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Some Jerk Raced Across Death Valley's Racetrack Playa, Leaving Tire Marks 'All Over'

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The Racetrack playa, a normally dry lake bed in Death Valley, is stark in its beauty. Here, the sky is clear and the land is flat. The ground is like a quilted patchwork of stones (actually, according to the National Park Service, it's more of a bed of beige-colored mud that's been left behind when the lake evaporated). Perhaps the area's most well-known attraction, however, are the mysterious moving stones. Big boulders seemingly creep across the ground by themselves, leaving a trail of their path (more about this later). The trails (which look like racetracks) are what gave the area its name. This is all to say that the playa is an awesome natural attraction.

It's also very fragile, and no one should mess with it. Some jerk, apparently, didn't get this notice. As reported at the L.A. Times, someone was "spinning and swerving wildly in an SUV" around the playa in early August. On Tuesday, investigators announced that they've identified a suspect who they think was involved. The name of the suspect has not been released.

Why should we care about tire tracks in the desert? Linda Slater, chief of interpretation at Death Valley National Park, said that the park should be preserved because of its peerless natural beauty. "It's such a special place, just so beautiful. And it takes quite an effort for someone to go out there to visit it," said Slater. "And for some people it can be a spiritual place."

She also noted that the tracks were "all over" the playa, meaning it wasn't just a minor act of vandalism. And we haven't even mentioned that fact that the driver had broken some explicit rules. In Death Valley National Park, drivers aren't allowed to go off established roadways. Near Racetrack playa, there are signs by the roads that prohibit motorists from driving off the designated paths.

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A diagram showing where the tire tracks are. (Via Death Valley National Park/Facebook)
The worst part about the vandalism is that the tracks can't be easily cleaned off. The tires had ripped off the outer crust of the ground, exposing the softer dirt beneath. As wind constantly blows across the dirt, the crust is unable to re-establish itself. This means that the tire tracks will be noticeable for a very long time. Slater says that there are discussions about whether or not the tracks should be sprayed with water; it's hypothesized that this might help build a new layer of crust.It's a sensitive scenario, however, and park rangers don't want to cause any more damage. As such, they may leave it up to mother nature to clean up the tracks. Rain is expected to make the tracks less pronounced, and when the lake fills up with shallow water (which happens about every 50 years), the tracks should mostly be gone. But this means that the mess won't be fixed for quite some time.

Slater says there's one silver lining (kinda) in this mess. "The one fortunate thing is that [the suspect] had done this on a day when it's dry. If it had been a wet day, the tracks would have sunk in deeper," said Slater.

Unfortunately, this incident is far from being the only incident of vandalism in Death Valley. In May, three idiots pranced around the Devils Hole pool and had possibly killed a rare Devils Hole pupfish. In 2014, a wannabe artist by the name of Casey Nocket decided to deface several (!) national parks, including Death Valley.

Oh yeah. About those moving rocks? Up until 2014, no one had seen the boulders in motion, and therefore no one knew for sure how the stones moved across the dry land. But, as we'd reported in the past, some lucky researchers from UC San Diego saw that the stones were pushed by ice; ice would form on the ground after a period of rain, then winds would sweep up the ice and send them hurdling into the boulders, which pushes the stones along.