Buttercup Quad Adventure

A world class wind storm rips us a new one 20080301

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The Experience

Since our return to San Diego, we had not had our quads out to the sand dunes. While we have taken them to the desert, the sand dunes are a whole different thing. Windblown sand makes a great riding surface and high angle dune faces provide a thrill in both uphill and downhill directions. Now that we have the camper, we decided to head to Buttercup Valley in the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area. Buttercup is right next to Interstate 8 about 20 miles west of Yuma, AZ. Our plan was to air down the mog tires and head into another valley to the east of the main camping area to gain a bit of privacy and a whole lot less noise. We got a *bit* more than we bargained for in the process.

The pictures below are what we saw.

On the way to the Yuma area, the CHP passed me about 100 MPH. He was running hot, either after somebody on or the way to an accident. In a few minutes, we discovered the reason. Here, the officer has just arrived and has just left his patrol car.

We did not figure out what happened, but the impact damaged both sides of the car and threw debris all over the roadway. It is not clear that the driver was injured, but based on the attention of the by-standers, I would have to assume that he (she) was hurt.

It has been over 3 years since we were at Buttercup (also known as Gray's Well Road). Much has changed and when we arrived I was surprised to see that there were mobile vendors that had set up shop there on the weekends. The trailer was gone when we exited the area several days later.

There were several vendors there that offered all a person could want: burgers, fries, whips, firewood and ice.

We lowered the air pressure in the mog tires to about 14 psi and headed out into the dunes along the eastern edge of the area. We came over a ridge line of dunes and descended into the far valley. Since the majority of vehicles could not make it over the crest, we had the valley all to ourselves. Well, mostly to ourselves. Here, Kathleen relaxes for a bit before we unload the quads for an afternoon ride.

Buttercup and the whole Imperial Valley Sand Dunes are right next to the U.S. - Mexico border. And, as such, is an area that has turned into a high-volume transit point for both smugglers and illegal immigrants. The Border Patrol were out in force with many dozens of vehicles, ATCs and personnel in aircraft. Above, 2 patrolmen sit on the ridge above our valley discussing "issues". Note the structure at the right of the photo. This is a remote control infrared camera.

This is a zoom shot of the camera tower. This tower watches the approach area used by the illegals and smugglers. The microwave dish connects the camera with the control center at the Border Patrol's regional HQ in Yuma. The camera watches the approach along the Imperial Canal that skirts the border and runs just north of the Buttercup sand dunes. Our choice of campsite was specifically so we would not be close to other folks and "alone". But, our wishes notwithstanding, we were "visited" by 6 different sets of agents over the next 36 hours. Some were in helicopters, some on ATCs, but most were in pickups. All were armed and those agents in the trucks also had automatic weapons with them. All of them said "we are not used to seeing folks camping in this area". My response was "well, you are not used to seeing this kind of truck either". All of them were highly professional and nice. That said, I would like to have a chat with the fellow that showed up at 0600 and woke us up. With respect to that event, the fellow stated that "our sensors in the area showed a lot of foot traffic in this sector. Were you outside last night?". It seems that large stretches of the border are seeded with military-style motion detectors that are used to alert agents to the presence of intruders so they can focus their search and apprehension efforts.

We arrived late in the pm and rode a bit before dark. Then we settled in for the night. I had read the weather report and saw that a front was approaching and that strong winds were forecast for the next day. We had ridden in winds before, so we decided to make the trip anyway. The weather report stated that the high wind warning was effecting at 0700 local time. Sure enough, at 0700 the winds hit in full force. Given previous storms, I had expected the front to pass in a couple of hours and then the winds would subside. Not a chance; they remained gale force all day and into the night. The photo does not do justice to the strength of the winds. I am guessing that they were 60 mph, possibly stronger by the way that the truck was rocking. The photo above was taken mid-morning. Kathleen and I were stuck in the camper all day with the wind howling and the camper rocking from side to side. This to me was scary since I had pointed the nose of the truck into the winds (or at least the direction the forecast stated the winds would be from) to minimize the wind load surface.

The winds got stronger during the day. Bored from being couped up in the camper, I stepped outside on the tailgate to get this shot of the far dunes being moved by the winds. I quickly retreated, however, because the blowing dust made it impossible to see.

By mid-afternoon, the wind was really wailing. You could not go outside with open eyes because the dust would blind you. Above, the visibility was getting really bad and the tops of the dunes were merging with the sky. Not surprisingly, we did not get a Border Patrol visit that day or evening. The winds continued throughout the night but calmed the following morning.

Once dawn hit, I went out exploring. The recent rains in the sand dunes resulted in a reasonable set of spring flowers.

There were purple, white and yellow flowers. The purple ones were the most plentiful but the white ones were much more dramatic. I failed to capture the yellow ones as the wind made focusing on a small moving target problematic.

The dunes are a beautiful place when conditions are good. Twelve hours earlier, the far dune line was a frothing sea of blowing sand with near zero visibility.

Another agent sits on a high dune ridge keeping watch.

The last agent that visited us before we departed actually knew what a Unimog was and asked if this was "the real thing". I showed him the vehicle and made a comment about preparing to depart. He stated that the wind had been so strong the previous night that it blew down the power lines that run near the Buttercup camping area, so we would have to divert our return path to avoid the lines. On cresting the dune line, I saw the power crews hard at work replacing the downed poles. In the photo above, note the set of 3 poles on the left that are being bent by the strain of the downed lines. The crew in the center is replacing both poles, cross beams and bracing. Several sets of poles were downed by the wind.

This is what was left of the original set of poles. Note the splintered wood.

The triple pole set is bending pretty good under the strain. Note the size of the dune field to the north of I-8 which is the highway in the foreground.

The force of the wind splintered these poles. No wonder the camper was rocking and rolling! The CHP also closed I-8 the previous night which would have prevented our return to San Diego. We discussed leaving the previous day, but the winds were so strong, the blowing sand would have prevented us from being able to secure our stuff!

More repair crews arrive to augment the existing crew. This is the main Buttercup camping area. Note that many, if not most, folks camp underneath these high voltage lines. I am sure that folks were puckered-up pretty good when those lines went down. The concept of having a couple hundred kilovolt lines bouncing around in the wind near your motor home is pretty scary.

While I was airing up the tires in anticipation of the highway trip home, this fellow in a Mini came past us and headed straight out to the dunes. I did not stick around to see if he got stuck, but I will bet that he did.

The Border Patrol has an enclave next to the camping area where they store equipment. On our arrival on Saturday, there were perhaps 20 vehicles there.

It has been 3 years since we visited Buttercup last. Since then, it has turned into an armed camp. The Border Patrol were there in force and it was not "just for show". The agents that I spoke with told me that they apprehended substantial numbers of illegals every night with the absolute quantities varying with the seasons. Buttercup is hot as hell in the summer, so most of the illegals attempt to make the crossing during the fall, winter or spring months. I found the presence of the Border Patrol both comforting and disquieting at the same time.

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Text and photos Copyright Bill Caid 2008. All rights reserved.