Sunday, January 30, 2011

The coming storm roiled over the Amargosa Range at sunset, giving the illusion that the mountains were on fire with 1000 foot tall wind whipped flames rising from the peaks. This seemed so far away from my perch atop a tall dune at Mesquite Flat. There wasn't a spot on the dune field that didn't have a footprint in it. Steep inclines and deep pits had all been tread on by visitors and there had been no wind to whipe away the evidence. It's what the moon would look like as a tourist destination. It was amazing to me that this place could stay so calm while stormclouds surged past on all sides.

As it got dark I started to make my way out of the dune field. The ground became pitch black before I found my way out and I had to follow the sounds of people in the parking area talking to find my way back to my car. They always seemed so close that I was sure they would be just over the next dune but I would always come to the crest just to find another expanse of darkness below. Luckily when walking on sand you almost always keep your feet at the same angle. If you're walking uphill, you dig your toes in and if you're walking downhill, you dig your heels in. This made it easy to climb up and down in the dark without fear of twisting my ankle if I hit an unexpected slope.

I finally got back to my car and started to drive to my campsite. As I pulled out onto the highway, the wind started to pick up. In the distance I could see a stream of taillights heading towards the park exit. As I continued to drive I lost sight of the other cars as the wind began to hurl sand and twigs accross my path. My headlights were no help other than to allow me to study the suspension of sand that I was driving through. I finally arrived safely at my campsite and listened as the wind continued to blow through the night.

The next morning, 25 miles from the dune field, I could already see sheets of swirling sand drifting through the air above the valley floor. I returned to the dune field to find all of the footprints of thousands of visitors finally erased and the dunes restored to a virgin state. I wondered how long it had taken for the entire field to become covered in prints the way that it had been. Considering that storms had been passing through the valley with unusual frequency that winter I would guess not long.

Friday, January 14, 2011

It must be a beautiful landscape if bighorn sheep that see the sun rise here every day still scale a boulder to watch the day break. I've always heard that bighorn sheep are out there, but that they will always spot you first and freeze in place so that you'll never spot them against the composite palette of stone. However, this morning, I caught this ram in a moment of vulnerability as he watched the sun surge over the limestone mountains in the distance to draw out the surreal red of the Aztec Sandstone that pushes through the valley floor.

As I got closer, the ram was joined by two others who stood entranced by the sunrise until they noticed me creeping along the base of the boulder about 150 feet away. Suddenly self conscious, they began to climb down and walk along a stony ridge. Pretending not to notice me, they paused occasionally to chew some long grass protruding from cracks in the sandstone. Led by the elder, the trio began to trace a meandering path towards me and my car. I took the hint and hurried back and left them to enjoy the rest of their morning.

After all the time that I've spent out here, the largest animal I'd seen had been a jackrabbit. To reach the top of that hill and see a full grown bighorn standing on that rock was both more startling and overwhelming than I had imagined.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Retraction, my wandering will not be limited by my threshold for enduring cold nights but by the extent to which I can experience isolation without paranoia setting in. I would like to admit that I jumped in a little over my head traveling in to camp in Death Valley alone. I had thought that it would be no different than my experiences camping alone in Arches. I found a spot to sleep on Artist Drive, one of the only concealed roads in Death Valley, and a one-way road to boot. I could face backwards and see anyone who might be coming my way.

The first night was difficult. I couldn't get to sleep at first, I wasn't tired, I had been driving for most of the day and hadn't really exerted myself. When I finally did get to sleep I would begin to dream only to be awoken by headlights shining through my eyelids. I checked my watch to see that it was 3am. Just as the ranger's truck pulled up to evict me I would wake up again to realize that my being discovered had also been a dream.

After hours of 15 minute naps, I decided to give up on sleep around 3:30. I drove the rest of the way through Artist Drive and down to Badwater Basin. It had rained the night before and I thought that I would be able to get close to the water and catch the sunrise. I spent the next hour stargazing, amazed at how much I could see so far from streetlights. Just as the horizon had begun to show the slightest hint of sunrise, I saw a light out of the corner of my eye about 30 feet away. I panicked, feeling extremely vulnerable at the thought that there might have been someone so close to me without my realizing it for who knew how long. I didn't want to shine my flashlight at them, so I set my camera to its highest ISO and propped it on my window sill and set it to a 15 second exposure. I held the camera down low and checked the image and saw nothing but a building containing a pit toilet. Had I seen a light on some kind of ventilation system? I forgot about it and went back to watching the sunrise.

Throughout the day I realized the huge difference between Death Valley and Arches. Arches is near the town of Moab, a relatively large town that is only a 30 minute drive from the park entrance. The park itself requires about 45 minutes to drive from one end to the other. Death Valley on the other hand is near no towns and one can spend 45 minutes driving from one area to another. At the center, there is a gas station with $4.50 gas and $3.00 sodas which is to be avoided, along with an out of place resort hotel with tennis courts, also to be avoided. I quickly realized how comforting it had been to know that I was no more than 45 minutes away from a Wendy's in Moab if I was longing for a hot meal.

Sleep deprived, I returned to my hiding spot on artist drive the next night hoping to finally be able to get a good night's sleep. I decided to record some time lapse movies of the stars passing overhead. You realize how quickly the earth spins when you use the stars for reference. After taking pictures for about an hour, I fell asleep.

I woke again at 3:30 thinking that I had heard the sound of a car passing as I slept. I didn't see anything but decided to move anyway. I wanted to brush my teeth first though. As I brushed, I bent down to look out at the dark sky to see if I could find any of the constellations that had been hanging on the horizon when I had fallen asleep earlier. Then I saw a light sitting on the hilltop right next to my car. It wasn't a star, because it didn't appear round, it was a small irregular orb of light that could only be a flashlight. I watched it for a while, once again feeling intensely vulnerable that someone had gotten so close without my knowledge. The light didn't move, it just remained on the hill, pointed directly at me. I panicked and started the car and took off, toothbrush still in my mouth. I'm not sure why I was so unnerved by a light being aimed at my car, but I couldn't think of any good reason that it should have been there. I drove 10 miles through the rest of artist drive before I stopped and looked back. The light was still there! hovering just over another hill, and now I saw what looked like a tent, illuminated from the inside resting on the edge of a cliff. As I ran through more and more outrageous explanations for what I was seeing, I moved slowly forward in my car. As I moved, I cleared the hill and the "illuminated tent" was revealed to be the top half of the crescent moon. I then searched for the "flashlight" and found it hovering now high in the sky, above the moon. It was Venus, which was passing directly over Gamma Librae in the constellation Libra, the overlap creating the oblong shape I had mistaken for a man-made light. I had noticed Venus just as it had risen over the hill next to me.

Feeling pretty ridiculous, I decided that it was time to get out and head to Utah. I wasn't ready for my experience in Death Valley, and I would have to return another day.