Tag Archives: travel

The Castle Is Just Up The Street

19 Dec

Day 16

We were up before it was light to get on the road to Shannon. Mary was as good as her word and there were fruit and drinks in the refrigerator in a sack with our names on it. We were definitely going to miss Friar’s Glenn.

It was about a 2 ½ hour drive from Killarney Town to the Shannon airport. We had the road largely to ourselves at that hour. The N21 was mostly a two lane road through endless green pastures with the occasional village and roundabout as we sped on toward the airport. We had a tense moment or two looking for an open gasoline station before 7AM on a Sunday in Ireland but did finally make it to the one closest the airport that was likely only open for the rental car refueling trade. Because I always leave a hefty buffer in the schedule in case something goes wrong we were at the airport well ahead of the counter staff. I managed an a la carte breakfast with the very last of our Euros and ate at one of the tables on the upper level of the terminal decorated with the works of Irish poets. We checked our bags once the ticketing counter opened and, dodging fuel trucks and baggage carts, made our way out onto the tarmac to board a little turbo-prop commuter for Scotland.

E (1)

You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.

With apologies to Louis C. K., these are not our favorite planes. They are bumpy, slow, and incredibly loud. Add in the duty-free pitch and it’s very much like riding a city bus with someone trying to sell you perfume and whiskey the whole time.

E (2)
We overflew several peat-cutting operations. I cannot remember where I read the phrase but it has been lodged in my brain for years that “The children of Ireland burn her very body to survive.” Unfortunately my pictures of them were a wee blurry with engine vibration.

We landed at the Edinburgh Airport and walked the 27 miles from baggage claim to the taxi stand. We took what I will always consider a “London” taxi to our bed & breakfast, the Hanover House in Windsor Street. Our innkeeper was Jasmin. She was incredibly sweet but always seemed just a little overwhelmed. Due to a booking snafu we ended up in a triple room that was absolutely freezing. Jasmin provided a space heater to get the chill off and after dumping our bags we set out.

Memory is a funny thing. I’d spent several days in Edinburgh in the late 80’s and I talked the city up to Julia for years. One of the things I mentioned most often was the city’s compactness. I described to her a city center that is really just two streets wide (Queen Street and Princes Street, which I’d always confused with High Street and the Royal Mile) where everyplace is just a 5-minute walk from everyplace else. A European city one can navigate like a village. At least that’s how it lived in my mind in the little box labeled “Weekend in Edinburgh, April 1989.”

Not so much.

I’m not positive just what happened to my memories of Edinburgh, but near as I can tell, in order to clear up space in my head I long ago jettisoned all those memories having to do with walking anywhere. In my mind’s eye I stood on Calton Hill and but a step or two took me to the Scott Monument. I turned left and in a few paces stood on the Royal Mile, where the Camera Obscura sat next door to Edinburgh Castle. In my head I somehow managed to traverse the city in much the same way that we today navigate Google Maps on Streetview.

All of this was wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.

It was about 15 minutes from our hotel to the Princes Street shops above the train station. This is where Julia had a full-blown meltdown. If you don’t know my wife, that’s a shame because you would immediately understand how incredibly rare it is that something like that happens. She’d had the snacks Mary provided hours before, whereas I’d eaten a full Irish at the airport. We were now on completely different meal schedules and I was blithely charging ahead with seeing the sights of the city, assuring her that everything I’d talked about for years was just around the block. When it continued to not be just around the block she eventually lost her temper. She said she needed a bite and asked that we stop for something to eat. I said sure and then insisted we push on to a “Local” place.

We had some ugly words on a sidewalk outside the train station, and then we landed up in the food court having a croissant and a bottle of soda.

Pro Tip: The second polite request from your wife is actually an order. Heed it.

E (3)

Fleshmarket Close

After a small snack to stave off impending doom we left the station via Market Street. From there we made our way up the Fleshmarket Close to the Halfway House for an actual lunch.

A Close is an alleyway between blocks of flats along the Royal Mile. They carry various names:

Cooper’s Close

Bakehouse Close

Paisley Close (More about this in my next post)

World’s End Close

Advocate’s Close

Wikipedia lists more than 80 named Closes, Courts, and Wynds along the Royal Mile.

The Half Way House at 24 Fleshmarket Close was cozy and toasty and we had fish & chips and soup and cider and were much the better for it. It’s billed as “Edinburgh’s Smallest and Friendliest Pub” and takes its name from its position half way up the Close. There’s been a pub on the site for centuries, at least since the Close was the location of Edinburgh’s slaughterhouses (Hence “Fleshmarket” Close) in the 1700’s. Halfway House was previously Bennet’s and then the Suburban Bar. It was named pub of the year in 2009. After sustenance more substantial than station food court fare we stepped back out into the Close.

As a woman at the bar had put it moments earlier, it had “Gone cold.” We’d left the sun and clear skies of Kerry behind and it had been cloudy and cool since we’d landed in Scotland, While we were inside the Half Way House the temperature had plummeted and it was now a good bit below 32 F. I’d expected a rainy day, not a freezing one, and so had zipped the liner out of my raincoat. Normally in my role as an “Over-prepared American” I’d have put the liner in the bottom of my bag but for some reason I neglected to do so. I didn’t even have my gloves.

E (4)

Edinburgh Castle

We walked up Cockburn to the High Street, stopping in shops along the way more for warmth than a desire for souvenirs. As we approached the castle we took a turning down Upper Bow Street. At least, we think so. We found ourselves eventually on a lane with a view of Edinburgh Castle that I’ve not been able to duplicate. We worked our way through shops that looked interesting (Or heated) and eventually found ourselves at the gates of Greyfriars.

Most people think of Greyfriars as a cemetery. The Greyfriars Kirkyard surrounds the Greyfriars Kirk and the main entrance is off Candlemakers Row at the south end of the George IV Bridge. The site was originally a Fransican friary and was named for the “Grey Friars.” The friary was dissolved in 1559 and the church founded in 1561. The church and kirkyard figure in the history of the Covenanters, with the National Covenant being signed on the site in 1638. After the defeat of the Covenanters in 1679 more than a thousand of them were imprisoned in a yard just to the south that was incorporated into the kirkyard in the 18th century. Greyfriars Kirk is still an active church.

We love visiting cemeteries. Greyfriars is amazing. A number of famous figures are buried within the yard. Many of the monuments feature incredible relief sculptures and several are set into the back walls of the surrounding buildings. There are also 2 surviving mortsafes.E (6) A mortsafe was a steel cage set low to the ground to discourage grave robbing for dissection in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Families could lease the safes until the bodies of their loved ones had decomposed sufficiently to be of no interest to a “Ressurectionist” (A for-profit body snatcher who supplied corpses to the medical college). E (7)We wandered through the yard and marveled at the massive monuments and the few obvious mass-produced pieces that served as examples of what was popular in the world of grave goods two hundred years ago. Then we stopped to pay our respects to Greyfriars’ most widely famous internee. People who don’t know Greyfriars’ history, or even where it is, do know one of the very best of man’s best friends, Greyfriars Bobby.

E (8)

The monument to Greyfriars Bobby

The most popular version of the story runs thus….. one John Gray of Edinburgh died and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard. His dog, a Skye Terrier named Bobby stood watch at his grave for the next fourteen years. He eventually died and was buried next to his master.

