, Ronald Reagan wrote his public farewell message. Until near that time, he had been actively involved with the planning of the Reagan Library. According to the docent on our tour, he was especially keen to include a full-scale replica of his presidential Oval Office. With some difficulty, the architects accommodated what we might call Reagan’s last wish. Major construction at the library culminated with the opening of the Air Force One Pavilion in 2005. After his death in 2004, the remains of Ronald Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States found peace on the grounds of his presidential library. If you are near Simi Valley, California, I recommend that you make time for a visit. It is Cold War history at its finest.

Email James McGillisEmail James McGillis

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Respecting the Spirit of the Ancients at Kin Klizhin Ruin

Black on white potsherd from Kin Klizhin, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico - Click for larger image ( In May 2011, I visited one of my favorite places within Chaco Culture Historical Park, which is Kin Klizhin Ruin. On my way from camp to Kin Klizhin, I had already seen an elk herd and visited Windmill Hill, where ranchers had installed a new windmill over a dry hole. Now it was late afternoon and time to head for the ruin in time for sunset.

From previous visits, I knew that the current road to Kin Klizhin paralleled an ancient pathway, which entered Chaco Canyon from the south. Rather than following the varied terrain, Anasazi visitors to the area tended to travel in alignment with the cardinal points of the compass. Looking east from the road, I could see occasional small mounds that may have been marked the trail for ancient travelers.

West wall of Kin Klizhin Ruin, with viewing port or window on the lower left - Click for larger image ( stopping to inspect one mound, I walked carefully back to my truck. Once disturbed, the fragile soils of the area are subject to rapid erosion. By following a sandy watercourse, I avoided stepping on the cryptobiotic soils that make up much of the local terrain.  Closer to the road, I found an area scoured by wind and water. Lying among the pebbles on the sandy surface was a number of potsherds.

The largest of the fragments was almost pure white; its concave shape indicating that it was a small part of a much larger pottery vessel. When I reached down and turned it over, I could see that it was an elegant piece of black on white pottery. Found as far north as Wilcox Ranch, Utah and as far south as Antelope Mesa, Arizona, the high-contrast decoration of black on white pottery can turn utilitarian objects into great art.

On my fragment, three rippled waves of water lay beneath a white cloud, which was rolling across a dark sky. The symbolism left little doubt that the original vessel served to carry water across the dry terrain. According to Author Craig Childs, “archeologists excavate (black on white) painted jars as large as watermelons” from one Chaco Canyon site. Because of its remote location, I assume that someone dropped the water carrier along the trail. However, because of their ubiquity in the environment, early ranchers coined the word “potshot” for target practice using ancient vessels. Either way, this was a potsherd to love and cherish, if only in pictures.

Inside view looking up in the Tower Kiva at Kin Klizhin, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico - Click for larger image ( cleaning the fragment and taking several pictures, I returned it to its original spot. Although it would have made a fine artifact under glass, its real home was where I found it. By placing it back, face down in the spot where I had found it, I allowed another to come along and find it in the future. By publishing its image and identifying its native surroundings, I add to the general knowledge of black on white ware.

The U.S. Antiquities Act of 1906 made it illegal to remove any ancient artifact from public lands. Over the years, many people have ignored the law, taking whatever they found and placing those objects in private collections. As Craig Child’s argues in his book, “Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession”, once any artifact is removed from its surroundings, its historical context is lost forever.

The following day, when I described my discovery to the Gallo Campground host, he was pleased that I had respected the artifact and its context. “When we find a particularly nice potsherd, we dig a hole with our heel and bury it there”, he told me. Although his method may secure the future of the artifact for another century or two, mine left it on the land, where it belonged. I hope that when I visit Kin Klizhin once again, my treasure will still be there, reflecting light like a windmill in the sun. If you find this or other artifacts, I hope that you will respect the spirit of the ancients, allowing them to stay at home in the High Southwest.

Jim McGillis at Kin Klizhin Ruin, Chaco Canyon New Mexico in May 2011 - Click for larger image ( was the only human visiting Kin Klizhin that afternoon. Although not as large as other Chaco Canyon great houses, the unusual setting and architecture allows Kin Klizhin to stand out from its peers. Unique in Chaco Culture, Kin Klizhin featured three aboveground circular kivas, each set within a rectilinear outer structure. The inner walls of the largest kiva are more than twice as high as the other two. Looking up from inside the larger Tower Kiva, I felt the grandeur of this ancient place. Perhaps that is what early visitors to Chaco Canyon felt upon arrival at this outlier, or welcome center.

