These are stories from California, where we live now.
It’s one of the driest places in the world. A spot so devoid of moisture that if measured rainfall filled your coffee mug over the course of a year, it would be remembered for decades.
Yet, in an instant, Mother Nature can change her mind. And what seems so permanent to a man is wiped away with the ease of lead to eraser.
In October more rain fell on Death Valley National Park than any person had ever witnessed. Much of it coming in the flash of a monsoonal thunderstorm so common to other deserts of the American Southwest, but not to this one.
The LA Times has a gallery that is both heartbreaking and awesome showing the destruction after the October storm dropped three inches of rain in five hours. Death Valley typically sees four inches in an entire YEAR.
This quote from Death Valley District Ranger Paul Forward paints an otherworldly picture:
“It started with heavy hail,” he recalled. “Three hours later, the dry wash was transformed into floodwaters 100 feet wide with 20-foot waves. The air was filled with the sounds of massive boulders grinding against each other as they rolled down the canyon.”
According to the article one of the washes (desert speak for dry creek) saw the floodwaters flow at 93,000 cubic feet per second. To put that in perspective, the Colorado River flows at a max 25,000 cubic feet per second through the Grand Canyon. And before the river was dammed up it would flow at about 100,000 cubic feet per second at the peak of each high water season. This means the floodwaters that pushed through Death Valley last month were the equivalent to that which carved out the biggest canyon in the world.
Gizmodo has an interesting slider from USGS showing the difference in visible moisture at the park between this year and last year. This could just the beginning as we stumble forward into what may be the largest El Nino in history.
I’ve been to Death Valley a few times. It’s a place I love for it’s beauty and isolation. But, most of all I love it because it makes me feel dreadfully small and insignificant. The scale of time is bluntly apparent. The spaces are vast during the day, and the stars infinite at night. It’s a gigantic national park of a reminder that as large as our ego may swell it’s still but a pinprick on the face of the planet. Much less the universe. And remarkably our collective actions are radically changing this and other landscapes.
Neatly said: it’s a place of perspective. It’s what I sought when I packed up my life to head west so many years ago.
Once I was lucky enough to pass through during what would typically be considered a wet spell at the park. The pools in Badwater Basin were more expansive than usual. The salt flats were mushy instead of crunchy. That, according to a park ranger at the time, was remarkable.
This was when I worked with Contiki and I’d spend much of the offseason camping around the Southwest. In this case I was on a month-long grand circuit of Nevada, California and Arizona. I thought I was lucky to see Badwater with as much water as was there…and then I saw them. Leaving Lake Meade it was like the end of Field of Dreams, but instead of headlights the cars were wearing kayaks.
Just a few days after pulling up the stakes in Death Valley they had been hit with an even bigger stretch of rain. Something that would fill Badwater Basin with enough water to allow for kayaking. Had I been smart I would have doubled back up 15 past Vegas and to the park. I had other pressing matters that kept me from kayaking in Death Valley…it’s OK, it’s not like I missed a once-in-a-decade wildflower bloom after that (I did).
…please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to…
cuz 8 years later you’ll wonder why you’re wearing stupid sun glasses…
and flagrantly violating National Park Service regulations…
while hanging over the side of Upper Yosemite Falls…
That’s just about 2400 feet up at the top of one of the largest waterfalls in America.
So we’ve been sitting out Travel Photo Roulette a few turns…life gets busy and blogging is usually the first victim.
But after following the breadcrumbs I landed on this week’s competition: Trees. And that’s great, mainly because I’m half hippie-tree-hugger.
And I’ve got tons of photos of trees…too many photos of trees. So many photos of trees that I don’t even have time to go through all the photos of trees I have. So here are the quick finalists…and I know there are better photos in my library, but…life…
1. Sequoia at night: This was a lucky shot through the sunroof of my now dead CRV. It took a bit of post-production to bring out the light and kill the noise, but I like the result…mostly. There’s still a bit too much noise:
2. Joshua Tree. Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know Joshua Trees aren’t really trees, but I’m turning one in anyway.
3. Acacia tree at sunrise…I mean could this be any more quintessentially African?!?!
4. Straddling Sequoias for a little bit of perspective…these things are ginormous
So what are your thoughts?? Which of these is the winner?
No one should really ever be surprised that San Diego is a top U.S. travel destination. It’s sunny nearly every day of the year, the beaches are lovely, eating tacos for every meal is completely acceptable and the city is German for, well, you know. It’s kind of a big deal.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that Old Town San Diego is the birthplace of California, with Spanish explorers staking claim to the area as early as the mid sixteenth century and the first Mission and Presidio founded in 1769. Naturally, the Old Town of today isn’t quite the same but the state park has been restored to the way it would have looked in the mid-nineteenth century and the wonder and enchantment of a new world still lingers. Any time of the day spent in Old Town is well worth it, as there are a number ways to experience the area.
Start your time in Old Town with a rich and creamy spiced Mexican mocha from someplace like the historic San Diego House and stroll around the restored buildings and courtyard of the state park, including a Well’s Fargo museum, candle shops, tin and copper handcrafts, and an assortment of authentic Mexican jewelry stores. Head out of the park and walk through the winding shops and aisles that make up Old Town Market and the Bazaar del Mundo for all of your traditional Mexican souvenirs, pottery, and knick-knacks, including various religiously significant pieces and Day of the Dead mementos.
If you’re ready for a real haunt, take a tour of the historic Whaley House Museum, said to be one of the most haunted houses in America. You’ll be hungry after all of that so head to one of the best restaurants in the city for some authentic Mexican fare and homemade tortillas. My personal favorites include the Cafe Coyote and Casa Guadalajara. At night, listen for live music and feel the energy of the neighborhood all around you and after a few cool cervezas you might forget that you’re not actually in Mexico.
I gave up my CRV last week…it was an emotional moment. And so I wrote a letter to my former car…followed by a photo tribute:
I hope that you’re being treated well. I have to believe that you’re being reconditioned and re-equipped to give another owner as much joy as you brought me. You’re probably pretty salty that I traded you in…it’s OK, you should be. But I just couldn’t afford to keep you around anymore, I mean I know you couldn’t help your brakes, but they were grinding loud enough to draw nasty looks from pedestrians. And your paint was more of a rust polka dot than that original maroon you were born with. And somehow we survived two straight DC summers together without air conditioning.
Despite all that I’m really gonna miss you little buddy. I’m sorry I couldn’t take you past that 200,000 mile threshold. But we came mighty close!
And think about all of those amazing moments along the way. You’re pretty much the only good thing that’s ever come out of Texas.
Remember that time when we drove to a place called Racetrack?? I know…you thought it was gonna be a good time to burn rubber, but really it was dozens of miles of dirt roads to a hidden gem in Death Valley.
And then there was that other time when we raced F-15 Eagles in the Panamint Valley. We stopped and I took out my video camera and left it on top of you before speeding off again. Let’s just say that video camera didn’t last as long as you 🙁 But we got our own personal flyover and got to watch some sweet Top Gun maneuvering.
Speaking of California, remember that time we drove THROUGH a tree!?!? Yeah, that was pretty rad.
And of course you will never forget all those drives on the 10 between Phoenix and Anaheim, we were always rocking out in the desert, and all those times we stopped to rest at Joshua Tree.
Think about all the landmarks we drove over together: the Hoover Dam, the Vegas Strip, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel. We must have crossed over the Continental Divide 50 times.
And how about all those cross country trips!? Like the one time that we almost got struck by lighting in White Sands.
And then there was that time when we drove through a blizzard in Ohio (I’m really sorry for making you drive in Ohio so much). And then there was that time when I took a secret road trip to ask Lauren’s dad if I could marry her, that was a lot of driving for you…but you pulled through like a champ.
And a good car/man relationship would never be cemented without escaping a potential shooting…like that one time we drove down the wrong dirt path in Tennessee and that guy came out with a shotgun. Shoulda known. Corn don’t grow at all on Rocky Top…that’s why they get their corn from a jar.
I think my favorite trip was that time we drove from New York to LA by way of Canada. Remember how they didn’t want to let us into Ontario because I had all my stuff packed into you…they thought we were going to run away and live off maple syrup and beaver pelts. But really we were just on our way to surprise Lauren in Toronto. And then we took a tour down Route 66! That’s something every car should do, but few get a chance to.
And then of course there was that massive sandstorm outside of Grand Junction, Colorado…you’ve been through your fair share of haboobs so you knew exactly what to do.
And how about all those nights you kept me safe when I took a few z’s after a marathon session of driving?
Let me just say I’m so sorry for making you deal with that dreadful work commute from NW DC to Lanham. That’s the worst drive in the world during rush hour, but you handled it with nary a whimper.
As a matter of fact you never once left me hanging. Not in the middle of the desert or the middle of the mountains or the middle of the city. You were always there for me to turn on with a twist of the key. Sometimes I left you alone for months at a time while I was on the road in a motorcoach….but you never minded, you never got jealous and you were always ready to start up on a new adventure. All said and done we conquered just about every continental United State, a dozen or so national parks, countless cities and forays across international boundaries to our north and south.
I’ll miss you…I already do.
So we take part in a little online travel-blogging competition every few weeks. It’s called travel photo-roulette. It’s a neat concept that forces me to look into the archives of my photo-library for a specific theme. This time around the theme is “mountains”.
Diving into my library I realized something pretty funny: While I climb a lot of mountains, I don’t really take the time to actually photograph said mountains…(contrary to one clients former observations-I’ll tell that story tomorrow because it deserves its own post.)
Maybe that’s the other reason I enjoy this competition. It seems to re-enforce the importance of always being aware of your surroundings. Conforming to the theme from the mind of another blogger forces you to think about your subject matter in a different way. In this case I’m pissed for not having taken more pictures of mountains;)
With that said here are the photos I narrowed it down to these (Although I’m positive that there were many in my library I just glossed over)…feel free to let us know which one you think is the best:
So apparently Joshua Tree National Park is now a top spot for “taggers” and that makes me angry. JTNP was often a random stop-off, when I had the time, driving from home in Phoenix to work in LA. I’ve taken that desert trip along I-10 a few dozen times, and many of those times I’d stop and camp at JT. Or I’d just take a quick drive through to break up the trip.
