Monday, January 18, 2021

Death Valley Overland - Part 2 - Racetrack Playa, Several "Attempts", Panamint Springs and Boxcar Cabin

"The life of the desert lives only by virtue of adapting itself to the conditions of the desert.  Nature does not bend the elements to favor the plants and animals; she makes the plants and animals do the bending."  

John C. Van Dyke

The Racetrack Playa Looking South - Death Valley National Park

So we wake up in Lost Burro Gap.  It's freezing cold.  It snowed for a bit last night, but the fog is gone and the sun is out.  We get up and out of the trailer (which is toasty warm thanks to quilts, a down comforter and the Buddy Heater).  Waking up after sleeping in the trailer is always a bit of a slow process.  We've been sleeping in what is essentially a twin bed, and we aren't spring chickens anymore, so there are creaking joints, achy muscles - but out we tumble to make some coffee/tea and discuss breakfast.  I thought for sure we could stoke the fire and get it up and going again, but no such luck.  It is completely dead - and we decide not to start another fire just to have to put it out in an hour.  So I start up our Coleman camp stove, and used the left over sausage to make sausage patties, fried a couple of eggs, and toasted some bagel thins (what we use for bread when we are camping) and we had sausage and egg sandwiches for breakfast!  Man we eat well when we camp!!!

Early Morning - Moon is Still Out - Lost Burro Gap - Our Campsite

We walk around while eating our breakfast sandwiches to keep warm, and mosey back to the campsite to start tearing everything down.  

Our set up is very organized - we have bins for everything - comforter and quilt have a bin, pillows go in a bin, we have a camp kitchen bin, we have utensil containers (ammo boxes) that go in the mess bin, we have the "dry goods" bin for food that doesn't need to be refrigerated but needs to be sealed up, and the "booze box" which usually contains a bottle of whiskey (for Paul), a bottle of amaretto (for Bobbi), some sweet and sour mix, and a couple different mixers for Paul's whiskey.  Everything has it's place - and we get it all put away and put back in the trailer.  We change clothes, wash faces, brush teeth, and we're ready to go.  It takes us about 30 minutes - not rushing - to fully tear down camp - this includes unhooking the heater, taking down the stove/oven, unhooking the OxxBoxx (camping Keurig) from the inverter and the truck, and getting everything secured down so nothing breaks.  I imagine if we rushed we could tear down in a matter of 10-15 minutes. 

Packing Up The Expedition Trailer - All That Is Left are the Cots and Chairs

As we warm up in the truck, we discuss our plans for the day.  We still hadn't decided on Lippincott Pass - but we decided not to try it with the trailer.  We had found a different pass which was lower in elevation and was mentioned in the Death Valley trail guide as being perfectly doable.  Unlike Lippincott Pass which the book briefly mentions as a bad idea...

BUT - before we can do anything - we have to go to the infamous Racetrack Playa.  

A couple of rocks at the northern end of the Racetrack Playa

The Racetrack Playa is a dry lake bed.  It is famous for it's "sailing stones" or rocks that move - somehow unassisted - across the dry lake bed and leave "trails" or "tracks" in their wake.  The northern end of the dry lake bed is only 1.5 inches higher in elevation than the southern end - so it is exceptionally flat.  It is full of extremely fine sediment that has washed down from the mountains on the northern end, and during heavy rain storms (very infrequent), the silt is washed across the playa, and the playa itself becomes what is called an endorheic lake.  As the water in this "lake" dries, it leaves a very slick mud, which in turn dries and cracks, making the very distinctive hard, cracked surface that is the Racetrack Playa.  

Paul and Bobbi Jo at the Racetrack Playa with The Grandstand in the Background
For years and years nobody knew how the stones that are scattered about the Playa moved - what they did know was that they left tracks - or scars - in the mud that could be seen for years after the movement had occurred.  It was long thought that when the lake bed was wet/muddy, high winds and extreme cold created a slick environment that allowed for the stones to be pushed about the Playa.  It has since been theorized and then proven (in 2014) that when the Playa is a very shallow lake, if the water freezes over night, and the thin veneer of ice breaks, winds (which can be hurricane force in the valley) push the now sliding ice along, and that ice shoves the rocks across the muddy lake bed, leaving tracks.  It is a VERY specific set of conditions, however, that make the rocks move.  A flooded surface, a thin layer of silt/clay, wind, ice floes and warming temperatures to break up the ice.  

The Grandstand at the Racetrack Playa - Death Valley National Park
Paul and I unfortunately did not see any rock trails.  We saw lots of rocks.  And plenty of vehicle tire marks (which is discouraging as it ruins this very fragile environment).  We walked out to the Grandstand and around it looking for rocks with trails.  We plan to come back...I now know better where to look...I know the trails are there.  I just didn't plan.  Next time we will come up early and hopefully go up to the Lippincott Mine and over the pass - which starts at the southern end of the Racetrack Playa.  