The main west-facing wall of Kin Klizhin is its largest bulwark. The remainder of the structure, including a former enclosed courtyard was to the east of there. Although it is massive, there are only two small ventilation holes or Ancestral Puebloan windows on the west wall. One is set low, probably used to draw air to a hearth inside. The other is at eyelevel, and is an obvious viewing port. From a relatively small inside hole-in-the-wall, the opening expands as it penetrates toward the exterior. This arrangement allowed someone inside to have a wide field of view, but kept the penetration of the structure as small as possible.

Ancestral Puebloan viewing port at Kin Klizhin Ruin, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico - Click for alternate image ( sunset approached, I stayed inside the roofless structure, waiting for the right moment. Any photographer will tell you that catching the right moment requires luck, skill and many shots. Of the dozen portal shots I took that day, the pair pictured here are my favorites. The small image is from the outside, looking into the structure. If you click on that image, you will see the larger picture, looking out towards the sunset at Kin Klizhin, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Email James McGillisEmail James McGillis

Seeking the Miracle of Water Near Kin Klizhin Ruin, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

On the road to Kin Klizhin Ruins, looking northeast at a receding thunderstorm - Click for larger image ( The Colorado Plateau Province is a physiographic region roughly centered on the Four Corner States. On its southeastern periphery lies what we call Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. In May 2011, I visited the Kin Klizhin Ruin at Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Kin Klizhin is the southernmost outlier of Chacoan Culture, and some say the ancient welcome center for Chaco Canyon itself.

It has been a millennium since the Great Disappearance, or demise of Pre-Puebloan culture on the Colorado Plateau. In the two years since my last visit, I wondered, had anything changed? As I soon discovered, the landscape had changed. In my brief absence, the sands of time had begun their march. The wheel ruts along the access road were a bit deeper, as were the sand drifts at their edges. Some might believe that this is natural evolution here on Earth. Others might see blowing sand as a significant threat to our environment.

Seven members of the Kin Klizhin elk herd stand watch in front of Windmill Hill - Click for larger image ( there is one defining physical feature on the Colorado Plateau, it is sand. During a visit to the Four Corners, one might see loose sand, quicksand, blowing sand, sand dunes, sandstone and tar sand. Human activities such as road building, motorized sports, cattle grazing and sheep herding all contribute to soil erosion. As frequent regional dust storms stir further soil erosion, we experience a drier, sandier High Southwest. In the two years since my last visit, the approach to Kin Klizhin was scoured of soil in some places and sandier than ever in others. Either way, the sands of the Colorado Plateau were moving once again.

Although I did not feel any rain the afternoon of my visit, a large thunderstorm was sweeping majestically away to the northeast. There was a breathtaking contrast between bright sunshine on the land and dark clouds in the sky. Turning from that spectacle, I saw yet another wonder of nature. It was the Chaco Canyon elk herd, or at least seven members of its southern contingent.

The Kin Klizhin elk herd closes ranks before departing towards Chaco Canyon - Click for larger image ( my 2008 visit, I had startled an elk herd near Kin Klizhin. At the time, I had taken a picture of five bucks running at top speed. If there was a bull among the 2011 herd, it showed no antlers at all. This led me to believe that there may be more than one Chaco Canyon elk herd. Some visitors have heard their bellows from Gallo Campground, fourteen miles away. Could their voices carry that far, or were there two separate herds? Perhaps there is a greater Chaco Canyon elk herd, with a smaller group at Kin Klizhin. The extent and range of Chaco Canyon elk herds would be a good subject for zoological study.

During my previous visit, I had surprised the herd near an open water source, which was on the east side of the double-track. The 2011 herd, however, was on the west side of the road, standing below an old windmill, and its cast iron water tank. After photographing the elk, I drove slowly along the road. At several points, I stopped again to take pictures of the small herd. Wary of both my vehicle and me, they tightened their ranks and then slowly walked away. As long as I could still see them, they continued to look back and observe me, as well.

