The storm rolled in from the east and we saw it coming from 10 miles off. So we hunkered down. The bad news: we were stuck on a hillside in a mostly treeless (read: no wind breaks) canyon full of water where dry creek beds and washes existed only minutes earlier. The good: we had the skeleton of a structure to keep the elements at bay while the storm moved back and forth all throughout the day and night.
Breakfast at Panamint Springs was gluttonous. My appetite had been M.I.A. for the 3 days leading up, but it showed up just in time for eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes and pancakes. And, somehow, a decent croissant found its way to the desert. Mind boggling. So Pineapple and I dug in, and before long Abram had joined us from out of the desert and sat down with a loaded plate as well. That man put down something like 5 bowls of cereal, in addition to a couple plates of the aforementioned bounty. Impressive.
A good two hours were lost to the demands of my stomach and a need for clean socks. After filling my belly to a heretofore unheard of capacity, I did a little laundry by hand in the bathroom sink and loaded a few liters of water into a bladder. Not a lot of water was needed for the next stretch because, improbably, 5 miles away we'd hit Darwin Falls, a series of cascades tumbling down a canyon in the middle of the desert. And a few miles past that we'd hit another water source, China Garden Spring, with, wait for it... fucking koi fish in a little pond. And they've been there for 75 years. A weird little trek we were in for today.
It was hot when we started off from Panamint Springs. The sun was nearly at it's zenith and we were out in the open at a fairly low elevation. It didn't help that the first stretch was a walk along a paved road. But pretty soon we came to a dirt road leading off to Darwin Falls. A couple of cars passed us slowly, the occupants very obviously curious about what sort of crazy people would be walking down this road, one even stopping to offer us a ride. He looked confused/flabbergasted when we said what we were doing, then wished us luck and drove on. So we knew we would have some tourists to contend with along the trail.
A few of the the tourists were still on the trail to the falls when we overtook them, but most of the others were standing at the pool at the bottom of the lower falls. It would have been a hell of a lot more magical if it was just us, but it was Sunday, after all. And it was still a welcome and beautiful treat in the midst of the desert.I got to talking with a couple of gentlemen who surmised we were L2H trekkers and they asked me what information we were going off of. I, embarrassingly, had no idea where Pineapple had gotten the information from. I just knew we had a route plugged into GPS apps on our phones. They asked if we were hiking the Simblissity route. This sounded familiar, so I went with it and said Yes, yes that sounds about right. That's when they launched into the fear mongering.
Pineapple had warned me about this from her days hiking the Sierra High Route. Basically, it goes like this: someone will find out what you're doing and try to discourage you based on what they've experienced, or worse, heard second or third hand. These particular guys at the falls, while very nice, started in on the Simblissity route with words like "treacherous" and "perilous." One of them highlighted the fact that he was wearing an L2H t-shirt, which lent him authority. They stated that Simblissity hadn't actually hiked all of the miles of the route he has proposed and is selling on his website, which they termed "reckless" and "dangerous." They mentioned the climb up the falls and the lava fields up in the hills above us that were "perilous." I nodded along as he spoke, threw in a couple "Oh, yeah?"s coupled with looks of disbelief and awe. I thanked them for their invaluable advice. Then we all climbed the cliffs next to the waterfall and went the way we had always intended.
It's not that I don't value the advice of those who have gone before me, it's just that it is never really as "treacherous" or "perilous" as the hype. Besides, I didn't take two weeks off of work and fly from one end of the country to the other so that I could go on a leisurely stroll on well maintained paths. I found my way out to DEATH VALLEY to walk 140 brutal miles across all sorts of terrain and up to the summit of the highest mountain in the 48 contiguous states. Thanks, but I'll take the hard way. The other route had us going back out to the parking lot of the Darwin Falls trailhead and taking a gravel road around the side of the mountain we were about to scale. Boriiing! So up we went.
Right as we decided we were going to climb, the temperature dropped. The sun had been blotted out by ominous looking clouds, and a little wariness crept into my mind. A brief discussion with Pineapple and Abram dispelled this, and we resolved to just climb quickly. There were two tiers of falls that we would have to ascend, then walk along a steep, scree strewn hillside to get to a spot where the water flow narrowed enough to cross. It was great fun.
The climb up was well within our skill level, and we had a great time joking about how "perilous" it was (this would become a running theme for the next 6 days). Once the climbing was done, we wended our way around a winding wash that put us right out into China Garden Spring. The surrounding area was unfortunately pretty worn out by the locals and had a lot of broken glass and bullet casings, per usual, but it was still pretty cool and great for photography. We immediately went over and utilized the spring which, indeed, had koi swimming around in it. Very cool. But we double filtered that water, for sure. With all our water needs taken care of, we decided to wander around and check out the area. There was, of course, the requisite bullet riddled car. This one had to date from the 30's or 40's. It was a beautiful hulking rust pile.
Before long, the ominous clouds graduated to threatening, and far off to the east we could see rain streaming down in sheets. This kind of rain in Death Valley was unexpected, to say the least, and could seriously hamper our ability to follow the route. We decided to stay put for a while to see how this was going to pan out, and we were happy we did. Within a few minutes the rain was coming down mercilessly. We hid out in the shell of a seriously dilapidated building near an old mine shaft. There was really only one wall, and that had a hole cut out of it for the product from said mine to spill out into. The roof was corrugated tin with numerous bullet holes letting the rain trickle through. The tin panels had rocks resting on top of them because the nails had long since stopped serving their purpose, and the panels would blow back in the wind before falling back into place. None of this really mattered because the rain was blowing at a 30° angle and there was nearly no place to hide.
There was one little corner of the "room" that seemed to be keeping dry, so we put our packs there and donned our rain gear. We pondered our situation for a while. While none of us were excited to be cutting our day short at 7 miles, the rain was quickly turning all the terrain into waterways and/or mushy soil. Also, knowing the potential for flash floods out here, we thought it best not to put ourselves in a wash with steep sides, which is exactly where the route ahead had us walking. So we decided it best to set up camp and wait out the storm.
After a quick survey of the area and weighing options, we surmised that there was nowhere on the soil that didn't or wouldn't have a river running through it, and very little wind breaking objects. So the best camp site seemed to be on the foundation of the building we'd been standing in. The problem was, you can't stake-out a tent on a concrete slab. With a lot of rocks and some stray roof panels we set up our tents and made some wind foils. Then the wind changed direction and we had to rotate everything rock by rock to angle the tent to better handle the wind. It wasn't glamorous, but it was effective. Between downpours we wandered up the hillside to take photos and plan the next day's detour.
Consulting the topo maps, we saw that if we crested the ridge to our north and walked across it in a north-easterly direction we could get to where we needed to be with little ups and downs and stay high away from any standing water or its aftermath. As it happened, the volcanic rock on those ridges that was "treacherous" to the L2H experts would work to our favor as it's extremely rigid, yet porous, and let all the water pass through. Too easy. With that business out of the way, we were free to make dinner, fool around the area a bit more, and get to know one another before the lights went out. All in all, a pretty amazing 7 mile day.