"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious" ~ Albert Einstein

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Smith Mountain (5,913'), Death Valley, April 6th, 2013

Friday night found me behind the wheel heading out in the direction of Death Valley, for a fun-filled couple days.  I was feeling a bit tired and have had some interesting night-time drives out there in Panamint Valley, usually in the wee hours of the morning, though, when the mind is still in a dreamy state.

Driving through the desert at night can play tricks on the eyes and mind.  Space and time become distorted.  If there is one thing the desert has plenty of, it's space.  Everything is bigger and further away than it appears and the landscape can open up and swallow you.  The seconds not only tick by slowly, but can disappear altogether in the vastness.  Single moments turn into an eternity.  Scraggly creosotes flying by in your headlights can make it feel like you are racing along, while at the same time the motionless, bright stars and the fixed, crisp silhouette of the desert mountains can make you feel like you're stuck in place.  A howling wind blows up that sounds like it is just as lost in this place as you are, racing around tired and frustrated trying to find a way out.  When the sun finally starts to rise it dispels the effect of this dark magic, feeling like it rescued your mind from some strange prison it was stuck in.  You leave one world and enter another, even though you're in the same place. 

This night I was headed for Smith Mountain, located in the high and isolated but charming Golden Valley in the Black Mountains. Smith Mountain towers 6000' above Bad Water, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, with Golden Valley cozily ensconced on the opposite side.  Smith's not a hard hike, coming in at around 6 miles round trip and 2,300' of gain.  It's getting to the start of the hike that's the crux, involving about 24 miles of dirt road.  The first 11-12 miles of dirt is the Greenwater Valley road, which I knew is typically in excellent condition.  The second half, along what's called the Lost Section Road, was reputed to be high-clearance, rough 4x4. 

Not too long ago, I came through on my "Dirt Bike With No Name" ride to scope the area out.  It's amazing how much easier the access is to these areas on a dirt bike.  Turned out the road is high-clearance, but there is only one, or two, spots that actually require 4x4.  The rest is pretty smooth going and this motivated me to get back out there with the hiking boots, in place of motorcycle boots.  I got much of the dirt road done that night, leaving only about 5 miles for the following day.   The Lost Section Road turned out fairly decent, as suspected.  I was probably able to average ~15 mph along its length.

Lost Section Road to Golden Valley

I spent the night in my car at the crest between Golden Valley and Greenwater Valley.  The night sky looked gorgeous, with sharp, bright stars and a crescent moon above Greenwater Valley, while the constellation Orion was slowly setting over the Black Mountains, disappearing into infinity.  I attempted to take some hand-held photos with 8-15 second exposure times.  They're not great, but hard to believe they turned out at all.  I used the car to steady myself a bit for the Orion shot and just got lucky with the moon shot.  I keep telling myself to purchase a small tripod ... maybe next time.

Orion Setting Over the Black Mountains

Crescent Moon Over Greenwater Valley
I woke up at 5:30 AM the next morning and grabbed my Chia seed cereal, which I think is my new pre-hike meal.  This time I had 1 scoop Amazing Grass Chocolate Greens powder and 1 scoop Hemp protein powder, with a bunch of cinnamon, Goji Berries and Mulberreis.  While I relaxed and ate, I kept my eyes on the sunrise with my trigger finger on the camera. 

Sunrise From Golden Valley

Sunrise From Golden Valley
It's funny because the sky changes colors and brightens ever so gradually over quite some time.  Once the sun actually crests the horizon, the show speeds up dramatically, leaving only minutes to snap a few good pictures.

I finished the drive down into Golden Valley and started out for my hike as the hills started to glow from the rising sun.  Although the Sun's rays had already touched the crest, it took another half hour, or so, before they could find their way down into the valley.

Heading Through Golden Valley Towards Smith Mountain

There's no trail to Smith, but the cross country turned out to be very pleasant.  This was appreciated after the rugged outing to Kingston Peak a few weeks back.  I slowly made my way up the side of the valley enjoying the sunrise glow on the hillsides.  This was what I needed.  A little bit of a workout and the peaceful ambiance provided by the Black Mountains and Golden Valley.  Although good company is always welcome, sometimes I do prefer these outings solo.  When your solo, everything is heightened.  If something makes you scared, you'll be that much more scared.  If something happens that is a cause for elation, you'll be that much more elated.  Your mind can settle into its own rhythm, with no outside disturbances.  The eyes can stretch as far as the horizon, but the mind can go further here.  And, just as a  noise quickly becomes muffled out in large spaces, so the desert has a quieting influence on your thoughts.  After a while, one could swear they 'hear' the desert itself.   A 'harmony' that can easily go unnoticed.