A new FIASA brand, Argentine made windmill gleams in the New Mexico sun, near Kin Klizhin, Chaco Canyon, NM - Click for larger image ( my 2008 Kin Klizhin tour, I had visited Windmill Hill. At the time, the old Aermotor windmill was ragged and derelict, with barely enough structure remaining to suggest the water pump it once had been. Over the past eighty or more years, it had done its job all too well, sucking dry the aquifer over which it stood. The dry and rusty cast-iron tank, with its poorly patched leak holes told a story of profligate water use in earlier and wetter times. For much of the twentieth century, the Aermotor windmill ran continuously from atop this windy hill. Before seizing up, it pumped the last drop of ancient water from the Kin Klizhin aquifer. In my 2008 story, the old windmill symbolized the drying and disappearance of two cultures at Kin Klizhin.

In about 1100 CE, those who had tended the irrigation dam and milpas at Kin Klizhin departed, never to return. The Pre-Puebloan Chaco people had diverted surface runoff, sequestering it behind their hand-built dam. The large amount of ancient water that soaked into the sandy soil later became a Rust stains on the side of an abandoned water tank create an abstract image of a forest long forgotten - Click for larger image ( for twentieth century extraction technologies. After centuries of accumulation and a millennium of rest below the surface, that irreplaceable aquifer disappeared in less than a century. Although leakage from the water tank was extensive, the primary usage was even more wasteful. In the high and dry desert, ranchers piped the water to cattle troughs at the site. Exemplifying a lesson of unsustainability, when the well went dry, the ranchers and cattle herds of Chaco Canyon experienced their own Great Disappearance.

As I drove west up the short road to Windmill Hill, sunlight on the Kin Klizhin windmill reflected into my eyes. As if it were a heliostat standing in focused light, the object appeared even brighter than the sun. Before the advent of new energy, all reflected light was weaker than its source. Since the Quantum Leap in energy, reflected light may shine with greater intensity than its light source. Some may pass this phenomenon off as a simple lensing effect. It is, I believe, a local confirmation of Einstein’s larger curved-space theory.

Mangled blades from the old Aermotor windmill at Kin Klizhin lie forgotten on the ground - Click for larger image ( few intact blades, how could the windmill shine with such brilliance? To my amazement, I son discovered a shiny new windmill atop the old steel tower. Its many galvanized steel blades acted like a Fourth Order Fresnel Lens, refracting and concentrating the light. In Miguel Cervantes book, “Don Quixote of La Mancha”, the inept hero does battle with a windmill that he mistakes for an unfriendly giant. Unfriendly or not, Don Quixote’s windmill at least served a literal purpose.

Was the new Kin Klizhin windmill a flight of fancy or did someone actually think that there was water down there yet to be pumped? Either way, individuals that are more rational had banked the new windmill, so it could not spin to destruction in the wind. In the future, if anyone sees this windmill pumping water, please let me know. I would consider that a miracle of the desert.

Email James McGillisEmail James McGillis

A Visit With Lizard Man, The Spirit of Pueblo Bonito

Chaco Canyon Water Tap - erroneously painted red (should be blue) - Click for larger image (
When I arrived at Chaco Canyon in May 2011, it had been two years since my previous visit. That two-year hiatus represented one five-hundredth of the time since the crash of Chaco’s Pre-Puebloan culture. From the perspective of Chaco Canyon history, my time away was insignificant.

Arriving at the park after nightfall, I had searched the visitor’s area for water to fill the tank on my RV. To my chagrin, the old water tap lay capped-off and hidden behind the temporary park headquarters. After searching for a while, I found the new water tap in a far corner of the parking lot. Whoever placed it there was not thinking about RV service. The only way to use the faucet was to fill containers and then transport them by hand. The new manual system encouraged conservation, but mainly through inconvenience.

A large yurt serves as the Chaco Canyon temporary Park Headquarters - Click for larger image ( investigating Gallo Campground, I visited a large yurt that serves as the temporary visitor’s center. Across the parking lot, the old center had disappeared, almost without a trace. Early that morning, I had seen a large cement truck rolling in. Where the old center had stood, construction workers were busy pouring a concrete slab for the new one. Based on the remoteness of the worksite and progress to date, I estimated summer of 2012 for the opening of the new center.

