Death Valley Photos: Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Zabriskie Point: Double-click on photo to enlarge

Death Valley: The Racetrack and Ubehebe Crater

The Racetrack, Death Valley, taken from The Grandstand.  Double-click photo to enlarge.

The Racetrack, Death Valley, taken from The Grandstand. Double-click photo to enlarge.

The Racetrack is the world-famous playa upon which rocks move mysteriously.  Scientists believe that strong winds blow the rocks across the playa under icy, muddy, slippery soil conditions.  A playa is the most naturally flat geological surface on the planet.  The National Park Service asks visitors not to walk on the playa when it is wet, because the resulting footprints last for years.  Driving on the playa is prohibited at all times.  I saw a few footprints and tire tracks on the playa.

The Park Service warns visitors about the risk of flat tires on Racetrack Road at every possible opportunity.  The visitor centers feature dioramas showing how small rocks protrude from the washboard road surface.  The highly competent ranger I spoke with, Mr. Langford, advised me to limit my speed to 15-20 mph and my tires would be fine.  He was right.  I did, however, cross paths with a

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen.  Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen. Double-click on photo to enlarge.

group in another SUV who sustained 2 flat tires.  “People try to drive 40 mph, and the rocks tear through tires at that speed,” Langford explained.

A few miles north of The Racetrack, I momentarily heard a deafening roar directly above my vehicle.  An F-16 at seemingly eye level streaked past heading east, perpendicular to my direction of travel, a 30-foot afterburner flame shooting from its engine.  It was turning hard right to avoid hitting the mountain directly in front of it.  Having rapidly turned itself south, it shot just over the top of another mountain and dived into a valley out of sight.  This entire set of maneuvers took less than 10 seconds.  Ranger Langford had explained, with his typical enthusiasm, that fighter pilots often practice bombed drivers on Racetrack Road.  I’m glad I got to experience it!

Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen.  Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen. Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen.  Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen. Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen.  Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Racetrack Playa, moving rock specimen. Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Death Valley: Culture of Rocks

The Culture of Rocks

The Cathedral, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

The Cathedral, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Often we admire the waterfall, the river, beautiful trees, perhaps a meadow or wildflowers.  These features are the main attraction, while rocks, at best, fade into the background.  In Death Valley the rocks rule.  Death Valley’s rocks exude a commanding presence in every direction and every location.  The immensely sized mountains and canyon walls colored in vivid reds, blacks, greens, grays, and tans compel the visitor’s attention.  It is not a matter of a few impressive formations scattered around the park.  Death Valley is filled with flashy colored rocks sporting exotic and chiseled appearances that defy description.  See additional photos below.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Golden Canyon, Death Valley: Double-click on photo to enlarge.

Slab City, California (Traveled Feb. 2013)

Slab City is an abandoned Marine Corps base that has been taken over by squatters.  The demographic runs the gamut from hippies to meth addicts to a solar panel dealer and a Tiki bar proprietor.

I’m writing this from Slab City, my first night here.  I’ve been taken in by the East Jesus artist colony, which is 5 guys who appreciate guns, snakes, campfires, and “free” living.  The sculpture garden features a wide array of art made from all manner of junk.  Frank, the leader, gives me a tour in which he demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of each piece.  He says they “control” 5 acres to the west and I can camp anywhere in that area.  I set up near the center of the colony instead, behind an old shack and about 20 yards inside the EJ border fence made of old tires.  There is a “clothing optional” shooting range at the bottom of the 15-foot deep dry wash.  We all sat around a fire and ate dinner which was cooked in their kitchen stove — stir fry and focaccia bread.  They have a gas grill, electric, wifi, showers, and toilets here, unique in the slabs.  A sticker on the kitchen wall reads, “What would Jesus Bomb?”  A quote from dinner conversation was, “In rust we trust, and if it don’t rust, burn it” — which is what we did with our dinner plates.  The Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range is close by, and we heard some jets earlier today.

