The Racetrack, Death Valley National Park, CA. Think Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Bermuda Triangle. Think all these things until your mind melts away in a vale of stinging silence and rock falls, a relentless sun powering alien ships, almost but not quite invisible to the naked eye and maybe mistaken for planes if those existed on this cracked planet. Think deafness and ringing and an end that’s out of reach. Imagine survival scenarios where you congratulate yourself on your stocked cooler but question the hike to civilization.
That’s The Racetrack, an obscure corner of Death Valley where the rocks move mysteriously, leaving tracks in the dry lakebed, a phenomenon no one has ever witnessed or satisfactorily explained.
It was ladies trip to Death Valley. Our checklist included: cowboy boots, tank tops, Levis, straw hats, potato chips, 4 wheel drive, beer, beef jerky, desert soundtrack, water, ice, sunglasses, SPF lip gloss, maps. We had pulled over to the side of the road looking at one of these maps when the only Park Ranger we were to see the whole weekend showed up in his truck. How you ladies doing? We were good. Just headed out to The Racetrack. The look on his face was priceless. The Racetrack? He said. Well no one’s been out there since the murders!
He didn’t really say that, but he might as well have. He confirmed that the road was open and wished us a fun trip. It was a free country. We had paid our 20 bucks to get in.
The road out to The Racetrack is a white-knuckle drive of sharp rocks against a backdrop of rubble hills and Joshua Trees each with its own spiky personality. There is a reason this place is called Death Valley. There was standing water we had to test for depth, safety pin switches around sheer walls, soft sand to lure us into staying and all the while the sun and silence despite the Brazilian electropop we played to bolster our spirits as we devised our emergency exit plan should we break down. We didn’t have to wade through a whole lot of options. It would be a long hike out to the main road, but we would take turns carrying the pack.
Walking across the playa, the cracked lakebed that is The Racetrack, I can see my friends, but I can’t hear them. We have entered a dimension that is the flip side of sound. We try yelling, but the sound is chopped off with a dull vacuum cleaner, a strange sensation considering there are so many rocks around. We know that there will be no one to hear us scream, but we are okay with that. There is a resonance here that has made the drive worthwhile, a mineral buzz that replaces sound. This place envelopes us. It’s bigger than the sky, more consuming than heartbreak, more remote than the road not taken.
The tracks are fantastic. There are long straight tracks and the curvilinear tracks of two rocks racing. Once we have adjusted to the scene we see them everywhere, point them out to each other, the faint baked in marks, a rock with its heels dug in.
The triangle track blows our minds. Three equal sides with a rock resting at the top. We do what anyone would do and stand in the center, each of us, separately, our own moment in the vortex waiting to be sucked up.
We make jokes on the way back out and listen to dance music. The road is still harrowing, but we have made it once. Teakettle Junction, the road marker with the tradition is an old friend now.We have left many selves strewn in our wake, left our own tracks baked into the landscape though in actuality the ground is so hard that you can’t leave a footprint even if you want to, even in cowboy boots. Somewhere out there we are hiking to the main road in the blinding glare, car stuck in dirt, dreaming of our dinner that night at the campsite should someone pass by and give us a ride. We are standing in the triangle; one at a time, testing the waters while the universe ignores our joke. We are three friends, navigating the road out, planning our next stop even as we wrench ourselves away from the pull of The Racetrack.