Tag Archives: Death Valley

It’s December 31st. Again.

31 Dec

It’s the last day of the year. An arbitrary marker in the passing of days, but there are forms that must be observed.

This post is all about me. All blogs are all about “Me me me me me me,” that’s the point. Maybe you will see something that will help a little with the “You you you you,” or maybe you’ll get a chuckle and a hint of schadenfreude. Never know.

My aim for today is to do as little as possible. I’m already hearing rumblings of an upcoming case that I can guarantee will be a nightmare and given that I’m being copied on the emails it looks like they intend to put me in charge. But that hasn’t… happened… yet.

Right next to spending time with family from whom I am absent most of the year the thing I love most about the holidays is a respite from care. Gonna grab me some of that today before the to-do list encroaches on my peace of mind.

Well, after I make the year-end charitable donations.

… and after I write this.

Then I’m gonna relax LIKE A BOSS.

My year that was:

2015 was the year White Castle finally came to Las Vegas. Glory hallelujah.

Cadbury Dairy Milk bars became contraband in the USA thanks to Hershey. Screw you Hershey. Screw you unto even the 7th generation.

Jeff Gordon ran his last season in NASCAR. My wife is not amused.

Our house is now 10 years old. So everything broke. Ok not everything, just the air conditioner fan, the water heater, the disposal, and the capacitor in the ac condenser. (In related news, your big-ass flat HD smart tv is a computer. Plug it in to a surge protector. Trust me on this one.)

We began the Great Flooring Project of 2015 in February. We are now forced to rename it the Great Flooring Project of 2015/2016.

10 blog posts this year! (11 if you count this one)

We lost our cat Sir Andrew and it was just devastating. First Christmas without either of our boys in the house for 16 years was a little tough at first.

SpaceX started the year with a spectacular rocket crash into a barge on storm-tossed seas and ended with a perfect touchdown at Canaveral. I am a big proponent of space exploration. We’ve gotta go.

The Colbert Report ended and Jon Stewart left The Daily Show. Both much to my dismay.

We went to Disneyland 5 times. This is what keeps me from murdering my coworkers.

Took a second trip to Death Valley. Made it to Racetrack Playa and back. In the snow.

The world lost the philosopher Terry Pratchett. He took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night. Just what the hell am I supposed to do now?

I’ve tried to cultivate a more zen attitude in my day to day life. This rarely works. I still spend much of my time angry, but I don’t use the car horn as much.

I learned that having the ventilation fan in the Mystery Machine Mark III break down during a surveillance when it is 110° outside instantly turns me into a passable electrician.

I got to go get a tetanus shot because I didn’t listen to my wife.

In 2014 I learned I can run flat out in my Justin cowboy boots. In 2015 I learned I can run flat out in the pouring rain in my Justin cowboy boots. I recommend you go buy some Justin cowboy boots.

Marriage Equality is now the law of the land. About damn time.

I was introduced to the hard cider ice cream float. Where has this been all my life?

We learned it’s ok to shoot down drones that are bugging you. How could this possibly come back and bite us in the ass?

I discovered the “Angry Scotsman” video and can now laugh myself stupid whenever I choose.

Star Wars came back, which is epic.

Bloom County came back, which is epic to the 10th power.

And there was joy, and sadness, and anger, and resignation. Politics makes me crazy. Hatred and stupidity and bigotry continue and there seems to be nothing I can do about it but I try anyway. We met people, we found old friends again, and we lost people.

And we go on.

I doubt I managed to really learn anything this year. I usually don’t. I still make the same mistakes but I keep trying, because what else is there to do?

Be kind to one another. That’s the best I have to offer.

Happy New Year.

Take good care.

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© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

Back To Death Valley

8 May

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

So I went back to Death Valley at the end of February. I had some friends who had expressed an interest in seeing Racetrack Playa, and I wanted to take another (Better informed) swing at astronomy photography. Between us we came up with several destinations for a longer trip than just the out-and-back one-nighter that Michael and I had gone on in 2013. I also arranged ahead of time to rent a Jeep. The 27-mile drive from Ubehebe Crater to Racetrack Playa had taken 3 hours on the previous trip and I was determined that it would be faster and more comfortable this go ’round.

