Death Valley: Hellish and Heavenly

My first road trip through Death Valley, a little over two years ago, was part of a much bigger trip (see blog titled California, Land of Extremes) and only scratched the surface, that surface being mostly paved roads over three days. This time I dedicated a road trip exclusively to Death Valley, intending to take seven to ten days to really explore the largest national park in the Lower 48, which meant far more backroad travel.  My main photography goal was the “traveling rocks” at The Racetrack (more on that later).  And this time I was equipped with relatively new all-terrain, heavy-duty tires and almost triple the solar power, so I felt much more prepared to experience both a bit of the heavenly and the hellish of Death Valley.  Again it was winter, though.  You couldn’t pay me enough to try it in the summer, when the scales are tipped way too much toward the hellish.

So, let the new adventure begin…

March 4th, Sunday:  I finally made it out of Boise at 9:45 AM and spent the whole day driving through desolate parts of Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada, but listening to Keith Richards’ book titled Life got me through it without falling asleep at the wheel.  I’d started Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, but to my surprise and disappointment I didn’t find it funny or entertaining, so I switched to Life, which sustained me despite Johnny Depp’s uninspired narration (or droning, one might call it).  Keith Richards, “looking legendarily like death warmed over,” also narrates a bit (I use the word “narrates” loosely: “It’s more of a slurmumble… Words run together and then get coated in cigarette smoke and that thick accent”), but the story of the Rolling Stones is fascinating, especially for a lifelong fan.

5 PM: About 50 miles north of Tonopah, Nevada, I pulled off Highway 376 onto a snow-covered dirt road, well short of the National Forest campground called Peavine Creek (I’d mistaken this road for the one to the campground a mile farther). The gate had a sign on it saying “PLEASE CLOSE,” so I opened it, drove through, and then closed it before driving about 100 yards to a cleared area where I parked. The sun was setting and I had about five minutes to take shots from the first campsite of my trip, a typical winter scene in Nevada where the temperature was already below freezing at sunset:

March 5th, Monday, 6 AM: I awoke to a crisp morning of 11 degrees outside and a cozy 45 inside my camper. Continuing through Nevada, well south of Tonopah and closer to California, I pulled over and walked off the road to shoot some chilly burros, and then shot another scene through the windshield as I was cruising:

Driving through the urban abomination called Pahrump, Nevada, I saw a huge billboard for a politician running for office, proclaiming “I’ll fight for your guns!”  Another huge billboard in Pahrump proclaimed that marijuana was now legal in the state and directed motorists to the nearest pot store, probably not a likely development in my adopted home state of Idaho in my lifetime (but you never know!).

My only mission in Pahrump was to refuel, find wi-fi at a Starbucks to download the rest of my audio books and get a final latte before entering the wilderness.  My GPS directed me to an Albertson’s with a Starbucks sign outside. They didn’t have wi-fi, and they directed me to the Denny’s across the parking lot, but their bandwidth was too weak, so I switched to cellular data, did the download, and got the hell out ASAP.  I was in no mood, this congested, charmless urban environment was rubbing me the wrong way.

After trying to turn left on the main road in steady traffic at mid-day, I finally gave up and detoured right. I refueled at an Arco and headed to Death Valley by way of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge on the Nevada-California border, where I spent an hour exploring this desert oasis.  An interesting feature was a restored one-room cabin built in 1894 by a rugged individualist named Jack Longstreet. “This infamous prospector, gunman, and horse breeder” built his cabin on a natural spring, which cooled his stone cabin.  (I could identify with his green-mindedness: He used natural springs to cool his house, and I use solar power in my camper to cool my beer.)  I didn’t see much wildlife except for a couple of lizards and the famous pupfish that stopped construction of a resort community with a golf course in the 1970s.  (First the pupfish, then the spotted owl, as you might remember.)

Upon entering Death Valley National Park I saw a sign that reminded motorists that despite marijuana being legal in California it was still prohibited in national parks, being federal land, lest anyone forgets.

