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Death Valley 2014 PART ONE

I know I posted the images a few months ago after the trip but I haven’t gotten around to describing the experience in detail. I took notes along the way and committed much more to memory but I figure I need to write this all down before the hazards surrounding my current field of employment (watching paint dry) destroy those brain cells containing those memories.

 

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1985 Toyota Pickup 4×4 + 1987 Jeep CJ

The adventure begins where all great adventures begin (and end) in Victorville, California. A surreal place worthy of its own documentary series but certainly not the focus of our trip. No, I went here to meet with a known person named Vernon, a friend for many years. While I usually like to do these trips by myself or with Kaela I decided that a trip of this length and miles warranted bringing somebody else along. While I could pretend to have a big list of criteria for the ideal travelling companion what it basically comes down to is I need some poor sucker to keep me company. And while I would love to pretend that I am 100% fine with the solitude, where I can become one with the outdoors, where I can keep the spookiness of some of these locations crammed down in the lower reaches of my thoughts, keep them from boiling over to a general panic. But I’m not that person, I have to stay distracted.

Anyway, a Vernon is the perfect thing to bring on these trips, more valuable then any high end tent or shiny new lens. Hes able to enjoy himself nearly anywhere and for some reason can handle driving a 30 year old Jeep with no stereo for a thousand miles without having a mental breakdown.

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 Vernon himself!

We made a few quick stops for food, beer, water and gas. I think we each had something like ten gallons of water on us, enough for the whole trip + some for the trucks just in case. And by just in case I mean inevitably. These trucks are nearly thirty years old, what do we expect?

The first days goal was to make it to Sky Rock just north of Bishop in the volcanic tablelands. I figured it would be best to get the biggest chunk of driving out of the way first while we had a bed to sleep in the night before. We would work our way down through Death Valley leaving a short drive home to Victorville after we had completely run out of steam (beer). The original plan was:

  • Sky Rock
  • Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest on White Mountain
  • Eureka Dunes
  • Hotel night
  • Mahogany Flats
  • Chloride Cliffs (near the Chloride City ghost town)
  • The Racetrack (2 nights)

But you have to remain flexible with this sort of thing. Roads all look the same on a map and its very easy to overwhelm yourself.

The drive from Victorville to Bishop should only take about 3.5 hours provided you have a normal functional car. We have old trucks that couldn’t get us a speeding ticket even if we tried so it took a bit over four hours. Along the way we noticed the Jeep was heaping a worrying amount of oil on the ground and exhaust resulting in a nice oily smokey mist for anybody unfortunate enough to get stuck behind it. Decided to have lunch at the world renown Lone Pine Carls Jr while the jeep cooled down and then it was time for a bit of poking around. Took awhile to diagnose but it turned out a hose for the PCV system was broken and just spewing oil all over the place. As luck would have it an auto parts store happened to appear across the street so in we went. The guy behind the counter was a typical grouchy old parts guy with signage around the store that was of such a nature that I assumed Obama personally killed his dog or something. I used to be a grouchy parts counter person and I know the number one thing they hate is having their time wasted as they will never get back those precious few minutes that could have been spent staring at the wall in silence, filled with anxiety over the next despicable idiot customer that will inevitably ruin their day simply by existing.  Knowing this, I asked for three different size hoses hoping one of them would work. The other hoses that don’t fit will come in handy one day. This is why I have a storage unit I never visit.

The hose fit beautifully so we continued on our way, stopping periodically to check the oil level and confirm that our fix worked. I didn’t want to have to do a head gasket 80 miles from the nearest parts place so a bit of overworrying now would save some grief later. It seemed to be working just fine, and continued to work just fine the rest of the trip (aren’t you happy that I added that last part? Otherwise you would have been reading this whole thing worrying about that stupid hose just like I did the whole time). Bishop past us by and we were finally off road in the Volcanic Tablelands in search of the holy grail of petroglyphs, Sky Rock. Created by the ancestors of the Owens Valley Paiute, this was an amazing feature carved into a giant rock turned upwards toward the sky. GPS locations are not available (and no, I will not give them away) so finding them is a challenge. Daylight was running out but I had a pretty good idea of where they would be based on looking at other peoples photos and triangulated the background mountains in Google Earth. I had also gotten a bit of info from a photographer I had met last year in Death Valley which helped in a big way.

