On the way, we stopped at the Valley of Fire State park for a few hours. The park derives its name from red sandstone formations, formed from huge shifting sand dunes 150 million years ago. The scenery was incredible and we did some short hikes in the desert heat to various viewpoints and rock formations. The most spectacular for us, was the Firewave-multi coloured stripy rocks in a wave pattern.
We drove through Las Vegas and stayed the night in a casino about 20 miles away. We woke up to the dreadful news of the Las Vegas shootings. In a sombre mood, we drove to Los Angeles where we collected Ruby, who had spent the month at the wonderful British land rover mechanics. She had her rear drive shaft replaced and was ready for action again!
Our next destination was Tecopa in the Mojave Desert, on the Southern edge of Death Valley. Our home for the next 6 weeks was China Ranch Date farm, a wonderful green oasis in the middle of the barren desert. What a unique place and experience this was! China ranch is a family owned date farm on about 130 acres of land, where around 15 varieties of dates are grown on the tall and small palm trees. From high, you could see the green oasis stretching along the river, amongst the dry, grey desert mountain landscape. It was a beautiful place and full of history-from native Americans, to those travelling the Spanish trail, to the gold rush and mining and much more.
China Ranch is also available as a location for both film and still photography shoots. Over the years several national magazine companies as well as movie studios have taken advantage of the fantastic scenery as a back drop for their projects. These have included Harper's Bazaar, Country, National Geographic, Paramount Studios, and several smaller companies. In 2001 Paramount Studios used China Ranch for the desert scenes of their hit movie "The Sum of All Fears", starring Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman.
Wildlife was in abundance-there were numerous birds, coyotes (wild dogs) which we saw regularly on the ranch as they like to chew the dates, and insects such as tarantulas, scorpions and black widow spiders. I saw my first "wild" tarantula here, wandering past the sorting room! China Ranch was probably the most isolated place we have spent time so far, on this trip. The main shops and other facilities were around 50 miles away. At night the place was absolutely silent-except for the sound of coyotes (wild dogs) howling or the wind whistling through the dry dirt hills and canyons. We only had to wander for a short time at night to find dark skies illuminated only by the moon and stars. We saw the Milky way almost every night. Brian was the wonderful owner and our boss. He works tirelessly to keep the process of fertilising, growing, harvesting, sorting and selling going and he shared some of his tremendous knowledge with us. He had a great sense of humour and we really enjoyed working with him. We were also really impressed with how he has built the date farm from nothing.
Our home was a large permanent mobile home which we shared with 3 others. We quickly turned into a little close family. Gav and I were the eldest (Gav was the most sensible!), Austin from Indiana, aged 19 ,Arianna (19) and Ellie(18) from Vermont who joined us a week later. We all got on really well and shared a lot of laughs and some great food and BBQs! We also got them addicted to British tea and had regular tea times, in the morning and evening. We grew close to Austin and Arianna, sharing many laughs, great food, Gav`s cooking lessons and games of cards together.
We both really enjoyed the work here so much that we stayed 2 weeks longer than we had originally planned (6 weeks in total). We worked from 7am to 12.00 noon, due to the heat. In Summer temperatures soar to well over 100 degrees most days. We were here in Autumn, so it was in the 90s! And it was HOT with plenty of fruit flies! Our work varied each day and we often worked with different people. We harvested dates-which took two forms: one was with the owner, Brian, who would use his crane lift to reach the high bundles of dates in the tall trees, shake them into buckets, and then pass them down to the worker on the ground to sort into crates and pass him empty buckets. The crates were then stacked in the back of his pickup truck. Brian would also cut down whole large bunches of dates on fronds and we had to strip them all off and into the crates. Sometimes, we had dozens of fronds to strip and it took some fast work to keep up! As Brian moved around the trees on his crane, I had to move his pickup truck to best position it to fill the crates. This was the first time I had ever driven an automatic car and all Brian could hear from his crane was me roaring the engine trying to work out how to drive the damn thing! He lowered himself down laughing and muttering about the crazy English woman trying to drive his truck, and gave me a quick lesson in how to drive an automatic. It was great driving the truck around the ranch, although I still prefer a gear stick! The second way of harvesting was to work on the small palm trees, where you could reach the dates and shake them into buckets or cut the whole bunch down with cutters.
