Monday, January 26, 2015

Day 8 - The Valley of Death

Dawn had us leaving Ridgecrest. The drive took us through some dismal remote towns that clearly stood only because of the adjacent mining operation.   The whole region was both desolate and impoverished.  We noted that the abandoned homes were difficult to separate from the occupied ones.  The Golden Eagle on the power pole probably didn’t care one way or the other.  I suspect he was looking for a jackrabbit.    

Approaching the park, we knew we just had to pull over.  The tiny Panamint Springs Resort (I’ll use “resort”  loosely here) was miles away. No traffic.  No planes.  No nothing.  That, of course, gives us nature-types the chance to appreciate something we often don’t get to hear any more – silence.  That’s right.  Just a few miles outside of Death Valley National Park, one of the most impressive features of the trip was the sound of …nothing.

While soaking it in and snapping a few pics, what do I see at my feet?

For those you who didn’t follow the history of the beer can (or for those of you that might be a bit too young (holy shit, I sound old when I say that...)), can tops that we see today have not always been that way.  Back in the day, cans had what were called pull-tabs.  If you look closely, this is a 30-year old beer can (minimum).  The old style tabs were phased out by the very early 1980’s. 

Of all the things to find in the desert…..

The early morning light at Death Valley National Park counters the otherwise dismal name.  Who would have thought that a place with such a dark name could be so neat.

If I could be anal-retentive for a moment (which is hyphenated, by the way), please understand that Death Valley is not a valley – it is a graben.  Valleys are simply low areas between hills. They are often longer than wide. A graben, on the other hand, is the result of huge tectonic forces.  When certain faults shift and adjust (known to hacks as earthquakes), some chunks of land rise while others fall.  A falling piece of land between two rising pieces of land becomes a graben.  See?  Isn’t that easy?  (Not to sound like a totally ass, I was hoping to experience some kind of earthquake in southern California.  Nope.  It never happened.)

All that said, if you are hard-core birder, tackling this place in the winter with the thought of great birds dancing in your head…well, forget it. The winter birding is basically zero.  The power of the place is the spring and fall migration when wayward birds enter the Furnace Ranch area (with its abundant vegetation) for a break. After all, it is the best place for miles. 

Beyond birds (and yes, there is a life beyond birds) numerous stops were made along the way.

Similar to the graben-valley argument, not all deserts are vast and sandy. Forget Lawrence of Arabia – It’s not all like that.   Nat and I noted that the deserts in and around Death Valley and southern California in general  were largely like vast fields of gravel…except at the Sand Dunes.  As the erosional forces chip away at the mountains surrounding the valley, all the grit piles up in this one spot. Voila!  Instant sand dunes! Okay, not instant.  It’s a long time in the making, but you get the point.

Imagine our surprise when we found ourselves interrupting Jedi training. Young padowans, they were.  Maybe 10 years old? Their master? Their mom, or course! With lightsabers in hand, they dueled their way across the dunes…

It was at that point that I realized I forgot to follow up on some research I had started months ago. Yes, scenes from Star Wars were filmed in Death Valley National Park.  Wouldn’t it be cool to visit some movie scenes? Maybe next time….

A stop at the Furnace Creek Ranch interpretive center was well worth. The temperature was far below the all-time record of 134 degrees.  It was closer to 55 degrees.  (In fact, I believe that was the highest temperature we experienced on the entire trip.)  Sandwiches, while being watched by a Say’s Phoebe, is an experience that should be had by all. 

We did not, by the way, have roasted Chuckwalla for lunch.  Apparently, in days gone by, the people native to the valley would hunt done these chunky lizards with curved sticks.  When disturbed, they would flee and stuff themselves into cracks (the lizards, not the people).  Inflating their lungs, they become almost impossible to remove from the narrow space…..until ya pop ém with the stick.  Then, using the curve like a hook , they would fish them out.  Mmmmm.

