four days in the desert

Warning – this entry is longer than my usual posts. Enjoy!

It started with my personal goal to shoot more this year, to upgrade my gear, to take more classes, and to push myself to travel alone and experience places I’ve never been.

John Batdorff is an award-winning landscape and travel photographer and a nationally recognized authority on black and white photography. (From He is also very down to earth, a straight talker when proving feedback, serious about his craft, and a lot of fun to hang out with. we have not figured out how our paths crossed, but I am happy the Internet led me his direction.

A workshop in Death Valley was mentioned in John’s September newsletter, and I immediately jumped on it. I had looked at location-based workshops, and have also always wanted to check out Death Valley so this seemed perfect.

I booked my flight in early October and started to work out what gear I would need. What I didn’t plan into the trip was shooting with a torn rotator. My birthday trip to Las Vegas was eventful – including the fall in the Vodka Bar made of ice. The MRI only weeks before Death Valley concluded that a visit to a surgeon would be necessary, but that wasn’t going to stop me from seeing the desert!

Day 1
I flew to Vegas Friday after work, and drove to the valley Saturday morning. Remember, I’ve never been to Death Valley, I had no idea what the fastest route was, so why not ask ‘Siri’ and follow the directions on my iPhone. It’s what I would do in the city, so it seemed reasonable – until I lost service an hour into the drive. Service was spotty and there was no where to stop to grab one of those old fashioned paper things with lines and cities. At the next flash of service I rerouted my way and took a screen shot!

I arrived a few minutes after noon, and met up with half of the team. We set out to shoot a nearby marble canyon and by 3:00 headed back to the motel to check in to our rooms. We picked up our 4th team member and headed for the Mesquite Sand Dunes.

Our accommodations, motel/hotel, place to lay our weary heads was in Stovepipe Wells. The rooms reminded me of movie sets where the bad guys hold up with a pretty girl hostage, and the good guys kick in the door shoot the place up, and save the girl – yes, I watch too much TV. Two twin beds (very firm mattresses), that were loosely covered with a top sheet and wool Aztec patterned spread. A desk, lamp and ceiling fan was all there was to the room, however there was a private bath with shower, which was nice. The water pressure was good and hot water was quick which was a huge plus. This was not the 4-4.5 star hotels I usually stay in, but it was doable, and actually good for me to experience. We were in the middle of a National Park, and I could have slept outside in a tent, so no complaints about the motel.

The team consisted of 2 men (brothers) and two women. I have not asked permission to name names so we are going with pseudo names – Mac, Coffee Guy (CG), Friendly Grinch (FG), and Nat (me). CG and FG are brothers from the southwestern part of our country and Mac was a tough as nails woman from the east coast. We had a lot in common which made for great conversations in our car time between locations, and I know we all shared and learned at least one new thing from each other.

Day 2
We had an early wakeup call on Sunday to catch the sun rise on Zabrinski Point. The waining crescent moon was beautiful as it hung in the deep purply, blue sky right before sunrise. We set up with a completely empty viewing area – we were that early, no one was there yet. As we found our spots and waited for the sun to appear, other photographers arrived, and a few groups “point-and-shooters” who just wanted to witness the beauty of the Zabriski Point at dawn. One man in particular kept us laughing – in his strong Austrian accent he jokingly wanted to know if something was going to appear on the rocks, if that’s what we were all waiting to take pictures of because the sun was coming up behind us and we were missing the real action.

When we were satisfied with our shots, we left Zabriski and headed to the Devils Golf Course. Having not done much research on Death Valley, I had no idea what to expect, but this lake bed was appropriately named. It is the opposite of a traditional golf course, and one where the Devil may actually enjoy spending an afternoon playing a round.

Badwater Basin is the second-lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet (86 m) below sea, and that was what we hit next. The salt formations are cement hard on top, but the basin is alive growing new formations under the top layers. Salt has healing powers – I wonder how much “goodness” we absorbed wandering, kneeling, and laying in this amazing place.

We left the salt bed and had lunch in the hills of Artists Drive. The mountains at Artists Palette literally looked like they had been painted in shades of blue, green, pink and purple. We took advantage of the sun behind us, and got some really fun group shadow photos.

Dante’s Peak was next on the list for some sunset shots. With my shoulder nearing the end of its day, I opted to set up near the truck and not do the short hike out to the actual peak. I got some great images of the south valley, and had my very first ever on location fail – right when the sun was making its dip below the mountains, my camera battery died! I was able to catch some after glow with my iPhone – thank goodness for “the fruit”!

