Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Celebrating Death Valley, part 1
I had been planning a fall trip to the East Mojave, so when I heard that the grand re-opening of Death Valley's Furnace Creek Visitor Center was scheduled for the first weekend in November, I decided to make that part of my trip. The decision felt a little out of character for me. I usually avoid people on my Death Valley trips, camping in remote locations and rarely stopping at the Visitor Center or the various museums, gift shops, and restaurants in and around the park. I always buy an annual pass, so I don't even have to stop to pay the entrance fee.
But this trip would be different. Talks, tours, and other events were scheduled all day Saturday and Sunday, with the dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sunday afternoon. I spent the previous week camping in Mojave National Preserve, and planned to arrive in Death Valley early Saturday morning. To make sure I arrived on time, I left Mojave Friday evening and spent the night in Baker, home of the world's tallest thermometer. (It's 134 feet high, to commemorate Death Valley's record temperature of 134 degrees.)
Driving into Death Valley on Saturday morning, I encountered the typical photographer's dilemma: there was just too much to see and photograph along the way. My first stop was Saratoga Spring, especially beautiful in the warm light of sunrise.
Continuing north, I reached the little town of Shoshone just in time for their annual Old West Days celebration. Naturally I had to stop and browse the booths, pick up a couple of books from the Shoshone Museum, and enjoy a date shake from the China Ranch Date Farm.
Finally arriving in Death Valley around 4:00 pm, I had to stop for a couple of coyotes who were creating a traffic jam on Badwater Road. No complaints from me, of course – my only problem was that I had to run back to the car for a shorter lens. But I guess someone thought it was a safety hazard, because after a few minutes a ranger pulled up and used her siren to scare the coyotes off the road. They returned as soon as she left.
By the time I finished with the coyotes, the sun was setting. The obvious thing to do now was shoot evening reflections at Badwater. Oh well, there's always tomorrow.
After dark I checked in at the newly remodeled Stovepipe Wells Village. The new owners have done a good job of fixing it up – and of course it has a great location, just a mile or so from the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat. But it's still a motel, and it's hard for me to get excited about a motel room, no matter where it is or how it's described. (A "dune view" room faces the highway; a "mountain view" faces the other way. But why would anyone care about the view from their motel room? Just get out and experience the desert!) I had a late dinner in the restaurant, where, as is often the case in Death Valley, there seemed to be a different language spoken at every table.
Sunday morning I was up early, looking forward to the first event of the day, a panel discussion with the park superintendent and her three immediate predecessors. But that didn't start until 9:00, leaving plenty of time for a walk on the Mesquite Flat dunes.
The weather was beautiful, and had been all week, which is not necessarily the best time to photograph sand dunes. Without wind, any footprints will remain where they are. A good windstorm restores the natural ripples and textures of the dunes to the pristine condition that everyone wants to photograph. It was immediately obvious that I wasn't going to get that kind of photo. On this morning there were more footprints than I've ever seen, and they were everywhere.
Even a mile from the parking area there was still a ten-foot-wide path of footprints upon footprints, all making their way toward the highest dune. Off the main path, heading off in all directions, were individual prints of boots, sneakers, sandals, bare feet, hands, arms, legs, huge strides of children's footprints running across the sand, and wide troughs made by people sliding on their butts down the steep sides of the dunes.
I could have seen all these human-made marks in the sand as ruining my ideal photograph. Instead, I saw stories of exuberance and joyfulness, a celebration of and connection with nature. For someone who usually prefers to be alone in the desert, and was looking ahead with some trepidation to a full schedule of social events, all those footprints turned out to be a pretty good start to the day.
On the way back to my car I saw the tracks of a sidewinder crossing on top of the human footprints. That made it even better.
Part 2: I finally make it to the celebration.