Racetrack Playa

1 Oct

Sometime in the winter of 2000 I was sitting in the front room of our apartment on Staten Island tooling round the Internet when I ran across a photograph of a rock. The rock sat on a vast dry lake bed somewhere in a desert. There was a track extending from under the rock off to the right, looking for all the world as though the rock had propelled itself across the desert floor.  The caption read “Racing Stone.” I was intrigued. Wikipedia did not yet exist. I can’t honestly recall if I had yet heard of Google. There is every likelihood that I searched Yahoo or any of a number of other sites for information on the “Racing Stone,” I do remember that it took a while. Eventually I discovered that the racing stones were real, and that they existed in a place far out West called Racetrack Playa. I couldn’t think why I’d ever find myself there, but I added it to my mental Bucket List.

It took 13 years, but I finally made it to Racetrack Playa.

Not too long after picking up our lives and moving to the Wild Wild West I discovered that Racetrack Playa is (Relatively speaking) quite nearby. Just like the North Gate to Area 51 it was someplace I was determined to visit but then my life got in my way. (I have still never driven to the base entrance)

About 2 years ago I again took it into my head that I would visit Racetrack Playa and began planning in earnest. The first thing I determined was that I wanted to go in summer, when viewing of the Milky Way would be best. Something I had learned along the way was that Racetrack Playa is extremely remote and the lack of streetlamps or indeed any vestige of civilization within many many many miles make it an ideal stargazing location. Something my wife learned along the way is that Racetrack Playa is situated in Death Valley and summer temperatures routinely reach 120°. She absolutely forbade me to go any later than May.

The second thing I determined was that my vehicle probably wouldn’t make it. I learned that Racetrack Playa is at the end of 30 miles of very bad desert roads. Several websites warned me that while strictly street vehicles were legal, they were not at all recommended. Though it’s not in the same league as the Yungas Road, the Internet warned me that accidents were not unheard of and that it was hard on vehicles.

I’m a big believer in honesty in relationships. Over the years I’ve come to learn that our marriage is healthier for the fact that we tell each other everything. That blanket commitment to sharing now extends to every area of our lives. Except….. stupid things I do with the van.

I have a long and storied history of doing monumentally idiotic things with my surveillance vehicle. It has happened a time or two that I’ve had a close call. Every now and then I’ve done something so spectacularly dumb or dangerous, usually both, that it goes well beyond the daily level of risk that goes along with the job. Most often when I reach this plateau some flaw in my software makes me think this is funny (Probably the same glitch that makes me think trying this stuff will work to begin with). A near fatal accident becomes a funny anecdote, that’s just how I deal. My wife has a fine sense of humor. She’s smart and quick and cracks me up all the time, but she doesn’t find this amusing in the least.

I will give an example….

I’m on my third surveillance vehicle in 10 years. The second (The Mystery Machine Mark II) was a Ford Windstar. This was the very first front-wheel drive vehicle I’d ever owned. There were some fundamentals of the physics involved that I didn’t quite grasp. I was coming home one day not long after purchasing the Mark II and had allowed my mind to wander. I tried too late to make the left turn into our neighborhood, and finding myself at the end of the turn lane a little past the entrance to our walled community (It’s Vegas, they’re ALL walled) with a median in front of me I mashed the gas and jerked the wheel left, then right again.

Here’s what I EXPECTED to happen: The rear tires would spin, the back end would break traction and the nose of the vehicle would swing left. As I brought the wheel to the right again and eased up on the gas the tires would find purchase and I would shoot across the three lanes neat as you please. In the words of Detective Inspector Sam Tyler, “Starsky and Hutch have a lot to answer for.”

Here’s what ACTUALLY happened: The van leapt forward without a second’s pause. Under full acceleration the vehicle did something I never expected… it went precisely where I pointed it. This happened to be at an angle past the neighborhood entrance and into the southbound lanes. Still on auto-pilot I brought the wheel right again and let off the gas, putting me in the center lane traveling directly into the oncoming line of traffic. Fortunately the deep primal monkey part of my brain that takes over when I panic is pretty bad-ass behind the wheel. I angled left, mashed the pedal, and made it onto the sidewalk before the first cars reached me. I managed to stop a few inches shy of the wall as a convoy of cars went blaring past playing a jazzy little tune on their horns.

