Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Death Valley National Park
Trip Date: April 1-4, 2008
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: April 9, 2008


I kept pulling out the map and glaring at the last three miles of the Racetrack Playa road the very same road that had defeated a party of camera club explorers two years ago. That quarter of an inch of road on the map had no colored ink on it to indicate that it had been traveled upon the absence of that ink vexed me to the point of obsession.

The previous expedition of three club members and an associate nearly came to a bad end out on that seemingly endless stretch of dusty, rock-strewn, unrelenting washboard.

This years Death Valley trip formed around the nucleus of that quarter inch of unmarked road. Preparations began on a more hopeful note, with extra precautions taken to tackle the Road From Hell a second time. Our remedy took the form of a high-clearance, more muscular vehicle with real shock absorbers. Nephew, Brian, rented a Chevy-tough truck in Sin City and drove it to Beatty, Nevada a grease spot of a town on Highway 95 with a handful of motels, a couple of casinos and a few hundred trailers and houses clinging to the barren landscape just east of Death Valley National Park.

Two other camera club members were lodging on the other side of the park in Lone Pine, having opted not to take part in the madness of driving their vehicle out on that infamous trail. Dale and Linda were sensible people and not prone to momentary lapses of good judgment like my nephew and me. (Perhaps our behavior indicates a shared, latent genetic deficiency!)

Thursday, we met for a hastily-consumed 5:30 a.m. breakfast of biscuits and gravy and uninspiring stale hashbrowns; departing from the Stagecoach Casino parking lot at the crack of dawn. Regrouping at the empty parking lot of Scotty's Castle, we packed the truck with plenty of drinking water, a bag of food and all the gear we needed for a day trip out on in the desolation of the Racetrack Playa, about 20 miles off the paved roads of the park. Death Valley has been a favorite destination for me and my nephew over the past few years and is one of our major commonalities.

His wife was the third member of our party, and with brave stoicism she accompanied us like a passenger conscripted aboard the Pequod under the forceful hand of Melvilles delusional Captain Ahab. She probably would have rather soaked up her share of the view from the plush comfort of the Furnace Creek Inn, situated smack in the center of the parks web of smooth, well maintained asphalt roads.

Brian took the wheel of the great white Silverado and turned its baleen snout southward, down the highway leading to Ubehebe Crater and beyond the edge of the explored world. We held onto the belief that nothing could hurt this petroleum-drinking whale of a vehicle. It stood high on its big, bulky tires and its beefy, muscular power plant made us glide smoothly over the rough, dusty road. We felt almost invincible in the great white whale of a truck.

The whale took us easily to the Racetrack Playa and we stopped to view the Grandstand first. (The grandstand is an igneous rock formation of grayish brown basalt that juts conspicuously out of the north end of the dry lake bed.) We took a lap on foot around the grandstand, drinking in the splendid desolation of the remote lake bed. Soon we were back in the air-conditioned comfort of our virile vehicle and heading for the payoff the mysterious moving rocks at the south end of the playa. To quote the words of another bungler, Mission Accomplished! Now the road on the map could be marked with ink!

Were the rocks of mystery a bonafide natural phenomena, a celestial practical joke, or the product of several misguided human minds with nothing better to ponder? As we walked toward the cliffs on the southeast side of the playa, we encountered some of the rocks and saw that natures consistent hand and unrelenting forces did, without doubt, create the odd mud furrows in the lakebed. (Earlier we saw some weak attempts at hoaxes perpetrated by idiots vandals, actually with water chests and manure for brains trying to recreate false examples of the rocks near the grandstand. The petty criminals probably carried in rocks and tried to wet the playa to make mud and attempt to simulate the real thing.)

