I woke up early on our last full day in the Death Valley area and went for a short walk. It looked like everybody else was sleeping in and the day was dawning cool and still.
When I got back to camp, I realized that JR hadn’t slept in, just his bag had. He was up earlier than me and had gone for a longer walk. Finally, everybody got up, JR came back to camp, we all caffeinated in our favorite way, and we drove down valley to the closest we could get to Red Wall Canyon. Red Wall is a canyon in the Grapevine Mountains at the top of the third fan from the left in this very much vertical exaggerated screen shot from Google earth. We parked at the bend of the yellow Scotty’s Castle Road.
Our path was up the fan to the reddest looking hole in the mountains. Walking up a fan in the desert is totally different from any other kind of hiking I can think of. Around where we live on the San Francisco Peninsula, or in a forest, or in the Sierras, on those hikes, the cars – usually in an authorized parking lot – disappear when we walk away because, following the trail, we walk around something like trees or a ridge. Walking up the fan to Red Wall, the cars just got smaller. We walk completely in the open across terrain that is both unendingly similar in all directions and radically different every ten feet. There is no trail or, even right path. The Park Rangers encourage hikers to spread out so as not to leave traces and everybody ends up walking their idea of the best way up.
When we stop, we collect, then we spread out again.
Deeper into the canyon, the fan gets steeper and narrower.
I am not positive that it is a immutable law of nature but every canyon seems to be graced by a dryfall or a series of dryfalls. Of course Red Wall is no exception. First there was a small dryfall,- almost a step – then, for all practable purposes a dead-end. (I have read that the canyon becomes easy again after the harder dryfall but we turned around there.)
After the turn around, JR took our official group portrait, on a ledge, in front of a distorted rock outcrop.
The ledge, by itself is worth looking at.
These lines are layers of sediment that were laid down in a sea – probably shallow because the rock is red indicating the presence of oxygen – off the west coast of North America. Then, about 15 million years ago, give or take a month, something raised it up1 so that the ancient seafloor has now become the mountains were are walking through.
Once we turn around, it is all down hill.
1. The something probably being an ancient Plate – the almost completely subducted Farallon Plate – which was once between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate that are now rubbing together at the San Andres Fault zone.
By the time we get back on the open fan, the day has cooled and we are boogying along.
Very roughly, the fans are composed of flat areas with washed out gullies in between. Going down, it is much easier to see the flat areas which is often referred to as desert pavement and present easy walking. The combination of wind and time – lots of time – has sorted and flattened the rocks and they are often covered in a thin, dark, layer of manganese oxide called desert varnish.
Walking down the fan fast – and it is hard not to walk fast – is a walking meditation. Everything else falls away – atleast for me – but the next step and the direction of the step after that. The cool air, the ease of the walk, the canyon behind us, and the huge space ahead, all contribute to the meditation. It is both relaxing and exhilarating (that’s Gina and Michele in the center of the picture).
Then in the distance are the cars and all is right with the world (if you are into that sort of thing).
Part One: Here
Part Two: Here
Part Three: Here
Part Four: Here
Part Five: Here
Next: Going home here