Sunrise at Death Valley

November 8, 2016

dsc_0728If you wake up sometime a little before dawn, you can hear the coyotes howl. I unzip our window just a little bit a go back to sleep. When we step out of our tent the next morning, there is one constellation looming large over us, piercing bright stars on an electric blue sky – the Big Dipper*. In Hindu mythology, these stars represent seven (7) great sages. There is however, an eight star in this constellation. Hindu mythology calls her Arundhati, she is the wife of the star-sage Vashista. Together these two stars form their own twin star-system. This binary star has long been considered by Hindus, as the symbol of a perfect marriage. Unlike other twin star systems where one star revolves around the other, both these stars move around each other in synchrony. They stand for complete devotion, steadfast loyalty, and a union where two entities shine together as one for all eternity.  As part of the wedding, Hindu couples gaze upon this binary star (interestingly called Arundhati-Vashista and not Vashista-Arundhathi) and pray for a similar union.  The husband and I got married in broad daylight, so our priest asked us to spot it ourselves at night. All these years later, we finally got to it. We do not have the time to gaze and contemplate. We have a sunrise to catch. We hurry on to Zabriskie Point.

dsc_0780I opt to set up on the mound suggested by pamphotography below the view point, much to the annoyance of a few spectators up there. Hey, it’s not a perfect world and nobody stopped them from coming down. Just prior to sunrise, we see a pink glow above the tips of the Panamits. As the sun starts to rise behind us we see the mountains slowly wake up. As the golden light spreads across the valley floor, more rocks shake off the shadows. The red cathedral seems to glow, as though from within. This play of light and shadow is what all the early risers are here for. Once again, we breakfast on bread and cheese in the parking lot and this time head back to the campsite to pack up.

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* This is also the only constellation I can identify without help.

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Sunset at Death Valley

November 7, 2016

dsc_0664We made it to the Badwater Basin in time for sunset. We opted to drive up further from the parking lot and then walk across the salt flats, as suggested by pamphotography. Walking across the salt flats is tricky because you don’t want to break the ridges, at the same time there is something deeply satisfying about crunching salt underfoot. We’ve set up our cameras and we have nothing to do except wait. If you forget to bring a mat, like we did, you can take your shoes off and use them as a cushion. Getting up is harder as the crystals will hurt your hand as you try to lift off. The Basin is at a much lower altitude than the mountains that surround it. Therefore, the sun sets ten (10) minutes earlier here. The drama begins around ten (10) minutes after sunset. We see an orange-pink cloud starting to form. Slowing it grows bigger and starts moving. More clouds form. One shaped like a dragon too. When we turn around and look behind us, we see long pink fingers ripping the grey clouds to shreds. I have seen many spectacular sunsets with blood red skies, mixed with turmeric yellow, but this crazy pink and grey is a first. While the sunset is far from what we expected, it most certainly does not disappoint.

dsc_0679As the light starts to fade, we move towards the parking lot. The Badwater Basin is also a great place to stargaze, we stay there a little longer. There is a bottle of wine and two steel glasses in the car.  The clouds take over and we head back to our camp site.

file_001Tonight’s dinner is rice and pasta cooked in an open pan over coal. This really feels like camping. Despite his protests and reluctance, I can see that the husband is enjoying the experience. The skies have cleared and we can see the stars shining brightly overhead. After a few attempts to identify constellations we call it a night. We must be up early tomorrow to catch the sunrise.

An Afternoon in Death Valley

November 7, 2016

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We head back to the Mesquite Sand dunes because we didn’t really see them last night. It never occurred to us to venture out on to the dunes. On a starry night, how gorgeous it would have been – sand, stars and a scorpion! We reach the dunes soon enough. It’s a gorgeous morning; bright but not hot. The sky is the perfect light blue that complements the soft warm colour of the sand. The sand is carved in stark, graceful curves and shadowed ripples. This dune field includes three types of dunes: crescent, linear, and star shaped. Someday we will traverse the Sahara Desert on camels, but till then, this will have to suffice. Afreen!Afreen!!

dsc_0528A short drive later, we are at the Mosaic canyons. Mosaic Canyon is part of the north-western mountain face of the valley and is named after a stream-derived breccia sediment. Breccia is the Italian word meaning “fragments”. This formation is composed of angular fragments of different kinds of parent rock, and it can be seen on the floor of the canyon in certain areas.

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wildlife spotting

The canyon follows faults that formed a few million years ago, when the rocky crust of the Death Valley region began stretching. Running water scoured away at the fault-weakened rock, gradually carving Mosaic canyon. The entrance to Mosaic Canyon appears deceptively ordinary and a short and  easy walk leads into the canyon narrows, where the surrounding rock walls are composed of smooth, water-polished marble. We didn’t go too far, as the husband forgot his shoes in the car (he was wearing sandals). The smooth ledges and narrow passages woke up my long dormant and rusty cat personality. I tried a few jumps. Nothing big, little leaps.