Lewis & Clark at Teakettle Junction - We Hope for the Last Time...

So off we went back towards Teakettle Junction as we decided to try going up to the Ubehebe (there's that word again!) Talc Mine, then over Harris Pass to head over to the Saline Valley.  Up the rough and long road from the Racetrack we went - optimistic that we were going to have a great time going up over Harris pass and coming out on the other side.  As we turn back towards Lost Burro Gap (again) at Teakettle Junction, we say goodbye to all the teakettles.  Again.  Hoping this is the last time we see it this trip.  Onward we drive past the turn off to Lost Burro Mine and off we go to try and see the Ubehebe Talc Mine.  

Snow in Hidden Valley and on the Joshua Trees
Driving through the Hidden Valley is interesting.  There is a bunch of snow, but not deep.  But it clearly had started to melt last night and then froze over night.  So it's frozen and icy snow this morning.  Because of the melt, there are many areas that are wet and muddy - but nothing Lewis & Clark can't handle.  It's also clear this is part of the Joshua Tree forest.  

Joshua Trees

Paul and I love Joshua trees.  These trees are weird - they remind me of The Lorax and his Truffula Trees (Dr. Seuss).  And I love Joshua Tree National Park.  But this isn't Joshua Tree National Park, and I'm amazed to see that the Joshua Trees can grow here.  I shouldn't be surprised - we have them in certain spots in Arizona too - I just wasn't expecting them.  And with snow too!  Paul and I are delighted to find this little Joshua Tree forest inside of Death Valley.  It was the only place on our entire trip we saw them.  

As we turn off to go up to the Ubehebe Talc Mine (UBEHEBE!!), the road is frozen and snow covered.  There are tracks in the snow, but they are frozen into the snow.  So it appears the Jeeps that went by our campsite last night came up here when the snow was still fresh.  As Paul and I begin the slow climb to the Talc Mine, the Expedition Trailer starts sliding around so we stop for a moment.  And trying to get going again while pulling the Expedition Trailer proves to be difficult and now the FJ is sliding around on the ice.  As Paul and I stop to assess the situation, and we see that we are going to be on a steep shelf road, we decide this is maybe NOT the time to test out Lewis & Clark pulling a trailer up a steep incline on a shelf road.  Paul very carefully backs down the 200 or so feet we've already started up, and I jump out towards the bottom to guide him into a spot where we can turn around.  It's cold, and the snow is several inches deep, but we get turned around without incident and we head back to the main road so that we can start our climb towards Harris Pass.  

Harris Pass - on the Way Back Down

Harris Pass doesn't look bad from the road.  It's definitely a bit steep, but the road is wide and the road is short (less than 3 miles).  There's a cool cabin to see up top too!  As we start up the Pass, the snow is getting deeper, but there are still tracks from last night's Jeep folks (at least I assume they are from last night - first, we haven't seen one single soul today and second, the tracks are frozen hard).  So up we go - meandering around the little hills, then we come to the last bit of steep incline.  We have a tight switch back, but Paul manages it like a champ, and then the entire truck and trailer starts sliding into the rut next to the mountain.  And the tires are spinning.  Paul jumps out of the truck and almost falls due to the ice we are currently on.  And even Paul, who is fearless (in my opinion) says maybe this isn't a good idea.  But we are just up from a switch back with no real way to turn around.  What are we going to do?

Harris Pass on the way up
Paul wants me to jump out of the truck and help guide him backwards into the switchback where it appears we can maybe back up the Expedition Trailer into the "v" of the switchback, and then head back out.  I can't jump out of my side because it's up against the mountain - I can't even fully open my door.  So I climb over the driver's side, promptly get out - Paul tells me to be careful and not to slip - and I head to the front of Lewis & Clark, and my legs promptly slide out from under me.  I grab the bull bar and hold on for dear life...I get myself back up, and tell Paul to go ahead.  Now - Paul doesn't know this part - but I basically just held on to the bull bar and let him slide me down with the truck.  It was kind of fun.  Until we got to the "v" of the switchback.  Then it was a million-point turn while we got where we could drive back out of Harris Pass. Then back out to Hidden Valley, out through the Joshua Trees, and back to Teakettle Junction.  Yet again.  But this time we said our final farewell to this area...

We aren't overly happy about the change in our plans because we are running low on fuel and are hoping not to break into our spare fuel on the roof - but we have an 80 mile drive back to Stovepipe Well to get fuel.  We are disappointed because we couldn't make it over the mountains into the Saline Valley, but we chose safety, and Paul chose my sanity - because to be honest - my anxiety level would have been through the roof trying either pass.  I trust Paul and his driving implicitly (although I freak out a lot, he has never once put me in harm's way on or off the trail) - but if Paul says it isn't a good idea - there is no way in all of God's beautiful green Earth am I going to push him to try it.  