My plan was to start at the southeastern part of the park on Rte. 178 at Shoshone, CA, and work my way north. I was hoping to see wildflowers but saw none in this area. I expected to stay at least one night around Jubilee Pass, but nothing photogenic caught my eye, and I soon found myself approaching Badwater at the tail end of sunlight. I pulled into the parking lot, which was almost full, and walked out onto the salt flats to see what I could see. I’d been there two years ago and had shot a scene at sunrise while standing in the middle of the soggy salt flats with soggy shoes. This time the sun was disappearing and I had just enough time to shoot a scene within 100 feet of the parking lot, with dry feet:

When the sun dipped behind the mountain range and the whole salt flats were cast in shadow, I kept driving north, wondering where I would sleep tonight. I drove up the dirt road to the Natural Bridge parking lot and decided to camp there overnight. Camping there was prohibited, as per the sign, but the parking lot was well hidden from the main road, so I decided to chance it. There was an outhouse, and no visitors at dusk, so it was a good bet. I shot the view from my campsite at dusk:

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March 6th, Tuesday: My plan was to get up at pre-dawn and drive further north to Dante’s View overlook, which would give me a great view of the valley at sunrise.  First I stopped at the Devil’s Golf Course on the salt flats and shot the scene under moonlight:

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I hustled up the mountain only to find that the road to Dante’s View was closed (duh, a fact posted on the park’s website!), so I doubled back and stopped at Zabriskie Point to take some shots as a consolation. I’d shot there before and hadn’t planned on a second round; the cloud-filtered light on the formations today was muted, rendering the landscape in pastels rather than in the vivid colors of two years earlier:

I also took the dirt road through the badlands called Twenty Mule Team Canyon, adjacent to Zabriskie Point, and stopped for lunch:

As I mentioned, aside from wildflowers, my main goal in the park was shooting the traveling rocks at Racetrack Valley, which I’d only recently heard about. I’d run across a similar phenomenon in the Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia but failed to photograph it. In Death Valley this large, dry lakebed, or playa, is called The Racetrack because of rocks that mysteriously move across the flats and make “ghost tracks” with no apparent impetus, as the rocks are too heavy to be moved by wind alone. Scientists finally figured it out only in 2014, but the phenomenon makes for intriguing photographs, and I aimed to add a few shots to my portfolio.

I stopped at Furnace Creek to refuel ($4.00 per gallon!) and consult the rangers at the visitors center. The ranger confirmed my route to Racetrack Valley, pointing out the campground on the map, and advised heavy-duty tires for the trip. She also advised me that taking the shortcut for the return trip involved “technical four-wheel-driving,” where people often go in convoys “in case they need to winch themselves out.” I resolved to take her advice and return the same way I drove in, which was also advised by my photographer friend Greg Jahn, who’d shot a traveling rock a few months ago that inspired me.

I headed for Racetrack Valley, and 30 miles into the trip I arrived at the start of the unpaved road with a sign warning me to drive a maximum of 20 mph with heavy-duty tires due to the washboard road surface, to plan on an ”arduous” half-day journey round-trip, and to expect a flat tire at least once due to sharp rocks. Racetrack Valley was 30 miles ahead, so I pulled over and girded myself with lunch.  I planned to camp at Racetrack at least two nights to get the shots I wanted, especially given the trouble to get there.

It was the most punishing road I’d ever traveled for such a distance. I’d been on rougher roads where I had to crawl carefully in low 4×4 gear, which requires intense concentration, no problem, but washboards at higher speeds like this, with fist-size rocks scattered throughout, are truly hell on Earth.  This road rattled my truck and brain, and by the time I arrived at the Racetrack I noticed that my upper rear teeth were sore because I’d been biting down in a death-gnash for so long, grimacing for 30 miles, as if my truck was an extension of my body.  My hands almost had blisters from my death-grip of the steering wheel. My neck and shoulders hurt from the tension. And yet I had to pull over twice to allow the local road veterans to pass me on their mission. They were guides driving their photography students on a workshop, with whom I eventually met up at the Racetrack. This was routine for them, once-in-a-blue-moon for me.

While one guide briefed his students in the parking lot I walked onto the dry lakebed to scout the prospects.  Greg’s great shot of a traveling rock had been lit in the foreground, with the background in shadow as the sunlight was disappearing behind the mountain range to the west. He shot it with a wide-angle lens that emphasized the isolation of the white rock against the vast, dark background. I was hoping for a similar shot, and I found Greg’s rock, the only one on the flats that was white instead of gray, but the light was completely different in Greg’s case, not likely to be repeated for me today, given the weather pattern and the sun’s seasonal trajectory having changed.  This afternoon’s light just didn’t cut it for me, and even when the sun dipped behind the mountain it was still high in the sky, and the afternoon’s shoot was shot, as far as I was concerned.  I went back to my camp and sat it out, and watched the photography students scramble around the playa with their tripods and cameras.  I hoped the next morning would be better, especially when the students would be gone.

March 7th, Wednesday: Alone at the pullout now, I woke up at dawn to catch the color of the sunrise, which was like a gigantic firestorm rising from the other side of the mountain:

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But the light evened out as the sun rose, and the good light disappeared within a half-hour before the clouds set in.  Just for demonstration purposes I managed to squeeze in some interesting shots before the clouds arrived and again in late afternoon when the clouds cleared out.  Absent Greg’s dramatic afternoon light, I resorted to using a telephoto lens, at least, to compress the background in order to see the mountains behind the rocks more prominently:

Still, I wanted something better, as dramatic as Greg’s shot, something the day-tripping workshop students wouldn’t get. This morning’s fire-like sunrise clued me in that shots at dawn, rather than the afternoon, would be the best bet to give me what I was looking for.  I spent the rest of the day reading and lounging, trying to enjoy the silence that the Park Service brochure touts: “Death Valley… so empty, so vast, so simple, so quiet… “

That last claim is really a stretch, with little relation to reality for most tourists, I’m afraid. What’s the fly in the ointment, you ask? It’s the people of Earth, dear reader. For instance, one guy arrived and promptly launched a noisy drone that he flew for about a half-hour, despite clearly posted park regulations (“The use of drones is prohibited”); much worse, throughout the day, extremely loud fighter jets often flew overhead from China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station bordering the park to the south, and I did hear several bombs explode in the distance; and one guy in a black low-rider SUV from the ‘hood with Florida plates arrived and parked about 50 feet away and never opened his door or window as he played his radio loudly for a couple of hours. He finally turned off the radio near dusk and then wandered onto the lakebed, disappearing until dark. He returned to listen to his only radio station, which featured a deep-voiced commentator who droned on until almost 10 PM while I tried to sleep.

March 8th, Thursday:  I woke up at 5:15 AM and geared up.  While my camper was a cozy 50 degrees inside, it was 28 degrees outside. My fingers used to hurt in such temperatures as I adjust camera settings and change lenses, etc., but no more of that, having discovered “Hot Hands,” a modern miracle for the pocket. My fingers were now fully functional, and for the next hour I got the following digital shots, which fulfilled my Racetrack mission (my film shots are pending):

At 6:30 AM I went back to the camper and ate breakfast to a CD of Vaughan Williams, Erik Satie, Samuel Barber, Gabriel Faure, and Percy Grainger, loud enough to mask Mr. Florida’s radio station (but undetectable outside my camper), as he was up and listening to Mr. Droning Man again (I couldn’t make out the words, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Johnny Depp).

Right after breakfast I quickly packed up and left Mr. Florida and Mr. Droning Man behind, heading for another pullout about two miles to the north, at the northern end of the Racetrack. The pullout was across from the Grandstand rock feature, which I planned to shoot at last light that afternoon from the hiking trail up the mountainside.

I was impressed that a Prius, of all possible vehicles, was parked there, and two twenty-something guys from California were still sleeping on cots outside. They’d brought mountain bikes in the trunk. I parked quietly and strolled out to the intriguing Grandstand rocks in the middle of the lakebed, climbing to the top, about 70 feet high.  I hung around until mid-afternoon, reading my book (Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life) and waiting for the afternoon light. Aside from the fighter jets, it was mostly quiet with occasional tourists in 4×4 vehicles stopping to chat and read the plaque about The Grandstand and The Racetrack. At 3 PM I was left alone and I hiked up the mountain trail for about an hour and took some photos. My truck can be seen parked at the near (western) edge of the lakebed…

At about 5 PM I packed up and headed back up the dirt road to the northern edge of the park, taking this shot…

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… before stopping at the overlook to see Ubehebe Crater (impressive, but the light on the crater was bad for photos).  By then my truck and I had gotten used to washboards and averaged about 20 miles per hour, and we arrived at the Mesquite Spring Campground just after dusk, grabbing one of the two remaining campsites.  Back on paved road, my truck seemed no worse for wear, but my tooth still ached a bit from the hellish drive two days earlier.

