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Death Valley Meteor Shower Excursion

November 22nd, 1998

Using quotes like “…the Earth will run into the worst meteor storm in 32 years” and “…the Leonid meteoroid storm, the first space hurricane of the modern satellite era”, my backpacking buddy Randy Hake sent an invitation to join his November 15 – 18, 1998 Death Valley expedition to view the exciting Leonid meteor shower display. Randy had reserved National Park campsites to accommodate up to 24 people and promised “we will be meeting there for exploring, partying, and meteor watching”.

Death Valley was a place I’d never visited – only read about – though it contained a very special attraction for me. Not far from Death Valley National Park in the Sierra Nevada range rises 14,494 foot Mt. Whitney – the highest point in the “lower” 48 states. About 60 “crow-fly” miles away in Death Valley is Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point on the Western Hemisphere. Since I’ve climbed Mt. Whitney a couple of times, I’d always wanted to visit that nearby lowest piece of ground. Here was my chance. Randy’s promise of meteor shower displays coupled with the chance to add a Badwater “below sea level” visit to my resume’ proved irresistible. I signed on for the trip. 

Randy and I left San Francisco late Saturday afternoon in his 4WD Chevrolet Blazer and drove until about 10:30 p.m., stopping at Red Rock Canyon State Park for the night. Sunday morning we awoke to the gorgeous display of desert canyon from which the park derives its’ name. We managed a fairly early departure and after driving though the Panamint Valley, arrived in Death Valley before 11:00 a.m. Passing through Stove Pipe Wells followed by the junction to fabled Scotty’s Castle, we continued to the National Park Headquarters and campsites at Furnace Creek. I was unprepared for the size and amenities of the Furnace Creek Ranch complex. In addition to the Visitors’ Center, the resort boasted a coffee shop, Saloon, Buffet/Steak House, General Store, Post Office, children’s playground, Laundromat, lodging rooms and cabins, tennis, basketball, and volleyball courts, swimming pool, golf course, tree-covered picnic area, running creek water, commercial and park-operated campsites for RVs, campers, and tents, and horseback rides. All this situated in an oasis of Palm trees together with other water-loving forms of vegetation. For folks used to a more pampered existence, the Furnace Creek Inn atop a nearby ridge surely provided ample comfort for those interested in its reportedly $300 rooms. It’s probably fair to characterize Furnace Creek Ranch as the “Palm Springs of the North” (and Furnace Creek Inn as the local equivalent of Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel). One note: the food at the Furnace Creek Ranch eateries is definitely much better than that found in Yosemite Valley!

We set up tents in the National Park “Texas Spring” campsite with a view overlooking Furnace Creek Ranch and portions of Furnace Creek Lake (a dry salt bed). Afterwards it was out on the road exploring in the Blazer. Our first stop was at Badwater where we managed to walk a half-mile or so out onto the dry salt bed of Furnace Creek Lake. On our return leg, a drive off the highway led to Devil’s Golf Course – a name given in 1849 to the vast beds of rugged salt crystals crossed by early California Pioneers. Another nearby drive led to the “Artist’s Palette” – an area of the mountain side remarkable for the varied colors of rock located in close proximity to each other. Returning to camp around 5 p.m., we greeted the new arrivals, including backpacking friends Jim and  Sue Halverson. By 6 p.m. our numbers had reached a dozen and we caravanned down to the Furnace Creek Buffet/Steak House for dinner. Afterwards we quickly drove to the National Park Visitor Center for the evening Ranger Talk – which covered the subject of water in Death Valley. I had assumed the subject would be exhausted in 10 minutes, but was surprised to learn the topic was quite extensive.

Monday was group expedition day. We loaded up all vehicles capable of navigating unpaved roads and took off for Rhyolite, an old ghost town near Beatty, Nevada. A goldstrike in 1904 gave this town a bit of life until it all ended in 1911. Nearby, and of more recent vintage, is a house built from 51,000 bottles and not far away is a series of desert sculptures. One is a tall modernistic looking piece easily labeled the Desert Virgin (or “Pink Lady”), while 13 white-robed seated figures depict the “Last Supper”, and one very tall “Paul Bunyon” look-alike has a penguin for a companion. Afterwards, our caravan set off on the dirt track through Titus Canyon, a spectacular drive amid colorful mountains, the ghost town of Leadfield, Petroglyphs, breathtaking views and deep canyons. Our day ended with a dash north via Scotty’s Castle (for gas and coyote watching) to the Ubehebe Crater – a 500 foot deep volcanic crater created 2000 years ago.

Tuesday we all separated into smaller groups. Randy, the Halversons, Millie, Jean and myself chose a loop hike starting in Golden Canyon. The route took us up to Zabriskie Point where we enjoyed views of Death Valley and the Panamint Range from the rugged Badlands of the Funeral Mountains. While Golden Canyon was filled with displays of wide-ranging colors, our return loop took us through another canyon as different from the earlier route as it could be. At hike’s end we took time for a quick lunch of sandwiches and chips. Next on the itinerary was a drive to the top of 5,475 foot Dante’s View for the 2 p.m. Ranger talk about the geologic origins of Death Valley together with the Panamint Mountains on the west and the Black Mountains beneath our feet.

Wednesday dawned clear, calm and bright – another perfect day – and yet it was the day scheduled for our departure. Randy and I briefly joined Jim and Sue Halverson at the Stovepipe Wells Sand Dunes area for photos, etc. Afterwards, it was off for the 10 hour ride back to the San Francisco Bay Area. Since we were only a day away from my 60th birthday, Randy offered to buy me a burger at any fast food joint of my choice. Naturally I chose Burger King where I opted for something called a #3 (or was it a #2) together with a diet coke. Afterwards it was sort of satisfying to realize these events don’t happen with much frequency. Maybe again on my 70th wouldn’t be overdoing it.

I really enjoyed my short stay in Death Valley National Park – and would like to have spent more time there. This is an excellent time of year to visit for the temperatures ranged from daytime mid-seventies to the mid-forties at night. Cloudy overcast which appeared high in the sky during the day always seemed to evaporate at sundown. As for me, well, following my recent accident, I’d been seriously depressed. The Death Valley excursion was exactly what I needed to reorient my mindset into more productive thoughts. Now, about those meteors. It appears that the folks in the meteor shower prediction business need to acquire better quality Ouija boards. If they had predicted a “meteor trickle”, their prophecies would’ve been closer to the displays we saw. However, meteor shower or no, the trip was lots of fun, educational and something I fully intend to repeat. (The photo at right is one taken of me at Zabriskie Point midway in our Tuesday hike ).

Bond Shands – November 22, 1998