A secret in the valley

 Exploring the mysterious sliding rocks in Death Valley.

– Demystification of nature –

Death Valley is one of those names that man has attached to a landscape like a label but that immortalizes only a quite subjective, transient moment when people became aware of a part of earth just by accident.

Death Valley is a trench [Graben] that, millions of years ago, had sunk almost 10000 feet below sea level. It is flanked by mountain ranges that, today, rise equally high above sea level. In the ages of earth’s lifetime all this eroded, leveled out, and filled up for the most part. Not too long ago, man has discovered that the bottom of this valley is still resting some 300 feet below the sea level.

The very first settlers who stumbled into this valley some 150 years ago surely noticed that it is “deadly” hot down there. They were following a misguided shortcut on their way to the promising lands of the West. A piece of typical American history once developed around these incidents when they, with the ageless American dream in their hearts, descended down into the infernal heat and couldn’t find the way out again with their covered wagons.

They had to burn their wagons, eat their oxen, some died, two men made it to the other rim, walked incredible distances to the coast to get supplies, returned and rescued the survivors that had almost perished. Looking back in horror, for them the name Death Valley seemed only too appropriate.

Today this valley is still one of the deepest places on this planet not covered by water, and, with regular temperatures of more than 135°F, one of the hottest spots on earth. In our days, it’s a very large National Park because, most of all, it is a landscape of spectacular beauty. And in the remotest corner of this region, hidden in the maze of forgotten side valleys, concealed behind endless huge mountain ranges, lies a true secret.

Access to this secret place has to be gained on a grueling long four-wheel drive track. Right in the middle of all the sizzling heat and dusty aridity is a gleaming lake framed by black mountains with a strange, somehow irrational black island in the middle. It’s of course just the bone dry remains of a lake. The dry salty mud, glistening yellowish white, is even and smooth like a water surface.

There are regions, along the shore line, with fascinating drying patterns, a sea of warped, bowl-like potsherds, thin, broken little fragments of dried mud, fitting into each other like a jigsaw puzzle. A fragile delicate artwork – walking on it feels like the bull in a china shop, everything cracking and clattering like glass. But by far the greatest part of the surface is hard, totally flat, and evenly textured with those typical fine polygon-shaped drying cracks; very good to walk on, not leaving the faintest trace of a footprint.

It’s a petrified lake, surrounded by raven-black mountains. The cluster of black boulders in the middle, like an island, appears like the battlement and towers of a half-submerged enchanted fortress.

The whole lake is some 2 miles long and a mile wide. When we walk out on to the plain we hesitate with a strange feeling of giddiness, sensing the unfamiliar evenness as somehow implausible, so strikingly similar to a floating insecure surface of a water, but firm. We have fantasies of being on an extraterrestrial world. We walk but seem not to get anywhere. There is a weird sensation of being suspended. The legs move, we do everything that otherwise always results in moving forward, covering ground, but the expected progress – it drives you nuts – seems not to happen here. Nothing around is changing, because there is nothing around. Most of the time, it’s incredibly still, not a breath of air, the footsteps on the ground are absolutely soundless. A mysterious awesome silence at the end of the world.

Solitude weighs upon the whole land. Merciless, silent forlornness in brooding desert heat fills the valleys. I’ve roamed them with my motorcycle on break neck tours and sometimes rested at places, standing and holding my breath, shuddering in awe of this eternal tranquility and deadly peace. A bewitching place, full of strangeness, exciting, disturbing, throbbing with tangible energy.

Actually all this eerie atmosphere alone would be quite enough to give this place the rank of an “endroit extraordinaire”, but there is still something else that makes it even more unique.

Scattered all over this lake, one can find stones, little ones and real big ones of more than 200 pounds. The source of the rocks is obvious, the mountains around are full of them. But the fact to find them there, so far out on the plain, is intriguing. And then there is something else very mysterious about these rocks: Some of them lie at the end of, distinctly engraved, up to 600 feet long slide tracks. Quite obviously these rocks must have moved over the surface.

Of course, it does rain in this region. Not very often, but it happens time and again. Anybody, who’s ever seen rain in the desert, knows what water can do to such bone dry mud sediments, how it softens just the upper layer and makes it incredibly slippery.

These rocks must have moved under such wet, superficially soft conditions, probably after rain. Slightly, but distinctly, even the profile of the bottom side of the rock has been engraved into the soft surface. And the sides along the track are accentuated by little walls of displaced mud material. Very clearly we can even see some accumulation of material in front of the rock, representing something like a bow wave. After the merciless sun has taken over again these slip tracks must dry out quickly and stay preserved potentially for a long time, until some following rain eventually levels them out again.

So far so good. So the rocks have slid out onto the plain of the lake after some rain. But how? What has caused the motion?

One cause that comes to mind quickly and which has been accepted by most people as most plausible is wind. It really does blow there, more than enough sometimes, and it most certainly does so also after rainfalls. All would be nice and clear if there wouldn’t be some circumstantial evidence that leaves the explanation of wind force unsatisfactory for me.

First of all and most bewildering: The tracks are not all straight and not at all parallel.  Many rocks have moved on the wildest zigzag courses all over the place; occasionally even something like nearly completed circles can be found. How could wind do that? Sure, there are many long straight tracks too. And after extended exploration across the entire lake maybe some kind of a most frequently occurring direction could indeed be identified, (prevailing wind direction?). But, exploring this lake for many days and on different occasions, more surprising details became evident: At least some rocks must have moved simultaneously in completely different directions.

 The fact that motion seems to happen only under very special wet conditions (rain) and that traces are probably erased or at least significantly reduced during the next occurrence of such conditions (next rain) makes it most likely that equally distinct tracks must have been created at the same occasion or pretty much the same time. This makes it easy to tell which rocks have moved at the same time.

Now there really are such simultaneous tracks that do in fact cross each other and that have absolutely erratic non-parallel directions. I have seen one situation where two rocks seem to have collided on contrary courses and have been reflected from each other and come to a stop just the way ordinary physics would predict it.

In addition to all this, it is not difficult to find rock samples that are really heavy. I’ve seen some probably exceeding 200 pounds and having deep trails of some 250 feet. How can wind move such a thing? The friction coefficient of wet mud surface can be phenomenally low, but the petrified bow wave makes the still effective resistance clearly visible.

And there is one more phenomenon that puzzles me. Not only rocks have moved on this lake. There are quite a few large ice-floe like patches of thin mud surface that have traveled over long distances on courses just as crooked as those of the rocks. They leave tracks just as wide as the patches, and there are also tiny bow waves in front of them. Could wind really move something as flat as a mud floe that provides hardly any air resistance at all? And when it is not wind, what is it?

Just to sum it up: The surface of the plain is perfectly even and horizontal, any degree of slope or unevenness would have been leveled out over eons of time. Human manipulation may come to one’s mind. But, as the place is too remote and as the phenomena are too many and too widespread, I think it can be safely ruled out. They have, in fact, found the same tracks on other even more remote dry lakes also in Death Valley. I have not heard of similar tracks elsewhere in other parts of the world. The “sliding rocks” are known to us at least since the 1920’s. But the native Indians knew them well. A number of scientists have worked on the subject over the years. Time and again, almost every genre of science fiction writing has discovered and exploited this mystery. People like Däniken saw the sliding rocks as remainders of the activity of extraterrestrials.

The Park Service itself did quite a bit of research in the 1960’s. They eventually came up with the hypotheses that ice was the final decisive ingredient in the mix of special conditions under which motion was possible. The lake must be covered with a thin layer of water, it freezes, (rare, but possible), the ice breaks into floes and begins to float on the melting water when the temperature rises. The rocks, imbedded in the ice, may float up with it and possibly move together with the floes over the soft mud. It is conceivable that very strong wind could indeed move such floating objects. But I find it hard to believe that even those massive rocks could actually float up with the ice – enough to be moved by wind and pushing and displacing mud on their way. I still find the weird erratic directions of some tracks hard to explain by the wind theory.

I think the problem is simply still unsolved. The fact remains that probably nobody has ever witnessed and really seen a rock move. But the visible evidence speaks for itself, and the great mystery is there to be seen and to be dealt with as what it is.