We drove out to a set of boulders that looked correct but upon exploring things just did not add up. It was tough because the boulders out here are layed in huge rows and there are no high points to look out from to figure out which row exactly you are on. We came across some boulderers who told us they didn’t know where Sky Rock was but that it definitely wasn’t on this set. We backtracked a bit and realized we were probably only one row over. We were nearly there when Vernon radioed me that he had run out of gas. In all the worrying about the oil in the Jeep I guess we forgot about filling up in Bishop. No matter, we had an extra 15 gallons or so between us. So we dumped a few gallons into the Jeep and away we went towards the next row of boulders.

This one felt right. The background mountains matched up, the dirt trail was in the right area. We found a spot to park and begin climbing up the boulder pile. Within seconds Vernon shouted that he had found it.

 

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Sky Rock

It was incredible. I’ve seen petroglyphs and pictographs before but never anything like this. The symbols were carved deep into the rock and I can’t ever begin to guess what they meant.

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Delighted it was this easy, we spent some time staring at it. Still no idea. After night fell we spent some time setting up camera equipment for a timelapse (which failed miserably, no matter). As I was perched upon some boulders trying to get a good shot of the petroglyphs while Vernon passed me my gear from down below, something made a noise that scared the beer right out of him. I didn’t hear a thing but he was certain he had witnessed a deep growl nearby. Something guttural, menacing. I was certain there were no big cats in the area, not much wildlife at all. Yet he still heard it. He turned white and immediately lit up a cigarette to calm his nerves. I’ve never seen Vernon afraid of anything in my life. I imagine that if he was standing under a giant falling anvil labeled ACME his last expression would be a shrug of the shoulders and a look that says “eh, what are you gonna do” as he faced certain death. So this bothered me. We waited around a few minutes to see if the noise would return. Nothing. Oh well, back to base.

Camp was set up, food was eaten, beer was drunk and music was listened to. We have a rule for these, no punk or metal. Instead we limited ourselves to appropriate stuff like Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt and the band AIR.

Morning came so we explored a bit more. There is another fantastic set of petroglyphs near by titled 13 moons. At least with this one I can understand it a bit better.

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Vernon and the 13 Moons

 

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13 Moons Detail

Many photos were taken and coffee was made. Time to pack up. As I was over through the boulder pile near Sky Rock dismantling my gear I heard a human voice grunt. I thought “awesome, Vernon woke up and hes coming over to help me!”. I called out his name. Nothing. Returned back to the tent and he was still asleep. Oh well.

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This makes me feel morning fresh just looking at this photo.

Not so fast. On the way into Sky Rock we had descended a rather nasty little hill, full of ruts and loose boulders. We would have to go back up it. This is why were have trucks right?

My Toyota made it right up the hill in no time, provided I locked the front hubs and put it into the low range. Now it was the Jeeps turn. He got about halfway up and then got stuck in a rut, wheels spinning wildly. The rear wheels that is, the fronts weren’t moving. Turns out Jeep used an overly complex vacuum solenoid system to engage the front axle on these. And it wasn’t working at all. No 4×4. While it could have been fixed by taking a plate off the back of the axle and sliding a shaft over and locking it in place manually we would have to take it back apart again every time we hit pavement as driving a truck stuck in 4×4 on dry pavement is a bad idea. So we tried a few more times and kept getting it stuck in new spots. Well Vernon isn’t quite as experienced off roading as I am so I thought I’d take a crack at it. Full of confidence I hopped in the drivers seat, put it in low range and got stuck. And got stuck again and again and again. We stacked rocks, used a shovel to improve some patches. Got 80% of the way up but still not there. This was taking way too long.

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As with all off-road obstacles, the pictures make it look much easier than reality.

I checked my maps. There was another way out of here. Quite a bit longer than this way and no guarantees that it wouldn’t have its own obstacles but hey, this wasn’t working at all so why not. And as uneventful as the new road was, we made it out just fine.

Originally the next site was going to be on White Mountain but it was colder than expected at Sky Rock and the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest was at 12,000 feet elevation. Instead it was decided that we would spend two days in Eureka Valley at the dunes in nothern Death Valley National Park.

I’ve tried making it to the dunes twice in the past but both times were thwarted by circumstance. The first time was on our Death Valley trip last year. We pushed ourselves too much and burned out early, only making it as far as Lone Pine. I tried going again earlier in the year as part of a five day solo trip to the White Mountains but was turned away by a nasty thunderstorm mere miles from the dunes. Did make for a cool photo though:

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Waucoba Mountain from Eureka Valley

But it would happen this time. The road to the dunes in simply beautiful, first weaving through the Inyo Mountains into incredible canyons and Joshua Tree forests and eventually spilling out onto the massive valley floor. It is very remote, no signs of humans anywhere except for the lonely dirt road stretching off into the distance.