The night ended back at the sand dunes. Mac, John and I practiced really long exposures to capture the amazing starry night. I painted a tree with a flashlight, caught a little of myself in the image (learning moment) and had a great time!

Favorite quote: Natalie to John in the pitch black sand dunes while star shooting and needing to run back to the truck for her cable release – “Are you scared, do you want me to stay?”

Day 3
Monday morning started out with a little class time. John reviewed images we brought, gave critical but honest feedback that was very much appreciated, and we all learned some new tips/tricks about editing and our black and white workflow. When it came time to get on the road we ran into a bit of a situation with gas for the truck. We had a long way to go, and wanted to make 4 stops to shoot, so grabbing lunches and getting gas across the street at the general store made the most sense. One problem – the fuel pumps were out. To be in the middle of a desert, low on fuel, and have one of the only gas stations unable to pump is all bad. Luckily we had enough to get us to a nearby town (Beatty) where we also grabbed sandwiches from Subway, and had great mobile service for a few minutes. The detour to Beatty cut out a stop at Scotty’s Castle, but it did allow us a quick stop in Rhyolite – one of the Death Valley Ghost Town’s. Kind of creepy, so I was happy to be in and out fast.

Our next stop was about an hour away at the Ubehebe Crater, a beautiful site in the middle of no where. Mother Nature is so incredibly powerful, and this volcanic hole was perfect evidence. We ate lunch, shot and moved on to Racetrack Playa. This is the place we were all anxious to see – the land of the mysterious moving rocks. The ride out was ridiculously bumpy. We rode over large jagged rocks for almost 2 hours before we arrived, and were trying to beat the sunset. We made it, found plenty of tracks with missing or moved rocks (why anyone would disturb these phenomenons is beyond me), and some great long tracks with their rocks still in tact. John found the money shot rock, and we all joined him to take turns shooting it. It was amazing to catch the sun going down, and the after glow of the sunset until I heard a loud thud and felt something fall from my camera bag. Everyone was shooting and I looked down to see my brand new 85mm prime lens on the hard hard ground of the lake bed. I slowly picked it up, and carefully removed the lens cap, and my heart stopped for a split second. Shattered glass everywhere. I put the lens cap back on and put the lens back in my bag not wanting to alarm anyone, and trying to fight off what felt like the onslaught of tears. This lens was only 2 weeks old, and over $1,800, and to me it looked completely ruined. I had waited months to buy it, and now it was gone. I fiddled with my tripod, and tried to look busy, but my concentration was completely thrown off. I finally got the courage to show John what had happened, and he quickly assessed that what had shattered was my $75 UV filter, not the lens at all. Whew!!!!! We were able to clean out the broken glass with canned air and all was good with my favorite piece of hardware. This, ladies and gentlemen is a good example of why UV filters are put on lenses. Yes they can distort, but that glass filter saved major damage to a very expensive piece of glass. Back at the truck we learned that Johnno had spent the entire time we were shooting changing a flat on our Suburban. That road had gotten the best of our truck, and instead of trying to patch the flat tire he put on our only spare. The ride out of Racetrack Playa was a very slow and careful one – in total darkness. A really bad place to get a second flat. Two plus hours later we made it back to the Ubehebe crater, and we all needed to stretch our legs. Looking up at the incredible night sky we unanimously decided that it was too amazing to pass up, so we set up for our second night of long exposure star shots. Hot coffee and great bourbon helped keep us warm, and the captures were breathtaking.

Favorite quote: FG to John about shooting the best moving rock on the lake bed – “I’m just not feeling it.” And he packed his gear and walked back to the truck. He was over it.

Day 4
Our last day started early with a drive to Darwin Falls. We were determined to help Mac find water in the desert, but had no idea how far we’d have to go to get to it. The drive was really pretty, and when we arrived at the entrance to the hiking trail things looked really doable. It was a very cold this early in the morning so I had wore my Uggs thinking we’d be walking a cleared trail to the falls (city girl again). Of course that was not at all what was in store. We hiked about 1/2 mile in before things stared to get tricky. The climbing over boulders – big boulders, hoping over the stream that was getting increasingly wider was staring to concern me. A slip and fall on my arm would not be good. All of the walking, hiking and packing of gear we had done throughout the trip had highlighted my need for MORE CARDIO, and had been even tougher on my torn rotator shoulder. I had survived it all and felt okay until now. We got to a small beautiful waterfall, and I was more than happy to wait there for the rest of the team to go find the real falls, “shoot the shit out of it” and come back for me. John our fearless leader wasn’t having it, so he went ahead to scout the rest of the trail, and to see how much further we had to go. He came back 5 mins later to say ” it’s up to you, I don’t want to pressure you, but you can do the rest of this hike, and it will be totally worth it”. He was such a convincing bully that I forged ahead, and with the help of the team carrying my gear – I’m so happy I did. Darwin falls were incredible, and solidification of friendships on that last morning were priceless. Note to self – Uggs are not for hiking.

