Death Valley, Pt 7: Oasis and Orion

Tuesday, March 21, 2016

1.

The sunrise is absolutely ridiculous this morning.

2.

Robin and I have Mosaic Canyon mostly to ourselves. Only a couple other cars were in the parking lot when we left, two other painfully early risers intent on outpacing the sun’s arrival. The canyon is cool, our way flanked by ever narrowing walls of breccia–angular chips of different colored stone glued together by natural concrete, hence the canyon’s namesake–and marble polished smooth and shiny by abrasive debris washing though during flash floods.

Mosaic Canyon is a short but fun jaunt punctuated by lots of scrambling and climbs over low dry falls; only two miles back, a tall dry fall marks the end of the line. We eat breakfast here and enjoy the quiet, admiring the undulating rock formations composed of a jumble of colors and textures.

As the sunlight starts to crawl over the canyon’s highest walls, we head back down the wash. Spirits high, Robin aims the camera my way and yells “ACTION SHOT!”

As I emerge from my inexplicable dramatic stride, a father and son come into view. I straighten, walk like a normal person for awhile, and say hello as they pass. No response from them, no surprise from me.

Trail weirdness sets in quickly for us, always, and has led to many such awkward moments at the intersection of surprise civilization and social untetheredness. I think of these moments as the father and son disappear up the canyon and I round the corner down to another layer of dried up ocean bed, remembering Robin and I carrying on a calm conversation based on the lyrics of The Music Man’s “Ya Got Trouble.”

“Robin.”

“Yes?”

“We’ve got trouble.”

“What? How much trouble?”

“Yes sir, we’ve got lots and lots of trouble.”

“Where?”

“Right here in River City.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Trouble with a capitol ‘T’  and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool.”

Of yowling the chorus to Sting’s “Roxanne” while filtering water along the JMT’s climb up to Silver Pass, “singing” with all the vigor and enthusiasm of one alone for miles, not of one about 200 feet from someone’s expertly hidden campsite.

Of Robin doing a trailside beatnik-inspired spoken word rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” punctuated by snapping fingers, unaware of the sulky adolescent that had walked up behind him wearing an expression that could only mean Oh my god, adults are so embarrassing.

3.

On a whim, we decide to drive all the way beyond the southern border of the park to find the China Ranch Date Farm in Tecopa. Before exiting the park, we detour through the 20 Mule Team Canyon drive, which is filled with such delightful warning signs as this:

That’s right, I like my vacations carrying a heaping risk of unsafe mine openings and high walls, deadly gas and lack of oxygen, cave-ins and decayed timbers, unsafe ladders and rotten structures, and unstable explosives.  Keeps things interesting. Needless to say, we stayed in the car for this scenic drive, deciding to leave the Easter egg hunt for hidden mining dynamite for another day.

Climbing out of Death Valley’s vaguely northeastern exit is surreal, with the dramatic colors and textures dissolving in our rear-view mirror. As we reach Death Valley Junction in the crotch between 190 and 127, the landscape has become a flat, uninterrupted expanse studded only by scrubby sagebrush and hazy blue foothills in the distance, wavering mirage-like in the heatwaves. It’s beautiful here, in a stark and saline way.

We pass through Shoshone, a brief flash of dusty green mesquite trees, dried up RV parks, and a general store. On the far southern edge of the town, pushed back from the highway is a large tan church, unadorned save for three palms lilting to the side. Shortly after, Robin turns the car off of 127 as we begin making a series of turns further and further off the beaten path, following sun-bleached, paint peeling signs for the China Ranch Date Farm.

Robin asks me if I’m sure about this. Some hybrid of The Hills Have Eyes and Mad Max: Fury Road comes to mind as we leave the highway behind, so no, I’m not at all sure about this.

