36 Hours in Death Valley: Solitude, Being Cool and Groovy, and Looking Like a Dickhead

“Aw shit!!!”

Bob jumped back as he dropped the 14 lb turkey into the deep frier, leaving one of his flip flops lying right where he launched from. The boiling hot oil erupted out of the top and gushed out all over the hard, clay, desert floor. Bob’s decision to cut school the day they taught displacement in class was about to prove catastrophic, as the cigarette dangling from his lips hovered over the molten oil flow.

His balancing act with his cancer stick was high-wire worthy. He wasn’t letting go of that cigarette even if it was grabbed by the talons of an eagle after being mistaken for an anorexic field mouse. His demonstration of skill and determination made an impression because we would have been within the blast radius of this culinary Hindenburg.

“Fucking Bob,” Greg looked up at me with one eyebrow raised; he threw on his jacket and nestled his beer as the sun was just hanging over the tips of the Panamint Mountains.

“Fucking Bob.”

Sunset over the Panamint Mountains from Stovepipe Wells Campground

48 hours earlier we went to an abandoned mine that took four hours of off-roading and steep hiking to reach; nary anything with a heartbeat crossed our paths. Today, we had both hiked 6 miles into a slot canyon that was so quiet, you could hear the low, swooping soundwaves from the flapping wings of the ravens reverberating off the canyon walls. But here at camp, we were surrounded by close to a hundred “campers” who filled the parking lot with their motorhomes. They were complete with roaring generators, air conditioning and satellite dishes hanging from their roofs. Can’t let a little nature cause you to miss Dancing with the B-listers.

As the turkey fried away, the zombies inhabiting these crypts of modernity slowly started filing out and stumbling over to Bob’s camp as if they smelled fresh brains. Bob planted a cold beer in everyone’s hand as they arrived and the atmosphere grew festive. It was in stark contrast to the two cynical assholes sitting around their campfire like a bunch of sneering hipsters in self-righteous judgement. Everyone that passed through our camp said hello or stopped briefly for a chat. My conscience twinged as the warmth and good nature of these pilgrims embraced us, yet belied the brash and belligerent horses that they rode in on.

Our favorite travel companions

Technology driven changes to infrastructure, communications and transportation has made finding relative solitude more elusive. It has also brought, shall we say, a diversity in the way that people choose to engage with the outdoors. Our National Parks have done a wonderful job of increasing accessibility, which fills them with even more visitors taking in their majesty. This is a good thing. But, it does come at a cost. There are areas of our parks that have a higher density of bipeds than a Walmart in Fresno on Black Friday. And not all of these visitors are carrying the “Leave-No-Trace” rules in their pockets.

Death Valley National Park is the largest park in the lower 48 at 5,219 sq miles, or 3.4 million acres. That’s a lot of space. But like most parks, you still have to put in a little effort to get away from the crowds. The good news is that the masses tend to hover around full-service campsites and places where you can experience the park without having to walk very far from one’s car. I’ve found, in general, that if you get just one mile out from where you can park a car, you’re likely to find that solitude. In the morning, we’d aggressively pursue that solitude with a 22.5 mile dirt road drive to the Racetrack which, according to most guidebooks, is one of the most remote and least accessible parts of the park.

The drive to the Racetrack from the highway is notable. You begin the trip at the Ubehebe Crater. Besides the occasional conspiracy theorist wearing his tin foil hat and smearing himself in peanut butter claiming otherwise, the cause of this crater was not extraterrestrial. It was formed when magma, from a small fault line, creeped up towards the surface and met with groundwater. Intense steam was created and built up until it blew this massive hole in the ground. It happened only “recently,” between two and seven thousand years ago.

Ubehebe Crater and the start of the journey to the Racetrack

Starting at the crater, the route is 22.5 miles of “off-road” driving. High clearance is recommended, but while it might be a little bumpy, if it isn’t raining, you could make it there in your Honda Civic. But not a Prius, because if you hit a bump in that, while perpetually stuck at 43 mph in the fast lane, you will probably explode. Or I will hope you will.

Many of the notes about this road describe an extremely remote area of the park. The proverbial “middle of nowhere.” I never really felt that way. While it wasn’t the 101 in rush hour traffic, we never went more than 20 min without passing a truck or five returning. The road was just enough of an off-road experience that you’d slow down considerably when someone passed, while giving a quick wave and a nod. Well, except for one knucklehead, who blew right past us at 45 mph spitting rocks all over our car. I offered a blessing to the gods after he passed hoping that he would contract Ebola while getting bitten by a rabid coyote.

For 16 of the 22.5 miles, you slowly gain altitude, going from around sea level to just over 3,700 feet. The light brush at the beginning then turns to a sea of Joshua Trees. There are also some Cholla Cacti scattered amongst them. The rat-bastard, beady-eyed Cholla is a menace created in the 7th Circle of Hell. As a kid, I got intimate with one after I took a wide turn on a desert bike trail we built in Tucson. Being the genius engineers that we were, we put a 90 degree turn right in front of one. I think I still have spikes embedded in by backside from that move. On our way out of the park on the last day, Greg got intimate with one when he went out taking pictures of the Joshua Trees.

Joshua trees on the way to the Racetrack

About two-thirds of the way to the Racetrack, there’s the park’s most colorful landmarks: Teakettle Junction. All it is, is a sign pointing the way either to the Racetrack or Hunter Mountain (or to Grapevine Station if you’re coming from the other direction). For some reason, people bring and hang teakettles from it. No one really knows their origin, although there are all kinds of unconfirmed theories that aren’t credible or interesting enough to even mention. It is just a little welcomed shlock contrasting with the severity of the harsh desolate environment surrounding it; kind of like those sweet 150 ft dinosaurs off of the I-10 from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.

While I was snapping away with my camera, Greg shuffled over to the car, pacing back and forth near it. He was getting excited to get to the Racetrack and was tired of me being shitty with my camera. Greg is relatively new to the outdoors, but in the last year, he’s gone on a few trips with me (and now a lot more as a travel editor for Yahoo Travel — yeah, I know, fuck him). He’s just the kind of guy that you want to go on a trip with. He’s pretty much up for anything, rarely complains and can endure an ample amount of suffering. Plus he brings a solid music collection for the road trip. It is fun being out here with Greg; it is like watching a little kid eat chocolate for the first time.

“Look at thaaaat,” Greg pointed ahead, leaning forward and snapping pictures through the windshield.

He said exactly what was in my heart. As we turned around the last bend, we saw the first visual of the Racetrack playa. A searing bright tabletop surrounded by mountains, radiating the high-noon sunlight that tried to shoot through our eyes like the ghosts did to the Nazis after they opened the Ark of the Covenant in Raider’s of the Lost Ark.

The playa is a dried out endorheic basin. Endorheic basins drainage areas are where water collects, but never flows out. The only way water leaves the basin is through the ground or evaporation. This causes the remaining water or pan (the bottom) to be filled or covered in salt. The Dead Sea is the most famous example. This playa, however, is almost always dry. It is 3 miles long and about a mile and a half across. It is flat as a board, looking like a washboard stomach supporting the surrounding voluptuous mountains.

The first place you can park and get out is at the Grandstand. It is a formation of a type of igneous rock: Quartz Monzonite. It is volcanic and predates the endorheic basin that surrounds it. It’s a perfect place to climb up for a better view.

Greg in full badass mode on top of Grandstand
The Grandstand

Walking out onto the playa to the Grandstand with the handful of folks that made the trek out with us, we saw the first sign that some asshole preceded us. Some nincompoop decided it was a good idea to drive their fucking vehicle right out onto the playa. A single footprint in the wet basin after a rain could last for years. I’m no Columbo, so I have no idea who did it and when, but my blood started boiling as if I was sitting on the Devil’s lap in Badwater in mid-July. Due to the actions of one person, one of the most remote and delicate areas of the park gets this nice human shit stain on it for us to enjoy for years to come.

