Death Valley, Day 1

Last night I came back from a four-day backcountry camping trip in Death Valley with my friend Naveen. It was, as predicted, awesome. We took a ton of pictures, and I am going to try to document it the best I can, one day at a time, in these next four entries. I don’t think it’ll be as interesting as f18225‘s recent series :), but it’s good documentation for myself, and you might enjoy it if you’ve never been to Death Valley yourself.

If you remember from my previous entry, I broke my camera last week, so I was unable to see any of the pictures I took until I came back. However, some of them turned out okay, and Naveen brought his camera too, so between the two of us, I’ve culled about 80 representative pictures from the trip of the roughly 500 that we took.

Background and Preparation
California is, geographically speaking, an absolutely amazing place. In additional to the gorgeous weather and beautiful coastlines, it also boasts a number of superlatives: the oldest (bristlecone pine) and largest (sequoia) living things in the world, the highest point in the continental US (Mt. Whitney), and the lowest, hottest, and driest points in North America.

These last three are in Death Valley, an isolated national park on the east side California that’s as big as my home state, Connecticut. I went to Death Valley with my family when I was about 10 and we were living in Santa Barbara for half a year. I don’t remember much about it except that it was totally insane, composed of bizarre, alien landscapes. This year it happened to receive the most rainfall it’s gotten in the past 94 years, so all kinds of wild stuff was blooming in the normally desolate place. So when Naveen suggested the trip, I was all for it.

The first step was preparing. We were planning to head backcountry — which means that we could camp anywhere we wanted to in the entire park, as long as we were more than two miles away from any road. This incredible freedom also meant that we had to bring in our own food and water each day. We planned our meals so that we’d be eating the most complex ones (with the most fresh produce) first, ending up with Clif Bars and granola by day four. Here’s a sampling of our shopping at Berkeley Bowl:

Getting There
The drive to Death Valley is about eight hours long and quite convoluted. We got to see lots of interesting aspects of central California, not the least of which was the overt religiosity and obsession with trucks and monster cars. We also glimpsed some human-influenced landscapes that were quite pretty. The main problem was that Naveen’s car CD player was on the fritz, and would often refuse to play a CD altogether, issuing the mysterious E-04 up to 30 times in a row (yes, an eight hour car ride makes you that patient) before finally choosing to play a CD.

The Abandoned Airfield
A missed exit fortuitously brought us to an airfield full of abandoned commercial planes. After driving down a dirt road and then climbing through an abandoned train (note the inscription on on the side of the train; we still have no idea what it’s supposed to mean), we got to take some close-up shots of the planes. Also, on the dirt road we saw our first cool animal: a kangaroo rat! Unfortunately I didn’t have time to take my camera out before it was gone, hopping off into the brush.

Almost There
… by which I mean less than 150 miles away. On the homestretch to the Valley, we drove by a number of “mineral” towns: towns with huge processing plants that worked on piles of stuff like the one below. I wish I had taken more pictures of the towns, as they were fascinating. The roads were arrow-straight, zooming us through broad expanses of increasingly desert-like and hypnotic scenery. We also passed some enormous military-exclusive weapons-testing regions, run mostly by the army and the navy. Together, they are nearly as big as Connecticut, too.

The Valley
We finally got to Death Valley by late afternoon. We didn’t have much time, though: we had to find a good place to park, hike a couple miles into the desert, set up camp, and make our meal before the sun set! We stopped at a prairie-esque region, got our stuff together, filled up our water bottles, and headed out. We found a great camping spot nestled in the hills above the prairie and made camp before exploring for a while. Then we had dinner: black bean, pepper jack, corn and salsa burritos with fresh-cut tomatoes and avocados. We heated the beans and cheese up with Naveen’s little-yet-awesome-yet-expensive backpacking stove and little-yet-awesome-yet-insanely-expensive titanium cooking pot. Yum! But what a pain to clean up with our limited water supply.

It was exhilarating to be able to just strike out in any direction and make camp wherever we wanted. Death Valley is so blessedly unpopular that even now, with apparently record setting numbers of tourists due to the blooming wildflowers, we never saw a single other person during our three nights of camping (although we did see a bunch during the day, of course). It was quite a step up from Yosemite, which is usually packed.

Anyway, by 7:30 the sun had set and the stars were out in full glory. Man, I have never seen so many stars — even when camping elsewhere! The range of vision was unparalleled: not a single tree or cloud to obscure our vision, and the closest big city was Las Vegas, far enough away that the light pollution only seeped into a small portion of the sky. We also saw a number of shooting stars and satellites. These last are fascinating to watch traverse the night sky. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get Naveen’s camera to pick up all the stars, even on a 15 second exposure. Oh well. We managed to stay up till 10:30 talking about random stuff but mostly about girls (as usual), but by then we were pooped and the pitch blackness was enticing us to our sleeping bags. Going to sleep earlier and earlier each night would become a trend on this trip.

We needed to rest well, too, since we’d be hitting some of the crazier bits of the Valley all the next day….

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