When the traffic cleared I backed out into the street, executed a careful 3-point turn and drove the last 90 yards to our home. I immediately told my wife what had happened, laughing all the while. I didn’t think it was a gut-buster of a story (Certainly not on par with my “Whole Fryer” joke, hands down the funniest thing I’ve ever said in my life), but I expected at least a chuckle.

That’s what I EXPECTED to happen.

Here’s what ACTUALLY happened: She got mad. She got really mad really fast and went off in a direction I didn’t expect.

1. It turns out that me nearly getting into a head-on collision and possibly killed isn’t that funny to her.

2. Being a practical sort it was also her duty to be angry over the cost of the van should I destroy it.

The surveillance van I currently drive (The Mystery Machine Mark III) is second only to our house in the “Most Expensive Things We’ve Ever Purchased” category, so these stories haven’t gotten any funnier to her in the interval. I also like to think her lack of sense of humor in this field owes something to the fact that she grows ever more fond of me every day.

Anyway, my point here is… I now tend to keep the “Honey you won’t believe what I did with the van” stories to myself where at all possible. Taking our $33,000 minivan, upon which I rely to make my living, off into the desert over 30 miles of (As I would discover) truly astonishingly bad roads, was not a plan that had in its design anything to make her happy, and was not the sort of thing I would, or could keep from her.

So, I had to find a vehicle.

There is, in Death Valley, a Jeep rental company called Farabee’s. I used the email contact form on their website and got a fairly expensive answer to my query that I didn’t much like. I’ve since learned that I misunderstood and it is probably best to pick up the phone and talk to someone (Which I plan to do in advance of my next expedition). I’ve talked to one or two people who highly recommend them. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I have one or two friends with sport utility vehicles but these people know me, and so are reluctant to lend me their vehicles for any reason. Very few rental places in Vegas have Jeeps to loan and they absolutely forbid you to take them off road which strikes me as pretty silly but there you are.

I was discussing my difficulty with my supervisor at work when he volunteered that he had just that week purchased a small pickup truck kitted out for off-roading and would be happy to lend it to me. Aid from an unexpected quarter. Another hurdle cleared.

So… on a sunny November day my friend Michael and I set out for Death Valley. I’d loaded up the tent, a stand jack, several gallons of water, firewood, an extinguisher, sleeping bag, tent, some chairs, a pot, five quarts of beef stew I’d made the day before, a loaf of potato bread, a few pints of cider, my camera, and a kettle in the shape of a cat that my wife and I had received as a wedding present twenty years before. What I did not pack was anything even remotely resembling a “Snack.” I have no excuse to offer up for this omission.

From Vegas to the ranger station/welcome center at Furnace Creek is about a 2 ½ hour drive. You go to Pahrump and make a left. The first place of note we passed was Zabriskie Point and so we stopped to have a look.

2013-11-02 10.18.28

Looking west from Zabriskie Point

I find the desert more beautiful than I ever imagined I would (Having grown up in Kentucky, a very green place) and the view of the valley was quite lovely. We snapped a few pics. Ate a few waxy chocolate covered donuts Michael was smart enough to bring and hopped back in the truck.

The next point of interest was the “Sea Level” sign where Highway 190 meets Badwater Road just past the Furnace Creek Inn.

IMG_7239This gave us pause. Michael and I had a short, puzzled conversation where we tried to work out if either of us had ever passed below Sea Level before in our lives (Short of swimming in the ocean and going under) and we couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer.

I’ve since done some research and the answer is yes (At least I have), but boy was it a torturous journey. Michael and I had considered basements and caves (I was a very enthusiastic spelunker as a kid, but not a very skilled one. Since an unskilled spelunker transitions quite efficiently to “Dead spelunker” my parents made keeping me out of caves a priority). These were possible routes but we didn’t have the information ready to hand at the time. Turns out much of the Midwest where we were both raised is situated at an elevation of between 500′ and 900′. Even in Tornado Alley you’re not going to find a cellar that deep. Mammoth cave (The only cave I visited for which I can now find a precise depth) is 379′ deep, but situated in an area where the lowest elevation I could find was still above 550′. I lived for seven years in New York City. I was able to determine that our apartment on Staten Island was about 80′ above sea level and the streets of Manhattan at least 8′ above. I mentioned this exhaustive research to my wife and she just stared at me. She said “It’s a good thing you’re so incredibly handsome.” (Well, she said something LIKE that at any rate) I’m well aware of this fact of course but couldn’t think why she should bring it up at that moment.

