Friday, February 5, 2010

dawn in a cornfield, Death Valley, part two

Up at dawn again. Seeing a pattern yet? We had a reservation for the show at the Amargosa Opera House that night so we planned to spend the day making our way across the valley. With our early bed time it was relatively easy to rouse ourselves for dawn over the Devil's Cornfield. There were so few other people up and about that we could stand in the road to eat breakfast and make Charlie's Angels style shadows across the cornfield. Cars were so few and far between that we could hear the faint tire noise two minutes before they passed us. In between cars, the silent morning chill and gold light filled the valley.

Next we headed down the road to Salt Creek for a hike. The creek is one of the few places in the valley that has flowing water nearly year round. There had been some rain so the water flow was higher than is typical, but it was still a small meandering burble. The morning was still ours and we saw only a couple of photographers out on the trail. The soil and plants around Salt Creek are sensitive to foot traffic so a boardwalk and small foot bridges are provided by the park service. There is no shortage of signs pleading with people to stay on the boardwalks but evidence of peoples' disregard is scattered at the edges of the creek. The thick salty mud holds foot prints for months if not years. In the early morning, in spite of the cold, there were small birds dashing from place to place in the low growing marsh plants. Salt Creek holds one of the few surviving populations of the Death Valley Pup Fish, a living relic from a time when the valley was an enormous lake. The water of the creek shrinks every summer to just a few stagnant pools of hot water. On our visit the overnight temperatures had been near freezing and we could see little activity in the water. The pup fish muddle through from icy cold to scalding hot, and salt concentrations that would kill any less hardy fish. We could see through the clear water lots of small oblong shapes littering the muddy bottom of the creek but no fish activity. As the sun got higher and things warmed up the shapes in the mud began to creep leaving faint trails. We still didn't spot any fish. We squinted at the shapes and wondered if these could be small sluggish cold fish. Nah... can't be. Those must be some kind of insect larva. We waited patiently and watched the water almost holding our breath. I figured that maybe the fish would only show themselves if we were still. We never did have a clear sighting but there were quick flashes of movement at the edges of the pools. We figured that these fast moving small phantoms must be the pup fish grabbing a quick meal.

After Salt Creek we took a short detour to the Harmony Borax Works. The sky had opened to a deep blue by then and the few clouds asking for their portrait kept mrs. a-go-go busy between photos of weathered adobe and folding chairs. Noon was almost on us, and it was time for lunch and a nap. The Furnace Creek visitor center offered bathrooms, natural history exhibits, and a quiet parking lot where we could recline the seats and sack out in the car after lunch. There were a few picnic benches but they were occupied so we ate in the car. After our meal we noticed a flurry of activity at one table on the far side of the parking lot. When the people had cleared out, a herd of opportunistic kangaroo rats quickly swept through to clean up any crumbs from the primate lunch.

After about a forty-five minute nap we were collecting our thoughts about what would be next when we were approached by a man with a very full gut. He asked if I could help him load his mow-ter-sicle in the back of his truck. What is it about us that every Tom, Dick, and Harry can tell from a mile away that we'll help if asked? Maybe it's the bunny masks. Anyhow, I wish he had found someone with more heft than me. His truck was up on too big tires and we struggled and struggled for a half hour. The ordeal took long enough that I was sure he wasn't stealing the bike. He explained that the bike was a new toy and he brought it out to the valley for his first ride but he was still afraid to ride in town.

In the next episode of our Death Valley adventure... Badwater and the Amargosa Opera House.

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