At least some of this is true. There were 2 John Grays, one a farmer and another a night watchman. The consensus is that Bobby was owned by John Gray the night watchmen even though the closest thing to a contemporary journalistically rigorous account says Bobby’s master was John Gray the farmer. Bobby lived an awful long time, leading some to posit that there were 2 Bobbies (He became a tourist attraction within his lifetime, so is it too much of a stretch to believe local business owners might not have supplied a younger Bobby to meet visitors’ expectations?). Some even question Bobby’s loyalty, pointing out that dogs in graveyards were common in the 19th century, and that they remained not to be near their dead masters but because they were fed by mourners. There are dozens of documented stories very similar to Bobby’s all across Europe. Who knows? It’s a nice story that reinforces what we choose to feel about dogs.

E (5)Upon his death in 1872 Bobby was buried just inside the south gate. A local baroness commissioned a monument to Bobby with a sculpture by William Brodie. The monument was unveiled the year following Bobby’s death. After falling into disrepair (And being hit by a car in 1984), the monument was restored in 1985 and still stands just outside the gate. A red granite headstone was erected on Bobby’s grave in 1981 by The Dog Aid Society of Scotland. Many visitors leave dog toys and sticks.

After leaving the kirkyard we wandered slowly back toward our bed & breakfast. We warmed up for a bit and then had dinner at the Theatre Royal bar. The inside of the bar is stunning, and I would show you pictures if I had any. Alas, it was dark and I was blurry. Well, the pictures are blurry anyway. You can see photos and check out the menu at their website.

Next up, the Queen of England’s summer digs, the Royal Mile, and Edinburgh Castle!

Take good care.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

Another Day, Another Peninsula

17 May

.

Friar's Glen

Friar’s Glen

We started our last full day in Ireland by backtracking. After another amazing breakfast at Friars Glen we set off back down the Ring of Kerry in the clockwise direction toward Kenmare. Within about fifteen minutes we reached Ladies’ View. Ladies’ View is pretty much what it says on the tin, a scenic view. There’s a car park, a cafe and a gift shop, and a spot where you can look north across the Killarney National Park. The panorama takes in Black Valley, the Upper and Middle Lakes, McGillycuddy Reeks and the Gap of Dunloe. The location is named for Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting, who are said to have exclaimed and made much of the view when the Queen visited Ireland in 1861. After a brief stop we headed back toward Killarney Town.

We pulled over on the south side of the Upper Lake and walked a short distance through the scrub to the shore. The Upper Lake is one of the three in the park, the others being Lough Leane and Muckross Lake. We stopped just south of a short tunnel carved out of the side of the mountain that appeared to be nearly a feature of the landscape it looked so old. Indeed, I found an illustration of the same tunnel in The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland, by J. Stirling Coyne and N.P. Willis, published in 1841.

The Upper Lake

The Upper Lake

We admired the view across the lake and I put a hand in the water (I have to touch everything), then we hopped back into the Suzuki Swift and scooted up to Killarney Town. We needed Irish stamps for a few postcards, and of course who can resist the “Everything’s €2” store? It was midday before we were on our way to the Dingle Peninsula.

The Beach at Inch

The Beach at Inch

Our first stop was the beach at Inch. It is nearly a mirror image of the beach at Rossbeigh on the Kerry Peninsula across the water to the south, a spot we had visited the day before, though the beach at Inch is sandy where Rossbeigh is rocky. We followed Bridget’s directions and after visiting the beach stopped about a mile outside of town to look back and take in the view. We drove west through the countryside, stopping occasionally to simply get out and stand and stare at the endless green patchwork of fields. After rain in London, rain in Paris, rain in Normandy, and rain in Amsterdam, we had a spot of good luck in Ireland. The weather was clear and stunning for the two full days that we were exploring the Kerry and Dingle peninsulas.

Strand Street facing the harbor in Dingle

Strand Street facing the harbor in Dingle

We stopped at Dingle Town in the early afternoon and did a little shopping. The shops and homes are painted lovely bright colors. From the look of it, Dingle is still very much a fishing town and is the largest settlement on the peninsula. Rather than stopping for lunch we simply snacked our way down the road. We purchased a few things for family and friends and then set out for the first real planned destination of the day.

I actually had a fair amount of trouble finding the Gallarus Oratory and it wasn’t the first destination in the area I chose. I wanted to see an ogham stone. I very badly wanted to see an ogham stone. There are a few websites dedicated to their locations and translations, and I had located one at the far west end of the peninsula. That the Gallarus Oratory was only a few miles away was an added bonus.

The often repeated story of the structure’s purpose is that it was a church for pilgrims. Séipéilín Ghallarais in Irish translates to “House of the foreigners” or “Shelter of the foreigners.” Like the stone forts we visited in Kerry, the oratory is difficult to date with certainty. The generally accepted time frame places its construction anywhere from 1,500 to 1,200 years ago, although according to at least one historian it could have been constructed a mere 900 years ago. I recall my humanities teacher touching briefly on the oratory’s construction in high school and I remember thinking it was a fascinating building.

Like everyplace else in Ireland the best I could manage as far as directions was a latitude and longitude obtained online (52°10’17.2″N 10°21’02.4″W, or 52.171440, -10.350660). This translated to a slightly less accurate location once it went into the GPS. This got us to a pull-off on the side of an unnamed road. I pulled over, looked left and right and directly ahead and saw hedges, fields and low stone walls. I knew I had to be in the right area but saw nothing to indicate where the oratory might be. I decided that this was a good spot to get the picture of the two of us in our tiny little rental car that I’d been wanting to take. I got out, put the camera on a handy stone wall, set the timer and then got back in the car. Smile! I noted that the car was all in frame and that we were both looking at the camera, and rolled on down the road. A short distance away I found the entrance to the Gallarus Oratory Visitor’s Center. What I did not notice until more than a year later when looking at the car selfie, was the little brown sign at the far end of the pull-off that pointed the way to the footpath that lead directly to the oratory.

So to be clear… you can park your vehicle on the side of the road and walk to the oratory any time, night or day, free of charge.

Or…

You can go to the visitor’s center and pay €6 per person. That may sound like a bum deal, and if you’ve studied and just want to have a look at the building I encourage you to park at the pull-off (It’s actually a shorter walk), but you do get something for your €6. There is a small gift shop, a cafe (Not open when we visited), a parking lot, a short film on Irish archeology, and toilets. We also got to meet Katy the Kitty, who was very sweet. As I understand it, the visitor’s center is a private venture put together by the fellow who owns the property adjacent to the oratory. Good for him I guess.

The Gallarus Oratory

The Gallarus Oratory

The Gallarus Oratory is of cut stone assembled into a single long corbel vault. Howard Goldbaum points out on his really really awesome website Voices from the Dawn, that this method of construction continued in Ireland with only minor alterations for thousands of years. At a glance it looks to have been put together with no mortar, although apparently a thin layer of lime was used internally to hold the stones in place. There is a single entrance just over 5′ tall and a narrow window set into the east wall. The roof has a just visible sag in the middle. I remember that in my humanities class it was introduced as an example of an “Upturned boat” building.

Katy Kitty

Katy Kitty

While it is traditionally said to be an early Christian church, the name suggests it may have been quite literally a shelter. A place for people from outside of Dingle to spend the night while in the area. The building bears no markings and practically nothing has been recovered from the sections taken in the area. It’s true use may remain a mystery.

After watching the film, seeing the oratory, using the toilets and giving Katy Kitty a scritch behind the ears we headed on to the Church at Kilmalkedar, about 4 km away in a loop around R559 through Murreagh.

