To pass the time, I climbed to a ridge off nearby Ubehebe Peak for one of the most spectacular views in the park. On this February day, the temperature stood in the low 70s and made for pleasant climbing. When I reached the ridge, the slope dropped off like a cliff to the west, where I could see the sands and salt pans of the Saline Valley 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) below. Farther west, just out of the park, were the Inyo Mountains, in the Inyo Mountains Wilderness, capped with snow and rising to 11,000 feet (3,300 meters). They were beginning to cast their shadows into the Saline Valley. Beyond the wilderness, the Sierra Nevada, all snow from my perspective, towered over the Inyos.
And that is one definition of Death Valley: It is a land of intense vertical relief. This is true of most of southeastern California, a region torn by earthquakes, once flooded with vast inland seas, and eroded by wind and rain. Nevertheless, it is primarily rising mountains and falling valley floors that create the astonishing counterpoint of land that lies hundreds of feet below sea level guarded by peaks rising two miles above. Slow tectonic torture corrugates the landscape as two massive crustal plates meet and slide past each other under California: the Pacific and North American plates. The ridge on Ubehebe Peak was a good place to contemplate this ongoing process.
When I turned around, to the east, I was looking directly down onto the Racetrack and the Grandstand. In the desolate wind on the exposed ridge, the Grandstand rocks looked like the very tips of buried buildings, like an undiscovered city swallowed up in silt, like alien and interred skyscrapers.
At the far edge of the Racetrack a multigenerational Japanese family walking on the playa looked as if they were skating across an ice rink. Soon enough, I was walking on the flat, feeling a mild sense of vertigo, a bit of dizziness that suggested I might just fall off. How? Where? I don't know, but try talking sense to your inner ear.
At the south end of the Racetrack, where the playa abuts an 850-foot-high (259 meters) mountain face, rocks had tumbled from elevation out onto the playa. Some were the size of softballs, others suitcases. These rocks did not gather any moss. They were movers. Robert Sharp and Allen Glazner, in their book Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Owens Valley, explain the process. The playa receives three to four inches (eight to ten centimeters) of rain a year during winter storms and summer cloudbursts. Parts of the Racetrack flood. Fine, intensely slippery clay settles, and the winds, which may reach 90 miles an hour (40 meters per second), must overcome the forces of friction for the rocks to break free. Once that happens, it takes only about half the wind power to keep the rocks moving.
There were levees a fraction of an inch high on either side of the tracks, and mud had piled up in front of the rocks. Looking at it all, I had no doubt that the rocks had sailed before the wind.