We started early on a Friday morning. I began rounding up the guys at about 5:30 AM. We shoved all our various camping gear in the the back of my minivan and made for the grocery. We purchased nearly every type of pork product available along with booze, peanut butter, some smoked gouda and a nice Stilton, then we were offskie.

First stop…. Sonic in Pahrump, because none of us had eaten breakfast.

Second stop… Dante’s View! One of our number (Tim) had pointed out that several Second Unit scenes for the original Star Wars were shot in Death Valley. I’d looked online and found a few helpful sites but most were pretty light on coordinates. Tim came equipped with a folder full of printouts with screen captures and directions, mostly culled from Star Wars in Death Valley.

Dante’s view isn’t hard to find. From California Highway 190 turn south onto Furnace Creek Road. In about 7 ½ miles this road turns into Dante’s View Road and Furnace Creek Wash Road splits off to the left. Continue ahead on Dante’s View Road. Just under another 6 miles and you’ll reach the viewing area. It’s all paved and you can reach it in a street vehicle.

Looking north along Death Valley from Dante's View

Looking north along Death Valley from Dante’s View

In the original Star Wars Luke decides to travel to Alderaan with Obi Wan Kenobi after his family is murdered by Stormtroopers trying to recover R2-D2 and C-3PO. They make the trip overland to Mos Eisley by speeder. The first we see of the infamous spaceport is from a peak high above.

Side by side comparison of Mos Eisley with Death Valley

Side by side comparison of Mos Eisley with Death Valley

While Sir Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill were standing on a ridge in Tunisia, their view of Mos Eisley was filmed from Dante’s View looking north along Death Valley.

As Tim explains:

(I’m pretty tickled with how well these little video snippets turned out. Go into the YouTube settings and watch them in HD. Not great works of cinema mind you, but they look a lot better than I expected)

I find it fascinating that in the film shot they left the road in the picture.

From Dante’s View we traveled down to Badwater, the lowest point in North America. From the parking area at the side of the road you only need walk to the bottom of the stairs to see a small pool of spring water. The water is so salty as to be undrinkable, hence the area’s name. If you look around and up the cliff on the opposite side of the road you can see the “Sea Level” sign some 280 feet up the rock face. From the parking area you can set out across the salt flats. They are packed flat in a line approximately 50 feet wide that runs almost due west from the road for about half a mile, compacted by the feet of thousands of tourists. I picked up a pinch of salt from the virgin crystals just beyond the the worn path and tasted it. It was much warmer down here on the valley floor than it had been at the peak, and after trying the salt I drank down about ¼ of the water in my CamelBak.

While we’re on the subject of water allow me to remind you that the name of the place is Death Valley. The entire area is pretty wildly inhospitable to all but the most specially adapted life (The Badwater Snail, for example… that lives in Badwater Spring). TAKE PLENTY OF WATER WITH YOU. No matter when you travel to Death Valley it is dry. Temperatures were mild during our visit, and we still went through approximately 2 gallons of water a day between the four of us. Just because it isn’t hot, that doesn’t mean you can’t get dangerously dehydrated. I will post here the handy-dandy urine color hydration gauge we found in the bathroom at Scotty’s Castle.

Pay close attention

Pay close attention

You’ll find water fountains at ranger stations and, to my surprise, several of the camp sites (But not all). I advise bringing your own in abundance. We discovered that water cost more per gallon than gasoline at Stovepipe Wells, and gas in Death Valley ain’t cheap.

We left Badwater and rolled back north to Artist’s Palette. The area is so named for the many different colors found in the area due to various minerals in the rocks. The area is quite lovely. There is not only an incredible variety of colors to be found, but the different shades change subtly at various distances.

But that’s not why we came….

