Wild Women's Death Valley Trip 2006

Click on any picture to see it full-size. And look for questions, puzzles and optical illusions in this page!

Marti and I had planned for some time to go to Death Valley. The trip ended up being just the two of us, and that turned out to be a most excellent thing. So the day before we left, we packed, ran around and got food, and during the course of the evening (which she spent working until 9 pm) I mentioned to each of our hubbies that we were going down to San Jose airport after she got off work to pick up the 4 wheel drive SUV that we had reserved. Both of them had the same reaction: "An SUV? Are you guys NUTS??? You're going to get 6 miles a gallon and gas just went over three bucks...you'll be so sorry..." More will be said about our SUV later...for now, NYAH NYAH NYAH-NYAH-NYAH will suffice.

So we picked up this vehicle, loaded it with all the food and stuff, and the next morning, I went to get Marti at the agreed-upon time of 'around 8:30', which was a loose estimate for both of us...but I do think we were actually on the road and moving by about 9:10 am, not bad at all.

Death Valley is an 8 hour drive from the bay area if you only stop for gas and restrooms and drive like hell, and at least one of the two of us generally likes to drive the speed limit.

(Question #1: Guess who that is? Answers at the end.)

Wednesday, April 26
Here are the hills outside Bakersfield, with huge clouds on top of them. We took the 178 from Bakersfield by Lake Isabella. Here's the Kern River coming from the lake. It was beautiful, foggy, overcast, and cold. Very cold. I was wearing sweats. You know how happy cold makes me. Mmmm, more beautiful foggy cold cold COLD. Hope Death Valley is warmer...hard to believe the sun exists right about now...
And Lake Isabella itself, pretty, cloudy and you-know-what. Brrrr. And...wait a minute, we're getting closer to the desert...could that be sunshine? Could it be getting warmer? Could those be wildflowers in bloom all over that hillside? Yippee!
Our first Joshua Tree sightings, near Walker Pass. And we're heading out to the desert. By the time we got to Olancha, where we left the 395 for the 190 to Death Valley, I had changed out of my sweats into warm-weather pants. Much better! More wildflowers by the road. We had decided to take pictures of as many as we could find and (unlike my many trips with Marian Hartshorn) to ACTUALLY IDENTIFY THEM later...stay tuned, kids! Beautiful. Desert, clouds, and it's WARM.
Our first peek at the snowy eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, oh boy! Looking east toward Death Valley...you see that blue sky peeking out from under the edge of the clouds? Blue! BLUE!!! BLUE SKIES!!!! But the clouds and the mountains together are quite beautiful...this is entering Death Valley.
We stopped to take a picture of the beautiful rocks on the left, which is a photo op I usually take advantage of on this road, they look different every time I drive by...then we turned around to look the other way and saw the clouds and the sun. I can't believe my camera got this shot...
We got to our motel in Stovepipe Wells around 5:30 pm and checked in. It was about 90 degrees in the valley, and pretty clear and sunny, lovely. We decided to drive up to Zabriskie Point.

Now, this is of course one of the most famous things to see in Death Valley...the view from Zabriskie Point is recognizable anywhere, anytime. But the thing to remember is that the pointy thing in the picture is not Zabriskie Point itself...it's Manly Beacon, because to get that picture, the photographer was STANDING at Zabriskie Point.

And sunset is one of the best times to take pictures from Zabriskie Point, because the sunset over the Panamint Range is often pretty spectacular.

So here we are. Me at Zabriskie Point...do you know how rare it is to see actual pictures of ME from my vacations? Thanks, Marti! Marti at Zabriskie point... Notice how nice we're being, not taking pictures with Manly Beacon coming out of each other's heads? This will change... Not all the pictures you're going to see are this sedate. This is in the other direction, looking across Z. Point itself toward the mountains to the east.
Here I am, in front of those mountains. Another picture of Manly Beacon and the Panamints. And the hills nearby... More beautiful sunset colors.
and the last picture of the evening...the rays came out very well!
So we went back to our motel room. We discussed what we wanted to do for the three whole days (Thursday, Friday and Saturday) that we were going to be in Death Valley. We did want to get up really early one morning for the Racetrack, and decided that it shouldn't be either the first or last day, so that made the Racetrack day Friday. The weather reports said cloudy and cool-ish on Thursday (meaning temps in the high 80s most of the day in the valley) so the decision was that Thursday was the day we'd go around the valley, see the famous stuff and also revisit some of the sights of Marti's lost youth. And so we did.

After a lovely evening in our motel room that included lots of cookies, talking, and reading...and no driving. Whew.

Thursday, April 27

We got out the door around 8:30, after getting ice and tea and breakfast. First stop: the Furnace Creek Ranger's Station, where we checked in, paid our entrance fee, and pumped the rangers for information. Then we left for Badwater, about 20 miles down the road.

Next stop: The Devil's Golf Course. God knows, there are plenty of things in DV called the Devil's this and that...Doug's favorite sarcastic place name is the "Devil's Vestibule"...and this is no exception. Wierd rock formations formed by salt crystals covering pretty much everything. Anything white you see (on the ground, at least) in the next few pictures is made up of hardened salt, and it's really hard. There are signs all over the parking lot warning tourists to wear sturdy shoes and to be careful not to fall; this stuff will cut you right open, it's all very hard and sharp.
Okay, hiking boots with capris, probably not next year's fashion statement...but it was comfortable, and I just put the boots on when needed. At least my laces match my outfit... Marti decorates a rock... Salt crystals growing on rocks. It had obviously rained recently, you could see where the salt had liquified and run...usually these rocks are full of round knobs of crystals, this was different and cool.
And here you see Marti's dainty shoe for size comparison, and more salt crystals.
So Tuesday night, after hearing scorn from our spouses, Marti and I went to pick up our SUV...we went to Hertz, where we had reserved a vehicle that was described as a 'compact SUV'. None of the car companies would guarantee us four wheel drive until we showed up to pick up the car, so we had all kinds of contingency plans ready to go in case we couldn't get what we wanted. We stepped up to the counter, following a long line of people, none of whom were happy, and although we were tired (we'd both had a hard day) we were our usual charming and amusing selves. The guy behind the counter was Ephram, a trainee, and he was so new he still had little downy feathers all over him. So we charmed him, and asked about the 4 wheel drive, and he said, hold on, let me check.

And he came back, and grinned at us. Not only do you get a four wheel drive, he said, it has twelve miles on it.

That's 12 miles folks. He gave us a BRAND NEW TOYOTA RAV4 THAT NOBODY ELSE HAD DRIVEN. It had the new car smell til about three days into this trip. It had a cd player and all kinds of extras. It was a joy to drive. And we were pleased to report to the jeering husband contingent that it got TWENTY MILES PER GALLON all weekend. Oh my god, it was wonderful.

And we put 1600 miles on it in five days, not to mention dust, mud, salt, and alkali. It was absolutely wonderful. And here it is: our noble steed, the SUV.

And here are yet more salt crystals, and a little tiny stalactite that Marti found.
Okay, it's salt, but it does look cool. Really, there are wildflowers coming, we did all kinds of stuff... And here is the landscape, which looks like snowy slush and is hard as...well, as rock, which is what's under it. And here we are playing in the 'snow'...
Yup, it's salt. Marti found a loose chunk of it... and here's a closeup. Looks like December and cold...it's about 85 degrees at the time this picture was taken.
And one last picture of the salt, it's starting to cover this rock with crystals. And we move on. Here we are at Badwater, the lowest point in the continental US, 282 ft below sea level. We had to put the camera on the ground to take this pic, that's why the angle is so wierd. And here's our lovely SUV. Notice the little white sign, about 3/4 of the way up the slope on the left? it says SEA LEVEL... And here is the bad water, full of salt, pickleweed and brine shrimp.
More salt, guess what there's a lot of in the valley? And here's a view down the (aptly named) Saline Valley. The Panamint Range is on the other side of this place, and the snowy peak (Telescope) is 11000 feet high. Quite a view... Walking out on the salt packs your shoe bottoms so tightly that they have a grating for scraping them off, which is what Marti is doing.
Now we are on our way north from Badwater, and have stopped on Artist's Drive for a photo op. Beautiful colored hills, even with no sunlight to speak of. Looks like spumoni...must be lunchtime. This is Desert Holly, which looks just like real holly except it's greenish white and small...this plant is about a foot high. Finally! Wildflowers! We went into a dip on Artist's Drive and saw a bunch, so we stopped and took pics of all of them. The purple is Wild Heliotrope, the white is Alkali Heliotrope, and the yellow is Lesser Mojavea. The whole bunch is about 8 inches high.
Desert Primrose growing among the Desert Holly. This is an incredibly wierd looking plant called Desert Trumpet...the swelling in the middle is the seed pod, which gets paler and brittler until it pops. They do have flowers but they're really tiny, and we didn't see any blooming. More Lesser Mojavea, very pretty! The white is Tackstem, and the yellow looks like more Desert Primrose.
More Wild Heliotrope. Marti has found a rock that goes very well with her shirt...what the well dressed tourist is wearing... Looking up the wash where we found a lot of the flowers.  
And here's Marti, with the Artist's Palette sign. Question #2:
What is wrong with this sign?
And the Artist's Palette, not very bright without sunlight, but still very colorful. Marti is puzzling over the sign again... Pretty colored hills! Even the brown hills are beautiful.
On the way back to the Furnace Creek Ranger's Station, more beautiful hills. Chipmunks! And some idiot has left his lunch out and gone away...the chipmunks are interested... and so are the birds.
This is one of the Titanothere skulls they pulled out of the aptly named Titanothere Canyon, which is part of the (closed) Titus Canyon drive. Marti is so horrified at the thought of the summer sun that she's blurry... Here's a wonderful book that Marti found in the Furnace Creek Ranger's Station gift shop... lovely rhyming text by Diane Siebert, and beautiful woodcuts by David Frampton. And of course the eponymous ghost town is near Death Valley...so we put that on our list for the weekend.
Next stop: Salt Creek. This only has water in it for a short time each year, during which time the pupfish are born and live their lives before it dries up again. Here's a good description I found on the web: "The Salt Creek Pupfish are easily visible from the park's boardwalk, which closely overlooks the salty creek bed, itself only about 1" deep in many places. The Pupfish are only about one to two inches long, with the males slightly larger than the females. In breeding colors of bright metallic blue, green, and gold, with silver bars, each male aggressively defends about a 1' square territory. They will chase away any other males, and court any of the slightly smaller, dull greenish females, brightly flaring their colors and raising their flag-like dorsal fins. They are born each desert spring, their buried, dormant eggs hatching as the spring waters come to the dry creekbeds. The Pupfish feed on algae, grow rapidly, and can mature in only about 2 to 3 months. The fish will breed for as long they can, but most eventually die in about another 3 to 6 months, when the extreme desert heat and arid air dries up the creeks and pools. Those few that do survive to the next winter, in places that manage to not dry up completely, become dormant until the next spring's warmth arrives. Best times to see the pupfish are from February to May."