Death Valley Camping and Zion.jpgAfter a leisurely lunch at the Badwater Saloon, we decided to take a break and pick up souvenirs at the Furnace Creek resort gift shop.Before we knew it, we were running short of time again. We had to cut short our hike at the Red Cathedral, and drop the Devil’s Golf Course so that we could make it in time for sunset to Badwater Basin. We did not want to miss it two days in a row.

A Morning in Death Valley

November 7, 2016

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Desert sunrises are supposed to be spectacular. We had checked the time with the ranger when we checked-in. We set our alarms and float away. When we wake up it is so bright outside, it is impossible to believe that the sun is yet to rise. We rush to Zabraskie Point. Zabraksie Point  is probably the most famous view point in Death Valley. This overlook offers a spectacular view of the vibrantly coloured Death Valley badlands. If you stand facing the valley, the sun does not rise over the Panamits directly in front of you. It comes up, over your left shoulder slowly lighting up the mountain peaks. As the light works its way down the mountain range and into the Valley, shadows move across the insanely fantastic formations. We got there in time to catch the shadow play across the rugged landscape. We watched till the golden light turned bright and sunny, and then made our way back to the parking lot to break our fast on bread and cheese.

dsc_0424We drove through the absolutely stunning twenty (20) mule canyon, whose only purpose seems to be to remind us that beauty can be masculine too. The bright blue sky rests on the muscular shoulders of broad chested mountains. The landscape is bare and rocky. Dull pastel  ores break the monotony of the sandy browns, like a man so manly that he is not afraid to wear pink. So rugged is the beauty of  this place that at some point the husband remarks, “We don’t need to go to Afghanistan now.” We don’t have to go to Tatooine either.

DSC_0443.JPGThe road itself is like a rollercoaster ride, full of dips and turns. It feels like off-roading, without really off-roading. When we come out of the canyon, we head towards Dante’s View, a viewpoint terrace offering one of the most dramatic panoramic views of  the southern Death Valley basin –  more than a hundred miles of desert ranges and salt flats flanked by weather beaten mountains.

The beauty of this vast barren landscape is hard to describe in words. It is like that emptiness you feel when you lose someone dear.  The Portuguese have a word for it – Saudade.It is thought to be the one of most beautiful words spoken. In Portuguese, it means yearning for something or someone that you love and which is lost.

*“Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss? Romantically she decided that love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself.”
Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss

When the Stars Line Up

November 6, 2016

We drive through the barren landscape of Death Valley, past towering cliffs, stunted plants, and nothingness. Shortly after turning into Artist’s Drive, we see a car parked and a small group of people waiting atop a little hillock. Not wanting to share their space, we drive on, in search of our own till spot. Crazily enough, instead of going higher up, we found we were descending lower and lower. Panic starts to set in. We are going to miss the sunset.  The roads a narrow, windy and go up and down and the husband is determined to make an amusement park ride out of it. We hurtle past the painted cliffs, pausing momentarily at the Artist’s palette to sigh dreamily at its myriad hues. Once we are back on the main road to Badwater Basin, we race towards its. We get there just in time to catch the last rosy streaks across the sky.

dsc_0297-001Badwater Basin is 282 ft (86 m) below below sea level and is the lowest point in North America. It holds a small spring-fed pool of “bad water”. The accumulated salts of the surrounding basin make the water undrinkable, and give it a “bad” name.  Adjacent to the pool, where water is not always present at the surface, repeated freeze–thaw and evaporation cycles gradually push the thin salt crust into hexagonal honeycomb shapes. The salt flats extend as far as the eye can see. You would think that miles and miles of unbroken white expanse would create a sense of liberation, but what you get is a mild feeling of claustrophobic. I thought it was just me*, but the husband acknowledged it too. Badwater basin lies at the foot of the Black Mountains (a southern range of the Amargosa Range System) and when you turn to look at the imposing cliffs they seem to bear down on you. I have been in deeper gorges and looked up at bigger mountains, but never have I felt their weight like this.

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long long ago.. in a galaxy far far away

As we drove back, velvety black blanket covered our tiny planet. Another planet shone brightly in the distance. Venus, perhaps? Slowly the sky filled up. At first there were a few, and then there were a million gazillion stars overhead. I saw my first ever shooting star.  I would have made a wish, but I was so awestruck that I forgot. As I ponder on what I could have or should have wished for, I realize beyond health and happiness for all I love, I couldn’t think of much. Camping in Death Valley has been a big thing on my bucket list, and I guess checking that off had momentarily overwhelmed me. The husband breaks my thoughts, “Do you want to go straight to the Mesquite Dunes for star gazing? It is too early for dinner, anyway.”

