Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Death Valley National Park
Trip Date: April 7-10, 2006
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: April 14, 2006

Death Valley III: the legend of the haunted playa

Three camera club members and one associate with a video camera participated in this year’s third annual field trip to Death Valley National Park.  Unfortunately, Dave H. and his “better half” were unable to come as planned because of a lingering illness. We missed his company, but, hopefully, his absence this year will insure his participation in next year’s trip.

A wise person (I think it was Brenda T.) once said, “What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” (Perhaps someone else uttered these words before Brenda.)  Regardless of who said it, this old saw became the motto for our Death Valley trip this year.

This year’s trip was an odd cocktail of mild adversity and misguided adventure.  I imagine that somewhere along the dusty paths of the desert we dislodged an angry little spirit who stowed away in our carpool and sabotaged us at every opportunity. I don’t think he was there for the first night’s shoot in the Alabama Hills, but he signed on with us the next day. I’m figuring that we picked him up on our way back into Lone Pine—sometime after midnight—perhaps we ran him down while he was crossing the Whitney Portal Road. Growing ever frantic that we were ignoring him, the little poltergeist began messing with us at dawn on Saturday by blowing away all the clouds near the summits of Mt. Whitney and its sister peaks. Our sunrise subject matter was backed up by an empty, boring,  blue sky.

The little jinx once again hexed my memory receptors at Darwin Falls as I drove by the turnoff oblivious to the road leading up to the parking area. By the time I realized we passed Darwin, the return trip would have added an hour to our schedule so we voted to blow it off for the day. Instead we headed for the Stovepipe Wells visitors’ center, paid the vehicle entry fee (which had doubled from last year’s $10 fee) and made like tourists until just before dinner time when we headed to Beatty, Nevada to check into our rooms. We hiked into the sand dunes, visited the ruins of the Harmony Borax Works, took a side-trip on Artist’s Drive and stopped to hike up the gully at Artist’s Palette. On the first Death Valley run we just stopped in the parking lot and snapped pictures from there, but this year a short hike up the wash led us to some really colorful formations—shades of purples, greens and other vibrant colors. Brenda suggested that for next year’s trip we spend more time hiking up the canyons on Artist’s Drive. So noted.

Hopping back in the car we continued to the Furnas Creek visitors’ center and hit the gift shop and took a brief rest in the shade. From there we topped off the afternoon at Badwater, the lowest point in Death Valley—288 feet below sea level. All the water left by the previous season’s abundant rains was completely gone. What looked like a huge lake last March was now back to a dry lakebed covered with white salt deposits. Also this year the flowers along the roads, so abundant last March, were conspicuously absent.  The temperature, although quite mild for April—in the upper 80s—was causing mild fatigue for all and we mutually decided to head over to our rooms at the Phoenix Motel to check in and take a short rest before going over to the Stagecoach Casino for a meal of heavy, red meat (and one garden burger).

It seemed that our little jinx spirit had been busy doing some advance work in Beatty convincing the owners of the Burro Inn to refurbish the entire motel and to invite a hundred or so off-road racers to Beatty for a 4-wheel buggy race in the local desert that weekend. All the motels were full on Friday and Saturday, so we had to make several compromises in comfort, but we made things work in spite of the minor jinxing.

After a wonderful dinner of prime rib three of us took a brief rest and went to Rhyolite, the local ghost town established in the early twentieth century. The town grew to about 10,000 in population before it completely collapsed. The ruins at Rhyolite are some of the best in Nevada.

Crystal was having some reservations about getting haunted by representatives from the spirit world, but since we had our own poltergeist riding along with us in the bad-voodoo buggy, apparently the apparitions were too busy chatting with him to spook us. The ghosts, snakes, tarantulas and ghost town cats gave us wide berth. Within a half hour, the waxing gibbous moon was showering all sorts of light on our night scenes and it seemed almost as light as daytime. Crystal suggested a color scheme and Chong and I painted the walls of the old Rhyolite Public School building with fresh coats of purple and blue light. At the end of the night we departed unmolested by any ethereal beings—they were all saving their hexes for the next day.

We blew off the dawn shoot because there was no Dave to motivate us into action, so we rose at the lazy hour of eight and filled our bellies with breakfast at the Stagecoach. (While the waitress slathered us with her “baby,” “sweetie” and “honey” sweet-talk.) We made a quick stop at Rhyolite just to see it in the daytime and then were off to the Racetrack Playa. (We tried to take Titus Canyon Road, but it was still closed from last season’s catastrophic weather.)

The literature described the road to the Playa as 30 miles of “washboard dirt road” and we figured that we were prepared for it with our hefty Chevy Trailblazer—a muscular looking SUV suitable for mountain climbing and picking up the rug-rats from soccer. I hummed the GMC marketing-monkey theme “Like a rock…” accompanied in my mind by the sound of whiney country electric guitars. If GMC says it, then it must be true!

