Thursday, March 28, 2019

Day 2- Drive to Death Valley

For day 1 post click here:  Day 1- Aliens, Ghosts, and Cows, Oh My!

We awoke early and feeling surprisingly rested in our warm beds at the Mizpah.  The rain was gone and the sun was shining brightly through the frigid air.  The hotel served good coffee next to a comfortable seating area on each floor, and it happened to be right outside our room.  For about an hour we sat on plush purple Victorian style couches, drank coffee (me with my new alien mug), looked over maps and travel books, and played around with my camera settings and fish eye lens.  Remy continued to snooze in the room, while August sat with us and talked about his ghost theories and the dreams he had.  It was one of those relaxing vacation mornings that feels like a gift.  We ate an early lunch at around 10:30, making salami and cheese sandwiches from our packed cooler, along with fruit and chips.  When it was time to leave the boys and I roamed the front lobby one more time, taking more pictures in the light, and then piled into the car for our next day on the road.

Leisurely morning spent drinking coffee and talking about ghosts.

Grand Mizpah Hotel lobby.

Original doors to the safe.

Leaving the Mizpah

Leaving Tonopah the temperature slowly climbed out of the 30s as we began dropping in elevation from 6500 feet.  Our first stop was the town of Goldfield, a gold mining boom town from the early 1900’s, now with a population dwindling under 300.  All roads off the main street are dirt, and pass by random assortments that mostly resemble junkyards of mining day relics.  We sought out the International Car Forest of the Last Church- really something you have to see to appreciate.  A rough and winding dirt road a few miles off Main Street took us to sort of a graveyard of partially demolished and trashed old cars and buses, some turned and mounted in the hard ground fully vertical, and spray painted with bright and lively artwork.  We spent a good part of an hour roaming the grounds, with only one other visitor in sight, looking inside the vehicles and trying to figure out how some got to be where they were.  Later, I read that one of my favorite movies, Desert Blue, was partially filmed in this area- showcasing a very young Kate Hudson, Christina Ricci, and Casey Affleck hanging out in desert junkyards in ’99.

Remy and Baby
I was thinking the exact same thing...

The sun continued to warm the air and by the time we left it was a comfortable 55 degrees with no wind.  We continued to drop in elevation and were surprised but happy to see palm trees again at our next stop- Death Valley Nut and Candy Co. in Beatty, Nevada.  August’s eyes widened as we entered the massive store and viewed rows upon rows of every type of candy and chocolate/ nut concoction imaginable.  We each picked out our own bag- gummy alligators, candy fruit slices, coconut cashew brittle, and raspberry gummies.  Just as I was starting to feel a bit sick from nonstop candy consumption, we had arrived at our next destination- the ghost town of Rhyolite, another turn of the century gold mining town, named for the igneous rock found in the nearby mountains.  Also often used as a Western movie film set, the town is mostly in ruins with a few exceptions such as the Tom Kelly bottle house, built in 1905 using embedded bottles collected from the near 50 saloons operating in Rhyolite at the time.  

Death Valley Nut and Candy Co. treasures
Bottle House, Rhyolite, Nevada

Rhyolite ghost town

Back on the road, we drove the final 40 miles that would drop us another 4000 feet into Furnace Creek, California, resting at 190 feet below sea level.  The views opened dramatically as we passed through the last of the mountain ranges and dipped into the valley- a vast open expanse of salt beds, barren rock, and badlands.  We arrived mid-afternoon at the Ranch at Death Valley, known for the highest recorded temperature on earth of 134 degrees Fahrenheit on July 10, 1913.  Luckily, when we arrived on a mild spring day, temperatures were barely reaching 80, with a light breeze.  Walking through the courtyard studded with palm trees, bright flowering shrubs, green grass, and a fountain, we all felt instantly relaxed and at ease.  The ranch underwent a huge renovation the past few years, and looked completely different from when I last visited in 2015.   The grounds had changed from a mostly dusty and rustic compilation of aging buildings to turn of the century Mission style architecture lined by towering date palms.  What hadn’t been renovated were the ranch “cabins”- more of a duplex fitting two rooms with front porch and rocking chairs.  The cabin was one of those rooms where you and all of your stuff felt instantly dirtier and dustier upon entering.  The room was just like I had remembered- incredibly small and dark, and a seemingly thick coat of sand and salt over the carpet that I really tried hard to ignore (especially when I’d catch one of the boys dropping a gummy and picking it right back up to eat).  It is almost like they gave up on cleaning these rooms.  This is what $250 a night affords you in Death Valley.  But, there are a few very good reasons to pay up- the mentioned opulent date palm courtyard and grounds, a huge spring fed pool kept at a constant 82 degrees, and the location next some of the massive park’s most popular sites. 