Another major task was sorting through the dates that had been harvested or "running the dates" as it was called in the trade! This was done in the sorting room, where all of the crates of date were stored. We emptied the crates into a large machine, which shook them down a chute, onto a moving conveyer belt. We then had to hand sort though them-separating the ones with mouse or bird bites, the ones that were good and the ones that would go into date paste to bake with. We also had to separate the ones which had not ripened and put them on a rack. There were 30 different varieties of dates on the ranch, so we had to learn to spot what each variety should look like at its best! I loved seeing the little dates slowly shaking and bouncing down the chute ready to be sorted! When we turned the shaker on, I would perform a little shake myself until the first ones reached us! The sorted dates fell into large buckets, which we then emptied into 15 pound boxes and stacked in the large walk in fridge. I loved the walk in fridge as I got so hot, so willingly volunteered to stack the boxes in there when needed! We also packed 1 pound boxes to sell in the shop.
We picked up numerous large palm fronds to put on the truck and take them to the burn pile. This could be painful work, as the palm fronds, which had been cut down to help harvest the dates, had massive thorns on them to protect their fruit. These thorns stabbed us all over, quite literally!! We had to wait a few weeks for the splinters to work their way out of our bodies-I still have one in my backside! This was hot and dusty work, and made all the more painful by the huge horse flies which like to bite. Thank goodness, there were only a few as they die off in Autumn.
Another job was to work in the bakery. Yes. Jen working in the bakery! My last baking fiasco was at school over 30 years ago when my bread dough ended up on the ceiling over the light fitting! My task was to make 30 large date loaves, 30 small loaves, cookies and muffins! Thank goodness I was shown and left to it, as I turned the industrial mixture on too fast on my first attempt, leading to some of the mixture flying out of the bowl and splatting around the kitchen! I got a lot better at it, and felt very proud when I wrapped and labelled my loaves, cookies and muffins to sell in the store! I also served customers in the store and made date shakes, which are delicious!
Gav and I also worked on clearing out and renovating an old shack. which will house other volunteers in the future. We named it "the love shack" and the sign hangs proudly outside!
The permanent staff were a wonderfully eccentric, slightly crazy and entertaining bunch of people. Brian explained that the desert attracts such folks and having lived here for 6 weeks, we agree! One lady lost her temper quite often and would threaten to " Effin shoot them in the back"! One lady would holler "hey pretty boy" after the male staff, would shout "Effin customers" within earshot of the customers, people used the walk in chiller to moan about each other, talked of conspiracy theories and there was other stuff that just wouldn`t seem funny in the written form. You just had to be there. Every day something had happened to make us laugh, and we returned to our mobile home and swapped stories. The staff all made us very welcome and shared both their eccentricities and patience with us and we enjoyed working with them.
We hosted a few BBQs at Brian`s house and had a few outside our caravan on our mobile fire pit. I bought face paints for Halloween and we had a little walk around the ranch with our faces painted and had our pictures taken with some of the visitors! Jen in particular, really got into the spirit of things and made what she thought were suitable zombie faces and moves! One night we made ourselves stay up until midnight (hard when you are up at 6am) as Jen had read there was going to be a meteor shower from midnight until dawn. We played cards, watched a movie and snoozed, until 10 minutes to midnight when Jen re read her information on the meteor shower. Unfortunately, she had read it wrong and we were 24 hours late! Everyone took in good spirits and we went out into the desert for a bit to look at the wonderful stars !
On our days off-we drove to Death Valley national park and camped overnight. Death Valley is the hottest, driest and lowest National park in the US. In this below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat make Death Valley a land of extremes. It is a desert valley and is one of the hottest places in the world at the height of summertime along with deserts in Africa and in the Middle East. Death Valley's Badwater Basin is the point of the lowest elevation in North America, at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. We explored the dramatic landscape on foot and on some scenic drives. It was a wonderful place to camp with its dark sky and incredible stars.
We also spent a 2 nights in Las Vegas, doing the obligatory tourist visit to the garish casinos on the strip. We also enjoyed visiting the Mob museum, which is dedicated to the artifacts, stories, and history of organised crime in the US,as well as the actions and initiatives by law enforcement to prevent such crimes. The Museum is housed in the former Las Vegas Post Office and Court House and made for an interesting couple of hours. We visited the Neon Museum which is dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs for educational, historic, arts and cultural enrichment. We did a night tour and it was interesting to see all of the old Vegas signs and hear about their history.
The 6 weeks flew by and it was time to leave. We hosted a leaving party at Brian`s house with the theme of British night. With Arianna and Austin, we cooked steak and ale pie, chips, cauliflower cheese and mushy peas. For desert, we made a Victoria sandwich cake and date scones with jam and cream. We transported it to Brian`s house in Ruby and had a lovely evening with the Brian, Gina, Grace and David. We even took our own kettle with us, so we could make them tea!
So after 6 weeks of living and working in the Mojave desert, we will head back to Vegas where we will park Ruby for a few days and fly to San Francisco. We will miss the wonderful China Ranch and our new friends, however it is time to move on and we are thinking about heading into Mexico next month.