After paying my park entry fee, I purchased the book, “ Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession”, by author and naturalist Craig Childs. Early twentieth century archeological exploitation at Chaco Canyon had left it barren of in-situ artifacts. In the name of twentieth century archeological science, every human-made object found at Chaco Canyon disappeared into private or institutional collections. Today, many of those treasures linger on dusty shelves at various museums and universities. That void leaves Chaco Canyon as a place with insufficient context. For current visitors, putting the ancient puzzle together from only its architectural ruins can be daunting.

Visitors walk the rock-fall trail at Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, NM - Click for larger image ( the northwest end of Chaco Canyon lies Pueblo Bonito, the largest and most elaborate of the park’s great houses. At its zenith, as a gathering place of the ancient world, Pueblo Bonito was still centuries away from European contact. Seeing its similarity to historical Hopi, Zuni and Pueblo Indian dwellings, early Spanish visitors named it as such.

Early European visitors found Chaco Canyon deserted and destroyed by its ancient inhabitants. It was that event, about 1100 CE that we now call the Great Disappearance. Within less than one hundred years, Chaco Canyon, Hovenweep and Mesa Verde all fell to disuse and abandonment. Until the ancestral Navajos arrived centuries later, most of the Colorado Plateau remained uninhabited.

Lizard Man, in profile is at the center of this image. The new Threatening Rock is in the upper-right - Click for larger image ( did the Pre-Puebloan residents of Chaco Canyon build their grandest structure in the shadow of “Threatening Rock”, or tse biyaa anii'ahi (leaning rock gap) in Navajo? Archeologists say that early reinforcement of that fractured sandstone slab indicates ancient knowledge of its peril. Was their choice of location an example of ancient risk-taking behavior, or was something else involved?

Seeking answers to this ancient mystery, we may wish to look at contemporary human behavior. If you visit Pueblo Bonito in the late afternoon, you will find others awaiting sundown from within its walls. With few exceptions, those pilgrims wait in reverent silence. Was ancient Pueblo Bonito also a place of silence? Once twentieth century archeologists began studying and excavating the ruins at Chaco Canyon, automobile traffic became ubiquitous in that area. Accompanying those vehicles were new and louder sonic vibrations, thus ending one thousand years of silence in that place.

Close-up of Lizard Man, the spirit of Pueblo Bonito, at Chaco Canyon, NM - Click for larger image ( January 1941, Threatening Rock, which stood 97 feet (30 m) high and weighed approximately 30,000 tons crumbled on to the northern section of Pueblo Bonito. As it fell, the once intact slab broke into untold numbers of jagged boulders, both large and small. Like a flood of stone fragments, the rock fall released its energy over a large part of the great house ruin. Since the fallen rock and the building blocks of the great house are similar in color and texture, only their haphazard angles of repose help an observer to differentiate the natural elements from the constructed ones.

Threatening Rock stood both before, during, and for a millennium after habitation at Pueblo Bonito. Why, within forty years of modern rediscovery did the great stone slab crash down upon the ruin? Did the sound of human voices, the vibrations from their machines, or time alone topple and shatter that monolith?

Pueblo Bonito to the left and the 1941 rock fall to the right at Chaco Canyon, NM - Click for larger image ( my recent visit to Pueblo Bonito, I made a clockwise circuit of the ruins, observing in turn, the south, west, north (rock fall area) and finally the east. Although there is much to see and feel within the walls of the great house, I was intent upon finding and visiting with an old friend that day. With any luck, I would find him hiding among the broken boulders of the rock fall. Was he still there, or had he vanished in the two years since my last visit?

As I walked along the path leading to the rock fall, there was no trace of my friend. Then, at a sharp left turn, I saw him under the overhang of a large boulder. He stood in profile, as if part of a natural frieze, sculpted and then released from ageless bondage in stone. Freed from his bondage in stone after one thousand years of silence, I offered my silent words of greeting to Lizard Man, the spirit of Pueblo Bonito. Although his wise countenance stared back at me, he remained silent.