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Eureka Valley

I love this place and two nights do not even come close to doing it justice. I need to spend a week or two here exploring. Its just endless.

We reached the dunes after many miles of dirt road, the last 10 being very rough washboard. The site was ours for a bit but that didn’t last long; a group of photographers showed up and set up camp beside us.

I don’t like most people. I find the majority of humans I work with and interact with extremely abrasive, obnoxious, distracted and superficial. Normally I try avoiding other people as best I can but out in places like this I don’t mind it. Maybe its something to do with the remoteness but I’ve noticed I always have no problem getting along with people in places like this, I’d actually go so far to say that sometimes I welcome it. The photographers were a nice bunch, even offered us a nicely cooked dinner of some sort or another. But we were camping and that means crap food and crap food only so we turned down the invitation.

The dunes have a gravity around them. They are not endless but the closer you get the more massive you realize they are. They don’t seem to belong on this planet but here they are, ever changing in the wind but always staying in this geological advantageous (for sand dunes at least) pocket of Eureka Valley.

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Eureka Dunes and the Last Chance Range

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Eureka Dunes in IR

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Vernon on another world.

It was getting late and we were exhausted. No climbing up the dunes just yet, that will wait until tomorrow. For now I set up the camera for a timelapse while we sit around the campfire drinking beer and retiring to the tent.

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Cameras ready for a night of timelapses.

This place is DARK! On many dark sky maps you will see this area is in one of the darkest pockets of California, a black zone. Far darker than Joshua Tree, Anza Borrego and Mt Pinos, the sky is a sea of stars from horizon to horizon. No visible light domes at all, I suspect that even without the surrounding mountain ranges it would still be dark all the way to the horizon. Places like this area damn near impossible to get to unless you’ve got a ship capable of going 100 miles out and even then the motion of the ship doesn’t lend itself to being very night sky photo friendly. The zodiacal light is obvious, even airglow is visible to the naked eye as a faint fluttering of light far up in the atmosphere. While its no aurora its still pretty remarkable once you realize what you are seeing. Imagine that you are looking up into what should be an inky blackness littered with stars. Yet it really isn’t inky black at all, the sky seems to be flickering. Fluctuating in background brightness. This is the airglow effect, a result of chemical reactions of the gasses in our upper atmosphere and as a result the sky from Earth is never truly dark, though you wouldn’t realize it unless you knew you could see the airglow.

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Looking northeast. Note the abundance of airglow which appears green.

IMG_8286Facing southwest into the Milky Way all the way down to the horizon. Some reddish airglow here.

The next day was a free day. No travelling, no hikes planned, just see what the day brings us. That always results in the most memorable experiences. One of the photographers at the camp next to us became stuck a few miles around the dunes. He had made the mistake of parking off the deep sandy road onto what looked like firm dirt on the side. And until you try parking there yourself you’ll probably assume its firm dirt as well. Nope, it was deep  deep sand with a thin crusty dirt layer on top. Not quite quicksand but you’re gonna sink a bit. So he asked us for assistance as we had the other proper 4×4’s out there (not bragging, one of their crossovers with its power steering and AC would be pretty sweet) and we of course obliged. Drove him out there in the Toyota with Vernon trailing behind in the Jeep just in case I got myself stuck as well. I have a tow strap so we hooked it to his frame and the other end to mine and yanked him right out. Nothing too exciting to write about but he did give us $40. Didn’t expect that. Pretended we didn’t want the money for a second followed by an “oh okaaaay”.  This was our ticket to pizza later. You don’t turn down potential pizza. This is why I’m fat.

Returned back to camp as some clouds rolled in shielding us from our enemy, the sun. The dunes looked good. Time to climb up.

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I made it. Vernon is relaxing a bit further down.

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Sand sand sand.

The sand only got deeper the further we went and the steeper it got. Every step a head of you would slide back to meet the proceeding foot plus an inch or two. Sand everywhere. Everywhere. Not nice beach sand, this stuff was coarser. And every time the wind picked up you got a nice sandblast to the face. It felt good in a stupid way. There was a large dune in the middle, this was the goal. Had a very steep face to it that looked perfect for sliding down on my ass, sand covering my whole body be damned. I heaved and grunted my way up this dune as if it was a cliche dream where you keep running down a long hallway and it just keeps getting longer. Or maybe that was the Shining. Either way, this was miserable. Somehow after way too much time I made it. Sat down, took some nice photos and looked down the steep face. Put the lens cap on and held the camera firmly in my lap. Here goes.

