When young William Manly saved a desperate wagon train in 1849, a pioneer woman looked back at the deathly hot valley she had left and said, ”Goodbye Death Valley,” giving the place its forbidding name.
As the now saved families gratefully left the hot desert, on which they had believed they were doomed to die, no one noticed the strange movements taking place around them. I’m not referring to wild animals moving or Native Americans moving – but rocks moving, leaving trails behind them. Some rocks, weighing 700 pounds, moved over 15 feet in less than an hour– by themselves, as if they were alive.
50 years later, in 1900, people began to notice them. You might try to determine your position by sighting the landmarks – a rock, perhaps. But then the landmarks changed, because the rock had moved…you knew it moved because you could see the trail of dirt behind it.
The logical explanation for some people was that the rocks were moved by desert animals or invisible spirits or even by beings from outer space. Eventually, the moving rocks became known as “Sailing Stones”.
In 1915, a prospector named Joseph Crook, who was exploring part of Death Valley, showed the area to his wife. She marked a rock’s position to see if it moved. It did. It was the first observed movement on record. One could not blame Mr. and Mrs. Crook for not sticking around to watch more rocks move. The year before, summer temperature in the valley had reached 134 degrees Fahrenheit – the hottest place in the world.
It is dangerous to underestimate the heat in Death Valley. Only five years ago in our, so called modern time, an 11-year-old boy died of the heat when his mother’s car got stuck in the sand. It took the woman five days to find help. That is how vast and raw Death Valley is.
So, it is easy to understand why not a lot of people want to stand out in the sun waiting for rocks to move. Besides, the rocks never move while they are being watched. Their movement and the trail of dirt behind them is always discovered after the fact. The area where this occurs has been named “Racetrack Playa”. The forces that cause the movement have been the subject of much speculation. It was thought that winds perhaps moved the rocks when the ground was muddy.
Recently, the phenomenon piqued the interest of Richard D. Norris, a paleobiologist at Scripps Institute and his scientist cousin, James M. Norris. Their idea was to put global positioning system devices on special rocks that they brought into the park. They placed these rocks on the wide, muddy flat of about 3 square miles, where the phenomenon occurs.
Last December, in 2013, the two men went to Death Valley to check on the rocks. To their surprise, they witnessed the phenomenon first hand. “Almost every rock on the Playa moved,“ Dr. Norris told Henry Fountain of the New York Times, “It was completely dumb luck.”
What the scientists learned was that at certain unpredictable times, the Playa is covered with a thin layer of water, rainwater runoff from the mountains and hills, that freezes in the night. A thin layer of ice forms, less than an eighth of an inch deep. When the sun rises, it’s heat causes the ice to break up and move about, sometimes pushing against the rocks as the wind blows. This push causes the rocks to move slowly on the wet ground.
Sometimes, the pressure even moves the rocks uphill. Then, when the sun dries everything up the rocks stop moving, only leaving a trail behind them to show where they had been.. Mystery solved by two scientists, who brought both science and luck with them.
It was this same thin ice that saved William Manly’s life in 1849. The desperate, thirsty pioneer families asked him to find a way out of the Valley and a path to safety.
He and a companion ran out of water during their journey across the desert. Because of the intense heat of the day, they travelled at night and discovered the thin layer of ice on the ground, frozen during the night. They survived by scraping up the ice and allowing it to melt in their mouths, quenching their thirst. If they came upon an ice patch a moment too late, the ice would simply melt into the sands of the desert and be lost.
Manly describes his ordeal through the desert in my Listen To Read audiobook “Death Valley in ’49” (Free Preview link: listen2read.com/death-valley-in-49/).
So, the same thin ice that allowed Manly to survive and save other human lives, is also responsible for creating the mystery of the Sailing Stones, which has baffled science for almost a century – until this year.
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