The Church at Kilmalkedar

The Church at Kilmalkedar

I first learned about the church solely as the site of an ogham stone. The church itself is fascinating. The current structure is a ruined church from around the 12th Century with some Romanesque features. While the area is associated with Saint Brendan, it is thought to have originally been a monastery founded by the local Saint Maolcethair. There are finials atop the three gables (The roof of the church is gone), incredibly beautiful arches throughout, and a columned gallery.

Day15 Ireland (59)

The Latin

The Latin “Alphabet Stone”

Inside the church is also an alphabet stone dating perhaps from the 500’s covered in Latin with an inscribed cross. One local legend has it that the church was built in a single night by the faeries. The church is surrounded by graves from various periods, and a modern cemetery that appears to still be in use sits adjacent.

Sun dial

Sun dial

In front of the church there is a huge rectangle stone cross of unknown age and a sun dial. The dial has beautiful carving on both sides and the dial face is divided into four sections, likely for the five canonical hours that made up the divisions of the monastic day.

And then there was the ogham stone. This was essentially the reason for our visit to the area. Well, what brought us to this particular part of Dingle at any rate. Ogham is the written expression of Primitive and Old Irish. The earliest inscriptions date from the 300’s, although the belief is that the form originated sometime in the 1st Century BC. It is composed of a series of slash marks along a vertical or horizontal line.

The ogham stone at Kilmalkedar

The ogham stone at Kilmalkedar

The vast majority of surviving inscriptions are proper names, and are believed to be funerary in nature. The ogham stone outside the Day15 Ireland (64)Church at Kilmalkedar bears a partial inscription on one face, and “ANM MAILE-INBIR MACI BROCANN” on another. This translates to “the name Mael Inbir, son of Brocan.” It is likely that this was a local religious leader of some import and there is the possibility that the inscription was made on an existing Standing Stone. The stone also appears to rest in it’s original position, something of a rarity.

You can download fabulous 3D PDF renderings of the ogham stone, the alphabet stone, and the sun dial at the Ogham In 3D project website, here.

We continued to the end of the peninsula on R559 and around Slea Head. We pulled over to admire the view of the Atlantic and the Blasket Islands from the cliffside.

The whole country s like this exercise caution.

The whole country is like this, exercise caution.

Further along are the Dunbeg Promontory Fort and several bee hive stone huts. I’d have loved to have visited them as well, but there are only so many hours in a day, even on the ould sod. There are as many as 30,000 ancient stone sites in Ireland. Not enough time indeed.

Slea Head

Slea Head (You can see Valencia Island and the Fogher Cliffs across the water to the right of the headland)

As you make your way along the southern coast of the peninsula you’ll also be treated to an up close view of a lovely stream that comes rushing down the hillside and crosses the road before continuing on to the sea. I’ve checked, this is a permanent feature. As if the narrow road loaded with tourists in rental cars (Like myself) wasn’t enough, you now have to contend with running water over a hairpin turn on a cliffside road. We learned pretty fast that in general you had nothing to fear if the folks behind the wheel were a little severe-looking and wearing a hat. They were locals. Four girls in a Kia looking EVERYWHERE but directly ahead? Tourists. Watch your butt.

It's not bug, but a feature.

It’s not a bug, but a feature.

We made our way back to Killarney Town, parked near the town center, and wandered about on foot until we found a likely looking pub. We had a nice dinner, throughout which we kept hearing shouts from the back corner of the pub. Bachelor party apparently, and the lads were having a grand old time. At one point I got up to use the gents and rounded the corner headed toward the gathering. There were two of them. I smiled and nodded and got the standard Irish greeting “Y’ aright?” (Gotta love a people who don’t say “Hello” or “Good evening” but ask “Are you ok?”)

I replied “Yeah. You?”

“Yeah.”

One of the things I find wildly entertaining about Ireland and the UK is their approach to bachelor and bachelorette parties. They are very, very, very easy to identify, and we encountered them everywhere. They wear shirts. We encountered far more “Hen Nights” than “Stag Do’s” while on our trip, but these guys were wearing the uniform. White t-shirts with photograph on the front and the groom-to-be’s name across the back with the date. But the guy on the front didn’t look like either of the gentlemen before me. I asked which one of them was getting married. Neither, as it turned out. The groom was stuck somewhere hours away yet and they had no idea if anyone else from the do was going to make it. They’d started without them. Congratulations, offers for me to join them, and fist bumps all around, and I went back to join Julia.

We finished our dinner and returned to Friar’s Glen. Mary was fantastic as always. We settled up our bill and she made sure there was a lunch packed for us in the mud room refrigerator, since we’d be up and out at fist light to make the drive to the Shannon Airport. We were heading into the last week of our trip, and the downhill run would begin… in Scotland!

Take good care

© 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

There’s Ancient, and then there’s ANCIENT

7 Feb

The sun came up on Day 14 of our trip. On the advice of our innkeeper, Mary, we slept in. She suggested we let the big tour coaches get a head start on the Ring of Kerry so we’d not be stuck with them on the roads or stopping at attractions swamped with tourists. We went down for breakfast a little after 9AM.

Breakfast at Friar’s Glen is a work of art. Traditional Irish breakfast as well as fruit, muffins, scones, butter, cream, oooooooooh just plate upon plate of fabulous food! This was the absolute best breakfast I’ve had anywhere in England, Ireland, or Scotland. Seriously. According to our waitress everything we ate for breakfast was made by Mary’s own hand. Her name was Bridget, and she was incredibly friendly. Bridget, like Mary, was full of helpful hints about the Ring of Kerry, excitedly giving us exact directions to specific locations and suggesting things to see and do that weren’t on the map.

As for Friar’s Glen… our room had what I consider a standard hotel room layout and was spacious and well-suited to our needs. You can control the radiator in your room but be advised that as with other places we stayed in Europe, the heat will shut off overnight during the hours that you are (Presumably) asleep. There was a refrigerator just down the hall in the mud room for guest use. I believe I mentioned in the previous post the common room that had a lovely peat fire burning when we arrived. The room is stocked with books and games and is quite cozy. Friar’s Glen does have WiFi, but I had trouble picking it up on my device.

I highly recommend Friar’s Glen for a number of reasons. It’s out away from Killarney Town and so very quiet and secluded. It is within the Killarney National Park, with a number of pleasant trails just across the road. The price was reasonable for what you get and Mary offered a cash discount. It is a great base of operations for both the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula. Visit their website for information and reservations. 

Armed with Mary and Bridget’s recommendations and fortified by the amazing breakfast we marched out to the car and fired up the GPS. Since you can’t just tell the GPS “Follow the Ring of Kerry” we programmed Killorglin as our destination. This would start us on the Ring in the “Anti-clockwise” direction as per Mary’s recommendation. The tour coaches also travel anti-clockwise. This means that you are unlikely to encounter one coming at you on the very narrow cliff-side roads, and if you do… you’ll not be on the side of the road with the several-hundred-foot drop to the sea. (Having taken Mary’s advice about the late start as well, we hoped not to encounter them at all).

We made our way north through the countryside. It really is unbelievably beautiful. Much of the land is divided into countless stone-walled fields. Each field is often a fractionally different shade of green from its neighbor, making the whole of the landscape seem like a never-ending emerald quilt dotted with cotton-white sheep and golden flowers.

