19 March 2012

Death Valley Improbabilities, or Moving Rocks, a No-Big-Deal Flat Tire 30 Miles from Nowhere, and a Charming Character in Beatty, Nevada

Not many people venture out to Racetrack Playa. The 30 or so miles of rough gravel road are notoriously bumpy and can be blamed for an abnormally high number of flat tires in proportion to the vehicles traveling on it. The playa is huge and flat, with concrete-hard silt partitioned into small hexagonal cobblestones. Alluvial fans and vast mountain ranges flank the playa, and the Grandstand, a jumble of black rock boulders crops up in its midst.

What makes this playa special, though, are its moving rocks. Dark stones dot its vast expanse, some about fist-sized, others a bit smaller than a standard microwave oven. Faint tracks trail behind many of these rocks, presumably pushed about by the wind when the playa is wet or frozen. The trails vary: some have gentle curves; others indicate abrupt changes in direction. Sometimes rocks seem to travel together, in groups of two or three. The trails of other rocks intersect or cross back over themselves.

After the long drive out, we set up camp just a couple miles beyond the southern edge of the playa. Dan and I remark with astonished gratitude on our lack-of-flat-tire luck. Then, just before the sun vanishes beyond the tips of the Cottonwood Mountains, we hop back in the car to visit the playa. Within our first mile back to the playa, we hear the tell-tale chime, warning us of low tire pressure. Hope seeps out of us, too, but luckily, we have a small compressor, and over the next 18 hours we are able to keep the slowly-leaking tire adequately filled. Throughout that evening and into the night, I imagine the tire’s hiss and try not to calculate the odds of more than one flat tire on the trip out.

There are a few people at the playa when we arrive; they are far off in the distance, little black specks slightly larger than the rocks they linger near. The horizontal plane of the playa almost seems unnatural. Compared to the rugged mountains and the rounded alluvial fans, it is improbable that such an even, level surface exists. Even the stormless horizon of the ocean appears more uneven than this.

The girls wander, running across the playa, playful as only sisters can be. We venture nearly all the way across, more than a mile, zigzagging from rock to rock, following their paths and stopping for lots of photographs. The long shadows make for more interesting photos. The only other person we encounter is a serious photographer with a lens nearly the size of my head, setting up his tripod here and there. We do our best to stay out of his photos.

The next morning, after pumping the tire again and disassembling camp, we head back towards the playa, stopping to explore the Grandstand. The black rocks there are embedded with large crystals and the girls clamber up and down the massive boulders. The moving rocks around it, though, have left less prominent trails, or perhaps the trails have been eroded by the relentless wind. The surface of the playa here is also smooth, without the interesting hexagonal shapes we saw last evening. Again, we are alone, the only other people visible a large group of college students preparing for a backpacking trip into the mountains on the far side of the road.

We leave, somewhat reluctantly, knowing that this is a magical place and wondering if we’ll ever return. But we have to head for Beatty, Nevada, in hopes of getting the flat fixed. A couple hours later, we pull into Revert’s 24-hour Tire. And old yellow lab and a younger pointer lie in the sun, lifting their sleepy heads in greeting. Three men sit outside the garage, looking considerably more weathered than the cast of the Andy Griffith Show. It is just the scene I’d expect if my life were a movie. The youngest – probably my age – quickly hops up to tend to our tire; he is so quick and efficient that before I even know it, he has the tire in a sudsy bucket, searching for the leak.

I can’t help to be distracted, though, because at our feet is a tiny husky, a mere five weeks old, one of the wrinkled men tells me. We ask the puppy’s name, but the man can’t pronounce it, saying it’s the Shoshone word for ‘wolf and it’s beyond his linguistic reach. We pet the dogs and take copious amounts of photos of this puppy, who is so clumsy and fuzzy, stumbling among us on his way-too-big paws, chewing our hands and looking for affection, which we are more than happy to provide. And in spite of the rigidly political, far-right bumper stickers plastered over the wall of the shop, the men are incredibly friendly, and our mutual smitten-ness with this little pup unify us and them.

I wonder at the gems the past 24 hours have brought us: from moving rocks on an other-worldly landscape, to this Mayberry-esque cast of characters, and to this sweet little pup who makes the anxiety of our flat tire melt away as much as the quick work of the tire repairman. Moments later, the tire is finished and re-mounted, and we say our goodbyes, grateful for the service, each of us lingering for one last pet of this sweet little wolf pup, heading first towards the decaying ghost town of Rhyolite, and then through the glittering lights of Las Vegas, homeward bound.

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