Mopar, an older gentleman who specializes in “community relations” with the rest of the slabs, describes Slab City as “The Land of Misfit Toys” — meaning the people who live here. The youngest resident, Drew, is spending 2 hours daily learning to play the guitar by ear — no books or instructor.  The logic is that he will either learn to play it, or learn that he can’t.  When I mentioned it to Mopar, he agreed that an instructional book might be helpful, and said he would “put out a feeler” to the rest of the slabs.

The next morning I walked to the canal at 7 am just to stretch my legs, and it happened the Marine Harrier jets were starting bombing practice.  I climbed a hill and had a great view.  The jets flew in two at a time with a high decibel, low-pitch roar that made my ears feel as if they almost, not quite, needed earplugs. The Harriers came in low and fast, diving in to release their bombs and then pulling the nose level before making a series of hard turns left and right, practicing evasion of anti-aircraft defenses.  The second jet in the formation would often make these extreme evasive maneuvers before releasing his bombs, if I observed correctly — seemingly to provide a cover of distraction for the first jet as it released its bombs, then the first jet seemed to cover for the second.  All of this was done at high speed and apparent altitudes of a couple hundred to a thousand feet.  I could clearly see the nose, body, wings, and tail of the jets during the maneuvers.

After each bomb run came 6-9 ground- shaking explosions that made a low-pitched, raspy noise in the eardrums.  The explosions came in rapid succession similar to setting off a string of firecrackers.  Then there was a tall cloud of black, brown, and grey smoke.  I could not see the targets or the explosions because they were behind hills.  I believe I observed 4 separate sorties before heading back to East Jesus for breakfast.  This was an exciting, educational show.  Frank, the East Jesus leader, said such training exercises happen about once a week.

Joshua Tree National Park, CA Part 2 (Traveled Feb. 2013)

Cholla Cactus Garden

Cholla Cactus Garden

I awoke to freezing temperatures and relentless driving wind.  I drove about 15 miles to the park’s Cholla Cactus Garden.  Here, a dense stand of chest- high teddy bear cholla covered an area somewhat larger than a football field.  There were several conspicuous signs warning visitors of the especially dangerous nature of the cholla cactus and the potential for painful injuries.  I walked the trail through the middle of the cactus garden, stopping at several points to observe the nuances of each section.  The setting was relaxing and beautiful.  Trail signs explained that the black sections on some of the plants did not indicate death; they were in fact alive and healthy.  Another sign explained that cacti in general will only grow in sections of desert that receive regular hard rains.  This is why much of the desert southwest is devoid of cacti.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Cholla Cactus Garden

I spent the afternoon hiking to the 49 Palms Oasis on the northern end of the park.  Roughly 3 miles from the parking lot I arrived at a grove of 40+ foot tall palms growing along a trickling stream.  The scene starkly contrasted with the surrounding barren, brown desert.

The Marines have a large base several miles to the north called Twentynine Palms.  The road to the 49 Palms trailhead passed through a residential area in which many homes flew American and USMC flags along with other patriotic memorabilia.  This was a heartening scene in a time when so many Americans don’t appreciate their country.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Cholla Cactus Garden

Joshua trees near the center of the park

Joshua trees near the center of the park

49 Palms Canyon Trail

49 Palms Canyon Trail

49 Palms Oasis

49 Palms Oasis

49 Palms Oasis

49 Palms Oasis

49 Palms Oasis

49 Palms Oasis

Joshua Tree National Park, CA Part 1: Land of Discontent (Traveled Feb. 2013)

Cottonwood Spring, Mastodon Trail

Cottonwood Spring, Mastodon Trail

While I ate in the parking lot, an angry, seemingly nervous man yelled at his young son for picking a rock up off the ground.  A man who appeared to be the boy’s grandfather told the dad to take it easy, and they argued.  “Welcome to the great outdoors, kid,” I sarcastically thought.  Then an elderly couple walked out of the visitor center with glum looks their faces and drove away in a minivan.