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Sand everywhere.

I got about three feet down and then stopped. I had too much surface area and the sand was too coarse. So I sort of paddled my way down like a chump. Vernon was watching with anticipation the whole time because that looked like it would be pretty fun. Too bad. Took a few more photos and headed back down to camp.

But halfway down the dunes a deafening roar came from behind us. A sand avalanche? Nah, twin F/A-18 navy jets that were so close you could clearly see the pilot silently judging these two fatsos playing around in the sand below. They performed some twists and turns around the valley and then disappeared over the last chance mountains. And man, did we yell every expletive in existence in excitement.

Back at camp we cooked some crappy food and Vernon came up with an ingenious idea. We could string a tarp in between our respective vehicles! Genius! And thus, Shade City was born.

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Time to sit around until sunset. Didn’t do much but drink beer, eat garbage food and marvel at how somebody decided to give the toilet seat in the outhouse a piece of their mind by shooting it with their gun. It wasn’t the nicest toilet I’ve seen but it didn’t deserve that.

The photographers left camp so we had the whole place to ourselves for a bit, and we were hoping the night. But out in the distance we spotted a small cloud of dust on the dirt road through Eureka Valley and as it got closer it revealed a Vanagon. And then more Vanagons. I can handle one Vanagon owner in his precious Vanagon but six? Just ignore them.

Sunset was coming, and I needed to climb up the dunes again and get some proper pictures. Definitely worth it.

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Night fell. The summer Milky Way was fast setting so we immediately drove around to the backside of the dunes so I could get a few quick photos.

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As we stood around waiting for the camera to finish its long exposures our eyes become dark adapted enough to start taking in our surroundings. To the southwest stood the dunes, the lighter colored sand glowing in the starlight on the dirt encompassing them. To our east towered the Last Chance Mountains that lead one to feel a bit claustrophobic under their weight. To the south was the road that led past the dunes, through Dedrecka Canyon and onto the warm springs of Saline Valley. As much as I wanted to visit the springs, the road just outside of the canyon had been completely washed away from a flash flood a month earlier and while I was foolhardy enough to navigate it the lack of four wheel drive in the Jeep made that an impossible idea.

And to the North, miles up into a wash that drain the Last Chance Mountains was a light that sent chills down our spines. I don’t believe in anything supernatural and years of astronomical observation in remote deserts have taught me that there is also a rational explanation to anything odd looking. But this was unexpected. It was a blue light that appeared to be travelling back in forth in an arc. It was well off of the road and we were absolutely certain that there was nobody out there. We had camped along the road that allowed the only access past the dunes and we had driven around this area earlier in the day to rescue the older photographer. But here it was, a blue light swinging back in forth in the complete lack of wind. I tried taking a photo of it but foolishly had only brought my 14mm ultra wide angle lens and this light was miles from the road.  So the photo yielded no detail except for proof that we weren’t just seeing things. Please excuse the grain, I had bumped the ISO all the way up to see if it would reveal any detail.

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Note the bright pixels in the center of the image.

We pondered what it could possibly be. Somebodys camp? Maybe. Some sort of solar powered LED warning people from a mine entrance? Perhaps. A ghost that was wandering in circles and for some reason emitted light? Probably. When I got home I reviewed the images taken and noticed that it was visible in some photos from back at camp.

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I tried triangulated the position in Google Earth to see if I could find old mining equipment or perhaps a trail left by hikers or a truck, maybe this was a common back country camping site. Nothing. Only later did I think it may have been a stranded backpacker waving his dimmed flashlight in vain as the batteries were on their last leg. Man I hope not. Next time I come out here I’m going to revisit this stupid light.

We headed back to camp and made our imaginations disappear with some beer and garbage food. Retired early as we were exhausted from the climb up the dunes earlier in the day. The Vanagons decided to hang a bunch of Christmas lights up around their vehicles for some reason. I don’t even think they know why they do the things they do. Not worth pondering.

Morning.

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Vanagon owner wondering where he parked.

Packed everything up. Ate a quick breakfast. More fighter jets. More cursing. Time to get back on the road and obtain pizza.

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