#3 Death Valley, CA: To Savor the Warmth—Or We So We Thought (November-December 2014)

Forced "Airplane Mode"
Destinations like Death Valley trigger identification within us with explorers to remote locations because of the additional preparation that is required. Usually we break-up our 2 week stay in isolated Death Valley with a shopping day in Pahrump, NV to take the pressure off but this year it would be different, we’d make do with what we could take in with us at the trip’s start. 

Careful planning would reward us with long looks at favorites like Golden Canyon.
Pahrump is a regrettable little strip city with smokey casinos and a serious methamphetamine problem, but we appreciate the shopping opportunity that it provides. We start at the far end of town and make the needed stops on the highway towards Death Valley for gas, propane, groceries, hardware, laundry, cash, and internet connection. This year we would overload our cupboards and refrigerator during our initial stop in Pahrump and not return.

Eliminating the day dedicated to restocking mid-stay in Death Valley also required more meticulous preparation the week before our arrival. We were “making a list and checking it twice” for shopping as well as transferring as much of our 6 cubic foot capacity refrigerator contents as possible into smaller containers. We ran an extra load of laundry in Pahrump the night before driving into Death Valley to feel maximally prepared even though there was a single location in the park to do laundry. And Bill worked feverishly to stabilize our MacBook Air that the Las Vegas Apple nerds couldn’t fix so as to restore our lost ability to cull and tweak photos—problems that were created by recent changes in Apple software.

The computer problems were at the top of the “To Do” list that was necessitated by the anticipated 2+ week lack of internet and cell service. In the past, we could count on a cell connection at Furnace Creek and a painfully slow internet connection at Stovepipe Wells, both within the park. But they would be limited to crisis management at best. 

Catching up on social connections by email, dealing with mail order prescriptions, and completing half-done internet-based projects all had to be wrapped up by the time we left Pahrump. It was a good thing we took the forced airplane mode seriously because inexplicably, we had zero cell service at Furnace Creek this year. Other Verizon customers could connect but we couldn’t and we succeeded in only exchanging a few emails on the wifi system at Stovepipe Wells.

Trudging up the right canyon wash is where you find the more dramatic formations in Death Valley.
Despite the inconveniences of having essentially no grocery shopping or electronic services available to us in Death Valley, we came to realize that there was an upside to the inconvenience, which was increased social connection. 

Spending Thanksgiving in Death Valley had become a new tradition for us because we liked the outdoor family reunion holiday festivities in the campground—festivities that we enjoyed by walking around and taking-in the cheery chatter around big campfires.

But in addition to anonymously basking in the overflowing joyous celebrations on Thanksgiving evening, we’d also noticed that we always had more social connection while based at the Texas Springs Campground in Death Valley than anywhere else. During a hike in which we had spent an unusual amount of time visiting with fellow hikers, I finally realized that forced airplane mode for almost all visitors was likely a contributor to people being more outgoing than at other places. 

Almost all of the people camping in Death Valley were like us and had little or no internet, cell service, or TV access. Electronically, Death Valley is in a dark hole and many of us were also living with restricted use of water and electricity. So, with the usual diversions related to excess consumption severely crimped, I believe many visitors turned to strangers to fill some of the void. Being in Death Valley during Thanksgiving surely puts people in a more outgoing mood and the typically warm weather draws people outdoors in the evening, especially with limited electronic distractions.

Can you see the 4 most prominent of the 6 mastodon prints?
The Event Director’s Encore: The Paleo Tour
Knuckling down to overcome my resistance to the National Park Service’s permitting process for our Subway and Wave hikes in Utah and Arizona had paid off and we were able to experience both stunning destinations this fall. Upon arriving in Death Valley in November, I was again confronted with another, prior, “not in this lifetime” response to the lottery process to participate in the Paleontology Tour in the park.

Every restricted-number-of-participants-event in each national park we’d visited had different hoops to jump through to be a winner. The Paleo Tour lottery was no exception. Its lottery is held 3 times a year and all 3 times the lottery is a month before the event. Unlike some permits, there is no last-minute provision. And like with the lotteries for the Subway and the Wave, I’d always dismissed it as too annoying to participate in. 

But because of our recent string of successes, I carefully noted the Paleo Tour lottery details in my 2015 calendar and planned to enter the lottery in a year. And like I did in 2013, I stopped by the park’s Visitor Center to be put on the waiting list, which I’m always told doesn’t exist. But my pushy side again pressed on the rangers and both years I’ve been allowed to leave my contact information on a blank piece of paper.