Is the mechanism quite natural but so complex that we just haven’t figured it out yet? Or could there actually be forces showing their effect that are still unknown to us? To escape into the irrational may feel good, but if it’s not provable and reproducible, the satisfaction is a mirage. Science allows mystery but it does not tolerate magic, it must deal with strangeness beyond the wildest imagination but it never capitulates to witchery.

There is a dream in most of us to demystify nature. Science is our tool at the cutting edge of this so typically human desire. We want to uncover the hidden secrets of nature in order to gain power over our destiny. But when we really look at it, it’s not only this self-oriented survival dream. Somehow we all seem to know – and for most scientists it is the real motivation for their work – each solved mystery opens the view on even more and even greater mysteries. The process of demystification is an illusion, there is no end to it.

The mystic is content to bask in the wonder and revel in a mystery. He knows the temptation to strive for demystification, but within the mystery he sees the metaphor and understands it and knows his freedom to leave it at that. The scientist feels the same wonder, but he takes the mystery personally, he feels challenged and chooses to act on his desire to conquer the mystery. For the mystic, there is no separation between himself and the mystery. For the scientist, to look at a mystery is to look for a solution. He applies his method of questioning to the “problem”. He looks at what is contained within this limitation. The mystic knows: to see is to see the limitations themselves.

How difficult it is to really accept mysteries! Our mind doesn’t like unexplainable things. Not being able to understand things feels scary, like a failure, like defeat. We tend to try to deny it and paste it over with beliefs, ideas, and fantasies.

Why do we find it so hard to actually discover delight and inspiration especially in the unexplainable? I think: how wonderful, in the truest sense of the word, to experience the diversity and breathtaking complexity of the world when we must (or can) realize that there is so much more beyond what we know or have been able to understand so far.

“Race Track” is the name of the lake. Long ago, when I was still a little boy, I had read about these amazing sliding rocks for the first time in some adventure stories. Over time the subject appeared again, and I learned more. So maybe, for pretty much half of my lifetime, I was subconsciously searching for this. A dream of my youth – one of so many dreams I only get really aware of when they suddenly come true. When I finally found myself standing at this place, I couldn’t really say anymore what it was that had lured me all the time. But my heart was singing, feeling once again the miraculous connection of dream and reality. When we dream well enough, can it come true? We dream up reality, that’s our life.

We spent many days there at this place at the edge. A mysterious tension was in the air most of the time but also a peculiar mood of happiness. In the evenings we carried our chairs far out on the plain to sit there with a glass of wine when the night came and listen to thoughts drifting by, wonder about feelings arising out of nowhere, and let the “unexplainable” float right through us. As it so often happens, I almost didn’t notice it at first that I was very happy. Something in me seemed to understand everything, but it was not my mind.

One night, the moon was full, and we celebrated it with a long walk far out. (The rocks didn’t bother us any longer.) The lake itself seemed luminous, emitting light in the midst of black nothingness all around. We heard strange sounds way up in the sky, whirling air maybe, rushing and rustling, but, strange, there was not a ghost of a breeze. Then the moon disappeared behind the mountains and the sparkling void of the night descended upon us. Now the sensation of being suspended was almost uncomfortably real. We could walk, run, jump, any kind of such movement would feel as if performed in empty space. Walking felt like uselessly paddling your feet in emptiness.

Could it be that the secret was hidden behind these feelings? Did we sense something that our mind couldn’t grasp? Was there a possible connection to the sliding rocks? In the end it still was our good old mind that saved us from really floating away into space and let us find the direction back to the camp in the darkness by using the stars as dependable guides.

             Klaus  written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010

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March 2012 – Here is a link to a full thesis about this subject that actually says that ice is not necessary. Check out especially the chapter about previous investigations:

 http://geosun.sjsu.edu/paula/rtp/dissertation/title.html

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March 2012: My own view today is this: The movement is not caused by wind directly – the rocks being moved like a sail – but by a thin layer of water flowing violently under the ice floes with the embedded rock; and the motion of the water is of course caused by wind. The very thin layer of water floats up the ice-rock unit, and the water is in violent motion because it’s mostly exposed to the wind all around the ice floe. The direction of the flow of  water is rather erratic (watch the remains of surf running up a wide beach) and not always congruent with the direction of the wind. This could explain the fickle directions of tracks. K.Kommoss

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