Previously in Almost Stranded...
It was - as we were contemplating camp, and headed through the grove of pinyon pine at the top of Pleasant Canyon - that I initially heard a clunking sound. To me, it sounded like it was coming from the front of the truck, as though something was dropping down and hitting the skid plate as the suspension flexed over the undulations of the road.
Such a change of landscape from earlier in the day - I counted on these trees providing us a bit of shelter from the gusty winds.
Getting out to inspect the situation, my initial investigation included kicking the front skid plate in several places to ensure that it was still tightly secured (I've had issues with bolts backing out in the past), checking to ensure that the bolts securing the front diff - the only thing I could imagine dropping onto the skid plate - was secure, and using a flashlight to verify that there was nothing else hanging down and causing problems - there wasn't.
Out of an abundance of caution, I wandered toward the back of the truck to check things out. The sound - I was sure - was coming from the front, but better safe than sorry in a situation like this.
And then, I saw it - as I was checking the bolts for the rear shocks, my eyes wandered just a little further forward - the driver side main leaf was busted!
Not good. Not good at all.
I knew immediately that this could spell some serious trouble. Capital "T" type of trouble.
You see, back in October, when I'd unexpectedly reached the top of Mt. Patterson, the half-leaf military wrap - which helps to support the main leaf - had broken. Hoping to replace the leaf pack at the same time I swapped out the rear axle housing (which I'd patched just before heading out to Mt. Patterson), I'd been running without the insurance policy of that extra half-leaf.
And now, it'd come back to bite me.
I explained the situation to @mrs.turbodb - that our trip was over and we were now in jerry-rig-and-limp mode - and then carefully picked my way a quarter mile down the trail to the Pine Tree (Rita's) Cabin, where I knew there was level ground and that we could spend the night. That quarter mile was one of the most tense stretches I've ever driven - the knowledge that only gravity and friction were keeping the axle from pivoting out from the back of the truck, resulting in a situation that would be nearly impossible to recover from without significant help.
Rolling into camp about 10 minutes before sunset, I slid under the truck to better evaluate the situation. I could see that we were even luckier than I'd originally realized. The main leaf spring, which wanted to "fall down" at the front eye, was trapped by the a bolt that secured the clamp at the front of the pack. This was a bolt that I'd had to back out in order to remove the broken military wrap leaf several months before, and I'd not been able to get the nut threaded back on when I was done. At the time, I'd hoped to remove the bolt entirely, but in trying to do so, it was too close to the gas tank, and couldn't be backed out all the way. So I'd just left it. Now, this partially secured bolt was the only thing keeping the truck on four wheels!
Unlucky. But at the same time, *so lucky*.
The first order of business, then, was to take the weight off of the leaf pack by using the hi-lift to raise the rear end of the truck just enough to slide the old bolt out and a new one - pillaged from another location - into position. Naturally, I forgot to photograph this at all.
Then, I realized, the next most important thing was to keep the axle in position relative to the rest of the frame and driveline. This I did with a ratchet strap - one end looped through the hanger at the front of the leaf pack, the other looped around the rear axle housing. Snugged up as tight as I could get it, I hoped that it would hold long enough to get us down the mountain and to a place where we could call a flat bed tow truck, or even better, get ourselves - slowly - to a location where I could rent a trailer to haul the Tacoma home.
With very careful driving, and constant checking, I hoped that a ratchet strap would be our savior.
I also considered a ratchet strap around the leaf pack, to try and hold the back end of the broken main leaf down to the rest of the pack. In the end, I decided against this for a couple of reasons: first, I didn't know that it would do a lot of good, since the vertical forces at play as the leaf pack flexed were probably quite large. More importantly, I realized that there was no length - across the pack or along the side - where there was enough room for the ratchet strap to ratchet, or for the hooks to hook. And so, a single strap - looped twice around - would have to suffice.
By this point it was dark. There was nothing more to do but eat a quick dinner - I wasn't hungry - and climb into bed. So, that's what we did.
The Next Morning
Our location - nestled into the pinyon pines - was perfect to keep us sheltered from the wind. At 6,400 feet, it was chilly - in the high 20s °F, but our down comforters kept us plenty warm. Still, I have to admit that I didn't sleep all that well, and the next morning I wasn't really in the mood to get up and take the sunrise photos that I so often enjoy. As such, it was just as the sun hit the tent that we finally climbed out of the tent, not really sure what the day would hold.
A late morning (for us), at a camp site that couldn't really have been more perfect for the situation we found ourselves in.