The New Threatening Rock at Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, NM - Click for larger image ( was not until I edited the photos that accompany this article that I noticed a vertical slab of stone framed in my first photo of Lizard Man. In the gap between boulders, behind where he stands a tall fin of sandstone stands away from the canyon wall. Was Lizard Man nonchalantly asking us to observe more of this scene than just him? Indirectly, was he pointing to the new Threatening Rock?

After taking several photos of my friend, I continued on my circuit of Pueblo Bonito. While taking the longer, temporary path to the parking area, I turned to look back. From there I could see the wavelike pattern of broken stone left by the 1941 rock fall. Turning my gaze to the canyon wall, I realized that I was now on the far side of the rock fin that Lizard Man had pointed out to me. It was indeed a new Threatening Rock, which had sliced away from the canyon wall. Narrow at the bottom and wide at the top, this slab was far smaller than the original Threatening Rock. How much longer that second Pillar of Hercules might stand, I cannot say. Only Lizard Man knows, but he is not talking.

Email James McGillisEmail James McGillis

The Gallo Campground at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

A view of the high mesa, north from Gallo Campground, Chaco, New Mexico - Click for larger image ( Late on May 21, 2011, I arrived at Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Known colloquially as Chaco Canyon, the place is almost equidistant from Nageezi and Crownpoint, New Mexico. For Interstate Highway reference, Chaco Canyon is about fifty miles northeast of I-40, if exiting at Thoreau, New Mexico. Although situated at what once was the crossroads of the Pre-Puebloan world, Chaco Canyon slipped into obscurity after the Great Disappearance, one thousand years ago.
Today, the larger Navajo Reservation encompasses over sixty percent of San Juan County, New Mexico. Of the county’s 130,000 residents, about thirty-five percent are Navajo. Seventy percent of county population resides in the Farmington Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), including Aztecc and Shiprock. Sparsely populated Indian lands dominate the balance of the county. Finding Chaco Canyon, sequestered as it is among high desert mesas can be difficult, unless you are Navajo.
Author's Pioneer Travel Trailer at Gallo Campground, Chaco Canyon, NM - Click for larger image ( in this era of GPS navigation, the Magellan map database is woefully inadequate in Navajo Country, which surrounds Chaco Canyon on three sides. At least twice during my southern approach from Crownpoint, Magellan instructed me to turn at erroneous locations. The first road resembled a dirt track; the second existed only in the minds of early Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) surveyors. Between my late start toward Chaco Canyon and Magellan’s sweet-voiced siren luring me toward sandy tracks in the desert; it was not until 9:30 PM that I arrived at Gallo Campground in Chaco Canyon.
There, as I scanned the bulletin board for information, the campground host emerged from her coach. That kind soul, living in the middle of nowhere, had held back two RV spaces for late arrivals like me. Had she not done so, there would be no other legal RV camping within twenty miles, via treacherous, washboard roads. That night, I had tempted fate and fate had smiled on me. It came in the form of the volunteer host who saved my camping bacon.
Chacoan rock house at Gallo Campground, Chaco Canyon, NM - Click for larger image ( conducting research for this article, I found the “Gallo” name attached to many features in New Mexico. After I had no luck discovering who “Senor Gallo” might have been, I recalled that in Spanish “gallo” translates as “rooster”. Is the derivation of the local place name as simple as, “Rooster Wash”? Either way, its adjacency to the Gallo Wash, makes “Gallo Campground” an appropriate name. On the mesa north of Chaco Canyon, three “Gallo Wells” stand among the few other human-constructed landmarks. Every drop of fresh water used in Chaco Canyon originates in that sandstone aquifer.
Early in the past decade, the Gallo Wash flooded a portion of the campground. During my September 2007 visit, several low-lying campsites sported yellow tape and barricades. Floods along this Chaco River tributary had damaged the septic system, requiring extensive repairs. If you look at a satellite photo of the campground, long, geometrical berms associated with the new septic system are evident. Used as causeways during wet weather, one of the flattop berms ends at the communal campfire circle.
Chacoan rock house at Gallo Campground, Chaco Canyon, NM - Click for larger image ( their detriment and possible demise, Anasazi visitors and residents stripped the San Juan Plateau of all its timber. Deforestation eliminated extensive root structures, which had long held the soil. Later, cattle and sheep that grazed around Chaco Canyon exacerbated the erosion begun during the Ancestral Puebloan era. Undammed and wild, the Gallo Wash became a twentieth century focus for erosion control projects.
