19 Oct 2015

Mojave Desert by adamandheather

4/5

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The piercing howl of a coyote startles us awake. His voice is so vividly clear that he must be within our campground. The moon is long gone, and in the still air his howl is all-consuming.

We lift our heads to look around and begin to hear distant replies. One group seems to be further west in the valley, near the visitor's center and the RV campground. We listen to their back-and-forth dialog for a few minutes when another howl comes suddenly from our side of the valley. After a few more minutes, the howling stops abruptly.

Once our ears adjust, we can hear his footsteps as he walks around the campground. In this silent area, every sound is crisp, and we hear a twig snap in the next campsite. Our coyote is making a whimpering sound, and is soon joined by another. The second coyote from further up our side of the valley is here, and they sound like they're circling each other in our neighbor's campsite.

After a few nervous seconds, one of the campers shouts, and the coyotes sprint from the campground.

As the sound of their running recedes, flashlights from tents all around the campground scan the area, and we can hear murmurs of conversation from the other tents. After it appears that they've gone for good, the movement settles and the area falls into complete silence again.

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This lookout was so captivating that we decide to return for sunrise. As we unpack our cameras from the car in the pitch-black parking lot, we can see a group of people entering a side trail by flashlight. Here in Death Valley, you have to do your hiking in the morning while temperatures are cooler.

As we set up a tripod at the overlook, we see the group emerge on top of one of the golden hills, where they drop their backpacks and pull out tripods of their own. It turns out that Zabriskie Point is a popular photography spot at sunrise, and we feel validated in our choice. Even though they're at least a half-mile away, we can clearly hear their conversations. One of them must be named Barbara.

As we're leaving, we're startled by a loud rustling and squeaking sound overhead. It's a raven, and in this otherwise-silent desert we can plainly hear its breathing as it makes its way up the valley.

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"EXTREME HEAT DANGER," reads the red STOP sign at the trailhead. "Hiking the dunes is not recommended after 10am."

It's 9:45 and feels like a mild morning, and we decide to give it a shot.

Death Valley is huge, and distances are deceiving. We head towards the tallest dunes in the formation, and they don't approach as quickly as we had expected. We finally reach them just as we empty the first of our two water bottles. A merciful breeze provides some relief, but we can feel the area heating up rapidly. Fortunately, descending the dunes on the way back is much easier, and we return just as it becomes uncomfortably hot.

It's not even noon yet.

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With the temperatures now getting too high to even enjoy from the car, we head for the peaks of the Panamint Range. As we gain altitude, the vegetation changes, and after an hour we're in a grove of Pinion Pine trees. The temperatures here are cool, and at the end of a rough dirt road we come upon the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns.

Built in 1877, these beehive-shaped kilns were used to turn Pinion Pines into charcoal for powering a mining company's lead-silver smelters. Although they were only used for a couple of years, they've been restored twice in their lifetime and are in remarkable condition. Their interiors still smell strongly of smoke after 136 years.

The road continues up to the Mahogany Flat campground at 8,133 feet, but it's too rough for our little Ford compact. After enjoying the cool mountain breeze for a while, we head back down into the valley. We only pass a handful of cars on the way.

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"There's some kind of underground nuclear waste fire. The interstate is closed for a few days. And the road to Furnace Creek is closed with flooding," says the waitress at the Stovepipe Wells Saloon.

After hearing this, we start asking for news around other parts of the park. In remote places like this, news travels unreliably.

After traveling east to Furnace Creek without incident, invalidating the waitress' advice, we ask for news from a ranger.

"The major highways are closed," she replies, "so the only way to Las Vegas is to go out the west side of the park and down to Highway 395."

That would mean backtracking all the way back through the park, but we've grown skeptical. We ask the clerk at the gas station next door.

"Oh yes," he replies, "the way from Beatty just opened up, so you can get to Las Vegas that way. I just heard about it a few minutes ago."

Getting to Beatty requires backtracking halfway though the park and taking a long detour to the north, so we walk over to the reception desk of the resort nearby.

"We just heard an hour ago that the only way to get to Las Vegas is by exiting the southeastern end of the park, detouring north to Amargosa Valley, and taking Highway 95 east from there."

Every single piece of advice that we've received has been contradictory. But because this last one is the most convenient, we decide to roll the dice.

In many sections, the road is covered with dirt left by the recent flash-flooding, and it kicks up into a cloudy haze whenever a car passes us. But aside from this, we make our way back to Vegas without incident.