They were all chasing each other all over the place, but we did manage to get a couple of pictures with identifiable fish in them.

But first: find the lizard! Here it is! A view of Salt Creek and the surrounding hills. Another nice view spoiled by one of those annoying tourists who insist on reading the signs and won't get out of the way of the camera...
Whoops! it's Marti! Hi, Marti... And here are three shots with actual pupfish in them...my camera only does 3x zoom, and they were tiny, far away and moving fast...but we did actually catch some!

Question #3:
Anyone know what this is?

This was the only plant I couldn't identify, and I think it's because it's not a flower...when you get close, the yellow things are not blossoms, they look more like the tips of the branches. I think it's some kind of succulent. Oh, and of course the wonderful lizard hiding in it... We were walking kind of fast, there was one of those families with one loud annoying child behind us...when we stopped and let them go by, it was much nicer. These birds followed us all over the path. Not many horseflies this time of year, thank goodness, last time they tormented us.
Titus Canyon

The 17 mile one way drive through Titus Canyon has been closed for a couple of years, but you can still drive up to the end and hike in to the rock canyons, which are pretty spectacular...so that's what we did.

More beautiful hills. These were on the way to our next destination...
Marti walking up into the canyon. The parking lot was FULL of cars, something I had never seen...we found out why later...there was some kind of field trip of about 80 eighth graders, most of whom did not look happy to be there in the rain...they passed us on their way out, and when we got back to our car, it was the only one in the lot... Wild Canterbury Bells Desert Sand Verbena Desert Rocknettle
Of course, you guys have absolutely no clue about all this flower stuff. You don't know if I really looked them up...I could be making up all these names...Devil's Picklepaws, Purple Hellacious, Infernal Mellops...much easier than spending hours with desert wildflower books going back and forth between all these pictures...but of course, I would never do that...would I?

So here's Question #4: Which of these is NOT a real desert wildflower?

  • Stansbury's Antelope Bush
  • Rixford Rockwort
  • Trailing Townula
  • Blue Dicks
  • Mojave Tuna Cactus
The same Desert Rocknettle, up close and personal. A cool piece of rock Marti next to Our Friend, the Creosotebush. And then it started to rain. Of course, it was about 85 degrees, so we didn't really care...we knew we'd dry out five minutes after it stopped. But here's the Official Photo of me in the rain in Death Valley.
A nice picture of the road as it winds through the canyon... And Marti hiking up behind me. It's steeper than it looks, really. More Desert Rocknettle, and the pretty purple stuff is Mojave Aster. And this is as far as we went, maybe 3/4 of a mile up the canyon, almost to the end of the narrows. Beyond this, there are petroglyphs, an old mining town, dinosaur sites and a lot of geology...but it's 17 miles one way, and we were thinking about dinner...
More beautiful rocks And here I am behind a plant for contrast. This is Apricot Mallow, we saw these blooming all over the place, very colorful and pretty. And a shot of the beautiful sky through the canyon walls. That was about the only blue sky we saw that day.
And here is our lovely motel room, with our Faithful Steed outside it, rarin' to go. But we holed up for the night, with books, movies and cookies, and had a wonderful time.

OH NO! We're out of cookies, we'd better get more!

Friday, April 28

We were planning to go to the Devil's Racetrack with the wierd Moving Rocks this morning. To get there from where we were staying, we had to go fifty miles north, turn off on Ubehebe Crater Road, go about 10 miles (almost to the crater) and take the Racetrack Road turnoff. From that point, it's 27 miles of washboard. This is one of the major reasons we rented an SUV...it's possible in two wheel drive with high clearance, I've done it...but it takes FOREVER.