“You’ve been below sea level hundreds of times. Thousands.”

(Blank look from your humble chronicler)

“Honey… the Subway.”

Oh.

The Subway.

The vast majority of the New York City Subway system is constructed well below sea level. You may perhaps recall video of water shooting in a steady stream from an elevator door in the P.A.T.H. Station during hurricane Sandy. Yeah. I had forgotten the thousands of times I’d descended 30′, 40′, or even 100′ below the level of the street to board the train. The streets being only about 8′ above sea level I’d spent cumulatively weeks, perhaps months beneath sea level in the years I lived in New York.

Ok. So. Amended: I had not, until driving into Death Valey ever stood upon the surface of the Earth and been (At the same time) below Sea Level.

To the best of my knowledge.

We drove on.

Michael and I reached the welcome center and went in to have a look around. As we entered we passed the digital thermometer and it read 53°. We looked about in the gift shop, used the facilities, checked out a relief map of the region and then I walked over to the desk to get a “Voluntary Camping Permit.”

My first indication that this wasn’t going to go smoothly was when the ranger couldn’t find the check-in book. NOBODY notifies the rangers that they are going camping. First the ranger informed me “We will not actively monitor you. Did you tell somebody where you were going” I had, in fact. “Did you tell them when to expect you back?”

“Yes.”

“Ok. Good. I mean, we’ll head out there if we get a report of a problem. Tell your friend to call 911 from wherever they are if you don’t show up on time. Local law enforcement will get the ball rolling and then we’ll come looking for you.”

“I understand. “

The ranger had a list of questions he needed to ask, having now located the check-in book and pulled out a lengthy form.

“Where are you going?”

“Racetrack Playa.”

“Where are you camping?”

“Homestake.”

“Do you have a high ground clearance vehicle? 4-wheel drive isn’t required but it’s not a bad idea.”

“We have a high clearance pickup truck.”

“Do you have food?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have water?”

“Yes.”

“How much?”

“Two gallons for each of us.”

“Ok, yeah, that’s plenty. Do you have a satellite phone?”

“No.”

“Sleeping bags? Cold weather gear?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have a boat?”

“That strikes me as overly optimistic.”

“What?”

“No. No boat.”

“Do you have a pack animal?”

I looked Michael over and thought about this. Decided that wasn’t very charitable and said “No.”

The phone at the desk rang. The ranger asked me to excuse him and picked up the phone. He began conversing with the person on the other end and waved over an older ranger with only a fringe of hair and a white beard. He took up where the younger man had left off.

“Are either of you very experienced high desert campers?”

“Ummmm. No. Well, I have experience camping but I wouldn’t say I’m VERY experienced.” I pointed at Michael, “He’s spent the last four years on a wildfire crew in Nevada.”

The ranger inclined his head slightly, then nodded (A little grudgingly I thought) and went back to the form.

“What kind of tires do you have on your vehicle?”

I explained that I had borrowed the truck and had no idea what kind of tires were on it apart from “Big” and “Knobby.”

“Well let’s go have a look” he said, and put on his hat as he came around the desk.

We walked outside and he examined the truck. He confessed that while he believed a 10-ply tire was optimal, the 5-ply tires on our vehicle would do. He inspected and approved of the rest of our gear and we headed back inside. The younger ranger resumed filling in our forms and when he’d finished he handed my a sturdy paper tag torn from the bottom of the form with a wire tie attached to one end.

He explained, “This isn’t to attach to your tent. This is actually meant to be attached to your person when you sleep at night. If it should happen to rain…”

“… you can use the tag to identify my body if I am killed in a flash flood.”

“Exactly!”

He was obviously excited about the possibility of getting to utilize this particular bit of bureaucratic forensic gear.

We thanked him and went back to the truck. On the way we asked the older ranger about where to get some snacks. He pointed out the general store at the campground next door, and also let us know that some pre-made sandwiches could be purchased at Scotty’s Castle. These were our only options within about 100 miles or so. His personal opinion was the the sandwiches at the castle would be fresher.

