Death Valley

The drive to the bristlecone pines from Los Angeles passes by routes into Death Valley and the almost ghost towns of Keeler and Darwin.  If the home of the bristlecones is described as arid, how do you describe Death Valley?  It is one of the hottest places on the planet.  There are many scenic choices in Death Valley and the one that drew me the most are the sand dunes near Stove Pipe Wells.  Like the ocean waves of Hawaii, the dunes are made of tiny particles pushed by wind. Moving waves of sand trapped in the low valley.  The interesting thing about the dunes is the ever-changing shapes of the dunes and the ripples across their surfaces created by wind-blown sand.  On some days when a breeze is up, you can see the sand particles blowing off the lip of a dune into the soft lee side of the dune.  Walking in the dunes is tricky because of the steep slopes and soft sand.  As feet sink into the dune, it becomes a challenge to climb a slope and every step leaves a mark of human passing that will only be erased over time by the wind.

Besides the extreme heat, other extremes come along as well.  Once camping with a friend, we could see a dust cloud on the horizon as it grew and moved closer.  When the wind hit, it knocked down the tent and we had to retreat to the safety of the camper shell on my truck, the Rolling Hilton.  The sandstorm kept up for most of the night.

On another trip I was rerouted to get into the valley around washed out roads.  A thunderstorm caused flash flooding and extensive road damage, leaving behind temporary lakes that quickly disappeared into the sand.

The best time to photograph the dunes is sunrise when the raking light reveals the surface texture as well as the overall hollows and crests of the dunes.  I would sleep nearby in the Rolling Hilton and get out and walk at first light farther and farther into unmarked dunes.  It became a race to set up my view camera on its tripod, frame the shot, and move on as the shadows shifted and the sun rose.  Hunting for patterns of light and dark.  Searching for the perfect composition on an unmarked dune.

Death Valley had been a barrier to the westward surge after minerals.  In the mountain ranges and creosote valleys between Death Valley and the Owens Valley are the former mining towns of Keeler and Darwin.  At one time Darwin had been considered for the capital of the new State of California.  Now it’s just known as the place where “dar win is always blowing”.  Keeler was once the port town on the dry Owens Lake for the nearby silver mines.  These are towns that briefly boomed and withered, now populated by refugees from civilization.

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