Archive for February, 2009
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.
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).
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.
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.
Upon leaving Bodie, I felt some mild apprehension over the weather. It was cold and the skies looked overcast and threatening. Conditions seemed ripe for at least a little snow. I wasn’t all that sure about the landscape I’d be driving through as I continued south. Looking at the map, it seemed that there might be more mountains ahead — and that turned out to be the case. However, I checked the clock in the van and made a few quick calculations that led me to believe that we’d probably roll up to the motel in Ridgecrest not much after dark. Wrong again. Between the mountainous terrain between here and there, and my eastward trajectory toward the Mountain time zone, my time and distance calculations went out the window.
As the afternoon progressed, I realized that we would be on the road well after dark. That prospect didn’t make me particularly happy as I don’t consider myself to be much of a nighttime driver. However, there wasn’t a lot to do about the situation short of canceling the motel reservation in Ridgecrest, and trying to find somewhere to bunk further north. However, checking my map, it looked like motels might be sparse along this route, especially ones that were “dog friendly”. The weather looked less threatening now, so I decided to try to push on to Ridgecrest.
Despite feeling the need to keep moving, I did stop to stretch my legs and eyes a couple of times. It was at a look-off over Round Valley, with Mount Tom looming beyond, that I caught the unmistakable scent of the desert. As I opened the van door, the familiar odor of dust and certain pollens filled the air, provoking a landslide of memories — of Don and I coming in from long days spent hiking, our hair and clothes dusted with fine red sand and smelling of the desert. The sensation was entirely unexpected and caught me off guard. For a moment, it was as though I was standing next to him once again. At the outset of this journey, I knew that the desert might bring us closer. The feeling was both difficult and welcome.
Soon, we were back on the road, descending into the Owens Valley, with the Inyo Mountains to the east (see below – click on all images for larger views). Now, the road flattened and became straight for long sections. However, as happened at so many other places along the way, there was road construction and lane closings to contend with. I drove onwards, into the dusk, with the setting sun casting a rosy hue over the clouds and mountains. It would be nice to say that the rest of the drive was so pleasant, but that would be stretching the truth. Things got a little hairy further south as the road became more twisted and hilly. Driving in total darkness now, I resorted to my old survival tactic of following a truck that seemed to know where it was going — last used as I tore up the Columbia Gorge in the dark just a few weeks before. Eventually, the truck led us into Ridgecrest. Feeling weary and overwhelmed with aloneness, I asked the motel desk clerk if I could extend my stay to two nights instead of one. In what was to be a rare moment on this journey, I truly felt that I could not push on. Luckily, the room was available, allowing me the chance to crash and burn for a day before resuming the trek onward to Arizona.