The stretch between Baker California and the Nevada side of Death Valley is as barren as barren can be. some people still live there but mostly the area is scattered with places where people used to live. There you will find a town called Rhyolite.
It is really a town, but it used to be. Founded in 1905 the town grew thanks to a mining boom and within a year it had a population near 5,000. That is a lot of people when you consider that times lack of highways and its eternal isolation from anything else that could be considered remotely hospitable to human life.
Now the place is a ghost town which is how its advertised and it probably sees more action now as a tourist destination than it ever did as an actual city.
There are abandoned buildings of varying types, a quirky art installation that includes a 15 foot tall female nude made to look as if is made of Legos, and a residence built entirely out of bottles. It is your basic American ghost town.
We poked around a little, took some pictures, then hopped in the car and headed back to civilization.
It is hard to say where exactly civilization begins in this case. Beatty is near by, then Baker, but I think the population of people sitting in traffic on the I-15 numbers more than that 100 mile stretch of land has had over the past century.
“Looks like there’s a lot you don’t know about her” is Uncle Rico’s reply to Napoleon Dynamite’s query upon finding out his grandmother had broken her coccyx whilst four-wheeling at the dunes.
For those of you whose only interaction with sand dunes is watching movies like Lawrence of Arabia I can now testify that what I always thought were actors trying to look heat exhausted and parched, isn’t acting at all. It is simply humans trying to walk up small mountains of sand that do everything in their power to imitate the experience of walking up the down escalator. What looks like heat exhaustion and thirst experienced by those lost for days in the Sahara is just as easily thigh burning frustration that ramps up to miserable in less than two minutes.
Miserable is too strong of a word, I was being dramatic. Really the dunes are beautiful (not being dramatic) and my biggest regrets are that 1. we shared the experience with hoards of other tourists, and 2. We didn’t bring a snowboard or some other device with which we could slide down the dunes, rewarding ourselves with fun for the effort it takes to scale a sand dune.
While crowds can be a nuisance when looking for desolation, they can also provide entertainment in the middle of what would otherwise be solitude (boredom). We saw numerous photo shoots in progress, mostly of girls in formal dresses and guys in tuxedos, and we saw this guy. This guy and his eagle were brought in as a prop for one of said formal gown wearing women photo sessions… because a sparkly dress in the middle of Death Valley really needs an eagle to make it interesting.
I do have to admit the eagle was pretty cool. Owning an eagle is akin to owning a tiger, just a little bit more American.
There were some more adventurous than us who followed the trail down into the bottom of the bowl. Looking at them work their way down the trail it looked not so much adventurous than strenuous. Teddy and his principles to live by would have been so disappointed with us. We were perfectly comfortable with that.
It looked like the sort of fools errand that is easy in the beginning but then bites you hard with regret in the end. We chose to enjoy the vista without eventually resenting it.
In such a place and time one’s choice in company really matters. We were well matched. We both appreciated our surroundings, content to talk or not, to walk or not, and preferring being here deciding whether or not to do less, than being at home on the couching having decided to do nothing.
The crowds gather right at the side of the road where the sign is posted. People wait their turn to get a picture taken next to the elevation -200 feet sign and angle the camera just so to get a background devoid of tourists.
We drove an extra half mile down the road then hiked, rather strolled, a mile out onto the salt flats where there was no need of camera angling. There were no tourists.
The map doesn’t say “salt flats” it says “badwater”and right underneath the thin layer of white crystal salt is slightly frozen mud. We know whats under the salt because Kaleo almost lost his shoe when his foot sunk through the salt leaving him with cold, muddy socks.
I found this hilarious.
We went for this walk so I could add another drawing in my sketchbook. It has been to Zion’s, Grand Bahama, Time’s Square, the Golden Gate Bridge, Kansas City, Paris, Boston, Niagara Falls, Lyman WY, Waimea Bay, and now Death Valley. I had a seat and took some time to draw nothing.
Tired of drawing nothing so I decided to draw something.
I don’t always make good decisions.
It was just like that one scene in Titanic where Leo draws Kate. Exactly like that.
My weather app told me to expect a low of 30 degrees at night in Death Valley. We figured we could handle that. Of course once we got there my app stopped working. No, that’s not true, I had no cell reception and consequentially I had an actual vacation with no app interruptions.
The national park had just reopened after severe flooding and the sign on the road up to our camp warned that the area was closed. I loved that sign and the fact that it dissuaded the crowds from taking that road. There are in fact crowds in Death Valley in December.
The crowds show up in December because 30 degrees is much easier to deal with than 130. The crowds are much easier to deal with when you ignore the closed sign and go down that road toward Scotty’s Castle. The Castle was closed but not the camp ground.
The first sign of trouble was that strange whine the aluminum table made when we fired up the propane stove. We weren’t exactly sure what it was or why but thought it was perhaps just some sort of cold metal hot metal sort of resonance. Whatever… we had fresh carne asada to cook so we got to work. After about 15 minutes of the skillet sitting on an open flame it was still cold to the touch. Huh? I guess 30 degrees is a little colder than we thought. I attributed it to the wind chill.
Downing a whole tea pot full of anything right before bed is not the best idea but it was hot and I was cold. I am currently researching the effects of cold weather on the brain’s ability to process forward thinking. This is a direct follow up to the study I did that night of whether or not I really believe that mummy bags are intended for the sleeper to wear less clothes rather than more, in order to enjoy reflected body heat. I tested both theories that night along with an exercise in multiple midnight runs to the bushes.
Moral of the story is that I am not a genius and have been away from the camping world for far too long.
Also… upon our return we found that the expected 30 was overconfident. The thermometer registered 16.
Remind me next time to tell you about how the campers next to us weren’t cold at all since they were in a palatial motor home the size of a tour bus. But of course what else would you expect Stanley Tucci to camp in?