Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

Valley of Death

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 6:21 pm, March 21st, 2016

Death Valley received unusually heavy rains this year, resulting in the first “superbloom” of wildflowers since 2005, so of course I wanted to go to there. After plans with Aaron and my dad fell through I concocted a scheme whereby I would drive to Las Vegas on a Thursday night, work from Vegas on Friday, and have Audrey fly in so that we could drive to Death Valley early Saturday. With this genius plan in place I made the long slog through LA traffic to Vegas, and then spent Friday working from a fancy room at the Palazzo Hotel that had a mostly-great view, with the exception of giant gold letters spelling out “Trump” staring back from the high-rise on the opposite side of the Strip.

Audrey arrived mid-afternoon, and after dinner and a search for the dumbest slot machines we could find (the “Reel ’em In!” fishing game won that contest) we went to bed relatively early, woken only by the sounds of what was either a troop of crazed chimpanzees or else a drunken frat party in the room next door; they departed at 11PM, but returned at 3AM to ensure that we wouldn’t have to worry about getting too much sleep.

I was randomly in Death Valley at the height of the 2005 superbloom, and while this year’s event wasn’t quite as impressive, it was still pretty neat to see the most inhospitable desert in North America completely covered in flowers. After a morning spent enjoying the yellow rock formations at Zabriskie Point and photographing flowers in the valley I took Audrey for a hike through Mosaic Canyon, a tiny slot canyon that affords the opportunity to scramble over boulders and up slickrock. Luckily she remained on speaking terms with me even after we encountered rocks that caused other hikers to turn around, and she came away with some photos that convinced me I need to learn more about the HDR settings on my camera.

Death Valley Wildflowers

The heavy overcast made the scene less vibrant than it might otherwise have been, but the flowers were still shockingly colorful for being in the hottest, driest place in North America.

Death Valley Wildflowers

Bad day for anyone who thinks flowers suck, good day for the rest of us.

The Valley of Death, Part II

Posted from Lancaster, California at 8:53 pm, December 30th, 2012

I hiked a couple of miles out into the Badwater salt flats early this morning, sat down in the snow-white crystals of a dried up salt pool, and the desolation was glorious.

After a good night’s rest the morning featured some sunrise photography, a hike through the Badwater salt flats, and a delicious burger for a hungry boy. Post-burger the itinerary included a visit to the yellow formations of Zabriskie Point, and a drive up to Dante’s View. I thought I’d been to this overlook before, but I don’t remember it, and it’s a memorable spot with a five thousand foot sheer drop down to the valley floor and a ridiculously great view of the awesome geology of the surrounding landscape – since that’s three superlatives, odds are that my memory is faulty and this is a spot that has not been on a past trip itinerary.

After leaving Dante’s View the trail led towards home via the eastern Sierra, with a brief stop to enjoy the Milky Way, and the current stop to try to get a journal entry written before it gets too late (aka 9PM) and my brain starts getting mushier than normal. Tonight will be spent in a real bed as this end-of-year trip sadly comes to its end.

Badwater Basin Sunrise

Badwater Basin sunrise. The color on the mountains was also impressive, although you wouldn’t know it from the pictures I took.

Badwater Basin Salt Flats

Badwater Basin salt flats. See all the people? No? Glorious!

The Valley of Death

Posted from Above Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California at 7:08 pm, December 29th, 2012

Some thoughts from today:

  • There is all kinds of cool stuff happening in the desert town of Mojave. Scaled Composites (the first private company to put a man in space) is there, along with Virgin Galactic and all manner of other cutting edge aerospace companies.
  • Off roading is apparently a much bigger deal than I realized. While roaming dirt roads in the desert I passed hundreds of RVs organized into camps of 5-20 vehicles, each camp home to dozens of ATVs and dirt bikes. One of the RVs in every camp was always flying a giant flag, and I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that these same folks show up in force for Nascar.
  • The craggy, primordial landscapes in the deserts of the Eastern Sierra are the types that require the internal narrator to assume a deep voice and say things like “and thus did God create the EARTH”, with backing music from a booming timpani drum. Driving through this area, it really does feel like this is how the Earth looked a couple billion years ago.
  • Despite many past visits to Death Valley the Wildrose portion of the park is somewhere I’d never been before today. That part of the park is at a higher elevation and featured a bit of snow, along with a landscape through tiny canyons and vistas that kept making me think how crazy it was that they even built a road here. This area is now officially Ryan approved.
  • I debated spending the night car camping in the campground at Furnace Creek, but instead of spending the evening wedged between RVs I decided to haul the Suby a few miles up a “road” (*cough* rocky gully *cough*) and am camped for the evening with a view that includes the entire Badwater Basin and has no neighbors. Provided I don’t wake up in the morning with one or more flat tires this appears to be a far better sleeping option.

