By Mingus O'Bannon
For a lover of metaphor, I'm sometimes naïvely literal. I was of the belief true travel is by the seat of the pants. Never use a map. Never consult a guide book or follow the experience of others. These things steal the serendipity from your trip. Put the vehicle in gear and keep moving in good directions.
I grew up in the eastern time zone. Picking the first direction was easy. West. Mountains, fast rivers, open spaces, real distances, and if you go far enough, a wild raw ocean that tears at your guts to be more alive. I find myself driving paisley designs between Mexico, Canada, and anywhere west of the 112th longitude--with great contentment.
I've put tens of thousands of miles on the road without maps. It felt right. It felt like adventure. But it was a kind of religious faith. Like all religious faith, it relied on ignorance. It was true because I wanted it to be true. It stayed true because I avoided facts. If knowledge is an impediment to your belief system, it's a cult. So like billions of people around the world, I was a member of a cult. Instead of following dusty texts of the semiliterate, I followed my gut and excellent sense of direction, but ignored a bounty of information.
One should admit the shortcomings of their own philosophies. I've found limiting the type and amount of information I allow to influence my time on the road to be restrictive. Perhaps in the beginning, when all places were new and all directions golden, the serendipity approach worked better. Now there is danger of redundancy, missed opportunities. Without information I'm not actually making choices where I go, I'm merely reacting to superficial factors and emotion.
Now I own maps. More so, I've learned the actual value of maps. They aren't a guide from one place to another. Anyone with a fifth-grade understanding of American geography should be able to drive from St. Louis to Baltimore without a map. There are only so many roads and they mostly go in sensical directions. A map tells you secrets, if you know enough to ignore the fat blue veins marking tollways and the bloody red arteries denoting interstates. It's the thin and twisty gray lines of state routes, or sometimes even better, the dashes of dirt roads that lead to Valhalla.
A really good map, like a Gazetteer, will show exploded views of all travel paths, county by county. You can find state lands, federal lands, forest service roads, fire roads, logging roads, and unimproved two-tracks probably laid down by poachers or bootleggers.
It's this kind of special information that can be sussed from a decent map that turned my traveling philosophy around. You need a map to find those places between the lines. Knowledge can be the truer compass when "gut" feelings leave you driving in circles.
After bringing maps and their knowledge to my approach, I thought maybe I should do a little research of places I'm heading to or by, perhaps even listen to the advice of others. Maybe this knowledge wouldn't be a stain on an otherwise pure experience, but help pull the blinders from my eyes, thus showing me new sights.
I let friends know I was heading to Death Valley in the spring. Death Valley seeming like the perfect foil to thirteen months floating on an island in the salty north Puget Sound. Exchange rain and cold for sun and heat. A basic turn of the coin. I didn't know anyone who had been there, but a few asked if I planned to check out the Racetrack. I didn't know anything about it. They'd each seen an episode on Nat Geo about it, but didn't get into specifics. The name sounded interesting enough.
I imagined an island of flat, hard ground in the middle of Death Valley. I deduced it was like the salt flats of Utah. I imagined strange, perhaps even misanthropic gear-heads testing top speeds of motorcycles and cars of every design. Knowing what I knew and imagining the rest, it sounded like my kind of place and put it on the mental itinerary in bold.
On my third morning in Death Valley we woke and headed west from our camp to check out the Racetrack. I wanted to get a quick start, to get there early enough to see everything possible. I imagined the serious minded drivers and builders of fast machines also got early starts and the whole show might be over by noon if heat or weather concerns played a role.
Ten miles northwest of camp we stopped off at Ubehebe crater. It was early. The sun barely over the eastern peaks of the Amargosa Range. Though this is apparently one of the touristy spots in the park, Rose and I were alone, save for a wind-ruffled raven sitting on a sign with a picture of figures falling into the crater. I thought, it's good to be the early bird, and threw the raven a handful of dog treats.
The crater is geologically a recent modification, as recent as possibly 800 years ago, to the landscape. Created when an active fault sent magma toward the surface which came into contact with groundwater, causing an explosion, a phreatic eruption. This eruption threw rock and magma into the sky and across the valley, and left a half-mile dished hole in the ground, the Ubehebe crater.
Past the crater we left paved roads behind and started on one of the longest, purest, stretches of deep washboard I'd ever driven. Twenty-eight miles from the crater to the Racetrack and not a single break from the rhythmic bumps and ruts. At first I tried them slow. Even ten miles an hour jostled the Jeep like a gimpy tilt-a-whirl. At roughly six miles an hour the heavy jarring of the road subsided, but one was still tossed in slow lurches like some kind of walrus mating act.
The theory is to find the right speed to level out the ruts and bumps as to "float" above them. This would have to work, I couldn't see myself driving twenty-eight miles at six miles an hour. Four and a half hours to reach the Racetrack was too long. I didn't want to miss the action.
Perhaps it's being born in Detroit, nearly every relative working for the Big-Three, that caused me to rebel against car culture. I didn't "wrench" on cars as so many did. Didn't know an overhead cam from a carburetor--and didn't care. A vehicle was freedom to me. It didn't matter make or model, nor how or why they worked. I especially didn't care about muscle cars and their speed--top-speed or zero-to-sixty. I did once drive 110 MPH in my minivan between Milwaukee and Chicago as the sun rose and two passengers slept obliviously, and I did pick up a few speeding tickets when I first got my license. But it's distance, not speed that puts a spark in my veins.
