Friday, June 21, 2024

Death Valley Adventure - Day 3 - Desolation Canyon, Bantha and a Thanksgiving Feast

[Composed 11/23/2023]

From Dante's View we made our way back to valley floor and ultimately to Desolation Canyon. Here, we hiked about about 1.25 miles in until we hit an obstacle we couldn't conquer. Compared to Sidewinder Canyon from the day before, Desolation Canyon starts off much narrower and very much lives up to its name.

The main obstacles in Desolation Canyon are a series of dryfalls. A dryfall is, as the name suggests, a waterfall minus the water. It's like someone has turned off the spigot to your favorite creek, revealing polished rock smoothed by years of running water. It's hard to imagine such an effect would be possible in the middle of the desert, but that's the contradiction that is Death Valley. There's both a lack of, and a landscape shaped by, water.

Continuing on the Star Wars theme from yesterday, Desolation Canyon was used to film scenes involving the Sandpeople and their Bantha. You can watch of these scenes here.

Apparently, these shots supplement scenes captured in Tunisia. Why not shoot the whole thing in Tunisia? One guess is that it was easier to schlep the star of the show, Mardji from her home in Redwood, California to Death Valley rather than to Africa. Mardji is the Asian Elephant who wore a furry costume and head piece to transform herself into a Bantha. In the scene linked above, there are two Bantha shown, but that was some special effects trickery: they only had a single elephant on site. Surely these days this effect would have been computer generated, but back in the 1970's an elephant in costume was how you made movie magic. Knowing how this effect was accomplished, has only increased my appreciation for that scene and the cleverness of those who worked on the original Star Wars.

After Desolation Canyon we made our way to Natural Bridge, a short hike that takes you under a massive rock formation. The hike starts as a slog up loose, rocky debris, but the pay off of the natural bridge is more than worth it. There also a number of obvious dryfalls here, an effect that continues to blow my mind.

At one point we saw a tiny song bird perched in the shade. I was so excited to see any sign of life that I shot photos of that bird like it was an exotic species.

After Natural Bridge, we turned our attention to dinner. Today was Thanksgiving, so naturally Shira and I were excited to celebrate. For most Americans, this means sitting around a large table with family and friends feasting on Turkey. Over the years, we've fine tuned our own alternative tradition. For us, Thanksgiving is punctuated by a romantic dinner for two, with the main course being hot dogs. Throughout the years it's a been a special pleasure to find hot dogs and romance in the most unlikely of locales. You can then imagine that for us, Death Valley is pretty much the perfect Thanksgiving location.

Prep for tonight's dinner started when we landed in Las Vegas at the start of our trip. Along with other food, we picked up hot dogs, buns, mustard and pickles. We also grabbed a couple cans of sterno and a metal cooling rack, hoping we could improvise a barbeque. We had success cooking over sterno in Puerto Rico, and have since experimented with cooking over tea lights (spoiler alert: this method works!). But wait, there's more: we also picked up a couple of shelf-stable boxed pies. I know what you're thinking, surely these pies were a bad idea. But in fact, they were perfect! Not only are they marked Kosher, but they are also pareve (meaning, they have no dairy in them and can be eaten with a meat meal, like hot dogs). And while it's true that their caloric density is insane (420 calories for a pie), given the amount of hiking we were doing this trip, this calorie count worked in our favor. Finally, there's the taste. I don't know what chemistry is used to create these pies; but they tasted delicious.

After hiking Natural Bridge, we cruised around a bit, looking for the perfect Thanksgiving picnic location. Once found, I grabbed some rocks to support the cooling rack and put a can of sterno underneath. I lit the sterno and we put the dogs on our make-shift grill. Shira carefully tended the hots until they were cooked to perfection. As I munched away on a perfectly topped hot dog, with apple pie queued up for desert, surrounded by stunning views, the setting sun, and an amazing life partner who I'm deeply in love with, I felt a resounding sense of gratitude. What a pleasure it was to be alive at that very moment. Thanksgiving was a success!

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Death Valley Adventure - Day 3 - Zabriskie Point, Tatooine, and Dante's View

[Composed 11/23/2023]

We started our day with a sunrise at Zabriskie Point. The view epitomizes the area's badlands moniker, as the scene is a sea of khaki shades without a spec of green. The phrase other-wordly comes to mind, so it's no surprise that in 1977, this area was used to film Luke Skywalker's desert home planet of Tatooine. While Zabriskie Point didn't make the film, many of the locations nearby did.

From the Zabriskie Point parking lot, we started a hike that was supposed to lead us to Golden Canyon and ultimately to Red Cathedral. This section of the hike traverses a set of barren ridges, which due to their exposed nature, tickled my fear of heights. We made it partially along the connector trail to Golden Canyon trail before I was like, OK I get the point this isn't for me. We hiked out the way we came, and decided Red Cathedral would have to wait for another adventure.

Geologically, every aspect of this area is fascinating, from the mountains in the panoramic views, to the tiny mineral and rock formations we passed while hiking. I'm guessing these are the result of wind, water and a whole lot of time.

My disappointment about bailing on our hike was quickly erased, as we found ourselves engrossed in new views a few mile up the road on Twenty Mule Team Canyon road. Unlike Zabriskie Point or yesterday's visit to Artists Pallet (where R2 was schleped by Jawas to their sandcrawler!) we had Twenty Mule Team Canyon road to ourselves. We made our way along the narrow road at sandcrawler speed, stopping frequently to capture photos. I can see why this road makes the list of hidden gems throughout the park, as it's accessible yet easy to pass by.

Twenty Mule Team Canyon road was used to film R2 and C3P0's approach to Jaba's lair in Return of the Jedi:

While I didn't remember that scene, one that closely follows is etched forever on my brain: the escape from the Sarlacc Pit. I remember being on the edge of my seat as a kid, wondering how on Earth Luke Skywalker was going to save the day. Watching the scene to day, I see cheesy dialog and clunky choreography. But at the time, it could not have been more sophisticated and epic. Good times!

From Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road, we made our way to Dante's View. I was on the fence about heading out to Dante's View. At nearly an hour away, I worried that we'd drive the hour, step out of the car and see a nice but not unique view. Was it really going to be worth it?

Oh man, was it ever. The view from Dante's View is staggeringly beautiful. The temporary lake that we'd visited the day before was on full display. We saw tiny specs in the valley below and realized those were tourists exploring the lake like we had done the day before. Dante's View is 100% worth the drive.

Continuing on the theme of Star Was, Dante's View is used in Episode IV when Obi Wan famously looks out at Mos Eisley space port and utters: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy:

In truth, he's looking out over Furnace Creek, where we were staying. Perhaps he was thinking of our hosts and their 'all you can eat buffet'.

Up next, we're hoping to explore two additional canyons and then we have to figure out how we're going to have a Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner.