strangers in a strange land – part 1   11 comments

Posted at 5:06 pm in california,geology,loss,sabrina

Sabrina at the entrance area to Trona Pinnacles

After the previous day of very hard driving, Sabrina and I slept far beyond our normal rising time. Fumbling in the darkness of the motel room, I pulled back the heavy curtains just a little, then swiftly recoiled, practically blinded by sunlight reflecting off every hard surface in the courtyard. Later, as Sabrina and I emerged from our room for a morning walk, we must have resembled a pair of moles, squinting and stumbling about for the first minute or so after stepping outdoors. The air felt hot and the light searing, and yet the temperature was probably not exceptionally warm for that location. The problem was “us”. Such are the perils of moving across several climate zones in the space of a few weeks.

Today’s game plan was to get some rest and perhaps play at being tourists for a few hours. The previous morning, I had it in the back of my mind that we might make a detour into Death Valley at some point along our route. However, after several recent experiences with gross miscalculations in time and distance, I had enough good sense not to make such an attempt. Instead, after studying my maps, I decided to drive east into the Searles Valley with the intention of visiting the Trona Pinnacles. After loading up the van with water and food, I attempted to convince Sabrina that this was a worthy adventure. She ignored my words and gazed toward the motel room door. Torn between a shady, air-conditioned room, or the alternative of hopping into our sun-drenched van, it was fairly clear that she wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic about my plan. But, being the good sport that she is, she finally decided to come along for the ride.

Desert Holly (Atriplex hymenelytra) in the Searle Valley region

The trip east from Ridgecrest is short and easy. You pass by some part of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Don’t ask what goes on there for I have no idea. The installation seems to consist of several compact buildings baking in a parched valley with a hazy backdrop of mountains beyond.

We soon arrived at the entrance lane to Trona Pinnacles. Sabrina hopped out of the van and immediately began to inspect the rocks and plants while I read the interpretive sign boards. For an explanation of the geology of the pinnacles, see here and here. Turning from the sign, I caught sight of Sabrina carefully sniffing a white-leaved Desert Holly (Atriplex hymenelytra). She has her very own way inspecting plants — tilting her head to one side while studiously running her nose along the edges of leaves. This is a slow and tedious procedure. Her methodology causes me to wonder if she might have been a botanist in a past life. Once finished with her inspection, Sabrina gave me a sidelong “what the heck is this?” glance. I could see she wasn’t impressed with this place. I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that it’s probably not all that surprising that a predominantly black Rough Collie from Canada shouldn’t be enamoured with life on the desert. However, back to the Desert Holly. A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert (Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press), states that Atriplex, often referred to as saltbush, appears grayish “because they cope with saline soils by secreting excess salt into tiny hairs on the leaf surfaces. The hairs die from high salt concentration, leaving a deposit of salt crystals on the surface that reflects some of the intense light that would otherwise overload the photosynthetic system.” Further, “if water is available, these plants can photosynthesize on the hottest days, when most other plants are stressed and forced to shut down.” (pg 219-220).

Trona Pinnacles, as seen from a distance of about 4 miles

From the interpretive signboard, I could see the vague outline of the Trona Pinnacles wavering mirage-like in the light reflected by the saline sands of the dry lake bed (see above, click on all images for larger views). I felt both an attraction to, and a little uneasiness with, this place. While I had some desire to see the pinnacles up close, at the same time, I was acutely conscious of the intensity of the heat and dryness on this open plain. I scouted the area with my binoculars and saw no other vehicles. Although apprehensive, I decided to start down the road to see how it looked. The signs at the entrance mentioned that the road was passable by two-wheel drive vehicles most times, but could be impassable at others. Soon, the van was banging along over washboard. After the previous day’s expedition to Bodie, Sabrina was quicker and much more insistent with her nudging of my right arm in an attempt to convince me to abandon this mission. I pressed on a little longer, but the road grew increasingly worse.

Not much farther along, I decided to abort our little expedition. Turning the van in an open area next to a set of railway tracks, I caught sight of a sizable fissure in the road, one that could not be seen from the angle we had been traveling. It was wide and deep enough to have easily swallowed one of the van’s tires if I had unwittingly driven into it. I felt a brief jolt of panic as I realized just how serious it could be to find us stranded a few miles into this place — with me thinking more of Sabrina’s safety than of my own. Yes, this was a *bad* idea. If I was doing this trip with Don, I would have little fear. He and I had occasionally had to push or dig our truck out of a hole or rut from time to time. But alone with Sabrina, and in such an unforgiving environment. No. Not on this day. I drove us back up the lane. We would find some other less risky adventure to occupy the remainder of the day.

message in the sand at Trona Pinnacles

Shortly before reaching the entrance, I noticed the above message written in stones arranged on the sand. We got out of the van while I shot a few photos from various angles and distances. The artist in me has always found such ephemeral messages to be of visual interest. However, now they affect me in a different way — one that I am at a loss to explain. Maybe it’s the feeling that I am alone now and such messages are no longer part of my realm. Stepping closer to photograph the stone heart filled with fragments of broken glass (below), I thought, “This is the part of the message meant for me.”

