Sunday, April 10, 2016

Death Valley-Blooms, Ballet, and Blues

Our visit during the Death Valley bloom in late February left me feeling that we had hardly even been there. In twenty-four hours, all we did was buzz the main roads.  We saw a lot of yellow flowers, but what about all the others, that were yet to bloom? What about all those trails that we didn’t walk on? The views we didn’t take in?

About a week after we got back from that trip, Mark learned that his Reno-based BMW motorcycle group was going to Death Valley in March, and we were thinking that we should join them. But soon, that trip was canceled because all of the campsites and hotel rooms in and near Death Valley were booked. Word had gotten out that Death Valley was the place to be.

A little research led me to realize that only one campground at Furnace Creek takes reservations; all the others are first-come. Besides, there are plenty of places to camp just outside the park, on public land or in RV parks. We wanted to take another trip.

I said, “Believe it or not, I vote for going back to Death Valley. Now there are more flowers blooming at the higher elevations. Different flowers.  We could take a few days this time.”

Mark: “Okay. But let’s get into that good campground this time.” The Texas Springs campground at Furnace Creek, very close to the one we were at last time, but a huge step up in atmosphere.
We left home on Monday morning – it was painful to leave my beautiful daffodils, but I knew they would still be gorgeous when we returned – and headed south on 395.

The weather prediction was for high winds in the Eastern Sierra, and boy, they were not kidding. The wind was sweeping the salt flats at Mono Lake high into the air, the lenticular clouds looked like stacked spaceships, and our little trailer, with Mark’s motorcycle inside, was doing the shimmy.

When we arrived in Lone Pine, I was still hoping to camp despite the wind, but Mark seemed to have his heart set on getting a motel room. This happens. He didn’t like the wind, which aggravated his allergies, and he wanted a shower. I sulked, I’m not going to lie, but I eventually cheered up when we decided to have dinner at the Merry-Go-Round, a cleverly converted Chinese and American restaurant with surprisingly good food – which to me means freshly cooked, crispy veggies and not a lot of gooey sauce.

The next morning we left early, the wind still whipping, which it would until the next day. Even when it wasn’t that windy, there was sand drifting onto the road. It reminded us of the sandstorms in the Middle East!

Our strategy was to arrive at Texas Springs at nine or so, and snag a campsite as people were leaving. it worked perfectly. Every space was spoken for again by early afternoon. I have to say, the neighbors at that campground were extremely friendly. More on that later.

We settled in, and I took a little local hike while Mark napped. Can you spot him, right in the middle of the photo?

The Texas Springs topography is pretty dazzling, for a campground.  You’re surrounded by geologic formations created by volcanic eruptions and seismic upheaval, followed by erosion. Death Valley wasn’t always dry – about 4,000 years ago, there was a wetter period.  Even now, torrential rains can change the landscape overnight, and the winds that sweep across the shifting sands of the valley floor and up through the peaks are a constant force – like a sandblaster.

We were there to see the flowers, but first there were two sights on the must-see list.  We took the motorcycle first to Zabriskie Point, just up the road from Furnace Creek and an easy walk out to the viewpoint … 

… and rode the 13-mile road spur up to Dante’s View, which was a bit chilly at 5,475’ above sea level coming, as we were, from –100’ at Furnace Creek.  Death Valley is a land of extremes.

Looking down into Death Valley takes your breath away.

On the ride back down, we realized that we were riding through another spectacular bloom, similar to the one we’d seen a few weeks back – only this one, a couple thousand feet higher.  Because we had the sun in our eyes on the way up, we really couldn’t appreciate the color. But on the way down, with the sun shining into the flowers, not our eyes – wow.  

After Dante’s View, Mark wanted to ride more so we continued on Hwy 190 toward Death Valley Junction.  It was getting to be lunchtime, and I kept trying to convey to Mark that DVJ is all but a ghost town, with zero chance of finding a cafĂ©, a market, or even a convenience store but on we went, until we had arrived.

Death Valley Junction doesn’t have any of those things mentioned above, but what it does have is an opera house, and a ballet performance season. Yep, you read right. Just as we arrived, the receptionist at the Amargosa Hotel – the only visible sign of human activity in town – was opening the Amargosa Opera House to a small tour group – $5 a head for a look inside. We bought in.

From the outside of the building, you could never imagine what is inside. Ballerina Marta Beckett arrived in the 1960s, passing by with her (future ex) husband, saw the theater, and decided to stay and dance ballet. Permanently.

Sometimes lacking an audience, she painted one, populating the walls with all of the characters of a medieval kingdom. The result is enchanting.  Marta retired from dancing a few years ago, at age 85, but now another ballerina, Jenna McClintock, who at age 6 saw Marta dance and was inspired to become a ballerina, has left life in the city to step into Marta’s shoes.