Scotty's Castle

Scotty’s Castle

From the welcome center to Scotty’s Castle is about an hour’s drive. Scotty’s Castle is a Spanish Colonial style villa in Grapevine Canyon. The “Castle” was built by a millionaire from Chicago in the 1920’s after he made several trips to Death Valley with his wife. Miles from anywhere, it made use of a nearby spring for both water and electricity. After the stock market crash the couple rented out rooms in the castle and today it is a museum owned by the National Parks Service. We used the restroom (Which has on the wall a handy chart illustrating how the color of your urine can be used to gauge your level of hydration) and then picked up some sandwiches in the gift shop. The ranger was right, they were quite good. We set off again.

Another 20 minutes or so brought us to Ubehebe Crater. We were anxious to get to the playa and so didn’t stop to look at the crater on our way in. We turned off the pavement and on to Racetrack Valley Road.

When I was planning the trip I entered Racetrack Playa in my GPS and it told me that the drive from Las Vegas would be 7 hours. I figured that couldn’t be right. We were looking at 170 miles from Vegas to the crater and Racetrack Playa was less that 30 miles beyond that. Had to be a mistake.

The ranger that had inspected our tires had assigned Michael the task of making sure I didn’t drive more than 10 mph on Racetrack Valley Road. Upon reaching the turnoff we had a decision to make:

Obey the ranger, and keep it at 10 mph? Or the speed limit sign that greeted us, letting us know that we were free to crank it up to 35 mph?

The decision was made for us in a matter of minutes.

Racetrack Valley Road is a rutted, unmaintained road that is simply scraped across the surface of the desert floor. It took a great deal of concentration just to make 10 mph, since the truck had a tendency to fishtail at speeds much above 5. We were passed by several rental jeeps moving at a much higher rate of speed. The point I must stress here is that theses were RENTALS. I had borrowed my supervisor’s new truck, and the ranger had warned me that I really had only half the tire I needed. This is how it went…

For three…. hours.

The ride was bone-jarring. It was loud. I felt as though my brain was beating itself to death against the inside of my skull.

I tried to find a line that would smooth out the ride. I shifted the truck from left to right across the track. I drove with the right side tires up on the berm, then the left. I tried cranking it up to 25 mph to try to reach the mythical harmonic speed at which the suspension’s rate of travel would magically match the frequency of the ridges in the washboard road and the ride would smooth out. All to no avail. Michael couldn’t even drink his Mountain Dew because the liquid would bounce directly up through the bottle mouth.

The road steadily rises up between the mountains, occasionally winding through piles of boulders but mostly running across a barren desert landscape. We overtook a family in a minivan. I counted at least 9 people in and around the vehicle. They were making the trip with street tires.

A couple of hours in we reached Teakettle Junction, Population 0. Teakettle Junction is about 6 miles north of the playa. Racetrack Valley Road intersects another track that runs up to Hunter Mountain. I’ve been unable to find out much that can be verified about the history of Teakettle Junction. I can tell you that it has become tradition to leave a tea kettle attached to the sign. 2013-11-02 14.20.22I had brought for this purpose a kettle that was given to my wife and I as a wedding present over 20 years ago. It was painted like a white cat. The whistle (A plastic bird) had broken some years ago and I’d since replaced it. We left the kettle hanging from the sign with a note inside giving our names and e-mail addresses along with the date of our visit. A number of the kettles were identical, leading me to believe that the general store must sell them for this very purpose. I know from various websites that the kettles are occasionally removed. I’m going to assume that the park service does this to keep the sign from falling down.

When we first stopped the truck became stuck for a moment in the soft sand. Michael said “Oh no.” He was able to pack “That’s it. We’re stuck. We’re out here beyond all hope of aid in an unforgiving desert. We’ll soon run out of food and water and once we’ve died of thirst the coyotes will pick our bones clean” into the words “Oh no.” Despite Michael’s complete lack of faith in me I was able to rock the truck up out of the sand and park off to the side of the road just as we were overtaken by the family in the minivan. They waved as they sped by. We stopped and took a few photographs, secured the kettle to the sign, read some of the messages in the other kettles, then continued toward the playa.

Our first view of Racetrack Playa

Our first view of Racetrack Playa

We reached Racetrack Playa in the early afternoon. The playa is just under three miles long and a little over a mile wide. There is an outcrop of volcanic rock called The Grandstand at the north end and this was our first stop.