Tire tracks left by previous thoughtful travelers

People have a place in national parks. But, like everything human beings do, there is a continuum of taste in how we interact and connect with the environment. Eddie Izzard explains this concept wonderfully:

“Cool” is a pursuit of youth, it’s a fashion link thing being cool. It’s linked to the circle- you’ve got “Looking Like a Dickhead” over here, “Average Looking,” “Kind of Cool,” “Cool,” “Hip and Groovy…” “Looking Like a Dickhead”! …

There was a look back in the ‘50s that was a matchstick out of the corner of your mouth, in the sort of James Dean kind of era, and it was considered quite cool. It’s quite timeless as well, it just works, I don’t know quite why; you lean up against a wall, and you have it there, and you roll it around, and occasionally you pull it out and go,

“Hey, you, kids! You kids be cool…”

…So one matchstick out of the corner of your mouth, mm-hmm-hmm, quite cool. Second matchstick out the other side of the mouth, and you’re looking like a dickhead! You’re right… A third one in the front, looks like your teeth are sliding out…

Teakettle Junction is “Cool,” or maybe even “Hip and Groovy.” Driving your car onto the playa? “Looking like a dickhead.”

At the south end of the playa is the attraction that everyone comes to see: the “Sliding Rocks.” This area is so remote that it wasn’t until 2014 when researchers finally solved the mystery as to how they moved. In short, they found that on the occasion when it rains a couple of inches and the water is cold enough to freeze over night, the rocks get trapped in the ice and move when the ice breaks up as it warms. The breakup pushes these rocks across the slippery semi frozen, slippery mud and leaves long trails behind it.

Sliding Rock

Here’s a video that explains the phenomenon further:

There is only one area to camp without driving all the way back to where you came from. The flora around the area is so delicate, there is no camping allowed at any point along the 22.5 mile drive in. The campground, which was an old mining camp from the Lippincott Mine, is just under 2 miles south of the Racetrack Playa. There’s nothing there but some flat ground and one portapotty. There is no water, so you have to carry it all in. We set up camp there in the late afternoon and were the only souls there for a couple of hours. A young family of four from Calgary quadrupled the population at camp, setting up on the opposite end. Unlike us, most people just make the drive, then turn around and head back in the same direction. You cannot buy this kind of solitude anywhere, but if you could, it would probably be out of my price range. Then again, I own an adventure travel startup and need to put buying a KitKat bar on layaway.

Homestake Campground — the only campground near the Racetrack

After setting up camp, we lounged around it like a couple of house cats, ambivalent to time or purpose. As the late afternoon turned to evening, we hopped back into the car and drove back to the Racetrack Playa. Equipped with a couple of extra layers and hot beverages in our thermoses, we were back on top of the Grandstand to watch the sun to go down.

Greg and I doing a recap of our trip from the top of the Playa.
Dusk from the Grandstand
Me on the top of the Grandstand

As darkness enveloped us, Greg and I got down off the Grandstand and walked out into the dead center of the playa. We put our packs down as pillows, laid down and just stared up. The area was devoid of wildlife, crowds, wind or exploding turkey fryers. I’ve been alone in the outdoors too many times to count and while there is almost always absolute peace, I have never experienced the absolute silence I did lying there sprawled out on the playa. The dry salt lakebed absorbed the silence even further. Absolute silence does not bring absolute peace at first. Just the opposite. Like an FM scanner frantically searching for even a hint of a signal, my ears wanted something. But then, I looked up, and the heavens above opened up, and everything came alive. We’d found the terrifyingly peaceful “middle of nowhere.”

Capturing the last remaining glimpse of sunlight over the mountains

We took turns walking a few hundred feet away from each other, solo and without lights, to feel the true aloneness that came in the darkness. Then we laid back under the stars again, waiting for the moon to rise. Since it was 3 days after the full moon, it would take about an hour for it to come up. I looked off into the distance and coming down the main road was a sharp light heading down the only road from the east.

“Looks like someone is really lost,” Greg whispered.

“Maybe it is a Ranger coming out here to check on things, or maybe Bob is delivering some turkey leftovers.”

It took the vehicle a while to traverse down into the valley and it parked in the lot next to our car. A bunch of people got out and started talking to each other as if they just walked out from the first row at a Metallica concert. They immediately turned on about ten massive Coleman lanterns, lighting up the parking lot so brightly we could see it from a half a mile away. Our fellow visitors came in with the subtlety and delicacy of a B-52 carpet bombing Chevy Suburbans on the Mall of America Parking Lot.

And they wouldn’t. Shut. The Fuck. Up. After ten minutes of this, I had to make the distance between us at a half mile become two or I was going to end up, like on Grand Theft Auto, with 5 stars over my head. Crisis averted: putting a little more distance between us worked like a charm.