Yet, I found myself excited this morning to see serious speed. I imagined an earnestness in the mortal attempts at inducing ever more horsepower from such finite sources. Something about the sight of a colored streak across the flat horizon, the roar of controlled combustion, the smell of wasted fuel in effort of speed and glory.
I was surprised to be the only one on the road to the Racetrack. Now that I was doing 35 MPH and nearly floated over the washboard, I figured to pass a few late arrivers trailering their speed machines. I was even more concerned I would get there too late to see much. But I wasn't passing anyone going out either, so I still had hope.
At about twenty-five miles I crested a rise and looked down into a valley with a large, flat floor. Still I didn't see anyone. I thought for sure, this was the racetrack. Maybe they all gathered at the southern edge of the thing and I couldn't see them yet. I could imagine regulation within the National Park that only allowed speed tests during certain times of the day.
I drove on. The road edged around the Racetrack. I stopped at some point-of-interest signage and read. It told the story of "mysterious" rocks that move by unknown forces, across the flat surface of dried mud called playa. We know the rocks move because they leave long tracks in the playa behind, sometimes as long as a half-mile. These moving rocks are why this place was called, I imagine somewhat euphemistically, the Racetrack.
The sign stated emphatically, no vehicles on the playa surface. No vehicles? No speed merchants risking death in homemade machines aching for a single additional MPH? No dirty pawed madmen with schemes for wild horsepower? No. Just dirt, flat dirt, and rocks that apparently move when no one's looking.
The air was out of me, and not just because I'm an idiot to think the Racetrack was a racetrack. I really wanted to see speed and talk to folks who worshiped it. I like the culture that builds around niche, yet earnest action toward a singular goal. Whole new vernaculars rise to meet the demands of such specificity in these circles. I may not care about the cell division of an obscure virus strain, but if you give me the chance to see it under a microscope I'll check it out every time.
Feeling a little dejected and dumb, I drove to the south end of the "Racetrack," where the signs said most of the rocks were. It seemed a complete waste to come all the way out here and bring only the memory of my own misguided naïveté back. So I grabbed the camera and headed onto the playa for a few snaps.
There was a Ford-250 with government plates where I parked, so I left Rose in the Jeep. Ample signage expressed dogs were not allowed on the playa surface. Even though Rose is a registered service dog, and therefore legally able to go onto the track with me, I didn't want the hassle of a park ranger or his/her underlings up my ass.
The playa surface was made up of a vast hexagonal pattern in the dried mud. It was hard and extremely flat--without riffle or warp across the whole of what I could see, save the trails left behind rocks, like turtles in sand to the sea.
I started to feel better about the whole thing while snapping off a few frames. How to capture the totality of this place, the flat ubiquity of the scene? It whipped my imagination into action and pushed the black cloud from my mind.
Another truck pull in from the south, part of the vast waste of Death Valley not often traveled. It was a couple. They walked well out onto the playa, toward the southeast corner of the Racetrack. I walked back to the Jeep, pulled out my little propane burner and started water to boil for coffee. It was nearly noon and only in the low 80's. The real Death Valley heat wouldn't hit for another week or so, then look out.
My water was just boiling when the couple came back from the playa and stuck up a conversation with me. Their plates said Pennsylvania. They were retired and spent a few months each year living out of the back of their truck. It was a huge Ford-350 with a simple topper and a storage unit on top of that. They were roughing it in the backside of Death Valley the night before. Apparently it was touch and go a few times coming over boulders and a squeeze through a tight canyon.
We never exchanged names, but traded stores of the road and wilds we each trod at different times in life. We talked oceans, trails, and mountains. He was a lean man in his mid-sixties, fit, even with the bad back he told me about. She was his age and thick about the hips the way some healthy women are, with muscled calves telling me she knew something about trails and hikes.
They just finished a jag volunteering as trail maintenance on the Pacific Crest Trail, America's longest and most rugged contiguous trail, north of Inyo National Forest and Yosemite, where I had just been.
We talked a long time. The first conversation I'd had since my wife, when I left Orcas Island ten days previous. She must have been on my mind because we talked about the worthlessness of a man without a good wife and about marriage: the give and take, it being the union of two individuals, not the dissolution of each to create a new singular. They blessed my marriage with the praise of their own experience and knowledge that both must live their own lives and follow their own paths, but hopefully do so with a purpose that draws them closer together.
They had a long way to go yet that day and left me with smiles and handshakes all the way around. I could see the dust raised from their truck a long way off and stood watching them go as I drank my coffee and thought of paths and trails. The PCT with its indomitable 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, and my wife being a source of resolve and confidence.
While I talked with the couple from Pennsylvania a hip Park employee took off in the government truck. It was just Rose and I at the edge of the playa. I let her out and she ran around the Racetrack with all the speed bound-up in legs born to run down misbehaving cattle on the long dusty trails of old Australia. She ran with pure joy. A smile on her doggy face. Her tongue flapping loosely as she cornered hard to complete another circuit.
Maybe I didn't see a nitro burning funny car, but I had a good conversation that reminded me of my own path, and got to see a dog run without compromise, reaching for speed in dashes and jolts.
The sign overlooking this section of the Racetrack stated: "Please do not touch the rocks on the Racetrack. If moved, the rocks become meaningless." Though I had no reason to move the damn rocks, I thought a long time about the idea of rocks becoming "meaningless." I thought of all the rocks in the world not on this flat desert stage. I wondered if all those rocks were without meaning. Meaningless by touch, such a severe thought.