July 31, 2006. Houston’s George Bush International Airport. Five travelers converge for the first time, shake hands, check bags, and board a plane for Las Vegas. Ultimate destination – the backwoods and wastelands of California’s Death Valley National Park, Mt. Whitney, and Sequoia National Park. Jason Hughes was the only one of us to actually write down a complete account of the trip. Unless otherwise noted, you are reading his words. The photos were submitted by everyone on the team.
(Upon reaching Las Vegas) The first thing that caught my attention was the extreme heat I felt outside the airport building. No humidity, just an extreme blast of hot air, as if the covered areas for arrivals and departures were designed to catch as much wind as possible. After a quick bus ride, we arrived at the car rental site and picked out our ride. We decided to go with a silver Jeep Commander. It looked slightly larger than the Grand Cherokee and I thought to myself that the new model would be nice. We had to do some strategic packing to fit everyone’s gear into the vehicle. With the last row of seats folded down and all the gear jammed in the back, you could not see out the rear of the vehicle. We fit three people in the second row of seats and two in the front. We drove out in search of some quick dinner and enough water to last us for the next few days. A few miles later we passed by a health food store (similar to Whole Foods Market) where everything was generally overpriced. We stocked up on water, then drove to an In-n-Out Burger joint for dinner. From there we headed out into the desert.
(Near Amargosa) Hours later we stopped at what we figured would be the last gas station before entering Death Valley National Park. There was a huge billboard sign stating that we were at the Yucca Mountain Travel Center, last stop before Area 51. Behind the gas station was the Cherry Patch II . Inside was an assortment of junk one usually finds at truck stops in the middle of nowhere, in addition to a wide selection of alien t-shirts, posters, postcards, coffee mugs, etc. I recall seeing a local paper by the door. The headline read something to the effect of “Local Residents Concerned with Blinking Traffic Light”. Headline news right there. I believe Taylor asked the store clerk if she had seen anything strange out here. She gave her UFO story, then we all left. Just outside, adjacent to the store, was what I suspect was Mabel’s Whorehouse. There was a plywood cutout of an alien and human where you could stand behind it for photos. We didn’t find any camp fuel here, so we crossed the street to the neighboring gas station. This place was a bit more disturbing than the store we had just left.
As you walked in, to your left were rows of video poker, manned by some scary truck driver looking zombies. To the right was your standard gas station junk. They had a life size Yoda atop some shelving, in addition to Watto. (A shrewd and gruff proprietor of a junk shop in Mos Espa, from Star Wars Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones) I don’t think we found any camp fuel here either. Taylor inquires about any strange sightings in the area and receives another UFO story. After picking up some postcards, I stepped outside with Trey. He points out an off-duty tumble weed, parked next to the Jeep Commander. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot an old, blue full-size pick up truck with the driver’s side door open, parked next to the fuel pump. Behind the truck door is a naked man pumping gas. This demanded a second examination, so I briefly glance again in that direction before quickly turning away again. Perhaps I was hallucinating? Trey sees the expression on my face and inquires as to what was wrong. I tell him not to look over near the gas pump, but there’s a naked man in the parking lot. Trey immediately looks over to the gas pump. We both decide to go back inside the store. I quickly spread the word to the others. “Time to leave!”
During the drive to the park, 11 o’clock creeps up, and the radio is tuned into the radio show Coast to Coast AM. The night’s discussions included secret NASA Moon missions (The Pilgrim Project) and Shadow People. Good stuff. If you ever felt you weren’t getting your daily level of weird, just tune into Coast to Coast AM. That show will fix you right up. We arrive at the entrance to the park and pull over for pictures. Being in the middle of nowhere, you can see millions of stars. The Milky Way band is prominent across the sky. Staring long enough, you could see shooting stars and even orbiting satellites. We managed to find the camp site afterwards and begin to set up our tents. Taylor was really hoping to check out the sand dunes at night, so we all piled back into the Commander for a 30 minute drive into darkness.
Taylor: When we stopped at the Death Valley entrance to snap a few photos of the sign, I expected to be in and out of the truck. Then someone turned the lights of the Commander off and the universe was unveiled! We stood out there for a while, all of us with our heads cocked back, fixed on the heavens. I don’t know about the rest of the guys, but I’d never seen the cosmos so clearly.
I’m not sure how he determined we were in the right place (the sand dunes), but Taylor pulled over and we all piled out of the vehicle with our headlamps. We begin hiking out into the sand, crossing over several dunes. I couldn’t really see much, except for the sand in my shoes. Within ten minutes or so, we spot another light off in the distance. It seemed to be moving along, heading in our general direction. It appeared to be moving side to side, occasionally shifting quickly from one place to another. I wasn’t seeing any of our headlamps moving in that fashion. Someone suggested it was a vehicle on the road, but I didn’t recall the road stretching in that direction, nor could I hear any engines. At some point we all decide to switch off our headlamps. The light was still moving. We scurried across the sands, making our way back to the Commander. With a bit of relief being next to the vehicle, we decide to head back to camp. Dane wanted to return to the dunes to uncover the mystery of the light, but he was out-voted.
