Beyond any shadow of doubt, the most famous of all the many mysteries of Death Valley, in California's Mojave Desert, are its rolling stones – and, no, I’m not talking here about Mick and Keith. For decades, astounded visitors to the valley – and particularly so in the vicinity of an 850-feet high hillside of dolomite on the southern side of its Racetrack Playa – have come across large stones and rocks that appear to have moved across the desert floor of their own free will and under some perceived, but poorly understood, magical power.
Such scenarios and beliefs have gained a great deal of weight by the fact that, behind the same stones and rocks, grooves and tracks are always found – sometimes extending for hundreds of feet, and occasionally even displaying evidence of the rocks having actually flipped over during the course of their curious travels across the harsh lands of Death Valley.
The prevailing theory of those in the field of geology that have traveled to the area is that the seemingly baffling movement of the stones can be explained by a phenomenon that, while not supernatural in nature, is still certainly remarkable, and one that requires specific weather patterns to be in place to explain the puzzle.
In essence, it’s a theory suggesting that when the clay of the flat desert floor becomes saturated with water, strong gusts of wind, of the type that certainly are in evidence in Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa, force the stones along on a thin veneer of water - rather like a small yacht propelled along ocean waters during a storm – and, incredibly, sometimes at speeds reaching those one would expect to see in the average person taking a leisurely jog.
Not everyone in the academic community is quite so sure that this particularly theory is a sound one, however. Geologist George M. Stanley, for example, noted in a 1955 paper that some of the sailing stones of Death Valley were of a weight equivalent to that of a fully-grown man – something which made Stanley very doubtful of the idea that the power of the wind would be strong enough to kick-start such large and heavy stones, never mind keep them in constant motion for hundreds of feet, or more, across the valley.
There are other problems, too, when it comes to trying to rationalize the enigma. It’s not as if each and every time the weather conditions are perceived as being conducive to such activity that dozens of stones all suddenly begin moving across the desert like an army of dutiful, marching soldiers. No, only specific, select stones seem to be targeted by whatever phenomenon is at work, while the rest remain totally unmoved by the experience.
Attempts to try and capture the movements of the stones on film – usually via time-lapse photography – have ended in complete failure, always. And, in some cases the stones have actually done 360 degree turns and headed back in the very direction from which they first originated! The result: despite the down to earth opinions of the scientific world, the rolling stones of Death Valley continue to bask in a heady mix of mystery, intrigue and wonder.