It's a two and a half hour drive, even under the best conditions, and the rangers at Furnace Creek had told us that the road was very rough and there were washouts, and to be careful. So (having forgotten to bring any sort of alarm clock) we asked for a wakeup call for 5:30 am (what Marti's daughter calls the ass-crack of dawn, which made us both snicker) and planned to be at the racetrack by 9 am...every other time I've been there, it's been noonish, and there are almost no shadows...we wanted to see what it was like in the morning light.

So at 5:30 am, the security patrol pounded on our door and yelled, Wake Up! (no phones in the room, so this is their wakeup call, I'm not joking) and we staggered out of bed, asking ourselves why we were doing this.

Marti wore her glasses, figuring that she would put her contacts in later. We loaded up the SUV and went.

Just before Ubehebe Crater Road, there is a ranger's station with actual bathrooms (girls obsess about bathrooms at Death Valley because they are so few and far between, nuf sed...) We knew it'd be four or five hours before we saw these again, so we did not pass up the opportunity. While I was waiting for Marti, I read the message board outside, which included info on road conditions. Racetrack Road, it said, 4x4 with high clearance and two spare tires required. Hm, I thought, that's interesting...and off we went.
And I must say, if you HAVE to get up at dawn, driving across the desert listening to Bach cello suites on the iPod is not a bad way to do it...it was really beautiful. Here's a section of the road going toward the racetrack. Doesn't look so bad, does it? but try it for 27 miles each way, bumping and shaking...
One of the famous landmarks in DV, Teakettle Junction. Yes, people bring their old teakettles to hang on the sign. I forgot mine this time... And here we are! The light-colored playa about 2 miles away is the Devil's Racetrack, and the dark rocks in the middle are the Grandstand. Here is a drainage pattern on the playa, it's very cool looking. And we made it to the Devil's Racetrack!
The Mysterious Rocks:

Well, the rocks on Racetrack Playa move. Really. They do. That's why it's called the Devil's Racetrack (other than that everything in DV is called the Devil's this and the Devil's that)...the rocks are obviously moving, you can see the trails they leave in the silty hard mud of the lake bed...but nobody knows why or how they move. The latest theory (and it's just a theory) is that even in DV, there is a tiny amount of dew or condensation most mornings, and that that makes the surface slick and the wind blows the rocks a tiny bit each time. But they curve, change direction, and do all kinds of things that that theory doesn't seem to be able to account for. Also, once an impression is made on the mud of the playa, it stays pretty much forever, since that part is never under water...so there is no telling what the time frame is here for these trails, but it's obvously years, probably many years. The rocks are anywhere from as big as my two fists together, to a little bigger than my head.

Marti the cynic tried to expound a theory that people were moving them, but if the playa is damp enough for the rocks to leave an impression, there would be footprints...and there are none where the rocks are. She says I also have to put in her other hypothesis: that it REALLY IS the Devil pushing them around...but we didn't see any hoofprints either...

These pics are interesting- on the left are two rocks, one of which has moved against the other. You can see on the right where mud has been pushed up between them. So one moved and the other didn't, or one moved faster than the other...but why?
On the left you can see our SUV, waiting patiently for us in the parking pullout.

What? you can't see it? okay, there's a close up on the right...

And as we started sauntering back to the car, Marti pointed at the hills to the south... and there were three birds that looked like white egrets! we took a bunch of pictures, slowly edging closer, and left when they seemed to get agitated. They stayed together, walking or even when they flew out onto the playa, and didn't move far; we don't know if they were resting or feeding or lived there, but they were really beautiful.

I found out later that they're Cattle Egrets.

Driving back, here's the grandstand. Marti, by the way, had forgotten her contacts, so she drove 27 miles of bad washboard road with rocks and all...in the first pair of glasses she's had in thirty years. And did quite well. Part of the road goes through higher elevations, and there is a whole slope and valley full of small (up to 8 feet or so) Joshua trees. Some of which...were blooming! Really beautiful. I've never seen one of these in bloom before.
On the left is more Apricot Mallow, and a beautiful Beavertail Cactus in bloom. On the right is Marti, intrepid driver...she had to deal with all the traffic, on the way back we had to pass (on a very narrow road) all kinds of vehicles, including a whole geology class in a dozen trucks, the last of which was driven by a woman who didn't understand the concept of pulling over before stopping...sheesh.
Okay, we had to stop for this too. This is a creosote bush, with about a 2" brown seedpod in it. The wierd thing is, it looks just like a Jimson Weed seed pod...but there was no Jimson Weed around anywhere...it was just hanging in this Creosotebush. Very odd.
Ubehebe Crater is a volcanic crater formed by a bunch of hot stuff hitting a pocket of water, creating steam and blowing up. No lava flows, but volcanic rock all over a 30 mile area. We found out later that day that although up til now they have dated this eruption at a couple of thousand years ago, a geologist just visited in the last few months and found evidence that dates the explosion to about 300 years ago, well within the historical record. So that's still being researched, but it's kinda interesting.