The story of Marta, Jenna, and their impact on Death Valley Junction is too rich and compelling to go into detail about here. It’s a story that, today, is alive with new energy, and new people with hopes and dreams for the town. Please take the time to read this wonderful write-up by Nevada Public Radio - Dancer in the Sands. Perhaps the next time Mark and I visit DVJ the restaurant will be open and we’ll  take in dinner and the ballet. Meanwhile, we settled for a couple of still-cool beers what we’d brought along.

That evening, back at Texas Springs, we had cocktail hour with our neighbors, with whom we’d discovered we had something in common – sailing.  They’re cruisers who’ve “swallowed the anchor” and are now living the RV life.
“I cried for a year,” the wife, Mary, admitted when I asked if it was a hard transition, husband Paul nodding confirmation. “But now I love it.”

After dark, at another campsite nearby, two men took up guitars and sang the blues as the full moon came up. It just doesn’t get any better.

Next day, we decided to make the Titus Canyon drive – Mary and Paul had said it was spectacular. Since it was a dirt road, we opted for the truck, not the motorcycle, and it was a good thing. The NPS web page about Titus Canyon says you can do this drive in 2-3 hours, but I can’t imagine doing it in less than 3 hours. We had perfect weather and, yes, we did keep stopping to take photos. But we could have stopped much more; there are several hikes that sound tempting. It’s a rugged 27-mile drive, mostly one-way, over two passes and through two canyons.

We retraced our last month’s drive on the Beatty Cutoff to get to the Titus Canyon turnoff, just before Rhyolite, which can be seen in the distance as you approach. I was thrilled at the many displays of blooms on the Beavertail cactus, also known as Prickly Pear.

After a few miles of driving across the flat, dusty plateau, we came to Titanothere Canyon, named after a huge rhino-like fossil found there in 1933. I kept commanding Mark to “STOP!” so that I could jump out with my camera and take pictures of Desert Paintbrush framing the ruddy mountains in the background. I was thinking all flowers, but as we rose higher and higher toward Red Pass, I began to realize what a treat we were in for.This drive is truly spectacular, just for the mountains alone, and the flowers were the icing – and decoration – on the cake.


As we crested 5,250’ Red Pass, it was a little scary to look down at where we’d just been.

We descended into Leadfield and stopped for lunch. This ghost town is one of those “boom-and-bust” stories that makes you wonder – how could people think this was a promising place? Supremely isolated, almost impossible to get to without 4-wheel drive – did they have that in 1926-27? – 300 people came there to mine a lead deposit which turned out to be a dud.

They left behind some very picturesque buildings, including the one we lunched at. You can explore the shacks and the mines – although the latter comes with some risk – but we were satisfied with the view from afar. Something tells me we’ll be back through there again some day.

At last, we entered Titus Canyon – which becomes so narrow, I nicknamed it “Tightass Canyon” – down, down, down we went, past the spring and the petroglyphs, as the road closed in until we wondered if our truck would make it through.

We’d been in a similarly narrow canyon, or wadi, in Oman, and we recalled that day, when the walls rose up vertically around us, so high we couldn’t see the top. It also reminded me of the narrow siq you walk through to enter the mystical, magical city of Petra, in Jordan.

About three miles from the end, there’s a parking lot and the road becomes two-way. We knew we were getting close when we began to see people with cameras and day packs walking along the road. If you don’t have half a day to invest, this would be a good option for getting to see at least a portion of this part of Death Valley National Park.

We emerged at about 2:00 p.m. and it was another half hour to our campground We were tired and dusty. There is a beautiful pool at Furnace Creek Ranch, which is available to campers for just $5 and includes use of the shower, but there were two problems with that, for me. First I’d forgotten my bathing suit (IDIOT! NEVER AGAIN!!) and second, there was a line for the two showers. So we deployed our outdoor shower enclosure, and treated ourselves to our own hot shower. What HEAVEN!

Then, a little motorcycle ride over to the Furnace Creek Inn, for happy hour. I had a house special Prickly Pear Margarita, and it was one of the tastiest margaritas I’ve had outside Mexico.

The ride back to camp was just perfection – warm and soft like a cozy sweater, and golden. If we hadn’t had a cocktail, we would have ridden longer.

Back at the campground, I went over to tell our neighbors, the musicians, how much I’d enjoyed their music. Come to find out, yes, they were professionals. “Do you ever watch Ice Road Truckers? Deadliest Catch? That’s my music.” We were listening to composer Bruce Hanifan.

After dinner, we found ourselves gathered around their campfire while they once again played and sang under the full moon. As the night drew to a close, we sang an improvised “Death Valley Blues” which (as I vaguely remember) I ended with a verse about the “Titus Canyon Blues.” Something about mountains so high, and canyons so deep, we might not get out alive. But I gotta get back there somedayeeeeeee …

The talent agents have not called yet.
And, there is one last photo, below. For some reason, Blogger won't move it up no matter what I do.
Google is in control.

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