Season''s Greetings from Death Valley
(December 22, 2004)
Season's greetings,

Yes, it's that special time of year when everyone spreads holiday cheer by sending cheesy holiday cards to everyone they know, and some they don't. But by golly, why let such details spoil your chance to share your overabundant cheer with your water-meter reader, tollbooth attendant, or favorite Time-Life operator?

Hey, I'm no naysayer; I want in on the fun with a chance to spread my own holiday cheer. No, I'm not writing of Hanukah, or Kwanza, but Winter solstice, of course. But don't let me get your hopes up too high, lest you're expecting a card featuring me and my family with manically happy smiles and our lovable pet wearing a Santa Claus hat; I don't have a Santa Claus hat... or a pet. However, I do have my own totally cheesy and totally organic cyber card and you can't beat that with recycled paper! Happy Solstice!

(An aside for those of you who have whined about the size of measly 100k photo attachments, and you know who you are. As evidenced by the above link, I have capitulated to these requests, but in doing so, I feel compelled to give the following advice: 1) quit downloading so much porn; 2) get a free 1GB, yes 1GB, e-mail account with Google--one of the unjustly maligned photo attachments would account for a mere 0.01% of the allocated volume.)

Now, if all of this weren't enough holiday cheer to bring a smile to the face of even Dick Cheney, I present to you a holiday edition travelogue from Death Valley. However, you can save yourself time and press the delete button now if you are expecting a newfound change in my temperament and writing style for a "very special heartwarming holiday episode" in which I save a scraggly mutt from the pound or I befriend a one-eyed homeless mans who reveals himself as my guardian angel. Yes, it's just another mundane and inane travelogue; heck, it's not even from a foreign country, unless California counts. However, it is winter solstice! So celebrate another successful pass of the earth's apogee with a cup of eggnog and settle in... I'll be waiting in the next paragraph.

December 20, 2004. Death Valley, California, USA.

I had come to Death Valley for photography, specifically, seeking shots of the iconic sand dunes. I had been there a year earlier, but this time I had come equipped with my new professional camera, a newly-released 16.7 megapixel Canon 1Ds Mark II, Canon's flagship model. I was ultimately hoping to market some shots; perhaps to the National Park Service. I humbly figured that by the time I returned the following year, my postcards would be prominently featured in the park gift shops.

At 6:10am, my footsteps broke the saline crust of the desert floor as I eagerly approached the sand dunes in anticipation of the magical light of sunrise. Already, my hands were nearly frozen, but I focused my thoughts on the forthcoming spectacle of fanciful shapes, sinuous curves, and playful shadows that awaited the glorious arrival of the sun, my camera, and their display in the gift shop. Alas, to my horror, some fool had traipsed across the virgin dunes, leaving aimless drunken footprints on nearly every visible surface. Photographing these pockmarked faces for a postcard was akin to taking magazine cover shots of a Cover Girl model with bad acne; nobody but sympathetic dermatologists would buy them.

An unenlightened thought crossed my mind. What if the culprit had not been some staggering drunk that had absentmindedly left these footprints? Could it have been an evil and competitive photographer who had intentionally ruined the natural beauty after having captured it for himself? Afterall, I had once heard about a photographer in Chicago who had photographed a bunch of trees in a park and then cut them down afterwards so no one else could get the same photo. I consoled myself that I would at least have another photo-op at sunset, if I could find dunes elsewhere.

With equal amounts of optimism and paranoia, I sought the advice of a park ranger to recommend "pristine" sand dunes, free from the influence of wandering drunks and evil-doing photographers. He suggested

Panamint Dunes. "You can get there by a combination of driving and hiking. Off of this highway, you gotta keep an eye out for the unpaved road here (pointing to a map). It's not much of road really, but if you come to the dry lakebed, then you've passed it." He dubiously eyed my compact on-road Japanese luxury car.
Ranger: "Does that thing have a full-size spare."
Me: "No."
Ranger: "Don't try to drive too far in. Once the road starts getting too rough just park it. You'll be able to see the dunes, just hike it from there."

As indicated by the relative absence of brush and rocks, I determined that I was likely speeding down the unpaved "road." I tried to remind myself that on pavement my car bottoms out if I travel over a speed bump any faster than park. But such rational thoughts soon escaped me as I dreamt of the postcard-pristine dunes that awaited me and my camera. I was jarred from my reverie by nefarious gullies that surprise attacked my position several times before I could slam on the brakes. I decided to park while the car's suspension was still somewhat intact. Not far ahead of me, a lone van was parked; there were no other vehicles or people in the wide open vista, just sparse brush and an occasional hare.

