Monday, October 10, 2005

COLORADO RIVER: Hedonistic Pursuits in the Surprisingly Primitive and Remote Black Canyon

Recently, four of us, all Walter Mittys of Adventure Travel, found ourselves on a -- what? guys only trip? -- certainly a mild but nonetheless exuberant adventure paddling a pair of canoes down the Colorado River. I had enticed the boys with descriptions of sublime natural beauty and raw physical adventure that awaited in this, after all, quite popular, geo-thermally active, prehistorically significant, and downright gorgeous stretch of the river called Black Canyon.

Where on Earth? Somewhere perhaps out in the wilds of Utah or Arizona miles from civilization? How about just outside of the fastest growing metropolitan area in the U.S., home to vice and lechery, extravagance and corruption, incessant gambling, with its alluring sin-drenched reputation, non-stop you-name-it, none other than the neon-glitz capital of the world, LAAAASVEEEGAAASNEEEVADA! . . oh yeah, which just also also happens to be an outdoor adventure lover's destination paradise for world-class challenges in every possible sport or outdoor activity you want to take on. And that's exactly what we were here for. An outdoor river adventure on the (alas, once) wild Colorado River.
Put in was thirty minutes to two hours outside of Las Vegas, depending on the traffic, specifically, just B.H.D. -- below Hoover Dam. B.H.D., where the once truly mighty river has been backed up for miles in a slow-moving reservoir. B.H.D., where the Colorado River begins an ignominious wind-down to a pathetic trickle before it has a chance to reach its natural outlet in the Gulf of California. B.H.D., where Boulder City Outfitters was dropping us off deep in the heart of Black Canyon, setting us weekend warriors adrift in well-lardered, if not perfectionistly organized, canoes. (Thanks to the more fastidious among the crew members.).

But first: a night of revelry and debauchery (hardly) on the Strip! We checked into the campy Sahara at around 9 p.m., but not without a headache of a start: the Perfessor and his Japanese friend, Masato, arrived late from Seattle due to unsettled weather. When Miguelito went to check on their flight, I was left watching the gear at the rent-a-car place. . .for nearly three ho-hum hours. Just what I wanted to be doing in LAS VEGAS! That time probably cost me a couple hundred bucks!

Finally, though, their plane, just on the verge of being diverted to Anaheim, was allowed to land at McCarren International Airport. It was good seeing the Perfessor, that’s for sure, and to meet Masato-san who had flown in direct from Tokyo via Seattle and was in a zombie state of culture shock and exhaustion. (Mike and I had driven in grand style, renting a bling-bling sort of Lincoln Townhouse.) We wove through Las Vegas' horrendous traffic and finally got settled in at the hotel. After showers and a quick toast, I did my best to rally the boys for some hard rockin’ Vegas-style partyin’ down, but they were content to hang out in the hotel room and engage in friendly chit-chat and catch-up with a fair amount of erudite conversation thrown in as well. (Masako, understandably, was jet-lagged and collapsed in bed.)

I impatiently paced the room, contemptuously waving my arms around at the tacky decor, saying to no one who was listening, “Why would you want to do anything at all in this dive except catch a few winks of shut eye, for Christ’s sake!” But it fell on deaf ears. So I said see-ya, find me at the blackjack tables in half an hour. Forty minutes later, I stormed back to the hotel room announcing, “I just won two bills! Where have you guys been? C’mon, let’s have some fun!” And then we'd get distracted until, twenty minutes later, wearying of the drab hotel room and fading conversation, I said, “OK, boys, let's meet at the tables in half an hour. There's a jammin’ band.” But forty-five minutes later, I'm back at the hotel room, beaming, “Are you guys ever gonna join me? I just won $350 more! What is your story? Let’s hit the town!”

Well, they finally emerged, and the Perfessor, the anti-gambler, actually sat down and won himself $30 playing some shit-ass lucky blackjack. Me? Figures I would lose a couple hundred of my winnings trying to show off. And I know the Perfessor was enjoying mocking me and rubbing it in, while Mike consoled me and praised my "guts" for risking the opportunity.

I think I was alone in my delighted state to be Las Vegas, although Masato expressed a desire to have more time to check out some of the sights. What more could you ask for? -- a gambling and party mecca as a jumping off point to launch any number of outdoor adventures!

We arranged our river run with Boulder City Outfitters. We had to secure our own federal permits, and we requested no guides and two canoes. We had map, camping essentials, plenty of provender, and a few -- cough cough -- luxury items, with two nights and three days to get to our destination -- Willow Beach, Arizona, eleven miles downstream from where we put in B.H.D.

Launch time was 9 am. We met in the parking lot of a massive and garish casino near the dam -- the tacky Fiesta -- with its threadbare, faded and whisky-stained blackjack tables, smoky bars and sadder than usual assortment of gambler-losers -- but delicious as hell smorgasbord we later found out during a major pig-out session on the return.

We loaded our gear into the outfitter's trailer designed to carry canoes, kayaks and tons of gear, and off we headed down to the base of massive dam, having a shit-load of fun already in the bright and early morning, excited at the prospects of camaraderie and adventure on the river, necks craned and eyeballs peeled on the lookout for bighorn sheep, eagles, bobcats, jackrabbits, coyot's, any sign of local desert denizens. They're out there. A guy in a passing truck stopped to point out where he'd just seen some bighorn moments earler. But a gigantic construction project was in the works, probably the biggest construction in the area since the dam itself. They were (finally) building a new bridge/highway over a gorge to bypass the dam. I suspected all my animal friends had fled the scene. I suppose it should ease up a bit on the ungodly backups of tourists trapped in hot, polluting metal contraptions for hours in 100 degree temperatures just to have a quick look-see at some, albeit historic, but nonetheless prosaic 5,000,000 barrels of poured cement and some 200 million pounds of other materials forming the 6,600,000 ton artificial barrier. Lord Almighty, Mildred! Lookie-there! Ain't it sumpthin! Now, let's turn 'er around and get back to the Fiesta!

Seeing the dam from down below changes perspective in a radical way. You can really get a sense of its soaring and bulwarky dimensions--726.4 feet high and wide as the gleaming green river. The sad truth of the matter is there is big-time history here, it’s bound to draw millions of gawking tourists every year. Twenty-one thousand men lived and slaved here in the mid-1930s, and dozens and dozens of them died in the service of the country to harness the hydro-energy of one of the world's greatest rivers in order to, what? ultimately?, irreversibly alter the ecosystem, create a compelling raison d’etre for fabulous and wasteful cities to blossom in places they simply weren’t meant for. Such is humanity's folly in pursuit of civilized ways, always having to learn the lesson over and again, for Mother Nature always has the final word. Let us not forget how drought probably contributed more than any other single factor to many ancient civilizations' demises. ("What's a dam?"-true life Jeopardy! question answered by the Gambolin' Man)

We were all enchanted by the prospect of getting in our canoes and setting off down this magnificent canyon, headed into well-charted but unknown territory for us. Oh, yeah, sure, there were issues -- time constraints; lack of fun rapids to run; invasive jet skis and tourist pontoon boats; horribly noisy motor boats; nuisance planes overhead; the neon glare of Vegas at night blotting out most of the starry sky. It was a shame that such a beautiful and primitive, remote feeling place would be overrun by lazy hordes of thrill-seekers who rely on blaring two and four stroke engines to get up and down the river and have their fun at the expense of others who are seeking peace, quiet and solitude. To the credit of the B.L.M., Sundays and Mondays are designated days of non-motorized traffic. So, we got at least a day free of the noise, commotion and pollution. And yet, from the get-go, once we shrugged it off and realized how vast a place we were in and what specks of nothingness we all were, none of it mattered as the world of Black Canyon unfolded ahead of us.

The Colorado River B.H.D. was, to my surprise, quite a clear and bracing body of water, flowing faster than I ever would have imagined, and a limpid limegreen refreshing 54 degrees. I couldn’t wait to get in. Our first destination was a stop about a quarter mile from launch – a respite known as Sauna Cave. I was still in a paddling mood, having just set off, but Sauna Cave was not to be missed. We debarked, hauled up provisions, and enjoyed our first round of the day’s eventual excess of nepenthe. . .then entered the black tunnel into the rock wall. A channel of water maybe three feet across and a foot deep, ancient primeval walls oozing with the sweat of Mother Earth herself. Ten feet in the tunnel curves and the light disappears. I struck up a bic lighter in a moment of disorientation and could barely make out the Perfessor in the back of the tunnel, twenty feet in, seated on a solid rock bench in pitch darkness, whistling, calling, evoking, beckoning -- when a bat flew out and grazed my head in echolocutory mayhem (sorry bat!). I inched forward in the darkness, imagining eternity, womb walking, the tunnel of rebirth, hot moist echoing. I needed daylight, now! Plus, the temperature was around 110 degrees of steaming almost suffocating air. Maybe it was just the old phobia flaring up.

