The Death Valley trip was an exciting one for me. A place I have seen so much of but had yet to actually experience with my own eyes (and lens). Having 4 full days allowed me to casually plan out places to capture depending on conditions. This flexibility meant leaving the Racetrack til last. The main reason being that I happened to visit during the coldest stretch of the season. Camping below freezing every night with daytime highs barely out of the 40s (til the last day). My thought process meant it would gradually warm up toward the end of the week and the Racetrack is at 3700ft, which means colder.
Arriving at the Racetrack is no easy feat. 26 miles of washboard road. 4wd and high clearance recommended. After rattling my way for an hour the playa (dried ancient lake bed) appears as a white dish amongst the encompassing mountains. My heart beats a little faster and my right foot gets heavier.
As I pull up to the parking area and hop out the sun is warm but there is already a chill in the air. It’s late afternoon and the best evening light is yet to come but it’s about a mile from the car to the best rocks. These rocks, the reason I made this bone-jarring drive, move. On their own. And no one’s ever seen it. As they do they leave patterns in the playa. It’s speculated that a mix of wet playa and STRONG winds create this unique phenomenon (some rocks are upwards of 100lbs). So off I go, camera bag packed, extra clothes a must. Gloves, hats, long underwear….
As I trek across this overwhelming unique landscape I start to encounter the rocks. Different shapes, sizes, patterns. I have a couple of shots in the back of my mind to try and capture so finding the right rocks and patterns is essential. The first pair of rocks that catches my eye has me put a note in my head…ok…this is the shot. And I continue. Not 10 minutes later, as I explore further I come across the rocks you see below. Ah ha! Not the first one…THIS was my shot. Ok. Note. Off I go to keep shooting. The sun setting lower, about to disappear below the mountains for the evening. A group of 3 who was out in the corner packs up as the sun goes and they’re gone in to the twilight. I’m alone. Very very alone. It’s quiet. More quiet than one could possibly imagine. So quiet in fact that my ears are ringing. I find this quite confusing with my only explanation being that with modern life we have so much entering our ears constantly that the absence of which creates its own noise. Pretty amazing.
I head back to the pair of rocks as the light is almost faded and the moonlight is taking over. Just a quarter moon but at a location like this it’s bright enough to see without using my headlamp. As I set up the shot I realize that the photograph would be much more powerful if the moon was a bit lower and casting a better shadow on the rocks. Well, the decision was made. I set up the camera and tripod, took the battery out and kept it in my pocket (batteries hate cold weather) and went back to the car for dinner. Let the moon set a bit and then attempt the shot.
Funny thing about leaving a black camera and tripod in the middle of a place like the Racetrack. Not so easy to find! Luckily my way points combined with my phone made the process not as scary as it could have been. However, by the time I left the car the temperature was already in the upper 20’s. 2 pairs of socks. 2 layers on the legs. 4 layers on the body. 2 hoods and a winter hat plus my gloves. Yes. I looked quite hilarious. Now for the photograph. A 1 hour (yes, 60min) exposure of the sky. Calculating my settings and clicking the shutter I knew the only thing left was to wait. And wait. And wait. I walked laps around the playa. Laid on my back and watched the stars (shooting and still). Played some card games. And finally….that comforting click. I could pack up and finally warm up back at the car.
With the current technology my camera processes the photograph for another hour, so I set my alarm to remind me, headed to warmth and waited. As soon as the beep went off I dove across the car to the trunk to pull out the camera and peep at the back. Even with the moon out I nailed the exposure. This huge sigh of relief goes through the body that all that time and effort (and cold!) was not for waste. Of course when the car read 14F the next morning I knew the sunrise shots were going to be just as cold…
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Having seen photographs of this mysterious place, I was excited to make my maiden voyage out to this remote stretch of playa or ancient, dried lake bed. While no one has ever seen the rocks move it is believed a combination of water and wind is needed to move these rocks, some up to 100lbs, across the surface. And in turn, they leave us their tracks. Some straight. Some curved. Some just mind boggling confusing. I spent a night, a very very cold night, and a morning out shooting this magical place. Wondering around by myself in the quietest place one could possibly imagine, surrounded by one of nature’s wonders was a real treat. As the sun crested the nearby mountain (the playa is at approximately 3700 ft above sea level), the strong backlight made for some wonderful textures in the playa and really accentuated the tracks of some of the rocks. I explored for quite some time letting my mind play with the abstract shapes and textures. This one in particular I found quite interesting. Enjoy!