Just as I was thinking about all this, I turned around and saw another car parked along the road further up.  A rash of thoughts raced through my head.  "Hey, what are these guys doing in MY valley.  Whoa, hang on there, this IS a national park, it's not my valley.  And, look around, there's nobody else around for as far as the eye can see. So, relax, it won't hurt you to share the valley.  Besides, it's always nice to know if somebody is around in case one gets in trouble.  Heck, they're probably not even climbing Smith.  If they do, it might even be nice to shoot the breeze for a few".  I turned and settled back into my pace towards Smith Mountain and forgot about my friends below, for now.

Heading Up The Canyon

After a bit of a trek up the side of the valley, the route takes you up a canyon.  Springtime was in full swing in the canyon.  Bird song echoed off the canyon walls, while hummingbirds were busy in their morning routine.  There was a constant and almost melodic humming noise, which were bees hard at work on all the flowers blooming in the canyon.  Sometimes canyon travel can get pretty rugged, but this one was pleasant.  Every time it looked like a little bush thrashing, or rock hopping, was imminent, a clear path would show the way through.

I climbed out of the head of the canyon and ended up slightly above a small valley below the summit area.  I wound around and over a minor ridge line, or two, and then followed the main southern ridge to the summit.  The 'false summit' one passes over is actually higher than what's considered the Smith Mountain summit.  The register and benchmark were placed here because of the superior views, due to the land dropping straight down 6000' from here, all the way down to Bad Water.  Even despite the hazy day, the views were pretty darn nice.

Smith Mountain Summit View, Bad Water Below, Telescope Peak in Distance

Interesting Summit Register Entry

After a prolonged stay at the summit, I meandered my way back down the mountain.  As I emerged back out into the valley, I peered down in the direction I saw the car earlier and much to my surprise there was no car.  Just one big bush.  My mind got all worked up over an illusion it created, by turning a bush into a car.  I had a bit of a laugh and settled back into my pace letting gravity pull me down the valley.

Along the way there wildflowers everywhere.  It wasn't the kind of bloom that you can see from any great distance.  The conditions just weren't right this year for that kind of bloom.  However, there were small flowers almost everywhere in the valley that pop up once you draw closer to them.  I tried to get at least one photo of each different kind I saw. 

One of Those "Hard To Say Which" Yellow Flowers

Gilia, Maybe?

Desert Dandelion
Right after taking one of the flower pictures, I got up to keep going and suddenly heard a "Hey!" come out of nowhere behind me, giving me a good startle.  I turned around and maybe a few hundred yards away was a lone hiker waving.  We were too far away to exchange pleasantries but I gave a quick holler hello.  I started to continue on my way, but it seemed like the other guy wasn't moving. I got a funny vibe.  Maybe he wasn't just trying to say hello, because his Hey! did sound rather emphatic.  I looked back to make sure he was okay and not looking for help, but he was already walking the other way and looking back at me in the same manner.  Just a friendly person, giving a heartfelt hello.

So, there was another hiker!  But, there was no car, just a bush!  Maybe he wasn't real, either.  Just a desert mirage, my mind playing more tricks on me.  Or, maybe he was the ghost of an old time Death Valley miner.  As neat as that last theory sounds, it didn't quite add up.  For one, this old time miner looked like he just walked out of an REI catalog.  That and I don't think ghosts usually go out of their way to say hello.  Yep, just another solo hiker.

I also then realized not only was his car not visible, I could see no trace of mine, either.  The landscape must have swallowed it up and hidden it from view.  Seems like that often happens.  However, it's always somewhat of an irksome feeling.  You know the car has to be there, but that little worrisome corner of the mind has to ask, "But, what if it's not?"

This time the landscape hid my car pretty damn good and dragged out the suspense as long as possible.  It wasn't until I got within a couple hundred feet that I could finally see the top half of it.  "Phew", I thought, even though I knew how silly it was to think otherwise.

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