We continued on to find amazing spectacles in the river's banks -- etched out fern grottos dripping with hot spray -- stunning side canyons with hot waterfalls and pools to soak your aching bones in. You can’t believe it until you’re there, hiking up the canyon floor, scrambling up cascades, craning your neck to see the sights above. You’re loving the creek, and to think! It’s a therapeutic dream. You never want to leave. There’s no time to organize the garbage in the canoe, or devote gourmand attention and preparation to eating. You just want to revel in the fun and sheer do-nothingness of it all, wanting it to last forever.
Next stops were Lone Palm and Boy Scout Canyon, where we ended up spending our nights camping. We hadn’t even gotten in an hour of paddling that first day; somehow we felt cheated. But these canyons captivated us like a Siren Song, so alluring was the tributary creeks and the back canyons that we yearned to stay another night to explore their fullest mysteries. We swam, canoed around (yes, there is a debacle story), luxuriated in hot pools, explored upcreek where the canyon took on Death Valley like proportions, and engaged in plenty of conversation. But I found myself just wanting to soak it all up in as pure a way as possible with the fewest interactions and hassles – you go out to the river and BE, STAND, DO NOTHING. You swim, you contemplate, you do more of nothing, and are content, at peace, with the knowing that nothing needs to be done, or even that nothing (beyond entropy) needs to be known. You’re so taken by the power of the river, the spirit of the water, the energy of the place, the raw beauty, the sensation of connectedness, the forlorn realization and inevitable sigh of resignation that it’s all so temporary, fugacious, hardly real or lasting enough to make an impression. Or is it? Here I am, on the Colorado River, in a wild canyon, in this moment in time – I am all of this! Kaboom! -- I’m jolted back to reality by a frisbee hitting me upside the head and the Perfessor yelling, “Dude, heads up!”

Our 48 hours or so canoeing the river was, by all measures of endurance and athleticism, pretty much of a cakepaddle. It’s mostly a relaxing, fun float down the river, except when you want to head back upstream to check out something you missed because you were too busy paddling your lame ass off right past it not able to control the craft in a sneaky current. That sort of challenge. It got to the point where you started boasting and elevating your talents, dissing the power of this “tamed” river. Never anything too vigorous or rigorous, always controllable. I kept telling the boys that this river would kick their asses in a second. . .and they all hearty-har-harred. And so our puny arrogance got the best of us, like the time we were forced to tread high fast moving water fifty feet back to our canoe after a topside hike; or, most humorously, when Mike and the Perfessor were out tooling around in the late afternoon, out for a spin so to speak, without their life jackets (to my ignored pleas), when the river, which fluctuated by six to ten feet on any given day of water flow, carried them out and away to the far side. They struggled mightily for several minutes. Masato and I watched in mock horror. I doled out unsolicited admonishments about their “comeuppance”. They were moving as though on a tread mill. But finally they managed to turn the canoe around and took a swooshing current to midstream, and then, for reasons uncopped to by both, the canoe suddenly tipped over. (There goes my camping stove and fuel; luckily, most everything else had been removed.) Mike and the Perfessor valiantly dealt with the adverse situation in an amazingly agile way. They had the presence of mind and body to grab both paddles and the canoe and steer it and themselves over to our side of the bank. Masato and I scrambled high up and around the rocks to get to them, but on the approach, it was too steep down. They were on their own. They had snagged themselves on a protruding tree limb, took stock for a few seconds of their continued existence (as opposed to their deaths), then hoisted the canoe high over their heads and emptied ‘er of water. Soon they were paddling away back to base camp, where a big fire and cold beer awaited them, none worse for the wear, and actually emboldened by the experience, if not slightly humbled all at once.

We hiked up canyon waterways that ran hot. High steep walls sheltered big horn sheep, mountain lions, rattlesnakes. We soaked in hot pools, luxuriated under hot falls spewing out of rock springs. We explored fern grottos, cactus gardens, and sought out petroglyphs on our last day deep up a classic desert wash – alas, no rock art. I know where we missed the turn-off – next time!

Black Canyon merits further exploration. We didn’t get to Goldstrike Hot Springs or find the petroglyphs. We didn’t hike far up enough in the washes. We spent minimal time in the canoes and wasted too much time fussing about at the campsite. On the other hand, we had a boat-load of fun! We did what we did, saw what we saw, and it was a magnificent, memorable, magical time on the Colorado River B.H.D.

For all photos: view slideshow at:

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

DEATH VALLEY: In Search of Desert Adventure, Rugged Exploration, Thrill-Seeking Fun, and Wild Natural Wonders

Fading but HeartFelt Reminiscences

Fond but SoulFul Recollections

Fleeting but Timeless Memories

My flight to Los Angeles is at seven. I'm due to meet the twins for several days of desert adventure, rugged exploration, thrill-seeking fun, and wild natural wonders in Death Valley. None of us has ever really paid homage to this great ancestral land in southeastern California. I've just mostly passed through, last time being four years ago.

So why am I schlepping so much gear? Whatever happened to the principles of minimalism? Is it all really necessary? At first I try to pack everything in one carry-on, but once I stop to think about where I'm going and what I'll be doing — cross-country adventures in rugged canyons, steep gullies, narrow gorges, whoopee chutes, slickrock slopes, mines and caves, alluvial fans, gravelly wadis, sand dunes and salt playas — I know I have to break out the Kelty and hiking boots. Doh! That's why I'm schlepping so much!

There are things to bring on a trip like this, important things that will serve me well, perhaps even save a life, things I may not need now but will regret if I don't have them come time to need them, which seems to always be the case: cooking gear, stove and accoutrements, boots, extra shoes, socks, underwear and clothes, medicine kit, novels and guidebooks, journal, pens, crossword puzzles, water bottles, water filter, maps, knives, tent, sleeping bag, ground cover, rope, compass, binoculars. It is a road trip, after all, license to overpack!

Around noon, after an uneventful flight, I get to National Rental Car. . .and there they are wearing resplendent smiles of greeting! Las belissimas! My beautiful, dynamic, older twin sisters hangin' out at the red convertible yakkin' it up, organizing and rearranging things, snacking, passing time 'til I get there. It's truly wonderful to see them and be together again!

I point to the rental convertible: "So this is our Rocinante, eh?" I make my desires clear early on that a big honkin' 4 x 4 would better suit us in our pursuit of getting off the beaten track, which is what we want to do, right? "It's the difference between lightning and a lightning bug," I say, malapropping Twain's witty comment. (No one gets it, not even me.)

No question, in my mind at least, that this slick vehicle might limit us just a hair in getting to all our favorite remote outposts — hard to get to places like the Race Track (large boulders move of their own volition across vast dry lake beds!); Titus Canyon (derring-do, one-way drive on rough, narrow, winding road through spectacular canyonland!); Mahogany Flat beneath Wildrose Peak (at 9064 ft!); Marble Canyon (home to the best of Death Valley rock art!); and Eureka Dunes (tallest dunes in North America in remote northwest Death Valley fifty miles away on bad graded roads!).

Turns out, we actually manage to make it to one of the above locales! And as you'll see, there are plenty of options for soul-satisfying and endorphin-producing adventures in Death Valley, without the need for a gargantuan gas-sucking SUV! No matter where the roads lead, it's all about having fun, being together, most of all! We'll find adventure and escape the motoring hordes, always do! After all's said and done, the convertible is a fun and comfortable ride, plenty of power, and, you'll see, we do take 'er through some questionable terrain in a couple of successful and unsuccessful efforts to get to some far-off places.

We're loaded up and ready to roll, but first we have to detour forty minutes driving around looking for camping gaz at a sporting goods store. I forget to bring mine! This takes up about an hour, then we're off and running for real! Cat's at the wheel as we roar down Highway 91 at about 91 M.P.H., east toward Riverside where we'll pick up I-15 North. We're cruisin' real sweet, talking up a storm, railing contemptuously at all the single-car occupants on the crowded freeway unable to use the carpool lane. . .until suddenly all the lanes jam together, back up, stall completely; it takes 45 minutes to get through the mess, and once we're rolling freely again, it's unclear just what caused the jam. Idiot drivers, doth I protest.

One thing's for certain as we cruise past the Cleveland National Forest, Rancho Cucamonga ("So this is Rancho Cucamonga, eh?") and the San Bernardino Mountains (what's for certain: that we're part of the problem as well?), it's so smoggy in all directions you can't see! The spreading gray-black smog is suffocating, dismal, bleak, downright apocalyptic, a disgusting blight. How can people stand to live in this? Why do they stand for it? Truly nasty, nasty, nasty, very depressing.

Soon, thank God, we're in the great big, wide open Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve! Even though places like Death Valley and King's Canyon National Park lay claim to horrible air quality (thank you Fresno, Visalia, and L.A. commuters!), the air clears up immeasurably; it's pure oxygen in thin blue air! The top is down and we're breathing it all in, soaking in the warmth of the sun! I can barely wait to get out of this steel and rubber contraption and immerse myself in this wilderness, to hike, explore, be at peace and one with nature!

At the neon-glitzy outpost of Baker (one of those get me the fuck out of here kind of towns) we refuel, buy a few things ("Tom, don't forget to get me a couple pack of Riccola!" they chime!), and joke around with the fat clerk who is smitten with the twins and their twinness.

By now it's dark, I'm driving now, and feeling alert enough to continue pushing on for another hour or so up Highway 127 to Shoshone — a sleepy community from another time — and then to Death Valley Junction where I turn north on long, lonesome Highway 190. "We're almost there!" I keep announcing. . .there being the barely populated Texas Springs campground near Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

Its about around 10 p.m. when I pull in. Unbelievably, only one other person is here! Peace and quiet is sure to prevail! We choose a little spot beside a precious trickle that must be Furnace Creek; this very underappreciated flow of algaeic water is no more than a foot wide, yet is unspeakably magical, providing a soothing bedtime serenade that aids my churning and tired mind in drifting off into a dreamless sleep.