Day 14 (16)

Dingle Peninsula from the beach at Rossbeigh (You can always click on any picture to open a larger image in another window)

We made it to Killorglin without incident but even with the GPS we got briefly off the track, found our way back on, and proceeded to our next marker, Glenbeigh. Here we left the Ring and followed directions from Bridget to the beach at Rossbeigh. The entire time we were in the southwest of Ireland we were constantly amazed at the deep blue of the water. I’m not sure what I expected… green perhaps? Or maybe the gray of the Irish Sea I remembered from a very rough crossing 20 years before? Dunno. I just wasn’t prepared for the startling sapphire blue of the waters around the Kerry peninsula. It was windy and cold. There were a few whitewashed cottages nearby, and the ubiquitous sheep were scattered about on the far side of some sports fields near the rocky beach.

Day 14 (22)

It’s hard to capture an incline in a photograph when you’re sitting on top of it. Trust me… very steep, narrow road.

Rather than backtrack, we continued along R564 (A one-lane road over the mountain above the inlet) through the countryside. We hooked up with the N70 (The Ring of Kerry) near a place called Drom and continued on toward Cahersiveen. Once we reached the town we turned north on Bridge Street/Castlequin. There are signs for “Stone Forts” and in a few minutes we’d reached a wide spot in the road, the parking area for Leacanabuile (10º 15′ 43” W, 51º 57′ 30” N, if you took my suggestion and you are using a GPS).

Day 14 (41)

The interior of Leacanabuile

We’d found the location of the fort by searching Google for ancient sites along the route of the Ring of Kerry. As well as can be determined by the archeological research carried out thus far the small hill fort dates from the 9th or 10th Century. Habitation could stretch back as far as the 500’s, but there’s just no way to be certain. Inside are the low remains of several stone buildings. Day 14 (42)Within the circular structure built against the western side of the enclosure is an entrance to a narrow subterranean passageway that leads to a small chamber built into the outer wall, at least according to the information placard posted near the fort entrance. Day 14 (46)We had to take their word for it, because try as I might, I was unable to get more than my head and the top of my shoulders into the tiny opening. According to the really fantastic website Voices from the Dawn put together by Howard Goldbaum of the University of Nevada, an excavation of the site conducted over 1939-1940 records the passage as being one meter tall.*

Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t dream of sticking my head (Or any other part of me) in a hole in the ground. Ah… but this is Ireland! No snakes! Unlike where I grew up, you may tramp through field and over rocky dale, even reach into dark crevasses, without the slightest fear of meeting a Copperhead, or a Water Moccasin, or a Timber Rattler. Nope. Not so much as a garter snake in the grass of the Emerald Isle, and it is a glorious thing! In fact, at breakfast that very morning two women seated next to us remarked upon the great number and diversity of songbirds they’d encountered on a hike through the Killarney National Park. I suggested that this may be in part because there were no snakes. One of the women said “Oh! No we didn’t see any. I didn’t think of that at all, we should have been more careful.” I explained that she’d mistaken my meaning, and that there are no snakes to be found. She had no idea. Neither of them had. I was frankly amazed. How does one grow to adulthood, make the conscious decision to travel to Erin, make arrangements and then actually board a conveyance and make their way to Ireland and not know this single, simple fact? I’m afraid I sat there staring at her with my mouth open for longer than is polite in anybody’s book.

I digress…

As much as I would have liked to make the trek to the wall’s interior it was not physically possible. Even Julia (Who is less than half my size) could not wriggle inside. I’ve learned now (Doing more detailed research almost 3 years after the fact) that had I exited the fort and walked down to the bottom of the western wall, I’d have found the other end of the passage covered by a (Most likely unlocked) gate.

While I was unable to make good a full impression of Darby O’Gill, we enjoyed looking about the interior of the fort, and looking off to the east we saw another. We descended the hill and walked a few hundred yards to Cahergall.

Cahergall

Cahergall

 

Cahergall stone fort is very similar in appearance to the Staigue stone fort on the opposite side of the Ring of Kerry near Sneem. Like Leacanabuile, this type of fortification is difficult to date with precision, one reason being that the naturally defensible sites were built upon again and again over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.

Day 14 (70)web

According to a placard at the site the upper portions of the outer walls have been restored.

Again I refer you to Voices from the Dawn for a high resolution photograph of the site as it appeared in the late 1970’s for comparison. While we stood atop the fort we looked to the south and saw…

A castle….

Day 14 (75)

… as it turns out….

… another McCarthy castle!Day 14 (77)

Ballycarbery Castle sits on a grassy hill on the north shore of the Ferthy River estuary that feeds into Valencia Harbor. There is a gravel parking area just at the bottom of the slope. The lot is at the end of an unnamed road that runs southwest from Castlequin about 100 yards east of Cahergall. There’s a brown sign on the south side of the road.

(n.b. While there are signs leading you to the castle, and a sign at the site giving some of its history, it is also surrounded by a barbed wire fence which you will have to climb over/shimmy under to access the site. Sooooooo, strictly speaking you’re probably not supposed to be in there. Explore at your own risk.)

Day 14 (81)

Looking out from the ground floor

Ballycarbery Castle was built in the 16th Century and is associated with the powerful Mac Cárthaigh dynasty (My wife’s ancestors), however habitation on the site goes back perhaps as far as the late 12th Century and Tagdh Mac Cárthaigh is recorded as having died in a residence on this site in 1398. Tradition says that the current ruin was constructed by Carbery O’Shea “Using the blood of bullocks to cement the stones.” However, the region was controlled by McCarthy Mor and a constable clan chief from the Clan O’Connell was installed in the castle.Day 14 (88)

Day 14 (92)

Arrow slit in the curtain wall

The castle was surrounded by a curtain wall but only a fraction of it remains. Even though half of the castle is missing, blown up by Oliver Cromwell’s forces (Curse his name forever) in 1652 during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms , it is an easy climb to the intact sections of the upper floors, and part of a stairway is still passable within the western wall. The weather was gorgeous and it would have been a lovely spot for a picnic had we thought to bring one. We pushed on, hoping to make a creamery and a candle maker on Valencia Island that Bridget had recommended.

We arrived at Portmagee and made a quick stop at the Village Public Facility (Runner Up for Ireland’s Top Toilet Award, 2002 according to the sign) and then crossed the bridge to Valencia Island.

Day 14 (100)

Keeping watch in Knight’s Town

Valencia is about 6 miles by 2. The modern spelling appears most places as “Valentia” while it is “Valencia” on tombstones on the island. I’m not sure exactly when the spelling changed. We drove to Knight’s Town and had lunch and a pint at The Royal Pier Bar then got back in the car and immediately got lost looking for the Fogher Cliffs. We found a ruined church and parish cemetery on the north side of the island before we found the road leading up to the cliffs.

Day 14 (101)

 

Day 14 (109)

Looking north from the churchyard

 

Day 14 (107)

 

Day 14 (105)

Many of the stones in the churchyard had a nautical theme

 

 

 

Geokaun Mountain is the highest point on the island. There’s a self-serve parking area where you feed €5 into a machine for a ticket to put on the dash. A short walk leads you to an overlook where you can view the cliffs. The Skellig Islands are visible in the distance, as well as the Dingle Peninsula, the Atlantic, and all of Valencia Island. There was a roaring wind coming off the water as we stood above the 600′ cliffs. Day 14 (115)We weren’t able to stay put for very long, and even taking a photograph was difficult as I could barely hold the camera still. Placards along the path relate the history of the area, along with tales of the Fianna and Fionn Mac Cumhail.

Day 14 (112)

The Skellig Islands from the path overlooking the Fogher Cliffs

 

We beat a hasty retreat to the warmth of our little rental car and drove back down the mountain. Next up on our list of things to see was a very ancient site… the Tetrapod Trackway.