On we drive, till we reach the parking lot for the Mesquite Dunes. The road is fairly simple, but try doing it in pitch darkness. The signs are few and far in between and it is hard to tell if you missed them. There are not too many cars/people in the parking lot. We pick a spot and start setting up our cameras. For some reason, it never occurs to us to step out into the wilderness beyond. It doesn’t matter. We saw the most gorgeous sight ever, right there – a glimpse of the Milky Way. We may have seen more, but we have no idea.  Now the core, the brightest part of our galaxy is visible in the northern hemisphere only between June and September, so that was not visible but this was our first tryst with this wonder and we were not going to let anything spoil it.

 

*there are enough people who will vouch for my need to open windows in rooms because I feel boxed in.

Death Valley – Setting Camp

November 6, 2016

Our flight reached Vegas an hour early, but we reached our campsite a hour later than we planned. On the way from Vegas to Death Valley, we first stopped for surprisingly good lunch at I am Thai.They gave me  glass noodles, when I asked for pad thai, but it was spicy and well made, so I didn’t bother even pointing it out. We then stopped at a drugstore to fill up on drinking water and to buy the husband a toothbrush. Next stop Walmart, to stock up on bread cheese and instant foods. We went from there to Home Depot, to get portable lights ( a hand held lamp or lanterns, a flashlight and glowsticks). Last stop – Visitor’s Center to get, well information. We reached our campsite at around 3 p.m.

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We got campsite 100. Every campsite had a little tree, to give it some shade. Our’s was sadly dead and gone. After pondering for fifteen minutes or so, we asked our neighbours and set up tent at the back of their tree. We have our tent up in less than ten minutes.It is simply crazy how tightly packed the campsites are! You can reach over and touch your neighbour’s tent (almost).  With everyone there, it truly felt like a camp. People, tents, cooking, laughing, singing, drinking, brawling. Okay, so that last part is not true, but you get the picture.

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We have the sunset (today) and sunrise(tomorrow) timings from the ranger at the check-in station. He suggests Artist’s Drive  for the sunset. I am really keen on catching the sunset at Badwater Basin for two reasons – 1.  it is a shiney white salt flat, so the heat and glare there is going to be really bad during the day, making early mornings and evenings the ideal times to visit. 2. pamphotography has a lovely tutorial blog on photographing sunsets at the Badwater Basin. We decide to go to Artist’s Drive first and the head down to Badwater to catch the last light. Later at night, we plan to go the the Mesquite sand dunes for some star gazing.

Death Valley and Zion

October 2016

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Death Valley National Park

How did this happen? How did it come to be?  I need to pinch myself to be sure.  It all started with being too late plan a Thanksgiving and/or Christmas vacation for which we wouldn’t have to sell our house. Then came the school holidays for the elections. The timing was perfect. The husband is not particularly keen on either camping or Death Valley (blazing hot in summer and below freezing in winters), but he is keen on using up his leave. When I suggest Death Valley, he quickly  runs a fact/weather/temperature check ( I’m sure he did) and agrees.  Since the temperatures are extreme in summer and winter, the transition seasons are a great time to be there. We got the last campsite available at the Furnace Creek campground ( the only shaded  = most desireable campground), and I think that’s what sealed the two night camping deal. The husband hates letting a deal pass + he knows how badly I’ve been wanting to do this. Also, we didn’t camp or barbeque all summer, so we kind of made a big deal ( deal again) of fall camping a little earlier.

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Death Valley National Park

The husband has the logistics sorted. He’s booked us on Southwest Airlines, so we get to check-in 2 bags each. This means we can carry out tent and comforter. We threw away our old mattress topper,  our tent bed, or we could have taken that too. He’s rented a car to drive down from Vegas to Death Valley and back. He’s also squeezed in a day at Zion.

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Zion National Park

I call the parks department and find out that to hike the Wave – the coolest and most famous formation in Zion, we need to apply through an online lottery four months in advance. There is a walk-in lottery as well, but you need to be there one day in advance. Not happening. Next, check with friends and find out that the Narrows are super cool too. I’m super kicked about it, but it’s an eight hour hike and needs river sandals and sticks (can be rented).  The husband is sure we don’t have that kind of time either, so we decide to wing it.

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Death Valley National Park

We’ve packed a little pan to cook in and burger patties and buns. I have steel plates, spoons and glasses for us, so as not to increase landfill (lol). In a ziplock bag, I even have a sponge with some dishwashing liquid on it (the environmental conundrum!). We’ve packed layers of clothing.GPS – check. Camera+ charged batteries – check. Phones and chargers – check. We are all set to go!