We stopped at Artist’s Palette because another 2nd Unit scene for Star Wars was shot at this location. Just before R2-D2 is captured by the Jawas we see a shot of him rolling up out of an arroyo. We hoped to find the exact location from which this segment was shot. We parked in the dirt lot and made our way up the arroyo, Tim with his printouts in hand. Gerry and Mike hiked further up toward the hills while Tim and I scrambled up and down the ridges dividing the narrow channels that come together just at the parking area. We were trying to line up the view with the screen shot just… so.

Obviously, I don't own this picture

Obviously, I don’t own this picture

We felt we got as close as we could. Our theory was that the camera had been set up on a scaffold on a ridge east of the parking lot, since we couldn’t make the angle just right. We found Mike and Gerry again and talked about what might make the green patina in the rocks that wasn’t copper. We took a last look as we got back to the van… and found the spot where the shot had to have been taken. It was at the edge of the parking lot.

Cameras are heavy, why carry them any farther than you have to?

Cameras are heavy, why carry them any farther than you have to?

Allowing for erosion in the nearly 40 years since, a spot just a foot or two out into the air over the edge of the arroyo directly in front of where we’d parked lined up perfectly. Of course it did. How far would a camera crew want to schlepp all that equipment? As far as they had to and not one step more. Mildly chagrined, but more proud of ourselves and Tim’s printouts than anything else, we got back in the van and made for the next shooting location.

Just up the road is Golden Canyon. The parking lot was full to overflowing. We started in and found the location we were looking for within minutes. There’s a point of view shot of a Jawa watching R2-D2 roll by from the cover of a crevasse. The spot is to the left as you’re walking into the canyon about 600′ from the parking lot. (Coordinates 36°25’19.4″N 116°50’43.2″W, or 36.422050, -116.845333)

More pictures that belong to Lucasfilm and not me.

More pictures that belong to Lucasfilm and not me.

The spot as it appears today

The spot as it appears today

If you step inside the opening, climb about 6′ and then turn around it is immediately clear that this is the spot. If you like, you can continue up the steep path through a series of slot canyons quite some way up the side of the mountain. The walls to either side are sharpish and the rocks loose under foot, so please be careful. Two of our group kept on to the top. I did not, because I am old, lazy, and more than a little out of shape. I went back down and continued the walk up Golden Canyon. The canyon is full of locations from the “Jawa Canyon.” In full daylight with the sun shining down from directly overhead I found it difficult to find several of these spots, but they are well documented on the Star Wars in Death Valley website.

On the way out we encountered a crew shooting an independent Star Wars film.

We continued north up the valley to Furnace Creek and stopped at the general store to have look around and use the restroom. I picked up some postcards to send my wife and my mom before we motored on to the Mesquite Flat Dunes.

The dunes are just off of Highway 190 at the north end of the valley, with a parking area about 2 miles east of Stovepipe Wells. While not the largest dunes in the area, they are the most easily accessible, making them a popular tourist and filming destination (The dunes are the site of another 2nd Unit shot from Star Wars).

Looking north toward the

Looking north toward the “Star Dune”

We got out and walked a few hundred yards in. The dunes are formed by sand blowing down from the mountains and collecting in the bowl of the valley when it comes up against an obstacle acting as a windbreak (In this instance, Tucki Mountain at the north end of the Panamint Range). In the silence of the late afternoon we could hear the sand blowing over the dunes when we stood still. The sand is incredibly fine and I took my shoes off for the walk back to the van.

We figured out that we had just under two hours of daylight left so we decided to move on to our campground. I was looking for someplace that allowed wood fires and that ideally wouldn’t require a fee. The Wildrose campsite is pretty remote but still accessible with a regular street vehicle. It’s located below Wildrose Peak on the west side of the mountain (36° 15′ 57.7404” N117° 11′ 19.3704” W or 36.266039, -117.188714). You take Highway 190 west through Stovepipe Wells to the Emigrant Campground. Turn left onto Emigrant Canyon Road until it ends and Wildrose is on the left.

