Part 2: Survival of the fittest
(Editor's Note: Part 1 of this two-part Four Wheeler adventure began in the August 2006 issue.)
It had been a day and a half since our modern-day mule team, consisting of the Four Wheeler staff and a select group of friends from the industry, arrived in a Valley known as much for its history of hardship on explorers and travelers as for its amazing geology and trail system. We had kept ourselves busy exploring backcountry roads in and around the Panamint and surrounding ranges in search of abandoned mining towns and notable Death Valley attractions. We even managed to visit the notorious Barker Ranch via Goler Wash, continuing on to Mengel Pass, where we gave our respects at Carl Mengel's grave in hopes we wouldn't meet his fate along the trail.
After recharging for the evening, we awoke the next morning with a plan to visit the massive Ubehebe Crater, an awesome geologic feature of Death Valley. Ubehebe is not only fun to say out loud, but is a Native America word for "big basket in the rock." The crater is a remnant of one of several hydrovolcanic events in northern Death Valley, caused several thousand years ago when underground water came in contact with molten rock. The resulting steam pressure caused a massive explosion and blew this 770-foot deep crater in the ground, spreading debris hundreds of feet in the air, littering the surrounding landscape with volcanic rock. At just over a half mile wide, this is the largest crater in the region.
From the Ubehebe Moonscape, we turned on to the Racetrack Valley road, which would take us south to our next destination-the mysterious moving rocks of the Racetrack Playa. This rough and severely washboarded road gave us a chance to stretch out project RangeRunner and put its suspension through its paces, while the faster vehicles tried to catch up. If you ever find yourself traveling in this part of the Valley, be sure to stop at Teakettle Junction, a famous intersection of roads that is adorned with various (and constantly changing) teakettles from travelers. It is a popular spot for photos and a break from the trail.
Six miles down the road from Teakettle Junction, we finally came across the intriguing Racetrack Playa. An ancient lakebed, the Racetrack features a hardpack surface and a slew of mysteriously moving rocks. No one knows how the rocks, some of which are several hundred pounds, move, and no one has ever seen them move, yet they leave sometimes straight, sometimes squiggly, telltale trails all over the lakebed. The longest of these trails is nearly 3,000 feet long. Theories of how the rocks move range from the paranormal and UFO activity to Black Helicopters. The theory that makes the most sense is that during periods of heavy rain, the surface gets slick enough for the high winds to move the rocks. However, none of the rocks move in a uniform way that might suggest being pushed by the same gusts of wind at the same time. Being simple magazine guys, we were content to just enjoy the rocks.