At the campground I noticed a sign restricting RV generator usage between 7 AM and 7 PM, and I didn’t hear any generators near my campsite, but one guy sleeping across the road was snoring loud enough to qualify. Fortunately, I was so tired that I fell asleep by 9 PM. Tomorrow morning was the first for which I didn’t need to get up at the crack of dawn to shoot anything. The 1,800-foot elevation of the campground was significantly lower than on the lakebed (3,714 ft.), so it was warmer, too, so the forced-air furnace kicked on less often, which allows sounder sleep. I slept like a log, the best sleep so far on this trip. And boy, did I dream…

I arrived at a meeting place in Pahrump and the attendees handed me a yellow ribbon and a pin, showing that I supported the repeal of Prohibition, but pinning it on my lapel [I had a lapel??] proved consequential: I got in the drivers seat of a nice, blue convertible (a “company car,” I was told), and some other supporters piled in with me, but before we could go anywhere a ranger cited the pin and ribbon as probable cause to investigate the ownership of the car, and demanded to see the registration.  I soon found myself embroiled in a court case in which Congressman Adam Schiff of California represented me in a First and Fourth Amendment lawsuit…

Funny, I’ve been noticing that I dream in color more often since I started my photography business.

March 9th, Friday: Despite my lack of a sunrise photography agenda this morning, I woke up refreshed at 5 AM, one hour before the alarm was set for. Starting off with an easy Sarah Jarosz’ Build Me Up with Bones and then transitioning to a more rousing Tom Petty’s Hypnotic Eye while I updated this blog before breakfast, I noticed that the solar charge controller lit up at 7:06 AM, indicating that the predawn light was already bright enough to trigger a faint charge, 0.1 amps, from the solar panels. When the sun peeked up over the horizon I flipped up the forward panel and was treated to a nice 3.5 amps of power for my fridge.  With my main photography goal already accomplished at The Racetrack, and breakfast of Cheerios, muesli, blueberries and cold milk imminent, I was in heaven.  My tooth was still sensitive when I put pressure on it, but it wasn’t a constant pain, so I ignored it.

My goal today was the Warm Springs campground at the western edge of the park (I needed a bath).  I left Mesquite Spring Campground at about 8 AM and drove back on Scotty’s Castle Road towards Furnace Creek.  Passing Titus Canyon Road, I pulled over and shot the only wildflowers I’d seen in the park so far (the moisture from this vast alluvial fan was just enough to sprout flowers).  The light was the worst, but hey, I had to document this unique bloom:

As I continued down the road, the car from last night’s dream came towards me at 60 miles an hour. It was a beautiful blue VW convertible, being driven with the top down by a guy who looked like me in my youth, wearing a fur hat right off the album cover of The Byrds’ Greatest Hits. He flashed me a grin and a peace sign as we passed each other. The day had an auspicious beginning.

I stopped at the ranger station at Stovepipe Wells for an update on the backcountry road up the western edge of the park called Saline Valley Road, which I was planning on driving the whole way.  After I refueled and checked my email over the gift shop’s wi-fi, I noticed Mr. Florida’s black SUV in the parking lot, which looked as out-of-place as a Prius in this rough country, especially with how clean it was:

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The ranger advised me that the whole Saline Valley road was dirt, ostensibly in better shape than the road to Racetrack, but much longer.  A storm had dumped snow at the high passes just yesterday, so I was a little concerned.  But the ranger gave me a clear-sailing weather report, saying the snow had mostly melted, so I hit the road for the warm springs with a light heart, looking forward to a soaking.  (The ranger also confirmed that the yellow wildflowers I’d shot this morning are the only ones in the park this year, for lack of rain.)

So, with the good weather report and the VW guy’s peace sign, what, me worry?  I headed out from Stovepipe Wells in the late morning, topping off the tank at Panamint Springs before heading into the wilderness.  Most of Saline Valley Road did turn out to be a little better than Racetrack Valley Road, but the desolate, rugged landscape was daunting.  When I crossed South Pass (5,997 ft. elevation), here’s the view I had of the valley still to be traversed, with the far end of the salt flats as today’s destination via the rocky dirt road:

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I made it to the warm springs by 2 PM (there are no signs posted, I used my binoculars to determine the correct access road off Saline Valley Rd.). On the way, at the junction of Saline Valley Road and the shortcut from Racetraack, I ran into a couple of guys in a Mitsubishi 4×4 van, whom I’d seen coming south to Racetrack yesterday as I was leaving. It was imported from Japan, with the steering wheel on the right.  With its short and narrow wheelbase they’d just come from taking the shortcut that the ranger had advised against, which crosses a mountain ridge. I asked them how they did, and they told me it was very rough, and at one point they thought they might tip over into the abyss, and they wouldn’t repeat the journey. I was satisfied I’d made the right decision to take the long way around.  Besides, I’d have missed the wildflowers.