Night One Camp

Night One Camp

We reached the camp much more quickly than I anticipated. Wildrose is a pretty large site that can accommodate campers (Up to a certain size) and has a separate tent-only area at the far end. It has water, picnic tables, and fire pits. There is a non-flush toilet at one end of the site. There is no fee to use the site and spaces are first-come first-serve. We found the site empty of all but a single camper. Wildrose is surrounded by hills but was still a little windy and as expected the temperature plummeted when the sun went down.

We got the tents up and our fire going. Pipes were filled, cigars lit, and we each pulled out a bottle of whatever suited our particular taste. Dinner was bratwurst (Regular as well as a spicy variety) supplemented with gouda and stilton on cracked pepper crackers and sardines in a mustard sauce. We sat and talked.

Orion

Orion

I wandered away from the fire to take a few preliminary test shots in anticipation of doing some astronomy photography the next night on Racetrack Playa. The evening wore on. The stars turned in an arc over our heads. The guys with kids were laughing over the Girl’s Night With Children their wives were having at Gerry’s house, and wondering if the kids were still up at this late hour as we made ready to pack it in. Somebody asked what time it was. 9:15. We were beginning to doze in our camp chairs…. at 9:15.

The last fading light in the west

The last fading light in the west

A short time earlier Michael had mentioned an idea he’d had from a friend for keeping warm overnight. You take a stone and place it near the fire. When you turn in for the night, you wrap the stone in a towel and place it inside your sleeping bag. It slowly sheds the heat it has absorbed over the next few hours. Several stones placed inside the tent would serve to heat the enclosed space. The friend he’d had this from was known to us all as a certified mountain-man-type-guy and it sounded like a fine idea. Michael himself spent several years on a fire crew fighting blazes all over the state and camping rough, so we tended to defer to his judgment in most instances while out camping. While we were eating dinner Michael was debating which rock to use and where to place it. I noted that there was already a nice medium-sized rock IN the fire and why didn’t he just use that one? Agreed.

We’d stowed our food and booze (Not wanting a repeat of the Kit Fox Incident outlined in my account of my previous Death Valley trip) and I was walking toward our tent when I caught a whiff of acrid smoke. Years ago I was in a highrise fire. Once you’ve been in a building fire you become a walking smoke detector, and the smoke I smelled wasn’t the gentle woodsmoke of our campfire but the burning plastic smell of something artificial burning. I reached the tent I was sharing with Michael and made to climb inside. A wall of choking smoke stopped me in my tracks. Michael tried to pick up the rock. It was far too hot for his purposes and had set the towel on fire. In fact the rock cracked from the heat when he put it outside the tent. We had to put the hot rock test off for another night.

The next morning we were all up before sunrise. I finally discovered something all of us had forgotten to bring…. coffee. Okay, Michael brought a couple of packets of instant coffee but that hardly counts. I’d remembered tea, so I indulged in some Irish Breakfast with Tim (Our designated “Person, English:1”). I’d passed a comfortable night on the REI self-inflating sleeping pad Gerry had let me borrow. I highly recommend it. Tim volunteered to cook and we had lovely sausages, black pudding, and baked beans for breakfast. We packed up our gear, did our idiot check and made sure the fire was drowned and then set off for Stovepipe Wells.

Stovepipe Wells is a wide spot in the road with a general store, a gasoline station, an airstrip and several cottages and RV’s just west of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. As a practical matter of interest, gasoline was cheaper in Stovepipe Wells than in Furnace Creek. We secured an absurdly over-priced can of coffee and topped off the van for the eventual trip home and then continued toward Farabee’s.

I found Farabee’s Jeep Rental online. Before my first trip out to Racetrack Playa I’d looked into it and discovered that most regular car rental places don’t carry off-road vehicles, and the ones that do specifically tell you not to take them off road. So…. you can rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle that gets bad gas mileage, just don’t use it for its intended purpose or anything. Michael and I eventually made the first trip to the Playa in a pickup truck borrowed from my supervisor, but this time we were going to go with the right tool for the job.

