Milky Way Sails the Playa

Racetrack Playa is a dry lakebed in Death Valley.  It is a vast expanse, miles by miles, of dried mud cracks.  It is flat and nearly level, the north end merely inches higher than the south.  The occasional stone can be found on the playa, delivered by erosion forces on the surrounding mountains, falling down and rolling out onto the lakebed.  They are stones, not boulders, maybe a foot or two across, heavier than is convenient to carry away, but not heavy enough to protect them from magic seekers.

And the magic they seek is that many of the stones are found at the end of a long, physically engraved trail, recording their traversal of the ancient lakebed.  How could these stones have moved across the dry playa?  It has been a mystery to geologists for years.  Various theories have been proposed, and some have been tested, but it is a difficult research project.  The stones lie inert for years, and then, when next inspected, they have moved.  With new trails marking their path!  This is the magic that the stone thieves are after.

We spent the day exploring the dry lakebed and trying to keep our cool in the heat. By late afternoon I had found a photogenic sailing stone to arrange my photo composition.  I set up my equipment and waited for the sun to set.

At the end of astronomical twilight night officially begins.  But on this night, a half-moon was out, providing plenty of light for humans to navigate.  My cameras however, had reached their limits and were now on their time lapse settings that would last all night.  There was nothing more for me to do. 

I joined my partner Poldi at the oasis she had made for us in the desert.  The sleeping bags were deployed but the temperature was still too warm to climb in.  We were at that transition from the heat of day to the cool of night where the temperature is perfectly neutral; we watched the stars come out and the moon beam its reflected light down on our landscape.

The romantic power of moonlight, and of being in such a strangely beautiful, exotic and remote place is irresistible.  And so, despite the day’s heat and dust and grime, we responded to the emotions that surfaced as we gazed at the sky and at each other, lovers lit by moonlight with a backdrop of stars in the middle of the playa.

The night continued its magical sequence.  The temperature dropped and we retreated to our sleeping bags, occasionally waking to find ourselves immersed under a full sky of stars.  Each time a new view presented itself: the setting of the moon, the rising of the Milky Way, the Big Dipper circumnavigating Polaris.

Eventually, 4:00 am arrived and I had to get up to tend the cameras for their morning twilight schedule.  It would be days before I found out if they were successful in capturing the motions of the sky that night.  But what a night it had been!  As we gathered our stuff at sunrise to portage back to the car at lake’s edge, we thought back on the experience.  This was not going to blend in among the many other outings we have enjoyed.  It will stand out as a highlight of a lifetime. To those who remove them, I must explain that the magic of the sailing stones is not in the stones themselves; rather it infuses the place where they make their remarkable journeys.  We know this because we felt the magic all around us during our night on the playa.

View full size.

19 May 2021
Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park CA
Canon EOS 6D with Sigma 14mm f/1.8
8 sec @ f/2, ISO 3200


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2 thoughts on “Milky Way Sails the Playa

  1. Pingback: Polaris on the Playa | Thor's Life-Notes

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