In 2013 I had a hunch that my info sheet bypassed the backroom desk and went straight to the round file, but I ignored that assessment and completed the ritual again in 2014. I was stunned a few days later to receive a cryptic message as to where to be the next morning at 7:45 to complete the group of 13. I’d effectively won the lottery without entering it.

We knew little about the event except that it was free; it was 7 miles round trip with 1500’ elevation gain; and that we had to wear hiking boots. At the very least, we knew that we’d hike a new canyon and if it was as advertised, we’d see some cool palenological finds.

It turned out to be another tough trudge up a rocky alluvial fan into a canyon as is so often the case in Death Valley. We were well-adapted to the deceptively demanding terrain but many were not and our small group was soon strung-out on the narrow trail like it was a death march. Our vigorous volunteer guide enthusiastically shared her knowledge about the canyon at the frequent stops she made to collect the stragglers.

A reverse print of a really big bird under an overhang.
Three groups of 13 tourists plus 2 guides are allowed in the canyon each year, all in the winter, and are a part of the total of 100 people that can be in the restricted area annually. Considered a world-class site of ancient prints, the canyon is constantly under surveillance and interlopers are greeted by a ranger upon their descent. 

We were escorted to a half dozen of the best of the 60 locations in the canyon where prints have been found. Bird, horse, camel, and mastodons left their marks in the mud 3.5-4 million years ago.

It proved to be a delightful event. The weather was perfect; the canyon was prettier than most in Death Valley; our trail mates were an unusually interesting mix of people with whom to spend the day; our guide was knowledgable; and the few prints were impressive. Like The Wave hike, we’d love to do this canyon again for solely for the hike but we won’t. One can only visit with a ranger and we won’t compete in the lottery so that other first timers can have better odds of winning a slot, though I may again put us on the non-existing waiting list and hope for a pair of cancellations.

Participating in this Paleo Tour had us feeling like our field studies were on a roll for our 2 month-old, SW meander. Back on our Soap Creek hike near Lees Ferry, we’d stumbled upon a number of large fossils of sponge-like critters in the boulder clutter we struggled to traverse. And a few days before our Paleo tour, I spotted an obsidian arrowhead right under my nose during an “on all fours” scramble up a treacherous talus slope. It was incredible: it was so readily spotted and in such good condition. Our Paleo Tour guide guessed from our description that the arrowhead was generally in the 2,000 year old bracket.

A Minor Archeology Study
We had 1 more brush with archeology while in Death Valley in 2014, which was following up on our own research project. The study was so informal that we hadn’t given it a name but, if pressed, it would be “The Dating of Asphalt Burns Caused by Engine Fires in Desert Environments of the SW US.”

Our dinner conversation in mid-November of 2012 was interrupted by a huge rental RV pulling off of the highway near our strip of 14 RV spaces and too close to 1 of the 2 gas stations in Death Valley. In minutes, the burning rear tire had set the whole RV on fire and there was nothing to do but watch it burn. No one was injured and the small crowd accustomed to driving big rigs concluded that the driver must have used the brakes instead of downshifting to slow their descent from the nearby pass.

Barb instantly knew it was an arrowhead when her eyes passed over it in the rubble.
We chronicled the unfolding story, which included taking photos during the fire and of the aftermath the next morning; watched the carcass being loaded for transport a few days later; and examined the burn marks on the asphalt a week later. 

Previously we’d noticed the numerous rectangular burns in the shoulder pavement in Death Valley and wondered what had caused them. They were all roughly the same size and shape and were always on the edge of the road. The day after the RV fire drama, a park ranger supervising the scene said that most of the asphalt scorches on the roads were caused by engine fires, usually during the extreme summer heat when car air conditioners were in use. 

In a bit of morbid curiosity, we wondered how many years the pavement would remain blackened, hence we began monitoring the scene of the 2012 RV fire. At least in the case of our study object, the pavement no longer obviously revealed the direct scorching in late 2014 but if you knew what to look for, the melted aluminum alloys were still very evident. Shiny streaks and splotches of metal were still firmly welded to the asphalt and very distinct. The chewed-up look of the asphalt caused by the fire was however indistinguishable from other sources of wear and tear on the asphalt.

“It’s Not the Death Valley We Know & Love”
Towards the end of our 2nd and last week in the park Bill blurted out: “It’s not the Death Valley we know and love”, which was certainly true. We delight in Death Valley for the sunny, dry, winter weather and at that point were embarking on our 4th day of damp overcast or worse. We were reminded of being back home when a clerk had extolled the pleasures of petrichor--the aroma released by sand after a first rain--but despite her pleasure with her new word, it wasn’t a scent that put smiles on our faces.