Driving back from the crater we went through a whole valley of blooming yellow and green creosotebush, it was beautiful.

And the road goes ever on and frickin' on...I'll tell you, after over 50 miles of washboard roads, even in a wonderful 4 wheel drive with bucket seats, your kidneys are just saying the most unkind things imaginable...here you see our destination, Ubehebe Crater. It's the low black line on the left of the picture, looks like the lowest range of foothills. So here's Ubehebe Crater, which we visited, but not before we drove the 10 miles back to the amenities, for which we were EVER so grateful. The cluster of flowers is Purple Mat...the single blooms are Bigelow's Monkeyflower.

I mean, really. Bigelow's Monkeyflower. I could make up names like that too, you know...

And on to Scotty's Castle, a resort built in the 20s by a rich couple, where a guy named Death Valley Scotty lived and told whoppers about himself until his death around 1955. We had a nice picnic, and spent time in the gift shop and book shop, then (after restorative ice cream) wandered around the grounds for a while.
Marti admiring the gates. A very cool plaster bird creature on top of the gates Marti says to tell Elisabeth that 'someday all this will be yours'. What, the Joshua Tree too? And the back gate and courtyard.
And in the back I found a zebra lizard! See it? right there! in the middle! Can you see it now? Cool tilework up in a tower More tilework
This place was built in the 'teens and twenties, tand the ironwork is really neat. Here's one door hinge, and another door in an out of the way place that has a sea theme: the top hinge is seabirds, the middle one has starfish, the bottom one is fish, and the handle is a seahorse. Beautiful!
So we're in the bookstore in Scotty's Castle, poking around and looking at stuff. And as is my wont, I strike up a conversation with the guy behind the counter and mention that we just came back from the Racetrack.

Oh, he says, did you blow a tire?

No, I said, looking at him kind of oddly and checking to see if my leg was being pulled, we didn't. The road was a little rough in places, but not too bad.

And the conversation went on to other things.

A little while later, we're in the lovely air-conditioned gift shop and I'm spending my hard-earned bucks on some touristical nonsense and talking to the guy behind the counter.

And of course the Racetrack is mentioned.

Oh, he says, did you blow a tire?

No, I said, a little miffed, of course we didn't blow a tire, I mean I saw the notice at the ranger's station but the road wasn't that bad...we just took it slowly and carefully, no problems at all.

Well, he says, they're pulling 10 cars a day out of there with blown tires...

Oh my god. The thought of being stupid or unlucky enough to do that and then having to wait for someone to come get you and THEN pay whatever astronomical towing fee they charge on top of it is just appalling...I talked to a ranger the next day, and he confirmed it. Idiots in SUVs taking the roads too fast? I asked. Exactly, he said.

Marti's trenchant comment: people think that having a four wheel drive makes them bulletproof...made me laugh. Nevertheless, we proclaimed ourselves Four Wheel Driving Goddesses. And felt very good about our first experience with a 4x4...

We went back to the motel to get Marti's contacts, then off to Rhyolite, which is on the way to Beatty, Nevada, about 40 miles away. Here are pretty hills on the way. And more flowers! This is called Turtleback... I wonder why they called it that? Pretty yellow flowers, though.
These mountains are very interesting. When you click on the picture to make them larger, you'll see that the pattern of the rocks makes straight lines up and down...they were flat, and earthquakes and shifting made them stand right up on edge.
Here we are in Rhyolite, much of which is recognizable from the book Marti bought. A very well preserved ghost town, it had about 10,000 people at its height, but the whole history of the town only went from 1906-1918 or so.

Here are pictures of us in front of the bottle house, and also pictures of a little village made of glass and stuff that a caretaker in the 1970s made for his daughter. They have just finished renovating the outside of the bottle house, and are about to start on the inside.

We also found out that all five of the kittens I had met on the Nov. 04 DV trip are grown and happy and doing fine. What excellent news!
The caretaker also told us that Homeland Security had descended on Rhyolite about three weeks ago, demanding that all BLM employees there be fingerprinted and sign loyalty oaths and things like that. The deadline for this was the day that we were there, and evidently the BLM manager in charge of that area had been on vacation, had come back and found out that all the Rhyolite employees were about to quit en masse, and had come down that very morning to assure them that they didn't have to do any such thing and beg them not to leave. They were all very pleased, and we loved the fact that they were willing to stand up to those idiots in Homeland Security.
Two of the old buildings in Rhyolite, Marti took the picture of the sky through the front of the business, very nice!

And me in front of the railroad station, with a spectacularly blooming Joshua Tree.