At some indeterminable hour, Cat lurches up and begins retching from deep in her gut, an eviscerating vomit tasting of putrid ayahuasca, she says. Poor thing, she feels horrible. She suspects food poisoning from that late meal, that Middle Eastern to go dish from Native Foods. Doesn't make sense, though, because I'm not sick, neither is Colleen, and we both ate our share of it. Most likely, the culprit is a strain of flu bug she brings with her from N.Y.C. What a bummer way to begin the trip.

I'm staring straight up into an indigo vault of stars, bleary eyed, half-awake, or maybe half-asleep, the moon palely illuminating the eldritch-named and -looking Funeral Mountains. All I can do is lay there, ask gently if Cat's all right, fretting, feeling helpless and sorry for her. I doze in and out of sleep, occasionally hear her being sick, hear her gently moan as though chanting a mantra. (She tells us next morning that she likes to moan, and recalls that Dad did too, that it helps in the healing process, she thinks.)

Daylight unfolds slowly, in blanching hues of pink and lavender, a radiant brilliance greeting the morn! By seven o'clock, it's a burning blue day. It takes me some time to realize YAHOOO!!! I'M IN DEATH VALLEY!!! I LOVE IT!!!

Three fat, charismatic cackling ravens swoop down from their cliffside perch, jostling for position at Cat's puke smorgasbord. (We comment, not particularly grossed out, more absorbed by curiosity at their voracious appetites—asking ourselves why do animals love human offal so much?) We break fast and camp in half an hour, drive into "town" where I get some coffee and check out the Giants-Cardinals score, and Cat shows us the cute cabins where she stayed last time.

By unanimous consent, we drive out a short ways to the Harmony Borax Works Interpretative Site. Sounds boring, but what the hell, we're off to a slow start due to Cat still feeling shitty. It's just nice to be out and active, doing something, anything! Col and I pair off and do the short interpretative trail. Sometime between 1881 and 1888, some fat cats from 'Frisco made a fortune on the backs of Chinese laborers mining common boron ore, which was then alchemically refined on the spot into three tons a day of "white gold". (Funny thing is, I still don't have a clue what the fuck borax is/was commercially useful for!) We stride around the grounds, checking out the 20-mule-team relic with its massive wooden wheels, remnants of boilers and vats, old walls crumbled to brittle.

The landscape is desolate—to the northeast, Mustard Canyon beckons; immediately before sprawl alkali plains near the Borax Haystacks. We try to imagine a shabby tent city out there of immigrant Chinese laborers, imported from San Francisco and Los Angeles, subjected to harsh, brutal living and working conditions, discriminated against worse than Indians, earning a pitiful five dollars a month. I can envision it clearly. . .surely, the heat and rotten conditions took a deadly toll, but history will never account for nor know their names, who they were, their hopes and aspirations, their ardor for loved ones left behind as they sought their pitiful livings.

Next up is the Devil's Golf Course—a vast (and I do mean vast), ancient (and I do mean ancient), and dry (and I do mean dry) lake bed, an inland sea that once supported a plush array of flora and fauna and human communities living in synchronous harmony with the endless passage of seasons. Untold ages ago, things began drying up as the Sierra Nevada was created, until eventually the range peaked high enough to obstruct clouds from dropping their loads over once-lush "Live Valley". What you see today is a "cursed", sere, twisted, contorted landscape seemingly absent of all life. (You'll be surprised at the fascinating evolution of plant and animal communities "struggling"—actually perfectly well adapted!—for survival here! The Park Service's brochure informs, "It is an active world of exciting contrasts and wonders—quite the opposite of its name.")

We hopscotch around the coral-like formations, awed like kids. The "salt pinnacles" are more amazing than meets the eye. Driving toward them, it appears as a black and white, undifferentiated slate of land, but once you're out there, it quickly transforms into a wicked plain of mud, frozen in time, sculpted by the unrepentant elements of wind, rain, ice, heat and cold into a forbidden Götterdämmerung world. (I keep expressing, in mock amazement, portentously gesticulating, but no one seems to think it's funny, "Wow, this place is so credible, you guys! It's just so totally believable!")

Absurd as it sounds, we're all walking around in Tevas, limiting our movements just a hair. I scrape my ankle and draw blood, no big deal as we idle away a few minutes looking for salt crystals as big as golf balls! (Tourons have even sliced a few of the real deals out there, looking for a black hole in one in the Devil's Golf Course!) We find a few tiny formations, tucked away in recesses, but nothing to write home about. I touch a piece to my lips, affirming that, yes, it is salt, thank you, and nothing but, for as far as the eye can see.

We drive ten minutes down the road to Badwater Basin, notorious for being very dry—less than two inches of rain fall a year here and the evaporation rate is 77 times greater than the precipitation, but paradoxically the land can retain water and become impassably boggy—and very hot—on July 10th 1913, the second highest temperature ever of 134 degrees F. was recorded! Michel DiGonnet, author of the exhaustive Hiking Death Valley: A Guide to its Natural Wonders and Mining Past, describes this eerie world as "one of the weirdest hiking grounds anywhere," a place on the "far side of Pluto" where you're likely to encounter "blue green pools rimmed with shiny crystals, frozen rivers of salt, giant salt saucers, and fields of sharp pinnacles creaking in the heat."

Although Death Valley is home to nearly one-fucking-thousand species of plants, it's a wonder that Badwater is home to any at all, it seems so bereft of biological life. (As opposed to Spirit-That-Moves-In-All-Things life.) One look out to the alabaster horizon and you know nothing can grow or live out there except redoubtable microscopic life forms that thrive in the alkali salt flats. But take another look around, through your binoculars, see the marshy areas and springs on its vast edges. That's where the tough pickleweed and the sweet desert holly grow, where that ol' delight, ditch-grass, sets down deep taproots.

Badwater: talk about low points on a trip! Col and I are going to walk out there, try to gage our distance for a few miles, generally headed north then west of the parking area, hoping to arrive at the true lowest point, -282 ft. below sea level. Lacking a nifty G.P.S. unit, handy topo map, or even a simple compass, for cryin' out loud, I lament to Col that it will be impossible to secure our exact coordinates. (Yeah, right, like I'd really know what to do with such tools if I had them; like a monkey with a pencil!) At the S-Badwater Shallow Well (36 12 52 x 116 46 29), you're probably about as low as you can get, registering at -274 ft. below sea level. Shouldn't take us more than an hour to get to hell and back. Cat, still ailing, stays behind in the car to rest. (There you have it: a shame we can't all be together.)

Thankfully, the sun pops out as Col and I follow an indeterminable course across the vast salt pan vaguely headed toward the structure out there. (Only later do I find out that it's called the S-Badwater Shallow Well, and that it's a test well built on August 27, 1997, today considered "an inactive U.S.G.S. Environmental Restoration Program (ERP) water-level measurement site, water-level data no longer being collected." Crazy but true: there's water in them thar Pleistocene aquifers, but often is too deep to feasibly extract! Question, then: is this water worthless? Answer, then: only from a limited human perspective!)

I can barely survey the blinding basin, even wearing my ultra-cool Oakley Zeros with their iridium lenses. (I'm ever amazed at the twins' disregard for shades! Cat finally tries mine on one time and, like the Camelbak, absolutely finally gets it, understands what they're all about.) Badwater's swirling immensity and endless horizon of saucer-shaped hexagonal cells intermeshing across the infinite plain, dizzies me. There is no reference point, nothing to grab onto or fix your orientation to. Col sprawls out in one of the fanciful geometries. (Some writer / photographer on the web describes them as "fractal patterns of glass-like polygons spread endlessly before me.") I squat and snap her photo. We take in a deep moment of prolonged silence.

Heavenward, Telescope Peak, the crown jewel of the Panamint Range, occupies my attention. My, how she dominates at 11,049 ft! Damn, I really want to explore those rugged uplands where the temperatures can drop to below freezing in no time! From our nadir, we are humbled to witness the spectacle of one of the most extreme base-to-top measurements of a mountain's peak to a basin's bottom on earth—over 11,300 ft. difference! (And of course, Mt. Whitney, no more than 100 miles west—and just yesterday given two more feet of height to crown its glory at 14,497 ft.—is the highest point in the continental U.S, oddly or not, so very close to the lowest point! Bottom AND top line: it is a land of extremes!)

With the exception of the salt-loving phreatophytes, I doubt few critters call this Goddess-forsaken place home. We spot some sort of dragonfly insects, perished in salt sarcophagi, and little more. The most notable denizen is the Badwater Snail, adapted to the saltwater pools that form near the road and at Cottonball Marsh, and Travertine and Nevares Springs. Er, make that the endangered Badwater Snail. People are attracted to this highly sensitive eco-area in multitudes; more gawkers—a tiny fraction of whom ever bother to venture to the test well—are drawn to AguaMala than to anywhere else in the park. Right off the main road, and open without restriction to anyone. it's the most popular day-use spot in all of Death Valley. It's actually amazing that the damage from being trampled upon by millions of pairs of ignorant, uncaring feet a year isn't greater! (A Death Valley National Park Environmental Assessment Report from May 9, 2002, notes, " High visitor use in the Badwater Basin site has resulted in impacts to the area's resources including compaction of the salt crust, visitors driving into the pools, and loss of vegetation and habitat for the endemic Badwater snail.")