The gods of the sky in ancient mythology are always described as easy to anger and spiteful. If those myths were written by people who lived out here, the entirety of human history might have been written much differently. About the time that we nestled into our new spot, the tips of the Last Chance Mountains to the West started to light up under a soft, bluish purple light. Where you could once see nothing, the mountains slowly began to reveal themselves out of the total blackness under this soft light. To the east, the Cottonwood Mountains still covered the rising moon. Just as the bottom of the Last Chance Mountains were uncovered, the tip of the moon poked out over the top, beaming its moonlight out across and lighting up the entire playa. After being in the darkness for so long, I caught myself squinting. Then the moon bursted into the sky and it was so bright, you could see not only the contours of the hexagonal cracks, but the individual grains of the salt while walking around.

After hiking under the moonlight for about an hour or so, we decided to call it and get back to camp. We noticed that the group of hyenas split up. The cackly sojurners that ventured out onto the playa did so with their lanterns on, completely defeating the purpose of hiking out there under the moonlight. The others were still next to our car yelping away. When we got close enough (and by that, I mean 500 feet) we figured out that they were speaking Mandarin. Another hundred feet closer and could hear the sounds of brush snapping. A few more steps and we could see that they were setting up camp in a protected area.

“Excuse me?”

Silence. Finally.

“Hi, how are you?”

There were two Chinese women in camp and one of them responded in broken English, “Hi. I’m fine.”

“So, just want you to know, you cannot camp here. This is a protected area. Very delicate. You can get fined a lot of money. See?” I pointed to the sign that was directly next to them that not only said “NO CAMPING,” it also had a giant picture of a tent with red Don’t Sign across it.

“Oh, ok. So sorry,” the lady farthest from us, dropped the tent stakes from both tents to the ground clearly indicating at least she understood me.

“There is only one place to camp out here. We’re staying there, too. There are plenty of campsites there and it is only a couple of miles down the road. Lots and lots of room,” I said it between my teeth knowing that they’d be bringing their racket with them.

“Oh, ok.”

“Also, this is a very quiet place. Please be more considerate and keep your voices down.”

“Oh ok.”

“Or mountain lions will eat you.”

“Oh really?”

“They don’t like big mouths late at night.”

The last few lines were played out in my head. Tough guy talk.

We took off back to camp and crashed after throwing down a few glasses of wine. I woke up at first light and stepped out into the freezing air to empty the wine I drank before bed scanning the campground.

“Those bastards didn’t show up. When we walked away, they just put their tents back up.”

Greg popped his head out and just yawned at my indignancy before having his coffee. He had the right idea. Inspired, I started having visions of omelets, bacon and hot coffee in Bishop. It was time to blow this popcicle stand.

Unlike every other group we saw at the Racetrack, we opted to take the Lippincott Road out into Saline Valley to the north. It was shorter in time and distance to 395 from the Racetrack, but this road maxes out on the Pucker-Your-Bunghole Scale. It was unbelievably fun, but it drops 3,000 ft in just a couple of miles. There were a couple of really steep sections with a few sections of washouts revealing big exposed boulders. I bottomed out the Subaru a few times. Knowing there was a free and easily accessible eTicket straight to the bottom of the canyon just a foot away just made us turn the Metallica up louder.

If you have the means and the confidence, this drive is worth every bead of sweat. The valley opens up and the west side of the Last Chance Mountains are covered in massive boulder fields. The drive continues through Jackass Canyon (might some of my ancestors have traveled through here?), where you climb up again to an altitude high enough to find deciduous and, even higher, evergreen trees. There is a beautiful pass looking down on Panamint Valley and Dunes. A few more miles and you descend back down into the dry valley filled with a sea of Joshua Trees that made the one on the east side of the playa look like a coupe of weeds in a sidewalk crack.

In the canyon, we got out of the car to take a few photos. Right as I shut off the car engine, an F-18 with full afterburner roared just over our head. My three-day stubble jumped off my face and ducked under a rock. Seconds later we were jumping up and down, high fiving each other and asking for a clean pair of shorts.

An F-18 with full afterburner buzzing Jackass Canyon? Looking cool and kinda groovy. Tourists from China screaming at each other, blazing their lanterns on the Racetrack Playa under the natural light of the full moon while destroying the delicate environment? Looking like a dickhead.

This isn’t our video. But someone captured an F-18 buzzing through Panamint Valley. This is something that happens quite often out here.

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