After seeing it on the local tourist map of Valencia Island I recalled having watched a brief blurb about Ireland’s Tetrapod Trackway on PBS or some similar network not long after the prints were discovered in the 1990’s. It wasn’t something we’d set out to see, but we were in the area and I certainly didn’t want to pass it up.

The Irish just aren’t that interested in naming roads, so you’ll need to rely on your GPS again to get you into the vicinity of 10° 20′ 38″ W, 51° 55′ 51″ N, or ask someone local for directions. As you approach the radio station at the northernmost bit of the island there’s a car park on your right. From there you proceed on foot along a path right down to the shore.

Day 14 (127)

The Tetrapod Trackway

Back in the Devonian Period the land that would one day become Erin was situated down near the Equator. One day about 385 million years ago one of the earliest creatures to make their way out of the sea and up onto dry land was wandering about the tidal shallows. It was about a meter long, about a third of that length being its tail, and it had four legs lately evolved from fins. As it walked along, or perhaps pushed itself along the bottom in the shallow water just off shore, it left footprints in the soft mud. It’s belly dragged the surface and here and there it’s tail cut an S pattern as it trailed along behind. After these few minutes of activity our Tetrapod friend (Or friends) passed again out of our knowledge to whatever end, leaving behind only those few impressions in the mud. The impressions were filled in with silt and over the eons hardened into rock as the plates of the Earth shifted and Ireland wandered north. Eventually the stone with the prints was again exposed and a geology student discovered them in 1993. They are the oldest known in-situ tracks made by a living thing on earth.

It was getting on in the day and the sun was sliding down toward the sea. We made a circuit of the island looking for the candle maker and the creamery recommended by Bridget but neither were open, either due to the lateness of the hour or the earliness of the month (We were still a few weeks from the start of the high season). We did find a heard of deer and ever more stunning views of the Atlantic and the islands to the west. Day 14 (129)In season you can take a boat from the visitor’s center just by the bridge from Portmagee out to Skellig Michael, the site of an ancient monastery from roughly the 6th to 13th Centuries. Fun fact: Skellig Michael was used as a location for the filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens during the summer of 2014.

Day 14 (135)

Valencia Island. The white line center-left is the bridge from Portmagee.

 

We crossed the bridge, took a wrong turning, and ended up on the Skellig Ring track over the mountain to the south toward Ballinskelligs, which Bridget was horrified to learn of later and declared us to be “Very brave” for going that way. We survived the trip to the southern part of the peninsula and once we found our way back to the N70 we stopped in Kenmare for supper.

We had dinner at The Wander Inn, where the food and drink was very good. There was live music in the form of two young men playing original contemporary compositions on a guitar and accordion that I didn’t really much care for. We listened to a set and then decided to get on. Julia was disappointed for me that it wasn’t Irish music. Well, it WAS Irish music. They were Irish musicians. We were in Ireland… but her point was taken. Traditional Irish music had been the hope. The food was still good.

We had the last 20 miles to go back to Friar’s Glen. We’d saved the most twisting and mountainous leg to do in the dark. I’d built up a fair bit of confidence over the course of the two days I’d spent driving in Kerry and was feeling pretty good about it as we made our way.. SHEEP!!! All day they’d been fluffy white accents to the landscape but now that it was pitch black the sheep were no longer in the pens but out IN the bloody road! I had this picture in my head of them all looking around at each other once the sun went down and saying, “Farmer O’Connell is down the pub boys, over the wall!” then lacing their front hooves to boost each other over. They were around every 3rd or 4th bend in the road. It was nerve wracking.

We made it back all of a piece. We’d passed a spot with the intriguing name “Ladies View” just a few miles out of Killarney and decided we’d head back in the morning.

We’d spent the day driving back in time. From medieval Ballycarbery Castle and the more ancient Leacanabuile, to just about the deepest pre-history imaginable and the Tetrapod Trackway. For tomorrow there was the Dingle Peninsula, but before that another amazing breakfast!

 

 

*Much of the information for this post I obtained long after the fact. Several of the places we visited on this particular day became destinations only the night before and only the information printed on placards posted at the sites was available to us. We had a great time anyway, but maybe a third of the information in this post I discovered only recently. For ancient sites in Ireland I refer you again to the excellent site Voices from the Dawn. Loads of additional information on Ballycarbery Castle can be found there, as well as on the North American McCarthy Clan website.

 

Take good care.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

Is There a Dutch Word for “Blarney?”

27 Jan

.

 

Day 13 was another “Up And Out Early” day. We had a flight from Schiphol Airport and had to be there at 7:30. Karel gave us the lowdown on the bus. The N97 and the 197 run every 15 minutes 24 hours a day and stop two blocks from The Collector. The bus was GPS equipped and a screen at the front gave us the current location and a running ETA to the next stop as well as to the end of the line (The airport).

The system seemed to move us along efficiently on what I judged to be a medium-traffic morning at the airport.

The system seemed to move us along efficiently on what I judged to be a medium-traffic morning at the airport.

We made it to the airport in plenty of time. We checked in for our flight and used the very Star Trek-looking luggage self check. You scan in your ticket and passport and a cage opens on a long metal cylinder about 4 feet high. You place the bag inside and the cage rolls down into place. Provided that you don’t have to pay an overweight fee, away goes your bag. From there you proceed to departures. At the time of our trip Schiphol did not have centralized departure security (I read on one or two sites that this may be changing), but security checks at the departure gates. I sailed through for once and looked back to see that Julia had been stopped and her bag was being searched. Apparently the square block of clotted cream fudge she’d purchased in Canterbury looked like something else on x-ray. The guard who searched her bag pulled the fudge from beneath a number of other items packed very tightly and neatly and carried it over to the x-ray operator. He angrily showed the fudge to the operator and hissed “It’s CANDY,” before returning it to Julia with an apology.

We flew Aer Lingus to Cork. Aer Lingus is the national carrier for the Republic of Ireland and (At least at present) the second largest airline in the country. While neither of us care for the constant sales pitch on the plane for duty-free, it was the quickest and most economical way to get from Amsterdam to Cork, costing $210 for the both of us at the time. Some months after our trip I began getting special offer emails from Aer Lingus. I presume the fact that our flight originated in Amsterdam is the reason they were all in Dutch.

We landed in Cork and zipped through passport control with about three words from the Customs officers, all of whom liked our luggage. At the Hertz counter the clerk looked me up and down and said “Erm… d’ya want a bigger car?”

“No, I’m sure the one we’ve booked is fine.”

He looked dubious to say the least. I’m 6’2” and north of 250.

“You go and have a look at it, then if you want a bigger car you come back.”

I agreed that I would. Turns out that we had a Suzuki Swift hatchback. The hatch covered a space that just barely fit our shoulder bags. Backpacks and suitcases went into the back seat and were stacked high enough to block the rear view mirror. Let me reiterate here that we each had one rolling case, one shoulder bag, and one backpack (Official carry-on size). It was a VERY tiny car, but suited our needs with nothing really extraneous so we stuck with it.

I’d read a number of negative things about renting cars in Ireland. I had the impression from a couple of forums that I was in for a tremendous hassle. We had no problem at all. I did a search on Expedia, booked the car at a decent rate, then entered the confirmation number at Autoslash. If you’ve never used Autoslash I STRONGLY recommend you start. It’s a simple (And free!) service that has saved me as much as 41% on car rentals in the past. You go to the site, enter your rental confirmation number (Or search for a rental through the site), then provide your email address. From that point until you rent the car the site searches for discounts on your rental. You’ll be alerted via email when a lower rate becomes available and you can rebook and cancel your original reservation. Check out their website next time you rent a car, autoslash.com.

