Saturday, May 15, 2010

Departing Oakland - Eastern Sierra

We stayed last night at Emigrant campsite, a 10 tent campground that is a throw back to the past's simplicity.  Mostly somewhat level rocky pads, scratched out of the sloping playa that leads to the bottom of Death Valley.  Still 1,000 feet above the valley floor, it provides a commanding view of the northern expanse of the valley, while being bracketed on east and west by brown, gold, gray, and red undulating hills wrapping behind one another over the horizon. There are just a few other tent campers sharing this isolated spot, no generators, no barking dogs, no kids on bikes, no trappings of any crowd at all.    At sunset and sunrise, I am joined by another photographer and we briefly exchange greetings before trying to stay out of each others shots as we attempt to capture the grandeur of the place. Short excursions into the brush beyond the cleared sites reveals evidence of previous occupation, some old building foundations, a fireplace hearth, and some stepping stones. This entire 10 mile wide slope is striped with different sized rivulets leading downhill.  Rocks of different sizes are distributed in each as if each is it's own little stream bed with the sparsely footed desert plants clinging to the bottoms of each one where some remnant of moisture can most likely be found.

The ground is noticeably sloping from the last pass leading into death valley all the way to the valley floor, with a constant slope of about 10 degrees.  This odd offset takes awhile for the sensibilities to adjust to, as neither the western or eastern vistas are really horizontal. After looking at either for some time, you accommodate to the tilt and internalize it as flat, then you look back to anything close at hand and that instead seems  tilted, even though it is indeed relatively flat.  Not too dissimilar an experience to that of watching a rushing river , then switching your focus to the shore and feeling that the shore is rushing backwards and the water is standing still.

There is a slight breeze blowing that carries the bird song long distances, yet I can see nothing on the wing. Suddenly, the sun bursts over the horizon and the temperature rises 10 degrees.  In the tents around us, I notice a stirring and then I know its time to return to the camper, brew some java and get the day going for a new adventure.

We make a leisurely auto tour crossing Death Valley - certainly something only a person of today's sensibilities can claim, considering the inhospitable terrain which we traverse.  The sun is high in the sky quickly, so shadows are short and the air temperature has risen to the 80's.  We stop at a few roadside attractions, the most interesting of which was the preserved remains of the old borax works on rt. 190 going south.  It's informative to note that the borax works shut down during warmer months, but when in operation during the winter employed many asian laborers living right out on the the edge of the dry lakebed and gathering raw material from the evaporated basin using  hand hauled carts, a large boiler and cascading vats of settlement and precipitation tanks to yield the crystalline borax that was eventually hauled over 150 miles by large 20-mule teams up and out of the valley to the nearest rail depot. The two actual payload wagons in any mule train were quite small, just taller than your average large sized SUV with 7 foot wooden wheels trailing a third set of wheels holding a large 500 gallon water tank for the mule's consumption during their journey.

By 2:00 pm we have arrived at an entirely different place - the Valley or Fire State Park, Nevada's oldest state park which was established in 1935 east and north of Las Vegas.  Here the brownish red sandstone formed by the slow and methodical hardening and erosion of 150 million year old sand dunes has left towers, monuments, beehives, and other terraced and sculpted ribs and ridges protruding from the creosote covered chaparral.  Tucked into two side canyons in the formations are some pleasant campsites - the nicest of which is the Arch Rock campsite because of the lack of RV hook-ups.  Once parked, we opened the awning to provide some relief from the penetrating sun, unfolded the lounge chairs beneath, and I, for one, fell into a bottomless siesta during the hot hours of the remainder of the afternoon dreaming of the prehistoric users of this place including the Basket Maker people and later the Anasazi Pueblo farmers.

Awakening a few hours later refreshed, but somewhat soggy, I rose as the whispy white mare's tails began to form in the deep blue sky overhead.  Fluorescent  green and pale blue lichen adorn the nearby red sandstone rocks and in places appear as if hyroglyphics left by some ancient civilization.  ( There are petroglyphs  down the road in the park which we hope to ride to later tonight) The desert marigold is blooming around our campsite with the numerous delicate orange blooms held aloft by flimsy stems. They seem such a contradiction here in the land of wind sculpted rocks and dry red/brown earth, but we are pleased to see them, knowing their blooming season is short and is soon to expire.

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