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Death Valley
November 2007
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Death Valley
By Tim Cahill

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Some rocks made straight paths, some curved. Some traveled a hundred yards (90 meters) in one direction, stopped in a muddy muddle, apparently thought better of their direction, and made a 180-degree turn to ramble off in another direction. Some trails were wide for a while, narrow, then wide again. Occasionally, half a dozen rocks took off at once from the base of the mountain and seemed to race straight toward the Grandstand like horses at the derby. The tracks often crossed one another. I followed dozens of them, and when I found the rocks at the terminuses of the tracks, they seemed almost sentient. Why this made me laugh, I cannot say.

Robert Sharp and Dwight Carey studied the rocks starting in 1968, concentrating on 30. The geologists put an erasable letter on each and, charmingly, gave the stones women's names: Hortense (R) moved 820 feet (250 meters) in one winter. Karen (J), a 700-pound (320 kilograms) rock at the end of a 570-foot-long (174 meters) track, didn't move at all during their seven-year study and disappeared years later. Karen showed up again in 1996, when Paula Messina, a geologist at San José State University who had been mapping the paths of all the sliders on the Racetrack, found her far north of where Sharp had last seen her. "When I told him I had positively identified several of his original rocks, his reaction was a little like one would expect from a man who was just told I found his children."

Geology Underfoot was helpful in deciphering some of the tracks. Most rocks that sailed a straight course would have protruding lumps on the bottom, and you could see those striations in the track itself. Essentially, they'd been sailing with a keel. Perfectly smooth stones, without keels, might curl about in a graceful arc. Tracks might be wide where a rectangular stone sailed sideways against the wind, and they might narrow if the stone turned lengthwise.

It was getting dark on the Racetrack, and I walked back to the car, about half a mile away (800 meters). A Park Service sign near the car read: "Please do not remove the rocks; they become essentially meaningless when moved out of place."

I'd walked across Death Valley a quarter of a century ago. At the time, it seemed like a good idea: Walk from the lowest spot in the United States—Badwater Basin, in Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level (86 meters)—to the highest point in the contiguous states, Mount Whitney, 14,494 feet high (4,418 meters) and just less than a hundred miles (160 kilometers) away. It was summer, and my partner and I started off in the cool of the night. We would run into problems we had anticipated but not appreciated.

The valley is young. It was created by about two million years ago when the land between separating mountain ranges dropped along faults. The mountains, including Telescope Peak, at 11,049 feet (3,368 meters) the highest in the park, which loomed over us in the moonlight, catch what moisture reaches them. The water runs down steep slopes, causing erosion and mudflows, building alluvial fans, and eventually finding the lowest spot, as water will do.

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