Imagine wondrous spring fed pools in a desolate land! Imagine shoreline beauty that mimics ocean tidal conditions! It's miraculous, water of any kind, existing in Badwater! Signs advise the tourons to stay clear of the snails' sensitive breeding grounds, but the "trails" around the saline pools are undefined and so the damage continues. Plans are in the works, according to the report, to fix things, protect it more from our cancerous encroachment. (Well, what can I say at the risk of not sounding like a hypocrite? We check out the pools, too.)

The day's still young, and we haven't done much of anything that Col or I can honestly call strenuous, so ever on the qui vive, we drive to the entrance to Golden Canyon, right off Highway 190, where Cat drops us off. The plan: meet in two hours at Zabriskie Point, 3.5 miles away on foot through the painted badlands of Furnace Creek Formation deposits.

The hike gradually gains elevation for about a quarter of a mile to a famed arch. Beyond, high, rugged walls surround us. Soon a 25-foot tall, 10-foot wide cul-de-sac blocks our progress. For me and Col, we delight at the challenge to scale that sucker! Someone has secured a rope, which makes it doubly easy. Col goes first and looks like a champion! She's quick, adept, agile. I admire her as she employs a bold, confident approach to the technical assault, calmly knocking off a couple of tricky maneuvers that leave me smiling, and later she tackles another, taller, more challenging fossil waterfall farther up the canyon. It is a joyful revelation to see "Coll-Doll" in action! I suspect her latent athleticism has blossomed since being in Yiannis' derring-do company over the years! (Compare, though, for the moment, our minor feats of athletic prowess in Golden Canyon's upper reaches to those of Yosemite-hardened dudes like Dean Potter and Hans Florine, record-setting speed-climbers who really, truly, take action, challenge and risk to their limits by scrambling, rope-free, up Yosemite's and other monumental rock walls, or ice climbers scaling frozen pinnacles 800 feet high, or mountaineers attaining Denali's summit. Am I really so vain to think what we are doing, my descriptions herein, even begins to compare in comparable fun and excitement? No. Nor do I think it's fair to compare! Those kinds are supra-human freaks. To the vast majority of people, what Col and I make look so natural and easy to do, is in truth impassable, too tough, for the average Joe. You can crack your skull wide open and die trying to rock climb Death Valley's walls, or you can just have good craic!—that's fun in Gaelic!)

We continue up the twisty slot canyon, emerging to get a glimpse of inspiring Red Cathedral, a massive section of towering sandstone bluffs framing a stark backdrop of low lying mustard-colored bare hills. I'm concerned about preserving my energy and water in the increasingly hot sun, but we detour anyway, a half mile to make the climb up to the Cathedral—a Class 3 scramble—where the eagle rests in her aerie and the Spirits dwell in all things.

We enter a a jumbled, rocky red world. Some guy is up on a higher, bigger ledge taking professional photographs. We dip down to catch the trail back, winding through a tunnel of overhanging boulders choking the narrow passageways. We retrace our route to the juncture and continue on to Zabriskie Point. At one point, Colleen turns around abruptly and says in that romantic whimsical voice of hers, "Oh, Tommy, this is so special! We're doing this together, right here, right now! I'll always cherish this memory!"

By now, the sun is out in full force; it feels wonderful, but it's hotter and I'm more tired than I think. I's doggin' it big time! Colleen serves as inspiration; she's indefatigable, charging ahead. "C'mon, Tommy! We'll rest at the top! You can make it!" That energizes me. We rest at the top with a fine view of Manley Beacon, Red Cathedral, and the auburn hills below. We eat Cliff bars, peanut butter sandwiches, an orange, some dried banana. It's relaxing to just sit there and not move, taking in the spectacular painted hills beneath Magritte sky. I recall a poem/quote by an otherwise misanthropic Robinson Jeffers and recite it: "To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things—earth, stone and water, beast, man and woman, sun, moon and stars"!—Yes, that about feels and says it!

Refreshed, and with the sun behind clouds now, we continue our trek through the rolling mounds of sculpted ceramic-earth—an impressionistic Georgia O'Keefe vision of hills—and before we know it, we're at Zabriskie Point overlook. Cat is lounged out on the ground beside the convertible, feeling a bit better. Thank goodness! (Typo: Thank Goddess!) We spend the next thirty minutes spinning along the winding road with famous views of a deserted Artist's Palette. You want to do more than just drive through and look. . .but Rules #1-100: you can't do everything!

That night we find a "pretty decent" camping spot at Furnace Creek. (Viz., it's one of those designated campgrounds where you're forced to be in the company of a million mom 'n pops, dads 'n juniors, and people like us!)

For a campground, our little turf is private enough, and adorned like a gnome's hangout with low spreading branches of an exotic tree. The only thing I find cause to rail about is that God-be-damned generator! One of my biggest pet peeves on earth! The twins listen attentively to my excoriating rap dissing them big-time; they do agree that generators destroy a certain pristine quality of experience; that their hours of use should be strictly enforced. Yet at the same time they seem more tolerant, less riled up about them as I tend to be.

Thankfully, the infernal hum ceases by sunset, big relief—I'm getting touchy! (Other campgrounds allow them to run until 10 p.m., unconscionable!) And what a beautiful, peaceful night it is! Once again, as she does each night, Col makes good use of the tent as a pillow. She tells me she's glad I have it after all. But all too soon 6 a.m. rolls around and sure enough, as I predicted, the obnoxious revving buzz of a generator engine pierces our calm dreamstates and rudely wakes us up. That's it, we hurriedly break camp and get our new day underway. Later we find out the gas station is running it for their stupid ice machine. (OK, I confess, we buy some of that ice. . .as they say on the other side of world in the land of the Rising Sun, Shittakaganai. . .!. . .What're-ya-gonna-do?)

The morning begins leisurely. Aaah-laak-it! I get a piss-poor and weak cup of coffee, check the score from yesterday to see if my boys won the series, stock up on ice and other essentials, and chuck in the cooler a couple of Heinies for later on.

At Salt Creek Canyon we fill our bellies before strolling around the short interpretative boardwalk trail, tastefully integrated to keep us humans from trampling the place to death! Salt Creek is its own sweet magical place. Even though the water's not fit for humans, its excessive saltiness supports all kinds of life—home to blue heron, native Salt Creek pupfish, some cranefly type guy, and bunches of grass and flowering brush.

Gazing out to the pretty distance—deep blue sky, low purple mountains, yellow-brown flood plain—I imagine a Conestoga party of lame-ass Easterners coming through, desperate to replenish their water coffers coming though, luckily finding a whole stream of precious stuff. . .then maddeningly realizing it's undrinkable! FOK-ALL, mate! Many no doubt suffered agonizing deaths of dehydration and thirst (although supposedly only one 49-er died)—I wonder: were "primitive" Timbisha Shoshone or "Digger" Indians or some "savage" Ute looking out from rocks and crevasses, invisible presences laughing at the White Man's ungainly ways in nature, going YES! YES! YES! Go home, stay away, die bastards! Or were they looking upon the bumbling pioneers with mercy? (Were they bumbling, or were they tough, resourceful? Whatever they were, they mercilessly slaughtered native Americans all along the way backed by the irrefutable faith of God and Manifest Destiny.) Did they reveal to them their hidden springs and seeps of fresh water sources that exist in such supreme sacred sublimity in Death Valley and sustain all life? Without such "insider" knowledge, or the dumb luck to stumble upon these rare caches, many a white settler surely perished in the valley of death sans humane assistance of the local natives. (At least that's I how imagine it might have been.)

Marble Canyon is in the remote, hard-to-get-to Cottonwood Mountains. It's next on our itinerary. At least we're gonna give it a try. The chief attraction that elevates it to another level is its burnished vermilion walls adorned with fascinating rock art created by shaman-artists (or Garry Trudeaus and Gary Larsons of the day?) countless generations ago. (When it comes to petroglphys and pictographs, you might call it Dearth Valley—the ancients left their mark much more prominently elsewhere during the Great Basin cultural diaspora dating back over 10,000 years ago and four archaeological phases of occupation.)

Oh, where is the Outback when you need it? The closest we can get to the mouth of the canyon is roughly 8.6 miles from Stovepipe Wells out Cottonwood Canyon road. (Of course, during an earlier stop at the Ranger Station in Furnace Creek, we are earnestly admonished to definitely NOT chance it with our convertible on THOSE roads! We'll never make it, we run the risk of getting stuck, we are told, and then it'll cost us an arm 'n a leg to get rescued. Well, that's what they have to tell us. We kindly thank them for the tip, and ignore them, taking our chances.)