Wildlife! A cute little bunny... and a bunny butt for Candy. One of the deserted buildings looking like the hill is about to melt down onto it.  
Aside from being a pretty well preserved ghost town, Rhyolite is also home to an artist's colony...there are lots of open air artworks, some of them pretty odd indeed...and a web page for the museum, as well as a schedule of events. Most of the art is by one person, although other works are added from time to time...seems like every time I go there is something new.
This was new, a pseudohistorical plaque erected by Kymaerica, which seems to be a group engaged in writing alternate and fantasy-skewed history for this country...the plaque sounds like a cross between Lovecraft and Tolkien. Interesting. The Prospector and his Penguin...Liz K, this one's for you. Steve K.'s future afterlife... Marti, center of the spiral.
And of course I had to get in the Last Supper and mug... that's me, last apostle on the left... The huge naked woman made of cinderblocks... and here's the info about the Goldwell Museum.
So there we are in Death Valley. Cellphone hell. No towers. No service. No nothing. Our motel room has no phone (or tv, yay!) so, since Marti's family is scattered hither and yon this weekend, she has been having to call them from a pay phone at the motel each night at 9 pm. Every time we went to higher elevations she tried her cell phone, but alas, it would not work.

Until we got here, near a ghost town, in the middle of the Nevada desert, next stop Death Valley. Here, her cell phone decides to work. So here she is, in the middle of nowhere, calling everyone to catch up and get news and make sure everything is all right (as did I, of course). We found this to be highly amusing.

And here we see the sun go down, about 7:30 pm, as we saw it rise at 6 am. And boy, were we glad to get back to our motel room...I think I was fast asleep by 10 pm, I was so completely thrashed. It's cool to go to DV in spring, but longer days mean you do a lot more stuff...we sure did this day. But it was way fun.
Saturday, April 29

So we go to bed. We are exhausted. We are asleep. Very very asleep. We are so unbelieveably asleep...until THREE THIRTY A.M., when (as we figured out in retrospect) someone's headlights flash three times into our motel room (and if you haven't been in a motel room with car high beams flashing in your front windows from three feet away in the middle of the night, you have NO IDEA how bright those frickin' things are) and a buzzer that sounded exactly like our smoke alarm at home went off three times in a row.

Marti was out of bed in a flash, looking for whatever the hell had made the noise...I sat up, and said it sounded like the smoke alarm...we looked at it suspiciously, but of course it couldn't have made the lights...we finally figured out what had happened, and slowly pushed all the extra adrenaline out through the cracks in the edges of the room and went back to sleep. But damn! that was annoying.

We slept in that morning, and got up around 7:30. Our first visit was to Mosaic Canyon, a canyon that is right near the motel, and whose first half mile is made up of beautiful bands of polished marble (polished by water in the winters). I always end up there in the evening, right before sundown, and wanted to see it in the morning light.

Marti with the canyon and the light behind her. Notice how she has cleverly dressed in the same colors the canyon is wearing... A traditional picture: Josie looking sexy on rocks. Marti uses her foot for size comparison again. Sure enough, the rock is bigger than her foot... Rocks in disguise
My lovely girl assistant shows off the latest style in canyons... Pretty rock colors Here you can not only see the marble coming out of the aggregate, but you can also see that the marble is only polished up to about 6 feet high, and is rough above that. Just more pretty rock.
I think this is my favorite picture of me from this trip: Look! It's a ROCK! Marti pets the aggregate... Here are chunks of the marble buried in the sandy rock, very cool... and even cooler wearing the excellent new hats we bought for this trip.
Oh my god, more flowers...these are on the road to Wildrose.
Another nice Lesser Mojavea Desert Paintbrush And I SWEAR I'm not making this one up: Devil's Lettuce. Really truly. And this little tiny purple guy is Storksbill.
Another Storksbill And a very handsome lizard who did some pushups for us before turning around, then running away. And Marti, who loves lizards, has sent me a message (with citation, natch) saying that he is a "Side-Blotched Lizard, Uta stansburiana elegans, up to 2 inches in snout-vent length. ""As with most iguanids, the males of this species are more obvious than the females, because they seek out rocks, tree stumps and other prominent places to do their pushup displays. Although this posturing is important for social reasons, it make the male side-blotched lizard highly susceptible to predation. Consequently, the life expectancy of this lizard is very short." Sherburn R. Sanborn, "The Lizard-Watching Guide. The Common Lizards of Southern California's Mojave and Colorado Deserts." Salt Lake City, UT: Lorraine Press, 1994. p. 29""

"Ah, guys..." she says, and we both snicker...

Now we're on our way to Wildrose, and coming up on the Panamints from the west (we saw them from the east at Badwater.
Marti at the charcoal kilns, looking off to the west... And here's what she's looking at, the Sierra Nevada in all its snowy glory. We're at about 7000 feet here, it's nice and cool, about 68 degrees (as opposed to 105 in the valley, nuf sed.) Marti is reading about the Wildrose charcoal kilns... and here are four of the dozen, pretty impressive.
And two more pics of the Sierras, they're just so pretty.
Looking down from Aguereberry Point, 6500 feed above Badwater, in the mountain range that you're looking at from Badwater...so the valley floor there is 6500 feet down.
You can see how windy it is, the back of my shirt is standing out like a sail. More beautiful colors. Even on a hazy day, it's lovely here. A hedgehog cactus in bloom! they were really hard to see til we got close... There are four dark red flowers, and they're hard as rocks when you (very carefully) touch them.
Beautiful rocks Question #5: What does this cloud look like? Marti found another rock that matches her outfit, isn't she amazing! I was trying (again) unsuccessfully (again) to find the petroglyphs that are near Aguereberry Point, but on the way back from the likely-looking rocks we saw...more flowers! These are Woolly Daisies.
Coming back from Aguereberry point (Marti says that's a Basque name, by the way) and you can see our motel, the white line to the right of the picture. Beautiful colored and striped hills. Yes, the sky really was this blue. Marti reading a guidebook in our motel room. We napped and read for about an hour before leaving for our evening's entertainment: Dante's View and...The Amargosa Opera House.
Question #6:

What on earth IS gamma correction anyway?

These three pictures form a left-to-right panorama of the view from Dante's View, which is a series of saddlebacks starting way up, at 3 or 4 thousand feet, that extend out over Badwater and give lovely views. These are one of the only two times I enhanced actual photos...it was hazy, and the whole valley was white with salt, and the pictures were way washed out, so I gamma corrected the heck out of them.
Marti and I are enjoying the views from the various heights. More gamma correction, except the last one, that's the actual sky color.
Both of us, on seeing that, said, wow, it looks just like alyssum. Yup, it's Desert Alyssum. More Apricot Mallow... and you can see some Skunkbush growing along with it. The purple is Wild Heliotrope again, and the yellow...is Devil's Lettuce. Really.
And here are more beautiful hills on our way to Death Valley Junction that evening.
But where, you might be thinking is Death Valley Junction? And why on earth would anyone be going there at 7:30 pm on a Saturday night?

One of the 'things to do' in Death Valley is to visit the Amargosa Opera House, which is located in the aforementioned town. I have heard of this place literally all my life, and what I knew was that there was this woman who put on shows and going to see them is a big deal, locally. So I checked the web site, read a little about it, emailed Marti, and we got tickets.

Short version: this woman named Marta something was a performer on the East Coast, came to DV Junction in the early 50s, and has been there ever since, bringing art and culture to the boonies. When we got tickets, we were under the impression that what we would see would be an old-fashioned 'mellerdrammer' sort of thing.

We asked around, and were told (because Marta is the only person who lives in DV Junction, which means that there is no restaurant) that the casino seven miles north of there on the CA-NV border had good food. By this time we had been eating cold food out of our ice chests for four days, so pretty much anything hot sounded good to us.

So here's how the evening went...first we drove to DV Junction, about a 20 minute drive from Dante's View. We easily found the Amargosa Opera House ('you can't miss it', said the ranger, which of course filled us with fear and trepidation...those four words translated into proper English, as we all know, mean 'you'll never find it.') But there it was, right on the main street, at the place we had to turn to get to the casino. We thought this was auspicious, but of course the universe was only playing with us, preparing for an evening of exceeding wierdness.

So we went to the Longsomething Casino, Longhorn or Longbranch or Longstreet or something. A big building in the middle of nowhere with a huge cow statue outside it. We went in, changed to our evening dress (jeans and long pants rather than shorts) and went into their cafe for a pretty decent dinner, fajitas for me and a club sandwich for Marti. Not chicken. Not ham. Not raw veggies and crackers and sliced cheese. Hot melty stuff. Yum yum. And after dinner, Marti went outside to try and establish contact with her wayward fam once more, and I took the three bucks in change from dinner and went to explore the casino.

Which consisted of about 20 poker and slot machines. Now, I don't gamble a lot of money, and I've learned, especially with slot machines, that if I don't get a payback within two or three spins to cash out and wander to the next one, because although my luck in general with cards, dice and my life is phenomenal, it doesn't extend to anything connected to money. I buy lottery tickets, but I sure don't expect ever to win. So I put a buck into a penny slot, played all 15 lines three times, lost most of the 45 cents I had bet, and cashed out, as is my wont. Then I saw it...a sign on the machine saying ATTENDANT PAYS ALL WINS. This means that I had to stand there for 10 minutes waiting for someone to come out of the back room and give me my 65 cents. Truthfully, I mostly did it to see if they would, and if they would cuss me out when they showed up for dragging them out there for so little money...but a woman came out, gave me my money, and was actually nice. Amazing.

So armed with the knowledge that this was a sad and cheesy place, I put a dollar in both a draw poker machine, and a different slot machine...and lost both after about 5 minutes play on each without getting ANYTHING back.

This is really really sad. The people here must be so desperate for gambling that the payoff percentage on the machines is set way way way low, and $2.35 was about the extent to which I was prepared to support said casino. So I went outside in search of Marti.

Who had found ONE SQUARE FOOT of patio space in which her cell phone worked, and was forced to stand there unmoving so as not to lose the signal...sad.

While I was waiting for her, I went into the gift/grocery shop...which had mostly empty shelves except for things like breath mints and a few small appliances.