It had been over 20 years since I’d driven a car in Europe. The Swift was a stick. The physical act of operating a right-side drive isn’t so bad. Shifting with your left hand is a little weird but the pedals are in the same order. It’s the whole “Left Side of the Road” thing that messes with you. It throws off your spacial orientation and makes it hard to judge distances. Of course, all the street signs looking different doesn’t help either. Our system works like this: I concentrate on driving the car… staying on the correct side of the road, obeying the speed limit, trying to obey the traffic laws and not hitting anything. Julia’s job is to navigate and point out things like traffic signals… and pedestrians… and to shout “On the LEFT! Drive on the LEFT!” when we make turns. It works pretty well. I’ve driven all over southwest Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland without major incident. So far.

Day 13. (6)

That’s a bottle of vinegar, not water (Perish the thought!)

We made our way from the Cork Airport to Blarney Village in about 20 minutes. We parked on the Square and went looking for some lunch. Picture the very essence of a small village green bordered by a low stone wall and lined with shops and a pub next to an ancient estate. Don’t worry about it being too stereotypical or twee. Got it? You’ve successfully pictured the Square in Blarney. Look closer and it’s a completely modern tourist area that also functions just fine as a commerce center for the locals. Pub? Check. Woolen mill on the River Martin? Check. Souvenir shops? Check. But you’ll also note the grocery, bank, and takeaway shops, even a Chinese place, and they all blend in very well. We were to learn that a lot of Ireland looks very much they way it has for the last two hundred years or so. Yes, there are modern city centers and subdivisions, but drive just a few minutes in pretty much any direction and there are places where time seems to have stopped altogether. By no means have they sacrificed function for the tourist’s notion of what Ireland should be, rather they seem to have incorporated the notion of being a tourist destination into the fabric of Ireland right next to the tech industries and traditional farms and gone about their business. Additionally, everyone we met in our time in Ireland was very genuine. It’s not an act. If it is… it’s an exceptional one. I live in a tourist/service industry city so I should know.

We found a place to park on the Square and went inside the Muskerry Arms for lunch. We ate in the pub and I had the fried plate. I love love love love love Irish food. Black pudding, white pudding, chicken strips, venison sausages, chips, and shrimp wrapped in noodles…. and then fried. A pint of Bulmer’s Irish cider to wash it down and I really couldn’t be happier! In addition to the pub & restaurant the Muskerry Arms is also a well-rated guest house. Information here.

We returned to the Square and walked across the green to the castle grounds entrance. A bell had been tolling constantly for several minutes. It wasn’t midday, or the bottom of the hour, or even a quarter-hour. I couldn’t think why that bell kept going. Then we noticed a hearse parked on the west side of the green. Maybe twenty mourners stood in a group behind. The hearse slowly rolled out of the village and the mourners walked behind. My family’s rural roots are only a single generation in the past. I’ve seen funeral processions 70 cars long in places where drivers not only pull over but stand outside their cars as the motorcade passes, but I’d never in my life seen mourners make the journey to the cemetery on foot. The compactness of village life I suppose.

Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle

I’ll confess that my planning for our trip to Blarney Castle extended only so far as learning where it was and their opening hours. So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that Blarney castle was built in 1446 by Cormac the Strong, Lord of Muskerry and… Chieftain of the Clan McCarthy! McCarthy is Julia’s family name and she was thrilled to learn that Blarney Castle is her (And I’m quoting here) “Ancestral hizzle.” It’s an imposing fortress built atop a rock surrounded by really very beautiful grounds. The site is bordered on the north by the River Martin (Or Blarney River, depending on whose map you read). Both Blarney Castle and Blarney House are open to the public. As of this writing entry is €13.00 for adults (€12.50 if you book online) and €5.00 for kids (No online discount). There is a family ticket for €32.00 that includes entry for 2 adults and 2 children. Ticket and other information can be found on their website, blarneycastle.ie.

 We began our ascent through the castle. The winding stone stairs are narrow and certainly not for the claustrophobic. A number of doorways inside the castle were a challenge for a guy my height. And width. The wooden floors and ceilings of the great central rooms have long since fallen away. You can see the supports running around the outer walls that would have held the joists in place. In one place there is even a small remnant of a plaster relief decoration.

The McCarthys were known as outstanding hosts. By all accounts their parties were off the chain, in some cases making it necessary for guests to “Write poems in apology for their behaviour” according to a plaque in the banqueting hall. I’ve partied with my wife’s family. Not much has changed. In 1696 the bard Donal na Tuile wrote of the chieftains in the region:

“They were a people accustomed to bestow wines, and tender beef and holiday dresses! They were graceful and beneficent; their strongholds were filled with beautiful women, and quick-slaying cavalry viewing them; mirth, laying on harps, poems and songs were at their feasts… Loud sounded the song of the bards.”

Of course, one goes to Blarney Castle with a single goal in mind… to kiss the Blarney Stone. There are any number of legends surrounding the stone as to its origin, how it came to be placed in the battlements of Blarney Castle, and how its powers were discovered, you can take your pick. However, as to the gift that kissing the stone confers… on this agreement is universal. Kissing the Blarney Stone bestows upon one the Gift of the Gab. Eloquence with a capital E. Or, if you will… Blarney. From the moment you kiss the stone you will never be at a loss for words. Julia is of the opinion I had no need to kiss the stone as I was full of it already and she now regrets ever letting me near the place.

The castle interior from the ramparts.

The castle interior from the ramparts.

Making your way up and kissing the stone isn’t easy, even today. There’s those narrow stone spiral stairs I mentioned, more than 100 of them. You’re essentially schlepping to the top of a 7 story building via the stairs and going in tight circles while you do it. Once you reach the top you’re on a narrow rampart looking down into the interior of the castle on one side and a very impressive view of the countryside on the other. There were two young women just ahead of us and this is the part where one of them freaked out. Apparently this is not at all uncommon. She decided she wasn’t going to kiss the stone and she wanted down as soon as possible. Her friend was visibly annoyed.

“Really? Seriously? You went skydiving and you’re not gonna do this? We’re gonna leave here and you’re gonna be mad you didn’t do it and I don’t want to hear a WORD about it. Seriously?”

Once upon a time kissing the Blarney stone was quite a feat, and actually dangerous. According to the July 25th, 1932 issue of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle one James Burke age 19, of Charleville in the Irish Free State “… insisted he could kiss the Blarney Stone without anyone holding his legs as he hung downward over the parapet, as so many pilgrims have done. He tried it, slipped, and fell 100 feet to his death at the foot of the ancient castle.” The following year a judge in Cork ruled that “Tourists or anyone else for that matter must kiss the Blarney Stone at their own risk.” Mr. Burke’s family had filed a suit against Sir George Colthurst, owner of Blarney Castle (It is still owned by the Colthursts). An article printed in April of 1933 in the San Bernadino County Sun mentions that “… several others have fallen to their deaths while trying to kiss the Blarney Stone,” but I can find no precise references other than this single account. The story of the ruling was picked up by papers around the world.