The enormous golden dunes beckoned from a distance like a gleaming castle, beyond them, towering mountains formed a natural amphitheater around us all. I confidently estimated that the hike to the dunes would take me no more than a leisurely hour. After an hour of increasingly strenuous up-hill hiking, the dunes didn't seem particularly close. I had apparently chosen the wrong time to go for a strenuous hike, given that I had just injured my leg in a mountain bike wreck the prior week. Finally after another hour, my feet labored in the soft sand at the feet of the majestic dunes. Before their grandeur, I stood in shocked silence. Someone, the bastard from the only other vehicle, no doubt the evildoing competitive photographer, had just very recently walked across them.

I tried my best to shoot around the offending footprints, but my nemesis' tracks were in every picture, no matter how I cropped it. He had successfully tagged the dune faces with graffiti. I cursed him and his progeny. Obviously the ranger had tipped him off to my arrival. They were working in cahoots. I was the victim of a conspiracy. I could hear the conversation which must have occurred just after I naively left the ranger station. "Hello Evil-doing Competitive Photographer? This is Ranger Rick. You know the guy with the newly-released 16.7 megapixel Canon 1Ds Mark II? Yes, the flagship model. He's headed over to Panamint Dunes, but you can beat him there, cuz I directed him down an unnavigable stretch of dirt road that hasn't been used on 20 years."

I tried hiking away from my nemesis' tracks to no avail; he had chosen the optimal photographic routes. I consoled myself, noting that the low-lying blanket of unbroken clouds had rendered the photographic light nearly useless anyhow. As the setting sun dropped low in the sky, I began limping back towards the general direction of my car. On top of a dune, I sat down to empty the buckets of sand from my shoes. Something caught my eye. There it was, one of the most spectacular sunsets I'd ever witnessed. The clouds just above me burned in vibrant blood orange. The heavenly show totally vanquished the thoughts of the lowly dirt I'd been pursuing all day. Even the evil-doing competitive photographer and his cohorts couldn't ruin this photographic bonanza! After countless photographs and encores, the sun reveled in its final dramatic curtain call. Immensely satisfied, I began heading back towards my car.

By the light of twilight I navigated without need for my headlamp. After a mile or so, I realized that I could no longer navigate, as twilight had yielded to night. I stopped to put on my headlamp; it illuminated the canyon floor 15 feet below me. I was standing two feet from an overhang. Oops. I had intentionally navigated to one side of my car so that I could walk back on the road to find it, but I had apparently over-compensated. By light of my headlamp and the moon, I readjusted my course and headed in the general direction of my car, or so I thought. After walking unreasonably far, I found myself picking my way across an area strewn with large rocks that I had not previously crossed. "But how could I have missed the road," I thought to myself. I looked at my map and realized that the road petered out just after the spot where I had parked my car. "OK," I thought to myself. "No problem, just zig your way back in that direction for a mile or so until you hit the road; if you don't hit the road, then just zag your way back up that direction." After 10 minutes, I spied my former nemesis' van in the distance. "Well, at least ha has served some good." I climbed over rocks to get to it, only to discover that I had been pursuing a large boulder, rather than his van. Apparently, he had already fled the scene of the crime. Luckily, I found the road and my car just a short ways beyond.

December 21, 2004, Winter Solstice. Death Valley,

California, USA.

Just before sunrise I cracked open my hotel room door, furtively poked my head out, and peeked right and left. The coast was clear to my car; there were no signs of my nemesis, the evil-doing competitive photographer. I was seeking a set of virgin dunes, but I knew better than to ask Ranger Rick. I set out and soon discovered a set of dunes where the only footprints were my own. The light was spectacular, as were the shots. Triumphantly, I returned to the hotel, where one of the staff eyed my camera. Was he an accomplice of my former nemesis, the E-DC Photographer? No.
Staff: "Did you get that sunset last night?"
Me: "Yep."
Staff: "That was unbelievable. We don't often get one like that, but when we do, it reminds me why I'm glad to be here."
His words rang true. Perhaps not a guardian angel, but a simple lesson for the holiday.

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