March 20, 2018
When we drove the deceptively straight road to our accommodation in Panamint Springs last night in the dark, I could not figure out why my ears kept violently popping. In the morning light, the mountainous terrain covering Death Valley astounded me. Am I the only one who incorrectly associates flat land with a desert? As Anthony and I cruised east through the park to meet for our 4WD Farabee Jeep tour, elevation signs whizzed past us reading over 8,000 feet. I couldn’t believe it given the proximity to the continent’s lowest point.
After reading horror stories about how the Racetrack la Playa notoriously chews tires, Anthony and I decided to hire a guide to take us there. In hindsight, the road seemed perfectly fine to drive as a novice 4WDer, but the thought of getting ourselves stranded amongst rattlesnakes, unpredictable elements and potentially facing thousands of dollars in tow fees didn’t sound like a fun way to spend the last day in my 20s. Plus, we wouldn’t have learned about Death Valley’s fascinating animals, history, geology and weather firsthand from a local.
While Death Valley doesn’t seem to maintain the same reputation as Australia on a danger level, it should. Neither of us had any idea that tarantulas live here. During mating season, these oversized spiders take over the interstates and “march” on the road. It must be an incredible sight. That, and witnessing the females eating the males. While tarantulas aren’t overly harmful, more than once I overheard a local mention how detrimental baby rattlesnakes are in comparison to adults. Apparently they don’t yet know how to control how much venom they inject into their victim, which results in a much more serious attack. Here’s another alarming fact we learned about the rattlesnake. In their evolution, they are now mutating to not grow a rattle since people have been chopping off their rattlers for so long. Thanks to survival of the fittest, this species will become even more of a threat to mankind because of our ignorance.
The most fascinating animal that our guide shared with us is the resident kangaroo rat. This creature is perfectly suited for desert life as is doesn’t need to physically drink water. They get enough hydration from dead animals they consume. Their anatomy allows them to store water in their nasal cavity and drink by tilting its head back. Moreover, because of their highly concentrated urine the kangaroo rat passes crystals instead of traditional waste.
Our guide told us that his mom lives just east of Death Valley in town called Beatty. This is a town where you cannot drink the water there because it contains ascertain. He claims that it’s fine to drink once, but the human body cannot break down more than one glass before you eventually die. One day in Beatty, a turkey vulture picked up his mom’s cat named Smudge and flew off about 20 feet in the air. Smudge scratched the bird, fell to the ground and hasn’t gone outside since. After all the interesting facts our guide shared with us, I felt mildly cheated to not spot any wildlife during our visit.
As we drove along a remote road leading us deeper into the desert, our guide provided us with background on how Death Valley became discovered. According to his story, the 49ers split in two groups. A man in one group died because they had an incomplete map of the area and they encountered unexpected mountain ranges. Directionless and grieving, one person wrote, “Get us out of this death valley.” We soon arrived at Teakettle Junction where both prospector groups historically left teakettles pointing in the direction they went. Today, visitors tie teakettles to the junction sign with written messages on them. I can only assume they are praying to the desert gods to grace them with safe travels through the treacherous desert.
28 miles on a fiercely bumps road later, we reached our destination at the Racetrack la Playa, home to the mysterious sliding rocks. Up until recently, this phenomenon perplexed geologists. After years of studying the unexplained movement of these rocks and even tracking some via GPS, scientists now understand the weather’s influential role. Since the Racetrack lies slightly downhill from the ranges, these rocks can glide along the flat terrain given the right conditions, some boulders so large they leave a trail in their path. In theory, your best chance to observe the sliding rocks would be early in the morning when it’s still cold outside after a rainfall. Normally the terrain at the Racetrack consists of dry, cracked land like when we visited, but precipitation can turn it into a muddy mess. I’ve read about how some inconsiderate people will walk here, leaving visible footprints and creating an eyesore in this stunning landscape. Don’t be that person. Also, please don’t feel privileged enough to steal or move any of the rocks here. This, like anywhere else in any other national park, is protected for everyone to enjoy. And besides, don’t forget that some of these rocks can be tracked through GPS.
On our return drive, we stopped to see the large, lonely boulders amidst the nothingness of the desert at The Grandstand. We also faced the fierce winds at Ubehebe Crater. In my experience, ancient volcanic activity seems to be the common thread between any hypnotizing scenery, but I find it exceptionally hard to fathom here in Death Valley. I would have enjoyed staying longer at this colossal crater, but the extreme and consistent wind made me feel like Dorothy. It is not uncommon to encounter gusts up to 50mph (80kmh) along the rim and the thought of falling in did not appeal to me.
Even though it only rains on average 2 inches per year, flash flooding is a huge concern in Death Valley as ¼ inch of rain can result in catastrophe. Since the extremely dry land cannot absorb but so much rainfall, there is nowhere for the water to go but into the valley. In October 2015, Death Valley received their entire annual rainfall at once and the park is still trying to recover. Scotty’s Castle, an area landmark, will be closed until at least 2020. The storm did however result in a “super bloom” the following spring with flowers budding as early as December.
Precipitation in Death Valley creates a very unusual concept. It can snow in the sky and evaporate before it touches the valley floor. Sometimes rain does the same thing as it did the day we left the park. How bizarre that we needed to use the windshield wipers, yet our car never seemed to actually get wet. We covered a lot of Death Valley NP in two days, but I would have been happy to spend another day here. The uniqueness of the desert is like nothing I had ever seen before and I look forward to returning.
Next up: Wine Drinking in Sonoma Valley