So back past the Ubehebe Crater (UBEHEBE!!!), past the Grapevine ranger station, past the sand dunes and over to Stovepipe Well.  We are fairly quiet on this drive, contemplating what we are going to do.  At Stovepipe I run in to the restroom while Paul fills up the tank, and I come out and he has a plan!  We're going to drive through the park - past Panamint Springs, and go to Boxcar Cabin from the South!  Yay!!  We have a plan.  We are back on track and have a goal.  We are just hoping to make it to Boxcar Cabin before someone else claims it - because if we don't, we're sleeping in the Expedition Trailer again!  Haha

Our fancy new window...note the orange tape on the side - the window latch broke too!

As we are driving to Panamint Springs, I turn around in the passenger seat to get snacks and drinks and I look out the rear window.  One of the Expedition Trailer windows is smashed.  I gasp, and tell Paul the window is broken.  We pull over into Panamint Springs and survey the damage.  It's clear a rock flew up and busted the window out.  There is glass EVERYWHERE.  And a huge hole in our trailer window.  This isn't going to work - especially if we need to sleep in it tonight.  So I go into the Panamint General Store, and the nice young men there provide me with some cardboard and duct tape (white too!).  We doctor up the window, and start back on our trip.  Paul is getting a bit discouraged because nothing is going right, and we are both concerned about the Boxcar Cabin being taken now.  

As we drive through Rainbow Canyon - which is gorgeous - we discuss what we are going to do if the cabin is already being used - but we turn off onto the Saline Valley road, and we head up towards the Cabin, and NOBODY IS THERE!!  No cars in sight, and the flag isn't flying (you put a flag out if you are taking the Cabin for the night).  We are SO relieved and SO excited!  As we pull up in front of the cabin, Paul and I both gasp out of shock because we see this....

Super creepy...

Someone having some fun.  At our expense - but we're okay with it.  This little cabin is darling.  It's small, two rooms - but cozy, and it has a fire place.  Something is finally going our way today!

Boxcar Cabin Sign

Paul gets a little fire going to warm me up, and we bring in the chairs and cots and set them up for sleeping.  I'm setting up the kitchen to make goulash for dinner while Paul cleans the rest of the glass out of the Expedition Trailer. 

Lewis & Clark, the Expedition Trailer, and The Boxcar Cabin - Our Home for the Night
The Boxcar (or Buckhorn) Cabin is part of the BLM's (Bureau of Land Management's) former Adopt-A-Cabin program.  Volunteers kept the cabin in good repair and people were invited to use it on a first come, first served basis.  You were only asked to leave the cabin as good as or better than you found it.  The Boxcar Cabin is a former railcar turned cabin.  Not much is known about it - an old miner named Crutch Bill lived in it in the 80's and in 1958 a prospector named William Carpenter filed the Buckhorn Claims - which is likely when this cabin was placed here.  

Bobbi Making Dinner in the Boxcar Cabin

Paul has some of his own history with the Boxcar Cabin.  Back on New Year's Eve, 2015, Paul and his best friend, Mike "Duner" Schuette and Duner's wife Connie were taking a similar trip around Death Valley.  They camped at the Boxcar Cabin, although Paul slept inside and Mike and Connie camped in their rooftop tent.  These memories are bittersweet - I knew Duner from a few runs done with Paul (and at least one without Paul), but Duner passed away in November of 2017.  Duner was always super-kind to me, and never let me lag behind, and was very encouraging when I was very new and green to off-roading.  He was Paul's exploration buddy and they off-roaded together all the time!

While exploring the cabin and reading all the signatures, Paul found this... 

Paul's inscription from 2015 with Mike and Connie

Paul and I reminisced about Mike, about the trail runs, and about their time here in 2015 while we had our romantic one pot dinner of goulash.  We were one day off of being exactly 5 years from when he was there before.  Paul signed for us, and indicated that Mike is was a heartfelt moment, and a good memory to leave.  

Candlelit Dinner for Two

We had full bellies, and we had a warm and cozy cabin for the night.  We expected to get an excellent night's sleep after two nights in the Expedition Trailer - the temperature outside would drop below freezing again tonight...but we were good.  

Sleeping Arrangements in the Boxcar Cabin

As the sun set on our "day of everything going wrong" - we decided it wasn't so horrible after all.  Yeah, some stuff had gone wrong - but we got the Boxcar Cabin, we were warm and cozy in our memories of good friends - and we were doing what we both loved - exploring!

Revised 2020 Inscription Which Includes Me, and a Tribute to Duner

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