Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Death Valley (Part 4) - Badwater Basin

Sometime in the night, the wind picks up and howls around the Airstream, making it rock gently.  By morning, the wind hasn't lessened much and my first step out the door throws my hair straight up!

What really tickles me about this picture is the shadow of my hair on the Airstream

Death Valley hosts the lowest point in North America: Badwater Basin.  At 282 feet below sea level, the basin is covered in a thick salt flat, gleaming bluish white in the morning air.  Warm breezes gently play, nothing like the howling gales back at camp.  

There is a small spring-fed pool of highly saline water, which was a definite disappointment to the wagon teams passing through Death Valley.  

There are a few species of small water bugs and plants that live in this pool.

Further out on the flats, the freeze-thaw-evaporation cycle has heaved great plates of salt against each other, buckling the edges for miles.

Walking on the delicate salt crystals, we are careful to step only where others have walked before.  The salt is very hard, but the topmost crystals flatten and eventually form a wide, pure white runway of salt where the masses have trod on it.  

How did pug hair get out here?  

Those white fibers are part of the salty manifestations in this currently dry basin.  Occasionally the pan will flood, but in the home of the greatest evaporative rate in the US (150 inches per year, or 12.5 feet), these waters don't last long.

Next on our list is Devil's Golf Course, so named because a 1934 tour book claimed that "Only the devil could play golf" here.  After a slow drive down a dirt road, we understand.  For those in snowier climes, imagine the sides of roads after a good snow, then a day or two of warm weather.  That slushy, salty mess all full of dirt is exactly what the ground looks like, except everything is rock hard.  

Walking through this field is a treacherous affair, with a thousand places to sprain an ankle and razor-sharp spears of salt waiting to greet a misplaced knee or hand.  They may look delicate, but these spines are just as hard as rock, catching on pants and making a journey of twenty feet take just as many minutes.

Strange concretions of lighter salt are hidden down in the cracks, some of which seem to form over areas of air flow.  There is nothing to explain what really causes them, and I am left to guess.  If anybody knows, I would love to hear it!

Back at camp, we do laundry at the Furnace Creek tourist area.  There is a public laundry tucked back in the RV park that houses employees, which has the cheapest rates of any laundry we have used so far: $1 to wash, $1 to dry.  This nice break in laundry prices is surprising, because everything else in Death Valley will bleed you dry.  The "fresh produce" section of the general store features diminutive, squashy bell peppers at $2 each, along with an odd selection of other droopy, overripe items.  A can of Campbell's chunky soup is just under $5.  Thankfully, we planned ahead and have enough food for several weeks, plus a Thanksgiving feast I have planned for tomorrow.  On our return to the laundry building, we park next to an old VW camper van we dub Beat-It-To-Fit-and-Paint-It-To-Match Van.  The old windows apparently did not provide enough ventilation, so the resourceful occupant found jalousie windows that were close enough to the same size and crammed them into the hole, adding screws around the frame.  The whole thing has been painted in a gloppy, cheerful manner with a wobbly blue racing stripe down the side of the otherwise yellow and red van.  

With our laundry approximately clean and dry, we go back to Sunset Campground and pack up.  We aren't intending to leave, but rather to dump our tanks at the free dump station at the north end of the campground.  I have two Cornish Game Hens brining in a clear drawer in the fridge, with no lid to keep the water from sloshing out.  I am a comical sight, sitting in my camp chair with two pugs on a leash and tiny turkeys in a drawer on my lap.  As Hubs pulls away with Sputnik in tow, I can't help but feel a little separation anxiety and hope nobody walks by.  

His intended dump station is occupied, and by none other than Beat-It-To-Fit-and-Paint-It-To-Match Van, although BITFPITMV is not dumping.  Rather, he is asking passing campers if they have the appropriate parts to fix his bicycle--while taking up the whole dump lane.  Fortunately,  there is another dump station at the entrance of the Texas Springs campground, just up the hill.  Within twenty minutes, Hubs and Home are back and I can stuff the hens back in the fridge.  Meanwhile, BITFPITMV is still hogging the dump station.  Maybe he plans to camp there tonight.  

With sunset just a few minutes away, we fill a pack with thermoses of hot chocolate and coffee, our outdoor mat, and some warm clothes, and drive back to Badwater Basin.  

Death Valley NP is an international dark sky area, and tonight is a new moon, meaning nothing but bright stars in the night sky.  The last of the tourists pass us going the other way as we walk farther and farther out into the salt flats.  Getting out my photography equipment and hot drinks, I take the first picture, then we settle in for the show. Soon, pitch blackness has fallen and there is a silence I have never experienced before in the great outdoors.  There is nothing living in this 200 square mile salt flat, and no birds have a reason to visit here.  Absolute silence is only broken by the occasional crack of a salt plate grinding again a neighbor.  It is so quiet can hear the blood rushing about in my head.  I can hear Hub's heartbeat.  I can hear the stars rotating overhead.  


A silhouette approaches.  It politely asks if it can disturb our quiet for a minute.  The silhouette introduces himself,  having been teaching a photography class to international students over the last few days, and tonight he is on his way to Vegas.  Come to think of it, he and his students were getting in the way of my sand dune shots the other morning.  He isn't quite sure how to get to Vegas from here, so Hubs walks back to the car with him to get out the atlas.  

I am left alone in the black silence.  I lay back and feel like the night sky is just for me.  

When Hubs returns, we spend an hour making exposures and watching for satellites, meteors, and whatever else might turn up.  

I notice two blinking red lights moving at a tremendous speed over the surrounding mountains.  What strikes me is their complete silence.  The lights appear to be flying in formation, turning sharply in unison, making long, fast passes across the sky.  They are right in the view of my camera, so now I have little red dots going across my picture.  Soon there are a handful of these red dots chasing each other around the sky.  By the end I count six or seven of them moving independently at times, and in unison at other times.  

We are not very far from Nellis Gunnery and Bombing Range, so they must be working on their night moves over Death Valley.  

When I have all the shots I want, we walk slowly back in the direction we came from.  It is too dark to see our trail, so we walk gingerly, hoping we are going the right way.  The main path that looked like an airplane runway to me earlier in the day is now nearly glowing in the starlight.  We are the only humans for miles and miles, and in the distance we see white pinpricks of reflected light.  From eyes?  There are quite a few of them, at about two feet off the ground.  I clutch Hub's arm, weighing the possibility of a pack of Coyotes.  Hubs says it is unlikely that they would be this far out into nothingness, and the lights aren't moving.  Then he says, "Or not" in a tone that suggests that he saw one move and we might have a problem.  

It is then that I truly know myself.  

Most people have a fight or flight instinct when they have a rush of adrenaline.  Hubs becomes very angry when this happens to him, and it takes a good half hour before he doesn't want to punch something.  Apparently I fit into a third category of instinct:  turn to jell-o and pass out.  With wobbly legs, I hold onto his pack while he grips my tripod like a club.  Nearer and nearer we creep until the source of the reflections becomes plain.  The little "do not step here" signs along the boardwalk have Hubs ready to kill something and me on the verge of keeling over.  How brave. 

All for one single photograph.

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