We left for the Opera House about 7:30, glad to shake the dust of the Saddest Casino in the World off our feet...but not before I got a picture of the cow. And the sunset.
When we got to DV Junction, Marti turned in front of the Opera House in order to find parking (there were about 30 people milling around plus many cars parked in front) and suddenly stopped...in the street was a PEACOCK. No joke. A big, beautiful blue peacock with a long green tail, yelling his head off and strutting his stuff, albeit rather windblown. I took pics, but my camera had (in keeping with the strangeness of the evening) reset itself for current conditions on Mars or something and I didn't discover this til later...on the left you can see how the picture actually came out, and on the right, with the help of our friend Gamma Correction (see question #6) and brightness and contrast adjustment, you can see the shadowy figures of Marti in the SUV and the peacock beside the vehicle. But damn, that would have been a great picture. Ah well.
Another thing to know about the Amargosa Opera House: the woman who performs it, Marta something, painted it. But not just a coat of some color of paint. No, she painted a RENAISSANCE AUDIENCE around all the walls of the theater...and then when she finished she couldn't bear to stop, so she painted the whole ceiling. And you know, it looks pretty dang good...
If only she had stopped there...but no. Marti and I took our seats in this theatre, having had our tickets taken by a gentleman in black wearing a stovepipe hat whom we assumed would be one of the actors. We waited. The production started at least 20 minutes late. The place was more than 3/4 full, almost packed. We were near the back. It was hot. Very very hot. And stuffy. So hot that even I was using my program for a fan. The program that described what we were SUPPOSED TO SEE that night, a show about some kind of masquerade. But that is not what we saw.

After a long time, a very old woman came hobbling out to the front of the stage and sat down, among tables covered with feather boas and hats and things. And proceeded to talk about her (Marta's) life and how she came there and what happened to her. I turned to Marti. "Isn't she dead?" I said, sotto voce. "Didn't this woman die 10 or 15 years ago? is this some creepy reenactment?" Because after spending about 15 minutes telling about her/Marta's life, the woman began to describe the play that was supposed to have been performed that very evening. She kept apologizing for not being able to perform, citing a recent back injury. Marti and I were totally nonplussed...was it a creepy reenactment, and a way to introduce people to this local character without having to have her do stuff? Or (and this was too wierd to consider at first) was she STILL ALIVE AND THIS WAS THE WOMAN HERSELF???

She said that in New York, she had to perform other people's songs, dances and say their lines, but that here she could create her own...described herself over and over again as an "artiste" (the kiss of death, as far as I'm concerned, that word is only valid if OTHER people use it about you).

She described the play that should have happened, and (in a thin, reedy and not entirely on key voice) sang bits of the songs that the characters would have sung, one group of said songs all having the ending, Whoopee!...which made her audience (all but two members of it) roar with laughter. They loved her. Most were older than Marti or me, mid fifties to early eighties...but there were younger people, couples, people from other countries...they all loved her, laughed at her 'jokes', applauded her songs, praised her to the skies during the question and answer session...it was just downright creepy.

Especially when we finally admitted it to ourselves: this Marta woman has GOT to be eighty years old, has so little talent that she has to come to a place like this, in the butt end of nowhere, to be a success...but yes, this was indeed the woman herself. We confirmed this later on the web site.

But oh my god. Someone should have a little talk with her about retirement...it was truly creepy and awful.

On the way home, I nearly had a heart attack, thinking that the gas tank was empty...but no, it was fine. And once we had filled it, we stopped between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe wells to see some of the most brilliant stars we'd ever seen. I could see the Big Dipper WITHOUT my glasses on, the stars were so bright. Wonderful. Really took the bad juju off the evening.

Sunday, April 30

But no, we were not allowed to get sleep this night either, for lo, the couple next to us got up at 6:30 am, had loud arguments in a foreign language that were perfectly audible through the wall, and slammed their door many times in the process of getting themselves out of the place. By 7 am we had had it and decided to get up and get moving. The day was beautiful, the warm weather had extended its stay to all of California, and the excellent coffee shop in Lone Pine didn't have too long a line, so we had a lovely hot breakfast.

One last shot of beautiful mountains. One last look at the Sierra Nevada. And we bid a fond farewell to our excellent SUV. And the adventurous women in the excellent hats...are home at last.  
So. There you have it, our trip to Death Valley. Next planned trip: Early November of 2007. Who's coming?

This is Jo, intrepid traveler and desert rat, signing off.

  1. Marti, duh. That one was easy.
  2. Mica doesn't decompose, it's granite, very stable. Marti kept puzzling over this, and the next day
    we asked a ranger, who looked embarrassed and said it was an old sign and the green was also caused by iron. Bravo, Marti!
  3. Sorry, I don't, that's why I asked you.
  4. Actually, they're all real. Made me laugh.
  5. A dragon, of course. His body is arched up over the hill, with his feet on the ground. His wings are spread, and he's looking to his right with his mouth open.
  6. No clue. Anyone out there know?