The Granstand is visible for miles. It rises about 70 feet from the playa surface. There is a parking area nearby. Here again we encountered the family in the minivan. My best guess is that they were from Brazil, as it sounded like they were speaking Portugese.

The Grandstand

The Grandstand

We walked out onto the surface of the playa and crossed to The Grandstand. Rubble from erosion surrounds the outcropping but at the time of our visit there were only one or two Racing Stones this far north. The Grandstand has two distinct peaks. I made my way over the saddle and back down to the playa while Michael climbed to near one of the peaks. We made our way out from the formation in a wide arc looking for the stones we’d come to see, but found only one or two, and these with very faint tracks.

We named these stones JJ and Kyle.

We named these stones JJ and Kyle.

After about 45 minutes we elected to return to the truck and have a look further to the south.

We drove to a point about halfway down the length of the playa. We passed a white Land Rover parked on the side of the road. It had passed us earlier, it’s progress visible for several miles afterward as it shot a rooster tail of dust into the air. We stopped a short distance beyond the Land Rover and walked out into the center of the playa. We’d intended to have a look at a line of sparse vegetation we’d noticed in the center of the lake bed, and instead ended up walking to the far side before making our way all the way to the south end of the playa and then back to the truck as the sun set behind the mountains. Distances are tricky in the desert. I was aware of this and fell for it anyway. We crossed at a diagonal and so ended up making it about a 3 mile round trip. With a pair of binoculars I’d brought we could see that the family in the minivan had made it to the south end of the playa as well as three or four other vehicles.

It was a picture very much like this one that first made me want to visit Racetrack Playa all those years ago.

It was a picture very much like this one that first made me want to visit Racetrack Playa all those years ago.

We made our way toward the south end where the Racing Stones originate. Michael was the first to spot what appeared to be a tube sticking up out of the ground. As we approached we saw that there was not just one but several, widely spaced across the playa. They were PVC, about 3 inches in diameter and about 16 inches tall. There were small circular indentations up and down the side at regular intervals, sensors of some kind, the purpose of which we could not immediately determine.

We began to see more stones, then Michael found what could only be described as a mock Racing Stone. It was roughly one foot on a side and 9 or 10 inches high. Set into the top was a circular metal plate with “Property of” a university in California on it.

This gave us pause.

The stone was sitting at the end of a trail, indicating that it had moved at some point, but it seemed more regular in shape than the “Real” Racing Stones we’d observed thus far. We found another, then another. We started counting.

The sun was heading down behind the mountains and we decided to hike back to the truck and continue on to our camp site before dark. We’d located about 13 of the mock stones and a roughly equal number of legitimate moving stones. There was a heavy concentration of the natural stones near the parking area at the southwest end of the playa (Now empty).

We drove the remaining two miles to the Homestake camping area at the end of Racetrack Valley Road. We put up the tent, got the fire going, heated up some of the beef stew I’d made the day before and ate it with slices of potato bread. We cracked a couple of bottles of hard cider. The white Land Rover was parked across the road, it’s single occupant busy chopping vegetables and tossing them in a pan on a propane stove. There was a red SUV a little further north and four or five men sat around a fire drinking and talking. We could just see lights from another camp off to the south beyond the end of the road.

After dinner Michael filled and lit his pipe and I fired up a cigar. We sat and talked and stared at the fire and watched the fellow by the Land Rover put away his stove and expertly set up his tent in the dark. He put out his lights and climbed inside as the guys to the north drove away. Homestake is a “Primitive” camp site so there is no water and no facilities beyond a port-a-potty on the side of the road. I rinsed our dishes with a little of our drinking water and put them away in a reusable grocery bag along with the loaf of bread.

We let an hour go by, then I got my camera and Michael sorted out his telescope and we walked a few hundred yards up the road back toward the playa away from the light of our fire. I had specifically chosen the date of our trip with the New Moon in mind, as I was eager to see what I could do in terms of astronomical photography and didn’t want the Moon screwing it up.

I needn’t have worried. I have a very nice camera that Herself bought for me several years ago, but I’m still not much closer to understanding even the most fundamental basics of photography. I am a tremendous fan of the Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive. I am several country miles from being able to take the kinds of photographs you will see if you follow that link. We spent about 45 minutes looking through Michael’s telescope and trying to get shots of the stars rising over the mountains.