“…let’s say yes,” is what I tell Robin, with visions of rusty sheds and meat hooks dancing in my head. We haven’t seen a chain store or basic services in many days. This stretch of the Mojave is so remote the end times could have already happened and it would remain largely unchanged, not getting the memo. As such, an admirable number of unsettling scenarios seem increasingly more possible than finding any kind of legitimate agricultural endeavor.

We wind down the date farm’s driveway, which is a narrow gravel road angling sharply down. There is no vegetation in sight. Robin steers around a final sharp corner and, in unison:

“Holy shit.”

It is paradise, a real oasis. The smell of warm oatmeal date cookies wafts out of the bakery kitchen and into the parking lot (did I mention that this place as a bakery?), and several signs hype their famous date shakes. This can’t be real. Robin and I don’t speak as we stumble towards the gift shop, confused, delighted, and unbelieving of what we found. I expect the whole establishment to wobble and waver before vanishing into more bone-dry desert, proving it was a mirage all along, but it doesn’t. The people that run the farm are delightful, very real, and everyone we encounter is cheerful, sweet, and kind.

I grab a random bag of dates (they grow a dizzying  array of dates, and I know nothing, but buying dates doesn’t seem optional), a box of date cookies, and order us date shakes, which we carry to the date orchard and enjoy while ambling among the grass and palms. Where are we?  How is this real?

Even moments after leaving the oasis behind and heading back towards Death Valley, we almost don’t believe that China Ranch is real. Every time I think I’ve seen all this desert is hiding, something new and secret unfolds that’s better than I could have imagined.

For proof that it all really happened, I open the ziplock bag of the China Ranch Gold variety and we gorge ourselves on dates, swearing “Just one more” at least five times.

Back on the dry, hard-pack salt flat desert speeding north to the park, we pass a sign reading “This section of highway adopted by The Tecopa Yacht Club.” Funny.

A proliferation of date pits adorn the car; we will continue finding the errant seeds months after returning home.

4.

We make a quick stop at the Dublin Gulch Caves, an old mining settlement dug into the hills outside of Shoshone in the 1920s. The cave apartments are complete with stovepipes, windows, and doors; peering into the windows, several still contain rusted bed frames. The hills form a horseshoe shape with a a clear space in the middle used as a group garbage heap, which has now settled into mountains of rusted cans, bed springs, and broken glass.

The last inhabitants left in the 1970s, which feels all too recent. Carefully picking our way back to the car through the tetanus wonderland, I notice desert fivespot flowers poking up through the rusted cans, and the cactus are all in full bloom. More surprises.

5.

Upon returning to Panamint Springs, Robin and I pack up camp, wave goodbye to the valley, and head toward Lone Pine. Our day trip wasn’t quite enough, so we decide to stay our last night there basking in the presence of the Sierra.

We hit a violent windstorm driving through the Owens River Valley, howling gales sending clouds of sand and salt whipping across the highway. Robin pulls over for me to run out and get a photo, an action I immediately regret.

I immediately regret my actions!” I yell while being pelted by stinging salt. I take a hasty photo and scramble back into the car.

We arrive at the Alabama Hills as the sun starts to set and find a remote spot far away from the pockets of other campers.

The winds from Owens Valley catch up to us, flattening our tent to the ground while we stare, nearly unblinking, at the line of snowy mountains in front of us. Even as conversation drifts to other topics–of our favorite parts of the trip, or of which route to drive home tomorrow–I know Robin and I are both tracing the network of trails beyond, inaccessible to us in this season. I picture Mt Whitney as a heart beating, each throb lighting up the trails radiating beyond like a vast network of arteries and blood vessels.

The sky darkens and the wind calms down. The moon rises behind us–full–obscuring all but the brightest stars and illuminating the snow. Clouds form along the mountains’ highest point but dissolve at the apex, never quite spilling over into our valley below.

Orion appears overhead, bright and clear, with his toes grazing the Sierra. For the moment, I forget his common mythology and instead see a person flying to the north along the JMT, strong and swift, feet only touching down on the mountain peaks in between miles-long strides.

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