Following Footprints

We were in Lassen Volcanic National Park last fall when we stumbled upon studying tracks and footprints on the trail as a sometimes entertaining game to play while hiking. The sideline clearly made a lasting impression because Bill was again spotting tracks on the first hike of our 2012 season at Zion. “Look at this one. What do you suppose the rest of the shoe looks like?” was all it took to get us going. Next up was “Deer, running deer.” Then it was “I hope we see the shoe that made this print.”

Guess Bill's shoe print does look like Spider Man.
Apparently we aren’t alone in our little obsession because one of the early questions a Nevada State Park ranger asked us in Valley of Fire was “What kind of print do your shoes make?” when looking at our Vibram 5 Fingers. Bill obliged him by carefully making an impression in the red sandstone grit, which prompted “Cool! It looks like Spider Man.” We chuckled at the generation gap his comment reflected and continued answering his other questions, like would our experience with the footwear shed light on how the local ancestral peoples climbed the sheer faces to make their rock carvings.

In Death Valley we took the next logical step, which was to buy the "Scats & Tracks of the Desert SW" book so we could identify more than shoe brands and models on the trails. We love Death Valley as a winter refuge from the wet and cold weather blanketing much of the US and Europe but its hiking venues tend to be a tad boring: most involve crunching along in the loose rock of dry riverbeds or washes and looking up at canyon walls, if we are lucky. There aren't many grand panoramas in Death Valley and the few peaks to climb were snow covered in February.

Identifying raven prints on our truck.

Our first identification subject was too easy but we welcomed it as a sure-fire way to learn our way around the little field guide.The subject was a raven sitting on the back of Blue when we returned from a hike. He defiantly held his ground like it was his truck while we approached and we used his calm to compare his features to those in the "Scats & Tracks" book. Bill finally shooed him away, enabling us to examine both the dusty prints he'd left on the paint and poop he'd deposited on the bumper. "Yup, it's a raven all right."

Finds #2 & #3 weren't exotic either--coyote and mule deer identified from scat--but we took them as minor victories nonetheless. On the way back from our hike in which we ID'ed coyote scat we noted that one had likely traversed our very path because several of his prints were next to ours on the rare sandy bit of 'out' on our out-and-back trail. While we were tracking him by his scat he apparently had been tracking us by our scent. It was a little alarming to realize we'd probably been in his sights but of course we took comfort in remembering that coyotes don't attack people. Interestingly, the next day we heard several stories of how they do stalk and attack unattended dogs in Death Valley and elsewhere.

Desert vanish is distinctive but not spectacular.
Geological Pursuits
Identifying 'scats & tracks' was one new source of entertainment for us on the somewhat tedious Death Valley National Park hikes and delving deeper into its geology was another successful strategy for keeping us engaged. While we were driving into the Valley in February 2012, we'd arbitrarily given ourselves a $100 budget to buy field guides of any kind that might help us be fascinated on the trails. Thirty dollars of the $50 we actually spent on books went towards a geology guide to the Park. A good but not great book, it quickly had us asking new questions about what we were seeing.

Our new commitment to being fascinated about Death Valley minutia had me asking Bill to bring the geology book out with him when we were doing our morning exercises so I could memorize the names of the half dozen mountain ranges in view while I stretched--a small project, but a start. After a hike featuring thousands of large and small rocks shiny with desert varnish, I looked to Wiki Offline for the first time for a description that went beyond our book's explanation of "Black staining on rock, consisting of manganese oxide." We'd heard that before but in our quest to know more we'd wondered while in the presence of the varnish if the manganese was native to the rock or a deposited coating. Wiki scored: desert varnish actually forms because manganese-loving bacteria concentrate the chemical from the environment on the surface of slow weathering rocks that host a dusting of wind-deposited clay. Add morning dew and the heat of the desert sun and Presto! you eventually have a brown or black, sort of a ceramic or slip coating on most of the rocks in one area. Fascinating stuff, isn't it? (Months later in Bryce Canyon we heard a different story: if the desert varnish has a purple cast then cyanobacteria have had enough additional moisture to be adding manganese to the mix and that the usual bacteria make black varnish with their trapping of magnesium).

This ancient mudflow (top) was the "mosaic" of Mosaic Canyon.
Another morning I'd been preparing for a hike by reading about differentiating normal faults from thrust faults. From the descriptions given, I couldn't understand how one determined in the field whether a fault was created by a block sliding down or a block being thrusted up. I felt incompetent for being confused because it seemed that the authors thought their description was sufficient. But that afternoon it didn't matter; I raised the issue to Bill and we became engrossed by looking at a number of monumental faults during our canyon hike and guessing which direction they were each going. Clearly, like with the desert varnish, having the question was almost as entertaining as having the answer. We didn't need to be experts to be engaged, we only needed some fresh questions to ponder in the field to have us delving deeper.