I'm behind the wheel (naturally), expertly negotiating a constant slurry of bumps, dips, corrugations, and rocky debris on the quickly deteriorating road, all the while engaging in earnest conversation and wide-eyed sightseeing with the twins. We make the first five miles without a hitch. After that, it gets hairy. (Unless you're in the trusty Outback; then it's a cakewalk, or is that a cakedrive?) Suddenly the grade twists downward and now is laced with big potholes and basketball-sized rocks. I actually attempt to traverse a small stretch of this hostile terrain, (The twins have a "conniption fit" over each and every rock ricocheting or scraping beneath! "Oops, there goes the oil pan!" I joke. Or, "Cat, are you sure the rental policy covers going off-road?")
Finally, at the nail-biting counsel of the twins, I wisely turn around before something bad happens. (Then we'll have to deal with those "I told you so" Rangers!) Oh, we're so close, too!—only about a mile and a half from where we begin the fabled trek. If we ditch the car here, we can walk four miles to the mouth. Is it worth it? Turns out, we unanimously and simultaneously (talk about the in-synch sibs!) come to the conclusion that it's too late in the day, time's-a-wastin', we can't make it. Instead we reverse course and head back to Stovepipe Wells, catch Scotty's Castle road, and stop to explore Red Wall Canyon. (Its equally spectacular neighbor, Fall Canyon to the south, will just have to wait.)

No trailhead difficulties here; we park right off the highway, at Marker 19. In the distance is the mouth, identifiable by the sharp dividing line created by reddish, inviting mountains on the left and black, foreboding mountains on the right. That's the crack between two worlds, where we'll venture into the mystical beyond of Red Wall Canyon.

This wonderful cleft in the earth may be the least experienced of all Death Valley's well-known canyon hikes, but surely it's the most appreciated by those who exert to get there. (We see a total of zer0 other humans during our six-hour outing.) John Krist, author of 50 Best Short Hikes in California Deserts, basically claims it's a bitch to get to the canyon mouth from the car—"The going is rugged and slow. . . .Be careful in choosing your footing, so as not to twist an ankle. Sturdy boots are mandatory." DiGonnet (Hiking Death Valley) on the other hand thinks the approach through these uplifted, rocky fields of debris is an "easy 45-minute walk" in the park. What diametrical perspectives of perceived hardship!

The difficulty rating is no more than moderate under normal circumstances. . .but nothing is ever normal in Death Valley! Consider: it's "only" two miles from the car, a steady uphill, a mere 300 ft. of elevation gain; it doesn't seem so bad at first, but actually doing it is another story! Throw in the heat of an Indian Summer sun burning down; the efforts and concentration required to negotiate over 10,000 feet of ankle-spraining difficult terrain; add to it Cat still not 100% up to par; and the fact that the twins oddly choose to hike in Tevas or gym shoes (rattlesnakes and stubbed toes be damned!); throw in all that with the way the broad alluvial fan slopes up in an oddly tilted, deceptively inclined angle toward the painted entrance, so elusively close yet so longingly far away, truly makes this approach much tougher than meets the eye.

It's no walk in the park, but neither are the twins seemingly much impeded by their minimally protective footwear of choice. We fan out, adopt our own paces. I storm out in my usual fashion. Still, it takes me over an hour to arrive at the mouth. The hot sun depletes us in our relentless struggle against gravity slogging up this obstacle-strewn alluvial fan. Poor Cat, she's relapsing, I can see it in her slow pace, her hung posture. I'm worried; heat exhaustion and stroke are commonplace maladies to stricken the weak and unprepared. But Cat's amazingly tough and she dogs it out, a credit to her stamina and will power to resist the temptation to lay down and die! She even beats Colleen, which blows my mind. (Cat's the walker; Col's the biker.)

I probably only have eight minutes on her! I'm propped up comfortably against the smooth, cool wall, in a nice patch of shade, sucking up ice water from my Camelbak. Cat collapses to her knees in the sandy ground. I offer her water; refreshingly cold, revitalizingly pure, it brings her back from the brink of physiological breakdown. I make her drink more, and within a few minutes she's feelin' fine enough to continue the hike up the narrows. (Hugo-Girl! I'm thinking we're going to have to stay put and turn around!) We're all amazed at her quick rebound. I explain my theory that water, and cold water in particular, functions as the best revivifying agent on earth. Aaah, sacred cold water, the rejuvenating life blood of the spirit-that-moves-in-all-things~~~~

(The ice water in the Camelbak is a big hit. Cat's hooked; in fact she can't believe that Col so unceremoniously discarded hers, a gift from Yiannis, unused in the closet. An ice water junky since I can remember, Cat absolutely loves that ice water sensation evermore in the hot desert! Col, too, ultimately admits that for hiking, it's unsurpassed, but she's not totally sold on the idea for riding, due to her minimalist lightweight philosophy put into practice.

Now red walls rise so high we can't see the sky. At every twist and turn through the colorful narrows, we stop in our tracks, speechless in reverential awe at the sculpted perfection of polished waterways; joyous in silent revelry pondering thousand foot walls smeared with desert varnish patterns of whirling dervishes and mythopoeic-looking symbols of indecipherable cosmological significance.

(Yes, we do know when to occasionally shut down the constant conversational yammering, all very interesting, relevant, etc, of course, and simply engage silence, sit without talking or making a sound, for extended stretches. These peaceful pauses of internal reflection are vital, they allow us to focus inward, project outward, commune in a more holy union, penetrate deeper the unknowable mysteries of the Gaia-intelligent design of the world, attune harmoniously to the life-affirming and soul-healing vibrational energies all about!)

We come upon an odd sight: a mysteriously decapitated raptor. A giant of a specimen, I suspect she's an eagle, the twins think he's a hawk. It may be an owl. We'll never know. Nor how the poor creature met her fate and lost her head.

Red Wall is where I first see Cathleen ("Cakkity-Kak!") in action, hoisting herself up a rope to attain the topmost ledge of a 25 ft. waterfall that DiGonnet says "most people will find a challenge to climb." Huh? Col and I must not be "most people" because we shoot right up it. On a 1 to 10 scale, this can't be more than a 3! Okay, maaaaybe a 4. And though Cac admits, "I'm just not into it, you guys, this rock climbing and boulder hopping stuff," she still is athletic and adventurous, and knocks off this semi-daunting ascent as capably as Col and I do. We look on, cheer her progress.

"Look at that amazing geode!" Cac and Col point it out, lying there camouflaged amid more prosaic specimens on the rocky canyon bed. I have an urge to take it as a souvenir, to possess it, but upon reflection: A, it's illegal to remove anything from Death Valley; B, I'm not sure anymore that it's karmically all right to take things from nature just to pretty up your garden, home and altar; and C, I'd never be able to carry the heavy watermelon-sized gemrock anyway! I hoist it up, impressed with its density, and prop it on a high shelf like a bejeweled cairn. Inch long fingers of quartz crystals, sparkling in the sun, jut up from its carved interior. I dribble water on them and they positively glow with magical energy! We place our hands together as one on it, and Colleen begins to deeply intone this guttural animal chant her ayahuasquero taught her—a humming, buzzing, repetitive uurrrrrrrr-roooooo uurrrrrrr-rooooo! As always, we do not forget to express our heartfelt thanks and gratitude for the wonder, beauty and majesty in the natural world—loka, samasta, suki nu, bavantu—may all beings experience happiness and peace, may all beings be blessed with just enough of everything necessary to live joyful, rich, meaningful, comfortable existences, no more or no less! Thank you Spirits of the Crystals of Red Wall Canyon!

The return is as difficult as the ascent. We're tired and now instead of impeding you, gravity works to propel you downward at unreasonable paces. You have to tread carefully to avoid rutted gravel wash drop-offs, large rocks. We fan out again. I try to get Col to follow my course, which is astray from the car. She's on target so I swing over her way and we stop for a rest. Cac is long gone. I build a little Stonehenge / altar that no one will ever know about or see but us and the Spirits, and to them we give final ablution.

That night, exhausted, we camp at Emigrant (now up at 2100 ft.), a forlorn spot, no more than a parking lot off the side of the road. We nab one of the ten spots facing the wide-open range, and enjoy a great meal as the sunset daubs surreal pastel colors over Panamint Butte and Lemoigne Canyon. Colleen makes chit-chat with a dude from North Carolina cycling to South America, sidetracked in the valley of death. She observes, "This guy's carrying way too much weight!" He even agrees.

Nightfall, we are spent. We get into our bags for an early bedtime. It's so peaceful lying there snugly, gazing skyward at familiar constellations, on the verge of dreamily dozing off. . .until, no, not a generator this time, but party dudes! Incessant chatter from over there is driving me nuts. Aren't they aware of other people who might expect some peace and quiet, who might find their too-loud conversations egotistic, maybe even banal, perhaps downright obnoxious? I can't take it any longer—talk about a "Prince and the Pea" syndrome!—so I stand up and meekly shout their way, "Hey, can you guys please pipe down a bit, we're trying to get some shut-eye." I yell timidly again, but to no avail. Either they don't hear me, or the bastards are ignoring me. They carry on in a giddy wine-induced prattle and laughter, of which I'm really contemptuous when I want peace and quiet in the desert! I'm veritably fuming. After another few intolerable minutes, I get up and this time, loud enough for the whole campground to hear, my voice more edgy than polite, I yell out, "WOULD YOU PLEASE LOWER YOUR VOICES, WE'RE TRYING TO GET SOME SLEEP. THANG-Q!" That seemed to startle everyone into submission, thank God! I'm finally able once again to enjoy the desert night solitude and drift off without further petty noise and distraction. (Some would label this behavior neurotic, or intolerant; others, like Cac 'n Col, say I handle it all wrong and blunt-headed, that I should go over to them and say, "Hey, guys, how y'all doin'? Ya know, my sisters and I, we had a real hard day today, and one of them is recovering from the flu, so we would really appreciate it if you could lower your voices a bit. We really value the silence, that's why we're all here, right? Thanks a lot. You all have a good night, now!" But I don't. I can't. So I handle it in my silly, immature, non-diplomatic way—but c'mon, this ain't Party Central, after all! Why put me in a position of confrontation at all, however minor? This is a campground, a remote area, shut the fuck up! At the very least, serenity and quietude must prevail at least after 8 p.m.!)

