Hey Rock… wanna race?!?!

We are hot springs folk.  We’ve detoured all around the world in search of hot water and a good soak – India, Mexico, Canada, and of course the United States.  So in February of 2016 I decided to finally cross off a hot springs that had been on the bucket list for a long time – Saline Valley Hot Springs in Death Valley National Park.

This location definitely had a set of mystical lore surrounding it – it was super remote, perhaps in one of the most remote areas of California.  There was a good 40 miles of rough dirt road leading into it, with no services or hope of immediate rescue.  It was in the desert, where weather conditions could change on a dime, and we had heard tales of people getting snowed in for weeks or paying $2000 to get towed out.  Needless to say, it didn’t feel like a family-friendly adventure, and thus I employed my trusty co-pilot and Kentucky-bred brother Greg for the journey.

Location: Middle of Nowhere

We knew we would be testing the merits of our mostly stock Subaru Outback, but we had also read recent reports that the road conditions were good and the weather window looked promising for the President’s Day weekend.  We had two extra spares, tow-straps, extra gas, an air compressor, plenty of water, a battery starter, and the will and determination to explore.  We were ready for take-off.

The road was dusty, rough, and even icy in parts but doable.  We took it reasonably slow (except when we didn’t) and really only had a few patches that were a bit sketchy on the dirt road over South Pass.  The scenery was stunning – sweeping desert vistas as far as the eyes could see and a true feeling of isolation and solitude as you dropped into the valley.  We couldn’t believe our luck – we would be escaping the maddening crowds of the four day holiday weekend and soaking in solitude in Death Valley National Park!

This is what Subies are made for, right?

We spent about three hours on dirt road before seeing the turn-off for the “Bat Pole”.  The Bat Pole was the only real landmark out here and signaled when you were meant to head East for the springs.  It was easy to miss, and GPS didn’t really do much, but luckily we saw a couple other cars heading in and didn’t drive right by.  In a few minutes we had arrived at our final, glorious destination, and immediately pulled in to a nice flat spot in the wash that would serve as our campsite right next to the springs.

Unbeknownst to us we had pulled into the Lower springs – the smaller, more quiet, and slightly more serene option.  Had we continued up the road another few minutes we would have seen the more open and exposed Upper springs, with more pools, more people, and more partying.  Luckily our initial stop suited us just fine and we soon began exploring.  The pools were pristine – ultra clean water, perfectly hot temperature, and not too many people there on a Thursday afternoon.  A few old-timers nodded their heads in our general direction, but it certainly wasn’t a grandiose welcome for a couple of obvious noobs.  As the evening wore on and we became more and more relaxed the place started to fill up a little bit and we started to hear chatter of “The Game” that weekend.  We had no idea what they were talking about.

Turn at the Bat Pole!

Saturday we had planned on tackling our big run of the weekend.  I was trying to get in some mileage and a nice Back-to-Back with a 50k looming in about a month, and Greg had been running a bunch trying to get in shape for this occasion.  I had the bright idea of attempting to cross off another major item on my California Bucket-list – The Racetrack, a geological oddity found in the middle of the major desert valley just to the East of Saline.  We could technically get there by road, however definitely not in our Subaru, as we would have to drive up the infamous Lippencott mining road, known to eat passenger cars, crossovers, and the unlucky 4WD alive.  So instead we did the next best thing – we ran it.  We parked at the base and headed up over the pass, where we could then drop in to the Racetrack, be tourists for an hour or so, and then run back.  If it all went as planned the round trip would be about 20 miles.

The Slog up Lippencott

The climb up was fairly mellow as we power-hiked, enjoyed the vistas, and marveled at the thought of coming down this thing in a vehicle.  There was a nice couple camped in their trailer at the very top of Lippencott and we left a water cache buried under a pile of rocks on the summit.  The descent to the racetrack was gentle enough, and soon our mind was blown as we gazed upon the natural wonder before us.

