Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It Takes a Hole to Know a Mountain

This has been quite a day. A long day. An eventful day. An exciting day. A great day. In every sense, a day of extremes.

It began far earlier than any day has the right to begin, when my alarm went off at 1:45am, way back in Las Vegas (that place seems a thousand miles away now). A half hour later, I was on the road, charging out of Sin City towards Death Valley. I must have passed over mountains, because my engine was working hard to maintain speed, and Copina Jr. indicated that I was gaining in elevation, but that was all the proof I had. This was the first serious nighttime driving I’ve done on this trip (probably the most serious nighttime driving I will do on this trip). While I had seen the darkness the desert can produce, I never had to drive through it before. Now that I have, I can report that it really does get incredibly dark. Even with the Las Vegas lights reflecting off the clouds, there still wasn’t enough light to see 20 feet on either side of me.

Since I made my way up the winding road to Dante’s View well before dawn, I had the chance to see (and nearly kill) many of the desert creatures that only come out in the relative cool of the night. I was constantly swerving to avoid what I thought of as “mousy things,” rat-like animals with long tails that crossed the road in nice straight lines. The park map eventually told me that they’re called kangaroo rats. I think mousy thing is a much better name. The other frequent visitor I encountered on that early morning drive was the jackrabbit. Of the dozens I passed, not one of them seemed to understand that the fastest way to avoid danger is to move in a straight line. Darting back and forth, going halfway across the road and then turning back, these things obviously had a death wish. I felt like a responsible park-goer when I decided I would use my high beams not because I couldn’t see, but because I wanted to be able to spot the rabbits before they ran under my wheels.

I arrived at Dante’s View, my first stop in Death Valley, about 20 minutes before dawn. I wasn’t going there at sunrise just for the sake of watching the sun rise, but because I knew that I had a limited window of time in the morning when Death Valley would be habitable, before heating up to unbearable levels. In fact, the temperature first broke 100 degrees at 7:24am.

The first thing that struck me about Dante’s View (and that became a recurring theme in the park) was the deafening silence. Standing still, with no one else around and with no breeze, the complete lack of sound closed in around me, giving my ears a sort of sound withdrawal, anticipating the arrival of a sound – any sound – soon. I’ve never experienced a space so large that was simultaneously so quiet. 

Dante’s View is perched atop the Black Mountains to the east of Badwater Basin, and overlooks Badwater and the Panamint Mountains to the west. So I was focused on the western view as the sun began to rise, hoping that it would illuminate the valley below in an interesting way (since I had heard that this was the best place to watch the sunrise). When nothing was happening, I looked around to the east, where the sky was on fire above yet more mountains. So I picked up the tripod, walked across the parking lot, and took some pictures of that.

After a few minutes, I decided the show was over and that the valley to the west would probably look more interesting now.

After taking a few pictures of that, I would turn back around and see that the eastern sky had changed, so I’d march back across the parking lot again.

This process repeated at least 4 times before the sun was high enough that I decided it was time to move on. The eastern view definitely wins, in my book.

My next stop, chosen because I wanted to see it, and because it allowed me to follow a route with the least possible retracing of my steps, was Zabriske Point. This strange yet beautiful collection of petrified sand dunes, colorful mineral-rich rock, and distant high mountain peaks looked incredible under the early morning light. And, because it was only 6:45, I was able to hike up the few hundred yards without feeling like I was about to die.

Leaving Zabriske Point, I turned south to what I assume is the park’s main attraction – Badwater Basin. Having descended from Dante’s View’s 5,000 feet of elevation, Badwater sits 270 feet below sea level and is the lowest point in North America. It’s also the hottest and driest point in the country. .Sounds lovely, I know. But even here, evidence of this winter’s record snowfall over the Sierra Nevada abounded. Parts of the basin were covered in thick green shrubberies that I’m sure don’t belong there in the middle of July. Still, the valley floor was otherwise dry.

At Badwater, you park the car, and then take a little boardwalk out onto the salt flats. I assumed that, even though there was no defined trail, once I got out into the middle of the valley there would be a marker or a sign or something to tell me I’d reached a destination. Nope. After walking about ¾ of a mile, I realized that the only things ahead of me were salt and the Panamint Mountains, so I turned back. It was only then that I noticed the sign marking sea level, high up on the cliffs behind where I had parked.

Look for that sign just above and to the right of the center.
I tried my best not to imagine what it would look and feel like if suddenly the gorge in which I was standing were filled with seawater. It would have definitely sucked. I contemplated that possibility as I had breakfast 1 football field below sea level.

My last destination in Death Valley (aside from the Visitor Center), was Artist’s Drive – a 9-mile scenic loop road on the way back north from Badwater. I didn’t remember why I wanted to go there, but I knew that I had written it down for a reason, so off I went (side note: I think I’ve been doing a very good job on this trip of following through with my plans. At home, I’ll make a list of things I want / need to do, and when it’s down to 1 or 2 things left, I’ll usually just decide I don’t really feel like doing them. For the past 2 weeks, I don’t think I’ve intentionally blown off a single destination). Artist’s Drive was well worth the trip.

At the first turnout on the road, I saw what looked like trails leading from the road to the top of a small hill a few dozen yards away. So I decided to go see what I could see from up there. When I realized I couldn’t see anything interesting, I made that my last side trip until I got out of the 100+ degree heat. Continuing on, evidence of mineral runoff from the surrounding mountains became more and more apparent in the colors of the rock formations. One point, known as the Artist’s Palette, is a maze of white, brown, tan, pink, purple, red, green, and black swatches of rock.