Our first hike up Mosaic Canyon last fall was delightful but like other visitors there, we weren't sure where the mosaic was in the canyon. When asked, we guessed it was colorful mineral patches on the surface of the hills visible once deep into the canyon. Reviewing the Park's description of the mosaic being "angular fragments of different kinds of rock....(that) can be seen on the floor of the canyon" didn't make it any clearer. But our new geology book left us with no doubt: 'mosaic' was describing the fist-sized and smaller pieces of rock embedded in an ancient mudflow that had spilled over the top of the much more dramatic Noonday Dolomite transformed into marble. Watching for the recurring mud bands filled with naturally occurring tessera made the familiar hike fresh again. And for days afterwards we were spotting other concrete-like ancient mudflows, which reinforced our now broader understanding of old mud. We had always though of ancient mud as being limited to relatively soft and flakey mudstones, but not any more: this stuff was definitely "rock-hard".

Presumably these wild coloration patterns were due to percolating minerals in both Valley of Fire (L) & Death Valley (R).
Tending to being even a little more fascinated kept paying off. In Valley of Fire we'd read an intriguing comment about rocks being stained by iron compounds percolating through them. Lo and behold, we saw what looked like a bizarre example of just such a process while there. And a few days later, we saw another example of what had to be a similar percolation process in Death Valley but with a very different look. Both were good reminders that all rocks are porous to some degree and had us wondering if it was coincidence that the first examples of this phenomena appeared before us twice in 1 week or was it a common finding that we'd just never noticed?

The view from our camper of the approaching dust storm.
Dust Storm!
Last fall we reluctantly drove on the edge of a dust storm on our way to Albuquerque. We had a relatively short drive that day to prepaid RV park reservations and we were low on groceries, so we were motivated. There was a wind advisory for high profile vehicles but the RV park staff had said we were headed in a favorable direction. We drove slowly and were attentive when the landforms looked like they might generate stronger gusts. Luckily we only encountered the winds, not the blowing dust. In Death Valley this year we fully experienced the real thing.

By chance, the night before the storm I had chatted with the Stovepipe Wells registration staff about the next day's weather because the internet connection had been too poor to check it online. Their comments went well beyond the forecast posted in the office: they suggested completing our next day's activities in the morning, to expect a crummy afternoon, and be prepared for a dust storm the following day. We took their advice and instead of leaving in the late morning for a hike like we usually do, we packed our breakfast and jogged 20 minutes to the sand dunes and spent the morning looking for scat and tracks in the dunes and then ran back. About 1 pm I emerged from showering at the public facilities to see a huge dust storm, which I assumed was heading our way.

"It's almost here!"
Bill was in the camper with his back to the approaching storm and had no way of knowing what was about to hit. When I was in earshot of the camper I yelled "Grab the camera. Dust storm. I'll close things up." In hindsight we had about 5 minutes before it hit, which was plenty of time to tend to the immediate "battening down the hatches" and the secondary, nice-to-do preventative measures. One of those late thoughts of Bill's was to pull in our slide or pop-out, which would eliminate torquing by the wind and embedding sand in multiple mechanisms.

We considered ourselves lucky. The storm was predicted for the following day, but we'd seen it approach. By chance, we were in an end slot in the 14 space RV park and we'd intentionally pulled in the wrong direction to capitalize on the view from our large dinette window. That orientation both put our truck's windshield on the lee side of the wind and put our camper's rear end into the wind. If we'd been oriented the proper way, the windshield might have been pitted by the rocks and sand and we wouldn't have been able to look into the various stages of the advancing storm over the course of the hour. Our fiddling to park on the most level spot also had our rig almost perfectly aligned with the wind rather than taking it more broadside. And luckily, all of this was happening in the middle of the afternoon instead of the middle of the night, allowing us the luxury of time to brace for it and to clean-up afterwards.

Watching the visibility diminish through our dinette window.
As best we could tell, we came through unscathed. We were among the lucky ones to be 'at home' when it hit so we didn't lose our doormat to the wind and were able to close all of our vents and windows. Unlike others, we didn't feel a need to climb onto the roof when it was all over, nor did we have to go in search of missing possessions. We don't have barbecue's, large mats, and big chairs to set-up an outdoor room like many do, so we had little at risk. We'd ridden our bikes the day before, but Bill had tucked them back into the truck before dark as he usually does.