Of course there’s no such thing as a quick drive through when it comes to a place like this…but it was a nice respite in the middle of an almost all-desert drive. And
the nights in JT are nothing short of spectacular, a showcase of the heavens on the many clear nights in the Mojave. The rocks in JT are special…a type of granite found often in California, but nowhere else in this density and diversity.
Basically, think of California as one big mountain range that was once under the surface. It’s something called a batholith, when subterranean volcanism results in underground pockets of cooled magma that harden before coming to the surface. The result, essentially, is a huge-rock that is pushed up under the forces of continental drift and collision.
Some of the rock rose 14,000 feet into the air to become the Sierra Nevadas while others cooled at different temperatures with different consistencies and were exposed on the tail end of the uplift. These rocks formed fissures, or joints and those joints were abused by the elements of wind, water, temperature until individual boulders formed. Some of these boulders were the size of shoes and others the size of your local multi-plex. Some looked like skulls and others looked like giant marbles. The whole process took 100 million years.
Whatever the shape the rocks have largely the same feel…that of an extremely rough sandpaper. And this makes them perfect for climbing and bouldering. It’s easy to feel like Spiderman as you “stick” to the rock…it’s also easy to get quite the road rash thanks to even the slightest of slips. This feeling also invites the sense of fearlessness. Rocks like this ask for gravity to be challenges, they want to be climbed, they want to be appreciated from on top…not ground level.
And so with all this said, I really want to meet one of these vandals. I want to smack them across the face with a teddy bear cholla. I want to wipe the graffiti off with their face. And I want a boulder to mysteriously fall on their arms as they paint their “artful” tags on a rock so that they have to cut it off with a pocket knife after 127 hours to escape. OK…that’s probably going too far…but stop drawing on the rocks!
It took 100 million years for nature to sculpt this beautiful landscape, your 10 minutes of cowardly ignorant arrogance doesn’t make it better…thanks.
It’s the quietest place I’ve ever been…the only apparent noise is the blood pushing through my veins. The irony of course being in the name: Racetrack. But there’s only one thing that races here…rocks.
In itself, getting to Death Valley National Park isn’t especially easy, and getting to the Racetrack isn’t especially easy once you get in the park. DVNP is among the largest national parks in the system. In fact, I believe it’s the largest in the contiguous 48. To use the worn cliché: it’s a study of extremes…the hottest place, the lowest place and the driest place in America. And on the extreme end of these extremes is the Racetrack.
Take Scotty’s Castle Road until the pavement runs out…and then it’s just another 26 miles of unpaved, jagged rock road. That part of the drive alone took about an hour and a half. Yeah…90 minutes of teeth chattering, white knuckled bouncing and turning and sliding. The drive had me a bit stressed. My CRV was 4-wheel drive with some pretty robust tires, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was built on a car chassis. With every groan of the frame I was waiting for a snapped axle. In that 26 miles I didn’t see another car, truck, human or coyote. It was nothingness.
Beautiful, glorious, amazing nothingness.
I remember as a boy my grandparents had a bunch of encyclopedias from National Geographic showcasing the amazing sites of the world. I’d spend every holiday there leafing through the pages seeing all these amazing locales…and one that always stuck in my head was this place: the Racetrack.
What makes Racetrack so remarkable is the mysterious moving rocks. Boulders, rocks, pebbles somehow move across a dried ancient lakebed leaving a track of where they’ve been. There’s still no consensus on how this happens, although the prevailing opinion is that a combination of wind and intermittent rains push these rocks along. My prevailing opinion is what it is whenever things can’t quite be explained: Aliens.
Standing in the middle of this lake bed, I feel my heart beat. I am alone…completely, totally, absolutely alone. Initially such a feeling of isolation is overwhelming inciting a tinge of anxiety. But pressing through that barrier of anxiety, I find the feeling of liberty. Only natural forces can affect me at this particular moment…the same forces that move a two-hundred-pound boulder stuck in the mud.
In the middle of the lakebed is a massive rock, or rather a pile of rocks looking like a black haunted castle looming over its kingdom of smaller moving rocks. Perhaps there’s something to this rock, this Grandstand…a subterranean gravitational well, perhaps a trans-dimensional wormhole. Maybe that’s why the rocks move. I spent some time climbing around on the rock, watching for the stray rattlesnake sheltering from the hot sun.
After a little more walking around and taking pictures I got back in my car to head back. The sun was dropping and the last thing I wanted to do was drive on that road in the dark. On the way back I stopped at Teapot Junction…it’s a signpost leading to another off-road trail but it’s decorated with a dozen or so teapots with personalized messages. I didn’t have a teapot in my car, maybe next time.
An hour or so later I was back on Scotty’s Castle Road enjoying the luxury of pavement and racing the sun back to my campsite.