Death Valley: Day 1

February 1, 2010

I like early starts when I hit the road.  As far as I’m concerned, any hours spent driving in the dark do not count.  Plus, it is great to head through the inland empire of Los Angeles in the dark. Some things are best unseen.  I started my drive around 3AM.  At 4:30AM, still before sunrise, I managed to hit some traffic on interstate 15.  All those people from Eastern Los Angles were starting their westbound commute.

By the time there was a glint of light on the horizon, I was long past the Cajon pass, and already heading north on highway 395. I stopped in Adelanto for refueling, then continued on my journey. As the sun began to rise, I was already alongside the Eastern Sierra mountains in the Owens Valley.  The 3AM start was worthwhile.  Instead of seeing the revolting landscape of Eastern Los Angeles at sunrise, I was greeted by the Eastern Sierras in alpenglow.

I turned right on highway 190, which leads directly to Death Valley.

As I continued my drive, I wondered if I would be able to visit Racetrack this year. There had been 1.5 inches of rain in the previous week, which led to many road closures. Racetrack Playa would undoubtedly be flooded.  If there is any sort of moisture on the playa, it is not possible to visit.  Footprints left in the mud will remain for years to come.  It should only be accessed when the playa is bone dry.  With nearly 2 full weeks in Death Valley, I hoped that racetrack would have time to dry.

I also wanted to visit the Eureka dunes again.  This area is not as affected by the rain, but wet dunes are not very photogenic.

My plan was to concentrate my efforts at 2 primary locations: The Mesquite dunes, and Badwater.  A week prior to my trip, I saw an excellent photo of Badwater by Floris Van Breugel. His photo depicts the flooded salt polygons of badwater basin at sunrise.

It is very unusual for Death Valley to receive enough rain to flood the Badwater basin.  However, an inch and a half of rain from one storm will do the trick.

I setup camp at Stovepipe Wells, then made the 45 minute drive to Badwater to evaluate the location. I wasn’t planning on taking a shot, but the clouds looked like they could make for an interesting photo.  There was a mix of high and low clouds.  The high clouds would most certainly catch the glow from sunset.  The low clouds would never see the light from sunset because there were on my side of Telescope peak — a 11,000 foot tall mountain that borders the western edge of the Badwater basin.

Did I mention that Badwater is located nearly 300 feet below sea level?  Yup, that’s right.  Telecope peak towers more than 2 vertical miles above Badwater.

I gathered my 8×10 camera, lenses, film, and other gear, then set out to scout the location.  Although the water levels varied quite a bit, The basin was filled with about a half inch of water in most areas.  I spent a few hours scouting, then decided on a vertical photo with my wide angle lens.

I waited beside my camera for a few more hours. I kept note on where the sun was, and tried to predict where it would drop below the mountains.

As sunset approached, the clouds gathered like troops on the western horizon. My chances of a glorious crimson sunset were diminishing by the minute. I elected to take a photo while the sun was still above the horizon, but behind some clouds. The texture in the sky caught my eye.  This photo also served as a safety shot.  If the sunset was smothered, I would still walk away with one shot.

The sun dropped below the mountains, and I kept my eyes on the time.   As the clouds continued to gather, my hopes for a crimson sunset evaporated.  I glanced at the time on my phone, and confirmed that the sun had set.  There was no more chance for color, so I packed up my gear, and hiked back to my car.   When photographing a sunset, it is best to stay in position until you are absolutely certain that the sun has set.  Otherwise, you will be caught off guard with stunning color, and a camera that is packed up.

I headed back to camp, and made myself dinner.  It was a good day,  I did some scouting, and even took a shot.

I recorded several minutes of video each day. Below, you will find my video journal for day one.

3 Responses to “Death Valley: Day 1”

  1. Sharon Van Lieu Says:

    Looking forward to this video journal, Ben. I posted a link on my facebook page.


  2. David Patterson Says:

    Ben… the video really brings the story to life. When we first stepped out onto the salt flats we found conditions similar to those you encountered. Though unique and different from normal – if you could even call this place normal – I found it quite challenging to make sense of the chaos. Am looking forward to seeing your work from here and the rest of the trip.

  3. Travis Says:

    Kindof reminds me of an alien landscape. Pretty cool!

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