Needless to say, I was happy to head back out of our dark room for a quick swim before our drive out to view the sunset in Badwater Basin.  The pool was warm and crowded, but the boys, and especially Remy, squealed with delight immediately once splashing around.  Pools are almost a necessity for me on a road trip.  It is a great way to refresh your mood after long car rides and the seemingly endless flow of snacks in the car and hotel rooms.  I will often seek out hotels that offer unique or grand pools, and it has become a highlight for both the boys (that includes Jerry) and myself.  After our swim we quickly got dressed and packed up food, drinks, and all of my camera equipment for late night out. 

Badwater Basin in the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.  Oddly, it sits just 84 miles away from Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 at 14,505 feet.  The walk out into the basin and past the boardwalk into the salt flats at sunset is quite surreal.  The setting sun cast a warm, gold glow on the towering mountain cliffs behind us as we walked out into a salty, white abyss.  The basin floor slowly transformed the further out we went, from a hard, dusty, white floor to a crunchy salt crystal covering, and then finally well over a mile out, past most of the other tourists, a bed of irregular polygon shaped salt crust shapes that seemed to extend forever.  This is where we’d settle in, viewing the sunset behind the mountains, and staying for the first stars and planets, and then finally for the milky way to make its appearance.  Remy got really sleepy on the hike when he settled into the backpack and I was actually able to lay him down, still asleep, on the salt bed, for what was probably the strangest location for a nap in history for either of my boys.  Jerry and I opened some Mexican beers, adding a little bit of Badwater salt and lime, August ran off to explore some salt (it was impossible to lose sight of him out there), and we got the camera and tripod set up.  It was quiet, and peaceful, and one of those moments where I’m quite aware of how lucky I am to be exactly where I am at that exact time (I had a very similar feeling in 2017 while awaiting the total solar eclipse on the wavy prairie boardwalks in Agate Fossil Beds, Nebraska).  Soon, stars began appearing, and August lost count somewhere around 80.  I am just learning how to photograph the Milky Way, and beginning to understand that a large part of it is not just the technical side of my camera settings, but the logistics of being in a place to view and photograph the Milky Way, as well keep everyone comfortable.  We didn’t end up needing our jackets even in the pitch dark, and had plenty of snacks and drinks, but I slightly underestimated the time it would take from sunset to fully dark skies.  Ideally we’d be at a campsite in the future where we can settle in for a bit before heading out into the darkness.  As it was getting late, I took my shots using a 30 second exposure, at the earliest possible moment, and we decided to call it a night around 9 pm and packed up, making the long trek back to the car using our headlamps.  We settled in our beds soon after arriving back at the ranch, enjoyed a bit of some Discovery channel shows, and passed out quickly after.  We slept soundly until the dreaded sound of a kid getting sick was heard at 3 am on the dot- apparently August had “tried too much salt” out on the salt flats and it gave him a stomach ache.  After a clean-up of epic proportions I laid fully awake in bed until past 4, when finally settling back into sleep and continuing to sleep until almost 9 am.  

Ranch at Death Valley

Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level

Leaving the boardwalk for the salt flats.

Probably the strangest place Remy has taken a nap.

Badwater night skies

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