We reached the stone and had our go. It’s a roughly triangular piece of limestone set into the bottom of the battlements a few feet out from the ramparts. The opening was originally designed for dropping heavy items through in the hope of killing attackers below. I’m not sure why it’s necessary to kiss the stone upside down, but that’s the way it’s done. You lay down on the rampart with your upper body over the opening. There are two assistants, one to hold on to you and one to snap a picture. Even though there are now steel bars in place to keep you from plummeting to the ground below, it’s considered good form to tip the guy holding you. So… you’re on your back over the opening with your head tilted back as far as it will go and you’re still a foot or two short of the goal. You reach up and grab the two railings on either side of the stone and pull yourself forward while the gentleman holding you supports your back. I’ve mentioned I’m 6’2”. My hips slid off the rampart and over the empty space before I was able to smooch the stone. I can only imagine what it would be like for someone shorter. It WAS a little terrifying since I wasn’t actually aware of the safety bars until after I’d kissed the stone and stood up to watch Julia.

I was back up in a moment. I got a picture of Julia kissing the stone and we stood on the ramparts taking in the view as it started to rain on us (Again). There was no sign of the girl and her acrophobic skydiving friend. We looked at the rest of the castle interior and then went for a walk in the Poison Garden.

I have no idea why Blarney Castle has a poison garden, but I found it immensely entertaining and informative (That’s how I recognized Digitalis in the landscaping at Disneyland in the line for the Matterhorn). I presume it’s there simply because it’s interesting and provides a further draw for tourism. The notion of a poison garden certainly has a very Roadside Attraction feel to it.

 We made our way through looking at the Mandrake and Deadly Nightshade and Box Hedge. The entire area was marked off by signs reading “Do Not Touch, Smell, Or Eat Any Plant! Children Must Be Accompanied At All Times.” While a number of the plants were out in the open, a few were enclosed in iron cages. One large cage caught my eye, as it contained bare dirt. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be the cage that was meant to house cannabis sativa. The attendant sign with skull and crossbones lets the visitor know that there is some controversy as to whether Mary Jane deserves a reputation as being harmful. It tells the reader that marijuana is one of the more complex plants in nature and goes on to list several other riveting facts, but my attention was fixed on the laminated white paper notice tacked on underneath that read:

  “We apologise for the absence of the plants in this cage. They have been seized by the Garda.”

It goes on to say that they hope to plant replacements once the “Licensing issue has been resolved.”

The little movie in my head of the Garda coming to seize Blarney Castle’s pot is hilarious. I wish I could share it with you. Moving on…

The Witch Stone, with offerings of coins in her mouth and eyes

The Witch Stone, with offerings of coins in her mouth and eyes

We walked along the river to the Rock Close, which is home to beautiful trees and flowers, as well as fanciful rock formations and structures that may or may not be ancient. According to the Blarney Castle website the Rock Close was landscaped in the 18th Century. There are the “Wishing Steps” that lead from an overlook down to the river, and the Witch’s Kitchen, which is a partially subterranean stone enclosure with a hearth at one end. There is also the Witch Stone. The Blarney Witch is said to have inhabited the region since the beginning of time. She is imprisoned in the stone during daylight but escapes at night.

   We followed a path beyond the close which made a loop around the east side of the estate.

The "Dungeons" carved into the rock beneath the castle.

The “Dungeons” carved into the rock beneath the castle.

The castle once sat within a much larger walled enclosure with watch towers. We passed the Sentry Post, a stone hearth which may or may not be from an earlier period when men were stationed out away from the castle. The sun came out as we made our way back through the Fairy Glade to have a look at the Dungeons and Caves beneath the castle before we set off again…

… in search of Mountain Dew, and this time… we found it! We stopped in at the supermarket next to the Muskerry Arms for road snacks and sodas and found the neon yellow caffeine delivery system so adored by my beautiful young bride. Some fruit, some Hob Nobs, a Cadbury Dairy Milk Bar, and the aforementioned Mountain Dew and we were offskie!

We were booked at the Friar’s Glen Country House outside of Killarney Town near the shores of Lough Leane and Muckross Lake just inside the Killarney National Park. It was about an hour and a half driving through more rain. We’d accepted the extra cost for a GPS system from Hertz. We chose the English-accented voice because it’s name was Tim. I’m probably going to repeat myself in the next post or two, but I want to make something perfectly clear… you will get lost in Ireland. The difference between “Lost,” and “Hopelessly lost,” is a GPS. Out away from the larger towns the Irish take what I will with some charity call a “Minimalist” view of signage, and in general you can see only as far as the next hedge, which in many instances is mere feet away. Unless you are behind a lorry. Then you can see the lorry and nothing else. Get the GPS. TRUST me on this one.

We made Friar’s Glen in late afternoon and met the innkeeper, Mary. Mary was a delight. We dumped our bags in our room, which of all the places we stayed in Europe looked most like what I would consider a traditional “American” style hotel room. I later learned that Friar’s Glen was purpose-built as a Bed and Breakfast in the late 1990’s, not converted from a residence or some other much older structure. We went to the sitting room where there was a peat fire going and a group of travelers playing a board game. Mary brought me a cup of tea and sat and talked with us about our travels and our plans while we were staying at the Glen. She was quick with very good advice about touring the Ring of Kerry and other attractions in the area we might be interested in. I’ll have more to say about Friar’s Glen later, but if you just can’t wait, there website is here, friarsglen.ie.

On Mary’s recommendation we walked to Molly Darcy’s pub & restaurant for dinner about a half mile up Mangerton Road. The building appeared to be new and vast for a pub. I had an excellent lamb stew and a pint and enjoyed every second of it. I see that it’s now under different management and called the Jarvey’s Rest (A “Jarvey” is the driver of a jaunting carriage. You still see them on the roads around Killarney Town, particularly in the National Park). I can’t personally speak to the food or service at the new place, but they seem to be well-reviewed on Tripadvisor.

We walked back at dusk and just as we approached the house saw a great shaggy red buck in a field just off the drive. We stopped to admire him for a few moments before we went inside. We’d started the day in Amsterdam and ended it up walking down a wooded lane in Killarney and kissed the Blarney Stone along the way. Not too shabby.

Tomorrow, the Ring of Kerry!

Take good care.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

A Field In France

6 Jan

I’ve started and abandoned, then re-written this post three times so far. When we began planning our trip I asked my wife where she most wanted to go. Harrods in London was near the top of the list. Canterbury Cathedral. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The Louvre. To someone who didn’t know her the number one destination might seem an odd choice. I wanted Julia to see Paris and Julia wanted to see Omaha Beach.

On Day 10 of our trip we took a train from Paris to Bayeax. We took a taxi from the line in front of the station and as it happened the driver spoke some English. The drive from the station to our hotel was about 20 minutes and took us through several small villages where the French Tricolor flies next to the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes in nearly every window. Knowing that we would need to leave very very early the next morning we arranged for our cab driver to come back for us. I highly recommend this for short stays. One less thing to worry about.

We arrived at around lunch time at the Hotel Hostreiere on the Route du Cimetière Américain. As the name implies, the hotel sits on a road that leads directly to the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach. We managed check in despite not speaking French and the girl at the desk and the hotel’s owner not speaking English (I had been corresponding with the owner’s wife, who was not in at the time). Our room was absolutely palatial when compared to the places we’d stayed thus far. It was on the second floor and had its own small deck outside the door. There was a large shower in a room separate from the toilet. We dropped our cases and went back down for lunch in the hotel restaurant. Our options were fairly limited since were were in a rural area with no transportation. Lunch was very good, and pretty expensive. It featured a very nice cider, Val de Rance, produced using traditional methods and made in Brittany from cider apples grown in the region. After lunch we had an iffy conversation with the owner about what time dinner was served, owing again to the fact that there wasn’t anywhere nearby that we could reasonably be expected to reach on foot, and then left for the cemetery.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more idyllic setting than the countryside of Normandy. It was a sunny afternoon and we strolled along a lovely sunken lane to the cemetery. Looking around now it’s hard to imagine this place as it would have appeared in June of 1944. 