Favorite Quote: John encouraging us to “Shoot the Shit out of it” (aka: StS, and our new team motto)

Exhausted and ready to get home, I drove back to Las Vegas that afternoon. I turned in my rental car a day early and hoped I could change my Wednesday evening flight to fly home on the next flight out. It was possible, all that was needed was the purchase of a new one way ticket. I wanted to get home, so I checked my luggage, bought the ticket (upgraded to first class for $30 bucks) and headed through security to a restaurant near my gate. I was so tired, that I didn’t realize that my flight had boarded and taken off until 10 minutes after my departure time. AUGH! Now what? I headed back to the ticketing counter, only to find everyone gone. that had been the LAST flight for all airlines back to SFO for the night. I was stuck. No luggage. No clothes. Dead tired carrying. 30 lb camera bag on a bad shoulder. I was very close to now just letting the tears flow until the super nice reservationist that had helped me earlier happened to walk by as I was trying to check flight information for the next morning. She was shocked to see me and said she had heard my name paged a few times and wondered what had happened. I explained that I was in a restaurant, and just totally spaced on the time, and flat out missed the flight. She told me to be back at the airport at 7:30 am, and I’d be able to get on the first flight out with my Wednesday ticket – it was still good. So i sucked it up, and moved to plan B – now to find a hotel, a toothbrush, a shower and change of clothes. Oh Las Vegas – we do have a serious love/hate relationship going on!
The next morning, I stood at the ticket counter and waited 15 minutes for it to open. First in line, got on the first flight, and parked myself at the gate until I was on the plane.

All in all it was an amazing experience. I would do it again in a heart beat, and I can’t wait to join Team StS for the next adventure!

Photos: deathvalley, 2012

A little about Death Valley National Park [sourced from Wikipedia]. If you’re a geology nut – this place is for you!

The park protects the northwest corner of the Mojave Desert and contains a diverse desert environment of salt-flats, sand dunes, badlands, valleys, canyons, and mountains. It is the largest national park in the lower 48 states and has been declared an International Biosphere Reserve. Approximately 95% of the park is a designated wilderness area. It is the hottest and driest of the national parks in the United States. The second-lowest point in the Western Hemisphere is in Badwater Basin, which is 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. The park is home to many species of plants and animals that have adapted to this harsh desert environment. Some examples include creosote bush, Bighorn Sheep, Coyote, and the Death Valley Pupfish, a survivor of much wetter times. On July 10, 1913, a record 134 °F (56.7 °C) was measured at the Weather Bureau’s observation station at Greenland Ranch (now the site for the Furnace Creek Inn), the highest temperature ever recorded in the world. December is the coldest month, with an average high of 65 °F (18 °C) and an average low of 39 °F (4 °C).[11] The record low is 15 °F (−9.4 °C).

A series of Native American groups inhabited the area from as early as 7000 BCE, most recently the Timbisha around 1000 AD who migrated between winter camps in the valleys and summer grounds in the mountains. A group of Euro-Americas that became stuck in the valley in 1849 while looking for a shortcut to the gold fields of California gave the valley its name, even though only one of their group died there. Several short-lived boom towns sprang up during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to mine gold and silver. The only long-term profitable ore to be mined was borax, which was transported out of the valley with twenty-mule teams. The valley later became the subject of books, radio programs, television series, and movies. Tourism blossomed in the 1920s, when resorts were built around Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Death Valley National Monument was declared in 1933 and the park was substantially expanded and became a national park in 1994.

The natural environment of the area has been shaped largely by its geology. The valley itself is actually a graben. The oldest rocks are extensively metamorphosed and at least 1.7 billion years old. Ancient, warm, shallow seas deposited marine sediments until rifting opened the Pacific Ocean. Additional sedimentation occurred until a subduction zone formed off the coast. This uplifted the region out of the sea and created a line of volcanoes. Later the crust started to pull apart, creating the current Basin and Range landform. Valleys filled with sediment and, during the wet times of glacial periods, with lakes, such as Lake Manly.

One thought on “four days in the desert

  1. What a cool experience! I had never heard of the moving rocks before and just “googled the shit out of it”. Now I’m off to check out your pix.

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