Artist's Palette
The final stretches of Artist’s Drive were channels cut through giant tilted chunks of rock, all displaying the same unusual and vibrant colors that had comprised the rest of the scenic drive.

In all, Death Valley surprised me by how much I enjoyed being there. Yes, it was hot, but not unbearably hot (and if that’s true on July 25, it’s probably possible any day). Everywhere I looked I was confronted with something natural I had never seen the likes of before, and around every turn is a great picture. I would definitely consider returning in the spring or fall, when the highest mountains are covered in snow, and when the temperature would allow me to do a bit more exploration.

Leaving Death Valley was more of a challenge than I had anticipated. It was at this point that the 3.5 hours of sleep I’d gotten the night before finally began to catch up with me. I began chugging (is that what you call it for a solid?) granola bars and Teddy Grahams to help stay awake. It’s a good thing I did, too, because I was about to face the most frightening road I’d ever driven.

Getting out of Death Valley involves climbing out of the sub-sea level basin, over the Panamint Mountains to the west – some of which rise as high as 11,000 feet. In the courts of about 5 miles, I ascended 5000 feet, over a windy 2-lane highway that hugged the sides of mountains, often with no guardrail. With a speed limit of 55, I was quite happy doing 40 on the straightaways, thank you very much. It didn’t help that behind me was some dude in a pickup bearing down on me. But I held my ground and refused to speed up to make him happy. It’s a pretty easy decision to give a big ol’ FU to the jerk behind you when the other option is plunging off a cliff and being eaten by bighorn sheep.

Finally, after 11 days on a horse with no name, I made it out of the desert and almost immediately noticed my next exciting destination looming on the horizon – the Sierra Nevada.

The most jagged mountain range in the country, I had always imagined them to be the most impressive, even after the approach to Pike’s Peak. The route I took north maximized this effect. I drove up the Owens Valley, a low flat dry lake bed running north-south for a hundred miles. On my right were the colorful Panamint Mountains, impressive in their own right, rising higher than anything I’d see in the northeast. On my left were the Sierra, the highest peaks in the continental United States. A line of 14,000+ foot summits ran as far as I could see in front of and behind me, standing as an imposing barrier to the rest of California. After the highest recorded snowfall ever in the Sierra last winter, many boasted a healthy snowpack, even in the middle of the summer. Appearing to rise straight out of the valley, I wondered how in the hell I was going to manage to drive up and over them tomorrow.

I got my first glimpse into how that will work by making a left in Lone Pine and taking the Whitney Portal road. The gateway to Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48, this road is mainly traversed by climbers, as the Mt. Whitney trailhead lies at its terminus. I, on the other hand, just wanted to get as close to the tallest mountain in the country as I could. No need to actually climb it.

The summit of the road was at over 8,400 feet, and, lucky for me, contained a picnic area. I’m not sure why, though, as I appeared to be the only non-climber on the mountain. So I stopped there, had my lunch, and found a few choice pieces of granite to bring back for my classroom (it’s a national forest, not a national park, so managed use of resources is permitted, don’t worry). I’ll be spending a lot of time in the Sierra over the next week, but most of it will be in national parks, so I may not have the opportunity to collect any rock samples again.

Leaving Mt. Whitney, I had reached all my major destinations for the day, and I was ready for a nap. I managed to make my way another 120 miles north to my hotel in Mammoth Lakes, where I promptly collapsed for 2 hours. However, I was not in for the night! I had one more stop planned for the day.

Mammoth Lakes is nestled high in the eastern Sierra, and is a ski resort town in the winter. Driving around town, I realized it was what I had wanted Aspen to be. Here, the rustic naturalism of the buildings is real, and the people here are not simply rich white guys looking to impress their trophy wives. The people I ran into all seemed to be happy to be spending time in a beautiful quiet mountain town, remote enough to be private but connected enough to not feel like the middle of nowhere.

My last destination, in Mammoth Lakes, was an overlook of the Minarets, an unusual and dramatic rock formation in the Sierra Nevada. Rising above other mountains in the area, the Minarets are a series of very jagged peaks that can be viewed from a small quiet area only 5 miles from my hotel. So that was my sunset destination for the day. Yes, this may be the only day when I see the sun rise and set on the same day.

The Minarets

At over 9,200 feet, it was downright cold up there. The car said 57, but with a steady and strong wind, it felt much colder than that. I’m going to have to bust out the jacket (but I can’t bring myself to bring out the long pants) for tomorrow’s trip over Tioga Pass. While the sunset over the Minarets may not have been particularly awe-inspiring (aside from the mountains themselves, which are), the setting sun cast a pink glow on the snow-capped peaks all around them. The snow actually came down to the level at which I was standing, and after leaving the viewing area, I found a large snow patch still over a foot thick.

From breakfast at -270 feet to lunch at 8,600 feet to dinner at 9,200 feet, from 102 degrees in Death Valley to 70 degrees on Mt. Whitney to 57 degrees surrounded by snow at the Minarets, from the Las Vegas and Death Valley deserts to Owens Valley farmland to alpine zones in the Sierra, from the over-the-top bombast of Las Vegas to the mountain-outfitter town of Lone Pine to the sleepy mountain community of Mammoth Lakes, this has been a day of extremes the likes of which I have never before experienced. It’s a fitting opening act for the next 4 days I’ll spend in and around Yosemite, which I fully expect to be the highlight of this entire adventure.

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