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial sits on a concession granted to the United States by the French after World War II, making it sovereign American territory. As we approached the entrance I noticed a John Deere lawn tractor sitting near a hedge. Grounds workers had erected a track and a low scaffold along the hedge. It appeared that the track was for a rig that rolled along and cut the hedge perfectly level. After cutting about 30 yards of hedge the entire run of track would have to be dismantled and moved. That level of precision is evident all through the cemetery.

Owing to the fact that this is an American facility, we had to pass through heightened security to enter the visitor’s center and museum. Metal detectors. Jackets off. Empty your pockets into the little bowl. You know the drill. Once inside we made our way to the lower level and the museum. We skipped the film and moved on to the time line and artifacts of the invasion.

Personal talismans

Personal talismans

We all think we know the story of D-Day pretty well. What usually doesn’t make it into our one-paragraph abstract is the fact that this was the Allied Invasion, not just the American Invasion. The museum works to correct this a little with displays outlining the contributions of other countries while still acknowledging that this place is sacred to Americans in particular. We learned for the first time about “Ruperts,” dummy paratroopers rigged with explosives created by Captain Michael Foot of the British Special Air Service for his brainchild “Operation Titanic.” The Ruperts were dropped behind the lines with 4 two-man teams on D-Day to help create a diversion. The men were armed with flare guns and record players. They pulled troops away from the actual landing sites and probably saved a life or ten.

There are facts and figures and artifacts that make the fast receding history of the fight a tangible thing. At the end of the center closest to the sea there is an infinity pool, over which you can see the Channel. Then you step outside…

We entered the cemetery from the east, passing through a garden. A semi-circular wall bears the names of over 1,500 Americans who lost their lives in the Normandy campaign but were never found. At the west end of the garden is a colonnade with a sculpture of a figure seemingly floating into the air. I have since learned this is The Spirit Of American Youth Rising From The Waves. Enclosures on either side of the sculpture house murals depicting maps of the campaign. I found an urn with a particularly poignant relief; A woman with a child in her lap holds her hand out to a grave in the shape of a cross crowned with laurel. The woman is looking down and the child mimics her posture. On the opposite side a warrior is pulled from his horse into the air by an angel as he reaches back toward the earth.

Looking west across the reflecting pool.

Looking west across the reflecting pool.

The weather was off-again/on-again rain. We made our way around the reflecting pool and out into the cemetery. I thought I was prepared, but it really is overwhelming. There are people who say that the crosses seem to go on forever but that isn’t really true. The cemetery is big, but you can see the other end. The Normandy cemetery is dwarfed by Arlington, but you can’t see all of Arlington at once. The uniformity of the Normandy cemetery, the military precision of the rows of markers make the scale staggering.

Here, as outside the gate, the grounds are immaculate. We made our way to the chapel at the center of the grounds and as we approached it began to rain again. Two French groundskeepers with buckets sheltered momentarily against the wall. This answered a question I’d meant to ask at the visitor’s center. The staff is apparently a mix of Americans and French. I was also surprised by the number of French visitors. I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but the majority of the people we encountered were French, not American. I suppose I envisioned the cemetery as solely a place of American pilgrimage.

Inside the chapel there is a beautiful mosaic on the ceiling. It depicts America in the form of a woman in white wearing the crown of Liberty. She is directing a young man with a rifle to cross the sea. We see merchant ships, destroyers, bombers and an angel bearing a torch. On the opposite side French Liberte crowns a fallen soldier with laurel. The inscription on the chapel wall reads;

Think Not Only Upon Their Passing

Remember The Glory Of Their Spirit

I didn’t feel comfortable taking a picture inside. We moved back out into the rain.

At the far end of the cemetery there are two more stylized sculptures of France and America in human form. The rain gives the impression that they are weeping. We turned back and made our way along the side of the cemetery facing the Channel. As we walked a pair of fighter jets screamed along the coast, the closest dipping its wings as it passed the cemetery. We wandered through the rows of spotless white markers. They are nearly uniformly crosses with the occasional Star of David. They are glowing white marble, some occasionally shot through with faint veins of gray and all without a spot of moss. We again encountered the two French groundskeepers with their buckets. Turns out the buckets come with a brush. The two men walked across the rows of markers scrubbing the marble stones. Every inch of every marker. Up one row, then down the next. On… and on… and on.

We found a gate and a path down to the beach. The walkway winds through scrub and some low dunes before depositing you on the beach. As I thought about the men struggling to come ashore through withering fire the wind went out of me, like I’d been hit in the stomach. It’s a long, long way across the beach to the water. I have no real frame of reference for what they went through. I can count on one hand the times I have had the presence of mind to genuinely fear for my life but I had no place to put something like that. I just stood and stared. Such a long way.

We walked along the beach and then climbed back up into the dunes where a few bunkers have been left intact. Judging by the curved grooves on the floor the guns inside must have been massive. The emplacement was set up to allow raking fire across the beach from an angle while protecting the guns from offshore fire. It again astonished me that anyone could have crossed the beach alive.German gun emplacement

We climbed the dunes to a point just east of the cemetery. Mere moments after commenting “You know, one of us is eventually gong to take a header in this mud…” I slipped and fell. I managed to keep the camera out of the mud, but my clothes were soaked. We stayed a few minutes longer looking at the monuments above the beach and along the vast sweep of coast we could see from our position.

The skies above us cleared while a storm remained over Pointe du Hoc to the west where United States Army Rangers fought a desperate battle for two days. Today it is still cratered like the surface of the Moon. A rainbow seemed to end directly in front of us at the memorial to the Big Red One.

We turned around and walked back along the lane toward the hotel. We talked about Julia’s father, who had come ashore two weeks after D-Day. He’d gone on to fight at St. Lo, the “Capital of the Ruins,” where he was badly wounded. He went back to combat, and on to the Rhine, and Berlin, and eventually home to Ohio, where he went on… raising a family and quietly living his life. He said very little about his part in the war, occasionally telling stories to his sons and now and again relating a story to me. After his death Julia’s mother was contacted by a man whose life Bill had saved during the war. He’d never mentioned it to her at all. When I was planning the trip I’d considered surprising Julia with a trip to St. Lo, but the city was destroyed so completely in the fighting that almost nothing of the prewar era remains (Except the occasional unexploded shell. In early 2012 I was looking at the tourism site when a pop-up redirected me to a notice to area businesses that a two-block area in the city center was being evacuated that afternoon. A live shell had been discovered at a construction site).

As we walked along I tried to imagine what the farmland and pastures must have looked like, what it would have sounded like when Bill’s artillery unit rolled through in 1944. Somewhere there had to be an echo of the thousands of men marching up from their ships, of the trucks and planes and tanks. It’s just there, under the wind and the birdsong, but it seems to me that it is growing faint.

We made it back to discover that we’d misunderstood the owner and completely missed dinner. The dining room and bar were both closed, and it was quite a way to the nearest restaurant. The owner’s wife looked at us and gathered up pre-made sandwiches, fruit, cookies and soda from behind the bar and sold them to us for about half what they should have cost. We ate them in our room and watched Monk in french (The only time we turned on a television during our entire trip) while I tried to rinse out my clothes. We went to sleep surrounded by the utter silence of a battlefield growing ancient all around us.

© 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