As @mrs.turbodb rounded up breakfast, I - and then we - took a few minutes to look around the Pine Tree Cabin. Built in 1971 by the Bearcroft family - who lived here while mining nearby claims - we'd foregone any sort of exploration the previous evening, given our focus at the time. Poking around in the morning light was probably better for photos anyway!
Outside the cabin, we found another mobile pump/compressor sled/trailer. It got me wondering if the same folks who worked the mines in South Park were the same that mined here. At the very least, the two camps likely talked to one another!
The Pine Tree Cabin is a simple affair, that I expected to be just a shell like the other cabins we'd found at the top of South Park the previous day.
Inside the cabin, it was clear that this was - likely - once a well-maintained cabin like those at Briggs Camp. Unfortunately, over the years, people wrote on the walls, left doors and windows open to rodents, and the cabin fell into disrepair.
A still-barely-serviceable wood stove, which I was hoping to find a "Maddog" signature on - as I've found several others in the Panamint Valley area with that signature - but I did not.
The guest book was waterlogged and bore the name "Rita's," rather than "Pine Tree." I think it'd be interesting to know the history of the cabin and its naming.
It was a little after 9:30am when we rolled slowly out of camp. I'd inspected and tightened the ratchet strap one final time, and I put the Tacoma in 4Lo, expecting that our average moving speed wouldn't be more than 5-6mph as we gingerly made our way down Pleasant Canyon toward Ballarat - where we could at least get a tow truck, if necessary. And I'd fired off the only non-preset message I've ever sent on my Garmin InReach Mini.
With only 160 available characters, I tried to make my 158 count.
A beautiful day that we would not fully enjoy.
As we inched our way down the road, I mentioned to @mrs.turbodb how this would be my third attempt at exploring the loop, and I still wouldn't have gotten to wind my way up the spur roads to the Cooper, Porter, and Ratcliff Mines. Just a good reason to return, she reminded me. At any rate, we decided that as we made our way down, we'd at least stop to enjoy the sites that were along the main road - we were, after all, already here and still had several days before we needed to be home!
At the fork to the Cooper Mine, an old boiler and the remains of the stamp mill - erected by James Cooper in 1897 - once processed ore from the mine's shaft and half a dozen tunnels that were first exploited for gold in 1896.
The ruins of Cooper's small, four-stamp mill. Only three of the stamps still remained on site.
A little further down the road, a burst water pipe gave an indication to the nighttime temperatures. Apparently, it was chilly.
One of the reasons I'd chosen to run the South Park - Pleasant Canyon loop in the direction we had was so that I could enjoy new views compared to those I'd seen on my first trip to this region. As it turns out, having the easier Pleasant Canyon trail as our route out also turned out to be hugely beneficial.
The views down Pleasant Canyon towards Panamint Valley did not disappoint.
Soon we came upon the World Beater Mine Cabin, which - like all the habitable cabins on this loop - had a flag flying proudly to indication that it was occupied, even mid-week.
From the World Beater Mine, it's only another mile to the largest mine site in the region - the Ratcliff Mine and the sprawling Claire Camp in the canyon below. As we pulled into the camp, @mrs.turbodb commented on an old stone chimney standing alone in the middle of the canyon. Something was off.
All that remains of the Claire Camp cabin.
It took me a couple seconds, but I quickly realized that what we were seeing was a cleaned-up version of the Claire Camp that had existed just a couple months earlier when I'd first driven through the canyon. Then, we'd run into a few guys at the site who we'd assumed were miners, and I'd gotten out to ask if they mind us looking around the site. It was just fine with them, they'd said; they were contractors, working for the BLM to clean up the site, which had grown trashy over the years - old washing machines and refrigerators tempting targets for those who happened into town with a few too many beers under their belts.
The photo I'd taken of the Claire Camp cabin just 3 months earlier (December 2021); now gone.
Overall - for me - it was with mixed feelings that we wandered around the camp today. Much of what was gone was trash - old appliances, bottles and cans, litter from visitors who should have known better. Still, some of what was missing was "the good stuff" - historical structures and bits of machinery that helped to tell the story of the Ratcliff Mine and one of the largest mining camps in the area.
Luckily, some of the major structures do still remain. The most elaborate of these - the mill - is located on the south side of the road and climbs more than 50 feet up the side of the hill. The partitioned ore bin above it is the lower terminal of a historic tramway, the cables pointing to the distant tailings of the Ratcliff Mine, 1,800 feet up the mountain.
The mill itself has several crushers, each one meant to grind the ore to finer material than the one before it. Powered by a steam engine via the enormous cogwheels next to it, the boilers for the steam powerplant sit several feet away, the brick structure that once supported them, succumbing to time.
The lower levels of the mill.
