The desert is a strange place. It is where the hardiest of creatures can live and the rest just die trying.
A few Saturdays ago, I bit down on a long-lived desire to visit Death Valley. I recall my elementary school days, in geography class, seeing its outstretched name over a big swath of eastern California. Its largesse and meaning stoked a quiet terror in me. As an adult who”s been to Joshua Tree several times and a friend of a Coachella native, Michael, I”ve actually grown fond of the desert and have come to see the faded greens and strewn rocks as a fertile ecosystem for the small, stern survivalists on this planet. That which once inspired fear now inspires mesmerization.
Along the nearly 300 miles from Pasadena to Death Valley Junction, we encountered scattered settlements, towns anchored by familiar chainstores, conspicuous federal infrastructure facilities, and abandoned commercial enterprises riddled with graffiti. The latter fascinated us. They are remnants of grandiose dreams of vacation oases and of metaphysical healing spas for fleeing urbanites, now left to weather under an unswayed sun and through the erosion by prolific vandals.
That kind of visionary”s mirage is also what brought Death Valley into the collective consciousness — through mining. 10,000 of them. From borax to gold. All and all, unsuccessful with priceless costs. In the end, humans” attempt to claim nature”s gifts evolved into nature reclaiming her own gifts for humans to awe.
In the four hours that we had at DV, before heading back, we saw quite a few sites and realized that we would need to return again one day to see more.
2. DV Museum
There was a contemporary look to this stripped down, minimalist, barren scene. The nearly consistent light beige of the mounds and the hazy sky united in visual harmony. I remarked to Michael that this looked like an art exhibition, or that today”s art more and more takes note from the desert. I can”t tell if its minimalism is post-apocalyptic or pre-civilization. Well, if you ask Earth, these are one in the same, I guess!
I longed to see the real Artist”s Palette, after seeing a bunch of heavily photoshopped versions online. And here it was, at the most ideal viewing time of the day, sunset. The mountains swirled with color like a Rite Aid ice cream flavor. Artist”s Drive must”ve been the inspiration for Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland. The roads dipped, swooped and turned in extremes in characteristic ways. Every turn brought another array and display of color in these barren mountainsides.
\r\nA display of tectonic dynamism, examples of undulating, collapsed and tossed masses of landscape of towering proportions, striated with multi-hued minerals variegated our every vantage point. I have never seen such extreme and stark tectonic results. A single stripe of color, a strata of rock layer, was visible across a range of mountains: at first horizontal, then zigzagging up and down, and finally ending up vertical — all denoting the kinds of buckling, bunching and colliding of earth that needed to happen in order to create it. The mountains were like frozen tsunamis of rock looming above us. None of it looked friendly but all of it was awesome. Nothing was gentle about this landscape. Its magnitude and grandeur conjured the greatest orchestral pieces in Michael”s synesthetic mind. As we left, the sun sank over the highest peaks. Haze shrouded the day and shut out all light at night. Outside my car, you could not see anything beyond one foot”s distance. It was dead silent and pitch black. For Michael, this totality summoned the most striking moments of every horror film he had ever seen (and that was a lot). For me, my backpacker”s wonderment was piqued by the extraordinariness of this phenomenon and the ecological qualities it afforded, especially in contrast to those heavily influenced by human activity. What a luxury this place is to nocturnal animals with supersonic senses and night vision. It is totally unpolluted by noise and light. I could indulge myself in this imagination, only because our paper map assured us that we were on the correct route!
Trepidation gave way to voracious hunger when the sparkle of city lights appeared in the windshield. At this point, Michael released a breath of relief, reassured by these beacons of civilization, and for second, we shared the probably the same sentiment as our ancient ancestors returning from a long wilderness journey on a much less human-inhabited earth, heartened to see the distant flicker of the tribal bonfire. It is a prehistoric feeling.It was nearly 9pm. How early all of the restaurants close in the desert! We drove all of the way to Barstow before stopping at an In-N-Out with copious seating for perhaps 70 but occupied by a motley 15. I regained vitality first with a hot chocolate while Michael went straight for the fries and burger. After refueling both the car and ourselves, I said to Michael, you can sleep now. I”ll drive. He said no. He would stay up and DJ an 80s playlist because our spirits still needed fueling. We sang to young Madonna, The Jets and Janet Jackson during this final stretch. Before we knew it, the 210 junction appeared and the whole day felt a lot like a dream.
Honestly, this trip should really be made in a minimum of two days, with overnight camping in the park. There was so much left to see, including the dunes, the canyons, and the kilns. DV also features an impressive Visitors” Center and Ranger Station, with a comprehensive museum and screening room about the history of the park. We had had to race through the exhibitions and forego the film. Many visitors were inside, including those in line for Wilderness Permits for backcountry backpacking. We did it all in one long day. Too much! It was more of a charter expedition to scope out the territory for a more in-depth and extended journey in the future. Rangers said that November is usually and ideal time to visit.