It was very windy and the temperature had dropped about 20 degrees. We decided that it was time to retire to the fireside. We gathered up our equipment and headed back. I put the camera in the truck and looked around for the bag with the plates. Several of the plates were sitting next to my chair but of the bag there was no sign. The first thing I thought was “Who on earth would take my bag way the hell out here?” White Land Rover guy was apparently asleep and the guys at the north end of the site were gone. Seriously? Then I remembered that we were in the wild. I walked to the edge of the firelight toward the hill behind the camp. Yup. About 15 yards away I found the bag. Hole torn in the side. Loaf of potato bread gone. $2.99 loaf of potato bread. Fully ¼ of the food I’d brought on the trip. We decided it was likely a coyote that had slipped in smelling the stew I was unable to completely clean from the plates.

We let the fire burn down and watched the stars for a while and then decided to turn in. I set an alarm on my phone because I wanted to be down on the playa before the sun came up the next morning. We both bundled up in our sleeping bags and went to sleep.

An excess of hard cider caused me to wake up at about 3 a.m. I got out of my bag and slipped my boots on as quietly as I could. I stepped out of the tent and couldn’t believe the sky that I saw. With eyes adjusted completely to the dark the desert was bright all around me and millions of stars crowded the sky. The Milky Way shone over the mountains along one side just up from the horizon. It was enough to take my breath away. We live most of our lives away from nature now. I had a friend in New York who had never encountered the dark until he went on a vacation to Vermont (And discovered that he didn’t much care for it). I’ve been to places in my life that I THOUGHT were remote, but I’d never seen a sky like that above Death Valley. The playa is shielded by mountains on all four sides, and there isn’t a major population center inside of 120 miles in any direction. The light pollution is as minimal as you can expect it to be and the sky is simply unbelievable. I am failing you here reader. I cannot think of a way to convey to you what it looks like and I wasn’t skilled enough to get a good picture.

Racetrack Playa (About 2 miles distant) from the hill above the Homestake camp site.

Racetrack Playa (About 2 miles distant) from the hill above the Homestake camp site.

We got up the next morning and hopped in the truck. I was out in the center of the playa before the sun came up to look for more Racing Stones. The light of the rising sun hits the tracks from the side making it easier to photograph them. Michael gave up and went back to the truck because it was really insanely cold. I was laying on the frozen ground watching the sun move across the valley and trying to work the camera with my stiff fingers (Having left the gloves I brought for this VERY purpose in the tent).

Looking north as the sun first hits the playa

Looking north as the sun first hits the playa

(Here’s a fun tool I use sometimes for work. It demonstrates what information you could unwittingly be putting out there in the Internet. I was trying out a new phone and left geotagging on during this trip. Follow this link to a cool exif data viewer to see what is attached to the above image.) 

Once the sun was fully up we went back to camp for breakfast. I had again not thought this far ahead and was planning on having beef stew (Sans potato bread) and coffee for breakfast. Fortunately Michael had some oatmeal. Mr. Land Rover came over and introduced himself as Jim Norris and asked if we’d been out on the playa. We related our experiences of the previous day and told him about the intriguing fake stones with metal caps. Yeah….. about that…..

Michael and I have been sworn to Internet secrecy for the last year. However, since the story broke a few weeks back I figure I can spill the beans. I am confident that once it’s in the L.A.Times it’s not considered a secret anymore.

Mr. Norris confessed that the rocks were his, part of a study into the mechanism by which the Racing Stones move. The metal caps housed custom-built GPS units and the PVC pipes sticking up out of the ground were to measure depth on the rare occasions that the playa is covered in water. The rocks were manufactured at the university Mr. Norris was associated with and hauled out to the site on the backs of grad students. They placed the mock stones at the end of empty tracks where possible, or simply out in the middle of the playa if an empty track was unavailable. After going to great lengths to get the permission of the park service to install equipment to carry out the study, convincing them to let him use actual stones from the site was apparently a bridge too far. Despite several million tons of rock identical to the Racing Stones sitting RIGHT THERE the park service absolutely forbade them to touch them. The stones from the formation at the south end of the playa have to make their way out onto the racing surface naturally.

