Travel Journal No. 13: The Racetrack

I’d driven for hours on what was a teeth-rattling trek through the desert. My destination was a remote region of Death Valley. I wanted to witness a mysterious phenomenon at a place called the Racetrack, where rocks seem to move on their own accord, leaving bizarre trails on an ancient dry lake bed.

After setting up camp a mandatory mile away from the site, I hiked to the middle of the surprisingly vast and flat lake bed. The air was dry and still, smelling of tarry creosote and dusty earth. The ground was cracked and hard, my footprints leaving no trace, as if I were an ant walking on the craquelure surface of the “Mona Lisa.”

As I walked, I crossed twisting paths that had been carved into the earth by the traveling rocks, each channel having a single stone fixed at one end. How could a stone about the size of a basketball have caused permanent indentations in what looked like dry, cracked clay? Of course I knew the many theories that exist — ice and wind being the preferred explanations — but there are still questions about exactly how such a rare event might happen.

Reaching the center of the lakebed, I positioned my camera near a particularly compelling rock trail that twisted its way in an S-like curve for hundreds of yards into the distance.

When the sun finally set, the temperature plummeted below freezing within what seemed like minutes.

Gazing out into what had been a beautiful, albeit flat, desert vista, I now saw only 360 degrees of featureless darkness. I turned on my headlamp, and its milky beam instantly attracted a bat that darted around my head for a moment before flying off in search of more substantial food or perhaps a friend, I imagined.

As a child I had become fascinated with the moving rocks after reading a book called “Chariots of the Gods.” Author Erich von Daniken had suggested our world’s religions and science had been handed down by extraterrestrials who had visited our world at various times in the past, dispensing critical scientific and spiritual truths along the way. The book was so popular that it inspired a movie and a TV series called “In Search of…” in which the narrator, Rod Sterling (and later Leonard Nimoy), conducted investigations into controversial and paranormal activities, including UFO sightings, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and one episode that included imagery of the moving rocks of Death Valley.

I thought about the Timbisha tribe of Native Americans that inhabited the valley for thousands of years. Did they travel to this area on spiritual quests, believing it held some special power or energy that caused stones to move when no one was watching? Or did they avoid the area altogether?

By 2 a.m., I couldn’t take the cold any longer. I was frozen to the bone, and besides, I was hungry from not having eaten since lunch, and my camera was nearly out of batteries anyway. It was time to head back to camp, charge up my gear and grab a couple hours’ sleep before sunrise, when I hoped to capture more photos.

Peering through the darkness toward the direction of where I believed my campsite lay yielded only bewildering blackness and an eerie reflection from my headlamp.

“That’s OK,” I thought. “I have lost my orientation, but I’ve tagged my campsite on my phone’s GPS.”

But when I checked, I had no service. My heart started to pound. I thrust my numb hands into my coat pockets and squatted to conserve heat while I pondered my next move.

Death Valley is an awe-inspiring place. First of all, the range of temperatures is stunning: At the height of summer it is one of the hottest places on the planet, having reached a record air temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit on July 10, 1913, and it also has the distinction of holding the record for the hottest ground-surface temperature ever recorded on earth, reaching 201.0 degrees Fahrenheit on July 15, 1972. Most new visitors to Death Valley expect the heat, but few anticipate the cold, with temperatures regularly reaching zero or below.

The arid valley also has the lowest elevation in North America (282 feet below sea level) and mountains that reach well over 10,000 feet. Couple these extremes in temperature and geology with an average rainfall of just over 2 inches per year and what you get is a valley that looks a lot like death on the surface. But look a little bit deeper and what you find is a diversity of life that has found a way to exist and thrive in even these harshest of conditions.

In the distance, two coyotes yelped, their voices shrill against the otherwise silent night.

I considered lying down on the ground and waiting till sunrise, but I knew doing so meant the risk of hypothermia and unconsciousness.

Above, the stars shone as brightly as if I were sitting in a planetarium, each drop of light a sparkle of color on a velvet-black canvas. Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, appeared with near-moonlike brilliance.

Surrounded by such deep silence and darkness I felt peaceful and recalled a poem by Edward Hirsch that I hadn’t thought of in years:

What the Last Evening Will Be Like

You’re sitting at a small bay window

in an empty café by the sea.

It’s nightfall, and the owner is locking up,

though you’re still hunched over the radiator,

which is slowly losing warmth.

Now you’re walking down to the shore

to watch the last blues fading on the waves.

You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—

the walls around you kept closing in—

but the sea and the sky were also yours.

No one else is around to drink with you

from the watery fog, shadowy depths.

You’re alone with the whirling cosmos.

Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place.

Night is endless here, silence infinite.”

I took a deep breath and stood up. All I needed to do was pick a star and then take one step and then another, and eventually I’d be back at camp. I knew I would make it out of this adventure, and with it I’d have beautiful memories and a few photos to share.

As I walked through the darkness, the only sound my rhythmic, muffled footsteps and breathing, I felt at peace with the stillness in front of me — a stillness such as I’ve experienced in no other place.

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Originally published in the Napa Register, January 2018