I love the desert. I love the relentless light and stark relief that the sun throws across its limitless landscapes. I love the way my imagination operates when I am wandering the desert. I love its austerity and the fine-tuned ways that life has evolved to fit within the incredibly tight margins of unforgiving ecosystems. In his examination of the role irrigation and reclamation has played in reshaping the desert spaces of the American West, historian Donald Worster writes “approached deliberately, as an environment latent with possibilities for freedom and democracy rather than for wealth and empire, the unredeemed desert West might be an unrealized national resource. It might be valued as a place of inspiration and training for a different kind of life.” Looked at with the right eyes, Worster suggests, and you will discover the hidden promises for better living that are offered up by the great deserts of North America. This is a story of what Sarah and I have discovered in the desert at its most extreme, Death Valley of the Mojave.
Sarah and I had our first taste of Death Valley in April 2011, on one of our last trips together before we got married. In less than 48 hours the desert worked its magic on us, and on our trip home we agreed that in a short window of time it had managed to gain the label of “special place” for us. We promised to return as soon as time and circumstance allowed.
It took a year and a half, but the right opportunity finally presented itself in October 2012. Sarah had to fly down to Las Vegas for a work conference, and we agreed that I should drive down, pick her up, and then together we could set out for a weekend of adventure in Death Valley. Having an entire day to get from the point A of Salt Lake to point B in Las Vegas, I took the opportunity to take the long way (off the Interstate), and see the wonderfully desolate basins and ranges of eastern Nevada. Arriving in Las Vegas in the late afternoon, we were able to grab a quick dinner with one of our favorite people, Lizzy, before setting off into the inky darkness, pointed southwest toward Death Valley.
The stretch of highway that skirts the Nellis Air Force Base and wanders into the Amaragosa Valley gets lonely and dark after the lights of Las Vegas fade in the east, and it was under a full canopy of stars that we arrived in Death Valley and made a quick camp at the Mesquite Spring campground late at night.
Waking early on a bright Sunday morning, we agreed that our first day in the park would be spent exploring some of the more popular tourist destinations at the northern end of the park, which we had missed on our first visit, before setting out in the evening to make a base camp near the trail head for Telescope Peak (at 11,043 feet, the highest mountain in the park). At first we entertained the idea of driving to the remote Racetrack, where desert boulders are mysteriously propelling themselves across the desert floor, but quickly decided to save that for a future trip when the wash-boarded 50-miles of road wouldn’t consume our entire day.
Instead we spent the morning hiking around the Ubehebe Crater before taking a tour of Scotty’s Castle. The Castle lives up to its name, sitting like a surreal movie-set mirage in a small side canyon just above Death Valley. The NPS tour guides dress in period clothing from the 1920s, a chameleon attempt to blend into with the furnishings and decor of the Castle (which didn’t really belong to Death Valley Scotty, though he is buried on a hill above the property). Rather, Death Valley Scotty effectively acted as a liaison to a rich industrialist who built the castle after falling in love with the desert. He allowed Scotty to live on the property and pose as its owner (and resident storyteller) for the flocks of tourists who would come into see the surreal site of a Spanish-style mansion next to one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. For me, the highlight of the tour came near the end when our guide activated the massive player pipe organ that takes up an entire wing of the mansion. As it rang out its music throughout the casa, our guide told us that throughout human history a parade of people have come to Death Valley looking for something that only the desert could provide. For many (including the wife of the man who built Scotty’s Castle) this search led them to see the face of God in the austere spaces and enfolding silences of Death Valley. While not religious, I do feel that I am not above spirituality and reverence, and for me this was a beautiful expression of the feelings Sarah and I have taken from our initial visit to this place.
Leaving Scotty’s Castle we spent the rest of the day wandering the park, before making a late afternoon drive up the Panamint mountain range to a high mountain campsite overlooking the valley. We arrived, made quick friends with two gentlemen from California (who also had designs on climbing Telescope Peak the following morning), and got to bed early for our 14-mile hike the following morning.
Waking up early to a fiery sunrise followed by bright blue skies, we quickly got ourselves together and set out on the trail. We couldn’t have asked for nicer conditions for the hike, the byproduct of geographic and geological features of Death Valley that are enhanced the higher you go in elevation. Thanks to a hyper-rain shadow effect where the stacked mountain ranges that surround Death Valley pull out almost all moisture from clouds rolling in off the Pacific, the environment remains unusually dry and clear. Couple this with the geothermal heat that is being released from the ground as the valley continues to sink (the reason Badwater Basin rests at -200 feet below sea level) and it makes for the relentless heat on the valley floor for which the park is so famous. Hiking along the spine of the Panamint mountains, the view into Badwater and the surrounding mountains bears these physical realities out.
Mercifully, for such a long day hike, the 3,000+ feet of elevation gain remains relatively gradual for much of its expanse. We were able to make good time, until the end when the sudden spike in elevation gain combined with our recent forays at low elevation caused our progress to grind to a halt. My hiking method was quickly reduced to step-step-pause-step-step-pause for the last mile. Arriving at the summit, the pain was quickly forgotten, however, as the panoramic view from Telescope allows for a sight that is utterly unique. Looking south, my gaze fell directly down into Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. Turning 180 degrees to the northwest, however, the rise of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and specifically Mount Whitney (the highest point in the United States), quickly dominated my view. It is an intense juxtaposition that is perfectly at home in this desert of extremes.
With our journey up (and down) Telescope complete, we headed out of Death Valley at dusk, again making tentative plans to visit as soon as life allowed. Driving north, through the Grapevine Mountains, the low valleys and sand dunes of Death Valley slowly faded from view with the setting sun behind us and a rising full moon straight ahead. As darkness settled in over the desert, we could make out the faint outline of a coyote standing along the side of the road, and it wasn’t hard to imagine the face of God dancing somewhere in the shadows.
More photos are here.