That night it's Colleen's turn. She is keeled over vomiting for the whole campground to hear. Same bug her sis had—same symptoms of fever, weakness, food poisoning-like nausea. I try to sleep through her wrenching expectorations. I am relieved, happy, comforted by the way Cathleen gets up and attends to her sister with such loving concern, such selfless devotion, to make sure she's all right.

Eventually, Colleen dry heaves it all out, and manages to fall asleep the rest of the night. Then, around 4:30, the whole campground is awakened by a distant screeching of metal on asphalt, some old jalopy lost its muffler, I figure. I can see the headlights from maybe 20-25 miles away on the highway toward Panamint Springs. Sooner than I realize, the car turns in to Emigrant and sputters to a stop. Wide awake now, I sit up. The driver gets out, sees me, and comes over. I see in the dimness it's the same guy who several hours earlier, for some reason, decamps and sets off in the darkness. For a guy who has just barreled over a fallen rock on the road and destroyed his two passenger wheels and rims beyond repair, he seems pretty calm. But what's he supposed to do, jump up and down and shake uncontrollably, sob and yell, fall pitifully onto my shoulders in a slump of quavering futility?

Poor dude asks me to take a look at it. It is hard to see, but I can make out that he has absolutely zero rubber on those dented and twisted rims. The side panel is ripped apart. His power brake wires or whatever it is dangling down there are shot. I shake my head, feeling pretty useless. Damn sorry about that, I say, unable to do a more convincing job of commiserating.

The guy is from Washington state. He looks like he has some indio blood in him, like he could be Charles Bronson's nephew. He admits he's a fool for not having stayed put. But he panics and decides to drive back to the campground. Tough, and dumb, luck! (This guy's misfortune is a big lesson for us in our convertible where we have a tendency to push the limits of safe navigability. It goes to show: you don't need to be "off road" to have something disastrous happen. Falling rocks from overhead unstable cliffs, errant cattle grazing in blind spots on curves, deer crossing without notice, so many things can fuck you up instantly and turn a pleasant holiday into a nightmare.) We offer the poor sap a ride to Stovepipe Wells, some 17 miles away, the closest place to get help. Luckily, there's an official truck making early rounds; Bronson's nephew opts to go with him, so that let's us off the hook in terms of spending our morning, or longer, helping him out.

Col is too weak to do much of anything this morning. Damn twin curse, I think! One gets it, so does the other! I feel superior that my resistance is so strong! Cac suggests that we hike Mosaic Canyon while Col kicks back at the trailhead.

Mosaic is splendid in the early morning hour, a creamy and sensuous world of polished white marble bedrock chiseled masterfully by eons of violent flash flooding. We walk two miles up the gravelly wash, admiring the beauty, talking up a storm and ruing the absence of Col. Suddenly, the trail forces our passage up and over a 50 ft. high cul-de-sac, but totally climbable. If only Col were here! Then we can continue on to Twin Springs, explore the ever-fascinating geological features here: layered, scaly rock walls that Cac thinks resembles petrified wood; craggy tors of Mt. Tucki and soaring, stark ridges dying to be explored. We take a break here.

Back at the car, we find Col feeling a bit better. With nary a second thought, we agree it's time to check out Ubehebe Crater. First, we set up camp at Mesquite Spring, all in all a pretty nice spot, with secluded, well-situated sites, but probably a madhouse come wildflower season. Colleen is in no shape to be hiking these tortured bowels of the earth, these blasted depths in a moonscape, 600 ft. deep and 2800 ft. wide. Descending on the rocky, sandy trail, in the hottest part of the day, is not particularly a stroll. Col is a prime candidate for relapse.

Which is exactly what happens. We race down to the crater's bottom, a huge area criss-crossed by dry, cracked mudflats, sparse trees, some grass. Very little respite from the sun. Col's so spent that all she can do is find the tiniest patch of shade and collapse on her back. Cac and I go off to explore the massive tailings where the crater's walls meet the floor, openings into the earth that wind upwards like mini-slot canyons grooved in the steep side of the crater. We climb up a rough stair-stepped "trail" and pop out on a narrow perch 75 ft. up. The temperature difference is at least 15 degrees cooler in this sunless crevasse!

Desperately wanting to get Col in here, we go to get her, but she's too wasted, she can barely sit up. It's getting scary now. There's a distinct chance she can get heat stroke. And we still have to climb out of this monstrous cauldron! Cac leads the charge and at first I keep her energetic pace (Cac's a great walker!) but then wisely choose to lag behind to walk it out with Col. The pitch is steep and the going is rough in the shifting deep soil—twenty, thirty degree grades in places, fifty foot stretches that take ten minutes. We take slow deliberate steps, one foot in front of the other, me supporting her weight at times. I am worried for her, but she's so mental, so Amazonian, she makes it up and out. She collapses on the roadside and wearily utters, "Pick me up, I'll be okay." Cac is with some people at the overlook, very concerned, they stick around until they're sure we're okay.

That moment, we spontaneously arrive at the unanimous conclusion to forego camping at Mesquite Spring and get to Eureka Dunes. Imagine how wonderful to fall asleep under the stars at Eureka Dunes! I check the position of the sun and proclaim it must be around 1:46. (I'm off by a minute; the twins are amused at my "guess"!) Still plenty of time, but will the convertible get us there down the graded road? Hell yes! Screw the Rangers, we're game to take the risk!

From Ubehebe Crater, where the pavement ends, it's a "mere" 45 miles to the Dunes. We set off tentative and uncertain at first, the Rangers' admonishments secretly haunting me. Nothing worse than getting stuck! I flag down an oncoming passenger vehicle, carrying four over-the-hump men on a Sunday loop through the desert. I'm relieved; if their piece of rental shit can make it, so can ours. They're coming from Big Pine, they say, and the road's passable, except, noted one, it's "corrugated, terrible, you'll see." (Dude's right about that!)

Dumbfounded stares from these big galoots. The twins are wearing skimpy summer attire. They're quite attractive and magnetic in appearance, no doubt a sight-for-sore-eyes for the femmeless quartet. Like, what, they've never seen skimpily attired sun goddesses out in the middle of nowhere before!?

Relieved that we're gonna make it without incident, I settle down and enjoy the ride. It takes a little over three hours. We cruise slowly, takin' it easy, no rush, no hurry, a stop here to admire a view, stop there to see what Crankshaft Junction is all about, kind of ride. Our conversation pinballs from one topic to another: more fascinating, mercurial tales of love; a debriefing of a close friend's life and crises; updates on their land in Castle Valley Utah; juicy family gossip; a marvelous tale the twins call "The Finger", about a coincidental cut on the same index finger and the New York City cop who just happens to see them both, separately, on the same day, and who thinks Cac is Col, or Col is Cac, and then later sees them both together and just can't believe his eyes! Yes, our conversations are many, and this is only a brief dredging up of some of them.

Trivially vindicated to prove the Rangers wrong about passenger cars not being able to traverse such roads, we arrive with oil pan, tranny and exhaust pipe intact at Eureka Dunes at 5:30 in the perfect early evening, just in time to settle in and have a picnic and then hike up the dunes for what looks to be an indescribably beautiful sunset. We are soon joined by the diminutive, comical-looking hopper, native Kangaroo Rat. No feeding the wild animals, so I shoo the little guy away and he scampers off warily seeking refuge under our car. A few seconds later, here he comes again. He's a cutie, but also a pest—scram! (We see him a couple of more times, but eventually he gives up.

Fact is, this little critter, some lizards, a few ravens and other birds is about all we see in terms of native Death Valley fauna. Absent are Bighorn sheep, coyote, wild burro, kit and grey fox, ringtail cat, badger, bobcat, mountain lion, roundtail ground squirrels, antelope, rabbit, woodrat, pocket gopher, porcupine, mule deer, snake, desert tortoise, and bat. . .guess you got to be in the right place at the right time to share in these animals' company!

This is the best place yet! There's "nothing" for miles all around! You can truly experience an unfettered sense of silence and remoteness in a pristine world. Then, of course, reality strikes. Your perfect fantasy/reverie is shattered by low-flying stealth jet fighters clipping and zooming about from the many military installations in the surrounding "wastelands".

After the reverberations settle out in the thin crisp air, silence returns, an enormous silence at once penetrating and impermeable, intimate and unknowable. I want so much to "hear" its soothing sounds of sweet nothingness, but in my head, in my ears, it's a ringing, droning noise, this silence.