Uneventful birding in and around the Furnace Ranch gave us a chance to see one of the oddest things of the trip.  First, recognize that some clown thought putting a golf course in the middle of the desert was a neat idea.  With golf courses, you have grass that needs mowing, right?  Mind you, 55 degrees in Death Valley is chilly indeed.  So you wear a coat, right? Maybe even a heavy one.  Let’s put it all together: in the desert, on a riding mower, we watched a man cutting grass while wearing a winter coat, hooded sweatshirt and gloves.  It was 55 degrees.

I’m sorry, that is just odd.

Keep in mind, I’m talking about the golf course at Furnace Ranch.  Not the Devil’s Golf Course. That is a short bit up the road.  Let me explain.

Historically speaking, Death Valley was basically a lake. Specifically, Lake Manly.  When it dried up, incredible salt deposits were left behind.  Recent corings show these deposits to be over 1,000 feet in places.  So where did the name come from?  Thank the National Park Service.  A brochure from 1934 (a year after they took over the property) mentions that “…only the devil could play golf…”on its surface.  After touching some of these rocks, I can tell you it was like a razor.  A simple ouchie if you fell you would likely not occur. You would have chopped your arm for sure. 

The presence of water in the Valley is not limited to days gone by.  During rain events (which are certainly not common, but they happen), water can be quite powerful.  The hike to the Natural Bridge illustrated just that.  After walked a mile up the narrow canyon, the trail takes you right under the naturally carved bridge. 

Photographically speaking, this bridge image, while poor and lacking any composition, is a product of computer shenanigans.    It is three images mushed together in Photoshop.  Given the lighting and shadows, it was the only way to do it.  If I took this image seriously, I would have done the three images with a tripod. I hand held the three bracketed images with a fast shutter speed.  Eh. It worked. Note, by the way, the people. I left them there for scale. 
Clearly, the most fascinating location in the park that we visited was Badwater.  All water seeks it’s level, right?  So where does the water in the Valley go?  The lowest spot in the North America, of course!

At 282 feet below sea level, any water from rain events will eventually get here. Historically, this location would have been the lower portion of Lake Manly.  With more crusty salts (but not as dangerous as the Devil’s Golf Course), the region looked like another planet.  (That is a very interesting thought, by the way, as every new region of Death Valley looked like another planet!)

Unfortunately, our experience at Badwater was a bit compromised.  No, it was the 100+ people.  We can manage that.

It was the drone.  Some asshat thought flying one of those damn things around the area was really bugging some people, including me.  If I had my Mossburg, I would shot that thing to pieces.  There is a time and place for those things.  Badwater in Death Valley is not.   I was happy to rat the guy out to the Park Interpreter.  Imagine my horror when the park guy put the drone flyer in a headlock, kneed him in the groin, gouged out his eyes and pushed him into moving traffic.  Okay, it didn’t happen that way.

I botched the evening photography (again) by not paying attention (again) to the finer details (again).   I did manage the pic below.  I wanted the moon lower to the mountains but we were too late.  I tried to push it back into place using Photoshop but it looked, well, like I pushed it back into place using Photoshop!  Eventually, the moon would have ruined any chance for star photography.  More importantly, it was getting cold and we were tired.  We opted to press on.

Lodging was in Pahrump, Nevada. This is not to be confused with Paaah-rump-bum-bum-bump. That is the Little Drummer Boy.  To the best of my knowledge, the song and town have nothing to do with each other…

Always seeking a new craft beer, sadly, the hotel clerk gave us a bum steer.  Directions, people, directions.  (Yeah, right, she gave us a homeless cow...)  The local sport’s bar had A BEER that could be considered “craft"  and it was from New York!  Are you kidding me?  Regardless, the Windwalker IPA was a fine way to finish the day. The food was average, the dining was less that average, but the beer was fine. Not "fine" like "way good", it was more like "fine" like....average.  You know.  Fine...

We got a chuckle out of this gift wrapping sign hanging by the front door.  Maybe their understanding of beer culture is rivaled by that of their spelling.  

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