Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Hike to Natural Bridge

Death Valley National Park

The short hike to the Natural Bridge is a lesson in Death Valley Geology 101.   At the trail head is an excellent exhibit with drawings and explanations of what you will see as you walk through the canyon.

The formation of Death Valley in California began three million years ago with the battle of the earth's crusts. Valleys and mountain ranges were formed.   Many of these faults, of course, are still active today.  Death Valley may continue to fall.  You can see the fault lines in the rocks, linear fractures which have been filled with mud and sand over the centuries.

This particular canyon was once an ancient alluvial fan.  Over the last several thousands of years, flash flooding created a channel through the debris.  The beautiful rock bridge was carved by such a flood.
The above "waterfalls" were interesting formations.  They were also shaped by vertical chutes of water from flash flooding.  There were signs posted everywhere in Death Valley warning hikers and campers of flash floods.  It's hard to believe such events occur in such a hot, dry region, but all you have to do is walk through these canyons to see the results of these periodic forces of nature.

These "wax drippings" on this wall, reminded me of ancient petroglyphs.  They, too, were created by water dripping down the canyon walls.  As the water evaporates, thin strips of mud are left behind.

This is an easy uphill hike and consequently, there were many people on the trail.  Not everyone took the time to read the exhibits.  We told one couple there was a waterfall beyond the bridge.  "Yeah, right," the guy said, rolling his eyes.

 Oh, well, we tried!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Alluvial Fans

Death Valley National Park

Alluvial Fans.  Alluvial Fans.  My travel buddy and I found ourselves repeating these words often as we drove nearly 500 miles through Death Valley.

"Look.  Another alluvial fan."

"Wow.  Look at that one.  That alluvial fan is massive."

"Is that an alluvial fan over there?"

I swear the older we get, the more nerdy we become.   But "alluvial fan" has such a nice rhythm to it.  The words roll over our tongues with alliterative buoyancy.
Alluvial fans are fan-shaped deposits of gravel, sand and loose rock that are swept down the canyons in flash floods.  Consequently, most of them are found in desert areas where the precipitation is higher on the mountains.  By the time the water hits the valley floor, the stream is mostly silt.

It is the thrill of learning a new definition that made us repeat "alluvial fan" so much.  Death Valley is an amateur geologist's dream vacation.  Thanks to President Bill Clinton who signed the Desert Protection Act in 1994,  Death Valley is now the largest national park in the lower states.  It covers 3.4 million acres of land.  It has volcanic craters, salt fields, sand dunes, brightly-colored badlands and, of course, alluvial fans.

We'll take "Alluvial Fans" over "Elysian Fields" any day!

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Artist's Drive Loop

Death Valley National Park

The one-way narrow, curvy loop through the canyons of the Miocene Artist's Drive Formation was, by far, the highlight of our trip to this incredible national park.  It is only nine miles long, but expect to go slow and stop often.  We packed an ice chest with water, iced tea and sandwiches and made a day of it, hiking into the canyons for breathtaking views of the salt fields below.

 George Lucas filmed the opening scenes of his first Star Wars movie here.  Bravo to location scouts who discovered this place.  We walked among the red rock canyons where poor little R2D2 was zapped by Jawas and where Luke and Obi Wan finally connect.  The famous Sandcrawler scene where Luke and his uncle buy the two robots was filmed here, as well.  It did not take much of an imagination to believe we were on another planet.
A particularly colorful section of this area is called Artist's Palette.  A high concentration of oxidized minerals creates swaths of pink, green, yellow and blue on the mountain's face.  The formation is made up of gravel, ancient lake bed sediment and volcanic debris.  It is one of Death Valley's most
scenic spots.

It's no surprise that other directors have found their way here.   Spartacus, King Solomon's Mines, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Greatest Story Ever Told--all great movies and all filmed here.   The Star Wars crew returned to Death Valley to film portions of  Return of the Jedi.  Will they return for the next movie, too?   (We're just thrilled another one is being made!)

May the Force be with them!


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Lowest Points on Earth

Sea Level Sign Above Us

Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California has the dubious honor of being the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.*  It is an ugly, vast wasteland of salt--the ugliest place in the park, but the most popular.  Tour buses lined the parking lot and people of all nationalities poured out of them to have their picture taken by this sign.

My travel buddy and I were more interested in the maps that were displayed here.  We realized that we have  been to the lowest point in the world.   As we studied the maps, we relived that adventurous day back in 1987 when we drove to the Dead Sea, determined to go swimming there.  As we approached, we were stopped at a guard post.  "Your letter of permission, please," the guard said.

"What letter of permission?"

Well, we had to drive all the way back to Karak and get one from the local police station.  It was already late in the day, but we were determined.  After going on a wild goose chase all over town, trying to locate the right desk, we finally got the precious letter and sped back to the guard post.  They were both surprised and amused that these crazy Americans actually did it.  A guard jumped into our car and drove us to an abandoned school by the edge of the Dead Sea.  We were not allowed to take photographs.