We got back into the van, drove on up the lane and back out onto the highway to continue our exploration of the Searles Valley.

Written by bev on February 7th, 2009

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11 Responses to 'strangers in a strange land – part 1'

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  1. Sometimes I feel guilty because there is such a poignant pleasure in reading your posts and viewing your images. Sometimes I feel lonely for a man I never even met. This is an amazing journey, Bev. Thank you for documenting it.


    7 Feb 09 at 8:47 pm

  2. Your writing keeps me reminding me how much of this journey is an internal one. The photos mark the places on the outside, but the journal is moving toward the center. The heart with broken glass is a stunning metaphor. Most broken glass is smoothed by time and made quite beautiful for its yielding.

    robin andrea

    8 Feb 09 at 11:25 am

  3. vicki – Whatever you do, please don’t ever feel guilty about reading the posts and viewing the photos. It’s good to hear that the blog posts are interesting to others, because I sometimes wonder if they are too difficult to read or relate due to their personal nature. When I started the JTTC blog, I knew it would be different that my usual writing — largely because my perspective is so unlike how it has been for the past 35 years. To me, it seems worthwhile to document my thoughts and observations on living alone after a lifetime with Don. This is entirely unexplored territory – in a place I never hoped to venture. I’m glad for the company of those who choose to come along on this journey.

    robin – Your comment just came up while I was writing the above reply to vicki. Yes, you’re very right about how these posts have two aspects — the external side with the photos and travel accounts, and the internal side, which is a personal journey. When I began this blog, I could have made it purely a “travel blog”, but that isn’t really what interests me. To me, what seemed more important, was how places, time, memory and images connected with my thoughts. There’s no getting around that this is very difficult territory to pass through — not so much in the physical sense, but in other ways that are less easy to define.


    8 Feb 09 at 11:28 am

  4. I’m glad cooler, wiser heads prevailed, i.e. Sabrina’s


    8 Feb 09 at 12:00 pm

  5. A very interesting road trip that you are on! I too shall take to the road in a few weeks driving to the Arizona deserts from 2 felines on board w/ hubby taking the wheel! Love what you share and I’ll keep in touch ! Safe travels!


    9 Feb 09 at 1:44 pm

  6. Now I can say for sure I have been at least one place you were near – China Lake. I went there on business one time. At that time, and maybe now, one of the things they did was develop air-to-air missiles. I drove from there to Death Valley for a day. It was not a bad drive, but it is a fairly long drive, as I remember. A fighter jet buzzed me along the way. I think he thought I was driving too fast.

    That land is desolate and can be very lonely. That has emotional and practical implications; I think your decision to turn around on the rough road was probably right. I have a rule: never wear shoes you can’t walk home in. And now I think a corollary: never drive into a place you are not prepared to walk out of. Safely.


    9 Feb 09 at 1:56 pm

  7. marci – yes, I think Sabrina was the one who was thinking straight that day.

    naturegirl – have a good trip to Arizona. It’ll be nice and warm by the time you arrive.

    Mark – I believe you’re right about the missiles. I see fighters over the desert around here too. I have pretty much the same rule as you about hiking in to certain places — I don’t drive any further than I’m prepared to walk. I probably could have walked out of Trona on my own, but at that point, Sabrina just wasn’t strong enough – and it would have been too hot for her – so I made the right choice in not pushing on in the van.


    10 Feb 09 at 5:19 pm

  8. I kept thinking there was something off with your camera meter on that desert holly. Salt! Wow.

    I guess I prefer pictures of Sabrina in friendlier environs.

    I’m so glad we know how this journey ended.

    The heart with broken shards . . . . yes, perfect.


    10 Feb 09 at 9:04 pm

  9. Cathy – That plant was very difficult to photograph. I should have spent a little more time trying to get a better picture. I’ve looked at other shots on the net and it seems like others have had some difficulty with it as well. I think it’s partly the plant, but also the environment there — lots of sunlight reflection. Me too regarding photos of Sabrina. She wasn’t too thrilled with the locatiion!


    11 Feb 09 at 12:54 pm

  10. I love the stark beauty of this series of photos. It is decades now since I have been to Death Valley. I remember going through the town of Trona- I liked the fact that it’s an anagram of my last name.


    16 Feb 09 at 11:05 am

  11. Doug – I liked the name, but wasn’t sure why. Now I know. (-:


    18 Feb 09 at 3:43 am

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