Lost in Death Valley Beyond Time and Place
Sometimes when you least expect the most unlikely events occur. Call it synchronicity or just plain luck to find myself surrounded by rugged bone-dry beauty tucked away in all that rocky terrain. I was a newcomer exploring Death Valley with a friend who had hiked all over those parts for years.
I’ve heard that luck is about being in the right place at the right time. When you’re in the middle of a desert hot enough to fry an egg on a rock, the concept of time and place takes on another dimension.
My friend announced one morning that we were going to find a missing hat lost the year before during his last hiking trip. The approximate location of the lost item was somewhere within a 10 mile radius above the Racetrack.
The Racetrack is a place you may have heard about for its mysterious moving rocks. Photographers come from around the world to record this mysterious occurrence. More than 20 miles up a washboard road past Teakettle junction there is a magical place where rocks leave trails in a dried up old lakebed at least 10,000 years old. No one knew how those stones actually moved until a few years ago when finally witnessed and recorded by researchers.
What you don’t hear in the news are the other mysterious happenings waiting to be uncovered by those who venture off the beaten path. Ghostly grasses and crooked Yucca whisper tales of lost fortunes and forgotten secrets. At Scotty’s Castle — now closed from recent flood damage — there’s an Olympic-sized kidney shaped pool which never actually held water.
Beyond the salt flats in Badwater Basin, and Furnace Creek there are narrow bumpy roads that crawl up into the sunbaked hills revealing deserted old mining towns. Heaps of rusty scrap, tools, empty water barrels, and cabin remains are evidence of a swift exit nearly 100 years ago.
Simmering 282 miles below sea level, Death Valley is one of the largest national parks in the U.S. south of Alaska. Sharing a border with Nevada, most of the 3.3 million acres are located in California. It’s a place where lizards run for cover in temperatures averaging 115–120 degrees Fahrenheit regularly from June through August. The highest recorded temperature was once 56.7C (134 degrees F).
I was not amused by my friend’s bold claim that we would find his favorite hiking cap while climbing peaks and valleys more than a thousand feet above the Racetrack. I shrugged it off and didn’t bother to ask for a description.
I think of this story now and then, particularly after reading about the wildflower super blooms recently in southern California and last year in Death Valley. Flash flooding in the winter and spring released seeds lying dormant for years, covering the hillsides with an other-worldly show of desert color.
A best kept secret are these beautiful miniature wildflower gardens hidden between barrel cactus and more than 40 geologic formations. While searching for that lost hat (or not) I crept along snapping photos every few feet, stooping eye-to-eye with Desert Gold, red Indian Paintbrush, Sand Verbena, and Desert Five Spot to name a few.
One afternoon at the top of a bluff covered in rose quartz, we stopped to view the panoramic blue sky and wispy white clouds hovering from earth to sun. The Racetrack rippling like a mirage far below, it was mid April and already 90 degrees at noon.
I glanced down at my sandy feet to see fuchsia pink cactus and something else caught my eye. I pried an old faded green hat from prickly thorns and handed it to my friend. It looked a lot like the one he had on. Fumbling for glasses and peering close, he said “hey thanks, that’s the hat I lost a year ago.”
A good time to look for lost items in Death Valley is before the summer heat fries the mudstone hills back to shades of cream of wheat, beige and tumbleweed grey. Look for the Hidden Sand Dunes behind a ridge in Eureka Valley. Those camel humps in the distance are just a short four mile walk. Take plenty of water and be sure to look for the white Dune Evening Primrose along the way.
Originally published at hundredgivers.org on May 21, 2017.