All day yesterday – yesterday, blog time; Saturday May 7th, real time – it was slowly getting cloudier. In the desert, this does not – necessarily – mean it is going to rain, this is a desert because it does not rain very much. It is often cloudy, but – after having the rain squeezed out by the Sierra Nevadas, in which we are in the rain shadow – the clouds usually just move east to rain in Kansas or somewhere wetter. So, when we got up in the morning, it was not raining but it had turned cooler.
Our plan was to go over Hunter Mountain and then down into the Panamint Valley where we were going to spend the night. Panamint Valley is considerably lower than where we were camped, so the temperature turning cooler was very welcome. But the road over Hunter Mountain tops out at at a little higher than 7,000 feet and I was concerned about snow. I had asked the Ranger about Hunter Mountain when we had gone to Scotty’s Castle two days ago and they said it was clear with a few wet spots. My experience with rangers in Death Valley is that they have a tendency to make the roads sound worse than they are to keep the amateurs out – I guess – and the road from Ubehebe Crater – while dirt – had been graded within the last couple of weeks so we stayed with our plan. The road was great for the entire way, another small sign that this trip was working. .
As we climbed, everything got bigger, greener, lusher. We passed a gorgeous plant in full bloom by the side of the road that I was convinced was a form of creosote with lots of water. After much discussion – lasting until after we got home, Michele convinced me that it was member of the rose family.
While the road was smoothly graded, it was dusty. Very dusty; amazing us with the dust’s ability to stick to the license plate letters.
Mountain tops in the desert are like islands in the ocean. Five thousand feet below is an entirely different ecosystem. Any mouse – or desert chipmunk or beetle for that matter – is pretty much trapped on this mountain; twenty five miles from the next 7,000 foot mountain. Over the years – lots of years – the Hunter Mountain mouse has changed from the mouse over at Telescope Peak or Tin Mountain. They are like Darwin’s Finches. Except the finches and hawks can go from mountain top to mountain top.
Michele, who is our resident bird identifier, was kept busy driving, looking at birds, and, – then – looking down into the Panamint Valley. Where we were, it was calm with big puffy clouds, but, to the south, it looked like the wind was picking up. The clouds were getting rounded rather than puffy and the desert looked dusty. We were heading south as we dropped off of Hunter Mountain, so neither one a good sign.
From the top of Hunter Mountain down into the upper Panamint Valley is a long downhill, through a series of eco-zones including a landscape of Joshua trees.
We stopped for lunch at a new overlook that had just been built using funds from the Recovery Act. I am all for that. It sort of echo the Roosevelt Public Works Administration. As we ate lunch, we could see the wind picking up along the valley floor, a couple of thousand feet below.
When it is windy, a good way to stay out of it is to stay in the canyons along the sides of the valley, in this case, the canyon leading to Darwin Falls. Darwin Falls is pretty puny and probably wouldn’t even have a name most places, here it is a big deal. At the start of the walk, there is no water in the creekbed because it has all sunk into the gravel. The water is there but running underground. As we get closer and run into water, the plants become much more lush and the walk becomes a matter of hunt and pecking our way. About half way up, Michele pointed out a couple of clumps of wild orchids that I had walked by. Finally, at the end, was the “waterfall” and other visitors. Darwin Falls, after all is a major destination. One of the other visitor groups was a lovely young couple taking time off from their job of designing weapons at the China Lake Naval Air Station.
There was something jarring about coming back into Civilization by casually talking about designing weapons with a pleasant young couple. Last year, we got some help from a couple of guys on the road to Stripped Butte, one of whom was a Predator pilot so – I guess – it shouldn’t be jarring. It is who we are. The most powerful war making country in the history of humankind. I am not happy about that and it is not how I want to think about my country; but – even in remote death Valley – the signs are all around us.
Outside our cool canyon, the wind was blowing and I suggested that we have dinner at Panamint Springs and see if the wind blows itself out. Basha suggested that we have dinner and spend the night at the motel – using the term very loosely – at Panamint Springs, Howard and her treat. Her suggestion won, four to zero. The next day, we fully immersed ourselves in civilization by driving home for ten hours, finally running into the storm that we had seen hints of the day before.