Double Down

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:50 pm, February 16th, 2006

Last Friday night Ryan Sutherland, Aaron and I headed to Vegas to celebrate Aaron’s birthday. The trip started with Sutherland’s primordial response upon hearing the cost of a hotel room for the evening (“Goo”), was followed by much Beastie Boys music along the way, and culminated with an appearance by Charlie Chisel and a journey led by the ouija beer. The night ended late, and the following day we hit the Bellagio for brunch before heading home by way of the Mad Greek in Baker.

Audrey and I headed out to the desert two days later for some camping. Death Valley is a good bit cooler in the winter, and we had some good hikes in between coyote and kit fox sightings. Highlighting the differences between someone like myself who prefers the outdoors, and someone like Audrey who has spent almost all of her life in cities, the wind picked up Tuesday night and lulled me to sleep, while Audrey was up most of the night wondering if the tent would blow away (it didn’t). We headed to Vegas Wednesday to catch the Blue Man Group show (it ruled), lost some money on a baffling video slot machine involving an old prospector and Q-Bert, and finally headed home this afternoon after visiting the Mirage’s pool and jacuzzi.

The slow push to get through the remaining Antarctica photos continues, although I should be able to get most of them online tomorrow. As to the rest, at the rate I’m going it may be several more years…

Golden Canyon Landscape

Golden canyon landscape in Death Valley.

Las Vegas, Nevada

Posted at 7:00 pm, March 17th, 2005

The skies were overcast in Death Valley today, so I slept in until seven and then took my time heading out of the park. Amazingly, Badwater Basin is completely flooded — I was mystified, as what was previously a bone dry salt flat was suddenly a lake several miles long and a few miles wide. The wildflowers near the southern entrance to the park were even more spectacular than elsewhere, but as has been the norm on this trip I didn’t get any pictures that really did them justice.

Came to Vegas for dinner, ate very well, and it now looks like I’ll be heading back to Los Angeles to see a friend. I’ve warned her that she is likely to smell me long before I arrive, so it may be a brief visit.

Near Teakettle Junction, Death Valley National Park, California

Posted at 7:20 pm, March 16th, 2005

Woke up at 5:30 this morning and caught the sunrise at 6:00. After taking a few photos I headed over to Golden Canyon, which I’ve somehow never visited despite it being one of the most popular hikes in the park. Explored all over the place, including up and down side canyons, but the highlight was the awesome view from the very end of the trail. On the way back one couple asked me “is it worth it?” — I forget what I told them, but I was thinking that anyone who needed to ask should already know the answer.

The afternoon was spent finding out what a paint shaker feels like as I traveled the world’s most rutted dirt road up to the Racecourse, a dry lakebed in the park’s backcountry. By the end of the drive I was making stops solely for the joy of not feeling my teeth knock together, but the Racecourse turned out to be a nice spot for hiking.

Near Badwater, Death Valley National Park, California

Posted at 6:30 pm, March 15th, 2005

What little photographic mojo I possess is thus far not flowing on this trip, so despite some beautiful scenery I’ve yet to get any really good photos. The rangers are saying that due to the heavy winter rains that this is the best year for wildflowers that anyone can remember, so hopefully tomorrow I’ll recall how exactly the camera is supposed to be used.

The highlight of the day was a hike through Mosaic Canyon, which at times has walls so narrow that a person can barely squeeze through, and so smooth that it can be like climbing porcelain. In past visits I’ve never managed to find a way past a dry waterfall that marks the end of the trail, and so spent a while today scaling ridges and exploring side canyons. Definitely fun, but the waterfall remains an insurmountable barrier.