There are numerous theories for the cause of the movement and for the furrows created by the rocks. In my mind, the most likely and logical of those would be the combination of high winds and slippery mud during rare cloudbursts; creating a slick surface, upon which the stones could be pushed by high winds intensified by a venturi effect created by the landforms near the lake. There are many stones and tracks near the steep, rocky hill at the edge of the lake. Furthermore, the tracks made by the medium size stones are more clearly defined than those of the larger stones. Most of the rocks closest to the slope create tracks that radiate out toward the center of the lake, but the tracks of the rocks further out on the lake bed exhibit more random movements some making geometrical patterns by zig-zagging or crossing back over their previous paths. I was certainly awed by the sight of the rocks and very happy to have finally arrived at the south end of the playa! The elation lasted for about 20 minutes, but soon wore off like the flavor of chewing gum. Thats how we humans are: If we are not actively destroying some beautiful creation of naturethe lakebed, our atmosphere, etc. we soon tire of wondrous things and take them for granted, turning our thoughts to coveting even more. I think this behavior is inherent in our flawed collective nature and we can do no more to change it than we can fill Death Valley with guava juice.

Since there was no Jamba Juice stand at the south parking area of the playa, we began our long trek back. (After taking a side-trip to the Ubehebe lead mine.) Perhaps we creased a tire on the rugged little side road to the mine, or maybe 20 miles per hour was a bit too brisk for the return trip, but at about 15 miles out from the playa, we blew both tires with just six miles to go before making it to the pavement.

The next 36 hours of our vacation were spent trying to get a beached white whale off the remote, dirt road while attempting to avoid the estimated $1,800 towing fee. (It could have easily topped $2,000!)

We managed to drag ourselves out of this nightmare with the help of some very caring and generous park employees and volunteers not to mention the kind couple from Oakland who turned their vehicle around to give me a ride back to get help.

The paid park staff is not charged with the duty of removing stranded vehicles from back roads. They, nevertheless, provided a great deal of support and tried to give the best advice they could. Finally, after telling them that I was going to take a smaller vehicle out on the road to rescue the others, a generous park volunteer docent offered his time and his pickup truck to go fetch my nephew and his wife. Seeing that we had experienced a little more bad luck than most stranded day-trippers, he offered to go back out on the Racetrack road and bring one of our truck wheels back so we could take it to get the tire replaced and thus avoid a horribly expensive towing fee. He told us where we could buy the tire and even hinted that he might take us back out the next morning.

Our good Samaritan, however, was not available the next dayhed done us enough of a favor so I had to take his last piece of advice and deliver the replacement tire myself with my compact rental car. He told me the night of the disaster that I could probably take the tire out there with my car. "Just drive slow and you'll be all right", he said.

The drive out to the stranded whale took all of an hour and I scanned every rock on that road with my eyes and again on the way back, tightly gripping the steering wheel, my knuckles white. The enthusiasm of our party evaporated quickly after a brief celebration upon arriving safely at the Ubehebe parking lot. I only had time to kiss the asphalt once before our contingent voted to disband and run for home with tails tucked.

Meanwhile on the other side of the park, Dale and Linda were busy having a great time and touring some of the main attractions that they missed last year. And they decided to borrow from our intended itinerary for Friday and take the north road to the Eureka Dunes. Dale reported that the road was relatively smooth, with the exception of a few sandy spots, and was quite passable. Perhaps the Eureka Dunes will be on next years itinerary. Then again, maybe not. Hooray for Dale and Linda!

Although the trip may have turned out badly for the White Whale Party, we learned a few things from the hottest, lowest, driest, most inhospitable place on earth:

1. Never drive on any back road in Death Valley until you are properly outfittedthe right vehicle, the correct tires, two spare tires, extra gasoline, extra water and ample food. You are not packing for a day trip, you are packing for the worst case scenario.

2. There are no bigger assholes than those who destroy things intended for the enjoyment of others. Anyone vandalizing a public park should be immediately reported to the proper authorities.

3. Be polite and kind to strangers because you may have to rely upon the compassion of strangers to pull your miserable kiester out of a bad fix. (I know that, in the future, I will be more likely to stop and offer help to those in distress.)

Next years Death Valley trip may be just a bunny trip, keeping to the safety of the pavement, and visiting the usual tourist sites. But you never know my cajones may have a chance to grow back before then.

See you next year at the dunes!

© 2008 S.R. Hinrichs