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Creek Running North

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December 09, 2004

Rainbow Basin

North of Barstow, the old lifted lakebed sediments of Rainbow Basin crumble in the winter rain. Fourteen million years ago this was a verdant lake, fringed with oak, palm, willow. Sabertooths and mastodon, camel and pronghorn, rhinos and sloths drank here. Sometimes they died, and the silt covered them. Now their bones tumble from the cliffs after a rain.

At night the distant roar of jake brakes echoes off the mud hills. Hidden by a low rise, Barstow lights the hazy sky. Most people never come here. Even hardened desert rats speed past Barstow, disinclined to linger. And of those who come here, most never leave their cars. The short loop road provides ample photographic opportunity, and one must after all head on to Furnace Creek if one is to make check-in at the Lodge.

At Arches a few years back, we were kept to the pavement by our long-suffering dog. We hung our feet over the rock, looked into the Fiery Furnace, and longed for the feel of dust beneath our boots. Other tourists, dogless, sped up to the official scenic vistas, left their car doors open and their engines running, and sprinted to the rail and back and drove away, never once removing the viewfinder from their face.

There is little of that kind of behavior here. The road is unpaved, and the nearest tourist attraction is the Calico Alleged Early Man site, and aficionados of actual fossils find little of interest there. This place is not on the way to anywhere, excepting the gate to Fort Irwin. Anyone who finds herself here meant it. Still, more than two-thirds of visitors drive around, kicking up dust to settle on the dish antennae at the Goldstone Deep Space site, and never take their foot off the gas until they are back at the stoplight on Old Route 58.

The road has barely enough room to pull off, but I do, and walk away from the truck through bands of red, brown, green. It is a bit of a stretch to call this stuff "rock." It crumbles beneath my boots, multicolored pebbles left where my feet fall. I struggle up the pictured ridge, careful not to fall off the declivitous far side. Below, a rainbow talus pile. I sit and watch the ravens circle. It is warm. I imagine a smilodon sneaking up behind me, wanting a drink.

This is the eighth in a series of ten photo-prompted posts.

Posted by Chris Clarke at December 9, 2004 05:32 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs


If you return to Rainbow Basin, you must hike up Owl Creek Canyon, just up from the official campground area. It has numerous fascinating desert landforms, including some great narrows, some tubes where water has burrowed through softer sediments to make short, traversable caves, and a complete section of the multi-colored basin sediments. There is a good field guide to the hike in Sharp and Glazner's Geology Underfoot in Southern California.

The last time we were there, there was a large group, apparently a paleontology field trip, exploring the outcrop off the loop road that's in your photo.

Also, both times that I've camped at Rainbow Basin (it's a good stop-over point between Northern California and the deep Eastern Mojave or Joshua Tree, for instance), I've camped at the group campsite, which was abandoned, and no fees were collected - whereas the upper campground with individual sites always had habitation, and seemed a bit claustrophobic for the remoteness of the area.

Posted by: Fred Levitan at December 9, 2004 06:33 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Do you ever adventure to the NorthWest and write about your experiences and the landscape there? It seems, from what I've gotten the chance to read so far on your Blog, that the desert sustains you. Personally, the desert scares me, always has. I find spirit and great comfort in the Rainforests and the land around the Puget Sound in the Northwest of Washington. Just wondering if you are drawn to the Rainforests of the Northwest at all. Would love to hear your poetic description of what I feel, is the most beautiful place on earth (the Olympics, and the area that is the most Northernwestern part of the US).


Posted by: Samhain at December 9, 2004 08:06 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Interesting geology. Your photo captures the colors of that place quite well.

Posted by: dr at December 10, 2004 09:09 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs