A Month in Death Valley

My year long journey began in Death Valley, a fitting place to say goodbye to my former life that disintegrated in a flash. Every new journey in life must begin with a death of something else though. This was the beginning of a new, fulfilling life of adventure and exploration. 

The goal of this trip was to spend a month in Death Valley as a test, to see what supplies I was lacking in, and more importantly to see if I could really spend this amount of time in a tent and maintain my sanity. 

I arrived my first night after dark so I didn't get to see the grandeur upon first arrival, my patience was being tested. The tepid climate in late January was a pleasant respite from the wet snow and blistering winds in Montana. 

My first night was spent tossing and turning, a typical first night in a tent. This didn't hamper my enthusiasm to go out and explore though. My first stop was Cottonball Basin, a location I learned about from my friends Ron & Sarah's ebook (a must have). From the road this location does not look impressive, a vast nothingness full of desolation. A short hike down into the basin revealed it's beauty, a constantly changing area due to the ever present spring water. Intriguing polygons are created in the salt when the water recedes, a testament to mother natures creativity and beauty. The air was still and no other sign of life, the silence was haunting.

My time alone was cut short by my friend Bill visiting from San Francisco. Bill was part of my first workshop last year who quickly turned into a master of night photography and a genuinely kind person. We spent our first night photographing Cottonball Basin under the stars. On my first visit out here I failed to mark the parking spot in the GPS, a seemingly small blunder at first. But a short distance mistake in this basin can cost an hour to recover from, and it did. Although the area is flat and many areas are smooth as a freeway, there are also vast areas of razor sharp salt formations. These only raise above the ground 8-12", but walking through these was a terrible ankle twisting experience, one slip and the salt would be tearing into my flesh, with the immediate benefit of salt in an open wound. It was a new moon as well, complete darkness. This gave us no point of reference except the stars, I was alternating between the gps and stars in hope of finding our spot. After an hour (or what seemed like an hour) of suffering we finally came across an area of salt polygons that were 'good enough' for the night. After a period of photographing the stunning sky the air quickly became frigid. The temperature swings from day to night are quite a shock in the valley.

Shortly after Bill left another friend from Knoxville arrived. Steve is another workshop participant from last year, I've written about Steve previously as we shared some profound conversation under the stars which ultimately led me to where I am today. Steve and I visited many different location during his stay, I most enjoyed our time at Lee Flat. This is a vast area of Joshua trees that have stunning shapes and many large trees. Our night here was mainly spent photographing the Zodiacal light and light painting the trees. Lee Flat is geographically night and day from the valley, it's perched at a high elevation and the temperatures were proof of this. By morning the temperature had dropped to a bone chilling 12 deg f., a stark contrast from the perfect 70 degrees in the valley the previous day. Thankfully for Steve I had an extra sleeping bag for him or he may not have made it through the night. 

After a bittersweet farewell from Steve I was finally on my own for an extended period of time, now the real test began, how will I do on my own with no one to talk to for days on end. I spent my days visiting remote locations that were high on my bucket list. First up was the Racetrack, a magical playa surrounded by mountains. Of course what makes it really special are the rocks that roll off the surrounding mountains. When rain wets the playa and turns into a thin layer of mud the rocks become mobile. Strong winds push the rocks across the surface, leaving trails in the mud. When the play drys the trails remain, the most surreal scene I've witnessed. I setup my camp just past the racetrack and returned upon darkness. At this point in the month there was a partially illuminated moon which reflected just enough light off the surface of the playa to eliminate the need for a light. I played around with light painting the rock and the trail for an hour or so and then waited for Orion to come into the scene. I laid on the playa looking straight up into the night sky. Stunning. Once again connected to the cosmos, my petty problems seem silly now. 

My next destination was the Eureka Dunes, another remote spot that very few  visit due to the long stretch of rough dirt roads that are required to reach this incredible sandbox. These dunes are nearly free of footprints due to the lack of visitors, a photographers paradise. I only spent one night here due to the lack of clouds the next day, I was already sunburnt and the lack of shade combined with the ruthless desert sun was sure to make for a long miserable day. 

I returned to Furnace Creek to rest and for a much needed shower. I noticed a fresh face at the campground, and she took notice of me as well. That night my new friend Mindy invited me over to enjoy her campfire, we quickly connected and spent the next 3 days exploring canyons, watching sunsets, celebrating her birthday and enjoying the moment. She had to return to San Diego and I had to continue my journey, I'll never forget our brief but magical time together. 

Shortly thereafter another photographer friend, Kristina arrived from Washington state. We had an enjoyable week going to different locations, the most interesting being the Ibex Dunes in the Southern part of the park. The light gods were very kind to us on this night, giving us phenomenal golden light and then the clouds exploded in vibrant hues. A perfect complement to these incredibly photogenic hills of sand.

The month was concluded by teaching a night photography workshop to a group of 6 great people at this incredible location.

I learned more about myself in this month than the past 34 years. I had good times and bad, I made mistakes and learned from them. Nothing will be the same from here on out.