You can book a Jeep from Farabee’s online through their website (Here) or give them a call. There are Farabee’s locations in Utah and Colorado, so be sure you’re booking for Death Valley. They also do guided tours. A glitch in their software kept me from making the online booking so I called and made our reservation over the phone a couple of weeks out. We needed a 4-door since there were 4 of us plus our gear. Rentals from Farabee’s are for a calendar day and a 4-door is $235 a day. We opted for the tire and glass coverage at $25 a day, so with taxes and other fees it came to $618 for 2 days.

It’s worth it.

Farabee’s is located on Highway 190 where it meets Badwater Road right across from the Furnace Creek Inn. When we went to pick up the Jeep Victoria took care of us. While the guys loaded our gear out of the van and into the Jeep she explained the controls and features of the Jeep. I had originally intended to get a 2-door and stow gear on top but their vehicles are not equipped with racks, and the back seat in a 2-door Jeep isn’t fit for a full-grown adult. 2 tents, firewood, cooking gear, 4 sleeping bags, a giant cooler… we were packed into the 4-door pretty tight.

Old Reliable.... Farabee's Jeep Number 30

Old Reliable…. Farabee’s Jeep Number 30

The rental came with water and an emergency GPS transmitter. Victoria explained the operation of the GPS and went over a map with us. We’d originally intended to drive directly to the Playa, but after seeing the map and looking over the parts of the valley that were now open to us in a 4×4 we added a few destinations to the itinerary. One place I did want to go was stricken from the list, however, when she let me know that taking one of their Jeeps down Lippincott Road was forbidden. She described the road as “Too Jeep-ey” and explained that going that way after we’d been warned off would void all of our insurance protections. This was unfortunate, as that was the first thing we had planned for Sunday morning.
Victoria gamely posed for some pictures with us and we took off. We made our way north again and passed out of the valley via Hell’s Gate, rolling back into Nevada and continuing along 374 to Rhyolite.

Rhyolite is one of Nevada’s countless ghost towns. Its position just off a highway and the fact that many of its ruins are made of stone make it one of the more visited abandoned settlements in the state.

The ghost town of Rhyolite

The ghost town of Rhyolite

It sprang into existence after gold was discovered in 1904 and within a year the town had a population of about 2,500. The boom town boasted a stock exchange, an opera house, electric lights and over 50 saloons. By 1907 the population had reached 5,000 and the town went bust by 1910. By 1920 the town was abandoned.

With the tourism boom in Death Valley in the 1920’s and 1930’s Rhyolite saw the return of a few visitors. A gasoline station operated out of an old caboose (That is still there) and a casino and restaurant took over the old Las Vegas and Tonopah railway station, which still stands largely intact today.

We reached Rhyolite just before noon as the weather turned rainy. A paved road leads through the center of town past the Bottle House and the bank and ends at the railway station. There are toilets near the railway station and you can make a circuit of the town on foot or in a vehicle. If you’ve ever been to Radiator Springs and waited in line for the Racers at Disney’s California Adventure park, you’ve seen a close approximation of the Bottle House. The house was built using approximately 30,000 bottles in 1905 by a man named Tom Kelley. Most of the bottles are Adolphus Busch beer bottles (Budweiser to you and me). Kelley never lived in the house, but raffled it off. There used to be a lot of that sort of thing out west when land was plentiful and cheap. I know a couple who used to live in a cottage outside LA on land that was given to customers who purchased a full set of encyclopedias in the mid 1930’s. The raffle was won by a family named Bennett, and they lived in the home until 1914.

After having a close look at the remaining structures we stopped at the Goldwell Open Air Museum on our way back to the highway. In the 1980’s Belgian artist Albert Szukalski created a series of sculptures in and around Rhyolie by draping plaster soaked sheets over models, the largest being The Last Supper. The Goldwell Museum was organized in 2000 after Szukalski’s death. There are a number of installations ranging from the size of a sofa to the massive Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada.

After leaving Rhyolite we struck out for the Red Pass and Titus Canyon on Leadfield Road. Thanks to having a 4×4 equipped with the proper tires we zipped along at a speed that I found frankly astonishing as the sun came back out. After a long level stretch across the valley floor we began the climb up into the hills. Looking down over the drop as we negotiated the switchbacks was entertaining and we stopped periodically to enjoy the view.