The main Warm Springs campground has one shaded hot tub that is best used in the daytime, and I was told about another tub three-quarters of a mile farther away that has no awning and is best used under no sun. I camped at the nearest one and showered outside. The water was a perfect shower temperature and it felt like heaven. A few people were tubbing naked together, as this seemed to be an adults-only campground, clothing optional. I set up my hammock at my campsite and resolved to check out the other tub early in the morning before breakfast. I was optimistic that I’d be alone at that hour, considering how difficult this place was to access, and I imagined getting a good shot of just my head above the water and maybe a sunrise on the mountains in the background. I’d seen very few vehicles on the road, and this campground was only partially full.

In the meantime I took a few shots to show the funky, hippy-fied feel of the place:

The half-dozen burros in the area are wild and they entertained us as they chased each other around in jealous rages. I spied a lone coyote watching me from a ridge and I managed a couple of shots before it loped away a few seconds after I aimed the long-barrel camera lens…

One camper was a guy my age who had a Toyota Tacoma with a shell like Greg Jahn’s, and he approached me, complimenting me on my “rig.”  He, too, had taken the shortcut from Racetrack, and also saw the guys in the 4×4 Mitsubishi van, and also feared that he’d tip over the cliff, and wouldn’t do it again.  Nice to get further confirmation of my good decision not to try it myself.

March 10th, Saturday: At 5:30 AM I drove carefully to the other hot tub without dropping my pop-up roof, anticipating a cool shot of Amos Clyde in the tub in the middle of nowhere. Silly me! After all, this is a national park in prime season, only a 7-hour drive from Los Angeles. The second campground was larger than the first one, and many more campers were here. Two were already in the hot tub, so I discarded the idea of a selfie. And what would a departure from park regulations and claims of a quiet environment be without the presence of a dog, which requires a six-foot leash in the park? Two dogs were running around free, apparently owned by a guy in the hot tub. (Last night another dog, a yapper belonging to the adjacent campers, came to my camper at around midnight and woke me up with its yapping, for no apparent reason — not that they need any— and later chimed in with the distant coyotes howling at 3 AM).

At this second warm spring, one friendly and charming camper named Dan, 62 years old, strolled up to me as I scanned the scene from the driver’s seat, and he offered me a parking space next to his truck, since he was leaving soon. The space was the nearest one to the hot tub. “You lucky dog,” he said to me. I thanked him and took shots of the scene, just for the hell of it, before making my breakfast:

Some campers had obviously dug in for a long visit, and this outpost was distinctly anomalous as a National Park Service facility.  The outhouse, for instance, was well stocked with over 50 toilet paper rolls, shaman talismans dangling from the ceiling, and a library of Smithsonian Magazine and National Geographic.  I resolved to punt another soaking and leave this amusing but overcrowded oasis, whose most frequent camper was the main entertainment today.  Dan was literally the most colorful character I’d met on this trip so far, sporting chili pepper pants and a beat-up old pickup full of trash in the cab. He’d driven from Los Angeles, where he lives, and told me that he’s visited this Warm Springs Campground about 20 times in the last 30 years. Then I noticed what he had in the back of his pickup: A piano! “I need it for traction,” he joked. He said he has fun with it, and played a little boogie-woogie tune and the Star Spangled Banner while I took a few photos:

He said he had a bigger piano at home, which he preferred, but this one was “already in the pickup.” Hell, this piano was almost as big as the pickup!  I could only imagine what a two-hour journey on Saliine Valley Road in such a vehicle does to any piano, although it seemed to be in tune.  He asked me if I had a can opener so he could open his breakfast of tamales and menudo (“hominy and tripe, the best breakfast!”).  I just happened to have bought a new opener before the trip, just for emergencies, and I gifted it to him. He said he’d mark this day (I agreed that it was a “banner day”) and he threw the contents of the cans in a big wok on the fire and I went about securing my camper for the journey ahead.

As Dan ate his breakfast we had a good chat.  He talked about how big and crowded L.A. was, and I boosted Boise as a preferable alternative.  He offered to share his meal, but I was full and only tried a taste of the hominy and spicy sauce, and I handed him my card before I hit the road for Eureka Dunes at the north end of the park, which he highly recommended.  “Two steps forward, one step back,” he said cryptically of walking on the dunes, somehow reminding me of the rabble’s chant in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (“Two men enter, one man leaves!”), and he advised that very few people would be there. He said he loved going there, that it was heaven on Earth.  I left behind a kindred spirit in Piano Dan, the Chili Pants Man.