The white dunes rise nearly 750 ft., accentuating a sweeping panorama of richly textured mountains—the Last Chance range, striated like molasses and cinnamon taffy! All around and beyond, ah, a vast desert wonderland of ridges, mesas, valleys, dry lake beds and salt playas. Not a soul in sight or, ignoring the ugly outhouse structure, much of any sign of the civilized world. Atop the dunes, it's like being in the Sahara or on Mars, maybe. Colleen, still recovering, stays behind at our base camp while Cac and I climb up several hundred feet to take in the stupendous sunset. Best one I've seen in ages, a stunning polychromatic pageantry in the sky— every wondrous color on God's palette is streaking across and staining the sky in a pastel-melt of lavender, yellow, red, fuschia, and robin's egg blue. Wisps of clouds add decorative painterly touches. (Drat, we forget the disposable camera to visually document this colorful and magnificent spectacle!)

The sun has set and the colors muted to black and white, and the moon has not yet risen. The air is perfect, the night dark. We are fixing some elaborate dish when Cac says, "What's that, you guys?" I glance up from my absorbing task at hand—mincing celery and garlic, grating ginger with my buck knife—and dismiss it, "Oh, it's nothing, just a jet." A couple of minutes later, Cac exclaims. "You guys, that's not a jet! Look at that plume! Something's not right!"

I deign to look up, then quickly jump to attention, startled to witness (in complete ignorance of what it is we are witnessing!) what we later learn is an ICBMissile launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base and eventually shot down over Tahiti. (At least according to my knowledgeable ex-landlord, a Viet Nam veteran who's witnessed two such missile launches, but upon hearing my description, he said his sightings paled in comparison to our show!)

But at this moment, we are nearly speechless, totally clueless; we have never seen anything like THIS before in the sky! If only for a few minutes, we're certain that a "visitation" is upon us, an abduction imminent! In my rational mind, it's clear it's not an alien-propelled U.F.O. because of the primitive, earthbound launch pattern. Plus, China Naval Weapons Air Station is just over the range there. Not to mention we're beating the drums of war over Iraq and terrorism. We suspect some testing is going on of a secret new tactical weapon.

From our perspective, in the clear desert air, distances are telescoped and the rocket appears to be preternaturally close, just over the ridge. Then it begins morphing—first the vapor plume becomes bulbous, very large and round, giving way in a few minutes to a triangular shape. It doesn't make sense, it doesn't jive with what we might expect to see on a given night camping in the desert. What leads us to momentarily think it's alien-propelled is the way it begins moving toward us! I am alarmed now, pacing nervously. The head of the grossly distorted vapor plume appears as a bright round light, like the moon, right in your face! And it appears to be wavering right toward us! "UH-OH, here it comes!" the twins yell in unison.

And it keeps coming, coming, growing bigger and brighter, and then, thankfully, disappears in a cloud, leaving behind massive sodium halide type residual lighting over a huge area for fifteen minutes before finally giving way to propane-blue and fire-orange tracers on the mountainous horizon for another twenty minutes. WHOA! Sounds nuts, I know, but for the duration of this "encore sunset", this fantastic celestial rocket show, with the sky lit up so eerily, not really knowing what it is, I admit is more than a bit unsettling. . .

The moon rises, casts pale light shadows in spooky streaks across the ground. The twins are sleeping. I get up, wearing only shorts, since it seems pretty warm. Eagerly, I start up the Dunes to soak up magical albion glow on white sand. I sit in utter silence (not so droning now!), alone on the earth at this moment!

It soon gets chilly, but I blunder and come down a slightly different route, and end up getting "lost"! It's the silliest thing! I know I can't be LOST lost, because I sense where I am in relation to where I have come from—over there. . .but where in the heck is over there? Where are the twins! I can't even make out the car.

It's growing darker, and colder. Everything is more vast, less familiar. I know I'm not more than 500 ft. from safety. I circle about yelling their names, but no response. Hard to believe they don't hear my pleas for help! I'm starting to worry. Nowhere near panic, but that feeling of being caught in the vortex of a lucid dream where you can't find the way out.

So I start running, but dumbly the opposite way from where we're camped; I seem to be in a spell, a disorienting vortex, deep in the anti-zone, wandering and wandering around forever in search of my destination. What if I do die? I am so stonily turned around by now that I just let go and run as hard as I can, which is stupid using up my energy like that, but it warms me up, charges my batteries.

I continue yelling out Cac and Col's names at the top of my lungs. Now, I hear someone's concerned voice pierce the air, "What's up? Everything all right?" It's the couple we espy earlier from our sandy perch, camped about a quarter mile up from where we are. The guy sets me on the right course, even offers me a ride, no thanks. As I say, I wasn't ever lost, just a bit turned around!

Comfortably ensconced once again in my Sierra Designs bag, gazing heavenward, I give thanks in abundance for the ongoing preservation of my health and well-being (Bottom line: even though this episode isn't even close, in terms of a "survival situation", if you're not careful, you can basically die in Death Valley.)

In the morning, the twins are amused to hear of my bumbling about. "You're kidding, Tom!" is the refrain. The day unfolds leisurely. We're lying about in our bags talking and commenting on the beautiful sunrise, the sheer peacefulness of this precious moment in time together. I'm captivated by a duck, she must be, skittering about on the sand not far from away, spreading her wings, scruffing along with what looks like joy and fun, probably scratching herself while at the same time ridding herself of pestilence.

We enjoy a great breakfast of tea, hot five-grain cereal with raisins, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and assorted other goodies from the twins' epic shopping spree for tasty provender at Whole Foods on Friday.

Colleen's feeling good, yeah! She's eager to get active, hike, so we trek up those voluptuous mounds of sand, breathing in the fresh scents of morning desert air and dampened earth. The varied critter tracks, skittering in complex patterns across the sand like brushstrokes from a zen painter, captivate us.

Eureka Dunes, of course, supports a unique ecology, home to "endemic species" of flora and fauna found here and here only in all the world. Uncontaminated and undisturbed, left to her own evolutionary devices, Mother Nature is an amazing miracle of life. What can survive and, indeed, thrive, in such harsh climes, is always a revelation, always surprising and worthy of pointing out. "Can you believe it," I exclaim in that overly-exuberant voice I use when I really want to drive home a point, "There are four, FOUR, endemic species of beetle here and several endemic plant species—among them dune grass and locoweed, in the Astragalus family! Isn't that amaaaazing!"

We are walking barefoot following the ridgeline up and up. The sand is cool, damp. (Magical facts: the dunes absorb and release moisture, and when the wind and sand interplay just right, they sing!) Even later in the day, when the sun's had a chance to beat down hard for several hours, the sand is still walkable barefoot.

It's hard work trudging through it, though; we're grateful for those stretches where the sand is packed down. Eventually we reach the apex. Colleen takes her clothes off, exotic poseur in this surreal landscape. We complete a huge loop on the highest of the ridgelines in about three hours, talking about everything under the sun, hiking vigorously across an undulating saharascape, ever in awe of the Last Chance Mountains, rising 2000 ft. before us, appearing remote, forbidden, hostile, a live brooding creature anchored to the earth by gigantic talons that are actually mini-slot canyons.

Back at camp, we literally make our own shade to stay comfortable! The sun is beating down hard, so Cac has the idea to pull the car up at a certain angle which creates a life-saving patch of shade. We throw down ponchos and sleeping bags, and have a pretty cush little scene going!

I regale my sisters for an hour reading passages from my journal—fulsome reminiscences of our time together in Utah; a rip-snorting reading of "Nine Months of Pure Hell", my chronicle of horrendous allergy suffering from dust mites; an abridged telling of my 47th birthday animal spirit totem connection with Spider; and not yet worn out, I manage to decipher Colleen's hieroglyphic-like handwriting to read aloud her rousing journal account ("Losing Ego") of recent ayahuasca excursions, "soul hunts" and shamanic visioning. (Like, WoW!)

Next on the agenda, since we can't just sit here and do nothing (!) is the twins regaling me with a simultaneous foot massage (services courtesy of Col) and palm reading (services provided by Cac). In order to properly divine the messages in my hand, we have to re-arrange ourselves so that the sun is shining on my palm from behind. This necessitates that we all sit in the sun. If you're a sun worshipping earth pagan like the twins, no problem, but I tend to like to avoid the sun when I can. (What? No hat? No shades? I am constantly amazed the twins use neither!)

I am unable to resist the tempting pleasures of being fawned over, manipulated, analyzed, so I consent, get up and move to the sun, and give myself over to their earnest ministrations of pure loving intent. Cac lays out my entire life and what I need to do "to turn things around" (Bottom line character flaw: laziness!), whilst Col works my feet over good with her strong touch and savvy technique and soothing aromatherapeutic lavender oil. It's forty minutes of aaaaaaaah!

When it's over, I stand up to stretch and seek shade. I am way off-kilter in a queasy unsettling way. I've heard of foot massages releasing toxins in the bloodstream, causing mild dizziness, but my reaction seems extreme. Next thing I know, I'm lying down in our patch of shade, febrile and weakening. Somehow, my immune system gets lowered to a vulnerable point, allowing the "bug" to take over. I now have what the twins are finally getting over from.

The night is horrendous. I'm alternately freezing and burning up in my sleeping bag. I desperately need to vomit, but can't bring myself to do the dirty deed. I'm lying there feeling the nausea rise, so I quickly get up and crawl on my hands and knees a few feet away, dropping to my forearms on the cold sand; instantly, the nausea quells. At one point, I heave, but in that doggie-position, gravity works against momentum and it only comes halfway out, I feel like I'm puking my solar plexus out of my esophagus. This goes on about five times throughout the course of the night.