After a stop at the Ubehebe Crater—the last attraction on the well-maintained pavement of the park—we took a gander at the spectacular blown volcano crater and tried to keep the wind from ripping our hair out by the roots. It was really blowing! After we had enough of the 30 or 40 mile-per-hour winds coming whistling of the crater we clamored back into our “muscle machine,” which we called “The Tank” and set out down the 27-mile road to the first Racetrack view area. At this point in the story I am tempted to describe that road using profanity, but do not wish to offend, so I’ll have to understate the severity of every inch of the “Devil’s Driveway.” In general, most horrible roads have brief stretches where the road is smooth, but this road, true to the published description, had a corrugated surface covering every inch of it! I should have brought some house paint along because it would have been well shaken in a matter of a few miles. Our steroid-stricken vehicle soon began to cringe and cower and could only manage to sustain a top speed of about 20 miles per hour before doing the out-of-control cha-cha. The drive to the Playa took an hour and a half and we walked out on the marginally spectacular dry lakebed only to find that the promised self-propelled boulders were at the south end of the Playa.  There were only a few small hoax rocks that some half-clever nitwits tried to gouge into the surface of the lakebed and make tracks—they should have stuck with crop circles! A bigger disappointment for the ladies, however, was the absence of any civilized toilet facilities. Our hitchhiking ghost was having a good laugh on us.

We decided not to visit the main attraction at the south Playa and began the tedious, bumpy journey back. After a near collision with another muscle-bound vehicle and seeing the bad omen of another brawny macho-truck with locked up brakes our poltergeist put his foot further into the action. A popping noise and the stench of hot brake fluid got me feeling all hot and prickly on the back of my neck. I was waiting for the pressure behind the brake pedal to wither as we clattered along on our long journey back to the pavement. Some of the passengers noticed the smell of something burning and I did my best to convince them that it was something that could be ignored for a few more minutes. Soon there was another sound that sounded like a muffled explosion followed by the chattering of some kind of a bracket. I was a farmer’s son and I knew that I could continue to “limp ‘er in” until the wheels fell off or until I saw bright orange flames.  The brake pressure was still there, but this “macho buggy” was dancing around on the road like a pink ballerina with a bad bladder. The lyrics to the bad advertising jingle now became, “Like a wimp…” Turns out that this lumberjack stud-wagon was wearing lace panties under its tool belt! When we stopped to take pictures, I went to the back to look for flames, but could only get a whiff of what smelled like the rear end of a leaky, old tractor. Some kind of non-essential fluid was bleeding out of the back of the wimp wagon. “She can take a couple more miles!” I thought. “Let’s not put ‘er out of commission until she’s good and ready!”

Apparently everybody silently agreed because no one refused to get back in the wimpy-spring-buggy. I suspect the absence of a suitable kybo and the fact that we were at least a six-hour-walk from Scotty’s Castle had something to do with the fact that the passengers were okay with accepting the personal faults of this vehicle. As we pressed on, the vehicle began hopping around and I tried to regain control by shifting into low gear. She still maintained a 20-mile-per-hour pace—oh, crap! That meant we were gong down hill! I just tried to keep the pansy wagon pointed down the road snapping my fingers to the rhythm of the clattering of brackets and percussive thumps of rocks hitting the undercarriage. Crystal began calculating our pavement arrival time and I didn’t want to disappoint her by wasting unnecessary time crawling around under the vehicle looking for the source of the problem. There would be plenty of time to gawk at the wreckage in the parking lot at Scotty’s Castle. To my great surprise, we made it to the pavement, Crystal counting down on her watch. “Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen…” We hit the sweet, smooth asphalt right on schedule! Meanwhile, our ghost was on the back bumper bouncing up and down and making our pussywillow SUV hop around like a kiddie’s horsy-on-springs ride.

When we hit the pavement and steered toward the castle, I felt a gust of relieved wind come out of the back seat. (It was a miracle that all four seats were still dry!) I gingerly drove the few remaining miles to Scotty’s, where Chong got out and noticed that this vehicle was fitted with a couple of pansy-assed, Sunday-go-to church rear struts (the tops of which were melted). This big hulking macho buggy was shivering and dripping yellow fluid like a scared, little schoolgirl!

Well, Scotty’s, although part of civilization, is still a couple of hundred miles out from where civilization proper lets off, so after a quick risk assessment we decided that we could continue to “limp ‘er in” some more. In fact, we “limped ‘er in” for a whole day—another 500 miles—and when we reported the anomaly in the riding quality of this particular vehicle the rental lot manager, he chided us: “This vehicle was not meant to drive fast! If you want to drive fast then rent a small car! This vehicle is meant for off-road!” (I guess the tune, “Like a rock…” was still playing in his sad, misguided mind.)

Our ghost of misfortune played one last joke on me before we left Lone Pine to “limp ‘er home.” I left three rolls of film with all my night images on the breakfast table and they were promptly bussed into the trash. Having made a couple fruitless visits to inquire about the film, I came back one last time to beg the waitress to allow me to dig in the breakfast garbage. After she assured me that there was no film and that the staff is always “very careful” regarding these kinds of things, she reluctantly agreed to the request. The kitchen staff got quite a kick out of watching the “loco gringo” digging through five or ten gallons of soggy breakfast gruel—hash browns, half-eaten biscuits, fried egg shards and coffee-soaked napkins. Regardless of the soupy downside, I found my three rolls of precious film and would have hugged everybody at the restaurant had they not cautiously backed away from me. (They gave me wide berth because I was literally dripping with breakfast debris.) I don’t think I’ll be able to eat hash browns for a long, long time!  …What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

Next year we’ll go see Darwin Falls, spend more time exploring the attractions on Artist’s Drive and will NOT be going to the Racetrack Playa! I also resolve not to do any more dumpster diving.

© 2006 S.R. Hinrichs