- Dancing Rocks Study #1
I had just driven past Ubehebe Crater in the north part of Death Valley, and now I was on rough dirt roads again. My goal was to visit Racetrack Valley and see the mysterious rocks that move around on a dry lakebed they call a playa. For the past two weeks I had been photographing the most significant Death Valley spring flower bloom in recorded history, walking among dense and varied flowers in a normally harsh desert, wringing the yellow pollen out of my socks at the end of each day. Suffering from a pleasant flower overdose, now I wanted a more stark and mystifying kind of image.
The entrance fee for visiting Racetrack Valley is 27 miles of the worst washboard road I have ever driven. It took me over two hours, and I only managed to shift into third gear once. Along the way, I saw my first Joshua tree forest, looking like a battalion of aliens. I drove past a unique, remote crossroad called Teakettle Junction, where at a fork in the road a few dozen old coffee pots hung on an old weathered sign. I was relieved to see that the lakebed was dry, so I would be able to walk onto the playa to photograph the rocks without leaving any tracks.
Racetrack Playa is an almost perfectly flat, dry lakebed, nestled between mountains in a remote northern part of Death Valley. Scattered across the playa are numerous granite rocks, both large and small, that slide of their own volition across the surface, describing strange and unlikely tracks behind them on the surface of the lakebed. After decades of scientific research, no one agrees on how they do it, and no one has ever seen one move.
It would be a couple of hours before late afternoon light would deepen the color and texture of the landscape—too early in the day for photography. Besides, I had smoked all the hand-rolled cigarettes that augment my [End Page 159] regimen of mini-disc tunes and cheap whiskey for my photographic sessions. I decided to wait for the light and roll cigarettes while sitting in my truck. To my surprise, a woman in a blue Ford F-150 pickup truck drove up and parked next to me. Solitary women in the backcountry are uncommon. We had a short, pleasant conversation before she walked out onto the playa. The image of her walking out onto the playa, with a spunky gait despite the knee braces and walking cane, would be one of the most memorable for that year.
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When the light turned, I grabbed my camera gear and tossed my large tripod onto my back and walked out onto the playa. First I checked to see that I left no tracks. I was prepared to take my sandals off and walk in my socks if necessary. Happily, the surface of perfect polygon shapes of dried, cracked mud was impervious to my steps. I saw my first rock, and then another. For as far as I could see, there were scatterings of rocks with tracks of crazy patterns—inexplicable and fascinating, the mystery even deeper when I considered that explanations had eluded even the scientists. [End Page 160]
After walking back and forth like a dog sniffing a scent, I set my camera gear down and tried to orient myself to the task at hand—to photograph this wonderful place. I studied the many strange patterns and character of rocks available to me, and found myself drawn to one of the more gnarly-looking rocks with a simple track inscribed behind its most recent dance. The backdrop of distant mountains and surreal flat, dry lake described a powerful composition. I had intended to photograph long shadows cast by stone, but it turned out that the soft light and deep tones of an overcast sky were better for such a high-contrast scene. As I composed this photograph, I could see in the distance a human being coming my way, happily trundling along with her cane across the playa. Soon after I...