In the morning, a big hunky bowel movement makes me feel fifty percent better. (The outhouse provides a very nasty retreat. None of us have the stomach to enter the cesspool structure—a family comes to check out the dunes and spends most of their time hanging out in the shade of the stinky outhouse, I swear!) I feel good enough now, in fact, to get behind the wheel and drive us to the Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains, our next destination, up up and away into higher, more rarified realms than we've known in Death Valley. Then a side trip to the Whitney Portal and the Alabama Hills, then swinging down to Darwin Falls, where this narrative next takes up. Adios, Eureka Dunes, until we return again!

On a windy rain threatening night, Cac comes up with the plan to pack it up and head for Darwin Falls, back to Death Valley, right now, why not, no one's tired. And we get to experience the magic of Darwin Falls!

It's about an hour drive to Darwin Falls; we arrive without incident, turn down the unmarked road, drive a short distance just beyond the "no camping" sign, and crash unceremoniously for three or four hours, me in the car and the twins sleeping on the ground until daylight.

Everyone's feeling perky, fit and eager for action this bright morning. We pack a splendid picnic lunch for our hike. Knowing it's our final day makes casts a wistful spin. Cac seems in special need of releasing some good old endorphins, so in her polite manner asks if it's okay if she jogs on ahead. ("No, Cac! That's not allowed! You have to stay with us!")

Col and I eventually meet up with her at the first waterfalls, the one that Mary and I reached four years ago and thought was the "be all end all" of scenic canyon cascades here. (Damn, were we wrong!) Cac still hasn't had enough of a workout, so she's gonna run back to the car again and meet us there on our return.

Col and I take a look around: this first set of falls levels out high above, maybe fifteen ft. We get up there in a relatively easy Class III scramble up the south wall, a semi-vertical stretch with plenty of secure foot and handholds. At this upper level, it becomes even more of a riparian wonderland in a deep, twisting canyon, an honest-to-Goddess oasis emanating from magical China Springs high above. Tortured granite and volcanic walls, tarnished red and green, tower all around enclosing us in a private, primitive world; ravens circle overhead; hummingbird flits by gone in a nanosecond; you feel the awesome magic of one of the most amazing places in all of Death Valley deep in your spiritual core!

Higher up we can see the canyon meandering in a series of seductive chutes and cascades, and there, within reach, is the topmost spectacle—veritably Darwin Falls—plunging 100 ft. Our way up the next set of falls is blocked by a big slide. We first try to go up and around a higher ledge that turns out to be a treacherous dead-end. Col and I navigate our way in reverse safely back down, a minor situation but nonetheless I am breathing hard. We are determined to scale this sucker!

I get in the pool (a no-no) and try to hoist myself up the spray of water; it's too slippery and I fall back into the pool two or three times. Lucky I don't sprain an ankle. Finally, Col forms a hand-saddle and manages to propel me up enough for me to clinch a fingerhold and pull myself over the top! I reach down, grab Col by her hand, and she springs lithely up the slippery slope.

We follow the creek's gurgling course through polished flutes, so pretty, and come upon a large pool at the base of the huge falls. It's a most sacred and precious, beautiful, miraculous sight, this gushing of water murmuring and echoing through the canyon! We spend an indefinite time pondering our place in the universe then realize, oh no!, Cac's probably waiting for us all this time! She's got to see this place! She can't leave here without seeing the real Darwin Falls in this twisty slot canyon in the desert!

Now that we're high up we can see how we overlooked the easy route to the top from below. We rush down, scale the wall, and at that moment, I hear Cathleen calling out my name. What wonderful synchronicity! Cac, I yell, c'mon, this way! You've got to get up and around that falls. Cac looks up, with an expression of doubt clouding her features. She is not into boulder scampering or rock climbing. This traverse, so easy for Colleen and me, turns out to be a traumatic few minutes for poor Cac! (This traverse is not a deadly drop, by any means, but if you suffer from acrophobia, or doubt your physical/athletic skills, it can be scary, and on top of it all, if you don't know how to fall, then you can easily crack open your skull or break a leg!)

I have to help her with each step. Col is coaching from above, I'm telling her to just breathe and don't look down. Stay focused. I don't take her fears seriously until she finally makes it to a safe perch and collapses into tears. Col and I look at each other in surprise. Evidently, Cac's fear of heights gets to her a little! Col and I are clueless until she explains her lachrymal outburst. Col and I console her, congratulate her for doing it, for overcoming her phobic aversion in order to experience the full glory of this canyon oasis.

Empowered now, Cac gathers her wits and we make it to Darwin Falls, this time the easy way of scrambling up and around the rocky path. We level out where the water cuts chutes through the bedrock and spills down in a succession of smaller falls. A twin bed-sized flat area, surrounded by burnt wood, is evidence of someone having spent a night or three back here in poetic isolation.

The water works a spell on us. We remain in silent, reverential awe. My awareness is heightened, I am hyper-alert to nature's nuances and manifestations. Colors stand out, sounds are more felt than heard, rich soft textures of bedrock shimmer in patches of sunlight, dank and earthy water smells permeate my being. A giant square chunk of wall high up is carpeted in blazing green moss, adorned with lovely maidenhair ferns, a perpetual mist spraying down from a cleft just above to forever feed it moisture. A tight ribbon of water shoots down from maybe 100 ft. above, plunging to a pool in a subdued roar, deep enough to cool off in on a hot summer day. (Locals use this water for their everyday needs, so obviously they discourage contamination.) We chant peace and joy to all beings, offering up thanks and praise and gratitude for this place's sacred existence.

I do not want to leave. I want to stay here forever. I am feeling primitive and artistic and pick up a piece of charcoal and use a quick minimalist technique to scrawl some drawings on a small rock shelf out of sight unless you really look. A sun symbol; a handprint; a mythic clan chief; and Antelope. I am proud of my unheralded, evanescent pictographs paying homage to the native Spirits residing, protecting and blessing the canyon.

Time to head back, sadly. Cac espies a Budweiser can at the bottom of a pool. Foolishly, before anyone or I can stop myself, I splash in to nobly retrieve the desecration, but instead muddy up the waters so much I can't even see it anymore. It's cold water, but I make repeated attempts to submerge and grope blindly around for a few seconds trying to come up with the can. The twins look on in bemusement. I try one more time and fish around on the muddy floor, but can't find it. I finally give up. I feel terrible because I've left the pool a murky mess and violated the rule, the ethic.

Cac's a bit fearful of the return climb down that rock face, but going back is much easier than the route up, probably because she maneuvers it sitting on her butt! (Not the proper way to make a descent on such a pitch, but it seems to work for her!) Once down, we veritably race back to the car knowing our final hours are upon us, time for one last adventure!

And so we bid adieu to beloved Darwin Falls and head down Hwy. 190 to the ranching community of Olancha situated in a broad high valley with tremendous views of the rugged Sierra Nevada escarpment. And onto the great Highway 395 for a quick tour of Manzanar, in Cac's words: "One of the 'war relocation camps' for Japanese during WW II. That's a euphemism, of course, for our version of a concentration camp. There were no more
structures there, just signs of what buildings used to be where. There was a sort of spiritual monument to pay homage to and leave an offering. It was all such a sad reminder that we've learned nothing, given the right-wing rounding up of this era's hated foreigners: Muslims."

Our route to L.A. takes us down Hwy. 14. We stop at a place called Red Rock Canyon State Park for a lunch break to stretch our legs and hike a bit. It's a sweet little scene, a place to stop overnight on the way to or from more spectacular and remote attractions. At least on the surface, for there's always more to a place than meets the eye! Although right off the busy highway, well-developed, and no more than a spec of green on the map, Red Rock sports a ton of, well, scenic Red Rock!

It encompasses unique desert ecological niches. It is geologically spectacular, dynamic. It was home to the Kawaiisu (or Nuooah) peoples. And now we are here to devote two or three hours exploring a couple of Nature Trails (Red Cliffs and Desert View) with interpretative spots along the way.

I hold the twins rapt hostages, broadly gesticulating before us, and read from the pamphlet, "As you look over this valley, you clearly see a desert. But over 10,000 years ago, as the Sierra glaciers were melting, huge lakes dotted what is now the Mojave Desert. Fossils have been found which indicate that saber-toothed cats, camels, horses, and rhinoceroses lived here in early times. Today, it is a very different place."

Wow, we all say. And again at Marker 6,"One of the most widespread shrubs on California's deserts, the Creosote is actually among the oldest living things on our planet. The ring of plants before you originated from a single bush. The Creosote grows by adding new stems and roots to its outside edge. Gradually, the inner stems die and the growing outer edge forms a ring. This Creosote Ring has likely been growing here for 1,500 years."

Back in the L.A. area, into Pasadena down I-210, the smog's so thick and penetrating it's choking me. It's staggering how dirty the air is! You can't even see the San Gabriel Mountains due to the appalling pall. Ugh, time to get out of town. I'm feeling anxious about traffic, and want to get to the airport early. It's all hugs, kisses, sentimental good-byes. And so ended our wonderful trip, our last remaining moments of desert exploration, thrill-seeking fun, wild natural wonders, and sibling camaraderie in the fabled badlands of Death Valley.