Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Valley of Death

The timing wasn't exactly optimal. But what could I do? I had booked the vacation at the Inn at Furnace Creek in Death Valley about eight months ago, before I had ever contemplated going to Spain. Now we were off on another jaunt with our friends S and T and we had barely got our sea legs back a week removed from the spanish voyage. Nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the ride I guess. Besides, neither Leslie and I had ever visited Death Valley and it was on my bucket list. So what if I'm broke?

We had to explain to the dog that he was going away once again and plead with the cat to forgive our second extended absence of the month. We met our pals at their house and drove up to our mutual destination, with one short stop at Tommy's in Barstow for needed sustenance in the form of chili cheeseburger. The ride went quickly in the new silver steed. Very quickly, S being of the pedal to the metal, Parnelli Jones temperament. They had been making the trip for over thirty years and we now had the privilege of accompanying them to one of their personal power spots.

We drove past the Amargosa Opera House, this day looking pretty tightly shut. Our friends had been stopping by there for ever, listening to chanteuse Marta Becket sing and dance. She retired last february after 45 years, the final curtain falling on the stage.

The Furnace Creek Inn is a pretty plush hotel, considering it is located in the middle of nowhere. The staff was courteous and professional, they whisked away our luggage and led us to our adjoining rooms, located as far away from civilization as possible at the resort. Although the Inn was full, we were practically alone all weekend, most of the guests at the Inn and the ranch on a major bike ride through the valley to raise funds for diabetes.

I pestered my comrades to take a short ride around the general area but they demurred. S finally relented and we rode down to the Devil's golf course to try to play nine. The golf course is a large field of salt crystals and quite picturesque. Walking on the salt beds is difficult and falls can be treacherous and painful. Might want to lay up.

Afterwards we took the bumpy road up to the Natural Bridge trailhead and hiked partially up the trail. Not knowing what was in store for us we finally decided to go back and get our bearings and try again another day. We corralled the women and had dinner in the dining room.

I am told that the dining room used to require a jacket. No longer but it was definitely swanky upscale. My friend Vlad had warned me not to try anything too adventurous but there is a new chef there and the food was actually pretty good.

I guess this is the point in the story when I should give you a bit of information about the general area. Death Valley is a narrow valley bordered by the tall Panamint Mountains on the west and the Amargosa and Funeral Mountain ranges to the east.

As everyone knows, it is the hottest place on earth. The hottest temperature ever recorded was 134° in Death Valley in 1913. Air temperatures regularly exceed 130° in the summer and ground temperatures can be 70° hotter than that. Badwater in Death Valley is the lowest point in the western hemisphere, at 282' below sea level.

The original native american inhabitants were the Timbisha, a Panamint Shoshone clan. Timbisha means red rock face paint, for the red clay that they used and that can still be seen in the hills near artist's palette. The Timbisha have been in the area for over one thousand years but the white folk tried to do some nasty stuff to get them out of there, including once even using high pressure hoses to destroy their homes.

The original native american word for Death Valley was Tomesha which means "this place is burning my god damn feet through my moccasins" in Shoshone. Gold miners seeking the rich lodes in California purportedly named it Death Valley while ensconced on the ridge of the Panamints, thanking the good lord that they would never again have to traverse the valley of death. If you need any more information you can look it up, like I did.

The next morning I got up way before dawn and drove up to the Mesquite Dunes area to see the sun rise. It was dark and I had no idea where I was going when I set out across the desert. There are really no trails out there. You see something and you walk towards it.

Walking on the dunes was an incredible experience for me as an artist and photographer. Wading through the temporal sea, you are charting through a vast, virgin canvas. I was one of the three first there on this fine morning. You are very conscious of your footsteps so early in the day, so as not to mar either the earth or another artist's sightline. In the afternoon it is a complete jumble, waiting for the night wind to reset nature's etch a sketch. I tried to walk on saddles and ridges and stay off the faces, to keep the surface clean.

The waveforms sometimes reminded me of the underside of a whale, other times of a supersweetened painting by the artist Paul Grimm. Camel backs and female torsos. So lovely. After the set of the sun I found my way back to the car and cleared a large quantity of sand from my shoes and socks.

Afterwards I drove back to a very good but quite expensive breakfast. Gas and food is pricey when you are in the middle of nowhere, bring piles of money, if you've got them. Not being rich, the past month has set me back on my heels a bit.

After a short rest our  group took a cruise, first to the West Side road, then Badwater and Devil's Golf Course again.

We finished our evening cruising up to Zabriskie point.

We went to the ranch and had pizza after dinner. A little less money and not too bad. The bicycle people were starting to saunter in, having finished their race. We came back exhausted and crashed. The hotel has some very cool schmaltzy paintings of old 49er presidents on the wall. This guy was my favorite, Paul DeDecker. Some say that the Inn is haunted by ghost's of old 49ers.

I rose again before dawn, catching  a few stray meteors hurtling out of my favorite constellation, Orion.

Drove back to Zabriskie. I was alone with an english marine biologist who just got done with a North Sea ocean survey.

Had the place to ourselves when they arrived.

A fifty armed squacking beast bearing cameras from every hydra like arm. Equal parts, Ansel Adams, hadassah and metamucil, the Contra Costa Camera Club hurtled onto the plateau in all its glory.

"Gladys, what's your iso? F stop anybody?  Don't fall, you'll break a hip." It was amazing to see these people commandeer every available sight line. I decided to amscray, and fast.

Photography is basically a singular pursuit for me. I enjoy the time creating by myself. I think I take up knitting before I ever subject myself to that. Loses something as a group effort.  I spent a lot of this time this morning bracketing and choosing various manual exposure settings. Hard to take a bad shot at Death Valley.

Somebody dropped a lens cap and went all the way to the bottom to retrieve it. Anyway I took a million shots at first light and look forward to processing them in the months ahead. Might have a few keepers. Kerry calls them money shots. He and Jasmine's photographs can be seen in every National Park in the west. Check out his new shot of the Superstitions at

I am reminded of Anders Aldrin's wonderful color woodblock print, Zabriskie Point.

And Antonioni's film of the same name that had the famous Dark Star passage from the Grateful Dead.

Went back to the hotel and grabbed an incredible brunch. Chef Renée outdid himself. Won't even go into detail but truly epic and except for one other couple at the end, we had the place to ourselves!

We ripped!

After brunch we swam and everybody relaxed, me a little bit, itching to get back on the trail and catch some more visual game. 

I took the car and drove up to Mosaic Canyon, a slot canyon reminiscent of some Utah formations I have visited and went for a nice hike by my lonesome. 

After the hike I trucked back to the dunes for late afternoon and sunset shots. I got back to the Inn after a long walk out, dead tired, low on water. Joined them in the dining room and started to feel really squirrely. Sweating and nauseous, slightly dehydrated, I excused myself and went back to the room, sleep off a mild case of heatstroke.

It was a very nice trip, want to thank our marvelous hosts who were just the best company. Set me back a bit but I look forward to returning one day. Couldn't do everything, but who can? Hope that you liked the pictures and didn't think that I had fallen into a hole. 

Dave told me this morning that there are people that will archive your blog for a hundred years after you die. Hmm. Might have to consider it. Hate to see everything I ever wrote go pow when some guy at google accidentally unplugs an extension cord and kills the whole system...


Ken Seals said...

Lots of beautiful images!

MC. said...

Lovely photographs, Robert.

Anonymous said...

Last dunes photo with the sky is excellent!
Clouds like that are hard to come by in Death Valley.


Anonymous said...

The music selection was a perfect complement to the beautiful images and well-written commentary