A Lesson in Dunes
Bill and I first saw the dunes as we passed Stovepipe Wells; they were less than a half-mile off to our left.
We paused and got out to consider strategies. It was warm in the mid-afternoon’s cloudless sunshine, but our long-sleeved shirts were not uncomfortable. The air was still. We would remember, a few hours later, how still it had been.
We might have bucked directly across the desert floor, but that would have meant winding around rabbitbrush, occasional cactus and constant creosote bush. It made more sense to keep going east to the intersection where California 190 turned sharply south. Our Esso map (which proved surprisingly reliable) showed a paved road going north toward Scotty’s Castle. There would surely be, off that road, some kind of track doubling back to the dunes.
It was New Year’s Eve. In the years ahead, the very simple motel and restaurant we were passing would become Stovepipe Wells Village, a tourist attraction rivaling Furnace Creek as a base for exploring Death Valley, a huge hotel with a pool, several restaurants and other amenities including an airport for small planes.
But this was 1951; the valley was less a destination than an historic footnote—or a laboratory for two college kids. We both had signed up for Professor Douglas Powell’s course in geomorphology, then still a pioneering fringe of the geology discipline. Despite having enrolled primarily to satisfy the graduation requirement of a science course, we were by now thoroughly engaged, hoping to score an extra credit for field research.
Short of an Army surplus Jeep, my 1931 Model A Ford coupe was ideal for a desert trek. To be sure, the eighty miles from Lone Pine had been slow going. We’d left the foot of Mount Whitney—the highest peak in the continental U.S.—to climb several thousand feet up and over the Panamints and down toward the lowest point in the nation a few miles from here.
The pace of my Model A (painted a vivid Kelly green), grinding and winding up and down steep canyons ungraced by foliage, gave us an appreciation of what prospectors faced in 1849 making their way to the California gold fields, even those lucky enough to make the trip in winter. Death Valley was not casually named.
Here, on the valley floor, the Ford’s oversized wheels and low-speed transmission were optimal for leaving the paved road. And sure enough, a few hundred yards north of the intersection shown on our map was the original Stovepipe Well, with enough hints to beckon us toward the dunes. Although sand and wind had scoured and filled most tire tracks, there were enough faint impressions and broken brush to indicate that others had come this way.
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. They were more impressive up close: great folds, never more than 150 feet high, that nonetheless seemed mountainous, a monochromatic kaleidoscope of textured undulations and shadowed ripples. Doug had challenged us to find a hypothesis to explain why the crests were not, as are most dunes, like archery bows all aimed in the same direction, a series of neatly parallel crescents. Even from here we could see the lack of uniformity.
The dunes appeared on the map to comprise a kind of mini-mountain range, not much more than a mile wide and several miles long, an aberrant eruption from the flat desert floor. The whole formation lay in a wind pocket among real mountains a few miles away. Those mountain’s crests shaped the winds, a kind of inversion that trapped the sand being constantly scoured off every imaginable kind of rock—whose names we had painstaking learned: granite, quartzite, basalt, rhyolite, gneiss, schist, dolomite, talc and more, ranging in age from Precambrian to Cenozoic and Quaternary.
I drove along the southern flank of the dunes to the point nearest the motel—easily visible—and parked on hard desert clay a few dozen yards from where the dunes began to rise. We filled canteens, slung cameras over shoulders and compasses around necks, put a few extra rolls of film in pockets and began the slog through loose sand up to the nearest crest.
It was hard work. The map made it almost a mile to where we might slide back down to hard desert floor and walk around the foot of the dune range back to the car.
It was just a few days past the shortest day of the year. If we had calculated the probability of completing that circuit in the hour and a half before sunset, we might have hesitated. If we had realized that the wind was rising, we would surely have held back. The warmth of the bright sunshine did not prompt us to think about the diminishing day, though; and being new to this microclimate, we had no way to gauge the wind.
We stopped often to photograph sand formations, twice putting in fresh rolls of film. We measured with hands and strides the distance between distinct ripples in the sand, and wrote down our observations. We consulted compasses and took notes on where the wind came from at various points, talking to each other about theses we might propose in our paper for the professor.
It occurred to us, after a while, that the winds seemed to be rising, but we had no way to know whether that was just a localized effect. Not until we half-tobogganed down the last steep dune to hard ground did we agree that yes, there was substantially more force in the wind than when we’d left the car.
The sun had set while we were still up on the dunes, plunging behind the tall mountains to the west so abruptly that dusk had gone swiftly to dark. A few stars were visible overhead. It was only two days past a new moon, so a crescent sliver wouldn’t rise for another hour or so–and wouldn’t do them much good even then.
Still not really worried, we set out toward the car. We might have jogged, but our legs ached from slogging through sand. Nevertheless, we set a brisk pace, conscious that the wind was still rising and beginning to carry sand with it.
In a half-hour, we thought we must have rounded the heel of the dunes and be near where we’d parked the car, but we couldn’t be sure. The wind was now as full of sand as a heavy shoreline fog is of water droplets. The sky overhead was blotted out, as was anything even ten yards away.
It was disorienting. I couldn’t read my compass in the dark. Bill’s had radium spots. We were heading south, and the car ought to be off to our left, eastward.