This is one you should switch to HD

We picked up the pace as we descended the other side of the pass because one of our party did the math and sorted out that we’d have to push it to make Racetrack Playa before the sun went down. We paused only a moment in the ghost town of Leadfield for a pit stop and went haring through Titus Canyon faster than was probably prudent.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. High winds were kicking up as we exited Titus Canyon.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes from about 14 miles away. High winds were kicking up as we exited Titus Canyon.

We reached Ubehebe Crater at 3:30 and set off down the notoriously bad Racetrack Playa Road. The ride was unbelievably smooth in the Jeep. We made the trip to the Playa in 1/3 the time it took us previously. Having the right piece of equipment makes all the difference.

No seriously, if you don’t own one… rent a Jeep.

We also learned that the road had been graded just the week before and was in much better condition than during our previous trip. Don’t tell the folks from Farabee’s, but I got the Jeep up to about 60 on one straightaway.

Wouldn't be a trip to Racetrack Playa without stopping at Tea Kettle Junction

Wouldn’t be a trip to Racetrack Playa without stopping at Teakettle Junction

Death Valley (12)

Upon reaching the Playa I made a tactical error. The weather report for the day called for rain and snow at midday. We’d seen rain and snow in Nevada at around noon and I (Mistakenly) believed that was the end of it. It was getting on toward dark so we continued to the Homestake camp site and started setting up our tents. We had about 40 minutes of daylight once the tents were up and in hindsight this would have been a great time to take Gerry and Tim down to the Playa to locate a few of the stones. Instead we got out our bottles and got the fire going. I remembered Victoria’s instructions and got out the GPS unit and sent the “We’re Alive And Have Stopped For The Night, Thanks” signal and lit a cigar.

Just after dark it started to rain. It didn’t stop. Tim soldiered on with skillet and camp burner crouched under the tailgate of Farabee’s Jeep Number 30 and we sat around the fire in a pretty steady downpour eating some truly amazing bacon-wrapped pork chops. I tried the hot stone trick. It was actually quite nice for a good while. It radiated heat inside my sleeping bag as I drifted off. I will consider bringing several towels on my next outing and placing a few stones around the corners of the tent to further test this method’s efficacy.

The cloud cover and rain (That eventually became snow) continued all through the night, which meant no astronomy photography….

… and no walking the Playa the next morning.

Death Valley (14)

We awoke before dawn to snow-covered mountains and a water-covered Playa. The three or four inches of perfectly still water made a several square mile mirror. While this was lovely to look at, walking on Racetrack Playa when it is wet is forbidden since footprints in the wet mud can stay for years.

I drove down to the Playa with two of the guys anyway and we made our way along the south shore to the formation where the racing stones are born (Calved? Fall down the hillside to the racing surface…). We saw several racing stones that had moved recently near shore. We met a photographer who was hiking out. He’d spent the night in his car. That didn’t sound like any fun.

Death Valley (15)

A more detailed explanation of the mechanism by which the stones move can be found here.

We went back to camp and Tim put on his cook’s hat and we dusted off the rest of our supplies. More black pudding to supplement Spam sandwiches with spicy bratwurst and gouda on hot dog buns. Mmmmm mmm. Coffee and a little whiskey for the chill and we were ready to face the day.

Once we were packed up we set off for the Lost Burro Mine. We headed back down to Teakettle Junction and took the Hunter Mountain Road over to Hidden Valley. Water covered the track in several places and this is where we discovered that one of the rubber stoppers in the floor of the Jeep was missing. I put us through a puddle a foot or two deep at 40+ mph and a two-inch thick jet of water shot straight up between Tim’s legs. About half a mile after the turn off to the mine the road got “Jeep-ey” and Gerry got out to make sure I didn’t put a tire wrong and tumble us down the side of a hill.

