It is Day 3. Racetrack Playa. On the face of it, there is a bit of insanity to drive to Death Valley, drive another 30 or so odd miles to the beginning of the Playa Road, and then drive another 27 miles on a washboard. All for what? “Sailing rocks” that move on a dry lake bed that no one has actually seen move in person. Yet it is a type of journey to Mecca for those who are into this type of thing – which judging by the throngs of people I saw there (30 over the course of 15 hours) is worth the price of admission.
Photographers are interesting. Around the propane campfire, there was a quick discussion on when sunrise for the next would be, then a loose plan as to when each person thought they should be out on the playa the next morning. By 6am, all of us are out separately on the 1/2 mile trek to the rocks ready to shoot. There is little conversation from what I could hear.
Of course, I have doggie co-pilot Tokala with me. For once, he wants to sleep in and I amhaving none of it. Once he has his fleece jacket on and then bundled in a blanket, we are on our way.
As photographers, we talk about capturing the first light, usually the first orange glow that hits the peak of the mountain nearby. That is primarily the reason we are all out there before official sunrise. Yet as the orange glow appears and then quickly disappears, it does not seem like any of us have that first light as a priority. Everyone is so focused on the particular rock or rocks they are shooting.
Within 90 minutes, all of us are done shooting, so earlier than others. In the back of nearly everyone’s mind is this being a Friday on a holiday weekend, there will be more than the usual share of people coming to the Racetrack Playa. Soon there will be more and more people and vehicles coming in as you are trying to drive out. For me that mean a stop at The Grandstand on the other side of the playa for a few photos, a few photos with the Tokala at Teakettle Junction to sign our names on a tea kettle before heading back out to the land of paved roads. I part ways with the photog friends from the night at The Grandstand as they have other Death Valley undetermined plans.
I also have undetermined plans which involve stopping every so often off the side of the road to take photographs before finally deciding to head east and out of Death Valley temporarily to visit the ghost town of Rhyolite. An option is to either camp out near Rhyolite or the nearby town of Beatty, NV. A drive-thru of Beatty does not present any good areas for car camping, but the gas prices are low, so time for a fill-up. The only hitch is 5 of the 8 pumps at the gas station are not operational. After a stop at the nicely fence city park for Tokala, we are off to Rhyolite – passing by wild burros hanging out in the scrubland.
Old buildings. I am in my element. I can spend hours composing the various angles of old and crumbling buildings. As the sun is setting and the weather system is rolling in, I keep remembering the forecast the ranger provided for Saturday night and Sunday for the area. Overnight wind gusts of up to 50 mph and rain on Sunday. This also means a high probability of chain controls near Lee Vining and Bridgeport on Hwy 395 and over the mountain passes in the Lake Tahoe area – my route home. After spending a bit more time in Rhyolite, including a visit to the Glass Bottle House, I make my way back to Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley just in time for a sand storm. Checking the road conditions at the Stovepipe Wells business center confirmed chain controls were in place near Bridgeport and both the north and south Tahoe routes. The thought of car camping at the 5,000 ft. elevation Wildrose Campground and then having to deal with driving the long route home on Sunday evening felt less and less appealing than just biting the bullet and driving the long route home through Bakersfield and up Hwy 99 though the rain.
For my co-pilot, the final reward is a Pup Patty (unseasoned beef patty) at In-N-Out.
While the road was cut short by a day, the time spent slowly seeing the landscape along Hwy 395 and in Death Valley was completely worth it. Even though the teeth chattering drive to the Racetrack Playa is not something I will instantly jump to do again, I will certainly considering doing the drive again during the Milky Way “season” during May and June of each year.
(All photographs shot with Nexus 5X cell phone.)