The early minutes of the storm were exciting, but after about 20 minutes we just wished it was over. But it hadn't even peaked by 20 minutes and we later learned that they can easily last 6 hours. I was snapping pictures to document the progressive loss of visibility as we rocked and rolled with the buffeting winds. Our kitchen fan vent rattled constantly and the dangling plastic cap of our sewer system banged against the underside of the camper like a sledge hammer. Sand and big grit pelted the camper door, which allowed the finest dust in around the seals. The few drops of rain sounded like hail hitting the small back window and we kept looking out the back to see if we were likely to get clobbered by airborne tents, awning hardware, or chairs. The only thing even close to taking aim at us was a heavy park service sandwich board which traveled about 40' towards us but landed safely to one side.

The same view out our window a few minutes later.
While we were literally riding out the storm, we strategized as to what we would have done if the dust storm had hit while we were in the sand dunes like we were a few hours earlier. We considered how we would have put our small stash of gear in our packs to best use and which of the low places we had explored would have been the best bets for hunkering down. We also thought through our best options had we been on a canyon hike or out in the expanse of one of the rocky washes. We also marveled at the fact that under most of our day to day circumstances in Death Valley, we wouldn't have know what was happening until the sand and rocks started hitting us.

The skies behind the storm started clearing before the winds died down enough for us to be willing to open our door. Our first surprise with the clearing was seeing that fresh snow had fallen on all of the surrounding peaks during the storm though we hadn't experienced much of a temperature drop where we were. Then we noticed that about half of the few tents in view in the adjacent national park campground had remained standing and none had taken flight. Some neighbors were already on the tops of their rigs making repairs.

About an hour after the storm began, we exited to inspect for damage and to begin cleaning up. We had about 15 minutes of recovery work to do. The camper door and screen door needed to be swept off on the inside and the back windows needed to be washed inside and out. Fine grit had settled in through 2 of our 3 ceiling vents, requiring sweeping the floor and shaking out the bedding. No doubt we'd be finding little piles of fine sand here and there for the next week or so as we learned all of the hidden entry avenues into our rig. We decided to give the entire rig an exterior wash the next time we saw an oversized car wash.

Once out and about, we learned of the losses of others from the estimated 50 mph winds: one tent had been shredded; another remained intact but the poles were shattered; a trailer neighbor was still looking for their chairs; a nearby road sign post had snapped in two; and the motel rooms had taken in a lot of sand. Like an aftershock, strong winds shook us for an hour after mid-night that night. The next morning we occasionally heard comments like "We'll have to get it fixed..." from neighboring rig owners. A huge road grader was out early the next morning clearing sand from the narrow highway roadbed and others may have been clearing additional snow at higher elevations that fell overnight.

Our biggest loss during the dust storm was a coincidental loss: our camera. I was busy clicking shots of the shrinking visibility through our dinette window and noticed a smudge on the lens. Cleaning wasn't helping and Bill knew why. Another camera had developed the same problem: some odd bit of glue or grit had drifted across the inside of the lens and stopped, creating an identical smudge in the center of every photo. With that camera, the repair shop staff indicated that the camera was essentially ruined. Yes, it could be cleaned, but the cost of repair didn't make sense compared to the always-dropping prices and increasing function of newer cameras. So, once again, we were miles from anywhere without a properly functioning camera and will be selecting a new one in a hurry. My lesson learned from having 3 of our 4 digital camera purchases being triggered by a sudden-onset "Oops" is that if you are on the trip of a life time, take 2 cameras.

Exploring the North End
Only time for a quick look at the distinctive geology above Titus Canyon.
After a week at the Stovepipe Wells campground in central Death Valley we moved to Mesquite Flats at the northern end to take in some new sights on additional high-wind days. Driving the 27 mile unpaved approach to and through Titus Canyon from Beatty, Nevada was one of those outings and it won't soon be forgotten. In our long-wheel-based truck, it felt like a near-death experience to be making corkscrew turns on 20+% grades with steep cliffs defining the edge of the narrow washboard road. It happened to be my turn to drive and it was the kind of experience that catapults one's skills and confidence--when it's all over. Bill was a good sport and calmly reported when it was getting scary on the drop-off side, which was usually his side. (Our recommendations for making this drive are in "Driving Titus" in the "In More Detail" section.)

The drive to and through Titus Canyon was another stunning display of geology, though higher and more rugged than many of the other destinations in Death Valley. A huge span of geologic time is evident on this drive filled with "ooohs and ahhh's." Remnants of a ghost town and old mine shafts are minor points of interest compared with the massive geological displays. Making this drive also affirmed our strategy of offloading the camper when we could so as to do activities impossible with it on the truck.