Beginning in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) conducted extensive tree planting in the lower reaches of Gallo Wash. By that time, it was too late to save the meandering stream of yesteryear. Today, most of Gallo Wash is a deeply eroded, if somewhat stabilized ravine. Although only treetops are visible from the Main Loop Road, cottonwood trees planted there eighty years ago still flourish. At either end of Chaco Canyon, highway bridges span Gallo Wash. At the eastern bridge, near the confluence of Gallo Wash and the smaller Fajada Wash, you may stop and view full sized trees growing up from the streambed, far below.
Evocative face appears on the wall of the Chacoan rock house at Gallo Campground - Click for larger image ( upstream from the campground does the wash retain the look of a broad arroyo. With scrubby growth stretching from bank to bank, the water table there is closer to the surface. With less soil or sand below that section, floodwaters spread, rather than cutting deeply into the soil. In satellite photos, the larger Gallo Wash stands out as the most highly eroded canyon in San Juan County. Did early exhaustion of timberlands and arable land doom Chaco Canyon to depopulation and eventual abandonment?  Today, the grassy wasteland that we see in and around Chaco Canyon tends to say, “Yes”.
The following afternoon, I spent time walking south along a nearby canyon wall. Other than the contemporary toilet facilities, the most prominent permanent feature at Gallo Campground is a humble Chacoan rock house. Unlike the multi-roomed and multi-storied great houses found elsewhere at Chaco Canyon, this structure contains only two small rooms. Tucked under the canyon overhang, most of the structure has stood the test of time. In its heyday, around 1050 CE, what function did this structure serve?
Red Ochre figure on the canyon wall at Gallo Campground, Chaco Canyon, NM - Click for larger image ( Chacoan rock house sits near the seasonal stream at Gallo Wash. Perhaps the structure was a granary, overlooking a stream fed cornfield or milpas. Maybe it served as a welcome center or port of entry to Chaco Canyon itself. Northbound, Chacoan visitors had the unique round kiva at Kin Klizhin to welcome them. For southbound visitors, the campground may have served much the same purpose that it does today. Then, as now, the site provided a final rest before viewing the great houses at Chaco Canyon.
As I continued my campground tour, I felt and then saw the spirit of the ancients on the walls around me. Whether decorating the canyon walls with pictographs and petroglyphs or building a small granary, the ancients imbued their outdoor areas with sacred art. As with many of the structures at Chaco Canyon, the rock house at Gallo Campground displayed an anthropoid image to me. Using its windows, air vents and roof beam holes, this little structure exhibited a face with character equal to its age.
Image of an ancient warrior occurring in a natural sandstone seep at Gallo Campground, Chaco Canyon, NM - Click for larger image ( I approached the canyon wall, a variety of rock art images leapt out at me. One of the more obvious examples was a red ochre painting of a man. A pair of slim antennae emanated from the top of his head and a male organ pointed downward. Standing spread-eagle, this ancient Vitruvian Man predated Leonardo Da Vinci’s by five hundred years. As with so many ancient spirits, he had evolved over the past 1000 years. With two small rivers of gold flowing over his body, I noted that his stone cranium was proportionally larger than that of current humans. Perhaps the longer a spirit lingers on a Chaco Canyon wall, the greater consciousness he or she attracts.
My next stop was under the overhanging wall. There, water and minerals have seeped through porous sandstone, leaving their unique mark. If you study the Gallo Campground, you will find that both wind and water play a continuing role in the shaping the local landscape. Since the ancients last viewed it, this perennially damp wall has been sand blasted by one thousand years of storms.
A cave at Gallo Campground, Chaco Canyon, NM - Click for larger image ( I stepped back, the erosional rock formation (image above) revealed its ancient essence to me. With the profile of a Mayan warrior in headdress, a face appeared. His large left eye seemed to spy me at the same time that I saw him. We both looked startled, I am sure. Regaining our respective composure, I asked if I could photograph him and share his story with the world. In silent ascent, he posed ferociously, if a bit comically for my lens. Oh, the stories he might tell of campfires and revelry at Gallo Campground, both past and present.
Soon, I reached the end of the cliff wall, where I discovered a cave large enough to shelter a family from the elements. When a freestanding slab of sandstone tilted, and then came to rest against the canyon rim, the cave established itself. Not knowing what wildlife might be lurking inside the cave; I remained outside.
View south from Gallo Campground, including Fajada Butte to the left - Click for larger image ( I completed my circuit of the campground, I could see Fajada Butte rising in the distance. The lowering angle of the sun reminded me of other plans. By then, there were less than three hours before sunset. My planned trip around the Main Loop Road at Chaco Canyon would take most of that time. Although the loop contains only nine miles of paved road, I hoped to stop and visit other Ancestral Puebloan spirits along the way. During a previous visit to Pueblo Bonito, I had discovered a cleft-rock frieze that I called “Lizard Man”. Had Lizard Man sloughed off in a recent rock slide, or did he patiently wait there for my return? I could not wait to find out.

