As he John-Wayned over to talk to my brother, I saw that the Ranger had a nine millimeter pistol in his holster, with an extra ammo clip in his belt. Must be dangerous work keeping the tourists in line these days. "We figgered you folks probably don't know where you're going," the Ranger said.

    He and his buddy had come careening around the corner in their white pickup and slid to a stop on the gravel road, motioning us to stop. I wanted to tell him "Don't assume we're stupid until we prove it." We told him our planned destination.

    "There's no camping on this road, not for the next 33 miles."

    "Yes, we know. We're going past the sliding rocks area to camp."

    "Well, I guess you could camp at the Homestake Mine, but the road is rough, doesn't get any better than it is here, maybe worse." He smiled. "It's gonna get very cold up there tonight, and it's almost dark now."

    We were almost scared. Dark and cold. My brother, Leland, and I have winter camped in Idaho and Utah and have found our way down pathless mountains in the dark. We figured our chances of survival were good.

    The Ranger let us pass, obviously against his better judgement. The road was the worst washboard I'd ever seen. It is reasonably straight and climbs gently towards the mountains. A two wheel drive car can negotiate it. But for 33 miles the gravel road is sheer torture for travelers. with washboards ten inches high.

    You could tell that it was bloody hot most of the time, but in late November, at about 4000 feet elevation, we felt the full sting of bitter winter winds. One miner's bunkhouse with the roof gone, framed the sunset with glassless windows and empty door frames set in native stone. As Leland photographed the bunkhouse we listened to the creaks, moans and whistles that the main mining shaft apparatus gave off in the rising wind. The aging wood, tin and iron was not long for this world and already sounded like it had one foot in the first circle of hell.

"... a ceaseless flail

That churns and frenzies that dark and timeless air

Like sand in a whirlwind." —Canto III

    The Racetrack is a dry lake bed, a playa, about 3 miles long and almost as wide, a long oval shape completely surrounded by mountains. None of the mountains have much growing on them, so they are a frame of pure shape, color and form. The lake bed itself is uniformly cracked, like fancy tile work, and very flat in all directions.

    It is crisscrossed by the bizarre tracks of large rocks from nearby dolomitic limestone cliffs. Once the rocks make it onto the dry lake bed, they start a decades-long amusement park ride over the surface. Whenever conditions are right (70 mile per hour winds, rain or ice) the rocks slide over the ancient mud, compressing but not erasing the tiles, and leaving a slightly smeared track in their wake...

Photos courtesy Leland Howard, Joshua Tree in Death Valley above, and "Sliding Rocks" below.

   We killed time until sunset by climbing a hill to look over into Saline (pronounced suh-LEEN) Valley. Saline Valley is another recent addition to the park. Seventy-eight miles of washboard road must be traversed to explore it, and some of the route is also "4 x 4 recommended.” After negotiating the 33 miles into the sliding rocks area, we didn't think we or the truck could take 78 miles more of the same. Too bad. I hate to leave any place unexplored, especially one that contains species unique to the area and/or otherwise extinct.

    Saline Valley has naked hippies (so named in the Park literature). Sometime in the Flower Power Epoch, hippies from the coastal cities migrated to the hot springs, and set up self-ruled communities in the shade of the palm trees at each oasis. So far, the Park Service has accepted their descendants, and like the pupfish of Salt Creek, they have become an anachronistic phenomenon, a tourist attraction that features the past preserved for present ogling. Park service brochures warn the squeamish that they may encounter nudity, but few chance the long, completely serviceless roads that lead in and out of the valley. Hardy souls used the hot springs for recreation as early as 1928, but most of the present day population can be traced to the endangered species "Hippie Californius."

    As a perfect accompaniment to the hippies, Saline Valley also boasts "Crystal Ridge" where well-formed quartz crystals as large as 8" x 3" have been found, many with a rare seventh crystal face along the side of the prism. (Reference: "The Explorer's Guide to Death Valley National Park" by T. Scott Bryan and Betty Tucker-Bryan.)...


[Excerpt from a longer story by Lynna Howard, copyright Lynna Howard, 2000-2008. Do not reprint or distribute without permission. All rights reserved. Thank you.]




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