Jim said he’d seen us out on the playa the afternoon before when he was on the side of a nearby hill checking the weather station associated with his setup. He saw us moving around in the area of the mock Racing Stones and asked how many we’d found. Turns out, almost all of them. He seemed surprised that we’d spotted so many. Michael put it this way;

“So, there’s practically a cult following dedicated to Racetrack Playa and the Racing Stones. It’s at minimum a 6 hour trek from anywhere to get out here and it’s not an EASY trip. What makes you think that anybody who makes it this far isn’t going to closely examine those rocks?”

Mr. Norris countered that most people drove directly to the south end of the playa and looked at the stones nearest the road before moving on. According to him Michael and I traveled a great deal further across the playa than the average tourist and examined everything much more closely than he had anticipated.

We talked about the various theories about the Racing Stones. Michael and I both subscribed to the “Sheet ice” theory. Jim countered that he believed that rare near-hurricane force winds were responsible, and that he’d arranged the experiment to find out. He’d had the mock Racing Stones in place for two years and the real stones had not moved in four. It was necessary to come out to the playa every few weeks to check the equipment and change batteries. He asked that I not put anything on the internet about our conversation or the equipment we found and its purpose. He was concerned that if people knew about the experiment someone might interfere with the stones or the sensors.

We spoke a little longer. After examining the holes made in the grocery bag by its teeth in the full light of day Jim identified the creature that had taken the potato bread as a Kit Fox. He told us he’s had them come right up to his fire before to take titbits of food and even lick spilled soup from his boots. He gave our equipment a thumbs up but expressed the same concerns as the ranger about our tires, saying we should continue to travel at low speed. He said moving at the clip that he generally saw out of the folks renting Farabee Jeeps wasn’t a good idea, but that the jeeps must be very well maintained, as he didn’t recall ever seeing one broken down. We started packing up and Jim said goodbye and left.

About a month and a half later Jim was back with his cousin Richard to check on the equipment again. They found the playa covered in a few inches of water and a thin layer of ice. The afternoon of December 21 the ice began to break up. According to the L.A.Times;

“A light wind began moving huge floes of ice across the surface of the water and into rocks weighing up to 200 pounds. Propelled by the ice masses, the rocks began to slide across the slick, muddy bottom of the normally dry lake bed “

Jim got a camera and was able to document the process for the first time ever.

We learned about it when they went public in August. Mr. Morris’ theory hasn’t been disproved, but he was the first person to document the mechanism that he happened to disagree with. LOVE science!

(UPDATE: Their findings have since been published, you can read them here.)

Michael and I drove back out. We listened to the NASCAR race on the satellite radio and dodged Farabee rental Jeeps for 2 ½ hours on the way out. I could tell we were nearly back to the paved road when the sand of the desert all around began to turn black. Ubehebe Crater was formed by volcanic activity… hence the black sand.

We reached the loop and parking area at the crater’s edge and slipped on to the gloriously smooth blacktop. The truck went silent. It was a moment of unadulterated joy. We slid along to the viewing area at the lip of the crater as though on greased rails.

Ubehebe is half a mile wide and over 700′ deep. It’s the result of a hydrovolcanic eruption and is anywhere from 800 to 7,000 years old. We stood and stared out across the crater and simply savored not having our innards jostled. As we rolled back out I remembered that one of the websites advised not driving in or out after dark in the very strongest terms. I noticed an excellent reason for this. The asphalt is jet black. The sand around the crater is black… and just past the parking area at the lip of the crater the road jogs ever so subtly to the left at exactly the point where the guardrail ends. There is nothing really to stop you driving right over the edge and into the crater.

Ubehebe Crater

Ubehebe Crater

On our way out we briefly pulled into the Salt Creek area, mistaking it for Badwater. We turned around and drove to the general store at Furnace Creek. We wandered around looking at the normal range of souvenirs printed with Death Valley on them. I got a shirt and a sticker for my laptop, and we both bought the same pre-made sandwiches we’d purchased the day before. It seemed to me the ones from Scotty’s Castle DID taste better.

Probably just in my head.

Take good care.

© 2014 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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One Response to “Racetrack Playa”

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  1. Back To Death Valley | the naked investigator - May 8, 2015

    […] (My previous trip to Death Valley and Racetrack Playa is detailed here) […]

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