Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Death Valley II: The Valleying

Believe it or not, the photos I posted in the last update were heavily weeded for space. There were still too many to fit in any stories, not to mention any pictures I took in the Mojave Preserve. So we have a sequel.

No surprise, but there isn't any water in Death Valley. Hauling enough water for drinking, cleaning, and cooking on an overnight hike, especially in an arid environment, is simply too bulky and heavy to manage, so again I was staying in campgrounds and doing day-hikes. Just as well, because Death Valley is unimaginably vast; it often took hours to get to a trailhead, leaving less time to hike, especially with scant winter daylight. But this gave me lots of time to drive around the unimaginable vastness listening to compelling albums. Including but not limited to:

Desert by Katherine Follett on Grooveshark
A lot of the trailheads were also at the end of dirt roads, variously described as "Improved," "High Clearance," or "Four-Wheel Drive." There wasn't a road that Nonno had any trouble with, though I didn't try to take it over anything seriously rough or soft; Subaru can talk about all-wheel-drive all they want, but the car remains a glorified station wagon.

Aside: Did you know that "Subaru" is the Japanese name for the Pleiades? Hence the logo.

When I pulled into my second night's campground, I spotted Nonno's identical twin at a nearby site. It belonged to two older guys who'd been traveling for a few weeks. We ended up running into each other several times over my visit, each time complementing each other on our fine automobiles. They reassured me that the Sube could handle pretty much any of the roads I wanted to take it on.

Another resident of the same campground was Laurie, a woman I'd estimate to be in her late 60s, early 70s, traveling with no one but her hyper miniature schnauzer, Angel. She'd bested me, starting in May and visiting something like thirty national parks. Ahh, retirement.

For a place named Death Valley, it was awfully pleasant. Daytime highs averaged between 70 and 75, and nights got down to maybe the 40s. A breeze would often pick up at night, but usually not until after I was snug in my tent, if I wasn't stargazing. Winter is also the park's "in" season, so unlike parks in the Sierras, everything was open and functioning, including showers and laundry. I probably could have spent another several days there, seeing things I missed, but after eight days alternating between dunes, canyons, and salt flats, I was ready to move on.

After leaving Death Valley, I spent a couple of days in the guidebook's highly recommended Mojave National Reserve, not too far south. It was a two-day whirlwind tour, but I'm glad I did it. The Mojave Reserve boasts the world's biggest Joshua tree forest, some cool volcanic features, and MOAR SAND DUNES.

The Joshua trees here were plentiful and happy.

A young one. Joshua trees are a kind of yucca, which mostly grows as a shrub-like succulent.
The big, old ones get feet.

My first night's campsite was in the Joshua tree forest, studded with weirdly eroded granite outcroppings. I was fond of this cactus growing amid the biscotti-shaped rocks.

The next day, I did a hike in "Hole in the Wall" canyon. It was one of several volcanic features around the reserve. These weird cliffs were formed by gas bubbles trapped in easily eroded volcanic ash and pumice.

Another volcanic feature in the park was a "lava tube." When very fluid lava flows through an existing channel, such as a riverbed, the melted rock often cools and solidifies on the top and sides, forming a solid tube with liquid lava flowing down the center. When the eruption stops, the liquid lava flows out, leaving a long, drinking-straw shaped cave. You could enter this one by a ladder placed in a cave-in in the ceiling.

The entry
Lava is black.
The low light meant a long shutter time, which meant blurry.
The second night, I camped in the southern part of the park, right on another set of beautiful sand dunes. These were "singing" or "booming" dunes, which make a grumbling noise when you walk on the loose sand. (Supposedly, the Eureka dunes in Death Valley also boomed, but only under very dry conditions, and it had rained the night before.) Descriptions of "booming" dunes always sounded so strange and supernatural, but in person, it doesn't act much different than squeaky snow.

I had just enough time to sweat my way up the tallest dune as the sun set.

By this time, I was trying to finish all my perishable food before heading to Tucson and civilization, and I'd run out of coffee. The only place to get caffeinated within a hundred miles was the cafe at the reserve's visitor center, in a converted train depot in the middle of nothing. I had a couple of nice mornings there, chatting with other travelers (one of whom wore an "I LOVERMONT" T-shirt) and the owner. The second morning, there was a centennial steam train stopping at the depot. The place was overrun with train enthusiasts. But even I had to admit that it was an impressive beast up close.

The wheels were about five feet tall.
After the train pulled away, I said goodbye and started the very long drive to Tucson, Arizona, where I landed at my friends' Timm and Lynn's house. I'll be here through turkey day, glad to be among friends.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving--I'm thinking of you all!

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