Other highlights included putting Subaru’s engineering to the test on a four-wheel drive “road”, along which I am camped for the night, and getting buzzed by a navy jet which was flying about a hundred feet off of the ground; luckily I saw him at the last second and covered my ears, otherwise I would probably have spent the afternoon deaf. The plan for the evening is to enjoy the incredible stargazing here, and with a newly-purchased guide to astronomy in hand I’m hoping to learn enough that in the future I’ll be able to point to the sky and say something more intelligent than “that one is called ‘the moon’.”

Wildflowers in Death Valley

Wildflowers in Death Valley.

Toluca Lake, California

Posted at 11:55 pm, June 20th, 2004

Crazy weekend. I had planned to be in Mojave tonight so that I could watch the Spaceship One launch tomorrow morning, but while driving through there on my way home from Vegas it was a zoo — there had to be at least four hundred RVs parked at the airport, every hotel was booked, traffic detours were set up. I may regret it some day, but getting up at 4:00 AM and fighting a crowd to get a glimpse of the takeoff wasn’t the experience I was looking for, so I headed home.

Prior to driving through Mojave the weekend was filled with a trip to Vegas & Death Valley. The Vegas trip was good — when I arrived it was about half, it then moved to full, and tapered back to half by this morning. There may have been some looping, and Pukes was doing his share of skeet skeet skeet. I’d never been to Death Valley in the summer, and while I planned to stick around until sunset, the lack of shade and 114 degree temperature was a bit more than I could handle, so after a few hours of hiking I moved on. It’s an incredible place, but I don’t see how anyone can spend much time there during the summer without spontaneously combusting.

Burbank, California

Posted at 1:00 pm, March 29th, 2003

This is a bit late, but here’s the report from last Sunday in Death Valley:

Despite having been to Death Valley on many different occasions I’d never gone up to the northern part of the park, so I decided to pay a visit. One of the main attractions up there is the Ubehebe Crater, something I’d seen in black and white pictures but not in person. Had I seen color pictures I would have visited long ago — the crater is about a mile across, and the eastern wall is a myriad of bright oranges that bend and twist in a wave-like pattern. The opposite side is darker rock, but it’s layered in equally fascinating patterns.

After walking around the crater for a while I hopped in the Subaru and headed off across a 4×4 road that my map showed emptied onto the opposite side of the park. Along the way I visted the Racecourse, a completely flat lakebed that stretches for a couple of miles, and then turned at teapot junction, which is a random signpost with perhaps a dozen teapots hanging from it — truly a bizarre sight to find in the midst of a remote desert. Along the next twenty miles of “road” were several abandoned mines and rugged desert scenery.

The back roads of Death Valley are not for the faint of heart (nor for anyone without four wheel drive), and I had to crawl along fairly slowly to avoid damaging the Subaru or popping a tire. I was starting to run low on gas when I came to a barricade — the road was closed for wilderness protection, and any thought of bypassing the barricade disappeared when I saw that the road was washed out further along. Forty miles into a remote area of Death Valley with the tank hovering near empty was probably not the best of scenarios, and after turning around I was counting down how long it would take if I had to walk out. To conserve gas I traveled at thirty miles an hour over roads that I had earlier been taking at ten — a memorable experience, and I have an even greater respect now for the Subaru engineers. Luckily a fair amount of the way back was downhill, allowing me to coast without using gas, and about an hour and a half later I pulled into Stovepipe Wells with the empty light blazing. It’s a safe bet that the next time I explore remote 4×4 roads it will be done with a completely full tank :-)

Near Furnace Creek, Death Valley National Park, California

Posted at 8:15 pm, March 22nd, 2003

Given current world events I’m glad to be in a place with no radio stations or cell phone coverage and few people. Arrived mid-morning, and have spent the day hanging out near a remote canyon on the western side of the valley and then testing out the new camera — first impression is that the Canon Elan 7 is a camera I would highly recommend to any 35mm photographer. After the sun set I put on the running shoes and went out for a run on the salt flats, although apparently they got rain here in the last week and given that the salt flats are the lowest point in North America there was still a lot of water that hadn’t yet evaporated, making it tough to find good footing.

Death Valley was hot and sunny today (surprise!), and for whatever reason I’m sunburned more on my left side than on the right — if you remember “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” I’m doing a pretty good impression of the main character at the moment. All I need is to start building sculptures of Devil’s Tower and there will be no doubt that the mother ship is on its way…