 A watchman then let us through a fence and allowed us to swim, never taking his yellow eyes off me.  The water, of course, was warm and slimy.  Salt got into my eyes and I started to cry.  The watchman motioned for me to come with him.   We followed him back to the school where he chased a boy and three small goats out of  an empty room.  He pointed to a hose attached to an old rusty faucet and we got the message.  We took turns rinsing off with fresh water.  I  quickly put my clothes on over my wet swimsuit and walked back to the car.  My travel buddy stayed behind and gave him a tip.  He seemed pleased and beckoned us to stay for tea, but we declined.  The man was way too creepy!

Can't say Badwater Basin was any better.  These low elevation sites are interesting places, especially for travelers like me who want to go everywhere, but they always remind me of what lies below.  The earth's inner core is as hot as the sun.  Are these places gateways to hell?

*When we returned home we found out Badwater Basin has recently been demoted to second lowest place in the Western Hemisphere.  Laguna del Carbon in Argentina is now Number One at -344 ft.

"Darn.  Well, I guess we'll just have to go there," my buddy said.

Or not.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Ubehebe Crater

Death Valley National Park

Awesome.  An overused word in today's world.  But it fits.  To see this 2,000 year old crater is to see geology in action.  The day we were here, the wind was gusting to 40 knots.  Standing was difficult and as much as we wanted to walk around the rim, we couldn't.  The birds, which hovered above us, couldn't even make headway into the ferocious wind.

It was easy to imagine the rising magma and subsequent explosion.  The crater is 500 feet deep and one-half mile wide.  Cinder fields surround it.  It is Mother Nature at her most beautiful and her most violent.  Ubehebe Crater is truly awesome.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Scotty's Castle

Death Valley National Park

We all need a good-natured scoundrel in our lives.  A Han Solo or a Sawyer from Lost.  A bad boy with a heart of gold.  Why?  Because they make life so darn fun.  That's what Albert Johnson concluded when he realized Walter Scott had swindled him out of thousands upon thousands of dollars, hard earned money he had poured into Scotty's non-existent gold mine.  But then, he saw himself as a boring insurance executive from the Midwest and he was in chronic pain from an old injury.  Scotty may have lightened his load financially, but he provided relief for a man in dire need of escape.

  The relationship between these two men is a true Odd Couple story.  Scotty was a showman, an ex-cowboy and a performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.  When Johnson and his wife decided to build this beautiful home in Death Valley in 1922,  Scotty continued to tell everyone he was financing it himself from yet another secret gold mine.  Johnson kept mum and actually decided to befriend this scoundrel.  "I'm Scotty's banker," he told visitors.  Many of them had no idea he was the real owner-- a millionaire and successful businessman, to boot.  It was all about Scotty.
My travel buddy and I took the Living History Tour of the mansion, and I highly recommend it.  The rangers who conduct the tours are showmen themselves.  Our guide dressed in a period costume and enthralled us with stories as we walked through the exquisitely appointed rooms.  Mrs. Johnson came from money, was educated at Stanford, and demanded (and could afford) the best.  The house is filled with carpets and tiles from Spain, art from Italy and an extensive collection of Native American baskets.
Scotty's Bedroom

Scotty had his own bedroom just off the living room but because Mrs. Johnson would not allow him to smoke or drink in her home, he rarely slept here, preferring to exit through the back door and stay in the cabins for the hired hands.  He did, however, eat with the Johnsons almost every night and entertained them and their guests with outlandish tales of his exploits, both real and imagined.  The house was officially called "Death Valley Ranch" but, of course, became known as "Scotty's Castle."

I have great respect for Albert Johnson.  He let his companion claim all the glory and even the title for one of the most exquisite properties in the West.  In a way, he intrigued me more than Scotty himself.  Self-assured, yet self-deprecating, generous to a fault, a stoic and ultimately, a man who simply loved a good story.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Sunrise at Zabriskie Point

Death Valley National Park

On April 8, 2013, two remarkable events occurred.  It rained in Death Valley where the annual rainfall is less than two inches.  Secondly, my travel buddy and I set the alarm for 5:30 am and actually got up when the darn thing rang.  We threw on some clothes and drove to Zabriskie Point from our cabin at Furnace Creek Ranch to catch the rising sun.

Three other photographers were already there with cameras attached to tripods and facing east.  We nodded to each of them and then looked at the black frothy clouds above us.  "This is either going to be spectacular or a complete dud," one of them said.

The black sky turned charcoal and then navy blue.  As the sun rose behind the clouds, a strip of daylight formed beneath them.  The landscape turned into a tapestry of pewter and bronze.  The photographers packed up and left.  "A dud," that same fellow said.

A dud?   How could a photographer (of all people) be so blind?  Sure, there were no brilliant streaks of orange and red, but the mountains were veiled in blues--an otherworldly view one does not see every day.

 On April 8, 2013, the sunrise at Zabriskie Point was not a dud; it was spectacular.