We knew a series of warm tropical storms were hammering LA with rain and the last we’d heard, the anticipation of mudslides in the recent burn areas. There had been a 70% chance that we’d receive rain from the storm and indeed, we did. The expected 1/4” of rain swelled in our makeshift gauge and the official one too to over 1/2” in less than 12 hours. No doubt a pittance compared with what hit LA but it was more than 25% of Death Valley’s annual rainfall and sufficient to close most of the scenic side roads in the park.

That's Barb high on the scree slope where she found the arrowhead.
A day of rain was one thing, we could tolerate that, but it was the persistently high humidity that was so annoying. After sunset on Day 3 when the cloud cover broke and the moon and stars were brilliant again, the humidity held at 90% for hours before topping out at 98%. Even by Day 4, the humidity still ranged from 90-98% for 16 straight hours, with no rain since the evening of Day 1. Typically, the humidity we experience in Death Valley ranges from a mid-day low around 10-15% to a sunrise high of about 30%.  Some 24 hour periods saw only a 2-3 degree temperature fluctuation in the 50’s instead of the more usual 30-40 degree diurnal variation.

One of our favorite activities while in Death Valley is performing our sunrise exercises outdoors but we sadly exercised in our camper for days on end this fall. The ground was spongy from the rain and there was no promise of a warming sun to compensate for enduring the pre-dawn chill from being on wet ground. And there was no joy to be triggered by watching the ring of mountains slowly becoming illuminated by the sun because the mountains remained partially veiled by the thick, damp air all day long. 

Walking in Death Valley’s Mesquite Dunes is another pleasure we always look forward to when there. Fortunately, the persistently damp weather didn’t spoil experience, though it did reveal a new aspect of it. The damp sand felt amazingly different under our bare feet than the usual well-parched sand. 

Some of the sand was velvety soft and made me wonder if there was a touch of slit smudging the gritty texture; other areas of the dunes seemed more coarse than usual. The temperature had been hanging in the 50’s day and night and so the wet sand wasn’t chilling. And, for the most part, the dunes were much firmer than when dry, which made walking on the flat surfaces faster whereas it was harder for our toes to get a grip on the steep faces.

I couldn’t help but think of the photographer we encountered on the same dunes last year, the one who chided us for not staying on the ‘trail’ because our prints were ruining his photo ops. There are no trails in the dunes and the park literature encourages “playing and exploring” them. Had we encountered him this year, he likely would have sat and wept. The wet, heavy sand prevented the winds from smoothing the dunes on a daily basis: the normally sharp ridge tops were 2’ wide trample-zones and the dune faces were completely pockmarked with prints. The dunes were an absolute mess from a photographers perspective and surprised even us with their ‘well-loved’ look.

Happier days in Golden Canyon the week before the storm system rolled over us.
The bright side of rain in Death Valley is that depending on the time of year, there can be a subsequent explosion of wild flower blooms. If it was triggered by this rain event, it would occur after we left. But we hoped that our next destination, Palm Springs, had received its share of bloom-spurring rain at just the right time for a colorful show there. 

Our frustrations with the weather were made worse by the reduced communication services at Stovepipe Wells this year. The TV in the motel guest lounge that was available to the 14 RV space occupants was removed—simply gone. We never watched it much in the past but appreciated the opportunity to dart in to catch a few minutes of the news and weather. And with both the sun and public TV having “gone missing,” so had gone the feeble internet service, so we hadn’t a clue about the weather forecast beyond what we saw in the moment. 

The motel/RV park management typically posts the weather forecast and road closures each morning but they depended upon the same internet service as we did, so we only benefited from a couple of reports during our week’s stay. Being active in the sunny weather and then retiring for a couple of hours of computer chores with some internet access were centerpieces of our usual days in Death Valley that weren’t to be this season.

Next Stop: Palm Springs
After accumulating a backlog of business and personal chores that we couldn’t complete in Death Valley, the catch-up time from our impending 2 month stay in Palm Springs was even more appealing this year. There we’d mix business and pleasure on a daily basis. And parking at Palm Springs was in the nick of time for our waning conditioning. There had been little opportunity for regular big elevation gain hikes since we’d left Europe in September but weather permitting, we could rack up as much as 8300’ of gain while hiking from Palm Springs. We’d soon be back at Winter Training Camp and playing hard.