Email James McGillisEmail James McGillis

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Native American Civilization Bites the Nuclear Dust at White Mesa, Utah

Sign for the White Mesa Uranium Mill, near Blanding, Utah - Click for larger image ( The settlement of White Mesa, Utah is located twelve miles south of Blanding, Utah on U.S. Highway 191. As the Utah component of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, its 2000 census data indicated a population of 277 people. Over ninety-eight percent of the population was Native American. By the 2010 census, the population at White Mesa had fallen over twelve percent to 242 people. By then, the population had aged, with fewer children and young people living there. In 2000, over fifty percent of the population lived below the poverty line. The only retail business at White Mesa is the reservation-owned White Mesa Travel Center, which includes as gas station and convenience store.

The Denison Mines White Mesa Mill sits on 3840 acres of nuclear-contaminated land - Click for larger image ( halfway between White Mesa and Blanding, Utah, sits the Denison Mines White Mesa Mill. First opened in 1980 by Energy Fuels Corporation, White Mesa Mill went bankrupt in 1997. At that time, International Uranium (USA) Corp. purchased the mill. Later, Denison Mines purchased the mill and now operates it as a wholly owned subsidiary. The White Mesa Mill has the distinction of being the only conventional uranium ore-processing mill in the United States. Unobtrusive, when viewed from the highway, the facility covers 3840 acres of land. In addition to the mill itself are huge earthworks and retention ponds. In 2002, The Canyon Country Zephyr named the White Mesa Mill its “#1 Secret Place of Canyon Country”.

Currently, the mill accepts radioactive and toxic wastes from around the nation, and then stores them onsite. When the gathered stockpiles of nuclear tailings and residues are sufficient, the mill goes into operation and processes them. With the addition of newly mined ores, the mill has seen continuous operation since 2005. Since there is no rail access to the mill, all materials arrive at the site by truck. When you are sitting at an open-air café in Moab, Utah watching huge multi-axel tractor-trailer rigs roll through town, they may be loaded with nuclear contaminated materials destined for White Mesa. It is interesting that those huge, covered trailers display no hazardous or nuclear placards.

Safety record sign at entrance to White Mesa Uranium Mill, near Blanding, Utah - Click for larger image ( there is a separate vanadium-processing loop, the main product of the White Mesa Mill is triuranium octoxide (U3O8), which is a compound of uranium. Despite its olive green color, U3O8 is a form of yellowcake, which may contain up to eighty percent uranium oxide. Triuranium octoxide manufactured at White Mesa Mill is transported offsite for further enrichment. Its ultimate use is as fuel for nuclear power plants. With further enrichment, it could become weapons-grade material.

In May 2008, the Division of Air Quality (DAQ), within the Utah Division of Environmental Quality conducted an inspection and issued a report regarding air quality compliance at White Mesa Mill. Among other things, the DAQ inspection looked at how much ten-micron particulate matter (PM10) went up the stacks and into the atmosphere. Although permitted for up to .4 pounds of PM10 per hour, during inspection each yellowcake scrubber/dryer onsite emitted “only” .12 pounds per hour. If operated continuously for one year, those two dryer/scrubbers alone would emit over one ton of unknown, possibly radioactive particulates into the air. Other sources claim that the mill annually emits 62 tons of sulfur dioxide, 109 tons of nitrogen oxides, and 254 tons of particulates. Propane usage onsite is several million gallons per year.