One of the cogwheels that would be turned by belts powered by the nearby boilers.
One of two monstrous boilers to power the mill.
Once the ore was pulverized, it was moved - via two large loading ramps - a few dozen feet down canyon to a cyanide plant, where the ore was mixed with a cyanide solution to extract the gold.
Loading ramps, and the 12-foot tall, steel cyanide vat.
An old dump truck that once carried ore from the mine, now blocking the wash until the next major flood.
There are three dugouts in the area; they are likely the oldest structures in camp, dating to the mid 1800s.
Our exploration of Claire Camp complete, we took the arrival of four Jeepers - arriving from Ballarat below - as our cue to continue on our way. We had a couple more stops to make - including one where I'd hoped to hike up a steep canyon wall to a working high on the north side - but with any luck, we'd soon find ourselves out of the worst of the trouble, and able to evaluate our next move.
With every turn in the road, the Panamint Valley got closer and closer. I'd reset my odometer several times as we passed known waypoints, and at this point we had just over six miles to "salvation."
The geology here - while not as spectacular as in South Park - was nothing to scoff at!
The workings I'd hoped to climb to - some 1,500 feet up a nearly vertical scree field. I don't know if it would have been achievable, but I'll definitely be back to give it a try!
For anyone who's visited Pleasant Canyon in the last several years - or perhaps several decades - it's at about this point in the canyon that a bright yellow grader has decorated the road. Used to grade the road to the Ratcliff Mine and Claire Camp, I'm sorry to say that the grader is no longer parked on the side of the road - some broken glass and an oil spill, the only indications of its presence.
Winding our way through the short narrows.
The final push - or coast, rather - as Pleasant Canyon opens up to Panamint Valley.
In the distance, Ballarat. We'd made it! We weren't totally out of trouble, but at least we'd stand a better chance of success, having reached semi-civilization!
Ballarat was a bustling place at 11:00am on a Friday morning, and we slowly rolled through "town," as we made our way across the salt flats on a road that we'd travelled a mere 27 hours earlier, no idea what lay ahead. A few miles later, we stopped the Tacoma at Panamint Valley road - pavement as it were - to air up and evaluate the situation. If things still looked reasonable with the ratchet strap, we'd decided that we'd make a push towards Bishop, where - hopefully - we could rent a truck and trailer to tow our adventuremobile home.
I never expected we'd be airing up so soon, or under these circumstances!
As we were airing up, and after I confirmed that the ratchet-strap-leaf-spring-axle-housing-contraption seemed to be doing its job splendidly, we were treated to an air show of F-18s as they repeatedly seemed to dive-bomb the radio tower we'd stopped at the day before.
Apologies, as usual, I've included a ton of aircraft photos, as I still get all excited when these things go rumbling by overhead.
Soon, we were headed west on CA-190, tentatively pushing the Tacoma to speeds around 50mph. After a few miles I checked the straps, then checked them again a few miles later. Both times, everything seemed to be as good as we could hope, so we made a final stop as we climbed out of Panamint Valley, the windless day offering some of the clearest views we've ever seen.
Oh, to have been able to explore on such a gorgeous day!
An hour later, we approached Lone Pine, the Sierra rising up in the windshield. With barely any snow, they too seemed to be making the best of a bad situation, rising high above the Alabama Hills in the foreground.
I never tire of this view.
Already at this point, we were on the phone trying to get a U-Haul truck and trailer. A little over an hour away - and in the direction of home - we figured that Bishop was our best bet. Unfortunately, though they had two car-haulers on the lot, both were spoken for and wouldn't be available for at least five more days. With not much choice, and after another inspection, we made the decision to carry on towards Reno.
The story in Reno was much the same as Bishop. Apparently, everyone and their brother had decided to move, and of course a weekend is the best time to do that (and not miss that pesky thing known as work). In the end, we talked to the national U-Haul line and found that the only truck-trailer combo was located in Quincy - another five hours further on, and about three hours out of our way.
We reserved it for the next day.
Ultimately though, as we passed through Reno - continuing to inspect our jerry-rigged axle-leaf-spring-strap situation every hour or so - we decided that if we'd made it this far, we could probably make it all the way home, and that continuing north through Susanville and Klamath Falls was probably going to be faster in the long run, if nothing catastrophic happened.
And so, at 11:00pm, we pulled into a BLM campground and called it a night. We'd pick up again at 7:00am the next morning, covering the remainder of the 1,000 mile journey at the mind numbing pace of 47 to 50mph in the next 14 hours.
On our way home, we must have seen 30 U-Hauls and 10 car haulers. Luckily, we didn't end up needing one.