I strode into the visitor center and asked the first ranger about the best places to see in the park.  She became tense and flustered.  She told me she didn’t recommend places to people because what she liked, others might find ugly.  I was surprised, as I had previously worked with NPS rangers who were eager to recommend hikes.  I tried to reassure this ranger that I wouldn’t hold her feet to the fire, and she apprehensively pulled out a topo map and started showing me trails at random.  I asked her what condition the Jeep trails were in, a

Cottontop Cactus, Mastodon Trail

Cottontop Cactus, Mastodon Trail

seemingly innocuous question.  She replied that she had no idea.  “You all don’t go out into the park?” I asked.  “We go into the park,” she fumed, “but nobody takes the four-wheel drive roads.  Not even the LE’s (law enforcement) go out there.”  “That’s funny,” I said.  I was losing patience.  It is the rangers’ responsibility to know the trail conditions.

Just then, a friendlier and more competent ranger made eye contact and recommended some nice places.  Armed with her detailed instructions, I set off to make camp and hit the trails.  Had it not been for the second ranger’s warm assistance, the prevailing negative mood may well have afflicted me.  The mood in this area was palpably tenser and less social than the laid back Texas and Arizona from which I had come.  I felt culture shock.  At the ranger’s recommendation I made camp ½ mile south of the park boundary on free BLM land.  I

Mastodon Trail

Mastodon Trail

four-wheeled my Xterra ¼ mile to the edge of a deep, dry wash to enjoy a secluded camping spot.

My first hike took me past a palm-tree lined oasis, through the desert to the top of Mastodon Peak.  This would barely be considered a hill in my native Rocky Mountains, but it was in fact the highest point in the area.  The hilly terrain primarily featured brown rocks one to six feet in diameter on a base of light tan sand.  Cacti, short grasses, woody shrubs, and a very few deciduous trees decorated the land.  This area, like much of Joshua Tree National Park, did not actually have Joshua trees.

Guadalupe Peak Ascent: Highest Point in Texas (Traveled Feb 2013)

Rising to 8,700 feet from the desert floor, Guadalupe Peak is a worthy mountain and a challenge to climb.  The ranger

From Guadalupe Peak, TX

From Guadalupe Peak, TX

explained that most people complete the hike in 5-7 hours, round trip.  He was an older man with a big belly and a thick Texas drawl.  “It’s awful windy up ‘ere today, but I wouldn’t let that stop me,” he said.  We chatted for a few minutes before I made my way to the door.  “Take plenty a’ water up ‘ere now,” he said in a warm fatherly tone.  With these encouraging words I set out on the 12-mile trek, water duly packed.

I made the round trip in 3 hours, 17 minutes, including the time it took to sign the log book and eat a power bar on the summit.  I did not aspire to smoke anyone when I started.  My plan was to take it easy with a slow and steady pace, and I stuck to it.  The first 20 minutes or so of the trail was well protected and I barely felt a breeze.  When I rounded the next switchback, the driving wind instantly pushed me backward.  For the next 15 minutes I plodded up the hill fighting the wind the whole way as it froze my face.  Then I was back into a mild breeze.

El Capitan, viewed from the summit of Guadalupe Peak

El Capitan, viewed from the summit of Guadalupe Peak

I passed two married couples who had started out before me, then caught up to a third.  This third couple was dressed in the latest technical clothing and seemed to consider themselves the fittest on the mountain.  As I continued my steady plod up the trail, the woman seemed annoyed that I was passing them.  After some cheerleading from the wife they stepped up their pace and I let them by.  When I started catching up again, they drove themselves to the point of gasping to stay ahead of me.  In the end they beat me to the summit by about 200 yards and 3 minutes.  “That wasn’t so bad,” I said as I made the top.  “Oh, no, not at all,” the woman barked.  The couple had stopped short of the summit to rest and drink.

I walked directly to the summit and signed the record book.  Signing ahead of me was a young Canadian law student.  I ran much of the trail on the way down, finding this easier than walking on the downhill slopes.  Contrary to expectation after such a hard day, I barely slept

Summit, Guadalupe Peak, TX

Summit, Guadalupe Peak, TX

that night.

Summit, Guadalupe Peak, TX

Summit, Guadalupe Peak, TX