Radioactive warning sign at Denison Mines Corp. White Mesa Mill - Click for larger image ( discovered during the 2008 inspection was a non-compliant baghouse (air filtration facility) associated with lab operations at the site. After notification of non-compliance, Denison Mines estimated that the baghouse emitted one hundred ten pounds of PM10 particulates per year. Although there was no corroboration of those estimates, the Utah DAQ did not challenge company findings. Because of the supposedly small amount of released particulates, the DAQ did not fine Denison Mines for non-compliance.

After thirty years of operation, much of the mill’s original equipment is still in use, or disuse, as the case may be. For example, the 2008 DAQ inspection determined that the emergency electrical generator onsite had last operated in 1996. Despite the requirement that an emergency generator be available during power interruptions, DAQ did not fine Denison Mines for lack of compliance. Ironically, the DAQ inspection report used inoperability as a reason to not penalize the operator. In the inspection report, there is no mention of the need to fix or replace the derelict emergency generator. Under the circumstances, we can only hope that future power interruptions will not result in site contamination or release of airborne particulates.

Visible smoke issues from two stacks at the White Mesa Uranium Mill near Blanding, Utah - Click for larger image ( missing, misplaced or misidentified during the inspection was a Bartlett-Snow rotary calciner. The DAQ report indicated, “Company contacts were not aware of where the rotary calciner and control equipment were located.” That surprised me, since a rotary calciner shown at the Bartlett-Snow website required a three-axel flatbed trailer to carry it. I checked eBay, and as of this writing, the only used rotary calciner listed there carried a price of $35,000. If I were interested in that unit, I would bring a dosimeter with me during the inspection.

If you Google “White Mesa Uranium Mill”, you will find a host of articles decrying large-scale trucking of nuclear waste to the mill, as well as its spotty environmental record. In 2008, the Utah DAQ found missing, inoperable and unpermitted equipment at the mill. In their final report, DAQ’s lack of urgency and enforcement reminded me of lax oversight at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant prior to March 2011. When the tsunami flooded all of the emergency generators at the plant, a cascade of failures began, leading to a nuclear fuel meltdown on May 13, 2011.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe owns the White Mesa Travel Center, twelve miles south of Blanding, Utah - Click for larger image ( Denison Mines White Mesa Mill is not in danger of a nuclear meltdown. The yellowcake produced there is not fissionable. Still, in its final recommendations for their next inspection, the Utah DAQ report suggested in typical understated fashion, “Bring a respirator – It may be needed in certain areas of the facility”.

On June 3, 2011, I rolled up the front gate at White Mesa Mill, which appeared to be in full operation. Visible smoke issued from two large exhaust stacks on the east side of the mill. Although the 2008 DAQ report indicated that no single source of particulates at the mill should exceed twenty percent opacity, to me the visible smoke completely obscured the blue sky beyond it. Admittedly, I did not have proper optical measuring equipment that day. Still, a simple webcam pointing at the stacks from a position that shows a solid background should solve that problem. If asked, I would be happy to supply a free webcam system to the Utah DAQ. With the installation of a solid black “billboard” behind each stack, DAQ compliance officers could remotely monitor the opacity of released particulates. If the mill were in compliance, Denison Mines could use the calibrated webcam images to prove it.

Dust storm, including material from the White Mesa Uranium Mill envelopes the White Mesa Travel Center near Blanding, Utah - Click for larger image (, what shall become of the poorest, least represented and closest proximity residents to the White Mesa Mill? If trends identified in the 2000 and 2010 census prevail, the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation at White Mesa will continue its decline. Once a thriving settlement that featured paved roads, utilities and framed houses, the neighborhood at White Mesa is now derelict and decaying. A quick drive through “town” shows many abandoned homes. With six square miles of nuclear and chemical waste nearby, the resale market for property at White Mesa, let alone Blanding, Utah is fading like the smoke from White Mesa Mill.

Since the dry climate in Southeastern Utah slows decay, these relics of Native American culture might well be standing at White Mesa one thousand years from now. What will future archeologists think when they discover an abandoned settlement near such a large pile of nuclear contaminated waste?

Email James McGillisEmail James McGillis