Another camper at Racetrack had also recommended the dunes, so I was intrigued enough to check it out before winding up my already successful stay in Death Valley.  I started to think about spending my spare three days exploring a little of California east of the Sierras on my way back to Boise.  Mono Lake has some interesting topography, for instance, and the ghost town of Bodie, a state historic park, would also be on my way back.

I arrived at Eureka Dunes at about 11:30 AM and promptly used my 900mm lens to take a photo of a couple of hikers I spied in the distance, who were walking on the dunes back to their camp. They were the only other campers here, and I handed them my card in case they wanted a copy of the photo:

I pitched my hammock and read a little.  By early afternoon the sky got cloudy and the wind picked up, and my hopes for a good sunset shoot were waning. I’d already deemed a possible sunrise shot to be a bust, since the mountains to the east were too close for the dunes to get the good morning light, so the prospects for Eureka Dunes today or tomorrow, from this photographer’s point of view, were dim.

I moved my reading into the camper just before some dust devils came through and briefly shook the truck.  When I folded up my hammock I found a stinkbug had latched onto it, but it was more likely to have come from the Warm Springs Campground, since I’d noticed that the wildlife in the oasis, aside from coyotes and pretty bluebirds, unfortunately included bugs.  This was the first stinkbug I’ve seen in the West, only a week after I’d seen the New Yorker article.)

The weather got worse:  By dinner time it started to rain, and it rained all night, which is kinda noisy on my roof.  I wondered if the upper elevations of the road out of the park would be getting new snow (North Pass is at 7,300 ft. and still had snow when I crossed).  Would I have to wait for it to melt before I could leave the park?  I didn’t have chains…

Sunday, 3:00 AM:  Daylight Saving Time started an hour ago.  It was still raining.  I woke up with my tooth throbbing, so I took an Advil, which bought me a few hours more of sleep.  And I dreamed…

I was part of an immigrant smuggling network, known in the business as a “coyote.”  The immigrants I helped smuggle into the U.S. were from India, not Mexico.  And apparently no money was involved.  And these were highly qualified immigrants, such as doctors and scientists, who could probably get visas if they’d tried.  But apparently they wanted to be smuggled instead, and I liked being a pretend coyote…

Aside from this road trip’s visual influences affecting my dreams, maybe a vague discontent created by my toothache further twisted them.

During breakfast I started to really wonder about my tooth, and whether I needed to search for a local dentist in my insurance network.  Amazingly, I could get a cell signal for an internet search from this remote location, but the closest network dentist was in Carson City, well north of Mono Lake on the same road, Rte. 395.   I packed up and left soon after the rain stopped.  I found a Starbucks in Bishop, CA, and got my latte and checked email, and headed up the highway to Mono Lake.  It was midday, the light was too harsh, the state required a permit to park in the lot, and required payment to visit the lake, so I blew it off and headed to Bodie, hoping to get some nice sunset shots of a picturesque ghost town.

Nope, the road to Bodie was closed (which the website advised, if I’d bothered to read that far!), so I decided to pop another Advil and head back to Boise, listening to more of the Rolling Stones story for most of the way.  The Bodie and Mono Lake debacles would hopefully put me in the dentist chair that much sooner.

6:00 PM:  I made it to a rest stop about 40 miles north of Winnemucca, NV.  A  farm road at the rest stop led farther away from the highway, reducing the road noise, and I found a level spot and parked.  The cell signal was strong, so I did some emailing and blog updating and went to bed with the Advil vial next to me.

March 12th, Monday, 7:00 AM:  It was 8:00 AM Mountain Time, so I called my dentist in Boise and made an appointment for 2:00 PM.  I ate breakfast, popped an Advil, and broke camp in the cold air at sunrise, taking my first-ever, hand-held selfie, perhaps revealing my state of mind as well as the 10-day beard.

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My road trip ended three hours later, and it’s a good thing I came home early.  It turns out my tooth had a vertical fracture in the root and needed to come out.  One might say that much of what I perceived to be hellish or heavenly in Death Valley was really in my head.  The hellish won’t likely be forgotten soon, but fortunately, more of the Valley’s heavenly side is now captured in color, for the record.

ADDENDUM:  If you want to read about how the mystery of the “sailing stones” was solved, click on this NPS link on The Racetrack.  (Not to be confused with any mystery behind the Jagger and Richards story, most of which is cleared up in the book Life.)

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