Shortly after that the track disappeared altogether in the snow. We made it the rest of the way to the mine by presuming that the bit in front of us without plants or rocks sticking up was the road.

Miner's cabin at Lost Burro

Miner’s cabin at Lost Burro

Lost Burro was a gold mine that operated off and on from 1907 into the 1970’s and was one of the most prosperous mines in the area. A good history of the mine can be found at the Death Valley Jim website. There is an intact miner’s cabin, a storage shed, the framework for the mill/cable car system, outhouse, and the mine entrance. The cabin is still furnished with a few basics (A chair, a table, bed frame and springs) and most flat surfaces are covered with artifacts that visitors have picked up and carried inside. All in all it looks like an excellent place to pick up the Hantavirus. A note from the BLM next to a sign-in book inside a plastic bag explains that the cabin has been treated, not that it occurred to ANY of us NOT to go inside beforehand.

Exact change please

Exact change please

Death Valley (20)     Death Valley (19)

Death Valley (21)Michael and I checked out the cabin and shed while Tim and Gerry made their way to the top of the mill remains to suss out its function.

Entrance to the Lost Burro Gold Mine

Entrance to the Lost Burro Gold Mine

After having a look around we followed and stuck our heads inside the mine entrance. I went in just as far as the light reached from the entrance. YOU SHOULD NEVER GO INSIDE AN ABANDONED MINE. This is a really good way to get dead with as little effort as possible.

Michael and I started to climb the hill toward the top of the mill and Gerry & Tim made truly pathetic efforts at hitting us with snowballs. Once we reached the top we were treated to what must be a spectacular view of the valley when the hills aren’t socked in with snow and fog. The entire structure has recently been stabilized with cables so watch your step.

The view from the top of the mill.

Ubehebe Crater

Ubehebe Crater

From there it was an almost entirely downhill run back to Ubehebe Crater. We stopped and got out and made our way down. As I am old and fat and out of shape I stopped about midway down the 700 foot deep crater. Michael ran all the way down to the bottom, “Flailing around like Grover” according to Gerry. Watching him below I had a bad moment where I thought he was going to take all his clothes off for some reason that wasn’t immediately evident. He stripped off his jacket, then lay down on the crater floor. When he came back up he said it was blazing hot at the bottom. I suppose the crater is deep enough that there would be a difference in barometric pressure and there is of course no breeze. Climbing back out took a good bit longer than sliding in. The sides of the crater are composed of loose black gravel. The ground shifts constantly under your feet, carrying you swiftly downward as you cover three times more distance than you would normally with each stride. Going back up…. you are quite literally carried backward one step for every two you take. By the time I reached the lip of the crater I was exhausted, and may have said a few dirty words to Gerry for pointing out that I had stopped to rest a mere ten feet from the top.

I sat on the bumper of good old Farabee’s Jeep Number 30 and tried to catch my breath. It had been a good trip, and I was exhausted. A trio of Chinese tourists passed by and smiled. One of the girls pointed to my ball cap and said “Dragon,” which cleared things up a great deal. My wife had purchased the hat for me in Hong Kong. I thought it said “Hong Kong.” She had, in fact, purchased it in Hong Kong during the Year of the Dragon. I told the girl I was just happy it didn’t say “Tourist,” got a blank look for a reply, and they went on their way. You learn something new every day if you aren’t careful.

We returned to Furnace Creek and loaded the gear back into my van, returned the Jeep, and drove home. We spent the next week stopping by each others’ homes and places of work returning bits of gear that had ended up in each others’ things. We laughed about the rain and the cold and the cuts on our hands from scrambling over the rocks and sorted out who owed who how much for the Jeep and food.

Can’t wait to do it again!
Take good care.

My LuminAID in action

My LuminAID in action

P.S. I meant to mention this earlier… I took my LuminAID solar light on this trip and it did yeoman’s service in the rain. The light is a brilliant invention, the work of two graduate students after the earthquake in Haiti. You can purchase the original LuminAID or the new camping version from LuminAID.com. Do consider the option of buying a light and having another

donated for disaster relief.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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