Tortoise and the Hare
published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian
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
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 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.