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to Death Valley 27 September 2014


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My memories of Tioga Pass go back to childhood, when it was a one-lane gravel road that scrambled over majestic granite domes and down desperate scree slopes on its way over one of the highest passes in the Sierras. It remains a precarious, spectacular way to cross these mountains. Crossing Tuolumne Meadows, it began to snow.

Our doughty Jucy van managed the mountains just fine, and we were soon heading out across the high desert east of Mono Lake, headed for Tonopah and the north entrance to Death Valley National Park.

<p>Lake Tenaya and the Sierra Crest</p>

Lake Tenaya and the Sierra Crest

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Nevada's high desert isn't the flat, sere landscape that many imagine. Nevada is a mountainous state, with dozens of mountain ranges and innumerable mounds, mountains, and bumps to punctuate the intervening dry lakebeds. For those of us who are used to trees, it's a bit disconcerting to see straight stretches of road reaching to the next range populated only by sage brush.  

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Driving down the wash into Death Valley, the troubled weather that gave us snow over the Sierras brought unusual rain. We could feel the dry desert slurping up every droplet. The dramatic clouds and gouts of rain that never seemed to quite reach the ground – virga – actually sprinkled us with rain ... until a sandstorm in the center of the Valley brightened the western landscape. 

We camped right in the center of Death Valley, and the sky cleared to give us our first spectacular view of the Southwestern night sky far from city glow.

<p>Virga over Death Valley</p>

Virga over Death Valley

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<p>Artist’s Drive</p>

Artist’s Drive

The next morning dawned cloudless and crisp, not as hot as this place can be. We broke camp quickly and headed down along the valley toward Badwater, the lowest spot in the continental US.

Death Valley is dry and rocky, forbidding ... hard to imagine how the original discoverers and travelers managed to get across it. Nowadays, it is graced with all the amenities of a National Park, including slower speed limits and whimsical names for its features.

It's easy to see how the rare but intense cloudbursts, powerful winds, summer heat and wintertime cold have shaped the land. We took our time enjoying the strange colors, shapes, and textures ...rejoicing in the ability to be here, and leave when we wanted. 

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<p>The view toward Badwater</p>

The view toward Badwater

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The colors of the rocks and earth are strikingly vivid. Here, an enormous pile of black rocks forms an imposing outcrop right beside the road. Across the valley, the bare mountains tower up 10,000 feet above the low point at Badwater. Spectacular countryside.

We began thinking about the difference between being IN a spectacular place, and being ABOVE it. Here at Death Valley, one is very much inside the spectacle, and the roads invite close inspection of the features. Consequently, the granularity of one's experience spans from the grand to the tiny. 


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