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St. Luke's Folly, Searching for Uncle Erv, Wonder, and a birthday
"Get the license plate number!" I called to the Lady.
I had watched the pickup turn onto Saline Valley Road in the rear view mirror. It was far in the distance as the intersection with 190 fell from view. And now, almost immediately, it was roaring by us as if, at 35mph, we were standing still. The passenger held an inverted peace sign out the window.
"Why?" the Lady asked through the swirling dust. "Are you going to report them to somebody?"
"Hardly," I explained. "I just want to be sure that if we're ever in the market for a used Toyota Tacoma, but don't buy that one."
It was truly amazing how fast the dust cloud disappeared beyond us and it was, again, a quiet Thursday. We stopped for a quick lunch at Lee Flat among its legendary Joshua Trees.
The road narrowed as we continued north. As we now climbed the Lady alerted me.
"There a vehicle coming at us."
I saw dust and a sun glint off the windshield through the joshuas and quickly found a safe place to pull off the road. It was the Tacoma pickup. They pulled to a stop beside us, windows went down, and the passenger, a young woman with a map in her lap, leaned toward the driver's window. There was real hope in her voice when she asked, "Are you going to the Springs?"
"No, we're not," I answered.
"We should have went right, shouldn't we?"
She sounded so thrilled to be heading to the legendary mecca of Saline Valley Hot Springs it stifled any comments about her and her fellow's driving.
We filled them in on the route to Saline along with a few landmarks to confirm they remained on the correct route over South Pass and down Grapevine Canyon. We did not tell them we were on our way to find the first road - now long abandoned - that was constructed to reach the depths of Saline Valley from the south.
After a bit of scouting on foot, we carefully took the truck down to the road's lowest point in San Lucas Canyon.
The road continues a short ways up a side canyon to some prospects. We camped right on the edge of the Inyo National Forest's Inyo Mountains Wilderness and Death Valley National Park's Death Valley Wilderness, land now protected and preserved as wild and free. Thank you 1964 and for one time our government could come together and do something because it was right.
Since we were going down canyon in the morning, for an afternoon walk we headed uphill and explored ridges for views and orientation.
We decided to traverse a ridge and dropped into a side canyon as it offered a distant view down into Saline Valley.
The valley's large, salt (NaCl) deposit was noted in the 1860's but due to the insolated and rugged terrain it was not exploited until 1903, first by the Saline Valley Salt Company. Transport was by mule pulled wagons out the northern end of the valley. This venture only lasted two years. Salt harvesting began again in 1911 with the building of an aerial tramway 13.5 miles in length up and over the Inyo Mountains to the railroad on the north end of Owens Lake - the famous Saline Valley Aerial Tramway. The construction project wiped out the salt company's finances and the operation was leased to a newly formed Owens Valley Salt Company. This venture lasted until 1918. The costs of running the vast system always proved to negate any profits. A short attempt to revive salt mining was tried again in 1920 by the Taylor Milling Company. It lasted less than a year and the tramway fell into disrepair. Five years later a new company was formed, The Sierra Salt Company. Their idea was to transport salt out by truck via a road on the south end of Saline Valley and the company talked Inyo County into getting involved with its construction. The route was via San Lucas Canyon.
Shadows were long in the now late afternoon.
We descended a long side canyon that connected with San Lucas Canyon well below our camp. This would make a nice circle back home to our cozy camper.
We arrived just in time for evening color.
The next morning found us out on our coffee walk watching first light bathe the crest of the Inyo Mountains above us.
After a breakfast of goat meal and blueberries, with packs and boots on we started down San Lucas Canyon. As we rounded the first bend we took one last look back at the truck.
We continued down and with rock like this we knew we were in for a treat today.
Finally the canyon narrowed and we descended a series of easy pour overs.
Then came what we named the mile long corridor - a long straight section of canyon.
The canyon narrowed and things got very exciting.
We had reached what we had came to see - the remains of a road blasted out of the vertical canyon walls at the top of a series of impassable falls.
What were they thinking? After the blasted area, the road crosses a large landslide path. Here the road appears to be constructed of fill all supported by stacked rock and timbers. This is the bottom of a switch back turn.
Most of everything is long gone. This is very dangerous, unstable terrain.
The photo below is part way down. The view down into the canyon is still not quite the entirety of drop in elevation in this amphitheater.
Here is a shadowed view to the canyon bottom.
What an incredible folly! You may accuse me of having the benefit of hindsight, but after two years of construction putting a road here and vast amounts of effort to try to keep it in place, it was quickly abandoned in favor of building a road down Grapevine Canyon into Saline Valley and overhauling the aerial tramway. Salt was trucked out the new Grapevine Canyon route - now Saline Valley Road - until 1929 when the tramway was back in operation. The Sierra Salt Company ceased operations in 1930. It just did not pay to mine salt in Saline Valley. St. Luke's Folly was long forgotten.
If you have interest, here is a link to a series of historical photos of the salt mining operation, the tramway, and a few of the San Lucas Canyon Road, available on the Eastern California Museum's website - Saline Valley Salt Tram
However amazing it was to see the effort poured into this road building endeavor, part of us yearned to see how this looked prior to the destruction. This has to be one of the deepest canyon drops forming an amphitheater in the Inyos. It is a beautiful place.
We spent a bit over an hour here.
There is a large ammo box bolted to the rock face at the top of the rock cut, visible just right of center in the photo below.
Inside was a plastic bag with a note from a visitor in March 2017 along with Charlie's card.
Charlie retired last year after years of good service to the public and Death Valley National Park. He will be missed.
It was time to return back up canyon to camp.
It was early afternoon when we arrived back at camp. We decided to pack up, head out, and get in position for our next adventure as the next day was my birthday. When the Lady asked what I wanted for my birthday, my reply was, "Let's spend some time searching for my Uncle Erv!"
Our adventure continues in the upcoming Part Two