Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Single Digits Below Zero

Sometimes I play a mind game when I am immersed in one of the two temperature extremes – what would be worse, being really hot or really cold? Of course, when I am really cold, being hot is the winning option, and when I am hot, cold is always better – you can always put on more clothes, after all. Well, the other day the hot-cold conflict played itself out.

We decided to take the scenic route south on our monthly visit to our parents. We headed east from Big Pine toward the north end of Death Valley. Within an hour or so we were at Eureka Dunes, a treasure of a place where blowing winds deposit their sand when blocked by desert mountains. The tallest sand dune in California is here, and we arrived early enough to climb it.

The sun angled low on the horizon by 4:00 pm, and it started to cool down. We set up the tent, and by the time we dug out the propane stove for cooking dinner, it was dark and already very cold. We ate our pouch meals of Indian curry in the front cab of the truck, bundled in down jackets. Afterwards I crawled into my sleeping bag, still wearing all those clothes, intending to just warm up enough to initiate a game of Scrabble with John. I fell asleep instead, although waking periodically to verify that the feet were, yes, still as cold as popsicles despite the down booties, and to ponder the hot and cold question.

We did not emerge from the tent until the sun hit us. John checked the thermometer – off the scale, in the single digits, definitely below zero. We checked our drinking water bottles, and when we first picked them up the water appeared to be in liquid form. But the added energy of agitation caused the supercooled water to freeze instantly into a solid block of ice (first photo). A most amazing phenomenon that we have only experienced once before.

We broke camp and continued our exploration of Death Valley, happy to drive washboard roads in a heated truck. By lunch we reached The Racetrack, where under ideal environmental conditions rocks will move across the playa and leave apparently random traces of their movement (second photo).

We had planned to camp another couple of nights. John and I are in agreement on most things, and heading to the warmth of my parent’s house as soon as possible was no exception. It took us the rest of the afternoon to reach Lone Pine, and we ate out at the Mexican restaurant to avoid having to cook in the cold. We camped at the Cinder Cones (for the third time this year), and the next morning we called Mom and Dad letting them know we would be a day early.

It is forecast to be 77 degrees here in Hemet tomorrow – bring it on!

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