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The Tortoise and the Hare
Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

""Mojave Desert!" Bill called out from behind the wheel, somewhere in the center of the night. He and I are the only ones awake on this desert caravan to Death Valley, the Green Tortoise's newest adventure trip.

The fabled green and silver Tortoise had pulled out of downtown San Francisco hours ago carrying its drivers, Bill and Pam, and a group of 39 happy campers spanning six decades and three continents. Although the Green Tortoise usually conjures an image of pothead hippies, its Death Valley-bound passengers were as diverse as two retired Texan women on leave from their husbands and a lone Muscovite touring San Francisco in search of good techno clubs.

The lot of us, we were told, would not only fit on this mean, green 6-wheeler, but sleep — and sleep well. As a snooze-aid and an ice-breaker, Bill and Pam gave us mail bomb-looking packages to vigorously shake to a James Brown beat as we creeped over the Bay Bridge. Homemade ice cream (real cream-pineapple and vegan-vanilla), which Bill had learned to make from a cooking show, was the first taste of the delicious weekend ahead.

The bus was transformed into a sleeper for our over-night journey southeast via a process known as "The Miracle". Overhead bunks afforded a few passengers some slight privacy, but most of us were in the bus's back half, curled up on a block of mattresses pushed into one big bed. Perfect strangers a few hours ago, we spooned and wedged together into a human puzzle of flesh.

In the morning we woke to desert unfurling past the Tortoise's window-shells, landing at Tecopa Hot Springs to meet Daniel, our naturalist-guide for the weekend. Our dread-locked leader began by teaching us how to make fluffy blueberry pancakes and cowboy coffee.

After a dip in the hot springs, the bus brought us to the deserted badlands at Zabriskie Point for a too-short hike into the sunset. Like old stone women, these wrinkled folds of rock — some half the age of Earth — reveal a geological lifetime. Ancient geothermal waters colored the brilliant badlands coffee, caramel and rust. White-hot light and blue shadows danced briskly on the rocks as we moved through the valley's marbleized layers, which Daniel referred to as "a slow-moving whirlpool in the earth's crust."

Death Valley was born about 3 million years ago, with the earth's surface breaking up to form the alternating mountains and valleys. As the mountains have risen, erosion has worn them down. Although it now only receives under two inches of rainfall a year, the valley was largely covered with water at several points in its history. Hiking here, one can witness these concentric circles of change, from the millions of years of the earth's tilting and colliding plates to the daily shifting of shadows along the crumpled ridges.

Visiting the valley is a pilgrimage to paradox. Million-year-old rock melds with nascent formations. In this yin-and-yang world, days can easily top 120 degrees and nights can go well under freezing. Its highest and lowest points, 11,049-foot Telescope Peak and Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea-level, practically face each other.

The sun went down on us too fast, unfortunately, taking Badwater out of the day's itinerary. When we arrived at Stovepipe Wells campground, the moon, fat, full and laughing, rose just as quickly as the sun had ducked. Steadying his binoculars in our hands, Daniel patiently showed us Jupiter's moons, Saturn's rings, and a human profile hidden in the moon's craters. (The Tortoise's Death Valley trip is only made on holiday or full-moon weekends, when the lunar light is bright enough for midnight races on wind-rippled sand-dunes.)

Groggy from a 5 a.m. coyote wake-up call, we fueled up with lox and bagels for a brief morning tramp in Mosaic Canyon. The canyon's billion-year marble walls swirled with nameless colors. Next we drove north to Ubehebe Crater, an indentation 500 feet deep and one-half mile wide created by violent maar volcanoes. A number of us scrambled down its soft, steep slope in a matter of seconds, the wind pummeling our ears and our feet sinking in the silt.

Our final and coldest camp, Eureka Dunes, awaited us. We mowed down on Bill's pesto pasta and campfire-toasted garlic bread before exploring the dunes. Wind has smoothed this desolate sea of sand into pyramids, rolling contours, sleek creases and massive bowls.

The desert is a soul mirror, a tabla rasa for the imagination and spirit. Its clean lines and colossal distances brought out contemplative musings, moon howling and sprightly gymnastics in the Tortoise's ranks. We quickly abandoned the urge to conquer and name peaks and valleys. We played. Under shooting stars and baking sun, we jumped, tumbled, drew and slept in the sands.

The third and final day we stopped for Joshua trees, hot springs and cafe food before Pam performed The Miracle for the long night back to the city. Too soon, we were saying good-byes as awkward as our introductions, like the morning after a one-night-stand. If anything, the Tortoise is too fast.

The 3-day trip costs $140, including meals. For information, call (800) TORTOISE.

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