We spent half an hour trying to find it, using a plan we improvised on the spot. I took first turn as anchor, hollering every sixty seconds while Bill strode off into the sandstorm, out of sight in moments. As my voice grew faint against the howl of the wind, Bill stopped, hollered back, then moved to his left forty yards, back to center and forty yards to his right and back again, tethered to me by our voices as though to a rope.
When the first pass failed to find the car, I came up to join Bill and reverse roles, making him anchor. We managed the maneuver twice more, swapping roles each time, without stumbling into the car. It was exhausting physically and mentally, trying to stay linked inside two cocoons of swirling sand while covering a deliberate search pattern.
At last we gave up, deciding to seek shelter at the motel. We used Bill’s compass to strike south, and were amazed to find ourselves on the paved road in less than ten minutes, our feet finding the hard pavement before our eyes could recognize it. After a moment’s hesitation, we decided the motel must be to our right, westward.
We were right: Almost immediately there was a brightening up ahead through the sand haze, an intersection of dark terror and illuminated promise. In another few minutes we were at the Stovepipe Wells Motel and Restaurant, its parking lot full of cars. New Year’s Eve guests were inside at drinks and dinner, oblivious to the storm outside.
One look at ourselves in the plate-glass window was enough to dissuade us from going in the front entrance: We might have caused chaos among the revelers. Our eyes looked out hollowly from blackened faces, as though the swirling sand had somehow been infused with coal dust. We found our way instead back to a kitchen entrance, where we were met by initially shocked but soon helpful people, some our own age.
The manager was called, and was sympathetic. Yes, the motel was full, but there was a storeroom with burlap bags that could shelter us overnight, and there was plenty of food. No charge; the manager had a teenage son who might someday have such an adventure. Why didn’t we wash up in the staff locker room? And how about some roast turkey?
We found ourselves, for a few hours, minor celebrities. Even the veteran employees had never studied the geology of Death Valley; most of those in the kitchen and waiting table were seasonal employees, here for the first time. We two collegians conducted a series of mini-seminars for a rotating class of eager listeners.
Finally, well-fed and worn out, we begged off and retreated to the storeroom, whose burlap proved comfortable enough to promote sound and unbroken sleep.
The morning kitchen staff must have been alerted to our presence and plight: We emerged to a chorus of greetings. The kitchen was suffused with aromas of hearty tourist breakfasts. We ravenously and happily partook, looking out at a crystalline morning and cloudless blue sky that seemed almost a different planet from the one we’d endured the night before.
The presiding cook had come over from his home in Furnace Creek that morning. He had noticed, he said, a bright green Model A parked at the foot of the dunes. We would have no trouble finding it, he assured us.
Still, as an old-timer in Death Valley, he surmised that the sandstorm might have left a thick, soft blanket on what had been hard ground yesterday. There happened to be several two-by-eight planks, ten feet long, out in back of the motel, left over from some building project. It might be worth the effort, he suggested, to borrow them and lug them over to the Ford, to be sure we could coax it onto drivable terrain.
So we set out in the still-cool morning, a strange sight had anyone chanced to drive by: two still-grimy young men hiking down the highway and into the desert, separated by two long planks of lumber that hung suspended at arms’ length. The walk took less than fifteen minutes.
The Model A stood where we’d left it, appearing as we approached it to be on solid ground. If it were possible for a tire to stand on a single grain of sand, the front and rear wheels on the right-hand side – the windward side – stood that high and dry, free and clear.
Our relief vanished as we came closer: On the lee side, sand was piled up as high as the door handle. It was a classic example of how dunes are formed: The wind hit the car and wheels, lost momentum, and deposited its suspended sand just beyond the obstruction; following winds hit what became a significant ridge under the car–the beginnings of a dune–and left more sand on the lee side. The car, had we been able to find it last night, would probably even that early have been thoroughly mired.
However long the sandstorm lasted into the night, it had kept depositing its load of sand in a mini-dune that grew to envelop the left side of the car. The planks would do us no good, at least not yet. We took photos, then hiked back to the motel to borrow shovels.
It took a solid two hours to get rid of the sand mountain that pinioned the left side of the Model A, and to shovel away the sand that then funneled out from the engine compartment. In the final step, we set the car’s jack on one plank and levered the left side wheels three or four inches off the ground. The second plank was long enough to tuck under both wheels; we lowered the car onto it, and then put the first plank in front to assure solid footing for the left wheels going forward.
With Bill poised to push, I got in the car and tentatively turned the key in the ignition, unsure how much sand might have gotten into the Ford’s innards. Joy! The engine coughed … and started. I put the car in gear and inched forward, over the planks and out onto solid ground, needing not even a nudge from Bill.
Planks and shovels wedged into the rear bumper, we drove back to the motel, thanked everyone, and went back to the car to plan the route home.
The original scheme had been to go back to the T intersection, drive north to Scotty’s Castle, and then take an unpaved road that skirted Eureka Valley, where there was another larger but less complex dune that we might study.
More dunes? More sand? No, thanks. We decided to go back the way we’d come, to Lone Pine and north, on paved road all the way.