It was hot. Ridiculously hot. No breeze blowing through the tent. Every twenty minutes or so I’d sit up, then lay back down in the pool of sweat that had accumulated atop my sleeping mattress. At some point Bryce left the tent to sleep on top of a picnic table.
Taylor: The sun emerges over the Funeral Mountains and spills onto our camp at Furnace Creek – 196 feet below sea level! (The Funeral Mountains are a subrange of the Amargosa range that forms the Eastern wall of Death Valley)
We awoke around 5:40AM or so, with light just starting to creep over the hills. We weren’t staying here another night, so everyone got busy packing up their gear and tents. Breakfast consisted of MREs, provided by Dane. We decided to strap the majority of gear to the top of the Commander this morning, making space for one person in the last row of seats. From there we headed over to the Death Valley visitor’s center. We were a bit early; they didn’t open until 8:00AM. Some of us took a bird bath in the sinks of the bathroom. It was a relief to find cool air blowing from the hand dryers. I would find out later that even in the afternoon, when the temperature was over 100, that those hand dryers were still blowing cool air. Crazy. I’m assuming they must have disabled the heating element for that to happen. We collected more water from an outside faucet. When the visitor’s center opened, we went inside and bought miscellaneous stuff.
From here we drove to Golden Canyon. I think this is where one of our bags decided to jump ship. We were cruising down the road when all of a sudden a bag swung down off the roof and slammed into my window. We pulled over and recalculated the method used to strap equipment to the roof. We reached Golden Canyon and hiked along the trail for a while, eventually deviating off onto what seemed to be a trail leading up through the hills. It looked as if we could reach the top, but after climbing for thirty minutes or so, we decided to head back down.
From the Golden Canyon Trail Guide: Golden Canyon preserves geological stories steeped in change. Like pages in a book, its rocks tell tales of ancient times when a lake once covered this land; they also speak of violent flash floods racing down the canyon, Golden Canyon is a fascinating showcase of the effects of water in an arid land.
The next stop was the Devils Golf Course. This was basically a huge field of dried up salt, with strange looking formations stretching in every direction. Taylor: I read in a guidebook, that after rains you can sometimes her the earth snap and crackle as the arid atmosphere sucks the land dry! Due to the incredible serrated and jagged spires, it is believed that “Only the Devil could play golf on such rough links.”
Next was a natural bridge formation. We hiked a mile or so into the hills again. We reached the bridge, and Dane proceeded to climb it. Taylor and Trey made friends with a man and his son who were sporting pith helmets.
After leaving the natural bridge, we drove to Badwater Basin. Over 200 feet up, a sign on the rock cliff behind us marked sea level. There was a platform that overlooked the basin, which was barren, except for the tourists. There was a small pool of still water next to the platform. This platform provides visitors with a great view of the small spring-fed pool at Badwater Basin. The salt flats surrounding the spring deem the water undrinkable. This point marks the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere. Jason’s Dell Axim registered an elevation reading of -320.54 feet. We were at such a low altitude, I think the computer was confused.
Past the platform there was a wide path that lead to the middle of nowhere. Everyone else was walking it, so we followed. The dried mixture of salt and dirt on the ground sounded like packed snow as we walked across it. After some unspecified distance, we took some photos, then headed back to the Commander.
We returned to the visitor center for some lunch and shade from the sun. MREs were on the menu again. The visitor center parking lot was no longer empty and there were quite a few people walking about. Many Europeans and Asians, but very few Americans. After lunch, we drove to Zabrinskie Point. Taylor: As stated in the guidebook, “Zabrinskie Point is surrounded by a maze of wildly eroded and vibrantly colored badlands.” This, in conjunction with its proximity to the visitor center, makes it one of the park’s most visited spots. I remember feeling surprised by how difficult it was to walk even the quarter-mile to the scenic overlook. By this time, the temperature had peaked at 113º and the atmosphere was simply intolerable. I felt the danger of Death Valley like a giant hair dryer in my face. I took my photos and got back to the truck swiftly.
Taylor: On our way out of Death Valley, I talked the guys into stopping at the sand dunes one more time. Maybe we could solve the mystery of the peculiar light from the night before. We all hopped out and examined the scene. Someone noted that, due to the road’s direction, the light couldn’t have come from there. I pointed out into the dunes and said, “I’m going to run to that big dune over there.” Everyone looked at me and simultaneously laughed and went back talking about the unidentified light. I took off straight for the dune. I crossed over the first ridge of dunes and instantly lost my bearing. I climbed up onto the next bunch of dunes and realized how much longer this excursion would take. Feeling the heat creep up on me again, I snapped a photo and ran back to the truck.
(On our way out of Death Valley) There was a relatively small range of mountains (Inyo Mountains) we had to cross first. Here, the Commander’s performance began to suffer. We couldn’t drive faster than 40mph, and the transmission was constantly switching gears. A breakdown seemed imminent. We made it out though, and some time later arrived at the Easter Sierra Interagency Visitor Center. Next up, Mt. Whitney.