The divide between the yellow & orange rock at Ubehebe Crater is a fault line.
The next day we lucked out--we happened to visit colorful Ubehebe Crater during the rare calm between the fierce winds coming from the northwest and those coming from the southeast. Another rest day that was well-timed with a fresh leg injury of mine, it provided a seldom-found grand panorama in the Valley. Most of the time one is down near sea level or below when in Death Valley looking up. In contrast, the road to Ubehebe Crater begins at over 2,000' and takes everyone to the Crater's rim for a grand view into the Crater and up the valley for miles and miles. A half mile walk to the upper Little Hebe rim crater makes the views more stunning. I'm not one for sitting still for long but the gentle breezes, the sun on our backs, the yellow and orange crater walls, the red and black foothills, and the snow capped distant mountains made it easy to linger after the last bites of lunch were long gone.

In deference to my SI joint, psoas, ITB, and Baker's Cyst behind my knee that all had thrown tantrums 48 hours earlier, I was content to stroll around the top of a couple of craters and wander back to the parking lot while Bill made a cardio workout of running around the rim of the crater, then to the bottom and back up. I was happy to be able to walk at all on this day; he was happy to get a novel workout. The characteristically harsh winds at the Crater kicked up before we finished our respective events and we felt like lucky Oregonians that happened to visit the Oregon coast on a sunny day. Ah, the dazzling beauty and tranquility at Ubehebe on the unusually calm interval were the perfect antidote to the high-drama of driving theTitus Canyon road the day before (a road we later learned we should not have been on at all-to find out why look in "Driving Titus" in the "In More Detail" section).

Both of our northern Valley events were made more satisfying by continuing our new strategy of delving deeper into the details. Our geology book described more formations on the Titus Canyon road than we cared to know but we would have missed the volcanic plug and megabreccia without it. Ubehebe Crater was only 5 miles from our campground and only was given a paragraph in our geology book so I again turned to my new resource, Wiki Offline, to add interest to the visit (we had no internet or cell service). I gave Bill a mini-presentation on the geology of the crater and the immediate area plus took side trips into some related vocabulary while we stood on its rim. It was especially fun to learn that the crater is an example of a "maar" and that the word was taken from a German dialect in a region that I knew Bill would remember visiting on bikes. Doing the research about the crater was a way to add depth to our experience and my chance finding of a link with our past overseas travels extended our delight. Like with history, it's more fun to learn geology and languages in the field.

On To The South
We exited Death Valley by taking the road out the south end to the tiny village of Shoshone to give us a new experience of the Park, which took us past Badwater. Bill immediately jumped out of the truck to grab a nostalgic photo of the crowds at the lowest point in the US (-282'). When we cyclotoured in Death Valley over a decade ago we'd visited Badwater and coined the expression "Badwater Effect" for our own amusement.

The "Badwater Effect" was still potent after all these years.
When we arrived at Badwater years ago, we saw people had marched out some distance on the salt pan. Not knowing what was out there to see, we locked our bikes and headed out too. We got out to the popular turnaround point as indicated by the trampled salt crystals and looked around. Much to our chagrin, we'd done the lemming thing and followed the herd to nowhere, simply nowhere. The sights, sounds, and sensations of the first step on the salt pan were exactly the same at the distant and arbitrary turnaround. When we drove by this time, the crowds were even larger and it looked like there were now 2 turnaround points from nowhere. Ever since then we are always on the look-out for being duped by a Badwater Effect and are often amused to see them. We also chuckle when we trigger a sort-of Badwater Effect, such as when parking our truck and camper out in an empty corner of a Walmart parking lot only to return to find our rig now surrounded by other oversized vehicles.

In addition to revisiting the source of our Badwater Effect tag, there were some stunning views from the southern-most Park road. And we realized that by taking that route, we'd been on almost every bit of paved road within Death Valley on this trip, which represented more driving than we usually do. Once again our sometimes tedious geology book gave us new points of interest along the way, drawing our attention to things we'd otherwise have missed. As we exited the Park we congratulated ourselves on finding new points of interest and new ways to be fascinated during our 10 night stay in Death Valley.

Joshua Tree
Joshua Tree National Park was our next destination. Like Death Valley, it was a destination we visited while training to become international cyclotourists more than a decade ago. It was there that we tested bikes, sleeping bags, tents, camp stoves, and other essential gear. It was a place where we also challenged out ability to conserve on water because we had to carry in every drop we would use. We vividly remembered it as a cold, windy trip and wondered how we'd experience it this time. Being able to retreat indoors and having a substantial onboard water supply would certainly color the second visit.