The Racetrack is a giant, dry, perfectly flat lake bed in the middle of the desert.  But that’s not the cool part – the cool part is that over thousands of years, rocks have navigated the dry lake mud, seemingly moving under their own locomotion.  For years and years scientists had no idea how this was happening and then through the marvels of modern technology and time-lapse videos they came up with a theory.  The current thinking is that every so often the Racetrack experiences a perfect storm of conditions – the valley gets a rain so that the lake bed becomes a bit muddy, and then the temperature drops so that the top layer of mud freezes, and then the wind picks up to near-gale forces…. and Viola! The rocks begin to race!  We of course can’t see the actual movement, but we can see the tracks frozen in the mud.  It truly was outstanding.

The return went well enough.  Unfortunately someone (most likely the campers at the pass) had taken our water cache, probably thinking that we had somehow forgotten it and that they were doing a good deed by cleaning up.  PSA:  NEVER DISTURB A WATER CACHE THAT YOU FIND IN THE DESERT!!  Come on, people!  Luckily we weren’t going far and we would survive, although we definitely were thirsty for the final descent.  Our legs were a bit tired but we were juiced from our journey thus far and knew that we had the warm healing waters of the springs waiting for us back at camp.

The crowds at the springs had tripled in the hours we had been gone and it was legitimately starting to feel a bit crowded.  Some of the old timers were grumpily complaining about the “High Holy Days” as they packed up and left for a supply run.  The chatter about “the game” was overwhelming and we soon had to embarrassingly ask what everyone was talking about.  Really?  You guys aren’t here for the softball game?  It’s the 28th year!

It quickly became apparent what the old-timers were grumpy about, and why the population of this incredibly remote desert oasis was hovering around 500.  President’s Day Weekend is the date of the annual Upper versus Lower Springs Softball Game.  This event was steeped in tradition, from t-shirts, to costumes, to ringer recruits driven in by crusty desert rats.  We had stopped at Lower Springs before we even knew there was an Upper Springs, and thus had cemented our place in history as part of the Lower Springs Skins.

I immediately began campaigning for a spot on the roster, finding the Skins General Manager “Tito” soaking in the enemy camp’s Wizard Pool and about three cases of Coors Lite into his High Holy Weekend.  Sure, no problem noob, we’ll put you on the line-up, but you ain’t startin’.  It was all I could ask for and anxiously started mentally preparing for the big show-down.

What ensued on Sunday Afternoon was one of the most amazing human creations I have ever witnessed.  I’ve never been to Burning Man, but I imagine the early days of that other desert creation must have felt a bit like this.  The field was a pristine, mostly clear patch of desert located just across the “road” from Lower Springs, and when all the campers and the fans descended upon that one spot it was clear how many folks were actually way out here in the backcountry.  The Star Spangled Banner was sung to an absolutely silent crowd by an attractive naked woman at the stroke of High Noon in front of an American flag on a thirty foot pole flapping in the air.  At the umpire’s shout of “Play Ball!” the game was on – the Upper Springs Misfits had been on a recent winning streak and showed no signs of letting up.  The gameplay oscillated from incredibly sloppy to Major Leage caliber, and it quickly became apparent that no holds were barred – from topless distractions to spanking of the batter with a large wooden paddle, anything went.

The Field of Dreams

I rode the bench until the third inning, eagerly cheering on my fellow Skins and trying to be a team player.  And then, with the bases loaded and two outs, I was called on to pinch hit.  I had been playing on a Berkeley co-ed (clothed) team for a few seasons and called on all my inner wisdom to make solid contact and get a good hit.  I took the first few questionable pitches and then saw the giant meatball gently gliding in – WHAM! – a frozen rope right over the head of the discombobulated left fielder.  I turned on the wheels and did what know how to do best – RUN! – and came into the dugout with a bases clearing home-run.  I was an instant hero.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to keep the shirt

The Skins went on to win that game by a resounding score of 33 to 14 and recapture the trophy until next year.  Suddenly Greg and I weren’t noobs anymore – I was congratulated all throughout the Lower Springs camp, and everyone wanted to talk to us about our exploits on the Field.  Would we be back next year?  Hopefully, and I’ll bring my cleats!  We rode the wave of positivity up to the Upper Springs Sunday Night Potluck – the place where everyone could put their differences aside, eat as one common tribe, and begin the trash-talking for the next year.

The Moral of the Story?  Stay away from Saline Valley during President’s Day Weekend – unless you bring your glove!


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